Being There [Part Five]

What killed the MGB?

Image: Jaguar Rover triumph Ltd – Author’s collection

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[1].

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[2]. 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[3].

Image: Jaguar Rover triumph Ltd – Author’s collection

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.

The LE was a limited edition run-out model. Image: carandclassic

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[4], 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[5]. 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[6] 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.

Proposed 1981 MGB roadster. Image: Auto-Reverse

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[7].

Being there. Image: Hemmings

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[8] 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.

[1] ‘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’.

[2] 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. 

[3] While US demand did fall, it did not collapse, and some observers believe that it would have recovered as economic headwinds eased. 

[4] Known as Black Monday in MG circles.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] The MG RV8 and later MGF models fall outside the scope of this series.

[8] In the movie, Peter Sellers’ character is named Chance… the gardener.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Being There [Part Five]”

  1. Great series Eóin, thank you. I can only imagine the sense of betrayal and injustice the Abingdon workers must have felt at the news of the closure.

    Did I read correctly though that Abingdon was quite a small plant, and quite old fashioned too? Even still, that’s just another sign of the apathy shown towards them.

    It’s criminal how BMC and then BLMC neglected one of their strongest brands. Their incompetence seemed to know no bounds.

  2. Good morning Eóin, thanks a lot for this wonderful series and sorry to have stolen the thunder a bit on the Aston Martin initiative in the exchange under the previous installment.
    In my early teens i was dreaming of becoming a car designer (probably not the only one in this esteemed group of people). Recently rediscovered my portfolio and found a lot of drawings on what was to be something like a modernised version of the MGB, clearly inspired by other automobiles: the nose resembled DS phase III, I introduced a slightly curved waist line around the wheel arches to make it more dynamic and, interestingly in the context of recent articles on DTW, a 2-litre Maserati V6. In my mind it was a great machine, with the eyes of nowadays it looks less original and could have turned out to be a Frankenstein if realised… Then again, dreams…

    1. Good morning, Joost. I can definitely relate to the car designer dream. I’ve been drawing cars from an early age. I tried all sorts of stuff like a V12 successor to the Citroën SM. Dreams, indeed…

  3. A fine end to a great series, thank you. I find it very hard to imagine that the proposed, late-in-the-day buyout of Abingdon and MG would have worked. Where would the funds have come from to engineer a new model/ set of models, for example? And the whole point was that the marque lacked scale. What happened to its later part-namesake, MG Rover probably tells us all we need to know about the MG buy-out’s endgame, I am afraid.

    Thanks for the nod to Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric’, I still remember hearing that for the first time and the impact it had. The original version still sounds relevant today and Numan has given it a Nine Inch Nails kind of vibe for his live gigs these days – a bit like MG, he’s also been on a bit of a comeback over recent years.

  4. Thank you, Eóin, for a fine and fitting tribute to a car that really was a proper success for its maker, despite the neglect it suffered in its later years. That BL didn’t develop a successor for the MGB instead of the TR7 and give it to Abingdon to build was just one more in an almost interminable series of misjudgements on the part of the company’s inept management.

    Although well-intentioned, the Aston Martin rescue plan was, I think, doomed merely to prolong the agony of MG’s demise. The Towns facelift was a decidedly mixed bag. Had they the resources to produce something like the MGR V8, however, the outcome might have been quite different.

    1. I can understand BL worries about the possible ban of droptop cars in the US market, but how they chose to build the TR7 instead of developing a MGB succesor in the shape of a new MG coupé (considering the success of the MGB GT) defies all logic. To make matters worse, we all know the smash hit the TR7 was.
      I wonder if Rover in the late nineties was already working in a succesor of the MGF or if they expected it to last 20 years (or perhaps BMW wasn´t interested in building a new MG).

    2. I think the TR7 made sense at the time, but continuing with both the Spitfire and the Midget, and then making a TR7 convertible that inevitably competed with the MGB seems ill advised.

      Perhaps the Midget tooling at Abingdon was so old that removing it would have cost them, while the pittance they may have been making on it was merely better than the losses some of their other products incurred?

    3. Great series, Eóin and well played, explaining the title only in the last-but-one paragraph… The trouble with BLMC, I think, is largely that for every great marque they cut, they tried to save another great marque. The TR7 in itself wasn’t bad, I think, if underdeveloped like most of their products (although that seems to have been industry standard back then) and given the very real fears of a ban on convertibles developing it made sense. MG might have been a strong brand (again a British BMW?), but so did Triumph at the time (still), I think. And even they were severely hampered by being too close to Rover, with prospective models cut as a result. Just as Rover was hampered by being too close to Jaguar, with prospective models cut as a result. And so on. That’s not to dismiss the fact that a lot bad decisions were made along the way and priorities seemed to have been vague at best. I’m no manager, but if you’re losing millions a week through work stoppages, closing your most loyal plant, even if it is small and outdated, doesn’t seem a smart move. Then again: hindsight and all that.

      I would echo your estimation of Aston Martin’s chances, Daniel, given how much of a money making machine Aston has been over its existence. I can see where they were trying to go with the redesign (again, echos of Alfa’s Spider), but it looks a bit undercooked. Still, the combined company might have been called AMMG, which sounds rather wonderful to me. “AMMG announces technology partnership with AMG”. “And poaches its CEO, then almost immediately dismisses him.”

      God, drawing cars… talk about dreams evaporating.

  5. Thank you for that well-told history, Eóin. I’m afraid that at the time, MG seemed to me to be an old-fashioned brand, stuck in the past. Austin Rover wasn’t alone in this – Ford we’re still producing the Capri, which would soldier-on until the mid-‘80s. To me, the future was Golf GTi-shaped.

    It wasn’t too long before Austin Rover Revived the MG name with the Metro – that seemed much more relevant.

  6. The Aston MGB prototype was only Stage 1 in their plans for MG had it gone ahead, the following includes concept drawings by William Towns for a Stage II that was to possibly use the entire floor pan, sills and wheel arches of the present car.

    Doubt the Aston proposal was viable, yet in some ways it is a pity they themselves never produced a smaller 4-cylinder model between the pre-war Atom prototype and the post-war Cygnet with the exception of the TVR Tina prototype and the 151 hp 2.5-litre Aston DP208 4-cylinder engined Volvo P1800 prototype. The DP208 engine that may or may not have been tested in a Healey during the development of the MGC as a possible benchmark for a Twin-Cam 2.5-litre Austin D-Series 4-cylinder (as mentioned in Part Two).

    Imagine if Aston were able to make something from the 4.5-litre Lagonda DP100 V12 engine as a road-going engine, give it a similar maximum displacement as a Lamborghini or Jaguar V12 (if not a later Colombo V12 at best) and than develop a V6, which would have been suitable for an MGB sized car.

  7. A small V-12………. if only! Recall that Ferrari’s original Columbo designed V-12 started out at a mere 1.5 litres. Something like that would have been wonderful!

    At the time of the decline and eventual demise of MG there were some really good fours and V-6 engines about. MG could have benefitted by fitting one or other of these. It wouldn’t have hurt to start looking to the islands of Japan… Something like that would have been wonderful!

    Another possibility would have been to do what the big three in the US used to do. That is, contract with a specialist outfit to develop an existing engine. For example, consider what Smokey Yunick was doing for GM Chevrolet or what Alan Root did for Ford with the Arias Root engine and their various cylinder head developments or what Larry Widmer was doing for Ford, later for Toyota and for Honda. Other examples include, Callaway’s work for Aston Martin (design and development of a four valve cylinder head for their Tadek Marek designed V-8), Lingenfelter’s twin turbocharged 350 cid small block Chevrolet engine for the Corvette, Tony Rudd’s Lotus quad-cam four valve per cylinder 350 cid V-8 also for Corvette, Hartge and Irmscher turbocharged all wheel drive Renault Safrane Biturbo. Get the specialists to work up the engine into something really good. While you’re at it get the specialists to work up the chassis as well. Then take the best elements and put them into production.

    Now Larry Widmer is important. He’s been around for a very long time. He’s a top tier engine designer, developer and builder. Cylinder heads are one of his key strengths. His engines have been raced in the drags (Pro-Stock), at Indy, NASCAR, off-shore marine, desert racing, rallies, V-8 Supercars, you name it he’s been right up there. The successes are numerous. Too bad most people have never realised the massive contribution he has made to motorsport, as well as to modern engine design (particularly in the specialised areas of wet flow and combustion).

    The reason Larry Widmer is relevant here is to mention an engine for which he was responsible. It was raced in SCCA in an MGB sponsored by British Leyland. This engine was a certain well known siamesed port in-line four cylinder job fitted to the MGB. In this engine the four intake valves were paired into two groups of two such that each intake valve shared an intake port with an adjacent intake valve (there were two intake ports each of which served two intake valves). The exhaust arrangement also featured the siamesed port arrangement. In this case cylinders at each end of the engine (#1 and #4) had their own exhaust ports independent of each other but the centre cylinders (#2 and #3) shared an exhaust port (the exhaust valves for the end cylinders had independent ports while the exhaust valves for the middle two cylinders shared an exhaust port). This is an old fashioned layout which generally delivered low to modest power outputs. Larry Widmer developed this engine to deliver a reliable 325bhp of naturally aspirated goodness at 9,500 rpm*. It propelled the MGB to two SCCA championships in the 1970s. The car had a five link rear end and a transmission with overdrive. It ran at 185mph repeatedly. It was never defeated by any of the Corvettes or even the Ford FE** powered AC Cobras.

    So, here was a genius engineer, already known to BL in the 70s, who could have been approached… Something like that definitely would have been wonderful!

    * this was a lot in the early 1070s.
    ** 427 cid with medium riser or high riser cylinder heads fitted.

    1. The later Colombo V12 reached 4.9-litres, not idea if anymore stretch was available to make it comparable to the V12s from Jaguar or Lamborghini and thus allow for a 3-litre V6. That said, what ASA managed to do with what may or not have still been Colombo based engines suggests about 5268-5955cc was possible by way of a 90mm bore from the 1966 ASA Roll-Bar 1800 Coupé paired with the 78mm stroke of the Ferrari 400/412.

      A related Colombo V6 with a displacement of 2.5-3.0-litres would have been pretty useful in something like the Innocenti 186GT, the 1.8-litre Colombo V6 was said to have been mated to a British-derived 4-speed manual transmission with overdrive on third and fourth gear. Which only makes one question if the Innocenti 186GT prototype featured additional British content.

      A properly developed Lagonda DP100 V12 road engine on similar lines as above (it is not clear how much potential stretch was available above 4.5-litres) would have been useful for Aston Martin as a basis for a V6 upon discontinuing their Inline-Six, would be surprised if a similarly suitable V6 could be created from the Tadek Marek designed V8 although the early prototype V8s roughly 4.8-litre capacity does suggest a 3.6-litre V6 was possible.

      As for MG itself, it certainly would have benefited from a V6 beforehand, especially if Rover were able to buy the rights to both the 215 Buick V8 and the Buick V6 when offered by GM during the 60s (pre-BL there was apparently still an opportunity for Rover to gain the rights to build the V6 even after Kaiser-Jeep gained a license to build it). If not a Jaguar V12 based 2.5-3.0-litre V6.

      As far as Japanese alternatives go, it makes one think if BL or other incarnations of the company would have been better off maintaining relations with Nissan instead of Honda given the pre-existing history, the fact some of their engines and some other components trace their linage back to Austin designs (to the point where some elements are reputedly interchangeable if not requiring little modifications), the use of NAPS on some of those distantly related engines (like the Nissan A and CA) without much if any power losses like on the later US spec B-Series MGBs and benefiting from potentially using the VG V6 later on.

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