Spring is coming, and so your thoughts are turning to a sports car, obviously. May be there’s one waiting in the garage for The Great Awakening, or may be you’re now taking the first steps into the sports car/CC experience. But which to choose? A roadster? Ancient or modern? Let’s look at two of the options.
In the modern corner, the MG TF 135 and in the ancient corner, a 1965 MGB roadster, previously seen on CC of course. There are some major differences, but also some very striking similarities.
Both cars were built by MG, obviousliy, one from 2002 to 2005 and one from 1962 to 1980. Both cars feature 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engines, borrowed from contemporary mainstream BMC or Austin-Rover saloons, driving the rear wheels. Length, width and height are pretty close – the newer car is 2 inches longer, a fraction of an inch taller, has a 2 inch longer wheelbase and is about 4 inches wider. The newer car is around 20% heavier, at 2400lb at the curb, much of which will be due to either additional creature comforts or passive safety equipment.
The MGB was, maybe still is, the archetypical British roadster. It was built around BMC components, notably from the 1958 BMC Farina saloons, best known for the Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge. Being linked back to a Morris saloon makes it a typical MG, of course. Power came from the 1.8 litre B series engine, later seen in the Austin 1800 and Morris Marina, driving through a four speed gearbox, often fitted with overdrive. The rear suspension was basic leaf springs, the front by coil springs and wishbones. The styling was completed in house, but a link to the BMC saloons and their Pininfarina style can be seen. Production lasted until 1980, when the historic MG factory at Abingdon closed, and, in all, over half a million were built, including the attractive MG BGT coupe version.
The MG TF (reprising a famous old name of course) was a development of the 1995 MGF, the first new MG roadster for over 30 years. The MGF came as part of the Rover Group’s almost golden period of the early 1990s. You may not always look at it that way, but from 1989, Rover had given us the 200 series hatchback, the related 400 series saloon and the larger 600 series saloon, all based on Honda platforms, the full size (for Europe) 800 series (aka Sterling 825) was still doing reasonable numbers and had had a classy restyle (coming soon to CC), the Austin Metro had been transformed into a Rover by the K series engine, Land-Rover were leading the European SUV market with the first and very capable Discovery and there was a new Range-Rover as well. All in all, it was the most attractive, balanced and competitive product range the business had had, for well, at least 30 years and maybe since before the BMC merger in 1952. It was doing well enough to be attract BMW to buy it, after all.
By 1995, of course, the sports car had been restored to its place following the diversions of the 1970s – exemplified by cars like the Triumph TR7 and Fiat X1/9 with their roll-over proof styling and roof configurations. Open cars were back, and MG needed to be there. Of course, an MG roadster would have to share as much as possible with its saloon counterparts, the market would probably prefer rear wheel drive, and, of course, the Rover family only had front wheel drive, transverse engined platforms to work with.
Rover therefore did the obvious thing, and took the drivetrains from the Rover 218 and placed it, transversely, in a mid engined position, driving the rear wheels, through a five speed gearbox. Suspension, for the MGF was, of all the configurations you might imagine, the Rover Metro’s Hydragas system. The front and rear subframes were in fact modified Metro items, effectively making this car was the last gasp of the Issigonis/Moulton Hydragas system, working through the Metro’s unequal wishbone geometry, supplemented by conventional dampers.
A tidy, compact body by Gerry McGovern (now Director of Design at Land-Rover) with a folding roof by Pininfarina completed the package. The engine was a 1.8 litre version of the K series twin OHC 16 valve four cylinder, including an option with variable valve timing, which was one of the first European examples of variable valve timing.
The car was capable of around 120 mph, and 0-60 in 9.2 seconds. In Britain, at least, the press reaction was broadly positive, with the caveat that the car was a little “softer” than perhaps the MGB had been 30 years earlier.
Disappointingly for MG, the car wasn’t to be sold in America – accounts differ over whether this was a decision by BMW to avoid conflict with the new BMW Z3 or whether Rover understood they did not have either the distribution network or the resources to meet American emissions and safety standards. But you can make a pretty good guess – this car’s development pre-dated the BMW takeover and BMW were still giving Rover significant autonomy in 1944 and 1995. Remember, also that Rover’s marketing and PR people wouldn’t let the Company’s directors tell the media how much it had cost to develop the MGF, because it had been done on an absolute shoestring, and you can probably make a guess.
The MGF was built at Longbridge, Birmingham, not MG’s traditional home at Abingdon, alongside the Rover saloons and hatchbacks whose engine it shared and sold respectably, predominantly in the UK and other traditional British sports car markets, such as Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Mainland Europe sales were not substantial. Total sales were around 75,000 in 7 years, a rate that the MGB had easily beaten.
BMW passed MG-Rover to a management buy-in team in April 2000, and just two years later a significantly revised car, known as the MG TF, was launched. The key difference was the use of conventional springs and dampers in pace of the Hydragas units, with a substantial stiffening up of the suspension settings, effectively addressing the “too soft” point. One factor in this change was that the MG was by then the only car in the Rover stable using Hydragas, and unit production costs were therefore rising sharply. Sharper steering, stronger brakes and wider tyres added to this evolution. A new nose and headlights, a revised rear quarter, rear deck and rocker panel completed the make over.
The new MG-Rover company eventually failed in 2005, and production of all the cars in the UK appeared to have finished. The feature car was actually registered in 2006, as stocks were sold (there are even some 2007 and even 2008 registrations around). Beyond 2005, the assets of MG-Rover were purchased by Nanjing of China, now part of SAIC. SAIC resumed final assembly of the car, then known as the MG TF LE500, in 2008 and around 500 were sold before the curtain finally came down in 2011.
The MG F and TF are fully accepted into the MG enthusiast community, and make appearances at classic shows and MG events on good numbers, often alongside older cars. As an example of an attractive car assembled from the available component sets it had much in common with the MGB; similarities are clear.
The cars had the same size engines (in fact, the bore and stroke dimensions of the new were within 1mm of the old), the dimensions were close, and the accommodation was comparable. The performance of the newer car was stronger, unsurprisingly, the road behaviour undeniably better, even after allowing for generally improved standards, and Pininfarina had an influence, at least, on both.
But also, the quality was still not there – the K series engine was notorious for head gasket failure, the MG F still leaked and the interior was certainly built down to a price.
And there are differences too; in contrast to the MGF’s twin OHC 4 valve per cylinder configuration, the MGB had a plodding OHV valve engine borrowed from a dull saloon, albeit with twin carburettors. It gave its maximum torque at 3000 rpm, the variable valve MGF revved to 7000 rpm and gave 40% more power, and had significantly better handling and (very good in fact) roadholding.
But perhaps the MGF’s biggest problem was not the contrast with the MGB or the mid engined configuration, or even the slightly characterless original styling, but something else, something that can be seen in the background in some of these photographs. The Mazda MX-5 (Miata) came to Britain in 1990, and quickly showed that roadsters do not need to be British to be popular. The cars were sold for very comparable prices, and the accommodation was similar, although the Mazda had the advantage of a larger boot. The Mazda had Japanese reliability and a leak free hood. Crucially, it also had a sharper driving experience, which MG aimed to match with the MG TF.
So, ancient or modern, take your pick and enjoy – I’d back either as a first classic – but for a daily driver, it’s got to be the MX-5.