(First Posted August 13, 2013) The MG Midget was quite possibly the simplest car manufactured in the Western world in the 1970s. It dated from 1961, and was somewhat outdated even then.
Its original simplicity can be summarized in a brief review of the specifications: OHV engine (dating back to 1948), quarter- elliptic rear-spring rear suspension, no external door handles, plastic side screens–even a heater was optional.
It was a development of the famous and fondly remembered 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite, which was known, for obvious reasons as the Frogeye in the UK and the Bugeye in North America. Originally, BMC wanted a form of pop-up lights, similar to the Porsche 928, until they saw the cost. The result was the fixed headlights that gave it its name. The engine was a version of the BMC A-series used in the Austin A35, A40 and Morris Minor; a 948cc (57 cu in) four- cylinder OHV with all of 46 bhp. Top speed was 85 mph, and 0-60 took around 18 seconds. For engine access, the entire front of the car was front-hinged, similar to an E-type Jaguar or Triumph Herald; the luggage was loaded into the boot from inside the car. The wheelbase was 80 inches, identical to the very different and contemporary Mini.
In 1961, BMC took the central section, and then fitted out a conventional bonnet (hood) and front wings arrangement and a boot (trunk) lid at the back. Suspension was via double-wishbone and coil springs up front, where the upper wishbone was provided by the lever arms of the dampers. The original Frogeye recirculating-ball steering was replaced by a rack-and-pinion setup from the Morris Minor. The Minor also donated the hydraulically-operated rear brakes, although the rear axle came from the baby Austin. The axle was mounted on stiff quarter-elliptical springs controlled by lever-arm dampers.
Evolution of the Spridgets (the Midget and its badge-engineered twin, the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk 2) was gentle – BMC gradually added larger engines, the quarter-elliptics were changed to semi-elliptic leaf springs in 1964, external door handles and roll-up windows (1964), and a change in the shape of the rear wheel arch from square to round (in 1972), and then back again (1974), when the infamous black bumpers were added to meet U.S. regulations. The ride height was raised at the same time, to the detriment of handling.
The A-series engine was eventually replaced by the 1,493cc OHV four-cylinder engine and gearbox from the Triumph Spitfire in . The engine was modestly tuned to provide around 65 bhp in UK trim (always modestly, since BLMC had to keep the low-cost Midget from being able to outrun the larger and more expensive MG B. In the U.S., Midgets of this era offered perhaps less than 50 bhp due to the toll taken by emissions controls. U.K. market cars could just make 100 mph.
The interior was always as simple as you’d expect in such a car of the period–black plastic is the most significant material–and quite narrow, so it was cramped in the extreme. In fact, the Midget was more than a foot narrower than a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Production finally ended in 1979, although a few were registered in the U.K. in 1980. A total of around 225,000 were made, about half as many as the larger, faster and more capable MGB.
I saw this example on a street in Sheffield–the traditional home of both British steel making and the best cutlery in the world (my Grandfather was a toolmaker there)–in northern England. This one shows many signs of being a well-used but still active vehicle (it is taxed, and protected by an anti-theft clamp on the steering wheel). It’s a 1976 model with the 1,493cc engine, added spotlights and some very faded red paintwork, but otherwise it looks complete. The hood appears to be in pretty good condition, which may signal the beginning of a recovery.
But the big question, as always with BLMC, is why it was still being made in 1980, 19 years after it was launched. Its only competition was another old, small BLMC sports car, the Triumph Spitfire. Nonetheless, my thanks to whomever is responsible for brightening my day with it!