To many enthusiasts the MGB defines the British sports car. Attractive, reliable and inexpensive, there is no better entry point into classic motoring. The MGB is taken for granted these days. Like a cold pint in a breezy beer garden or a thatched farmhouse beside a red phone box, the little MG is part of Blighty’s furniture. However it’s not only Britain’s most successful sports car but the epicentre of a thriving cottage industry. The MGB is the obvious choice, but it doesn’t make it the wrong one.
The MGB replaced the MGA in 1962. It was launched as a roadster with a unitary structure. It was innovative at the time, as both the MGA and rival Triumph TRs used a body-on-frame construction. The light weight design made it cheaper to produce and better to drive, while the body was also stronger. In 1965 the hard-top GT arrived. Designed by Pininfarina, the GT was more practical thanks to its (admittedly small) rear seat and increased baggage space. When the MGB left production after an eighteen year run in 1980, MG had sold half a million units, making it one of the most commercially successful sports cars of all time.
The most contentious part of the MGB was its bumpers. In 1974 the MG’s chrome bumpers were replaced with chunky rubber replacements to satisfy American regulations. The suspension was also raised, leaving a larger gap between the tyre and wheel arch. Compared to some of its rivals (the Fiat 124 particularly) MG did a tidy job of it, but these later rubber bumper cars are worth far less than earlier chrome examples. It’s not necessarily a problem, rather a case of personal preference. More importantly, sills are a major weakness. The MGB relies on its sills for its integral strength. If they are beginning to rust it could mean a big bill. They are a complex multi-panel construction and repairs can exacerbate the issue. Be vigilant for cover sills and stainless-steel over-sills that could be disguising botched repairs. If you can, run a magnet across the base of the sill and ensure it sticks all the way along. If any plastic is exposed and the magnet drops it could mean a major rust issue. The back of the front inner wheel arches is a rust spot - the box section is vulnerable to mud and salt, so remove the wheels if possible and run your hand across the arches and check the liners for rot. Door bottoms can also disintegrate. Replacement door skins are available but beware of the fitting costs. The rear spring hangers are also prone to tin-worm. On GTs, the double-skinned tailgate is another rust spot. If there is a petrol smell emanating from the back of the car and it’s not the area surrounding the fuel filler cap, then it could be rust on top of the fuel tank. Water and mud can easily sit here undetected. Check the panel gaps for uneven shut-lines. It indicates the car has sagged and is a one way ticket to huge restoration costs. Battery trays often fall apart, so get underneath the car and inspect its condition. Also ensure the floor pans are in working condition. Inspect the bottom of the scuttle where it touches the windscreen. Any issues here likely means taking the windscreen surround out, which is a pricey job.
MGB's are reliable and easy to maintain. A well-maintained MGB engine should do over 100,000 miles between rebuilds. Inspect the oil pressure (which should be around 15-25psi, building to 50-65psi at 3000rpm on tick-over), keep an ear out for any unusual noises (the engine can produce a ‘tappety’ sound at idle but it’s not a problem) and check the compression if possible. The crankcase breather pipes can sometimes block, so ascertain if the car uses a lot of oil. Excessive oil consumption could also mean worn valve guides and oil stem seals. A tell tale sign for this is a plume of smoke when you stab the throttle. Check if the car has been converted for unleaded petrol use. As the engine has an alloy head it will need to be done at some stage. Other common MGB faults include worn timing chains, oil leaks from the crankshaft seals, exhaust smoke caused by cylinder bore wear and worn bottom ends (which sometimes create a rumbling sound). The MGB’s engine is relatively simple and cheap to re-build, however, and a perfect project for a DIY tinkerer.
The MGB’s gearboxes are hard-wearing but they will likely need a rebuild after half a century’s worth of hard driving. Find out if the gearbox has been rebuilt and listen out for any groans from the bearings or synchromesh rattles. While clutch issues are usually due to the carbon fibre release bearing disintegrating, a spongy pedal is often caused by failing master and slave cylinders. If the overdrive has failed, it could be a broken solenoid. If it isn’t a solenoid failure you could be facing a larger bill.
Kingpins require greasing every 3000 miles, so ask if this has been done. If possible, jack the car up and rock the wheel. If there’s a rattle or movement, the kingpins will need to be changed. Also inspect the front wishbone bushes to check if they have disintegrated.
Until 1974 a pair of six-volt batteries were used. A12-volt unit was fitted for later cars. Both batteries are reliable but earthing issues can be caused by poor connections.
Don’t worry too much If the interior looks worn, replacement trim is readily available, although parts and fitting costs can easily mount up. On cars fitted with the optional sunroof, inspect the interior for signs of damp, as this was a weakness.
The MGB is renowned for its direct steering. If the steering rack is in any way vague or loose it could mean worn or seizing joints. Fixing the steering rack isn’t hard, but bear in mind that replacement part and fitting costs can easily mount up. The MGB is responsive and precise, especially by modern standards. However those not used to classic motoring may find the steering heavy - after all it’s not power assisted. Power steering conversions are available. The gearbox should have a short and precise throw, but don’t worry about the awkward changes between second and third. The internal ratios have always been stretched, with a low second gear and a high third. If there is a vibration or rumble from the driveline this could mean one or both of the propshaft’s universal joinings has disintegrated.
When the MGB swapped its chrome bumpers for rubber, enthusiasts shook their fists with outrage. This did nothing to slow sales, however, as the MGB continued to be sold in high numbers. There are still plenty of ‘rubber’ cars on the market, but values have never matched earlier ‘chrome’ cars. While a well-sorted rubber bumper model will go for around £5,000 - £7,000, chrome variants with low mileage are pushing £13,000 - £14,000. GTs generally fetch less than roadsters, especially with rubber bumper models, making them the best value MGBs around. A rubber bumper MGB GT is the place to start if you’re looking for quintessential classic motoring on a budget.
There is one fact about the MGB that demonstrates its popularity and makes a convincing case for owning one. There are more spare parts available for them now than there were when the car was in production. An entire industry has emerged with the sole intention to serve the MGB. It goes a long way to explaining why so many are still on the road. This being said, when searching the classifieds, bear in mind it will still cost more to buy and restore a ‘project’ car than to purchase one in good condition. Stretch your budget as much as possible because with MGB’s you get what you pay for. While chrome bumper conversion kits can be had for under £1000, the process is neither simple nor cheap. You’ll want the car to look factory fresh in order to gain value and not lose it. This level of workmanship will cost a lot more than the price of a kit, so beware.
The MGB is one of the most universally popular classic sports cars in the world. It is a perfect entry point into classic motoring and a genuinely usable everyday car. Affordable, attractive and with an enormous spare parts industry supporting it, there is no reason why a well-sorted MGB is not the ideal classic.
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