Let the good times roll for the rakish MG

As the first new model for 15 years is unveiled, Phil Llewellin looks at the history of Britain's favourite sports car

Tuesday, 7 March, 1995, will be remembered with affection by car enthusiasts from as far afield as Norway and New Zealand. It was notable for the launch of the long-awaited, Rover-based MGF sports car that represents a fresh start for one of motoring's best-loved marques. Proof of this affection includes the MG Owners' Club having 50,000 members - a figure no other one-make car club anywhere in the world can match. The rival MG Car Club has 11,000 British members and an international network of more than 80 affiliated clubs.

Looking the part is one of several key reasons for this uniquely widespread appeal. Although there have been a few sluggards - and in recent years several less than charismatic saloons - most of the MGs built since the 1920s have complemented rakish styling with good performance and reasonable economy.

Affordability has been synonymous with the octagonal MG badge ever since Cecil Kimber was the general manager of Morris Garages in Oxford, just after the First World War. A man with a sharp eye for what are now called niche models, Kimber built a sporting body on a standard Morris chassis, back in 1923. This established the MG concept of keeping costs down by using suitably modified versions of mass-produced components.

The MG emblem made its debut in 1924. A year later, Kimber won a gold medal in the tough, prestigious Land's End Trial, driving a car that has become known as "Old Number One". It is one of the stars of an MG celebration that is being staged at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon, Warwickshire, from 26 March to 11 June. Stirling Moss, who is opening the exhibition, will be reunited with the very special MG in which he achieved a record- breaking 245.5 mph in 1957. The MGF, making its British debut, will bring the story up to date.

The marque's most ardent admirers include 60-year-old Mike Hawke, who served in the Royal Navy before specialising in designing and building ships. He is now the MG Car Club's chairman. "As a lad, my ambition was to own a Frazer-Nash or Aston Martin," he recalled. "But they were changing hands for £350. The best I could afford in 1953 was a 21-year-old MG J2. It cost £80. That car is still in the garage and has averaged about 5,000 miles a year in my ownership."

Mr Hawke's other MGs include a 1969 MGC-GT, which he has driven 170,000 miles, and a pre-war racer whose supercharged engine he discovered in Singapore. The J2 cost £199 10s 0d when new. Good examples of these nippy little swashbucklers now change hands for the thick end of £20,000.

Fifty years ago, American servicemen based in Britain fell for the post- war MG's rakish styling and brisk performance. TheUnited States became the marque's Eldorado. Admirers included Ken Purdy, one of the best of all motoring writers. His book Kings of the Road focused on cars for which men "deserted their wives, embezzled the firm's money and fled the country". MG was the only affordable make amid the likes of Bentley, Ferrari and Mercedes.

Mike Hawke spotlights a sporting pedigree as one of the main elements in the marque's magic. Kimber's pioneering success, and Stirling Moss's record-breaking feats, are just two of many examples. In 1933, for instance, the Tourist Trophy was won by Tazio Nuvolari, possibly the greatest of all racing drivers, in a K3 Magnette. Elsewhere that year, K3s won the team prize in Italy's 1,000-mile Mille Miglia road race. Among the drivers were Earl Howe, Sir Henry Birkin and Count Giovanni Lurani. This upper- crust line-up explains why pre-race formalities extended to audiences with the King of Italy and the Pope.

In the 1970s, entertaining advertisements for the MGB were written by the likes of Alan Coren. His first car, he recalled, was a pre-war MG Midget for which he paid £12 in 1959. "Its sturdy little doors were bound to its sturdy little body with piano wire (since what it conspicuously lacked were sturdy little hinges), and when you hit the brakes, the speedometer fell in your lap. In wet weather it was fitted with a passenger, this being the only method of holding the roof on, and the combined roar of the engine, exhaust, tappets, rear-axle whine and wind was a feature that has left me with a permanent shout."

The first sports car I ever drove, 36 years ago, was a friend's MG TD. Accustomed to a pre-war Austin Seven with all the speed and agility of a geriatric tortoise, I wondered if I could master such a potent machine. According to Autocar, it accelerated from 0-60 mph in 23.9 seconds - slower than all but the feeblest modern runabout - and declined to exceed 75 mph.

Alas, MG suffered all manner of indignities as John Bull's motor industry slithered into decline after the doomed British Leyland Motor Corporation was formed in 1968. Nothing of consequence was done to replace the MGB or the Midget. Launched in 1962, when true believers were appalled by such wimpish features as wind-up windows, the MGB soldiered on until 1980. By then, what had been the world's top-selling sports car had exceeded its shelf-life by almost a decade. Future generations of affordable sports cars came from the Japanese. Their attempts to create anything stylish and stimulating had earlier been regarded by Europeans and Americans as more of a joke than a threat.

Mike Hawke was one of the few outsiders to see the new MGF before its official unveiling. He shook his head when asked if the marque had passed the point where the flame could be re-ignited. "The bhp and mpg figures look good and it has all the makings of a super little car," he said. "From the MG Car Club's viewpoint, this is the best thing since sliced bread."

The Heritage Motor Centre (01926 641188) is on the B4100 between Banbury and Warwick.

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