Next to riding a motorcycle, driving - or riding - in an MGB with the top down is the closest you'll come to automotive nirvana.
The heady mix of leather, gasoline and motor oil, combined with whatever natural or man-made odours waft by your nostrils is a seductive automotive opiate. In this age of synthetic-laden interiors, bank vault passenger compartments and well dampened road/engine noises, cars such as the MGB are as out of step with the times as dancing the jitterbug at a Coldplay concert.
In its day, however, the MGB was considered so advanced that it created much consternation among the sports car "purists." When the first car rolled off its Abingdon, England, assembly line in 1962, the public was shocked to find a car with several new features. Real doors, for example. That is to say doors with inside and outside handles ... and glass that rolled up ... and down. There was also a padded dash and a roomy, comfortable cockpit. All of these "features" were firsts for the venerable MG series of roadsters that can trace their roots back to the late 1920s (the name MG stands for Morris Garages, where the cars were first built).
The MGB's unitized construction (with the frame integrated into the body) was also a departure from the tradition of separate ladder-type frames. The Pininfarina-influenced (the Italian design studio that puts forth creations for Ferrari) styling was more nondescript than earlier MGs, but was nicely proportioned and honest in a conservative sort of way.
Though non-traditional in content and structure, the MGB still carried over some key elements from its MGA predecessor. The standard-issue 98horsepower 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine was a bored-out carry over from the powerplant first developed in 1955.
The suspension - independent coil springs in front with leaf springs supporting a solid rear axle - was also derived from the earlier car.
Although improved over the MGA, not all was perfect for the MGB, in fact, far from it in some cases. The most cantankerous "feature" was the difficult-to-operate top. The process of securing the snug-fitting snaps while wrestling with the frame supports was an unpleasant experience at best. Many MGB owners opted for the available fiberglass hardtop for off-season protection, while diehard drivers employed the standard tonneau cover, even during monsoon-strength downpours.
And with the old MGA's suspension, there was little to brag about in the ride department.
The first MGBs imported to North America sold for about $2,500. Aside from the removable hardtop, extra-cost options included wire wheels, "Laycock de Normanville" overdrive and an AM radio.
It didn't take long for the word to spread that the inexpensive MGB was not only a blast to drive, but out-handled and out-braked (front discs were standard) just about anything else around. True, the car was no rocket, but with zeroto-60 mph (96 km/h) times of less than 12 seconds, it was no early-1960s slouch either. That would be a couple of seconds behind a modern compact car.
The roadster model was followed in 1965 by MGBGT, which was a gracefully styled 2+2 hatchback that added a measure of practicality to the car's sporting nature. Both models were eagerly snapped up by an increasing fan base, earning it the number-one position in the British Motor Corporation's - the MGB's maker - stable of sports cars that also included Triumph Spitfire and TR4.
The Mark II version of the MGB arrived in 1967. Although there were few exterior changes, the engine was upgraded for smoother operation and greater durability and a seldom seen automatic transmission was added to the options list.
Sadly, the fall of the MGB began in 1969 when mandatory emissions equipment began gutting performance. By 1974, further indignities were foisted on the MGB in the form of hideous-looking crash bumpers. Instead of redesigning a new front end, British Leyland, the MG's newly amalgamated parent, tacked on a rubbery-looking nose and rear bumper cover, then hiked the car a couple of inches to meet the mandated bumper height.
What was once an elegant swan had been turned into an ugly duckling. Devotees of the marque became disillusioned that the company would take such quick-fix shortcuts that basically ruined the car's good looks.
British Leyland experimented with the MGB's emissions-stifled power supply, installing an inline six-cylinder in place of the four-cylinder and rebadging it the MGC. The result, however, proved less than satisfying in the handling department and it was abandoned after two years.
The emasculated and outgunned MGB amazingly soldiered on until 1980 when it was finally retired from battle after an 18-year run. By that time, more than 500,000 of them, including 150,000 GTs had been produced, outselling the MGA by more than 400,000.
In its prime, the MGB proved to be an excellent introduction into the world of sports cars.
Its wide stance and low centre of gravity gave it excellent handling, and its sturdy engine earned numerous accolades. The car's lengthy production cycle not only ensures a good supply of spare parts, but has helped to keep it within affordable reach of the average hobbyist.
For unabashed driving pleasure, the MGB was much more than a transportation device. It was the embodiment of a lifestyle that focused on spirited, wind-in-the-face driving that left the owners of more mundane sedans and station wagons green with envy.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media, which supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.
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