Dodgem city, here we come…
In May 1974, the little sports car we all still called the Spridget reached its sixteenth birthday. Its presents were belated by a few months, not arriving until October, and were of the sort that a polite mid-teenager might outwardly welcome with smiling gratitude, while being internally aghast.
Its in-house rival – perhaps, in teenage-speak, its frenemy – gifted a new engine. Newness was a relative term in this case. The Triumph SC engine originated with the 1953 Standard 8, Standard-Triumph’s deservedly successful response to the Austin A30 and Morris Minor. Like the completely unrelated Austin A series, it had started out with a mere 803cc, but had the space to grow to nearly 1½ litres by fortunate virtue of being built on legacy Triumph Mayflower tooling, rather than any grand plan.
At least the expedient engine-swap hid under the bonnet, sparing the Midget’s embarrassment for those not in the know. A wholly visible, and even less welcome, gift was the very permanent makeover experience, whereby the Midget received the 1975 model year USA specification front and rear impact bumpers, regardless of sales territory. The new ‘nosecone’ was rather less dexterously styled than that on the MGB, which also received the rubber bumper treatment; in the case of both cars, the question widely asked was why MGs not destined for the USA had to suffer this disfigurement.
Triumph took a different approach, continuing the familiar slender chrome fitments unencumbered by rubber buffers in any market where impact bumpers were not compulsory.
The US legislation also set a mandatory height for the bumpers. To comply with this, the Midget’s ride height had to be raised by 25mm. This was not a simple matter of lengthening shackles and springs; the front cross-member mounting had to be redesigned and the rear leaf springs re-cambered. Both of these changes made lowering to the previous height a difficult and costly process.
Opinions differ on how detrimental the increased ride height was to the Midget’s handling, but the additional 200lb (90kg) weight imposed by the new engine and gearbox, steel-armatured bumpers, and structural reinforcement certainly deprived the car of some of the nimbleness which had been one of its recognised virtues. According to Autocar’s test at the time, “the handling has suffered in some respects, and the car is no longer as predictable or forgiving as it was.”
The Triumph engine was a necessary evil, rather than a welcome enhancement. The long-stroke (87.5mm) version of the SC engine had been produced since 1967, at first in tiny numbers for Israel-bound CKD Triumph 1300s. It entered mainstream production with the introduction of the FWD Triumph 1500 in 1970 and was fitted to USA and Canada specification Spitfires from 1973. It was the biggest iteration of the Standard-Triumph SC engine, but certainly not the best, with a notoriously weak bottom end, and inferior build and component quality to earlier SC engines, and indeed any BMC A series.[5,6]
Continuation of the A series in the Midget was not a viable option even for cars to be sold in Europe. The ECE15 emissions standards were about to become law, and the Midget was the only 1275cc A series application with twin carburettors. The ECE15-compliant Marina single carburettor engine could have been fitted, but that only provided around 57bhp. The European specification 1493cc Triumph engine with twin SU HS4 carburettors was rated at 65bhp (DIN) at 5500rpm as installed in the Midget. The final A series cars also had the same quoted power output, but measured using the British net method, which gave slightly higher results. Torque increased from 72 lb. ft to 76.5 lb. ft, which would have been welcome given that 13% weight increase.
For Midget 1500s bound for the USA – the only market which really mattered – the story was grimmer. The 1.5 litre engine as fitted had a low 7.5:1 compression ratio and a single Zenith Stromberg carburettor giving a power output of 56bhp at 5000rpm. California had its own more rigorous standards, which required a catalytic convertor and a further reduction in power. The first months of US-destined Midget 1500 production did not include cars able to meet California standards. The situation was not remedied until well into 1975 – a major concern given that around 50% of Midget production went to that one state.
The changes at the end of 1974 were entirely driven by United States legislation. British Leyland watchers with only a casual interest in MG and Triumph may have questioned why the parent company’s heavily stretched resources were being used to prop up a pair of decade and a half old sports cars which looked like a corporate embarrassment when compared with recently introduced European competitors.
The answer lay in the continued demand for inexpensive open-topped cars, mainly on the west coast of the USA. Although unkindly regarded as thinly upholstered roller skates, the British duo had the sector to themselves, with only the significantly more expensive Fiat X1/9 challenging their hegemony when it arrived in 1974. From 1975 to 1979 average annual Midget production was around 14,300; the equivalent figure for the Spitfire was 16,900. Neither number is huge when compared with mainstream saloons and hatchbacks, but combined annual production of the Abingdon and Canley duo exceeded far newer, though more expensive sports car debutants such as the Porsche 924 and the aforementioned Fiat X1/9.
Even the car intended to sweep away the Midget, Spitfire, and their bigger stablemates struggled to match the sales performance of the creaking rollerskates. Over its six and a half year life, the Triumph TR7’s annual production averaged just over 17,000, ahead of the Spitfire by a tiny margin. It was famously the best-selling of the TR series, but certainly not Triumph’s most successful sports car.
The accepted knowledge on the demise of the MG Midget is that it perished on Michael Edwardes’ 1979 bonfire of BL’s mass-production sports cars and the factories which produced them. The historical timeline, with the last of the series leaving Abingdon on 7 December 1979 reinforces this notion, but time was being called on the Midget well before.
In March 1978, J Bruce McWilliams, British Leyland’s US Vice President with responsibility for MG and Triumph, delivered a scathing report on the Spitfire and Midget to the parent company. Warranty costs were stated to be 50% higher than comparable products, to the detriment of the company’s reputation and the cars’ financial viability. McWilliams’ ultimatum was that both the Midget and Spitfire should be discontinued in the USA unless quality could be improved and warranty costs reduced to a reasonable level. The warranty costs seem to have largely arisen from the emission control components, although production on worn-out tooling by a demoralised workforce could also have been a contributory factor.
McWilliams was already a legendary figure in the US automotive field, a true car guy whose hard work and exalted reputation had kept British Leyland’s USA-dependent sports car brands alive. In return, he had been poorly served, with dated products, sub-standard quality, and a chaotic and under-capitalised future product plan. Nevertheless, when he spoke out, his British masters listened. A compromise was reached, with agreement that the Midget would be discontinued, while the Spitfire would continue for as long as it could comply with US regulations.
The decision was wholly reasonable. The Midget was not only the weaker in sales numbers, but also had door openings so narrow and an interior so constricted that even average-sized North American adults could neither enter nor drive the car comfortably.
Twenty-two years in production is an impressive achievement for any mass-produced artefact, and suggests a design ahead of its time, or a unique proposition not easily imitated. This may have been partially true of the Spridget in its early years, but it owed its survival into grim senescence to corporate paralysis and a strong US dollar.
BLMC’s US operation had made clear some time before that the cramped, underpowered and troublesome two-seaters were not wanted on voyage, but in the end, the coup de grace was delivered through the judgement and conscience of Sir Michael Edwardes in the face of a strong pound and losses of £800 per car on US MG and Triumph sales. In a curious twist of fate, there was a surge of interest in British sports cars in Japan in the late 1970s, and that was where most of the Midget’s final production batches went.
Had it exited the stage at the end of the 1960s with a worthy successor, history might have judged the Spridget more kindly. An underpowered, overburdened dollar-catcher for its final five years, a BMC success had outstayed its welcome, lasting long enough to ensure its place on British Leyland’s roster of shame.
A few numbers to conclude:
UK Prices 1 September 1979
MG Midget 1500: £3353
MGB Roadster: £4510
Triumph Spitfire 1500: £3780
Triumph TR7 FHC: £5320
Ford Escort 1.3L 4 door: £3251
Fiat X1/9 1.5: £5325
Volkswagen Golf GTI 1.6: £5009
Austin Healey Sprite: 129,347 (1958-71)
Austin Sprite: 1,022 (1971)
MG Midget: 226,427 (1961-80)
MGB/C: 523,836 (1962-80)
Triumph Spitfire: 315,000 (1962-80)
Triumph TR7: 115,000 (1975-81)
Fiat X1/9: 160,000 (1972-89)
 As mandated under 1974 NHTSA Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 215 which required all new cars sold in the United States to be capable of withstanding a 5-mph front or 2.5 mph rear collision without damage to their fuel systems or lights. The stipulations on height required that the face of the bumper had to be at least six inches (152mm) high. MG’s designers managed to mitigate the visual impact of this by subtle chamfering. They did a good job considering the brief they had to meet, which had been developed with far larger vehicles in mind.
 The so-called rubber bumpers were actually faced with a specially developed polyurethane skin, on a polyurethane foam which enveloped a steel armature. The design, which was patented by British Leyland, was largely developed within the MG experimental department in Abingdon, with some input from the Austin-Morris styling department.
 Triumph somehow managed to avoid massive full width bumpers until the 1979 model year, instead relying on huge over-riders with a bridging section between. The final iteration gave the car the appearance of a small, angry hovercraft.
 The flat-topped rear wheel arches returned with the 1975 MY alterations, although by some accounts they were re-introduced unannounced some time before.
 The Triumph SC engine had theoretical advantages over the A-series, with pushrods located on the opposite side of the block from the ports, and an eight port cylinder head from 1967. However, it was not developed and built with the same rigour as the BMC engine and later engines had a bad reputation for premature failure. According to Classic and Sports Car September 1983, “the Triumph unit will probably need a rebuild at around 30,000 miles whereas an earlier A-series ‘four’ could last as long as 90,000 miles before a strip down becomes necessary”.
 There was some good news in the adoption of the single-rail Dolomite/Marina gearbox, and first-gear synchromesh at last. The Triumph-developed gearbox, first used in the Le Mans Spitfires, had wider-spaced ratios than its ancient BMC predecessor, but was far pleasanter to operate, at least if you got a good one.
 The European specification Spitfire 1500s were more fortunate, with a 71bhp power output and a 100 mph top speed.
 It should be noted that TR7 production was suspended twice for significant periods, when production was moved from Speke, Merseyside to Canley, Coventry, then from Canley to Solihull.
 Around this time, it was planned to manufacture the Spitfire until 1982, hence the investment in the full width bumpers and related chassis alterations for the 1979 model year. However the 1980 California emissions regulations were so stringent that there was no cost-effective way of meeting them with the old 1500 cc SC engine. As California on its own took around 50% of Spitfire production, continuation was not viable, and the last of the series left Canley in August 1980.
 MG were aware of this problem many years before, and an exercise was undertaken in 1968 under the codename EX243 to increase the Midget’s door width and interior legroom. Despite the potential sales benefits, the changes required to the cars’ structure were considered too costly to justify the investment, and the project was abandoned.
Source: Autocar 19 October 1974. For further sources, see Part One.