Small, but a Big Personality

The author recalls his ownership of a far from perfect but still charming MG Midget.

Image: the author

Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, moving to London in the spring of 1986 would prove to be a major landmark in my life. I had spent the previous two years working in Belfast but for compelling reasons, both professional and personal, I decided that, at the tender age of 25, it was time for me to strike out on my own and see if I could make a life for myself in one of the world’s great cities.

My arrival in London was, to say the least, inauspicious. I pitched up in a hired Austin Montego estate car, packed to the gunwales with all my worldly possessions. A friend had kindly offered me lodgings while I arranged something more permanent. I had already secured a job, working for one of London’s blue-blooded merchant banks. Unlike my job in Belfast, this did not come with the benefit of a company car, so that was an immediate priority for me.

Shorn of familial responsibilities and wanting a change from the eminently sensible cars I had previously owned or driven, I cast my eye around for something different. My budget was modest at around £2.5k, less than half the price of a new supermini at the time, but a second-hand Fiesta or Polo held little appeal. Instead, I set my heart on an MG Midget for its sheer charm and began scouring the small ads in AutoTrader.

Back in those days, the A23 in South London was lined with small-scale second-hand car dealers and I spotted a likely candidate at one such establishment. The car in question was a 1978 rubber bumper 1,500cc model in white with 50k miles on the clock. It looked very smart with its fresh paintwork and Rostyle wheels. The older and more cynical me would have treated the new paintwork with some suspicion, but I was naive and smitten, and the deal was done.

The Midget was an absolute hoot. It was like the proverbial roller-skate, with super-direct steering and enough power to make it fun to drive, but not so much as to overwhelm the rudimentary underpinnings. I recall that the gearchange was delightfully precise, with a short-throw gate. With the roof down on an early summer day, either in town or out on country roads, it was a joy to drive and seemed to put a smile on other road users’ faces.

Sensibly, the Midget had no radio fitted. At anything above 30mph, roof up or down, it would be too noisy to hear and, with the car parked on the mean streets of South London, it wouldn’t be long before the inevitable happened.

Image: the author

There were downsides to the Midget, however. The cockpit was cramped and luggage space was minimal, with the spare wheel taking up most of the boot. Motorway driving was a grim experience, thanks to the cacophony of road, engine and wind noise. The soft top was only marginally effective at keeping the rain out. I recall one long trip to Conwy in North Wales for a bank holiday weekend when it rained heavily all the way there. A missing grommet in the front bulkhead resulted in my left trouser leg being soaked from ankle to thigh by the end of a journey punctuated by a flat tyre.

Mechanically, it was pretty reliable over the two years I owned it. The only significant problem was occasional overheating, ultimately cured by a replacement radiator. I had it serviced by a local under-the-arches mechanic. On the second occasion, he blotted his copybook by dropping a heavy spanner, denting the front wing.

The Midget’s Achilles’ heel was, of course, corrosion. Underneath the freshly applied paintwork was plenty of filler and it didn’t take long for tell-tale bubbles to appear along the bottom edges of the doors and around the wheel arches.

For reasons that are too tedious to explain, after a year of Midget ownership, I briefly needed a larger, more practical car. A work colleague who had a collection of considerably more exotic cars offered to buy the Midget just for fun. I replaced it with a second-hand Lancia Delta. Nine months later, I sold the Delta and bought back the now refurbished Midget and was very happy to be reunited with it. I kept it for a further year before a change of job brought a new company car, a Mercedes-Benz 190E, so the Midget was sold on to another work colleague.

The Midget is still fondly remembered. It was absolutely the right car for the young, free and single me and it instilled a love for convertibles that remains to the present day. Home ownership and a new relationship brought a change in priorities, however, and it was time to move on.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

10 thoughts on “Small, but a Big Personality”

  1. What a delightful story, Daniel, thank you for sharing your Midget reminiscences. The daft things we do when young; trips out in a non-weather tight car, trusting dubious traders, putting up with cramped conditions and no radio.

    But how such experiences shape us!

    And as for the ambitious Fiesta parking in the above photo…

  2. I noticed that as well… I wonder how that turned out.

    That picture reminds me of AROnline’s series of ‘memories:’. A Triumph Spitfire (fittingly), that Mk2 Fiesta, the mini it’s about to bump into, the B2 Audi 80 it’s obviously trying not to hit, an Escort estate. I feel immensely thick for not being able to identify the last car, just driving out of the picture. It reminded me of a Rootes product, but it doesn’t seem to be one.

    1. It’s hard to make out, but my money would be on a Datsun 120Y?

    2. That looks quite possible, thanks:

      And thank you Daniel for the article!

    3. Well done Michael. A monogrammed DTW ‘Spotters’ anorak in signature beige is on its way to you! 😁

    4. My only experience of the 120Y was of playing with one that had been converted into an early multimedia experience as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in Dublin over twenty years (yikes!) ago:

      https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/a-time-for-experimentation-1.1103871

      All the controls had been hooked up to different mixing inputs so that rotating the wheel, stamping on the brake, changing radio station and so on changed the music playing through the speakers in some way. Not Shakespeare, Chekhov, or even a Tea Ceremony, but oddly entertaining…

  3. A nice little (automobile) story. Thank you very much.
    Based on my own experiences, I can relate to the trips with wind in my hair (I used to have some) and water on my trousers.
    I wouldn’t want to miss any of it.

    If I read this correctly, the Midget wasn’t very old at the time of your ownership and didn’t have very many miles on the clock. Were these overheating problems due to a clogged radiator common with this car?

    1. Hi Fred. That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. In those pre-Internet days, there was little opportunity to investigate such issues, especially as the Midget was something of a rarity. I’m sure my mechanic rarely if ever worked on another one.

  4. Daniel – A nice counterpoint to my rather less kind conclusion to the Spridget series. I can see the virtues of the Midget as a city car – narrowness, manoeuvrability, good visibility, sharp steering and “those bumpers”.

    I agree that the Midget 1500 would have been a rarity in the UK. By the mid-’70s demand had firmly swung to performance saloons typified by the Escort Mexico and RS2000, with hot hatchbacks starting to make a real impact well before Midget production ended. Most of the “rubber bumper” cars were destined for the USA and Japan, but production numbers in the closing years were quite impressive.

    I’m coming round to the ‘rubber bumpers’, not so much from an aesthetic or functional viewpoint, but for the way in which BLMC’s designers and external suppliers achieved such a light and inexpensive solution. Compare the gross ‘defensive structures’ devised by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, and the domestic US manufacturers. MG and Triumph at least had light weight on their side.

    Analysing the MG “nosecones”, they are very close in construction to the ‘facias’ of just about every modern car – plastics skin (now usually colour-matched), on a polyurethane foam core with a steel or aluminium alloy armature.

  5. I love nothing better than a good ole “little British car” story of youth, adventure, and mechanical complication. Having spent way too much of my adolescence and young manhood driving MGs and Triumphs all over the eastern United States, I still marvel at how much physical, emotional, and spiritual privation I could put myself through in those creaky, leaky, wonderful buckets of hope and rust.

    Even today, well into my 7th decade of existence, I still dream of tossing a toothbrush and change of clothes into the “boot” and heading out (in appalling weather, top-down of course) in search of adventure.

    Thanks for the memories.

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