I have no idea how in the world this MG A came to a corner of my street in Bangkok. It looked like it materialized there from another dimension. Or was it a mirage? It looked like new. Or it would have, had any MGA actually looked like this back in the day. Still, catching any ‘50s car in the wild is worth a couple of snaps. And a few musings on the unlikely fate of MG…
MG made over 100,000 of these, so it’s no great sacrilege that this roadster was turned into a Le Mans replica. What is a little strange is that long headrest fairing, which doesn’t really belong there. There are other Le Mans replicas out there with this feature, but as far as I can tell, none were made by MG themselves.
These works MGAs, seen here on their way to the infamous 1955 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, look quite a lot better without these fairings. Yes, fairings look great on the D-Type Jag and other race cars, but this is an MG. Let’s keep it simple.
It puzzles me how MG became an automotive icon. After all, it’s the only surviving trace of Morris and BMC, so it must have had the strongest brand identity. Yet I find most of their cars – even the ones from the ‘30s – either too conservative or derivative. The saloons were all versions of Morris or BMC (or even Rover) cars with extra cheese and little else. The B/C and the Midget, pretty and cool in the ‘60s, didn’t age particularly well. And let’s not forget the quality/durability issues: I vividly remember seeing a late ‘90s MG F’s engine explode in front of me, right on a roundabout, circa 2010. Now that they’ve been revived again by the Chinese, I’m seeing uninspiring MG-badged cars on a daily basis. But the MGA is different.
The A followed in its outdated predecessor’s footsteps by coming out four years after it had been designed – as a 1951 Le Mans special. The car was the brainchild of English racer George Phillips, who used an MG TD chassis with a streamlined body by MG designer Syd Enever. As we can see above, the original effort was quite pretty, and to their credit, MG managed to make the production car remarkably similar to this first draft. I’d even say they improved upon the special’s looks. But basically, the production MGA was a Le Mans replica from the get go. Which makes our feature car a replica of a replica, in a way.
Sure, the MGA looked slightly passé when it debuted in 1955, but so did the majority of British cars, generally speaking. Domestically, the A did not sell very well – around 95% of the MGAs produced were exported, and the rest of the world (especially America and Continental Europe) lapped it up, despite a fair number of flaws and iffy build quality. BMC were laughing all the way to the bureau de change.
It’s anyone’s guess what engine lies behind this distinctive grille. The 1.6 litre twin cam versions were the most expensive and powerful of the bunch, but also have a very bad reputation for fragility. But there are no badges anywhere on the car, which should indicate a 1.5 litre car made between 1955 and 1959. If it still has its original engine and not a Nissan Diesel, of course.
This is probably the view I like best. At a time when each country had its own general idea of what dashboards ought to look like, the British take on the problem was always a strange mix of quirky features, completely random in their arrangement, ergonomics and logic, alongside a deep reverence for traditional (i.e. pre-war) aesthetics. None of that nonsense with this MGA, though. Painted dash (not exactly standard, but looks really good), simple four-gauge layout, short and sweet gearstick on the floor, handbrake right where you’d expect it – this car means business.
The plaque near the top of the dash read “A Le Mans 002 – 4 Speed Classic.” Thanks to the magic of the Internet, this allowed me to find the above photo of our feature car, which is used to illustrate Wikipedia’s Thai language entry for the term “Antique car.” There is also a Facebook page, but I don’t use FB. Perhaps someone in the CCommunity could investigate. If I find their physical address, I might pay them a visit – seems they have a lot of great stuff aside from that MG.
Even with this hunchback racecar malarkey, the MGA is still a joy to behold. The proportions are excellent, the car looks both well-planted on its tyres and ready to pounce, thanks to that dynamic fender line. The cockpit foregoes the traditional British roadster elbow dip, rendered unnecessary by the body’s sleek and low design.
Most MGs, as I said, don’t do much for me. The A is the big exception. Both the roadster and the odd-looking coupé are pretty high on my list of British ‘50s sports cars. It’s one of the greats, no doubt about it. Even this (to my eyes) slightly bastardized example was impossible to look away from. And although it’s not really my cup of tea, the Le Mans angle is fully justified, given the car’s genetics. To each their own, but I’d rather put the bumpers back on and remove that headrest. But leave the wire wheels and the green paint. Those really work.
Present-day MGs are only very distantly related to the MGA, but the magic of the logo has not completely vanished, despite an exceptionally turbulent history. Why are there still cars with the octagon around today? Exhibit [MG]A: Because they used to be really good. Exhibit [MG]B: Because they were really good for a really long time. Two consecutive hits – that never happened at BMC/BL, so it did create an “OMG factor” unique to one marque. That was enough to cement Morris Garages into the public’s mind as a cool, cheap and cheerful sports car. It’s a great trick, it still works and kudos to MG for pulling it off.