Elemental Spirit Part 7: Molestam Senectutem

Dodgem city, here we come…

Image: veikl

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.

Image: Autocar

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[1], regardless of sales territory. The new ‘nosecone’ was rather less dexterously styled than that on the MGB, which also received the rubber bumper[2] 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[3].

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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[4] 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.

Image: Classic and Sports Car

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]

Image: Haynes
Image: Haynes

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[7].  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.

KGF Classic Cars

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[8] 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[9].

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[10].

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.

Image: KGF Classic Cars

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

Production Numbers:

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)

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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[3] 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.

[4] The flat-topped rear wheel arches returned with the 1975 MY alterations, although by some accounts they were re-introduced unannounced some time before.

[5] 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”.

[6] 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.

[7] The European specification Spitfire 1500s were more fortunate, with a 71bhp power output and a 100 mph top speed.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[8] 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.

15 thoughts on “Elemental Spirit Part 7: Molestam Senectutem”

  1. ” 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,”Quote
    Completely unrelated ? They shared identical bore and stroke dimensions at 803cc, and when both were enlarged to 948 ( 1956? ) they again shared bore and stroke. I’ve always wondered about this.

    1. Like the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that limited German autobahn stormers to 250kph, perhaps there was a similar agreement in the UK industry involving a capacity cap in order to ensure that the horsepower battle didn’t get too out of hand.

    2. In the Eighties magazine T&CC had a story on the A series in which they claimed the A was a copy of somebody else’s engine and to avoid design/patent infringements they moved the pushrods to the same side of the engine as the ports in the head and the engine from which it was coped had camshaft and ports on opposite sides.

    3. The similarity of dimensions is more understandable when bores and strokes are expressed Imperially:

      803cc: 2.28″ x 3.0″
      948cc: 2.48 x 3.0″

      The Standard-Triumph engine was designed to allow both capacities from the start, and the 948cc Standard Ten arrived in May 1954, 28 months before the Austin A35.

      In his “Book of the Standard Motor Company”, Graham Robson discusses the A-series and SC engines at some length, with particular reference to his conversations with David Eley, who led the SC design team. Eley made clear that Sir John Black’s management brief was a clean sheet design – it could have been a twin cylinder, air cooled, flat or V-engine if the case could be made. The use of the Mayflower boring and honing tooling came at quite a late stage in design development.

      The choice of an all-iron water cooled ohv four would have been no great surprise – the Austin Devon/Dorset engine had been around long before the A and B-series, and even pre-WW2 ohv engines were taking the place of side valves. Eley states that “the BMC A-series came along at the same time, but we never looked at it. Later I looked at it, and thought that the use of a low-mounted distributor was a major failing”.

      The Austin A30 (orAS3) went on sale in October 1951, and ohv engined Standard 8 prototypes were not running until well into 1952, so any knowledge of what Austin were proposing would have been down to guesswork or “soft espionage” – information from suppliers, or employees who had moved between the two companies.

      Robson also dismisses as “mistaken”, “a canard”, and “hyperbole” a comment from Vic Hammond, a body engineer in Standard-Triumph’s styling department that: “The new engine on the Standard Eight of 1953 was not an entirely new design of our own, it was actually a ‘Chinese copy’ of the Austin A30 engine, because I saw our draughtsmen copying it from the Austin blueprint”. In support of his view, Robson referred to internal enmity at the time between the mechanical engineers and styling / bodywork section at Standard Triumph.

    4. When the survivors surveyed the wreckage of the UK industry and looked back at all the petty political infighting in the 50s and 60s, did they ever feel very slightly stupid?

    5. “When the survivors surveyed the wreckage of the UK industry and looked back at all the petty political infighting in the 50s and 60s, did they ever feel very slightly stupid?”

      I shouldn’t think so – organizations are like that to this day. Without wishing to be political, there have been recent examples where governments have resisted taking life-saving measures because they had been suggested by the opposition, first. Humans are strange creatures – natural selection has a lot to answer for.

    6. Charles. I’m certainly not suggesting that we are wiser today. In fact you can argue that since we are (potentially) better informed, we are in fact considerably more foolish. However, the rivalry between engineering and styling at Standard Triumph that Robertas mentions brings to mind all the rivalries and infighting in all the creaky, parsimonious and oddly managed enterprises that formed the UK motor industry in the 50s and 60s. I suppose some of the schemers did OK, got an OBE, retired, joined a golf club and died, still feeling pleased with themselves but, really, it was all so futile. The analogy of two bald men fighting over a comb comes to mind.

    7. Good evening bristowfuller. We are certainly ‘more’ informed than previous generations, thanks largely to the Internet, but whether we are ‘better’ informed is a moot point, especially when so many rely on the echo-chamber that is social media (and even YouTube) for their ‘news’ and opinion. The social media companies, who assume no responsibility for fairness, balance or objectivity in the content they host, know that the best way to keep people online is to feed them content that reinforces rather than challenges their beliefs and prejudices. It’s little wonder that we are becoming increasingly tribal and hostile to alternative viewpoints when we are so rarely challenged on our own.

      DTW is, happily, a rare sanctuary where alternative viewpoints are encouraged and welcomed, and where debate is conducted in a civilised and respectful manner.

      (Apologies for the deviation into a much wider field of discussion than is normally our brief here.)

    8. I did wonder if both companies shared a piston or piston-ring supplier, who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse….

  2. The ‘native’ engine capacity of just over 800cc can be partly explained by the A35 and Standard 8 being the first* of the new wave of fuel-efficient small cars developed for the UK home market. Pre-1950 the UK government prioritised materials supplies for the manufacturer of larger cars more suitable for export to the USA, and former British colonies.

    Apart from improving the efficiency of the nation’s “car park”, at a time when fuel was rationed and expensive, the new arrivals eased concerns that the UK market could be over-run by European imports, led at the time by the Renault 4CV, which was both an influence and a benchmark for the Standard 8/10’s designers.

    The Renault engine was only 760cc, Fiat’s later 600 was 633cc, and most truly small 1950s German cars had engines in the 300-750cc range. Compared with Europe, the UK was either out of step or ahead of its time in having engines of around 1.0 litres in its mass-produced small cars by the late 1950s.

    *The 1948 Morris Minor was something of an aberration in this matter.

  3. Racers found two benefits of the rubber-bumper Midgets. There was reportedly a slight reduction in drag with a fibreglass version of the front bumper mounted; and factory (or importer) support commonly required a current model car – a very easy update.

  4. Thank you for another great and informative article, and answering my previous questions about engine swaps. It really is depressing though, reading about how they had an eager market all to themselves and they utterly squandered it. I know the increasingly stringent regulations didn’t help, but Japan was able to work with them after all. I wonder if, under the same conditions, they could have avoided disaster or if it was all inevitable.

  5. Good evening Robertas and thank you for a very interesting and informative series. It is such a shame that, having made the cheap rag-top sports car pretty much their own fiefdom, BL managed to surrender their market advantage through lack of succession planning. The Midget (and MGB) might have been seen as totally archaic and outclassed at the end of their overly long production life but, in their prime, they were charming and delightful cars.

    1. Story of the whole industry at that time; making cars that were charming and often class leading upon their release, but then they were all left to wither on the vine until they became embarrassments.

  6. Midget 1500s with aftermarket body-coloured bumpers look pretty decent all things considered.

    Given the circumstances it is understandable the SC engine was considered to be at its limit, on the other hand besides needing a stronger bottom end surely it’s tuning potential was as similarly broad as was achieved on the A-Series (if costly and not necessarily justifiable due to the development of the Slant motor and low-cost I6 OHC project drifting into PE166)?

    Shame, a Leyland Marina 1500/1750 solution wasn’t attempted for the Midget even if it wasn’t as readily emissions compliant as the 1500 SC motor.

    With MG EX243, did they really expect the existing Midget platform to achieve similar results as the larger Innocenti C Coupe?

    Agree that the Midget (and MGB to a lesser degree) should have been replaced by the mid/late-60s instead of being allowed to wither like it did.

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