(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sensible; what’s that got to do with an MG TD? Nothing.
CC 1958 MGA – The Almost Great Leap Forward
Mill Valley in 1952? Ask her if the location “Druid Heights” means anything to her. I lived very close for years, and my oldest friend was born and raised there.
It’s worth pointing out that the extremely undersquare engines were a reaction to the tax on cars being applied according to the RAC hp rating, which was calculated from the total piston area. For a while you would see a car being described as a 16/60 for example – that was 16 RAC hp and 60 actual horsepower output. Naturally when this system was put in there was a tendency to reduce the taxable hp rating and thus the annual running cost of the car, which led to tiny bore diameters and incredibly long strokes. It took quite a while for this habit to work its way out BMC in particular.
John is quite right, and I’d add that the difference could be significant. The old formula was £1 per RAC horsepower per year, so the 16 hp car he mentions would cost £16 per year — equivalent to $80 then, more than $1,000 today. An 8 hp car like the Ford Model Y would cost only half that, so you can see how that would be an important consideration for new car buyers.
Incidentally, I believe one major rationale for the original formula was that it would forestall a major U.S. invasion. A Model T Ford, for example, was rated 22.5 hp under the RAC formula, which made it rather expensive to own in the U.K. regardless of initial purchase price.
I don’t recall when the U.K. changed the formula, although it was certainly by the end of World War II. However, British automakers had invested heavily in tooling for long-stroke engines, and so a change in practice took quite a long time.
They finally ditched the RAC hp rating for taxation in 1947, although some manufacturers still used the number in their model names for a decade or more.
Vauxhall 6s of the early 50s were still RAC rated 23hp and 12hp for the 4 cylinder Wyvern both engines were replaced with shorter stroke motors in 54.
Nice. Very nice. There were a couple of these TDs in and around my neighborhood when growing up and I always wanted one just because they oozed with style and character. I’m sure they oozed their share of various fluids, too!
The ones I saw were either red or green…
Curiously, the Siata Spring above closely resembles the first Jeepsters!
“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.”
Or possibly the answer’s right under our noses there: cost! Why spend scarce funds on new styling, and new steel presses if you can keep using the body mouldings from 20 years ago.
This is total conjecture of course – I have no idea if the panels from a TA fit a TD (does anyone else know?) but I’ve always assumed the fossilised look of the immediate post-war MGs (and immediate post-war British cars generally) was a direct result of the country being so badly in debt after the war: there was no money for new designs.
Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. MG was not an independent company by then: until 1952 it was part of the Nuffield Organisation (formed in 1935 of Morris, Riley, MG, and Wolseley) and from then on BMC. However, the Nuffield Organisation had a great many fish to fry with what money it did have, and for the most part the corporation didn’t consider sports cars a very high priority. I think the TC actually sold a little better than the Y-type sedan, but Nuffield and later BMC tended to assume that sedans were the bread-and-butter products and sports cars an afterthought. Also, sports cars had meant racing or at least an association with racing, which was something of which Lord Nuffield no longer particularly approved.
Since these cars were still body on frame, the tooling costs of styling changes were probably not terribly high, but with such reluctance to spend money on the sports cars, I suspect that the prospect of styling changes AND a new chassis AND other mechanical updates would have pushed the bill into the realm of discomfort.
No, the panels were not interchangeable. But as AWM points out, it was undoubtedly cheaper to stick with a familiar approach to body-building than tool up for the large steel pressings a more modern body would have required.
Which is a consideration that seems to have affected the MG saloons, as well as the sports cars. The Y-type still had separate fenders and headlamps at a time when that was becoming rather old-fashioned (and even though Morris’ postwar saloons had gone to the more modern shape).
AWM – My third grade teacher in small town midwest had a 1957 MG Magnette ZB sedan that was a year or so old at the time. All I recall is that her husband had purchased it new and died shortly thereafter. A rare vehicle in that time and place though no doubt related to the fact that there was a dealer (the famous S.H. Arnolt) in the county seat that sold and serviced imported cars, including MG (and the Arnolt-MG and Arnolt Bristol). Although old-fashioned in appearance, the Magnette also seemed pretty cool and classy to me as a kid, a little like the Jaguar saloons. Would love to know more about the Magnette – have you written it up for your site?
I haven’t done the saloons, just the MGB and MGC.
The ZA and ZB Magnettes shared a body with the Wolseley 4/44 but the latter was powered by the XPAG MG engine, the MG Magnette got a twin carb 1500cc B series BMC motor.
One of these, then.
FWIU the Y-Type had been prepared for a 1940 launch which was scrubbed because of the war; it finally made production in 1947, a scant year or so before the really new postwar Morris and Wolseley models.
More than the Jaguar I’d say the Triumph TR2 was the catalyst for MG modernizing with the MG A. The TR2 may have been a bit homely and offered superior performance for a cheaper price.
Yes, but in a roundabout way, since the TR 2’s styling was undoubtedly also influenced by the XK 120.
MG management had very much wanted to modernize sooner than they did: they proposed a car much like the MG A in shape as early as 1952. However, Leonard Lord vetoed it that October because he’d just made a deal with Donald Healey and didn’t see a reason BMC should invest in two new sports cars. Even before the TR2 debuted, John Thornley realized that if MG didn’t modernize quickly they would be pasted by newer rivals, which is exactly what happened.
My father had a TD. Some of my earliest memories are of riding in that car. Dad had to sell it not long after my brother was born. There just was no way a family of four could manage with two cars, one of which only held two people. I don’t think he ever really got over having to sell that car.
He told me stories of having to fix lots of things lots of times on his MG. Once he had a rod bearing go out while on the road. He pulled the oil pan, cut up the leather belt he was wearing, and used a piece of his belt as a bearing. It got him home.
Sometimes we don’t realize just how great our cars are today. Back then it was almost the Stone Age, automotively speaking.
The wire wheels on his MG had an arrow and the words “Undo” on the hub so that you knew which way to turn the hub when changing a tire. Dad’s friends used to ask him what kind of car it was, and then look at the wheel hubs and say “Oh, its a brand new Undo!” (Maybe you had to be there).
My father loved the story of the guy who bought the first Triumph imported into the U.S.
The guy loved it so much that the first day he got it he drove it all afternoon and well into the night, finally showing up at a friend’s house somewhere after midnight. Wanting to show it off to his friend, he sat outside and blew the horn until lights finally came on in the upstairs bedroom and his friend’s sleepy head appeared in the open window.
The owner excitedly shouted, “Look Harry, it’s a Triumph!!
His friend looked down at the tiny car below, and asked wearily,
“Triumph over what?”
TV trivia, an MG like this was on old NBC show “McMillan and Wife”. Susan St James’ character “Sally McMillan” had one. Usually just scenes with green screen, driving around “San Francisco” in a studio.
The car was featured more in one episode where they entered it in a Rally, and there was a chase scene with Rock Hudson “McMillan” driving the MG after the bad guys.
Violent contrast: MacMillan, as Da Chief?, rode in a contemporary Lincoln Continental.
That was one of the Mystery [TV] Movie series, including Columbo with his Peugeot 403 Cabriolet, & McCloud with his … horse??
My husband bought me a 1951 MGTD because of that show. I loved seeing her drive that car on the show. Do you know what color it was. I thought it was black but there are some people who disagree. Mine was red with saddle interior. We sold it for my husband’s grad school tuition 😢He replaced it two years ago with a restored 1953 Cadillac green metallic one (not a stock color)
I think this is an excellent narrative of the history of the British sports car. I remember seeing them in my home town (Dodge City) back before 1950. I was young enough that Dad had to tell me what is was and why it was special. The point is,if it could be found in that land locked area it was probably everywhere.
Close friend with an Austin Spriite (MG Midget) and I owned a 64 MGB. What sold them was a feeling. The same feeling that makes bikes popular and makes dogs stick their heads out of car windows. I also had a 66 VW with the Judson supercharger that you mentioned. It provided more good driving experiences but you couldn’t do much with your head stuck out the window. Not much could take me in the eighth mile but it drove me to bikes.
You can have your good feeling and your need for speed at the same time. Just go with two (sometimes three) wheels.
Yes, we have come a LONG way in the mere 126 years of the automobile….funny part is, even after 126 years of practice, the average human animal STILL cannot drive one properly….
By the time I was old enough to pay attention, these had migrated to the garages of guys with tweed caps and driving gloves, who would bring them out on nice days to cruise around. I recall seeing a couple of these out and about. Like an earlier poster, I do not recall seeing one in any color besides green or red.
My car mentor Howard once told me that he owned a TF for a bit, around 1960. I cannot imagine that it was very practical for everyday transportation in northern Indiana where a good part of the year is cold and snowy. Maybe this was the reason he was always so tolerant of faults in his later Mopars. I would guess that an MG would set the bar pretty low as a yardstick for acceptible reliability in later cars.
I’ve never driven or even ridden in one, but I remember people saying that you could drift a TD at remarkably low speeds.
See one in person, look at the width of the tyres, then figure out the contact patch. There are times I wonder if it was possible to drive them without drifting.
Whilst I remember them, they are definitely for the generation before me. By the time my generation was nudging the mid-teens (when a boy goes from just loving cars to actually starting to think which one he’d like to own, aka early/mid-60’s) the MGB and TR-4 had taken over completely.
“I wonder if it was possible to drive them without drifting”
That was the “chain gang” Frazer Nash, which had a solid rear axle driven by a gearbox that had a chain for each ratio. The lack of diff made for lots of sliding.
jpcavanaugh – “By the time I was old enough to pay attention, these had migrated to the garages of guys with tweed caps and driving gloves, who would bring them out on nice days to cruise around.”
There are quite a few TC’s mainly running in historic racing, some re-bodied in various styles including single seaters. I also remember seeing one at a hillclimb with a heavily worked Rover V8, well over 400hp, in an original body and wide wheels – as quick as a lot of high-falutin’ machinery too.
Drifting is THE slowest way to corner a car so more than likely possible in a MG.
While the T series MGs were definitely icons, I would argue that Morgan was retro before MG, as well as long after it.
The Morgan gained four wheels for MY 1937 and very little changed outwardly from then on, this is a 54 with Trekka hubcaps but otherwise stock.
Back in 1950 this was not retro , this was traditional. I can remember when the MGA was launched I saw it on a TV preview of the London Motor Show and I was shocked – as in what have they done to the MG !!! At the time I thought the TF looked wonderful (although the TR2 was my favourite).
Surely the prize for first retro should go to the Beetle since it was still being made when it should have been in a museum – simply because VW didn’t know how to replace it.
BTW , I still think the TF looks wonderful.
During World War 2, England took a terrible pounding from Hitler’s bombs. The fact that they were even able to recover as fast as they did to build cars like this is admirable considering that they had to rebuild their country at the same time.
Abingdon-on-Thames, even re-purposed, probably was too small to be worth the Luftwaffe’s trouble, though Germany did import MGs before the War. Anyway, they failed to pay sufficient attention to British industry & vengefully resorted to bombing civilians instead, which was a huge strategic mistake in allowing the RAF breathing room. They also failed to persist in attacks on radar installations, though steel towers are difficult targets in any case.
I think Britain’s real postwar problem was cash, for with that any amount of damage can be repaired quickly.
“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?”
The same thrill, later still, when Jeep CJs and CJ-lookalikes became cool. They, Jeeps, weren’t road cars…but few other cars could keep to posted speeds and yet feel FAST, dammit! And an open car…the MG, like the Jeep, could be topless and yet not compromising manhood. At least not initially.
Was MG (“Morris Garages”) ever officially tied to Morris, prior to the British Leyland years?
Yes, MG was related to Morris. It was founded by William Morris (who was created Lord Nuffield in the 1930s) before WW1 as a commercial garage; it didn’t start making cars until the mid-1920s. It was actually founded before Morris. Once Morris Motors was founded, William Morris focused on that, hiring others to run MG, although he still owned the latter.
In the mid-1930s, Morris, now Lord Nuffield, decided to consolidate, so he grouped all of his automotive holdings in a new conglomerate called the Nuffield Organisation. That included Morris, MG, Wolseley, and Riley. In 1952, Nuffield merged with Austin Motors to form BMC.
Someone eventually pointed out to me that the Nuffield Organization was spelled in the American manner (with a z rather than an s). Noted here for reference…
I was at a week long seminar at Oxford and was just walking around random streets near the college and came across Morris Garage. I had no idea. The person in this photo is reading the display about its history in the window.
I read “The Red Car” in middle school, and fantasized about having a TC, like the protagonist…I’ve never driven one, and now I’d probably rather have an MGA or even early B–but still, a beautiful, though actually primitive, car.
I too read that book long long ago.
Had to read The Red Car and a book about a Renault Dauphine for 6th Form English (Year 12 nowadays). Awesome books! Keep thinking I need to pick them up on eBay (or The Red Car at least, I don’t remember the author/correct title of the Dauphine book).
They’d have been fantastic books to do for English! We just had a lot of boring socio-political crap to study, which killed any interest I might have had in those fields stone dead.
I actually just did buy “The Red car” on Amazon. I must have read that book 50 times as a middle-schooler, and like cfclark I fantasized about owning a TC. Now I own a TD, which I drive extensively out here in the Malibu Hills, and it is still a joy to drive on these “twistin, turnin’ roads.” I was pleased that the book still reads pretty well!
A friend’s father actually has a Siata Spring sitting in his garage. He bought it brand new. It hasn’t been driven for years, but is all there. Hopefully I can see it and get some photos one of these days.
My first car was a ’59 Bug Eye. The second was a ’62 MGA. Other than an incorrectly installed kingpin on the left front that was corrected by the dealer,I had no other problems with the A in the time I had it. Don’t jack with the SU carbs if you don’t know what you are doing and everything will be fine.
Now the Bug Eye? Don’t get me started.
I spotted a TF yesterday at the Velodrome (bicycle race track) in Redmond, WA. It probably belongs to one of the racers. Since the Velodrome is basically just NASCAR for bicycles (keep pedaling, keep turning left), maybe he has a Dodge Daytona, too.
There is a funny part of the movie Pillow Talk, where a 6 foot 3 Rock Hudson tries to get in a MGTD with the top up. After some funny crawling he gave up because he didn’t want to leave a leg behind. The smallness and rack and pinion steering is what made these cars attractive, at least for those who fit.
To my eye, most British cars (and many makes on the continent) looked dowdy and behind the times. This characteristic seemed to hold at least through the early ’70s.
British (and many European) makers just never embraced the annual model change the way we did in America. They came out with a model and made it until no one wanted one anymore. They’d make the same model for years, sometimes decades. (That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions)
So, in an environment where people didn’t expect annual model changes there is less pressure to modernize design. Within the British car world, the outdated bodywork must have seemed perfectly acceptable.
As far as the American market (by far MG’s biggest market) I don’t know if the T series MGs were “retro” or just out of date. There has always been a segment of the American population who are Anglophiles and I wonder if the car appealed particularly to them? They may have accepted the outdated body work the same way Brits did.
MG TD’s came in a variety of nice colours , periwinkle , saffron white and so on , the red & green is mostly a resale bodge .
My Stepfather bought a new ’53 (? round taillights) TD to commute in when he was a young Engineer in Connecticut ~ As I’d read ” The Red Car ” in the early 60’s , , I lusted after an old MG and he gave it to me shortly before he died .
It had spent many years sitting in an old cow barn in New England and was pretty rusty , i got it running , did the brakes and so on and titled it then passed it along to someone who wanted to restore it , this in 1989 or so .
It was the pleasing saffron yellow .
If ever you see me wearing a tweed stoker’s cap , please shoot me .
TD’s had a wretched little engine that made little useful power unless you kept it constantly on the boil , as the crankshaft was casted sans proper counter weights it’d beat itself to death in short order ~ like 35,00 45,000 miles .
The suspension was beyond crude , yes they drifted easily as do TC’s , they’re also very easy to flip and few drivers survive that .
Seeing one on two wheels on The Mulholland Highway is routine with the LBC Sports Car Group I run with .
Uber cute but not a very good Automobile in any way .
An MG TF replacement was originally designed by Gerald Palmer, as the then Chief Designer at BMC. It was to have interchangeable external body panels so a ‘traditional’ or streamlined version could be made on the same production line. This did not happen. Palmer also designed the Post War Magnette sedan. Shortly after he left BMC after a boardroom fallout about the direction of design at BMC.
Here’s a history of pre-MGA MG including photos of the Gerald Palmer proposals.
These TDs were very popular SCCA sports car racers. Sports car racing has always had a certain “lifestyle” or “pose”, or whatever you want to call it. It is not generally about competing with the fastest or most capable cars, but instead to drive something “fun” and “interesting”. These MGs really filled the bill, in their time.
Sports car racing is a bit more schizophrenic now, with very capable, dedicated race cars that arrive and leave in an enclosed trailer, and still a few of the “tape up the lights and tape on some numbers and go racing” folks. Most of the latter have migrated over to vintage racing, where MGBs and Midgets/Sprites, similar but newer cars, make up meaningful portions of the racing fields. But even vintage has the split between the serious racers and the gentleman weekend hobbyists.
The MG TD was nearly an antique when it was new. And sports cars are often not very practical, instead focusing mostly on fun, the MG TD being no exception to that. But perhaps few cars are more fun than an antique sports car. I own an MG TD. It’s not fast, its just great fun, and I drive it whenever I can.
That’s the same color my 1952 MG TD was , mine had a red interior, I’ve seen quite a few in this color with green interiors .
Americans never quite grasp that “Sports Cars” are not supposed to be fast, they’re quick touring cars, fun to drive in the twisty bits .
The MG TC that preceded the TD & TF’s looks far speedier but was in fact a poor handling car .
A new Kia (the cheapest car I know) will go faster and handle better than any old MG, that’s a fact .
Another sad fact is : the Brit car manufacturers had no idea of the wide open straight line roads they were building their export vehicles for, this is the primary reason they failed in spectacular ways so often .
Over drive should have been standard on every one .
British Motocycles too were very poorly geared ~ I love riding a vintage Triumph twin but the engine gets badly over speeded on our freeways .
Exhaust pipes turning white where they exit the cylinder head is _not_ “O.K. !” nor is it “normal” .
Great essay! Thanks for all the history!