Curbside Classic: 1958 MGA – The Almost Great Leap Forward

(first posted 8/3/2012)   Yes, MG was a rather conservative outfit. Not the flaming right wing that Morgan staked out, but compared to the other popular British sports car makers – Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar – by the early fifties, the TD and TF were looking mighty old-fashioned. Pressured by drooping sales and the competition, in 1955 MG took a giant step forward, ditching the 1920s look for…the 1949 look. And by the time it was replaced in 1962, the cycle had repeated. Not the right kind of habits to develop in a rapidly changing world, as MG would find out soon enough: Keep up or Die.

But let’s not dwell on the gloomy side; the MGA is all about enjoying life, with the wind in one’s hair on a mild summer day, like this one’s owner has been doing quite a bit lately. And like I did, in 1968.

I’ve been on the prowl for a suitable CC MGA for years; there’s plenty hanging around the Sports Car Shop, but you know how I like them. And then I saw this one in traffic, and gave pursuit. Not that that was all too hard, although we did both have 1500 cc engines, and his was a low slung sports car. But I had forty horsepower on him. No contest; not that there ever was one.

The origins of the MGA go back to the 1951 EX172 LeMans racer, a TD chassis with an aerodynamic body. But the narrow TD frame meant that the seating position was still  high and upright. A prototype with a new wider frame and corresponding seating was developed, but nixed by BMC Leonard Lord, in part because he had just made an agreement with Donald Healey to produce the Austin Healey.

That handsome roadster arrived in 1953, intended to bridge the gap between the Jaguar XK 120 and the MG with its $2985 price tag. Utilizing a 2660 cc Austin A90 four cylinder, it followed the XK 120 in using its top speed as part of its name.

Then Triumph upset the applecart; that very same year, its TR2 appeared, and really put the pressure on MG. Priced only $250 more than the old-school TF, the TR2 packed 90 hp from its 2 liter four, and did the sprint to sixty in 12 seconds. MG could only dream about that.

So Lord had no choice but to rush the MGA into production, lest BMC’s little hard-currency cow go dry.

Its handsome and suitably low-slung steel body was draped over a traditional frame, with the side rails pushed out to allow the flat-on-the plywood seating position that a modern roadster called for. Well, not the plywood, exactly; but it did the trick. Probably lasted longer than if it had been the usual un-rustproofed steel.

The only (external) concession to tradition was the grille, an attempt to keep the heritage alive. It’s not very successful, in my opinion, and reminds me too much of the cheap “heritage” grilles that have been slapped onto so many cars over the years. How about stepping into the mid-fifties with both feet?

Under that sleek, long hood resided one of the early versions of BMC’s B-Series engines. Its roots were in the old 1200 cc Austin A40 Devon engine that originated before the war, but it was a larger block, and updated. The 1955 MGA arrived with a 68 hp rating, which was quickly boosted to 72. Compared to the TR 2, it was already well behind. And to rub more salt in the wound, in 1955 the improved TR3 now sported a full 100 hp, and a ten-plus second 0-60 time. With a 0-60 time of 16 seconds, the MGA clearly looked better (and faster) than it went.

Of course there were plenty of ways to improve the B-Series’ performance. What hurt it most was its poor breathing, thanks to siamesed ports on both the intake and exhaust. I shot this MGA with an aftermarket aluminum cross-flow head a while back at the Sports Car Shop, still awaiting its carburetors. But it still has a siamesed center exhaust port.

If you really had to have a fast MGA, it was available from the factory, from 1958 until 1960, in the form of the MGA Twin-Cam. 108 horses from its 1588 cc engine, almost exactly the same as my Xb. But that was hot stuff in 1958. And it clicked off the run to sixty in nine seconds.

Now that’s more like it! The twin Cam was doomed, though, due to issues with the engine that led to out-sized warranty claims, as well as a prohibitively high price. Costing almost 50% more than a regular A, it still was only slightly faster than a much cheaper TR3. The TC also sported four-wheel disc brakes, and those handsome knock-off wheels. Barely 2000 were made before the plug was pulled, but it did foreshadow what every modern sports car would eventually sport. And once a couple of issues were addressed, these engines turned out to be quite reliable. Oh well.

Like Jaguars’ XK series, the MGA also came in a coupe version. The flimsy and fussy contraptions that were supposed to keep the elements out on the roadsters just didn’t cut it with some folks, so a “fixed-head coupe” (non-removable) made rather a lot of sense, except of course on a sunny day. I caught this one in its element: winter in Eugene.

It’s a bit odd from some angles, which undoubtedly led MG to the superior hatch-back solution on the MGB-GT. But with roll-down windows,

and a nicer trimmed cabin, it would be the place to be when the skies turn gray. This one has been upgraded a bit further.

The visibility through the glass rear window alone was a huge improvement. The plastic windows of the old-school convertible tops went opaque almost instantly.

But its summer now, so let’s slide into the cockpit of this well-loved A. I wrote about my brother’s losing battle in keeping an MGA going in this chapter of the Auto-Biography. But the rides we took through the Maryland countryside in it were profoundly memorable.

Is that ever familiar. The big wheel, the pedals straight ahead in the dark tunnel, and the gear shift knob. If the expression “falls readily to hand” aver applied, it was to that shifter. Just inches away from the wheel rim, it made every notchy shift a pleasure. When you’re fifteen or so, these impressions run very deep.

Like the throb of the engine as the tach made its repeated unsuccessful assault on the red-line; my brother’s engine was way to geriatric to push that hard. Anyway, the long-stroke mill was much happier between “tick-over” and about 3500 rpm, 4500 in a push. All too soon, it croaked.

The owner of this well and long-loved MGA has had it since 1980, and replaced “a few” clutches along the way. The engine lost a piston, and was rebuilt a few years back. The next thing on the agenda? A new wiring harness; what else?

He’s got the right idea and approach: incremental improvements, spread out over the decades. The important thing is not to make it perfect, but just to keep it running, ready to roll come summer. Nothing too ambitious; in the true MG spirit.