Curbside Classic: MG TD – I Was Retro Before Retro Was Cool

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(first posted 8/1/2012)   The early post-war MGs are typically described as the iconic sports car; the granddaddy of the genre in this country. There’s some truth to that, but not nearly as much as is often attributed to them. Certainly, they were the first affordable import sports car to really catch the public’s eye, imagination and pocketbook, and were a gateway drug that led to the massive 1950’s sports car and import boom which revolutionized the American car industry. But the prize that the MG TD can really claim was perhaps dubious: it was the first popular retro car.

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Now that  was presumably unintentional. The Brits in 1950 weren’t exactly in the frame of mind to do retro in the way we think of it now. They were struggling to muster the gumption to break out of the moldy molds that they created for their cars a quarter century earlier; one that felt as comfortable to them as a thread-bare Harris tweed jacket and cap. How about half-way measures; will that do? So although the TD was graced with an all-new chassis for 1950, its body had 1928 written all over it. But we’re getting ahead of the story; let’s consider the MG’s rep for being the proto-sports car.

That was hardly a British invention. There were production sports cars built in this country too, going back to the 1910 Mercer 35 at least. The key difference in the pre-war era was that most of them were pricy, the toys of the rich.

No wonder that there was such a substantial market for modifying Ford Model Ts and such, going way back. OHV and OHC cylinder heads, auxiliary gear boxes, front brakes, chassis drops and more; to build anything from a hotter street car to an Indy-capable racer; and all by mail order. The high quality of the T’s components made it the perfect blank slate; it’s just that they were called Speedsters, not sports cars.

And rightfully, many of the home-built and small-scale production Speedsters and hot rods from the twenties right into the fifties had genuine sports car ambitions, before the drag-inspired tiny front-tire, giant rear-tire look predominated, and hot rods abandoned any pretense of road-going handling. These “rods” from 1950 were about going fast, both on Mulholland Drive as well as at the strip. Americans had been building their own sports cars for decades.

World War II played a huge role in the massive changes shortly thereafter. GIs were exposed to European cars on a large scale for the first time ever, and many were smitten and bitten, especially by the British sports cars, most of all the MG. Here was a car that was a perfect reflection of its times and place: the sportsman or gentleman’s toy from the twenties, when MG got its start with Cecil Kimber’s designs for sporting cars based on Morris sedan mechanicals. They quickly took off, a way for the young gentleman whose daddy wouldn’t let him have (or afford) a blower Bentley to enjoy perhaps the most important benefit of all sports cars: date bait.

Their petite size, narrow track and precise steering were a reflection of the winding British roads of the times. Motorways were as common as high-revving short-stroke engines. Not really designed for American conditions, but their nimbleness in tight corners and steering feel were something that home-brew speedsters just didn’t quite offer.

That’s not to say that MG didn’t earn at least some of its reputation honestly. The Midgets were aptly named, in terms of their actual performance. But there were serious MGs too, none more so than the Magnette K3 (1933-1934). With a cross-flow OHC head and supercharger, it made a whopping 120 hp from 1100cc. But these were not the English garden-variety MG.

What Americans were exposed to, and what some brought home as tokens of their time spent in England (if they were that lucky) was the T-Series MG. It appeared in 1936, as a natural evolution of the Midget line, but lacking the serious go-fast stuff of the Magnette. Its OHV, siamesed-port four did sport remarkable bore and stroke dimension: 2.5″ x 4.0″. Is that a record for being undersquare? It does explain its power peak of 4500 rpm, where it churned out 50 hp. But that sound from its throbbing exhaust…

It was succeeded by the very similar TB and TC, the last of the “classic” MGs. Nineteen inch wire wheels, and an almost equally-big wood steering wheel poking one in the chest. The TC captured the heart and imagination of two new classes of American sports car owner: the genuine enthusiast, who took their cars to sporting events on the weekends, and the genuine enthusiast poseur, who bought in on the hot new thing.


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Like my father-in-law, who bought a TD (the TC’s successor) in 1952, which replaced his 1939 Ford. Just the thing for the only car of a soon-to-be family man living in Mill Valley, CA. His biography reads like a time-line for every major cultural fad to hit California: sports cars, the beat scene, a degree (and professorship) in English Lit, drugs, anti-war protests, a family “vacation” to Monetery Pop 1967, following Maharishi in Europe, followed by a series of other gurus and spiritual pursuits, leading to the CNBC era. Stephanie had a memorable and colorful childhood, starting with the TD.  I did a post of all of his cars here, since he bought and sold almost annually, but the last was a gen1 Prius. MG TD to Prius; and quite the journey in between. And both conveniently represented here.

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Stephanie remembers riding in it, and her Mom has quite the story about the driving instructor who taught her to drive it. He was a big, burly off-duty cop, and the night he showed up for her first lesson it was dumping rain.

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Between the dim lights and the leaky top, he almost refused to get in it, and told her she was good to go after one brief lesson. Not everyone was smitten by MG fever.

As “traditional” as the TD may look to us, it was greeted with considerable disdain by the hard-core tweed cap set: “No more leaf-sprung solid front axle! And left-hand drive! And where are the wire wheels? Heresy!” The TD was the first really new MG in way too long, and sat on a modified frame and other kit borrowed from the Y-type sedan. It was wider, lower, and had independent front suspension. Its ride was decidedly softer than the bone-jarring TC, although on a relative scale, not absolute.

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The TD Midget still had the TC’s drivetrain, though, so in that regard it was still re-enacting the twenties very faithfully. Strictly speaking, the XPAG engine, which appeared with the TB, was a (shirt)hair more modern: it now had bore and stroke dimensions of 2.6″ x 3.5″. And its redline was now 5200 rpm. Progress!

As installed in the TD, the 1250 cc mill was rated at 54.5 hp (every fraction counts), and 57 hp in the later high-compression (8.0:1) Mk ll. But since the TD added some weight along with its softer ride, it was no faster than the TC. And many said less fun to drive. Zero to sixty times were quoted in the 18 to 22 second range. A 1950 Ford V8 sedan took 17-18 seconds for the same sprint. Top speed? 75, maybe 77 after a really good tune-up.

In other words, a few mph faster than a VW Beetle, which was starting to really take off when the TD was wrapping up its stint in 1953. With a Judson supercharger installed, a VW would walk away from a TD, seat four in relative comfort, and still cost less. And with some rear negative camber dialed in, like this ’55, probably out-corner it too.

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The greatest asset of the MG? It always felt like you were going twice as fast, so who cared if you couldn’t keep up with a VW or Grandpa’s Ford sedan on a straightaway? And when the road got twisty, the TD’s rack and pinion steering generated something that Americans had never experienced before: tight, accurate and with the right amount of feedback through the big wheel.

Most of all, it was (is) just the whole elbows-out open-top wind-in-the hair experience. That was undoubtedly the MG’s greatest asset, and highly addictive. MG’s were fair-weather friends. And Miata drivers are still re-enacting the MG experience (the good parts).

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Now, the hard-core MG Mitten wearers might have have felt that the longer, lower, wider, softer TD was heresy; in reality, its retro-before-retro-was-cool design was way too conservative, and soon put MG on the defensive. Although the MG TD is the popular icon of the post-war sports car, it was the Jaguar XK 120 that totally revolutionized and re-defined the genre.

It arrived in 1949, just a year before the MG TD arrived, and the world was never the same. Yes, it cost twice as much ($4,000 vs $2,000), which hardly made it workingman-affordable. And it wasn’t just its overwhelming performance (120 mph, hence the name); although that did make it the fastest production car at the time. But its sleek body became the very model of the modern sports car, and for the next decade or so, it was the most imitated.

The great fiberglass boom coincided with the arrival of  the XK120, and a generation of kids — including eighteen-year old future GM designer Wayne Kady here — mastered the black art of making smooth curves on the farm or in the driveway to adorn old Ford frames and such. You didn’t see them imitating the MG TD.

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The TD was a living fossil the day it arrived, a retro-mobile at a time when most folks really wanted something new, fresh and futuristic. That’s not to say it wasn’t popular; some 30,ooo TDs were sold in its four-year run, the most for any MG model by far, up to that point. And only 1656 of them stayed home, the rest all exported, most to the US. The Brits were under severe pressure to generate hard currency to pay off their mountain of war-time debts. All the more reason to wonder about the decision to make the TD look so 1920s. Maybe they were just ahead of their time, instead behind.

It bristled with twenties design and mechanical solutions, which were either endearing or infuriating. Its positive-ground Lucas electrical system always fell into the latter category.

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Body panels were steel over wood frames; the only question was which element would rot first? I wasn’t around in 1950, so I can’t tell you if folks were smitten by it being so different or retro, whether any MG was just cool, or whether it was just the price to pay for the privilege of a store-bought sports car that was relatively affordable (about 25% more than a 1950 Ford sedan). Probably all of the above, depending on who was writing the check.

The week-end racing crowd may not have cared all that much; MGs were a known quantity, and speeds mostly weren’t that fast on the typical course. Here a TC (left) and TD (right) bring up the rear.

There was an internal battle at BMC about the future of the MG. Already in 1952, a very modern XK 120 – inspired prototype was built, but BMC Chairman Leonard Lord turned it down. Instead, the TD got a face lift, in the form of the 1953 TF: faired in headlights, but little else, except for a bigger 1500 cc engine in its second series. It didn’t work; and sales drooped.

Triumph TR2

By 1953, the year the Corvette and the Triumph TR2 appeared, the TD certainly wasn’t modern enough for most, and possibly not classical enough for a shrinking few, who would soon switch allegiance to Morgan anyway. Lord had to change his mind, the prototype was resurrected, and quickly developed into the MGA. But that’s another chapter.

Whereas the XK 120’s sleek lines set the pattern for sports-car design in the fifties, it wasn’t long before the irresistibly-cute classic MG came back in the public’s imagination. By 1968, at a time when when retro was just coming back into favor, the MG TD inspired one of the first neo-retro production cars ever, the 1968 Siata Spring. Built (ironically) on a rear-engine Fiat 850 chassis, it soon triggered an avalanche of MG kit cars.

Equally ironic, most of these fiberglass kits sat on VW platforms; the ultimate marriage of the two most iconic cars of their times. They probably rode better then the original, and were probably more reliable, but it was an odd pairing nevertheless. The sports car was coming full-circle, but not in the usual way. The DIY bunch once created genuine sports cars in the garage or driveway for maximum performance; now they were building cute little buggies to ride around in and be seen in. Or was it to fulfill an old dream that died when a wife and kids cooled the first bout of MG fever? More sensible folks didn’t even try to haul a family of three in a TD.

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Sensible; what’s that got to do with an MG TD? Nothing.


Related reading:

CC 1958 MGA – The Almost Great Leap Forward