If you think the Mazda Miata is small, try sliding behind the wheel of a vintage MG Midget. Today’s Miata is a whopping 21.3 inches longer and 14.7 inches wider than the 1962 Midget shown here, a lovely first-year example of MG’s entry-level roadster from the heyday of British funsters.
The Midget moniker came straight from MG’s history books, dating back to the 1929 M-type. The iconic T-series, which hit the market in 1936, saw many changes and several names (TA, TB, TC, TD, and TF) during its nineteen-year life span but steadfastly hung on to its Midget nickname until 1955, after exposing large numbers of Americans — mostly GIs stationed overseas during World War II — to the concept of the sports car.
By the late 1950s, the two-seater market was incredibly competitive — even American companies had committed to the segment with the likes of the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird — so it wasn’t long before MG resurrected the original Midget’s theme of extreme fun and performance for minimal money when it introduced a new Midget in 1961. (Archrival Triumph countered with a model below its popular TR3, the Spitfire, about a year after the Midget’s launch.) Unlike its namesakes — and the faster, bigger, pricier MGA that had debuted in 1955 — this Midget was actually an early example of British badge engineering. It was basically the same car as the second-generation Austin-Healey Sprite, whose immediate predecessor premiered in famous “bugeye” form in 1958 and had been developed by Donald Healey at the behest of Sir Leonard Lord, the British Motor Corporation chairman who also drove development of the legendary 1959 Mini.
The new Sprite traded the bugeye’s smiling grille and erect headlamps for a more conventional face almost identical to the one pictured above but with a crosshatch grille instead of a slotted one. The Midget had a few other trim differences and cost slightly more than the Sprite, but it managed to outsell its Healey twin by the time the next-generation Midget arrived in 1964. By 1971, Sprite production — and Austin’s partnership with Healey — was over, but Midgets continued to be built until 1979. Those later examples, however, were stifled by outdated technology as well as safety and emissions requirements that necessitated ugly bumpers and ever-larger engines in order to maintain acceptable performance levels, so it’s generally agreed that the best — and purest — Midgets are those built before 1967.
Richard Wanserski’s 1962 model features a tiny 948-cc four-cylinder engine, but it revs freely and emits a nicely throaty growl. The engine’s 46 hp is enough to make the 1500-pound almond green Midget feel shockingly energetic, and it feels even quicker after Wanserski steps up and out of the passenger’s seat, almost as if a one-ton trailer was just unhitched. A sprightly seventy-one years old, the trim Wanserski has affixed a state-park sticker to his MG’s windshield so he can drive it to his favorite hiking spots. Standing six-foot-three and wearing size-twelve work boots, he’s far from petite, but he actually finds his Midget to be quite comfortable. “It is hard for me to get in with the top up, though,” he admits. The fact that he fits at all tends to surprise attendees of Detroit-area car shows, where he also often exhibits the equally diminutive, 27-hp 1950 Crosley CD convertible that he’s owned for twenty-one years. “I enjoy driving older cars,” he says. “In the 1970s, I had a ’38 Pontiac that my wife wasn’t very fond of. I got rid of the car, and she still divorced me! Unlike my Crosley, though, the Midget can stay in the flow of traffic.”
Indeed, despite a spec sheet more suitable for a lawn mower than an automobile, the Midget keeps up with traffic very well on city streets and back roads. Still, Wanserski hasn’t worked up the nerve to take the car on the interstate since completing a cosmetic and mechanical restoration in 2009. We can’t blame him. After all, the MG has no seatbelts, and from behind the wheel it gives you the notion that you’re driving a lidless shoebox. Which, it turns out, is a fantastic feeling that’s enhanced by the car’s firm steering and notchy, slightly stiff four-speed gearbox, whose rubber cover you instinctively grab like you’d hold a pencil. The clutch pedal feels a bit tight and engages high in its travel, but it’s easy to modulate, so much so that Wanserski has used his “street-legal go-kart” to teach two of his grandchildren to drive a manual transmission.
More advanced drivers can enjoy pushing the limits of the car while staying far below the radar of the local constabulary. “You can get the thrill of speed but still be going way under the speed limit,” Wanserski says. The thrill is heightened because you’re intimately exposed to the car’s mechanical noises and the elements around you, both nature and traffic. You’ll induce moderate body roll if you push it, but the featherweight car is very nimble and lots of fun.
As the years accumulated, the Midget got heavier and became diluted, but this model retains its status as a “slow car” that’s extremely fun to drive quickly. Just like a modern Mazda Miata.
0.9L OHV I-4,
46-50 hp, 52 lb-ft;
1.1L OHV I-4, 55 hp, 61 lb-ft
Control arms, coil springs
Trailing arms, leaf springs
Drums/drums or discs/drums
It’s a cheap British roadster that’s easy to fix and hard to resist. Mark 1 cars built from 1963 have a larger 1098-cc four-cylinder and front disc brakes. The most valuable Midgets are Mark 2s, which in mid-1964 added roll-up door glass and vent windows (instead of the side curtains with sliding Plexiglass in Wanserski’s true roadster); a taller, more rounded windshield; and outside door handles. Mark 3s and 4s are easier to find and less expensive, but we prefer the purity of the early cars.