It was pretty and popular, but was kept in production for too long, says Giles Chapman

To many, the MGB is a byword for the British sports car. To me, they were three letters to be greeted with a groan.

To many, the MGB is a byword for the British sports car. To me, they were three letters to be greeted with a groan.

As editor of two classic car magazines in the late 1980s, I was duty-bound constantly to find new ways to laud the MGB. This was because it had the biggest owner's club, there were loads of companies specialising in them (crucial for our advertising revenue), and there were simply more of them on British roads than any other sports car.

The MGB was what we were all about but, boy, was I sick to death of thinking about it. And how reluctant I felt, when pressed by friends and relatives for advice on buying a "nice little two-seater", to agree the MGB was really still the best option, despite its rust-prone body, leaky hood and ancient choke-starting for cold mornings.

A little churlish, perhaps, because the MGB was an honest, enjoyable and quite sexy little roadster, with a snug-fitting cockpit, a growling exhaust note and entertaining road manners. It moulded two generations' views of exactly what a sports car should be, because it was the longest-running MG in history, available for 18 years. But the MGB also froze sports car expectations for 25 years.

MG's chief engineer Sydney Enever began work on "Project EX205" - the MGB - in 1959. Unlike the separate-chassis MGA it replaced, the B adopted unitary construction, which meant more room for passengers and luggage. The B-series engine (used in the MGA since 1955) was bored out for the B from 1492 to 1798cc, generating a healthy increase in power of 8bhp to 94bhp, and the MGA's proven suspension package of independent front suspension by coil springs and wishbones, with a live rear axle and leaf springs was carried over intact. The MGB was announced in October 1962.

Comfort also now played an important part in the MGB. Compared to the model it replaced, it was easier to get into and had winding (not sliding) windows. At £950 on the road, the MGB was an immediate hit. Strong US demand, in particular, helped production rocket.

The engine, while hardly silken, was hearty with plenty of torque. Top speed was 103mph and 0-60mph was accomplished in 11.4 seconds. Predictable roadholding shifted to entertaining handling on twisty roads, and the ride was good.

The MGB GT coupe arrived in 1965, a pretty car with its elegant, Pininfarina-styled fastback. The bodywork carried an extra 220lb, so acceleration was blunted, but the shape was more aerodynamic, allowing a higher top speed of 106mph.

In 1973 Rover's 137bhp 3.5-litre V8 was installed to make the MGB GT V8. It was good for 125mph and 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds. Moreover, the alloy engine weighed an amazing 40lb less than the B-series iron lump, so handling remained untrammeled. But it was shortlived, thanks to the 1970s fuel crisis.

By that stage, MG was part of the grim British Leyland empire and, as the MGB was one of the firm's few products with no obvious vices, they simply left it to grow old. Gradually, the MGB went from being a good little car to an elderly embarrassment, and when BL did update (instead of replace) it, it was with knuckle-dragging ineptitude.

To meet North American safety requirements, in 1975 all MGBs had black polyurethane bumpers tacked on to them; to meet US headlamp height regulations, the ride height was raised by 1.5in; to satisfy emissions laws (on USA-bound Bs), the twin SU carburettors were replaced by a single Zenith carburettor and a catalytic converter added. Now the MGB was ugly, unstable and for American drivers unbelievably torpid - its 62bhp of power gave it just 90mph tops, with 0-60mph taking a painstakingly slow 18.3 seconds. The range limped on until 1980. An amazing 513,000 had been sold.

The MGB's popularity survived undaunted throughout the 1980s. Used car rivals were few: the Triumph Spitfire was truly crude, the Fiat X1/9 was mid-engined, and the Triumph TR7 looked atrocious. Nothing else was remotely mainstream.

Hence, I found myself forced to advocate the MGB. Its pre-eminence finally dimmed in 1989 with the launch of the Mazda MX-5. Within a few years, 'ordinary drivers', as opposed to MG diehards, could now get a nearly-new. front-engined, rear-drive, two-seater sports car that offered all the MGB's fun with none of the disadvantages of owning a 1950s car. Secondhand MX-5s torpedoed values of MGBs and, in fact, it has now massively outsold it and become a classic in its own right. Even my mum's bought one.

Were I still editing classic car mags today, no doubt I'd be thinking of a dozen ways to sell that one now. Groan.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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