Sports cars under £700: the 1,098 c.c. M.G. Midget

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A sprightly small sports car now with larger engine and disc front brakes

The M.G. Midget has been one of Britain’s most popular small sports cars from the end of the vintage era, when it made its bow as the 850 c.c. M-type. Since the last London Motor Show it has joined the newly resuscitated ranks of 1,100 c.c. sports cars, for the 950 c.c. power unit of the post-war Midget has been replaced, under B.M.C.’s engine standardisation scheme, by a Type 10 CG, 64.6 x 83.7 mm. (1,098 c.c.) engine which, in twin carburetter form with M.G. 1100 head and camshaft, produces 55 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. and 61 lb./ft. torque at 2,500 r.p.m. In addition to this improvement, Girling 8.25 in. disc brakes are used on the front wheels, there is baulk-ring synchromesh on the three upper gear ratios, 2nd gear is fractionally higher than before, a double-thickness gearbox plate cuts down tail-shaft whirl, the clutch is of increased diameter and detail improvements concern better crash-padding round the facia, a Smiths electric speedometer and a carpeted floor.

After the Triumph Spitfire the M.G. Midget at first gives the impression of being a toy, very low, very small, rather difficult to see out of with the hood up, rough and noisy. After a day’s motoring in it I had considerably revised this opinion, and at the end of a lengthy test I was a firm Midget enthusiast, for this M.G., no less than the better of its predecessors, feels “all in one piece,” is responsive, sprightly and very quick about the place, moderately comfortable, and essentially safe.

ft is perhaps “less of a car” than the Spitfire, more difficult to get into and out of with the hood up. Its sliding Perspex side windows instead of wind-up glass windows and a hood that tends to drum and, in spite of ingenious telescopic sticks, is not particularly easy to erect, are not altogether endearing. Casual minor controls, such as manually-cancelling indicators operated by a facia flick-switch, whereas the Spitfire has a stalk and self-cancelling mechanism, no means of daylight headlamp flashing, facia-location of the lighting flick-switch, inaccurate instruments and doors that lack exterior handles, so that, if the sliding sidescreens freeze up, entry to the M.G. poses a problem the solution of which, to say the least, looks like burglary, make a price of £42 below that charged for the Triumph seem disadvantageously disproportionate.

However, on longer acquaintance this latest of a long line of M.G. Midgets comes over as a very likeable and attractive little car. Everything about it tends to be simple, yet adequate. The neat facia lacks any form of oddments-stowage but as M.G. owners are more likely to be laden with maps and torches than gloves and handbags the big rigid pocket in each door is useful enough. The sidescreens, apart from the aforesaid and other obvious shortcomings, are rigid, yet easily detachable on undoing a couple of slotted knurled knobs on each, although their fit is neither draught- nor entirely leak-proof. On the whole, however, with hood up and sidescreens in place the Midget is snug enough. It has a heater the volume of which cannot be varied, although by turning its control knob a fan can be brought into action, while if the knob is pulled out the intake is closed and noxious fumes excluded. Normally I found the amount of heat more than sufficient.

The screen is flat but, even so, the wiper blades leave dirty areas, and sideways visibility is not particularly good. However, the wipers are supplemented by very effective (pump-knob) washers which during a dirty day’s driving of 380 miles didn’t run dry. The main instruments consist of a speedometer reading to 100 m.p.h. and a tachometer calibrated to 7,000 r.p.m. in graduations of 500 r.p.m., with the first warning band from 5,500 to 6,000 r.p.m. anything higher taking you “into the red.” A trip with decimals and total mileage recorder are incorporated in the speedometer dial; the figures are clear and needles steady.

These dials are supplemented by a small combined oil-pressure gauge and water thermometer (oil pressure varies with r.p.m., between approximately 40/60 lb./sq. in.; the heat is normally at 170°F rising to 180°F under extreme conditions) and a fuel gauge that registered full when only four to five gallons were in what is claimed to be a six-gallon tank, but is suitably pessimistic at the other extreme.

The minor controls are a series of old-fashioned lettered knobs and small unlabelled flick-switches, which between them look after choke (or, more correctly, as the gas-works are S.U. HS2, mixture enrichment), starter, heater, lights (foot-dipper), wipers, washers and direction-flashers. There are the expected warning lights, including a single rather large one for the turn-indicators, and facia lighting can be extinguished by a tiny switch under the facia rail. The ignition key, separate from the boot-lid key, does not start the engine. The rear-view mirror is mounted somewhat obstructively on the facia sill. The styling department has overcome its love of octagons but the front badge naturally incorporates one, there is another in a facia motif before the passenger, and a large one above the word “Midget” on the boot lid.

The rigid remote gear-lever is well placed, the driving position good, but the pull-up handbrake lies beside the passenger’s seat cushion, in a position where it might trouble a modest girl-friend, if such still exist. It is sad that M.G., of all people, no longer provide a fly-off handbrake.

The bucket seats are good but not outstanding, the cushion more comfortable than the squab on a long driving stint, but they hold the driver firmly; the seat backs tilt forward to facilitate removing luggage or enabling dogs to remove themselves from the back ledge. This, for some unaccountable reason, has a deep upholstered cushion, elaborately arranged to hinge up after press-buttons had been freed, presumably for access to the axle. As it is so high that no adult and not every canine would feel secure when sitting on it, the purpose of this elaboration eluded me. A plain shelf for luggage would be more sensible. Perhaps the strain of car-styling produces children with stumps in lieu of legs but the wider public, outside such drawing offices, usually has active offspring with two equal-length legs and these cannot occupy sports-car back seats of this oddly-dimensioned kind, so may we go back to pure 2-seaters, please? Perhaps, however, someone thinks a Midget is a car for midgets?

The boot lid locks, and, opened, has to be supported by a crude bent-wire prop that is difficult to stow. The boot-lid handle was also difficult to turn after closing the lid. The boot carries the spare wheel, horizontally on the floor, and hood sticks, tools, etc., in a bag strapped to the forward wall. There is still plenty of room for the kind of luggage sports-car owners are likely to want to take with them.

The bonnet lid also has to be propped open, after which the carburetters with their separate Coopers air cleaners, the Champion plugs, fillers, dip-stick and Lucas battery are all very accessible. The Lucas sealed-beam headlamps are, of course, normally located, unlike those on earlier Sprites, and very effective, and the test car had safety-belts (which I didn’t use).

The interior of the car is somewhat cramped, as there is a propeller shaft tunnel between the seats, but the absence of windup windows provides ample elbow-room. The interior, press-down door handles are set well back, where they are unlikely to be inadvertently operated and the hood has a big rear panel and subsidiary transparent panels at the back.

In action
If this M.G. seems a bit skimped when one makes a critical examination of it, the modest basic price of less than £495 (under £165 surely, by pre-war values?) must be taken into account. Once you start to drive it, and assuming you can appreciate a sports car, the Midget is quickly taken at its face value and is great fun. The engine could be called rough, and there is a good deal of noise, including gear whine, although the latter is in character and less obtrusive than that from many vintage sports cars. The gear-lever rattles at about two-thirds up the rev. range but the engine goes up to 6,500 and even to 7,000 r.p.m. assuming the tachometer had not been “tuned,” as I experienced on one Press M.G. before the war.

The performance is somewhat deceptive, because the speedometer flatters the driver to a considerable degree. It goes easily and eagerly to 70 m.p.h. and on to 80 m.p.h. on long straights, but in fact the M.G. is then doing 63 and 72 m.p.h., respectively; at 40 m.p.h. the reading is 4 m.p.h. fast, at 50, 5 m.p.h. fast, at 60 6 m.p.h. optimistic. The genuine maxima in the gears, pushing the needle of the tachometer well “into the red,” whereas peak power is developed some 1,000 r.p.m. lower, are 32, 54 and 74 m.p.h. At approximately 5,000 r.p.m. in top gear the true speed is 76.5 m.p.h. and a very long run is necessary to obtain the flat-out maximum of 92 m.p.h.

Less important than recorded performance, however, is the manner in which this willing little sporting 2-seater gets about. It feels safe and predictable, has good brakes and plenty of acceleration.

The gearbox is a delight, the lever going through well, if a shade stiffly, bottom gear reasonably easy to engage in spite of crash cogs on this ratio, reverse easy to find beyond top gear.

The suspension is quite firm, as sudden shocks at the steering wheel and momentary deflection from a straight course over severe bumps conveys, but it is notably comfortable for this type of car. Roll is absent, cornering virtually neutral, tail slides can be checked quickly with positive rack-and-pinion steering. This is geared 2.2-turns, lock-to-lock, and has useful, never fierce, castor-return action. The brakes are light, powerful, and vice-free except for very occasional rubbing sounds from the pads. This is essentially a little car to enjoy, in which to breathe fresh air. It is a taut car to fling through the curves when Mr. Eyles isn’t looking-nor are the Dunlop “Gold Seal” C41s likely to attract attention by squealing. The exhaust note shows spirit but is unlikely to prove offensive if the driver uses normal discretion.

While this M.G. Midget is no racer, its acceleration, to corrected speeds, two-up on a dry track, was timed as shown below:
0-30 m.p.h. – 4.85 sec. (4.8 sec.)
0-40 m.p.h. – 7.90 sec. ( 7.8 sec.)
0-50 m.p h – 11.25 sec. (11.0 sec.)
0-60 m.p.h. – 16.20 sec. (16.2 sec.)
0-70 m.p.h. – 23.00 sec. (22.8 sec.)
s.s. quarter-mile – 20.10 sec. (20.0 sec.)

The unbracketed times are averages of two runs; the best times are within brackets. The performance has to be related to economy and here the Midget is very impressive. A fuel consumption check over a big mileage, embracing almost every road and traffic condition, gave 39.2 m.p.g. The tank is said to hold 6 gallons but takes less than five if the range, brimful to empty, of 163 miles is any criterion. The filler cap is unsecured and not of quick-action type as on the Spitfire. Although the engine likes 100-octane fuel and I gave it Esso Golden and Super Shell and B.P. Super Plus when I could get it, there was very muffled protest on normal premium petrol. Even after performance testing the ignition cut clean and starting was instantaneous after nights in the open, although the knob marked “C” was needed for a while before the engine would pull. No faults developed in a strenous test of 890 miles and at the end half-a-pint of Castrol restored the sump level.

I am not too old to enjoy a sports car and this M.G. Midget, so inexpensive and so economical to run, and smart in its good red cellulose and durable-looking black p.v.c. upholstery, would be very acceptable as a companion to the Editorial Morris 1100 from the same manufacturing source. At its inclusive price of £598 13s. 7d. I can forgive a certain out-dated crudity in its minor details. This is the best M.G. Midget yet, a small sports car at one with its driver and, I repeat, enormous fun.—W. B.

[Small sports cars, originally a French product until Austin and M.G. brought out even smaller-engined ones, are extremely good fun, a fine means of breathing fresh-air and, properly driven, are safer than saloons, whatever the insurance companies think. Today such cars represent excellent value for money and next month we hope to review two more costing under £700, the Morgan 4/4 Series IV and Austin Healey Sprite Mk. II.—ED.]

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