MG TF

It finally got trounced by the Triumph TR2, but the 1953 MG TF had bucketloads of errant charm
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If everything goes to plan - and even the plan is hazy, as yet - the contemporary MG TF will be in British showrooms again within months. It'll be the first of a new type of MG, one where most of the components come from China, and where those hallowed initials will also stand for "Modern Gentleman" (yes, that really has been mooted) as much as Morris Garages. Funny old world, but then again, what relevance does a chain of defunct Oxfordshire car showrooms have to Beijing customers? None.

Rumour has it that the revived roadster will sport TF2 insignia. But it should really be called TF3 because its immediate predecessor, made between 2001 and 2005, had already filched its title from the archives. The original TF was from another MG era entirely. It became one of the most desirable MGs ever. Ironically, it was an accident of MG's history that it ever existed, and it was almost scorned when unveiled in 1953.

By that time, an aerodynamic new MG roadster should have been available, based on an MG TD racing car specially created for the 1951 Le Mans 24-hour race. Events, however, intervened: in 1952, MG's owner, the Nuffield Organisation, and Austin formed the British Motor Corporation, a merger in which Austin's chief, Leonard Lord, had the whip hand.

He also had his own pet sports car, the Austin-Healey 100, and he wasn't about to let MG upstage that. So MG was ordered to put its new model on ice (it eventually appeared in 1955 as the MGA), and think of ways to spruce up its traditional sports car, the MG TD, in the interim.

The TD, with its roots in the early 1930s, had a separate chassis, obstinately separate mudguards, an upright, tombstone-like radiator grille and a petrol tank slung across the back like a metal backpack. The only concessions to modernity were rack-and-pinion steering and independent front suspension. And its four-cylinder, 1,250cc engine gave spirited, not sparkling, performance via a synchromesh-laden, four-speed gearbox.

But the TD had bucketloads of charm, something GIs discovered when stationed in Britain during the Second World War and they got their hands on earlier MG T-series cars. Driving these gave them ear-to-ear smiles, and many took their TAs, TBs and TCs back to the US when they departed, opening the door for an MG export bonanza in the 1940s. Likewise, the TD went down a storm there because it offered an utterly contrasting experience to anything from Detroit: involving, exhilarating and pared-down.

With some trepidation, then, the MG designer Gerald Palmer set about interpreting his brief to update the car but not to challenge Austin-Healey. Shrewdly, he decided to make the car lower and sleeker without infringing its essential vintage appeal. Key to this was changing the upright, drop-tank radiator at the front to a pressurised system, so the radiator grille could be lowered and reclined for a more wind-cheating profile. So the radiator cap became a fake, but the effect gave Palmer a significantly lower bonnet height.

The headlights, previously stubbornly separate, were now embedded into smoothly integrated front wings, while Palmer's skilful pencil gave the car a more graceful, tapered rear end. Snug bucket seats replaced the TD's crude bench.

The car went on sale late in 1953 to a lukewarm reception, in Britain anyway. Performance just wasn't up to scratch any longer; sporty wire wheels were now an option, but the 57 horses under the bonnet had to haul along a heavier car than the TD.

A year later, a slightly gutsier 1,466cc engine was installed, giving 63bhp for the newly designated TF1500 model. The extra capacity added torque, power and provided a decidedly more responsive drive. Top speed rose from 75 to 80mph and two seconds were peeled off the old 18-second 0-60mph acceleration times.

By April 1955, the TF was finally axed after 9,600 had been built. Most went to the US, and just 3,400 had the bigger, better engine. With the MGA replacement, the marque shook off its antediluvian image, but MG's self-imposed four-year stagnation had cost it dear.

The tempting two-litre Triumph TR2 came along and offered more speed, style and excitement for the same cash (£787 against the TF's £780); the Triumph even had a boot, whereas TF owners had to retrieve rain-soaked suitcases from a rack on top of the exposed spare wheel at the back. It was also a rugged rally car, unlike the dainty MG TF.

Yet from the apathy of the TF's genesis came one of the most attractive MGs ever, a car with all the classic British essence of Morgan but a touch of sophistication to its lines. They're much rarer than the TD, command a 25 per cent price premium, and you'll need to spend more than £18,000 for a peachy UK example today.

Indeed, so coveted did the TF become that it spawned several replicas. The 1985 Naylor TF was a fastidious copy for a hefty £15,000, but the cheap and cheerful RMB Gentry home-build TF lookalike was launched in 1973 and found 2,000 spanner-wielding buyers over more than 25 years.

We'll all be pretty amazed if that ever happens to the first Chinese TF2. Then again, those MG initials have long been synonymous with Muddled Goings- on, too...

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