Collectible Classic: 1975-1980 MGB
A revisionist history of the rubber bumper.
"Wrong year." If you know much about British sports cars and MGBs in particular, there's a good chance that's what you're thinking. A simple calculus has long guided assessment of the MGB: Chrome bumpers equals British classic; rubber bumpers equals British Leyland junk. Yet this prejudice unfairly maligns thousands of cars and shortchanges the improbable 18-year run of the MGB.
No one disputes the greatness of the early MGB, which debuted in 1962 as a replacement for the MGA. Handsomely styled, fun to drive, and relatively affordable, it quickly gained a wide following. Participation in racing burnished the car's reputation, and the introduction of the closed-roof MGB GT in 1965 buoyed sales. Then, according to the popular narrative, time more or less stood still. Aside from minor tweaks to the interior and exterior—many of those aimed at lowering costs—the MGB basically stopped evolving. Plans for replacements and new engines never materialized. Crash standards also took their toll—ironic for a company that had long traded on the safety of its cars ("Safety Fast"). MGBs sold in the United States from the second half of 1974 onward pay the most noticeable price, wearing black polyurethane front and rear bumpers and riding an inch higher to meet federal 5-mph crash requirements.
Contemporary reviewers, not surprisingly, slammed these developments. It didn't help that more modern competition—most notably the Datsun 240Z—redefined expectations for budget sports-car performance and build quality. By the time sales in the United States ceased in 1980, the sports-car world had long moved on and dismissed the B as a relic.
Thirty years after the last Bs rolled out of MG's factory in Abingdon, there's room for a fresh perspective. Rather than sully MG for falling behind the times, we might recognize the company for keeping the British sports car alive. MG's efforts in this regard were not trivial: Then, as now, small automakers spend more per car to comply with regulations. Yet MG persisted for the better part of a decade, with very little support from the incompetent management at parent company British Leyland. These efforts were not in vain, as the later Bs sold respectably in the United States. There may have been faster and more modern cars on the market, but the rubber-bumper MGB offered the traditional thrills of a British roadster to a whole new generation.
Prince of darkness: Stone guards protect original Lucas headlights, which are becoming harder to find.
This generation included Sue Snyder. She "always wanted a British sports car" but, growing up in Michigan during the 1960s, was a bit late to the scene. She started her career as a teacher in 1971 and promptly bought a Triumph Spitfire, followed by a 1977 MGB and the 1980 MGB Limited Edition you see here. "They were just about all that was out there," she says.
Of course, MG then left the market, so Snyder has made her car last. She ceased using it as a daily driver in the late '80s, when she spotted some rust in the left-hand rocker panel. A cosmetic conditioning—fresh paint, carpet, wheels, and top—followed in the early 1990s.
Snyder's gleaming B, painted black like all limited-edition cars, convinces us that not all later cars looked terrible. Although MG never found a color coating flexible enough to cover the bumpers, it had by this time worked out a clever paint and stripe package that ties them together and visually lowers the car. The interior likewise finds an agreeable compromise between classic simplicity and more contemporary safety and convenience (the much-criticized "pillow" dashboard was refined in 1972).
Who you calling ugly? MG capped the B's long run with a handsome Limited Edition package—distinct wheels, a chin spoiler, and body-side stripes.
MGs had a reputation for being rather hardy. "Everything is overbuilt on this car," Snyder says. That's not to say they're trouble-free. This B had an overheating problem when new. A plastic radiator cap got so hot it melted and all the coolant leaked out, not an uncommon issue. More recently, the engine needed a full rebuild. Still, Snyder estimates she's driven the MG some 140,000 miles (she's on her third speedometer, so she hasn't an exact figure) and considers it very reliable.
The old B doesn't make a liar of its owner. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder, freed of its smog equipment, endures multiple stops and starts during our photo session and runs smoothly. Lowering these cars to pre-'74 height is not difficult given the abundance of aftermarket support for MGs. But really, contemporary criticisms of the later B's handling seem irrelevant in 2014, when the typical subcompact can dust most cars built in the '70s. Performance is not why one buys a vintage British roadster today. Rather, it's for the simple fun of feeling close to the road. The unassisted steering feels tight and responsive as we wind our way through neighborhoods around metro Detroit. The transmission, a Nissan five-speed Snyder installed a few years ago for improved highway fuel economy, faithfully represents the snick-snick shifts for which MGs were renowned.
Today, people like to imagine an unbroken link between the British sports-car golden age of the 1960s and the revival that came with the introduction of the Mazda Miata in 1989. Snyder, who was there for both (her garage also houses a pristine, first-generation MX-5), bids that we remember what came between. "MG definitely filled the gap."
- Engine 1.8L (110-cu-in) overhead valve I-4, 62 hp, 88 lb-ft
- Transmission 4-speed manual
- Drive Rear-Wheel
- Front Suspension Control arms, coil springs
- Rear Suspension Live axle, leaf springs
- Brakes F/R Discs/drums
- Weight 2338 lb
- Years Produced 1962-1980
- Number Sold 513,272 (125,597 GTs and 387,675 roadsters)
- Original Price $7950 (1980)
MGBs of any era make great classic cars: They're fun to drive, sturdy, and relatively cheap to maintain thanks to an abundance of used and aftermarket parts. The post-1974 models are a bit slower and, depending on your tastes, look a bit awkward due to their bumpers, but they're still rewarding to own and drive. They also offer a few advantages versus earlier cars, including higher-capacity cooling, better brakes, and fewer years of wear and tear.