It's spring and heaven is an affordable sports car that won't use too much fuel and is easy to fix. Joe Kenwright looks at two alternatives, old and new -- the MGB Roadster and Mazda MX-5.
Simply this is a choice between period authenticity or modern convenience in a purpose-built rear drive sports car. The MGB is classic British-style and feel with 1950s mechanicals that require 1950s maintenance but it should be as painless as a classic sports car can ever be with a huge network of parts and service specialists. The original Mazda MX-5 draws on everyday Mazda 323 Astina mechanicals for modern driveability and reliability with outstanding sports car balance but without the MG's traditional character and style.
1963-72 MGB ROADSTER:
What do I need to know about the MGB?
MG, which stands for Morris Garages, was originally part of the Nuffield Group and drew on mass-produced Morris parts until the Nuffield Group merged with Austin in 1952 to form the British Motor Corporation. BMC then merged with Leyland in 1968 to form BLMC or British Leyland.
The MGB was heavily influenced by the BMC and Leyland mergers at different points in its life. In its original 1962 specification, it featured an Austin drivetrain that Australians already knew in cars like the Morris Major and Austin Cambridge. Suspension was 1940s technology with lever-arm shock absorbers (not today's telescopic type), and myriad steering and suspension joints that require regular greasing. Although brakes were modern, the spokes and splines of the wire wheels generate ongoing maintenance.
The reality check: Australians gave up keeping 40-year-old British bangers on the road decades ago. Over its model life, MGBs are virtually identical under the skin. After 40 years of thrashing, most will have needed a second or even third restoration. As a buyer, you will need to make a choice between rescuing a cheap banger or enjoying the period between a major rebuild and pay accordingly. Identifying the cars that are worn out underneath their shiny presentation is critical. These are real money traps as they cost as much to restore as an untidy car. If you are not 100 per cent committed to a preventative maintenance schedule, don't waste any more time reading this as a neglected MGB is a nightmare.
The MGB was Britain's first clean sheet sports car built on a steel monocoque. It doesn't have a separate chassis which means if it contains serious rust or has been patched-up after a major crash, it can have structural problems and the body may have to be scrapped. Because there is no steel roof to hold it together, the lower structure is far more critical than a conventional sedan. The good news is that Leyland forgot to scrap the original tools and you can still buy a brand new monocoque body shell. That said, a re-shell is not cheap.
The MGB's international look was heavily influenced by the Renault Floride and BMC's close links with PininFarina. If you squint your eyes when the light is failing, you can imagine that you have a classic Ferrari convertible in the driveway. And it still looks and sounds better than any budget sports car since which is why most people can forgive it for everything.
The MGB was raced into local production for an April 1963 launch, a year after its 1962 UK arrival, initially with local paint, vinyl trim and standard wire wheels. Local MGBs were generally better-equipped than the British ones as later examples had radial tyres, wire wheels, heater, oil cooler and overdrive as standard, while retaining flock carpet on non-wear areas, rubber mats in the footwells and hard wearing vinyl seats -- never leather.
There were three hood designs over the MGB's model life -- fingernail breaking, finger breaking and arm breaking. None were easy to erect and all leak at some point. If you intend to leave an MGB outside, get used to that musty smell of rotting trim and prepare to dangle your feet through the floor Fred Flintstone-style. One Australian company still builds replacement floors such is the demand.
The last MGB was built in Australia on November 6, 1972 but global production ceased in October 1980. Because so many MGBs from the Leyland era went to the US, many later cars have since reached here as cheap LHD imports. Leyland cost-cutting meant they were never as good as the Australian examples even when new.
After 1974, the MGB's suspension was raised and ugly plastic/rubber bumpers were added front and rear, destroying handling and appearance. Along with the detuned US-spec unleaded engine, it was no longer the MGB Aussies knew and loved.
Some specialists have used these ugly US imports to build a replica of a pre-1974 chrome bumper model by fitting the earlier grille, bumpers, lower suspension, RHD dash and steering, engine, trim and other details. This is easy to do when all parts are so readily available. The end result is a more desirable MGB than its flawed starting point but it will have no pedigree and won't line up with anything that came out of the factory. Depending on the conversion quality, they can provide better value as a fun car (and look better!) but resale value will always be lower than a genuine pre-1972 Australian RHD example.
There were also many British-built chrome bumper MGB examples imported from the UK when new and used. Depending on how old they were when they came here, they can be as good as any Australian-made example or, alas, full of terminal rust. Regardless of how good it looks, determining the original source and the correct specification before you buy are vital for future resale.
If you are being asked to pay extra for major body or mechanical work, then demand evidence that it has been completed by an MG specialist. Many younger tradespeople no longer have the special knowledge and skills beyond the superficial to keep these cars running and looking as new.
IMPORTANT MODEL INFORMATION: April 1963: Australian cars came with a YGHN chassis prefix. Early models came with no synchro on first gear, a weaker three-bearing crankshaft in the engine, flip-out door handles, basic hood with a tent-like frame and small tail lights.
March 1965: The stronger five-bearing engine (18GBUH) arrived with push button door handles, oil cooler and electronic tacho. A scissor-action hood frame was fitted which can kink and pinch holes in the fabric. Separate square reversing lights and Salisbury rear axle were later added as running changes.
September 1968: Local Mk II upgrade arrived a year behind UK with all synchro gearbox, octagonal wire wheel knock-offs, alternator, negative earth electrics (chassis 138801 on). Overdrive badge was added on local car bootlids only when specified. Production moved to BMC Zetland plant in 1969.
July 1970: Local MGB L upgrade of Mk II with black recessed grille closely modelled on the 1968 Ford Mustang. Modern hood with black folding frame. Front park/indicator units moved next to the grille. Always fitted with wire wheels, not the fake alloy British Rostyle wheel.
January 1971: Rubber-faced overriders and more prominent tail lights. Self-propping boot and bonnet stays. An interim L upgrade with head restraints and a new dash with rocker switches and centre air vents arrived later in 1971.
May 1972: Final specification now fully aligned with British Mk III but still called an MGB L in Australia. Look for bright new colours, premium dark blue vinyl trim with patterned inserts and a black engine with a revised cylinder head. Final cars cleared late that year.
The British 1973 flush mesh grille fitted to many local used MGB examples was never seen on Australian cars when new. Nor was the 1975 rubber bumper front which arrived after chassis 360301. Any chassis number after that point without the big dodgem car bumpers needs to be investigated further.
It is not uncommon to replace or fill rusting outer panels to hide serious internal structural rust. An MGB expert familiar with the exact location of all the original body seams and panel joins can quickly identify a patch-up job as it will often cover the original seams.
Anyone serious about selling an MGB will make sure that all the shutlines and fit of bonnet, boot and doors are flush and even. While they were never perfect when new, they were not noticeably bad so assume major body alignment problems until proven otherwise if any of these panels stick out or fit unevenly. Look for sagging doors that have to be lifted onto the latch to close.
The area around the headlight cowls and grille is particularly complex to fix and if it looks wrong, it can cost a fortune to rectify. Check all gaps between wheels and bodywork to make sure body is true and square.
There are two six-volt batteries in cradles behind the seats which rot out and cause them to fall onto the road. Check that both batteries are equivalent age and condition.
Check hood and frame very carefully especially rear plastic window. Check side window seals and felt channels. Really loose cars can crack windscreens. Some MGB scuttle shake is normal but on tired cars it can so bad that the doors, dash and seats all move in a different direction. There is no easy way of fixing this except to strip or replace the body.
Waterlogged cabin can hide serious floor rust and rotten trim which are costly to repair. Rusty floors must be cut out and replaced, not patched or filled, as they add to the car's strength. Look for sun damaged trim. Check all dials and switches.
Worn pedal box and steering column bushes can make car feel old and tired with slop in major controls. Allow for replacement if steering wheel and pedals can be moved sideways.
There are no less than three styles of tail lights, two locations for front light units, several dash designs, several seat patterns and three grille styles for a chrome bumper car. Make sure that they all match up for that model. The original steering wheel with its wire spokes can crack and is expensive to replace but critical to originality. They never came with a wood rimmed steering wheel although the later MGB L had a cheaper but sportier steering wheel.
There are two ways to convert a US MGB. Bash the existing structure to fit the steering on the opposite side or install the correct structural and steering parts.
Early three-bearing engine is smoother but develops serious crankshaft rumble when worn which means an explosion is imminent. Some oil leaks can dictate a major bottom end overhaul. Low oil pressure, piston slap and oil smoke can indicate excessive wear. Engine is closely related to Austin 1800 unit but best to keep the original by overhauling it before it breaks.
Lack of modern filter and variable fuel mixture dictate oil changes up to three times more frequent than a modern car or else risk accelerated engine wear. Special oil is also required for wider tolerances in older engines.
Twin SUs need routine overhaul and cleaning but easy to tune. Popular single Weber conversion must be jetted correctly. If engine needs overhaul consider full balance and blueprint and cylinder-head conversion for unleaded fuel. Soft valve seats must have an additive and most will require premium unleaded fuel to avoid pinging. Engine mounts and stays are critical if surrounding parts including exhaust are to remain undamaged. Does it sound crisp and fruity? If not, you will miss out on the MGB's most endearing quality.
Transmission and running gear
Early non-synchro first gear is often chipped as you must be stationary to engage it. Noisy bearings and metal floating around the gearbox can soon destroy it. Second gear synchro is often worn and will crunch thanks to drivers who treat it like a modern gearbox. Overdrive must switch in and out cleanly as fixing the electrics can be fiddly.
Clunking driveshaft can do plenty of damage unless fixed. Listen for rear axle clunks and whines to indicate worn diff and bearings.
Worn wire wheel splines will clunk badly under brakes or power. Splines are easily but not cheaply replaced but dismantling and re-lacing the spokes to replace worn wheel centres is costly and fiddly. Loctite and shimming metals can hide dud wheel centres and splines so it can be worth removing each wheel. Worn splines can allow the wheel to keep turning under brakes before it falls off.
In the days before back-up brake circuits were required, a fluid leak anywhere in the MGB brake system can spell problems. The slightest hint of brake fluid loss or spongy pedal must be traced immediately. Consider a retro-fit tandem master cylinder with dual circuits on an earlier car.
Primitive suspension requires ongoing shot of grease in multiple points but even then a blocked grease nipple can starve the parts of vital lubricant. Light steering and clunk-free ride depends on freshly lubricated king pins and bushes. Lower wishbone spring pans can be distorted or fatigue cracked.
Old lever-arm dampers can leak and stop working if internal seals are worn. Specialists can overhaul them. Modern damper conversions are common but must be done professionally. Rear leaf springs and shackles require routine re-bushing, re-setting and de-rusting so the leaves can slide easily.