Vintage SCI Review: 1957 MGA – New Body, Familiar Sensations

“MG” was synonymous with “sports car” for several decades. It all started with the spidery TC, a 1920’s style roadster that American GIs discovered while stationed in the UK during WW2. A fair number made the trip back home with them, and the sports car boom was off and running (prior to the war, British sports cars were essentially unheard of in the US). The MG was affordable, afforded lots of driving fun, and had excellent resale value, all contributing to its best seller status.

The antique but charming TC begat the hugely popular TD, (1950-1953), followed by the TF (1953-1955), the last classically-styled MG, due to dithering by management on a truly new MG. It finally arrived for the 1956 model year, sporting a dramatically new aerodynamic body attached to a stiffer frame, front suspension and steering essentially borrowed from the TF, and the new 1489cc BMC B-series engine. With twin SU carbs, it sported all of 68 hp, but that was just enough to allow the MGA to hit a genuine 100 mph, no mean feat at the time for an affordable sports car.

My brother had a ’57 MGA in 1968—already on its last and leaky legs—and I spent quite a bit of time in the passenger seat as well as one memorable drive when I took it out when he was gone. So this review brings many of the sensations back to life for me, although not the rusted out rockers, shot shocks and the tired engine that didn’t want to rev past about 4500 rpm.

Yes, the new body was “controversial” given how iconic the traditional MG Midget T-Series roadsters had become. And yes, sports car aficionados are largely a curiously conservative crowd, not taking well to change. But SCI makes it clear that it takes only a drive around the block to recognize that it’s really all very familiar under that sleek new body: “noisy tappets, harsh ride, and loud exhaust…like its ancestors, it’s a whole lot of fun to drive in spite of—or maybe because of—its imperfections.”

Quick and light steering was a hallmark of MGs, introducing Americans used to mushy, slow and heavy steering to the joys (and kickback) of rack and pinion steering. Every pimple in the road could be felt through the rim of the big steering wheel. The short little stub of a shifter was a revelation to me on my illicit drive, so direct and notchy compared to the rather willowy shifter on a VW, never mind the column-mounted one on my dad’s ’68 Dart. The long-stroke four, which looked like it had been designed in the mid ’30s, throbbed as it chugged through the gears.

SCI summed it up concerning its ride: “it’s smooth on smooth pavement, and that’s all“. And there wasn’t much of that on the little winding, undulating country roads of North Baltimore County, where I took it on my drive. As to cornering, my brother had replaced the rotted recaps with the absolute cheapest new ones he could find at Montgomery Ward; they were extra-skinny and looked straight from 1949, when the molds were probably created. It took very little to provoke squeals of complaint and drifting. It’s as if it was set up to teach drifting at the lowest possible speeds.

Well, the doors may have closed with a “solid sound” back in 1957, but by 1968, the ones on my brother’s car were barely attached. And the rocker panels were completely rusted away; there was a 2-3″ gap between the bottom of the doors and the floor; convenient for the disposal of butts and roaches on the go.

The engine in this tester was obviously still in rude health, with its 101 mph run (at 5800 rpm); I doubt my brother’s A could top 75, maybe 80.  0-60 took 14.1 seconds, which wasn’t as bad in the mid-fifties as it sounds today. Driving an MGA with the top down always felt like you were going twice as fast as in reality. Actually, driving one with the top up was just as bad, if not worse, as it only contained the sounds of the straining engine.  I have less than happy memories riding with my brother on a miserable cold, wet winter day, with whatever little heat there was escaping faster through the gaps in the top and side curtains (and the open rockers, despite attempts to stuff an old Army blanket in the gap), the little wipers mostly ineffective, never mind the defroster. Um; no fun at all. The MG was a fair weather friend.

SCI mused about the true top speed of the MG’s engine: essentially it would not really be able to ever see time in the highly optimistic red zone of its tachometer (6000-7000 rpm) as its valve gear was not up to the task of keeping the valves in place happily beyond 5500 rpm. SCI did see 5900 rpm on acceleration runs on a couple of occasions, “but retreated in haste”.

My brother’s engine finally croaked, a preview for the rest of the car. The cheapest solution was to yank the engine out of a Nash Metropolitan in a junkyard, which also used the B-series, and then put back the twin SU carbs. In any case, both of his engines seemed to be pretty knackered by 4500 rpm, maybe 5000 if really pushed.

The brakes came in for praise.  Not from my brother, who had endless issues keeping their vital bodily fluids inside the master and wheel cylinders. But the hand brake, with its long handle was quite effective when the hydraulics gave out!

SCI found the top to be the PIA that it was, and the trunk space lacking in that quality, and the twin 6V batteries difficult to access. All true, and then some. But bopping out for a ride on a hot Baltimore summer night was intoxicating and highly memorable. I’m just glad it was my brother’s MGA and not mine. And yes, its next owner was the junk yard. It was replaced by an extremely reliable three-year old ’66 VW 1300.

related reading:

CC MG-A: The Almost Great Leap Forward

Auto-Biography: 1957 MGA – Learning From Big Brother

CC MG-TD: I Was Retro before Retro Was Cool