Some people look down their noses at this prolific sports racer, but they shouldn’t: the evergreen MGB has always been a useful track tool
By Richard Heseltine
Oh, how we scoffed. When the last MGB skulked off the production line in October 1980 it was a relic, a passé throwback blighted by corporate indifference to a globally revered marque. That and US safety regulations which had resulted in its once pretty physiognomy being defaced by the addition of plastic prosthetics – think Julie Christie with Karl Malden’s nose. And thus the MGB died after 18 years of production, the much-mocked ‘rubber bumper’ run-out edition ensuring that the patina was tarnished; MG was a joke. When the once proud initials returned after a brief hiatus they would be attached to a gussied-up Metro, the fire-damaged stock of hot hatches. A new sports car would have to wait.
Backtrack to 1962 and it was all very different. The newly-minted MGB was a fresh and vibrant model which swiftly became the world’s most popular roadster by a colossal margin. It was modern, it was hip and it heaped kudos on the marque by proving useful in competition – and not just on the roundy-round stuff either. And while the works cars chalked up success, this tough little nut proved a more than useful clubman’s tool, too. Some things don’t change.
For all the indignities that would subsequently be heaped upon it, the original MGB was well received. And it had a lot to live up to. Replacing the MGA was always going to be a tough gig, having been the best-selling model from the Abingdon marque to date. Its replacement would have to offer greater levels of comfort and practicality while adopting unitary construction which was then comparatively novel for a sports car. No pressure, then.
Chief engineer Syd Enever began work on ‘Project EX205’ in 1959, the familiar overhead valve B-series engine being retained from the MGA but bored out to 1798cc, meaning a power output of 94bhp (the last of the line MGAs had 86bhp). By opting for a monocoque rather than a separate body/chassis unit, there was a more economical use of space, coupled with increased passenger and luggage room. Right from the start there was space under the bonnet for larger engines; further powerplants were planned if not fully resolved (witness the nose-heavy MGC…). The flipside was that due to its relative complexity, the B didn’t meet its target weight and emerged heavier than the MGA by 23kg. Unsung ex-Aston Martin man Don Hayter was responsible for the Italianate styling.
It was launched in early 1962, and The Autocar enthused: “The MGB is an important model because it completes the trend away from the traditional sports car with a separate chassis frame. It’s a forward step, too, in that the car is faster and yet more docile and comfortable.” John Bolster of Autosport, noted: “The general impression is that the roadholding has not been allowed to suffer in obtaining a flat and comfortable ride.”
Priced at a whisker under £950 inclusive of taxes, it undercut arch-rivals from Triumph and Sunbeam. Production commenced at Abingdon in June ’62, and some 4500 cars had been built by the end of the year. By the end of its life it would reach around half a million, inclusive of the subsequent fixed-head GT edition.
At a time when then parent BMC was actively promoting its products in competition, the MGB’s works outings nonetheless tended to be overshadowed by the Mini Cooper’s. Marking its first major trackside foray in the 1963 Sebring 12 Hours, two privately entered (but factory-prepared) cars were plagued by oil surge issues and ran their main bearings. However, at Le Mans the singleton factory entry – complete with extended, streamlined proboscis – came home a very commendable 12th overall and first in class thanks to the efforts of Paddy Hopkirk and Alan Hutcheson; these efforts extending to an hour and a half spent digging the car out of the Mulsanne boondocks.
The object of the exercise had been simple – to prove the car’s reliability in a particularly gruelling event. The act of simply finishing would be repeated over the following two seasons. Hopkirk and Andrew Hedges placed 19th in 1964, having recorded an average speed of 99.9mph. Though they missed out on class honours, the duo did still walk away with a consolation prize – the Motor Trophy for the highest-placed British car. A return run in ’65 netted 11th overall and second in class.
Though there would be other successes – not least the Morley twins’ GT category triumph on the 1964 Monte Carlo rally in the ’63 Le Mans car (minus the odd nosecone) and the remarkable 1966 Marathon de la Route victory – the B’s place as a classic racing car is down largely to its ubiquity. A phenomenal success in the US, it was – and remains – a darling of the SCCA fraternity. The likes of Ronnie Bucknum and Mark Donohue paved their paths to greatness aboard the British cars, as engineering deities such as Joe Huffaker and hot rodding marvel Doane Spencer extracted more horsepower from the five-bearing (formerly three) B-series boat anchor than ever seemed feasible.
Closer to home, national racers such as Silverstone specialist Bill Nicholson, Robbie Gordon and Peter Jackson were hugely successful in Bs. As was multiple British Women Racing Drivers’ champion Jean Denton. Describing her competition career as “a kind of high-speed maternity leave”, the future Baroness Denton of Wakefield also completed the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon in one of Abingdon’s finest.
Into the 1970s and ’80s, Bs were Mod- and ProdSports regulars, the arrival of the MG Car Club’s BCV8 series in ’77 prompting packed grids and quality racing. And it still does, graduates including 1990 British Touring Car Champion Robb Gravett and current Ginetta ace Spencer McCarthy. Oh, and World Touring Car star Rob Huff (see I Race One on the previous page). Throw in the MGCC’s Thoroughbred Championship and rival MG Owners’ Club series, and the B has rarely lacked for places to race.
Its closing salvo in an international enduro, though, was the 1980 Willhire 24 Hours. Current historics prime mover Julius Thurgood, whose first race – at Spa – had been only 12 months before, improbably fielded his 1967 roadster. The race wasn’t to be without incident. “It was the inaugural event and I was teamed up with John Trevelyan and Rae and Grahame Davis. We didn’t have a pot to you-know-what in. It really was a low-budget operation so we needed a reliable car and the MGB was a very simple, very rugged machine.
“I can remember when we mentioned it was an MGB, the organisers said, ‘So it’s a MGB GT V8, then?’ I told them, ‘no, it’s a roadster’. They replied: ‘It’s not in the Blue Book.’ Well, I knew otherwise as British Leyland’s Special Tuning department kept renewing the homologation for the B, and for the Mini Cooper S even, as they realised that people still wanted the go-faster parts. So, anyway, I got an entry. That was the easy bit.
“Our car had been a racer for most of its life but was pretty near standard; there was nothing trick about it even if it had covered very few road miles. It was a real struggle to get it rebuilt in time, too. We ran in the engine on the way to Snetterton. We had it at tickover on the back of the lorry…
“The race itself was eventful as Eddie Jordan [in a Mitsubishi Colt] kept using the MGB as a brake – he would just pile into our car. He’d excuse himself, saying that he hadn’t got any brakes; he couldn’t help it. Anyway, after a while Grahame Davis – who’s an old stock car champion – went over and had a word…”
Not even an errant future Bad Boy Racers presenter like Jordan could stop the quartet from making the flag. Nor a broken diff, for that matter.
“We weren’t allowed to change it. I mean, there was a guy watching the race who had a B. He drove out of the public car park to find us and offered us the use of his, which was incredibly generous, but we just weren’t allowed to. Instead, I went over to a local scrapyard and got the axle from an old Austin A60 van and got the crown wheel and pinion out of it, which did the job. We finished the race: we were 16th overall and third in class.”
A heroic effort, but one which coincided with the death of the model, give or take a few months. However, it seems you cannot kill the MGB, and the Everyman roadster remains a big draw within the classic car fraternity. With massive club and spares support – you can buy any component, even brand-new bodyshells – it’s no great surprise that Bs still appear in large numbers at historic meetings – both on and off-piste.
“There has been a bit of a clampdown on Bs,” admits Thurgood, whose Masters Cloth Cap series has proved popular with B drivers. “It’s such an accessible car but I think there has been a lot of over-development. In Cloth Cap you have to run an FIA car. An MGB in Appendix K-spec is a truly fabulous bit of kit – lovely to drive and just about unbreakable. It isn’t difficult to see the appeal; it’s a proper club racing car.” He’s not wrong. There is a tendency in some quarters to sneer at the MGB, due largely to its plebeian roots. That and the sheer numbers of them that tend to dominate classic car events; the hyperbolic flimflam that often shadows contemporary rivals tends to get dialled down more than a few notches whenever the venerable B gets a mention. Yet for those weekend warriors who are all too familiar with the bottom line, and where it’s located, this is of no real consequence. To the initiated, B stands for ‘bargain’ and, right about now, that’s no bad thing.
“I race one”
The top Brit in the 2008 WTCC, this likable works Chevy driver spends his down-time racing an MGB. More often than not, he’s the one doing the winning…
“Ah, she’s my baby. Well, actually the car belongs to John Wilshire who bought it brand-new in 1973. About 15 years later he started modifying it for racing. I got involved through Nick Totty who ran me in Pro Karts. He was friends with John and suggested he give me a try. This would be in 1998 when my car racing experience outside the Jim Russell race school was non-existent. After a lot of persuasion John let me loose at Cadwell Park. I’d never driven the car before practice and didn’t know the circuit: I qualified third, stalled at the start and dropped to the back. There were 35 cars in the race and I finished third. John hasn’t run anyone else in the car since.
“We run in the MG Car Club’s series and I reckon ours is probably the fastest MGB still with a B-series engine. We’ve extracted 202bhp from 1950cc so it’s rapid. I absolutely love driving it – you can treat it like a drift car, running on the bump stops with the rear tyres on fire if you want to. I’ve raced it at least two or three times a year since ’98 and I won class B in the Ethyl MG Championship in 2002. We’ve even beaten the 400bhp V8 cars in the wet. I’d recommend racing Bs to anyone.”
One to buy
1963 MGB – £30,000
From: MG Motorsport, 01442 832019 www.mgmotorsport.com
Restored and prepared to full Appendix K spec, this race-ready B is one of the earliest examples currently on offer. One of the retrospectively dubbed ‘Pull Handle’ editions built in the first three years of production (after which the exterior handle design was changed…), it has a fresh 1853cc B-series four-banger, straight cut/close-ratio ’box and a limited slip diff.
Road legal, and fitted with long range tanks with a quick-release filler, it’s offered with new HTP papers and is primed for competition; it’s ideal for FIA pre-66 racing, endurance events or stand-alone club meetings.
Others to consider
Rugged Michelotti-styled machine had brief works rallying career. Hugely successful in SCCA.
Based on humble Hillman Husky, this pretty roadster has extensive Le Mans and rallying history.
Pretty if agricultural car was a rally star and Le Mans occasional.
MG Car Club www.mgcc.co.uk 01235 555552
MG Owners’ Club www.mgcars.org.uk 01954 231125
MGBHive www.mgbhive.co.uk 01945 700500
British Motor Heritage www.bmh-ltd.com 01993 707200
Killer Beez www.mgbracing.com 001 414 529 3200