What killed the MGB?
In the summer of 1979, the UK airwaves were dominated by the synthesized sound of Gary Newman and Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric’. A single inspired by a novel which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence was hardly your usual chart-topping fare, but as the decade moved towards its conclusion, it was becoming apparent that more than just music was moving in an increasingly technologically-driven direction.
But the pace of change would not be sufficient to doom the decidedly analogue MGB. A number of not wholly unrelated, but intractable elements would join forces to see to that.
British Leyland’s BMC-legacy B-series engine dated back to the 1950s (the MGB by 1979 being its sole application), so while its fixed costs may have been well and truly amortised, its volumes were hardly viable. Furthermore, its tooling was probably on its last legs. But more fundamentally still, tightening US emissions regulations meant the venerable power unit could no longer be made compliant. Efforts were made to engineer the B with a federalised 2.0 litre O-series unit, a programme which went as far as the proving stage.
Economically, the Western world was once again reeling from an oil supply crisis, the result of the Iranian revolution. Later that year, Britain’s economy would contract by over 2%, leading to further recessionary fears. Furthermore, monetary policies aimed at bolstering Sterling saw exports to the US become considerably more expensive, making UK-built products uncompetitive. So while the MGB was not considered a particularly expensive or thirsty car in the US market, its profitability was taking a hammering, and by the decade’s end, Abingdon was almost entirely dependent upon US demand.
Meanwhile at British Leyland, the volume car division was in deep trouble, while the specialist side of the business, recently amalgamated into Jaguar, Rover and Triumph (with MG added for good measure) was if anything, in worse shape. For BL Cars CEO, Michael Edwardes, 1979 was spent finalising massive restructuring plans for the ailing car business. Going cap in hand to the UK Treasury for ever-increasing amounts of money was proving untenable, and under enormous pressure to show results, he saw no alternative but to excise the failing areas of the business.
The MG plant was located close to the market town of Abingdon-on-Thames, South of Oxford. A predominantly rural area, Abingdon’s workforce were mostly local, used to long hours on the land. Owing to the favourable working environment at the MG plant, employee relations were generally good, with an almost non-existent level of staff turnover and few stoppages. Moreover, employees saw themselves as building a prestigious, desirable product and the quality of assembly at Abingdon was said to have been amongst the highest within the British Leyland organisation.
Unfortunately, MG’s small scale would become a fatal weakness. Reliant upon the supply of components from various BL sites and suppliers around the UK, the comparatively high production costs of the MGB, coupled with its (relatively) low production volumes and inefficient production processes called the Abingdon plant’s viability into question. With the Pound/ Dollar exchange rate so unfavourable to exporters like JRT(MG), the business case for the B was evaporating. Something needed to be done and on 10th September 1979, it was announced that the plant would close and MGB production cease.
Bad news is never easy to impart, but the communication of this decision was, to put it mildly, woeful. Coming two days after a lavish and well-attended festival, celebrating MG’s 50-year links with the town, the news was greeted with dismay and an acute sense of betrayal. This sense of shock was echoed throughout the enthusiast universe, with MG clubs petitioning BL to save the company. Others would take matters further still.
Led by Aston Martin CEO, Alan Curtis, a group of industrialists and investors came up with a £30 million proposal to purchase the Abingdon plant, the MGB and the rights to the MG name from cash-strapped BL. To illustrate just how serious they were, Curtis commissioned contracted designer, William Towns to restyle a ‘continuation’ B roadster, along more contemporary lines; the plan being for MGB production to continue, uninterrupted, while the change of ownership took place.
However, BL were allegedly still considering further use of the MG name and were therefore initially unwilling to relinquish the rights. The impasse appeared to have been solved in April 1980 when the BL board agreed to licence the MG name to Curtis consortium. However, just as it seemed as though the rescue plan would go ahead, the funding dried up, Aston Martin falling victim to the same exchange-rate woes that contributed to MG’s fall, while other backers pulled out owing to ongoing recessionary fears.
By the Summer of 1980, BL walked away from the deal, and that was that. Opinion remains divided as to the likely success of the Aston-led MG effort; certainly, they would have had their work cut out maintaining sales and service in the frigid US commercial environment at the time, but ultimately, one can only speculate. The end came in October that year, marking the end of MG as a carmaker in its own right.
But outside of the physical factors, the single aspect that killed the MGB can be summed up in one word: Apathy. Penny pinched to death, the car was created on a tight budget, maintained on beer-money and apart from minor running tweaks to maintain appeal or conform to regulatory change, was left to atrophy. The B summed up its various parents’ attitude to the marque – one which spoke warm words, but never a sufficient imperative to do either car or marque justice. Yet despite all this, over 500,000 MGBs were built over its twenty seven year history – no small achievement. Indeed, such was the strength of the MGB’s appeal that it would be reborn in 1992 for a limited run as a prelude to the marque’s 1995 reinvention.
In Hal Ashby’s multi-award winning 1979 motion picture satire, Being There, the lead character, played by Peter Sellers was an enigmatic, almost childlike figure, who despite his inability to comprehend the outside world (having lived his life in seclusion) manages by chance to not only navigate within it, but to ultimately become trusted confidant to the US president.
The MGB didn’t exactly walk on water, as the Sellers character appears to in the closing scene of the film, but like the fictional Chance, who was originally a humble gardener, the B’s uncomplicated soul transcended its modest origins, attaining something approaching immortality. Perhaps there is something to be said after all for keeping things simple.
 ‘Are Friends Electric’ was inspired by the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, a book which also inspired the 1982 film, ‘Bladerunner’. Coincidentally, Newman reached number one in the singles charts in September 1979 with a track called ‘Cars’.
 North American-spec Bs reverted to the original small valve B-series cylinder head and a single Zenith Stromberg carburettor in place of twin SUs, together with a more restrictive air cleaner. Additionally, Californian-spec MGBs were fitted with catalytic converters. Power losses were around 25bhp.
 While US demand did fall, it did not collapse, and some observers believe that it would have recovered as economic headwinds eased.
 Known as Black Monday in MG circles.
 Triumph’s notoriously restive Speke plant had already been shut. With production quality and productivity spoken of with infamy, this was widely viewed as a necessary move. There was therefore a justifiably strong sense of injustice at Abingdon following the 1979 announcement of closure. MG’s workforce believed they were being punished for loyalty and competence.
 Curtis unveiled the proposed 1981 MGB roadster publicly in June 1980. The cosmetic changes could be said to have been of somewhat questionable taste. Towns also carried out some rough sketches for a new body, seemingly on the existing platform. Certainly, these proposals, displayed by Car magazine in 1983 (as prospective Aston Martins), cleaved faithfully to MGB dimensions.
 The MG RV8 and later MGF models fall outside the scope of this series.
 In the movie, Peter Sellers’ character is named Chance… the gardener.