Curbside Classic: 1949 MG TC Midget – The Original British Invasion

MG might as well be a synonym for the word roadster. Sure, there were always MG saloons as well, but they were usually badge-engineered affairs. The marque’s real raison d’être was always to provide the Nuffield Group with a dash of open-air excitement – for a reasonable price. Until the Second World War, MGs were chiefly known in Britain and the Commonwealth. But then came the TC, and Morris Garages went global.

The Midget T-Series debuted in 1936 as an already dated-looking little roadster (a drophead coupé was also available) with a 50hp 1.3 litre engine from the Wolseley Ten. In mid-1939, this engine was replaced by a 1250cc Morris motor, producing 54hp – the model became known as the TB. Very few of these were made, as MG switched to war material production in the autumn. Almost as soon as peace returned in Europe, production resumed (as did advertising, as we can see above) with an almost identical car, now producing 54.5hp and bearing the name TC.

Interior space was a little more generous than in pre-war models, as the cockpit was widened at the expense of the running boards, but the car’s overall external measurements stayed the same. As did the construction, which kept the tried and trusted steel panels over ash wood frames. It looked like it had been designed in 1930, and that was not an issue in the slightest.

Unlike the Morgan 4/4 we saw recently, the MG’s little chassis was just as old-fashioned as its body, with (stiffly) leaf-sprung rigid axles at both ends. At least the brakes were hydraulic, which is not something that could be said of all British cars at the time.

The 1250cc engine, mated to a 4-speed manual, is perhaps not the most powerful thing in the world, but with only 850kg of car to propel forward, it’s gutsy enough to make the MG a lively little number. Speaking of which, numbers do not really tell the full story on the car’s performance: 0 to 60 mph takes over 22 seconds and top speed is about 75mph. But when you’re inches off the ground, with the wind in your hair and every single bump is communicated directly to your tailbone, the MG TC feels, as most contemporary testers usually call it, “quite spirited.”

The MG is almost the perfect antithesis of an American car, which may be the reason why it became one of the British car industry’s surprise hits. Not content with shipping these by the boatload to places like Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, MG started selling a lot of these to GIs stationed in the UK, who then brought them back across the pond. Soon, these were being imported to the States in quantities never seen before the war – and they sold like hotcakes, because not only were they fun and exotic, but they were great performers on the track.

Against all odds and logic, MG snapped into inaction by never proposing a LHD variant to facilitate their fast-selling roadster’s newfound American stardom. Perhaps it was felt that this mattered little and that, given the MG works were making as many TCs as they realistically could anyway, this could be rectified when the successor model would be launched.

Another holdover was the dash’s symmetrical layout, which one would have thought meant these would have been planned as both LHD and RHD to begin with. But they were not. The same layout was used on larger pre-war MGs, so the T-Type got this in inheritance, more than anything. The issue many owners had with this layout was that the speedo, being all the way on the passenger side, was tricky to read properly – just one of a myriad of ergonomic quirks that made these MGs so endearingly infuriating.

The aftermarket wheel in this one is noticeably smaller than the truck-sized item that the car came with originally. Operating the pedals is also said to be best done without shoes, to avoid pressing two at the same time. And anyone over six feet tall will apparently have problems just fitting in this tiny cockpit, no matter what seat they pick.

This did not matter, because nobody bought an MG TC for comfort. They were bought because they looked amusingly old-fashioned, yet could be chucked about Watkins Glen for hours at max speed without ever breaking down. Plus, the engine could be pretty easily coaxed to produce over 90hp, and the car could be made lighter, turning the MG into a very decent performer.

Pre-war T-Types (TA and TB) sold well enough, but MG still only shifted about 3500 units between 1936 and late 1939. The TC, sold between 1945 and 1949, garnered 10,000 sales, of which 20% was exported to the United States. Paltry numbers, but this type of car was almost completely absent from that market in the ‘30s, and Britain had quite a few other sporty drop-tops to offer their car-hungry cousins over the ocean. And thus the invasion began – Jaguar, Sunbeam, Triumph, Morgan, Healey and many others followed MG’s lead, pushed by a British government whose motto was “Export or die.”

And if there are still cars bearing the octagon today, even though they’re produced in China, it’s due in large part to the TC’s unexpected success, both at home and abroad. Midget by name and by nature, but giant by legacy.