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Classic Cars: The Art Form of the XX Century

57_MG_MGA_Coupe_HudsonPart VIII, MG

 

By Adrian and Montague Kobbe

 

Over the course of its history, Morris Garages (MG) was killed twice – like Rasputin – and yet in a way, it’s still not dead. That alone speaks for its special place in the history of fine motorcars. Established by Cecil Kimber in 1924 under the auspice of William Morris, founder of Morris Motors, MG immediately turned its attention to transforming the conservative Morris into more appealing open two-seater sport cars.

 

Kimber’s strategy proved so popular that by 1929, the company had to move to its new, separate factory (in Abingdon), where MG designed its own cars quite independently from (though still sharing the same chassis as) Morris Motors. Indeed, the key to MG’s success might have been the atmosphere at Abingdon – a special factory where workers were actually happy to develop their craft, an exciting and dynamic workplace if there ever was one.

 

Cue the first entry in the list of iconic MG creations: the M-Type Midget – the car that would cast the mould of the marque’s identity – built on a Morris Minor platform. In a single moment of inspiration, Kimber not only hit upon the formula to follow for years to come, he also officially acknowledged – inaugurated, it could almost be claimed – the importance of a heretofore neglected market: that of small, inexpensive sports cars. MG produced over 3,000 Midgets, and by the time the model was discontinued in 1932, it had already achieved legendary status.

 

In view of the M-Type Midget’s phenomenal success, Kimber embarked on exploiting a rather curious but clearly profitable niche: (small car) racing. In 1931, the Midget set the speed record for 750cc cars and won the Brooklands Double Twelve and Ulster TT races, while a six-cylinder 1100cc K3 came first in its class in the 1933 edition of the mythical Italian road race, the Mille Miglia. The equally legendary Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari was so impressed with the performance he entered a K3 in the 1933 Ulster TT – needless to say, he won the race.

 

This success on the tracks was transformed into a series of marketing slogans, such as “the car with the racing pedigree”, and “safety fast!” For all its achievements, though, MG’s racing department would be closed in 1935, when William Morris integrated his various automotive interests into a single mega enterprise, Morris Motors, now officially in control of MG and Wolseley. In practical terms, the dawn of this new era did not hit MG until the following year, when the Midget was modernized and reintroduced as the T-Model. No one could know it at the time, but the foundations had been laid for MG’s tremendous success after the war.

 

MG launched a “new” version of its pre-war T-model as early as 1945 – though now without Kimber, who’d died in a train accident earlier that year. It was the birth of the MG TC, yet another icon. Though a clear and direct descendant of its pre-war siblings, this thoroughbred – with its long bonnet, 1930s vintage 19-inch (!) wire wheels, and the walnut dashboard – brought something back on the other side of the most gruelling armed conflict the world has ever known: joy.

 

This joy and optimism, experienced in large numbers by the American soldiers stationed in the UK, were so intoxicating, so contagious, that the MG TC was exported to the USA, where it reacquainted America with the notion of the sports car. The ideal fun and fast city roadster, the TC was produced 10,000 times before it was replaced in 1950 by its more modern successor, the MG TD – the last of the vintage MG, together with the 1954/55 MG TF, both seen today as the essence of the MG style.

 

This style, this look – an open two-seater with vertical slab fuel tanks and cutaway doors – set the standard for what a British sports car ought to look like up to the mid-1950s and in some sense embodied the merited rise of the British sports car industry at the time. For MG, the fun was not in the destination, but rather in getting there – and while other cars might get you there quicker or in more comfort, none could make you look cooler.

 

But the post-war economic climate, as well as William Morris’s diminishing strength at the age of 74, forced new restructurings onto Morris Motors, which had to merge with Austin in 1952 to form the British Motor Corporation BMC. Following the development of the extraordinary TF, MG under BMC was pushed beyond the safe realms of its tradition with the introduction in 1955 of the beautiful MGA. A forward-looking car available as a coupe or the far more popular convertible version, the MGA had been placed in the backburner for three years, as the powers that be at BMC (in other words, BMC director Leonard Lord, former general manager of Morris Motors, who in 1938 left the company with a big bang to join and later direct Austin) chose to develop instead the Austin-Healey 100 – another glorious specimen from the 1950s.

 

MG’s efforts to develop the perfect fun ride continued in 1961, with the revival of the Midget. Ironically, the new MG Midget was in reality a spruced-up Austin-Healey Sprite with an MG badge. Subsequently, the Midget would be produced in four different series for 18 years up to 1979: and there might never have been a more stylish and fun “city car” by any manufacturer – ever. Small, convertible, reliable, easy and smart, even today – over 50 years after its first emergence – it remains the ideal car for not-too-tall commuters. Drive a Midget and no matter what awaits at work or home, you’ll get there with a smile in your face!

 

The MGA was replaced in 1962 by yet another modern classic: the legendary MGB. Rather than placing the body over the chassis, the MGB was built as a unitary structure, a miracle in compact packaging and a true wonder of design, which nevertheless was very similar mechanically to its predecessor, the MGA, with the important exception of its more powerful 1800cc engine. By this time, however, the British small sports car market – practically invented by MG – had grown so rapidly that the MGB faced fierce competition from Triumph (TR4), Sunbeam (Alpine) and even from within BMC with the gorgeous Austin-Healey 3000.

 

But the times were changing again in Britain, and a decline in the manufacturing industry in the mid-1960s led to the newly appointed Labour government of Harold Wilson to push for reforms that would see a number of the major players in the car industry merging, first, and eventually being partly nationalized: in 1966, BMC joined forces with Jaguar, changing its name to BMH (British Motor Holdings), before merging with Leyland Motor Corporation to form British Leyland in 1968. Despite its huge market share (far larger than Leyland’s) BMH (and BMC before it) with its exhaustive range of cars struggled mightily to make a profit.

 

Meanwhile, MG’s sports car range was completed in 1967 with the introduction of the more powerful 2900cc six-cylinder MGC – a model that was intended to complement the MGB and replace the so-called “Big Healey,” the Austin-Healey 3000. This much heavier engine did not sit well in the roadster, though the GT behaved splendidly, which in 1973 (now under the leadership of British Leyland) led to the development of yet another, even more powerful sibling, the MGB GT V8. Despite it being beautiful, reliable, and wonderfully smooth only 2,591 of these superb specimens ever saw the light of day.

 

By now, the once proud British motor industry, which at one point featured over a dozen glorious names (Triumph, Austin-Healey, Sunbeam, Morgan and Jaguar we have mentioned already; add to that Aston Martin, Bristol, Alvis, AC and Bentley among many others) was going through a full-fledged crisis. British Leyland often suffered at the hands of labour unrest through the 1970s, and suddenly the once spirited and innovative image of car-making in the UK became the poster face of the serious and ugly storm that was mangling the British industry. British Leyland was nationalized in 1975 and a series of restructurings followed, ultimately resulting in the abandonment of the MG brand in 1980

 

Somehow, the phenomenal creation that was the MGB remained – resilient in its longevity – as a direct link to the heyday – not even so distant – of British car manufacturing. Through its 18 years of existence, from 1962 to 1980, the MGB underwent many minor changes, some clearly for the better – the model was finally fitted with standard seatbelts, for instance, in 1972 – some not so much: after 1974 the standard chromed bumpers were replaced with ugly moulded polyurethane and the car’s suspension was raised to comply with US safety standards. Six years later, when the Abingdon factory was shut down, the production numbers for all versions of MGB and MGC models stood well above the half million mark. The last ones, taller, slightly disproportionate, tainted by their dark bumpers, were a sad but poignant illustration of everything that had gone wrong in the previous decades.

 

In 1992, the Rover Group (the latest and mauled incarnation of what once had been British Leyland) revived the MG brand with the production, in Longbridge rather than Abingdon, of a slightly modified MGB rebadged as MG RV8. Unremarkable as it was, it served a major purpose in stirring up interest for the company, which was bought by BMW in 1994. One year later came the first all-new MG model since 1962: the MG F.

 

Sleek, low, and small, the mid-engine MG F would soon become Britain’s bestselling roadster. Indeed, the car was so successful that it created a problem for BMW, whose sole interest in purchasing Rover lay in gaining control of the legendary Mini. But the MG F was clearly viable – so BMW sold it to an investment group in 2000, which under the name MG-Rover developed the MG TF in 2002, obviously (and rightfully) named after its wonderful predecessor from 1954.

 

The MG TF, with all-leather interior, two-toned hood and body, aluminum wheels and a sporty 160hp four-cylinder engine was celebrated universally. Initially, it sold well (over 70,000 MG F and 40,000 MG TF were produced) but gradually it lost ground to its rather edgier German competitors, and after a fine 10-year run, the MG-Rover Company went into liquidation in 2005, likely not due to the TF’s performance. Chinese manufacturer Nanking Motors bought MG in 2006 and revived the faithful MG TF once again a year later. But the company’s focus always was on the Asian market and its plan throughout was to concentrate on cheap passenger cars, which it did until it was in turn absorbed by the state-owned Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

 

After a long and troubled existence – glorious at times, at times shambolic – MG (now as MG Motors) lingers in name, though all models are now produced in China and merely assembled in a scaled-down version of Longbridge factory, not even a shadow of its former self. Little remains of that inspired initiative by Cecil Kimber over 80 years ago – but then again, everything else in this world has changed drastically since 1924, so why shouldn’t MG?

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