I can’t give you a really good reason why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the MGB a lot lately, partially because of a conversation last week about how MGBs never seem to get that expensive, and partially out of my own nostalgia, when MGBs seemed to be pretty much sprinkled all over the place in the general car-scape, seemingly appearing with about the same frequency as the melba toast things in Chex Mix. They stopped making them in 1980, but what I never realized were the peculiar — if half-assed — efforts made to continue making some kind of small MG-badged roadster.
In 1979, British Leyland announced it would be shutting down the MG factory at Abingdon that had been building MG sports cars since the 1920s. MG held a lot of historical and emotional cachet to a lot of people in the UK and abroad, and that value was not lost on savvy people like Alan Curtis, the chairman of Aston Martin at the time.
Curtis put together a sort of Aston Martin-backed consortium to attempt to buy the MG factory and the rights to the MGB, and part of the plan was to modernize the aging MGB a bit and keep it going.
To do this, Aston Martin got their famous designer William Towns (the man behind the Aston Martin DBS and the Aston Martin Lagonda, among others) to update the look of the MGB a bit and also gave it a new O-series engine, good for 115 horsepower, a nice jump from earlier B-series engines and especially the U..S.-market ones that were so hobbled by emissions standards they were more on par with a VW Beetle engine’s power of the era.
The redesign was pretty mild overall, but it was still significant. The very controversial integrated black bumper/grille of the 1974 and later MGBs was mitigated by replacing a small chrome grille over the (still black) bumper, and the black bumpers were integrated better visually by having the whole lower third of the car in black as well.
Also, if you look at the William Towns drawing up there, note the odd divided passenger compartment. Maybe William was concerned about the dangers of passenger-to-driver thigh touching and the result that could have on driver focus.
Honestly, I think it kind of worked, as the car does look a bit more modern. The windshield was replaced with the taller one from the MGB GT, giving some more headroom when the top was up, and the taillights got larger reverse and rear fog lamps in a pair of new units integrated into a new black rear panel.
For a quick refresh job, I think it worked pretty well and could have maybe made the old MGB competitive in the upcoming Miata era. Who knows?
It never actually happened, though, because after a lot of negotiation about getting the rights to the MGB and name, the Aston Martin consortium wasn’t able to come up with the money after all, and the deal died.
So, we never got this refreshed MGB. What’s also interesting, though, is that during negotiations, British Leyland was reluctant to part with the MGB name because they actually had their own plans to update the car, but they wanted to do it by basing it on the wedge-shaped Triumph TR7, which led to such bonkers re-styling ideas like these:
Wow. Just look at that! I mean, it’s sort of terrible, and I also sort of love it. I really like the Porsche 928/Lamborghini Muria-style flip-forward round headlamps, but what the hell is going on with that fake nose-grille? That’s not even an MG thing? And look at the shifter:
I’m not sure I can think of another car that used a thick, leather-coated cylinder as a shift knob? That’s weird, right? But, again, I don’t hate it.
They took another TR7-as-an-MG pass, too:
This one feels a bit lower-effort but more traditionally MG-focused, with that tiny, mustache-like MG grille jammed there on top of the bumper and very little else different beyond badging and an extra black-and-chrome trim panel around the taillights.
(Speaking of taillights, I think the TR7 was the first car to use the amber bulb behind a clear/frosted lens approach to rear turn indicators, but I need to research that further. Probably for another post at some point. It’s important.)
I kind of doubt those costumed TR7s would have saved the MG brand, but I like knowing that British Leyland at least sort of tried, however half-assed it was.
I do sort of miss the days when MGBs were common and cheap. No one expected them to be, you know, good, but they were unquestionably fun.
When they ran.