We all dream of owning vintage iron, of rumbling along in a piece of automotive history, of being the envy of car nuts everywhere we go. Well, we can. There are truly affordable classics out there. And I’m going to find them. Welcome to Classic Review.
Don’t fear the MGB GT. It is not a finicky piece of questionable British engineering possessed by the Prince of Darkness, Joseph Lucas. It is a beautiful little beast, a punchy and snarling sports car with the refined manners of a grand tourer.
I’ve always loved the MGB GT. The little hatchback lured me in at an early age with its low-slung body and toy proportions—it’s just the right size for a 10 year old. It had a permanent spot in my fantasy garage next to 240Zs, Opel GTs and anything else on my scale.
As I grew, I recognized the brilliance of the GT. It’s simply stunning, the perfect union of British sports car purity and Italian aesthetics. MG had Pininfarina pen the top half of the GT and it is, arguably, the best-looking shooting brake ever made.
The MGB was released in ’62. It’s a mishmash of modern automotive engineering and stodgy British mechanicals. It was one of the first cars to feature a lightweight monocoque body with crumple zones. It had disk brakes up front and precise rack-and-pinion steering. But it stubbornly held onto leaf springs in the rear, quirky lever shocks and an iron OHV engine.
The engine is a torquey little pushrod mill with two valves per cylinder. The only thing that makes it sporty is a pair of SU carbs. It’s rated at 95 hp at 5,500 rpm and 105 torques at 2500 rpm. The engine is backed by a four-speed manual transmission with an optional overdrive unit.
In 1973, MG decided that they’d had enough of the Jag guys’ snickering and stuffed a honking-great aluminum 3.5-liter Rover V8 under the GT’s bonnet. At the time it was the lightest mass-produced V8 in the world, weighing just 318 pounds. It produces 137 hp and 193 torques. The combo makes a vengeful little monster that can easily dice it up with Jags and Astons. Unfortunately, the MGB GT V8 was only sold in the UK.
The MGC was sold in the sates, however. It has a 2.9-liter straight six that puts out 145 hp. But the engine is heavy—200 pounds heavier than the stock four and the MGC isn’t much quicker than the MGB. Some say the added weight throws the MGC’s handling off. Others say the six delivers silky smooth power across a wide power band, making the MGC a fantastic tourer.
MGCs are around, but they’re rare. MGB GT V8 conversions are also available, featuring everything from aluminum Buick 215s to SBCs. For this review, I stuck with the base four-cylinder MGB. It’s the most common, and thus the most affordable, variation.
When I decided to write these classic car reviews, the GT topped my list. To find one, I hopped on the MG Experience, a site for chaps and dames committed to keeping old British sports cars in tip-top shape. Within a few days I had a Central Oregon MG expert on the horn.
Dan Wood is a retired engineering and construction genius with his very own private auto shop. And he knows MGs—every lever shock, leaf spring, carb, cam and conrod ever used in the little cars. His current obsession is a slinky little 1970 MGB-GT in arrest-me red. It’s not stock, but it’s not far off. Upgrades include better shocks and brakes, some engine tuning, a rumbly exhaust, new wiring (of course) and a nice set of wheels and tires. It’s the kind of car that begs to be tossed through turns, to be driven with a combination of anger and glee.
Once you’re behind the wheel of the MGB GT you realize that the engineers at British Leyland knew what they were doing. The engine growls and pulls like an English bulldog. The steering is light and precise. The ride is smooth and body lean is minimal. The thing drives like an angry NA Miata. It’s a blast.
Bringing the little car to a halt, however, can be harrowing. Earlier GTs lacked power brakes, requiring Herculean effort to stop 220o-pound car in a hurry. It’s not that the brakes are bad. We’ve just grown weak on a diet of power brakes. Thankfully, power brakes can be added, giving weak-legged guys like me a much-needed boost.
Overall, the MGB GT is a pleasure to drive. It’s quick, nimble and smooth. It easily matches the NA Miata in the fun category and is more practical to boot. The little hatch hides quite a bit of storage space and the rear shelf/seat can accommodate a small child (just install proper seat belts and drive safely). In fact, I would say the MGB GT would make a fine daily driver.
What’s that? Reliability? Oh, yes. Reliability may be an issue.
MG maintenance is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. You just need to be involved, invested, maybe a little obsessed. These cars were made to be tinkered with, to be maintained by loving owners. Jeremy Clarkson once joked that MG owners enjoy getting oil under their fingernails more than driving. If you buy an MG, you better like wrenching. Fine-tuning carburetors and replacing worn wiring is part of the ownership experience and it creates a bond between car and owner.
Plus, MGs are easy to work on. We’re talking basic tech here and parts abound. An MG is fantastic car for someone who wants to learn about wrenching. And there are plenty of great teachers out there to help you learn.
I spent a weekend with Dan and a crew of other MG owners who drove their machines in from all over Oregon. The crew rallied around the hydraulic lift to scrutinize suspension bits and brake parts. The density of mechanical and automotive knowledge in that shop was at white dwarf levels. These guys know their stuff—and more. After the repairs and upgrades were complete, we talked cars, airplanes, boats, steam trains, tanks, WWII, computers and more late into the night. I mention this because these are the type of guys who own MGs and if you ever buy one, you’ll be invited to join the club. The community is a huge part of owning an MG and, in a word, it’s awesome.
So let’s talk price. Based on Craigslist, eBay and MG Experience browsing, nice MGB-GT drivers can be found for between $3,000 and $5,000. Restored MGB-GTs go for around $8,000.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the Miata. Nice NA Miatas can be had for the same price and they won’t require even a fraction of the wrenching. They’re faster, handle better and stop better. They’re incredibly fun cars. With such a plentiful supply of awesome Miatas out there, why would anyone buy an MGB GT?
If you’re asking that question, an MG is not for you. Yes, it makes more sense to buy a Miata. But Miatas do not have the same affect on the respiratory and nervous systems. They do not take your breath away. They do not make your ventricles ache. They do not create a happy chemical imbalance in your brain. Purchasing a classic car like the MGB GT does not make logical sense. But it does make emotional sense. And when it comes to cars, what matters more?