Auto-Biography: 1968 MGB GT – No Dream Car

I once met a girl in a complicated and unfulffilling dream. But it was so vivid, that for years afterward, I had trouble remembering whether she had been a real girlfriend or a figment of my nocturnal imagination. Stumbling across this 1967 MGB-GT brings up the same confusion: did I actually own an identical “B”, or was it too just a dream?

If dreams are projections of our desires, the MG certainly fit that. Of course, I lusted after all kinds of cars as a kid, but the hunger for MG’s increased palpably after my older brother bought an MGA during his college years. I duly observed (and documented) his valiant but ultimately futile efforts fighting the triple dragons of rust, Lucas electrics and every other possible permutation of perpetual non-motion. His losing battle gave my MG desires pause, but then pauses by nature are transitory.

Anyway, my MG dreams were always for a B. Yes, a pristine A is cute and seductive, but after that curvaceous body inevitably rusts away, one confronts a frame, suspension and mechanicals only barely changed from its roaring twenties-evoking predecessors. The MGA was “transitionary”; but with the B, MG finally, sort of, entered the modern world, leaving Morgan to the died-in-castor-oil traditionalists.

Up until the B, the classic English approach to sports car design was a flexible-flyer ladder frame and very stiff suspension. Unintentionally (I presume), the frame functioned as a major suspension component. It was the exact opposite of the Porsche (or Lotus) approach. And it was not conducive to precise (or predictable) handling over anything but smooth roads. Fun, in a go-cart sort of way, but then go-carts usually stick to smooth tracks.

The semi-revolutionary B introduced a semi-stiff unibody, somewhat  softer suspension (“heresy!”), a bigger engine, and disc brakes. But the icing on the cake was the styling. Rarely has a car achieved such timeless good looks. Good thing too, since the MGB stayed in production for almost twenty years—and then briefly resurrected as the mangled RV8 in 1993.

Sadly, the B got progressively uglier as time went on, until it was an abomination sporting giant black rubber bumpers, riding on stilts (jacked-up suspension), and with all of 79 (!) horsepower. At least in America; or is it the least?

Back in Britannia, the faithful were enjoying the MGB-GT V8, the ultimate B. Thanks to the “special relationship,” the MG finally had the engine it always deserved. The ex-Buick Rover V8 even weighed sixty pounds less than the stalwart 1.8-liter four. How (non-ferrous) ironic is that? The 3.5 V8 gave a new (lend)lease on life to a whole gaggle of rapidly aging English cars.

The MGB’s old-school B-block four had been its biggest liability, lusty torque aside. The long-stroke chuffer was more suitable for agricultural work, due to its poorly breathing cylinder head with siamesed ports.

At least it finally got five main bearings in 1965, and by 1967, a proper fully-synchronized transmission backed it up. That makes the ’67 the golden year for Americanized B’s. By 1968, the terminal decline due to safety and smog controls was already underway.

The real seed of my MGB-GT lust was the exquisiteness of Pininfarina’s deft hand. That roofline created a perfect wholeness to the B’s already good looks. I was already an avid collector of the Italian master’s work, in the form of numerous Peugeot 404s and a 403.

We were living in an apartment in Santa Monica with a gaggle of Peugeots, some of which were self-propelled, whereas others relied on foot power to move them each week for the street cleaner. The immovable 403 sat in our one garage parking space. But through some quirk, another space opened up. Time for a new addition to the fleet!

The late seventies in Southern California was a nirvana for young men with car lust. Every conceivable aging sports car or exotic was just waiting to be plucked (cheaply) from the weekend LA Times classifieds, the craigslist of the times. The back lot behind the tv station was a resurrection facility/dumping ground for all sorts of exotica. One of my more ambitious co-workers picked up a well-seasoned Aston DB-2 for small change. The fact that it was utterly rotten (not rusty though) had little to do with diminishing  our youthful dreams. How hard can it be? (too hard, in the case of the A-M).

They might all have be afflicted with endless mechanical challenges, but rust, at least, wasn’t one of them,thanks to the climate. Maybe that’s what kept us going. Nothing like a fully-intact 25 year old English or Italian sports car body to keep spirits high. Or was it the spirits that kept us high?

And so one Saturday morning, instead of taking a mind-clearing run on the beach eight blocks away, I was seduced by that fat wad of paper, opened it the classifieds, and stumbled upon a 1967 MGB-GT in need of a valve job. Its seller was obviously a slightly older and wiser young man getting rid of his one-third finished project. It ran just enough to limp home on two and a half cylinders. And there it sat, and sat, and . . . sat. Bad timing: right after I got it, I received a double promotion: to fatherhood and management.

A couple of years later, I had to get rid of it because we were moving. I had a (younger, dumber and single) buyer, but the deal was for a running car (maybe he wasn’t quite so dumb after all). I finally took the cylinder head to the machine shop, put things back together, it started right up and ran well enough. It’s not like it was an Aston Martin, thankfully! But I did ask myself why I didn’t do these two years earlier. The moment I had been imagining for so long finally arrived: I got in and drove it to his house. Only then did I realize that my six foot-four frame was not a size B, and the noisy and rough drive otherwise was rather underwhelming. I was happy enough to wake up and know that the dream was over.

Postscript: this car is a daily driver owned by a woman who lives a few blocks from me. She’s rather petite. And she’s proven that’s it’s easy enough to keep a B going.