(All Images Authors Collection)
You don’t have to be Jay Leno to appreciate the allure of the automobile. It’s a fact that cars of the past have a distinctive personality of their own. And nowhere is this more evident than with the British Leyland MG. This was a storied, if not stout sports car with muscle, endurance and handling that dominated car rally’s and even static automobile shows throughout the decades of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. Their design was sleek, sexy and underscored by delivering performance of agile maneuvering. I happened to own a 1973 MGB-GT (pictured below at its last known home in Madison, Wisconsin). While a source of pride in the United Kingdom, the cars were ultimately dealt a “one-two punch” here in the United States market by two factors.
I’ll discuss this aspect from my own experience, which is shared by many former MG owners.
My car was originally painted a “Wine Bottle Green”. It boasted a four-cylinder engine. The previous owner, a girl from Modesto, California has the air conditioner unit removed, ostensibly to allow the power plant to perform with less strain. However, the well-known challenges associated with Lucas electrical systems and gauges proved to be erratic at best; the larger issue of the automobile’s electrical system was that it was simply sub par.
On any given day, the dual carburetor’s circular oil bath sponges needed to be saturated with oil for maximum performance. More challenging, however, was synchronizing the dual carbs so that the engine was well-timed and ran efficiently on all four cylinders. In what became a well-intentioned design feature, British Leyland officials installed a backup electrical unit that failed to bolster reliability. Many auto electrical repair shops offered to “pay me” if I agreed not to have my car towed by a flat-bed wrecker to their facility! All of which is to say, the car had complicated electrical issues and led to many headaches.
Weather impacted the car as well. If weather called for rain and the atmosphere was damp, the car might not start. If a particularly hot day materialized, it was the same problem. Culturally speaking, few people in the United States care to “tinker”constantly with such an unpredictable automobile. I admire the really dedicated purists of the MG who had off-frame restorations completed that involved removing the troubled Lucas electrical system altogether.
To this point, some of you may recall that Ford Motor Company decided on this course of action with their ill-advised $2.5 billion purchase of Jaguar in 1989. Both the electrical system and the transmission were replaced for reliability. Ultimately, Ford sold Jaguar at a massive loss in January 2008.
The MGB on its best days, with me at the wheel, exuded pure joy and excitement. It was, in fact, like a fine timepiece. Synchronized and well maintained, of course, you stood the best chance of starting your Monday morning commute to the office just fine. The trouble was that when reliability factors related to design issues cropped up, even the best maintained MG, MGB or MG Midget models could wreak havoc — and in my case this occurred 16 times during just the first three months of my ownership, where I was left stranded.
The MG convertible was no less striking in beauty and finish. After market hard shell tops and even bonnets became available.
The second factor that signaled the death knell of the car’s distribution the U.S. came in the early 1970’s when emission standards led to often bulky and ill-advised equipment added on at the factory to make U.S. cars “environmentally compliant”. To the credit of MG’s engineers, they tolerated this challenge and made enhancements, including designing larger bumpers to increase safety. But sales rested with the purists, much like friends of mine who enjoyed the FIAT Spyder, one of a handful of cars from the Italian automaker that earned the unflattering phrase of “Fix It Again Tony”.
With my patience exhausted, I placed my car up for sale. However, I first leased a track for a final Saturday to open up the throttle with my helmet and seat belts in place. My car turned in an impressive 104 miles per hour, and the manual steering and solid gearbox surprised me with delight. At the end of that run, however, reality hit home — so to speak — as I drove back to the suburbs. I simply felt that the continuity issues of engineering, materials and design were never adequately addressed in models that were manufactured either before or after my automobile. I went forward with finding a buyer.
Two brothers who were business partners in Madison, Wisconsin flew to California to inspect three cars they had meticulously read about in a sales magazine, where I had placed an ad with photos. The well-known attitude when buying anything, I suppose, is not to appear too eager, and these two men advised me that they had already visited the other two cars that were candidates for their intended restoration project. I was told that mine was in good condition, but that it was in excess of what they were looking for in their project challenge. They agreed to go off and have a cup of coffee for discussion, and ultimately they returned to buy the car.
When one brother suggested flying home while the other drove the MGB 29 hours (1,976 miles) to their hometown over two days, I interjected and suggested that the car be shipped back to Wisconsin for the restoration. Logic prevailed and we shook hands on the deal, signed the necessary papers and that ended my love affair with a car that could literally stop traffic (and often did when it broke down).
About five months later, I received a short letter with three photographs of the car after the restoration had been completed. The “Wine Bottle Green” paint was removed and a soft yellow color was chosen as a replacement. The chrome accessories were also replaced and even the interior was changed from beige to black leather. The brothers then sold the car soon after at a profit. I sent them a brief thank you note.
As for the car company begun in 1924, a series of owners passed through including: Morris Motors, British Motors Corporation, British Leyland, The Rover Group, British Aerospace and even BMW.
In my personal view, towards the end of this unique sports car (which arrived formally in 2009) this contest of sorts was really nothing more than determining who legally owned a once famous badge to a car whose target market was youth willing to live life with abandon. To be fair, I didn’t focus here on any of the Mid-Size or SUV vehicles. I excluded them because the true passion behind the MG, again in my view, was a sports car that is gone forever.
Just the same, I think back to what was a beautiful and alluring automobile the MG was in its time.