New Zealand Classic Car - - Report -

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.

Shoe­string af­fair

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.

De­mand­ing route

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,

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