Curbside Classic: 1967 MGB – To B Or Not To B

(first posted 8/7/2012)      Unless you’re over a certain age, or have a kink for Midgets, or are not from the US, say the word “MG” and this is the car that undoubtedly comes to mind first. It is the MG, a timelessly-handsome and sports car that arrived in 1962, and was built for almost twenty years in an effort to keep the brand’s flame alive. Of course that was a losing battle, and in the US, where the bulk of all MG sports cars had been sold since the war, this was the end of the road for MG. For ten years, there was a hole in the market until the Mazda Miata so brilliantly picked up where B left off. What is their secret?

Functionally, the Miata is a much better MGB, even though it likes to think its styling was inspired by the Lotus Elan. That’s not taking anything away from the Miata (or the Elan), but reality is that the hole left by the popular B was its target, and in its dimensions, the Miata is within two inches in every direction, except width, where modern design necessitated a bit more (6″) girth.

Maybe taking its design cues from the Elan wasn’t the right choice; I’m putting on my Nomex suit before I say it, but the MGB is a better-looking car than the Miata. Obviously, comparing two cars designed thirty years apart has intrinsic limitations, but I’ve never been a fan of the Miata’s windshield, which looks too much like a coupe that had its roof cut off. And although they’re the same height, the B looks much more planted to the ground, and appears to be wider, despite the reality. Its stance and proportions are just better.

I’ll up the ante: I think the B is one of the very best designs of the post war era, and not just in the world of sports cars. I loved it when I first saw it in 1962, and I’ve never fallen out of love. I can’t think of a more perfect, clean, balanced, timeless design for a popular-priced sports car. There’s not a bad line or detail on it. Yes, some of the Italian Spyders may have been more “beautiful” and seductive, but they always showed their age more readily. The B is so clean, and its seductive curves on the tops of the front fender and doors just invite a touch.

AUWM has a more detailed account of how the B’s design came to be, by in-house designer Don Hayter. This was during the period when Pininfarina had a contract to redesign BMC’s passenger car line. There is some disagreement to the extent Pininfarina “massaged” the B’s design; not surprisingly, Hayter claims that there was very little change. We may never know, but what is all-too obvious is the similarity to Pininfarina’s very influential other cars that preceded the B, like the 1959 Fiat 1500 Roadster (above).

Pininfarina’s then-current Roadster/Cabriolet design language showed up in a number of cars, from Ferraris to the Peugeot 404 (above). It doesn’t really matter, but there’s no way to deny that Pininfarina’s influence is very apparent in the MGB, directly or indirectly. And perhaps ironically, it’s the best of the bunch, in my book.

There’s no disputing the fact that Pininfarina did design the MGB-GT’s roofline and rear hatch, which shows its similarities to others he was doing at the time, including the Austin A40.

Speaking of the MGB-GT, I already documented my own less-than fulfilling ownership experience with one. So, I’ll stick to the roadster here, and try not to have it be colored too much by my own B-in. There’s no doubt that vintage British cars have their foibles, but I wouldn’t hesitate to have a B roadster in my fantasy garage for a moment. The GT: why bother, without the top-down experience? Unless it’s your daily driver perhaps, like this green one. No way.

It’s a summer-time toy, like this one owned by its enthusiastic female owner. As a matter of fact, the green GT is owned by a woman too. Hmm. This is a 1967, the last year for the Mk I series. And perhaps the most desirable; certainly in terms of the lack of smog controls. Of course, that’s essentially irrelevant now.

But the ’67 was also the last year for the original dash, before safety regs required a pillowy one that looked decidedly less clean. It was also the last year before the transmission was changed to a fully-synchronized (on first) unit, so the ’68 and up have it in that regard. Too bad the best of both didn’t overlap.  But then having to shift down to first on the go was not a common occurrence with the B’s torquey 1798cc B-series engine.

It was essentially the same basic engine that the A had used, with a larger bore. In 1965, the block was upgraded to five bearings. Power was 95 hp at 5400 rpm, and a healthy 110 of torque.  BMC had toyed with the idea of a new narrow angle OHC V4, as well as the twin-cam MGA engine for the B, but like so many other aspects of the ADO23 project, BMC’s ambitions had to be reined in, given the realities of the market and the B’s expected lifespan (seven years).

During my brother’s MGA days, he had a friend with a warmed-over white B with a racing stripe: higher compression, head work, hotter cam, header, Pirelli radials on Minilites, and an Abarth exhaust. The ride he gave me in order to impress me with his efforts was very convincing indeed. I can still hear that engine screaming its guts out at maybe 6500 rpm; Whoa! This was a whole new MG experience altogether from the tired A my brother puttered in.

Dreams of independent rear suspension, and even a coil-spring four-link solid rear ended up giving way to a traditional leaf-sprung rear axle. The only major change from the MGA was a unibody, which was stiffer and allowed a modicum of improvement in suspension softness and effectiveness. Following an A down the road is painful just to to watch: every little bump makes the body quiver. The B is a bit less so, but still delivered that classic unvarnished English sports car feel. Fortunately, that’s what a lot of buyers were looking for, or at least ended up with. Over a half-million B’s were built (including the GT), which I suspect only the Miata has topped, and it by a 100% margin.

At least in this CC, we’re not going to go down the painful road the MGB was forced to take due to emission controls and safety and bumper regs. We all know what a pathetic thing it turned into, jacked up to meet the bumper height standard, and sporting all of 70 hp.  Maybe another time; today let’s remember how it was in its prime: handsome, reasonably athletic, and a winning personality. Not the most sophisticated or exotic sports car out there, but one that delivered the expected and desired experience its owners were looking for; fifty years ago, and today.