M.G. at Abingdon

A visit to B.M.C.’s Sports-Car Factory and impressions of the MGB-GT.

I am not a rabid pre-war-M.G. “fan” but I think far too many Englishmen underrate the very fine competition record of this make and the valuable prestige it gained for this country before the war in racing and record-breaking. Indeed, in the War-time issues of Motor Sport I did my best to emphasise this in special articles on the M.G. K3 Magnette’s success in the Mille Miglia, the record-breaking achievements of Capt. George Eyston and Col. Goldie Gardner, and so on.

In view of all the competition history behind the make whose initials, enclosed within an octagon, breathe history, it is refreshing to find them extremely willing at Abingdon to follow the lead of their Press and Competitions Officer Wilson McComb and sort out the . intimate details of the many historic M.G.s still in existence, a fascinating task in which McComb is helped by the Vintage M.G. and Triple-M Registers, of which Mike Allison of the B.M.C. Press staff is Hon. Secretary. Indeed, I know of no other manufacturer who researches more deeply into the past history of its products. In 1935 M.G. claimed that they had the biggest sports-car factory in the World; it had come into being in October 1929. As the last ZB Magnette saloon was built there at the end of 1958, this is again true-I know you can buy a B.M.C. 1100 saloon with the M.G. badges and a 1 1/2-litre B.M.C. saloon called a Magnette, but these are not made at Abingdon….

Today, production at the M.G. factory is devoted to the big Austin Healeys, the little Austin Healey Sprites and M.G. Midgets, and the M.G.-B, in both open 2-seater and GT form.

It was some time since I had been there and I chose an appropriate occasion on which to refresh my memory—the day on which confirmation came through that Aaltonen and Liddon had won the Tulip Rally in a Mini, and while I had on road-test a smart blue M.G.-B GT. Sir John Heygate, going to Abingdon to have his M.G. Magna overhauled after driving it about Europe for a year, wrote in “Motor Tramp” : ” There is just one high street in this old Berkshire town heaped up on the Thames which leads from the little cobbled market-place, not unlike a miniature French place, on and on into the country. Farther out from the centre the houses lose a storey and straggle wider apart. You have half a mile of broad straight high street and at the end the Works. A perfect site for a motor Alma Mater.”

That may be, but in 1966 you spend too much time going round and round Abingdon’s tedious one-way system. . . . Yet this compact 5-acre factory is still delightfully situated, office blocks looking out on green fields, aeroplanes circling overhead from the near-by airfield. Nor has anything changed very much.

The cars are strictly hand-assembled, the body shells for the different models being mated to mechanical components on a high and low-level assembly system, before the appropriate engines, which arrive by road from B.M.C.’s engine assembly plants, are installed. These engines comprise the 6-cylinder 83.36 x 89-mm. (2,912.c.c.) 150-b.h.p. Austin Healey power unit, the 4-cylinder 130.26 x 89-mm. (1,798 c.c.) 95-b.h.p. M.G.-B power unit, and the 4-cylinder 64.58 x 83.72-mm. (1,098 c.c.) 59-b.h.p. Austin Healey Sprite Mk. III and M.G. Midget power units—all simple, well-proven push-rod o.h.v. designs.

The body shells also come from the outside suppliers, those for the Austin Healey 3000 from Jensen’s, and go onto the trim decks, where wiring harnesses, heaters and so on are fitted. The “Spridget” bodies are already painted at this stage, the M.G.-B bodies partially so. The smaller cars then get their front and back suspension assemblies, the M.G.-Bs their rear axles and sub-frame taking the i.f„s. assembly. The back axles of the Austin Healey 3000s have to be lifted on a bar and threaded sideways past the sub-frame structure, a difficult and heavy task. Final assembly takes place at ground level, two sets of concrete blocks locating the “line” as the cars are moved forward by hand. It is all very much in the unhurried, hand-assembly tradition.

But such is the demand for sports M.G.s and Austin Healeys that they have three assembly lines in operation for M.G.-Bs, with a fourth one soon to come into use, two lines for “Spridget” assembly, M.G. and A.-H. using the same lines, while the big Austin Healeys are assembled on a single line. There is happy impartiality in the employment of protective sheets, labelled “M.G.”, laid over the wings of the big Austin Healeys.

They make no secret of their production figures at Abingdon. For the week ending when I happened to be there the M.G. factory had produced 645 M.G.-Bs, of which 150 were the new GTs, 465 “Spridgets,” divided into 240 Midgets and 225 Sprites, and 135 Austin Healey 3000s, a total weekly output of 1,245 cars. Not bad, for a factory which before the war was doing well to turn out 50 cars a week. But it looks as if production will continue to go up„ for the American market could absorb r,000 M.G.-13 GTs a month, were they available. . .

Every car is road-tested, over a minimum of five miles, before going to the rectification bay to be readied for final dispatch.

All M.G. service is now undertaken at Cowley, but the Competition Department, under Stuart Turner, is based at Abingdon. This year B.M.C. are entering for seventeen rallies and while I was there two M.G.-Bs were being prepared for the Targa Florio. Mainly, however, Donald Healey deals with racing, his son Geoffrey preparing the cars. B.M.C. are more concerned with rally cars but enter for one or two races, like Sebring, the Targa Florio and Le Mans (but not this year!) as a high-speed demonstration. John cooper also prepares Minis for racing, of course.

For rallying the 1275 Cooper S is almost universally used, for the simple reason that even in standard guise these remarkable little cars develop 121 b.h.p./ton, compared to 101 b.h.p./ton from an M.G.-B, and 67 b.h.p./ton from an M.G. 1100. Thus they are so much more effective that there is little point-in using the other B.M.C. cars.

Thus, down at this compact little organisation at Abingdon, not only is the factory devoted to making sports cars and getting B.M.C. Minis ready for rallies, but special tuning is carried out on customers’ cars—there is no need to go to outside “soup-kitchens” when extra urge is sought from a B.M.C. engine!

Another happy aspect of the M.G. Car Company is the number of original employees and racing personnel still to be found there. John Thornley, Director and General Manager, was a very active member of the M.G-.C.C. before he joined the firm; he still drives an M.G.-B (as does Wilson McComb) and has been known to make an M.G. Magnette saloon go very quickly. Cecil Cousins, the Works Manager, joined Morris Garages in 1920 and reminisces eagerly about the old Cecil Kimber and Brooklands days, Syd Enever, the Chief Designer, who designed the M.G.-A (of which 101,000 were built) and the M.G.-B, was prominent in the pre-war racing days, Reg. (“Jacko”) Jackson is the Chief Inspector, Alec Houslow (who was riding mechanic to Nuvolari in the T.T.) is in charge of development and engine testing and has his own drawing office and development department, including a very useful Crypton-Heenan roller-dynamometer in a separate test-room—this is used by both Development and Competitions for assessing the real power, developed where it is most useful! The Service Manager, Gordon Phillips, and Chief Road-tester, Sam Nash have but recently retired—all names redolent of the stirring days of the pre-war M.G. racing exploits.

Incidentally, Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mackinen have their own M.G.-B GTs. Since the 5-bearing 1.7-litre engine was adopted for the M.G.-B, not much development has been needed. The former 10-gallon fuel tank was changed for a 12-gallon tank, a closed-circuit fume trap introduced to comply with U.S.A. regulations, and all cars now have oil-coolers, not just the export models. With the 5-bearing engine came a hot-wire fuel gauge to give a steady reading, and an electric tachometer. The GT car has the heavier “Police” back springs, as fitted to M.G.-Bs supplied for police work, when heavy policemen and radar equipment are carried(!), and the front anti-roll bar, optional on the normal “B,” is standardised on the GT. The smart GT body is B.M.C.’s own, but the styling was evolved by Syd Enever, with some advice from Pininfarina.

What of this newest M.G.-B on the road ? It is a sporting car in the old tradition, by which I mean that it is not scientific like a Porsche or Lotus Elan. Many customers, Americans particularly, enjoy it that way and wouldn’t have the M.G. otherwise. It is a car which does most things well, nothing outstandingly. Engine torque is such that you have to use the gearbox to really go motoring. Even then, acceleration, at 0-60 m.p.h. in 13.1 sec., a s.s. 1/4-mile in 19.6 sec., is not outstanding for a 1.7-litre so-called GT “2 + 1.” The legal top pace of 70 comes up in 18 sec. and leaves the engine well out of the red in top gear; indeed, 79 m.p.h. is obtainable in 3rd gear.

A very rigid, well-placed, if fractionally too high, little central lever controls rather notchy changes of gear; the central pull-up hand-brake lever nestles close to the transmission tunnel and lacks the fly-off action of which M.G. was once so proud. On bumpy roads the GT, with those stiffer back springs, needs to be steered, and the ride cannot be described as anything but mediocre. But the steering itself, fairly heavy, positive, transmitting shake, accurate and sensibly geared at 2.9 turns, lock-to-lock, is well suited to the sporting demeanour of the M.G.-B, the wheel fairly thick-rimmed, with three sprung wire spokes, set a trifle high for the low seating. Because the clutch-pedal travel is fairly long the driver tends to sit close to the wheel, but some people would find an adjustable steering column useful. The offset accelerator pedal is something one soon gets accustomed to.

Typically B.M.C., there is no syncromesh on bottom gear, which is invariably unpleasant to engage.

The handling is good, with no appreciable roll, mild understeer, and easily-corrected final oversteer, the anti-roll stiffening bar and the Dunlop SP4s tyres obviously suiting the suspension characteristics. The rigid back axle can be made to tramp under violent acceleration over poor surfaces, however.

The separate front seats, upholstered in leather-cum-leather-cloth, which smells nice, are simple and, I thought, adequate, except that one sits too low and has no lateral support. The backrest angle can be pre-set by screwing in or out stops under the squabs. The GT aspect is not overdone, the back window but not the roof being at an acute angle, while there is lavish padding behind the rear-seat occupant’s head. Even so, head room is fairly limited and the well-upholstered seat, if used, is more suitable for a small labrador than a human. However, its too vertical back-rest folds down easily and then the body reveals its true GT aspect, for the rear compartment becomes an upholstered shelf for luggage, prevented from sliding forward, and easily loaded through the lift-up back window, which stays up unaided, held by clock-springs incorporated in the struts. Spare wheel and tool kit live under the floor.

Visibility is seriously restricted by very thick screen pillars, but the window area is generous and the screen deeper than that of the sports M.G.-B—of which, incidentally, Motor Sport published a full road-test report in September 1963. But this is not a car to have accidents in, for opposing soft crash-padding, crushable vizors and seat-belt anchorages, there are many projections, notably the key without which the cubby-hole cannot be opened; the exterior rear-view mirror is most misleading in its “vanishing” reflections, and the interior mirror is somewhat cut off by the roof line. That this is a GT-bodied car at a competitive price is perhaps emphasised by fairly simple instrumentation (Smiths 120 m.p.h. speedometer and electric tachometer hooded-in, with combined oil-gauge/water thermometer and fuel gauge outboard of them), an unsecured petrol filler cap on a horizontal filler-neck, plastic press-down interior door handles, lack of a vanity mirror, and unlabelled, fumbly flick-switches for heater-fan, single-speed wipers and lamps, and especially by the listing of heater (controlled by indefinite dual knobs), centre-lock wire wheels, the SP41 tyres and overdrive as extras. However, fog and spot lamps (also extras), Radiomobile radio (which suffered from mild interference) and a map-reading lamp with its own switch were useful items of equipment on the test car, the trim and finish are of very reasonable quality, the rear side windows open on toggles, and this handsome and rugged M.G., capable of comfortably over 100 m.p.h., does sell for under £1,000. In fact, as tested, it sells for £1,100 15s. 2d., excluding the radio.

The engine likes 100-plus octane fuels, and, as has been hinted at, has to be turning over at 3,000 r.p.m. to give maximum torque. Its tachometer has an orange band between 5,500 and 6,000 r.p.m., the red band from there to 7,000 r.p.m. Oil pressure is normally 60 lb./sq. in., the coolant heat 180 deg. F., some richening of the twin HS4 S.U. carburetters was needed for cold starts, and in very varied running conditions the consumption of Esso Golden came out at 26.3 m.p.g., the fuel gauge suggesting imminent “topping up” after 278 miles from filling the tank to the brim, which suggests that the old 10-gallon tank was fitted to this car. I used the M.G. for 600 miles and, having been brought up on vintage-type cars, greatly enjoyed it and I can understand why many discerning drivers are ordering the new GT.

The black facia trim is entirely unostentatious and well suited to a fast car but a speedometer which shows 70 m.p.h. when you are doing only 64, the “ton” when you have merely reached 93 m.p.h., is disappointing in this type of vehicle, although rally competitors have the use of a trip with decimal odometer, providing they remember to correct for optimism here also. The rheostat-panel-lighting knob is badly placed behind the steering wheel and the foot dip-switch is placed too high off the floor. The transmission tunnel carried a lidded ash-tray and the loudspeaker.

A simple rather short r.h. stalk controls the winkers, there is a big map-pocket on the passenger’s side of the scuttle (but no door pockets), the cubby-hole isn’t very big, the throttle action was snatchy and the Lockheed disc/drum brakes on the test car were not entirely convincing. The wide transmission tunnel gets quite warm-and an air-conditioner would be a welcome piece of equipment. However, it is possible to leave the side windows down without draughts.

This is, in short, a car which those who like it will like very much indeed. It feels durable, captures the spirit of pre-war motoring, and is a good proposition in this context at the price, only the absurd 70-m.p.h. speed limit making me–wonder whether the M.G. 1100 saloon isn’t, for the time being; just as pleasing to drive on British roads.-W.B.