Curbside Classic: 1978 MGB – Determined To Survive

The rubber-bumper MGB is an unlikely, but plucky survivor.  What was once a quick, agile and attractive sports car eventually became slow, clumsy and ungainly-looking.  Emissions regulations sapped a third of its power, suspension modifications produced Buick-like body roll, it received one of the most awkward bumper treatments ever to be foisted onto a car, and it suffered from notoriously poor build quality.  Yet despite those obstacles, MGBs kept on selling.  Over an 18-year model run, nearly 400,000 roadsters were produced – one-third of which were “rubber bumper” models like our featured car.  Rubber-bumper MGBs are love-’em-or-hate-’em-cars… though whichever side you’re on, it’s plainly amazing that this car muddled through and fought against all odds to survive nearly two decades in production.

I saw this 1978 Pageant Blue roadster in an unlikely location – atop Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska.  Park rangers heard this car sputtering and clamoring its way up the 1.5-mile Summit Road long before they saw it, and were astonished (as was I) to see the MG sporting Louisiana license plates.  Driving such a car 1,200 miles from the Bayous to the Great Plains doesn’t sound appealing to me.  But these cars were never meant to appeal to everyone; the MGB survived by finding a core group who could put up with, and enjoy, its eccentricities.

Though MG’s history stretches back to 1925, and includes numerous sedans, in North America the brand is overwhelmingly known for its sports cars.  In fact, MG effectively created North America’s sports car niche, courtesy of World War II servicemen who returned home with an affinity for the brand’s TC roadsters.  Despite being quite dated, “T-type” MGs remained popular through the end of their production in the mid-1950s.  Remaining popular even while offering products rooted in an earlier time became a repeated theme for MG over the next three decades.

The 1955 MGA represented a leap into modernity for MG – still far from the leading edge of design or engineering, but fun and contemporary enough to keep buyers’ interest.  Produced for seven years and exceeding 100,000 units, the MGA became the most successful sports car of its time.  But competition was tough and rival Triumph was gaining in popularity, so MG began planning for a replacement not long after the A was introduced.  That replacement became the MGB.

Debuting in late 1962, the MGB represented a thorough evolution of the MGA.  Clean and crisp lines kept pace with early 1960s design trends – details like the prominent fenders or the tiny tail fins may seem oldfangled when looked at individually, but the overall design was exemplary.  For many enthusiasts, the early MGB’s lithe profile remains the very embodiment of what a sports car ought to be.

Advancements over its predecessor included a unibody construction (replacing the A’s ladder-type frame), roll-up windows, easier ingress/egress, and much more interior room thanks to a wider body.  These were important factors in keeping the sports car creed thriving through the 1960s.

The MGB’s drivetrain wasn’t quite as transformational.  Its 4-cylinder engine was an enlarged-bore version of the A’s powerplant (increased to 1798 cc vs. 1622 for the later As), with a strengthened block and crankshaft.  This yielded a much smoother driving experience, even though early MGBs still used the A’s transmission (not upgraded to full synchromesh until 1968).  While the B’s engine remained largely the same over its 18-year production run, there were some changes – mostly having to do with emissions regulations, and none of them improved the car’s performance.

1960s-era MGBs were fun to drive, with sharp handling (helped by a 50/50 weight distribution), responsive steering, and an engine whose 94 hp was enough to move the B to 60 mph in a respectable 12.5 seconds.  The decade of the 1960s was the apotheosis of MG’s market status: The company’s products were modern, competitive, and participated in a growing market segment… none of these would be the case for much longer.

After receiving enthusiastic reviews, the B did what it needed to do: It succeeded in North America.  While many view this as a quintessentially British car, its home market was of peripheral importance.  For the MGB’s first 5 years, under 20% of roadsters stayed in Britain, while nearly two-thirds found homes in the US or Canada.  North American customers appreciated these small, agile cars that were a welcome counterpoint to the era’s heavy and ponderous domestic offerings.  MG cashed in on this enthusiasm.

The 1965 introduction of the hardtop MGB/GT provided a boost to home-market sales (over half were sold in the UK), but even so, the vast majority of MG’s overall output ended up in North America.  Unfortunately, MG would have to navigate the turbulent 1970s with the same cars that took it through the 1960s.  That would have been tough for even a well-run car company to pull off, let alone one owned by a corporation renowned for its ineptitude.

MG’s parent company, British Motor Holdings (formerly British Motor Corporation), merged with Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, creating a new entity – British Leyland.  With a wide variety of products, Britain’s largest automaker was theoretically well poised to take advantage of its brands’ unique attributes.  In reality, though, British Leyland was disastrous from the outset.

Chaotic labor relations, unprofitable products, lack of R&D investment and unfocused management crippled the company’s ability to meet market demand, and resulted in legendarily poor quality control.  The company lasted only seven years before being taken over by the British government, which didn’t help much.  In 1977, a government official said that BL was “in danger of bleeding to death,”  which was an accurate diagnosis.

Furthermore, since the consolidated company contained both MG and rival Triumph, one of these firms would get neglected in terms of future product planning.  It wound up being MG.

An MGB replacement had once been planned, but was eventually shelved after British Leyland’s takeover, and by then the B was at the age where car models require major upgrades or replacement.  In 1970, Road & Track noted that the MGB “has led a long, successful life, but… the end is in sight.”  The magazine that was passionate about this sports car in 1962 added that it now seemed “consistently unimpressive.”

R&T writers wouldn’t have believed that the MGB’s long life was less than half over by that point.

British Leyland did make some changes to the B in the early 1970s, although MG enthusiasts often dismiss this as stingy “Leylandization.”  For example, leather upholstery was replaced with Ambla (vinyl) basketweave-pattern seats, and the aluminum hood replaced by steel.  More memorable changes concerned US safety and emissions regulations, which were often met in somewhat unpleasant ways.  The MGB’s major modifications came for the 1974.5 model year.

The most obvious change was to the bumpers.  To meet 5-mph bumper mandates, MGBs received large, molded rubber bumpers – though “rubber” is somewhat of a misnomer because they were actually polyurethane covering a steel skeleton (and weighing about 75 lbs. apiece).  Most awkward was the front bumper, a one-piece affair with two nostrils separated by a prominent septum, making the car look as if it wore a protective facemask.

While the rubber-bumper look appeared ghastly to many who were familiar with the original MGB, the design creatively integrated into the B’s contours.  On darker cars, or if the bumpers are painted to match the body, the visual discord is diminished substantially.  If MG had painted these bumpers instead of leaving them matte black, much of the vitriol hurled at these cars over the years may never have materialized.

US regulations also stipulated a minimum bumper/headlight height, which British Leyland met by adding 1½” to the car’s ride height.  Combined with the big bumpers, the car now resembled a cross between a Bumper Car and a Dune Buggy.  Handling suffered with the increased ride height, yielding excessive body roll.  While the earlier MGB’s relatively simple suspension setup (live rear axle with leaf springs and A-arms with coil springs in front) provided for entertaining cornering, the rubber bumper model’s handling was about as impressive as a malaise era Detroit product.  Handling improved somewhat after a rear anti-roll bar was added for 1977, though the rubber bumper cars’ handling would never be considered agile.

Engine changes occurred around this time as well, with MG redesigning the cylinder head, going from two carburetors to one, and adding the obligatory catalytic converter.  Not surprisingly, power output plummeted.  By 1978 when our featured car was produced, US-market MGBs developed only 63 hp, and if that wasn’t bad enough, weight had increased by 250 lbs.  The now 2,300-lb. roadster could amble to 60 mph in a yawn-inducing 18 seconds.

Given all of these downsides, it’s amazing that the MGB managed to survive.  And not just survive, but to actually sell in decent numbers until the bitter end in 1980.

Source: “Original MGB: The Restorer’s Guide to All Roadster and GT Models 1962-80” by Anders Ditlev Clausager. “1974” includes both the 1974 and 1974.5 model years

Total MGB production fluctuated dramatically year-by-year, due in part to labor disputes that resulted in extended periods of lost production.  However the general trend shows rather steady demand throughout the years – remarkable for an aged car besieged with drivability, appearance and quality struggles.  This chart also shows the outsize influence of North American sales (shown in red), and explains why cash-strapped MG had little choice but to conform worldwide production to US standards.

Source: “Original MGB: The Restorer’s Guide to All Roadster and GT Models 1962-80” by Anders Ditlev Clausager.

The condensed chart above shows annual production averages for the MGB roadster’s three major eras (full model years only, excluding 1974).  While annual production remained relatively consistent, the proportion of North American sales increased dramatically from what were already high percentages.  For the roadster’s six final (rubber bumper) model years, a whopping 88% of production sailed across the Atlantic.  (GT models faced a different trajectory – less than half of GTs came to North America in the early 1970s, and BL pulled the model from US & Canadian markets after 1974.  For the GT’s final years, over 90% stayed in the UK.)

So, what was the appeal?  MGBs may have been clumsy, slow, antiquated and shoddily-built… but they were fun, in the way only a small convertible could define that term.  In the malaise-ridden 1970s, that counted for a lot, particularly among the niche of buyers who would even consider an MG.  Late 1970s MG buyers didn’t covet speed, new technology, or Toyota-like build quality.  Instead, they sought pleasure such as that derived from a relaxed drive in an open-top car… and with an MGB they could get that.

While not exactly trouble-free, by the late 1970s the MGB had seemingly been around forever, ensuring ready parts availability and ease of repairs.  Occasional repairs just came with the territory, and MG’s characteristically young and optimistic clientele didn’t seem put off by that fact.  Helping this along was that MGBs were relatively straightforward and simple cars, with that simplicity adding to their allure.

While British Leyland is often castigated for a seemingly endless series of blunders, they did get some things right.  The MGB’s interior, for instance, was updated tastefully – certainly not with the highest-quality materials, but it looked relatively modern.  Though based on its 1962 ancestor, the late-1970s B featured many items added as time went on: new door panels, proper carpeting, fresh air vents, etc.  In later cars, a console was added atop the transmission tunnel, integrating rather well into the dashboard and even featuring a lift-up center armrest.  The dashboard and instruments were redesigned for 1977, featuring hard plastic dash components along with a four-spoke steering wheel.  Upgrades such as these helped keep the B from becoming too reliclike for the general population.

Another score in BL’s favor was marketing.  MG perfected the art of selling an aging product to young people.  Ads didn’t shy away from pronouncing their products as living classics – many ads might well have been titled “This Is Your Father’s MG.”  It’s doubtful such a tactic could work in every era, but in the 1970s, Dad’s sports car memories were still considered in vogue.  Another feature of MG ads was the copious use of attractive young women.  Men were rarely shown alone in MGB ads – the ads either modeled fun-loving couples or beckoning-looking women.

MG needed all the help it could get.  Compounding its other challenges was an unfavorable exchange rate, leading to hefty annual price increases and taking the MGB out of the value-oriented market.  Most 1978 MGBs sold for about the price of a midsize American sedan.

The rubber-bumper MGB’s unlikely longevity is explained, however, not by statistics, value, specifications or marketing, but by something less quantifiable.  Automotive historian Anders Ditlev Clausager noted that the MGB “was just a workaday, mass-production, road-going pleasure machine,” and that hits the nail on the head.  Later MGBs like this one can’t be thought of strictly as sports cars – yes, they were two-seat convertibles, but more importantly they were everyday cars that provided something interesting.

MGB tapped a niche: Young, relatively affluent, childless customers who yearned for a convertible (it also picked up some market share when its BL stablemate, the Triumph TR-6 was discontinued in 1976).  MGB buyers weren’t overly interested in sports car dynamics, they were well-off enough not to be excessively concerned about high operating costs, and though some thought this car ugly, it was distinctive.  MG once ran an ad campaign in Great Britain titled “Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It” – and that sums up original buyers’ mindset.  So what if other people didn’t understand?  That was part of the appeal.

The MG name alone was a great asset, but of course this car couldn’t last forever.  Young people in the late 1970s increasingly gravitated towards closed cars with more creature comforts, and while there was still modest demand for British roadsters, the formula was getting timeworn.  This change in preference spelled certain doom.

Despite the steep price increases, BL still lost an estimated $1,950 (!) on each MGB exported to the US in the late 1970s.  Badly overstaffed, the company built 5.8 cars per employee, about half the rate of other carmakers.  Additionally, development costs that could have gone into a new MG went instead to the Triumph TR-7, which ended up selling poorly.  BL finally pulled the plug on the MGB in 1980.

I assume this particular car eventually made it down from Scotts Bluff and on to its eventual destination.  After all, MGBs have a certain tenacity about them.  While some people may cringe at the sight of a rubber-bumper MGB, looked at another way we can see an almost personified sense of determination to survive.  And just like in the 1970s, not everyone understands the appeal.  That’s probably just fine with MGB owners.


Related Reading:

1967 MGB: To B Or Not To B   Paul Niedermeyer


Photographed at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska in June 2018.