Modern Classic: 1955-62 MGATwisty road delight
To qualify as "modern classics," we're choosing vehicles that are comparatively affordable now and that we think will increase in value over time. These are cars that many people would love to have: head-turners, trend-setters in their time, cars that people still see that make them smile, cars that were definitive in their own right, stylish and fun to drive. We're focusing on cars that are at least 25 years old so they can be registered and insured cheaply and aren't subject to annual inspections.
Tastes may vary, as may people's own definitions of "affordable." Our theoretical limit is $50,000 for a car in good to excellent condition, which rules out many of the traditional exotics. This month's selection is the MGA.
Although the square-rigged 1954 MG TF was long in the tooth compared to its rival TR3, Healey 100 and Jag XK120, marque loyalists were shocked a year later when the sleek MGA appeared. Overcoming the diehards' objections, the first all-new MG in decades, developed from a streamlined 1951 TD-based Le Mans entry, was a superior performer that quickly reversed MG's sales decline. The MGA could have been launched earlier, but British Motor Corporation (BMC) chief Leonard Lord, whose company bought MG in the early 1950s, had been reluctant to introduce a model that could cannibalize sales of the BMC-built Austin-Healey.
The MGA got its name because the company's contemporary sedan, the MGZ Magnette, had effectively "used up" the alphabet. The new A's contemporary steel body, with aluminum hood, doors and deck, was mounted on a sturdy box-section frame. BMC tried to usurp as many components as possible. The TF Midget contributed its independent coil-spring front suspension; the Magnette provided the A's live rear axle, drum brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. To save money, the floorboards were still made of wood.
Powering the MGA was the Magnette's 60-bhp, 1489 cc BMC "B" Series pushrod four upgraded to 68 bhp with 8.3:1 compression and twin SU carburetors. Its 95-mph top speed helped the streamlined newcomer to be faster than any stock T-Series model. Progressive tuning raised power to 72 bhp.
For the first 16 months, only roadsters were produced, then a smartly styled coupe was added. With its better aerodynamics, the coupe was even quicker than the open car. Both versions hid the spare tire under the first trunk (or "boot" in the Mother Tongue) ever on an MG sports car.
Beginning in April 1959, 2,111 Twin Cam MGAs were produced. With 9.9:1 compression, a DOHC crossflow alloy cylinder head, a displacement increase to 1588cc, and bigger SU carbs, the Twin Cam developed a lusty 108 bhp at 6,700 rpm. To tame the extra power, the car got four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes, center-lock disc wheels and firmed-up suspension. Sadly, the highly tuned DOHC engine was fussy and unreliable in street use. It was dropped after one year. About 400 Twin Cam frames remained. A few were equipped with OHV engines and sold as 1600 De Luxes.
Basic MGAs reaped benefits from the short-lived Twin Cam. In May 1959, the MGA-1600 offered an 80-bhp OHV version of the 1588cc DOHC engine. Lockheed disc brakes replaced the dated front drums to better cope with the new model's 100-mph top end. April '61 saw the improved MGA-1600 Mark II. Its pushrod 1622-cc four developed 93 bhp. Top speed rose to 105 mph. A 1600 Mark II De Luxe option was offered (in 290 roadsters and 23 coupes) to use up the remaining Twin Cam chassis.
A long list of factory options improved performance and comfort. Wire wheels were always popular. Other popular add-ons included a close-ratio gearbox, an adjustable steering column, a luggage rack and a fiberglass hardtop. Over the years, minor lighting, grille and badging changes occurred, but the MGA's basic overall shape remained unchanged until June 1962, when production ceased to make way for the MGB. Fully 101,081 MGAs were produced: 80% came to the U.S.
When you examine an MGA, watch for rotted wood floorboards and insidious rust in rocker panels, trunk floor, lower doors, and the frame under the cockpit and adjacent to the twin batteries. Happily, new spares, even entire frames, are available.
Enthusiasts prize the classic T-Series models, but MGAs are affordable, readily available and practical. Twin Cams and De Luxes are the most desirable. Nimble for its era and remarkably easy to four-wheel drift, a well-tuned MGA is still a delight on a twisty road. Expect to pay $6,650-$18,325 for a running 1955-59 roadster, $6,975-$16,300 for a 1959-62 1600/1600MK II (coupes are 25% less), $15,000-$19,000 for a 1600 De Luxe and $12,175-$29,000 for a Twin Cam.
Cars of Particular Interest (CPI), www.cpivalueguide.com
The MG Car Club, www.mgcc.co.uk
Moss Motors (parts), www.mossmotors.com
North American MGA Register, www.namgar.com
University Motors (Parts), Ada, MI (616) 682-0800
Victoria British Ltd. (Parts), www.victoriabritish.com