Everything about it seems wrong. It’s a front-engine, front-wheel drive family car with soft suspension and no power. And yet this little 1966 MG 1100 is one of the most entertaining cars I’ve ever driven.
(Full disclosure: friend of Jalopnik Jamie Kitman keeps a joyous collection of wonderful classic cars. He invited me to drive his recently-imported Peugeot 205 GTi, which I did and I wrote the experience up for Autoweek. While I was waiting for him to return from an appointment, he texted me and told me to take his MG 1100 around town to get a feel for it, too.)
This is an MG 1100. There’s not a ton of information to glean from that name, but it’s the evolutionary peak of the original Mini formula. MG was the sporty brand of then-growing British Motor Company (BMC) conglomerate, and the 1100 stands for the engine size in cubic centimeters.
This MG was designed by the great Sir Alec Issigonis and uses the same mechanical layout as the legendary original front-engine/front-drive Mini. The difference is this MG is built up in size to be a full family car. In addition to the bigger body, buyers got a bigger engine, front disc brakes, better trim and ultra-advanced hydrolastic suspension.
That suspension is the big draw for modern car nerds. You find something similar in today’s McLaren supercars. Basically, each front wheel was connected with its corresponding rear wheel, with the aim of keeping the car better planted on the pavement.
That might not sound extremely important today, but back in the ’60s, car reviewers didn’t talk about ‘handling.’ They literally discussed ‘roadholding.’ Having spent some time driving a couple different old Volkswagen Beetles, I can say that average suspension technology of the time was not always up to the task of keeping the wheels actually touching the road, if that helps contextualize anything.
When the MG 1100 debuted in ’62, the UK had finally pulled itself out of the rubble of World War II. You saw similar situations in Italy and the rest of Europe around this time, with car companies debuting bright and tech-forward designs. It was the first chance people had to buy a real, full-scale vehicle, not just some economy-minded microbox built out of old aircraft parts from a bombed-out factory. This was sort of a high-minded tech showcase for Britain back then.
That makes it kind of funny in today’s context, since it’s still a creaky little car physically. The whole thing, bumpers included, barely stretches past 12 feet long. Weight hovers around 1,800 pounds, plus or minus depending on how full the gas tank is.
The MG 1100 is and was a delightfully well-designed, much-appreciated car, and if you count its sales with Austin Morris badges (BMC loved badge-engineering), the car was one of Britain’s most popular cars until the early ’70s. Some 2.5 million of these things got built, 1.3 million of which went to Brits.
The problem was BMC wasn’t particularly good at being a functioning operation, and had a hard time putting its cars together reliably and a hard time making money off of the cars it built. Mismanagement and bad business did the little MG in, which adds a little tragedy to its smart engineering.
Again, in terms of mechanical layout, there’s not a ton that differentiates this ’60s MG with a 2010s Ford Fiesta. That just leaves a lot of mental room for all the other contrasts of what makes this MG’s design stand out so much today.
The doors are paper thin. The map pockets are only big enough to hold a single narrow book. The door cards are pinstriped. The seats are bathed blood red. The speedometer is a single sideways bar. The dashboard is an actual board.
Though the whole car is featherweight, along with its controls, lots of the little devices in the car have a strength in their action. The choke on the dash has good resistance to it. Little hinges are solid polished metal. Everything has a satisfying click.
If you’re curious about technical specs, I pulled these from the car’s glowing review in Autocar back in ’62:
- Engine: 1,098 cc A-series iron block, iron head, pushrod inline four
- Power: 55 HP at 5,500 RPM / 61 lb-ft at 2,500 RPM
- Transmission: four on the floor, aw yeah, with no synchro on first
- Drivetrain: front-wheel drive
- Dimensions: 12' 2.7" long, 5' 0.4" wide, 4' 4.7" tall
- Weight: 1,848 lb with half a tank
- 0-60 mph: 18.4 seconds
- Seating: six? (British people were tiny back then, you could do 12)
- MPG: 29 overall
- MSRP: £713 when new
The obvious thing becomes pretty apparent the moment you step in, turn the unbelievably tiny key (it’s like it’s for a charm box), and start driving around. No matter how obsessed with the details and the mechanical experience you are, the rest of the world just sees oh my goodness look at that adorable little car with the cute face. Lots of smiles and waves get exchanged.
The MG 1100 itself has a kind of dutiful attitude about it, also not really interested in any of your obsessions. It goes brumble brumble brumble down the road and doesn’t worry about much else.
As for that actual mechanical feel, the steering wheel is huge and unbelievably light, though the action of it is solid and clear. The gear lever is long and delicate, but not mushy or vague. The engine isn’t powerful, but its good low-down torque makes it feel strong pushing such a light car.
The 1100 is unbelievably spacious on the inside, tiny on the outside. It tricks you into thinking you’re driving a huge car, vast and airy. It operates, though, like a sports sedan in miniature. Other cars are gigantic and bulky, hogging lanes, cocooning drivers in cheap soft plastic.
The only thing about that is the MG doesn’t drive like a sports sedan you’re accustomed to, either. While there’s all the directness of something traditionally sporty, it’s a soft and almost gentle ride.
You end up with something with the same kind of purity of vision and feel that makes people completely and utterly lose their shit for vintage Porsches, only the MG concerns itself with being a comfortable way for carrying four to six human beings around a small country.
This kind of car, this kind of experience, doesn’t exist today. Cars that are this uncluttered and nicely put together are all super sports cars or hulking luxury rollers. Cars this roomy are absolutely huge and bulky. Cars this light and small are cheaply put together and dulled.
I wish there was something new that filled this role, sweet like blackberries still on the bush.