f couch pundits deny classic status to the MGF roadster, should they at least allow that this was not only the last real MG but also a rather clever design created with limited means? Sweep away prejudices about a declining Austin, Morris, and Rover empire and you are presented with a somewhat ingenious car that is not half bad to drive.
Lack of investment meant that the strongselling MGB and Midget/sprite models were never replaced, and, when the Mazda MX-5 arrived in 1989, it was clear that MG had missed the boat. There was, of course, the dynamically challenged MGB RV8, but this was always an old model in a new world. MG began floating ideas for a fresh sports car in the mid ’80s, but, instead of being an MX-5 clone, the British model for the closing years of last century required fresh tech. This was not to be something from a past era, and the fact that engineers had to dip heavily into the Austin Morris parts bin was beside the point.
MGF project director Nick Fell had a lot of respect for the MX-5 and Toyota MR2, but said at its launch that MG was keen to build a car with its own character “rather than a better MX-5 or a better MR2”. This would emerge in terms of driving dynamics, greater refinement — and a higher price. Fell said a 1.6-litre supercharged variant was considered, but turbocharging was not feasible given the heat-management issues in the tight engine bay.
Never a big seller
Today, critics might dismiss the MGF for its less-than-perfect build quality, head-gasket problems, and leaky soft-tops, while ignoring the ingenious underpinnings. It was never a big seller in New Zealand, and now you can now pick up one of these mid-engined convertibles for little more than $4K. The
most expensive MGF I could find recently was a 1997 example complete with the handsome optional hardtop, with 82,000km on the clock and an asking price of $7K — not much for fresh-air motoring in something different that, given care, is hardly likely to show much depreciation.
The MGF always struggled in the affordable soft-top class, because it cost about one-third more than an MX-5. At the local launch in early 1996, the 1.8i manual retailed for $56,990, while the Mazda was priced at a more attractive $42,500. Later that year, the more powerful, Variable Valve Control (Vvc)–engined MGF arrived at $64,990, but the reckoning was that the less grunty version was all most people needed. Two decades on, and a VVC is valued no higher than the cooking models, so a dealer offering a VVC recently for $5500 seemed a good proposition.
The first of the revised MGTFS went on sale in New Zealand in late 2002, and, at $49,990, the least expensive TF135 was cheaper than its predecessor. This had a 100kw version of the 1.8-litre K-series engine, while the other two models on offer were an 88kw TF120 Stepspeed automatic ($51,990) and a 118kw VVC ($56,990). The 1.6 litre 85kw entry-level MGTF was never imported here.
As always, demand reflects price, and, in the eyes and minds of some, the urge to enthuse over the MGF is minimal. Current values in the UK are also low, in spite of the solid sales there when the car was in production. Reflecting, perhaps, a patriotic wave, it was the best-selling sports car in Britain for six years. Just over 77,000 MGFS and newer MGTFS were made at the old Longbridge plant between 1995 and 2005, and production would have been much higher had the car been exported to North America. While parent company
Dinky rather than beautiful
Three companies were outsourced to come up with concepts, and the chosen project was developed in-house, led by designers Gordon Sked and Gerry Mcgovern, the latter having produced his MG F-16 prototype. Sked, whose personal garage included a BMW 635 CSI coupé, worked on such contrasting cars as the Metro, Rover 3500 SD1, and Jaguar XJ40.
When the wraps first came off the car, many enthusiasts wanted to admire the MGF, as it was the first genuine MG for 33 years and proof positive that the sports car brand was not dead. At the British unveiling in 1995, I described the MGF styling as dinky rather than beautiful. It had somewhat strangely shaped headlights and a slightly awkward rear-end treatment that I would come to like. The high rear end was inherited from the 1985 MG EX-E concept, as was the tail-light design. There were nice exterior touches, like the side air intakes, clever placement of the twin exhaust pipes, and the
neat alloy fuel-filler cap with its eight Allenscrew surround. Apart from the low-profile soft-top shaped by Pininfarina, the car’s design was all British.
With the TF restyle came a new nose that some said was no better than the original, and a much-needed better-quality interior. But the main changes were under the skin, where some of the car’s original character was lost. Today, critics joke that the MKI MGF is a back-to-front Mini Metro in terms of both suspension and power train. More explanation is needed.
Austin Rover management would only give the then-new MG project the go-ahead if costs were kept to the equivalent of around NZ$100 million, or 10 per cent of what is usually required for a completely new car. Thus, as a shoestring affair, the designers and engineers were obliged to use existing engines, suspension, and hardware in an advanced (for the day) sports model.
Much of the budget was used in sorting a power train, and there was no suggestion of using costly imported Honda engines. The Metro’s home-grown 16-valve doubleoverhead-camshaft K-series would fit the mid-engine layout, but the 1.4-litre capacity was deemed too small, so a lengthy programme was convened to boost the capacity of this motor to 1.6 and 1.8 litres. It was a difficult task, and, to accommodate the larger pistons, engineers developed wet liners at the top of the block and dry liners at the bottom. This allowed a capacity of 1588cc, and a longer-throw crankshaft further increased engine size to 1796cc. With lighter pistons, the engine was also smoother running than the Metro K-series. However, in more than 20 years of operation, the power unit has been prone to head-gasket failure, which some mechanics say is due to poor positioning of the thermostat on the pump intake, rather than on the head outlet.
During secret testing, the engines were evaluated in Toyota MR2S and modified Metro vans. There were problems sorting both engine cooling and lengthy gearlinkage cables, since the five-speed manual transmission was originally designed for a front-wheel-drive vehicle. The gear lever is rather long, but the action is impressively smooth.
With an overall length of 3.9 metres and a wheelbase shorter than a BMW Mini three-door hatch, the ride could be choppy and unsettled on poor roads. This was sorted by mounting the MGF on a pair of Metro front subframes and incorporating Hydragas interconnected suspension. Independent double wishbones were used front and rear — these were bespoke parts rather than the similar Metro wishbones. As a development of Morris 1100 / Mini Hydrolastic suspension, Hydragas was standard on the 1973 Austin Allegro. Dr Alex Moulton, who conceived the suspension, said Hydragas “de-fidgets the car”, allowing it to soar over undulations due to separation from pitch to bounce modes.
“Design is about everything”
An eccentric character, Moulton died in 2012 at 92, still fascinated with suspensions and remaining unmarried, because he said a wife and children were incompatible with his engineering work. At a Design Council exhibition of British inventions, the Duke of Edinburgh once warned Moulton that he might end up in a glass case himself! During development of the BMW Mini, the Germans — led by Bernd Pischetsrieder — looked seriously at implementing a form of interconnected Moulton Hydragas, but, with management changes, the idea was
shelved, and the car came with conventional suspension. Pischetsrieder did his best to resurrect MG and also had unfulfilled ideas about bringing back Austin-healey and Riley.
Moulton collaborated with Mini designer Sir Alec Issigonis in the late ’40s, devising cone-shaped rubber road springs for Alvis that never went into production. Hydrolastic, which differs from Hydragas that has gas under pressure, uses fluid-filled displacers interconnected front to rear, with each displacer containing a rubber spring. However, it was not fully developed in time for the original Mini introduction in 1959, instead arriving three years later in the Morris 1100. It became standard on Mini in 1964, and the car only reverted back to the earlier rubber suspension five years later because of cost. Later in life, Moulton ran a 1966 Cooper S and a 1980 Metro, each with Hydragas interconnected suspension.
During initial MGF development, the Hydragas system was not interconnected, but the interconnection worked so much better. Drive the car and see why — it rides superbly, yet handling and roadholding are also excellent. This is the chief reason why the original MGF is the car to have rather than the newer steel-sprung TF, which also has good road manners but a more inferior ride. MG said changes to coil-spring suspension and a multi-link rear axle were designed to produce a more responsive and involving arrangement. In reality, the modification was probably due to economics. Production volumes were lower once Dunlop was only producing Hydragas suspension for the MGF, as the Metro had ended its manufacture, and Rover needed to seek a lower-cost suspension. The TF has a lower centre of gravity, with a 10-millimetre reduction in ride height.
So, how did the original MGF fare riding on gas and fluid-filled spheres? On my debut drive on a demanding route through the English Cotswolds, the car felt great, and this impression was confirmed several months later on soaking wet roads near Blenheim, on the local launch. It was a satisfying car to drive, and the ride was comfortable and compliant in any conditions. Some felt the ride perhaps too good for a sports car, and that the MG was not as much fun or as involving to drive as an MX-5. Yet, clearly this car is serious about its road manners,