Curbside Classic: MGC GT – Woulda’ Shoulda’ Coulda’ Had The Rover V8

(first posted 8/8/2012)     The story of the star-crossed MGC is sad indeed, about as sad as seeing this one sit here immobile for the last eighteen years. At least it merits a new tarp every couple of years. But maybe the long rest is strategic: MGCs are now very much in demand again, and fixes for most of its intrinsic shortcomings were developed long ago. Well, that goes for just about every British car that arrived not so well-conceived and sorted out. So it just needs a little love.  Can we find any for it?

The MGC had a short life (1967-1969), and its story can be fairly readily grasped in a short version too (here’s AUWM’s long one). The MGB was a finely-balanced sports car, thanks in part to its compact 1.8 L four, set well back in the engine compartment, but it wasn’t exactly brimming with power. Already by 1963, a plan was hatched to build a six cylinder car to replace both the obsolete Austin Healey 3000 as well as a more powerful MG. Healey saw it for what it was: a six-cylinder MGB, and walked away.

The only engine BMC could muster in the end was a worked-over version of the 3 liter six that had powered the big Healey. A veritable boat anchor, the BMC engineers made a mostly-futile stab at lightening it and bestowing seven main bearings on its crankshaft. The result was a still too-heavy engine, weighing some 200 lbs more than the B’s four. And shoehorning in the six also required a new torsion bar suspension and a raft of other changes, the most visible being the 15″ wheels and the hood’s distinctive two blisters.

The main blister with the ill-placed chrome band might well be emblematic of the unfortunate compromises the MGC embodied.

Couldn’t they have come up with something just a tad more dashing and stylish? The hood scoop, real or fake, has a long history and comes in so many varieties; this might have been a moment for the BMC designers to crack open a few books or magazines.

The result of all this effort (and lack of it) was a faster MGB, but the trade-offs weren’t mostly worth it, both to the magazine reviewers, and most of all, the buyers. The MGC lost the nimble balance that was a hallmark of the B, due to the extra weight on the nose, slower-geared steering, and softer suspension. And the power from the big six wasn’t exactly all that thrilling either: 145 hp. The MGC was a flop, and soon disappeared.

The sad thing is that the MGB was just screaming out for the aluminum Rover V8 (ex-Buick), which weighed forty pounds less than the MGB four. And if the MGC project had been delayed just a bit, it may well have had it, given the 1968 merger that created BLMC. Now that would have created a killer MGC, and we’d all be praising what a brilliant marriage the two made.

Actually, Ken Costello had been doing that since 1969, when he saw the natural affinity these two cars had for each other (I wonder if anyone in the US didn’t even earlier). He made several hundred of them, and with a 0-60 time of 7.8 seconds, they were a hot item in England at the time. Within a few years,  MG took a look at one, and after a test drive, commissioned Costello to build a prototype. In 1973, it became a production car, but only in the GT coupe form. The V8 was certified for the US, but never exported, a victim of Triumph’s dominant role at BL. The TR7 (and later the V8 TR 8) were on the way, and they did not want competition from a very viable in-house competitor. A more detailed account of Costello’s story and the MGB V8 is here.

The plates on the front of this long-slumbering C are from Washington, with a 1994 sticker.

But a closer look at the rear shows an Oregon plate, with a ’96 sticker. We can easily surmise what happened here: car was bought in WA, and brought to Eugene with high hopes. And then something dashed the dream. Who knows? But this would make a nice project, especially since the GT version has better weight distribution than the roadster. And there are plenty of ways to mitigate some of the shortcomings: engine tuning parts, stiffer torsion bars, better shocks, and better tires all combine to make the MGC GT a quite pleasant GT car, if not the nimble and tossable roadster that the B is.

Time to leave your tarped cave, and shine! Just because you’re an MGC is no reason to hide forever. After all these decades of scorn, we can muster some love.