5 Ways To Spend MGB Money But Not On A MGB
The MGB is to classic motoring what Coke is to Cola - intertwined and indivisible. It is the sort of car that non-enthusiasts conjure up when asked to describe a classic car.
Which is not, of course, in any way a bad thing. I own a MGB GT and have owned several B roadsters. They are great cars. They're simple, practical, reliable and, thanks to an owner and parts network that rivals modern cars, incredibly easy to own. The MGB's attributes and popularity are easy to understand and explain why even an entry level rubber bumper convertible is at least £4,000. Good, solid cars are typically £10,000 and over.
Which is quite a lot of money.
The Case For & Against The MGB
Of course, if you want a MGB, you only want a MGB. And the cost of entry gives you access to a support network that is unrivalled. Alongside the owners club forums and parts suppliers there are literally hundreds of specialists that will maintain or even improve your car for you.
And that is the beauty of the car - it is infinitely adaptable, enabling you to take a standard model and improve and develop it to suit you. Or just leave it as it is and enjoy a great, simple classic car that looks right, drives easily and has just enough boot space for a weekend away.
After all, nobody ever turned up at a classic car show in a MGB and got sent to the general parking area.
But, for others, the MGB's ubiquity is its main downside. There are, for them, just too many about. And then there's the car's dynamic qualities. It does look good but it doesn't drive that well - the steering is heavy and imprecise and the standard engine, with its 90 bhp, would struggle to pull the skin off a rice pudding. It's a car that looks sporting. But isn't.
Which may explain that thriving cottage industry of tuners and improvers.
So, if you're in two minds about a MGB, how else can you spend up to £10,000 on a decent two seater sports car?
Let me be your guide...
1. Alfa Romeo 105 Spider
Launched 5 years after the MGB, the 105 Series Alfa Spider was designed to suit exactly the same market - cash-rich Baby Boomers desperate for some fun weekend wheels.
And the Spider really is fun. Unlike the MGB, which borrowed some uninspiring components from Morris saloons and vans, the Alfa had access to a much better toy box. So it got Alfa's superlative twin cam 1750cc engine (later 2 litres), a five speed gearbox - when that was a novelty - and some proper Alfa DNA in the suspension and steering set up.
The Alfa is much rarer than the MGB - 110,000 versus 430,000 sold - but it stayed in production much longer. And unlike the MG, Alfa continuously updated and improved the car. Although perhaps 'improved' isn't quite the word, since the mid 80s 'Series 3' cars sprouted spoilers where previously there were svelte lines.
But no matter. The changes mean that there is pretty much an Alfa Spider to suit everyone, from the exquisite 'Boat Tail' early cars to the final, better built and less rust-ravaged Series 4 of the 1990s.
Expect to pay upwards of £7,000 for a Spider, topping out at over £30,000 for the best early cars. Whatever you spend you'll get a car that is engaging and tactical in a way that the MGB isn't, with Alfa styling and performance.
On the downside, the Spider certainly isn't as durable as a B and lacks the same supplier support network. But it's by no means bad at either - buy carefully and a well maintained Spider is not the rot box reputation suggests and there are plenty of specialists dedicated to the model. Some will even upgrade it for you with engine, gearbox and styling modifications.
2. Triumph TR8
Why would you buy a Morris saloon with a convertible body when you can have this, a bona-fide sports car built from the ground up and blessed with one of the nicest engines ever put in a British car?
It seems to obvious and yet isn't. Because the TR8, great as its engine may be, is scarred by its unavoidable association with the TR7, a car that suffers almost Allegro-esque levels of hatred.
Some of the opprobrium is justified. The TR7 was catastrophically unreliable and it wasn't very sporty. It also looked a bit odd when it arrived in showrooms in the late 70s.
The TR7 should always have had the V8 Rover engine from the start. That it didn't explains why so many have been converted to V8 power by owners and specialists. There are a handful of genuine TR8s out there, but they will be out of our budget.
Instead for well under £10,000 you can bag a V8 conversion that will probably even carry the right TR8 badges. And that makes it a bargain. With V8 power the car is reliable. And now, 40 years on, even those iffy looks have matured nicely.
A well sorted TR8, whether factory car or modified TR7, is a genuinely good car. It's relaxing and comfortable to drive with plenty of elbow room - things the MGB could never be accused of - and it's got that gorgeous burbling Buick V8 soundtrack.
The final Triumph TR doesn't have a MGB standard support network but it is easy to own. And the brickbats thrown at the car in terms of rust and reliability are, once again, ones that careful buying can mostly eradicate.
3. MG Midget
Back in the 1950s, even before the MGB arrived, Britain had got very good at building small sports car. Smaller even than the compact B. Despite its reputation for going bigger when big was already big, America was the main market for these cheap, diminutive convertibles.
Principal amongst them was the cheeky 'Frogeye Sprite', which in 1961 made way for the car you see above. Available as the Austin Healey Sprite or MG Midget - the cars were pretty much identical apart from the badges - the new car used the Frogeye underpinnings but with bodywork more in keeping with the new MGB.
The Sprite remained in production until 1971, the Midget limped on until 1980, gaining Federalised rubber bumpers along the way. Although later cars gained bigger engines - 948cc, 1275cc and 1500cc motors were available at different times - the fundamentals of the car remained the same. It was the small, fun, fling-able alternative to its big brother the B.
The Midget has always been in the B's shadow and since it at first glance appears to do exactly the same job - a simple, reliable, easy to own classic - it's easy to understand why it gets overlooked.
And that's why it makes this list. The Midget does everything a B does, but for less. Expect to pay roughly half what you'll shell out on an equivalent B. There are some small compromises, of course. Principally the ability to get in and out - the car is called Sprite and Midget for a reason, after all. But if you've got sufficient dexterity to do that you'll discover a car that is more fun and more rewarding than the B. It's got nicer steering, a better power to weight ratio and the engines are more willing.
4. Triumph Stag
I hear you. Bear with me while we look past all those red flags that shoot up whenever and wherever the words 'Triumph' and 'Stag' assemble together.
First up, you can buy a Stag for the same money as a MGB. Which, at face value, seems ridiculous. One is a simple, everyday classic, the other is a low volume V8-engined Mercedes-killer. But it's a fact.
And I think we all know why. The Stag, or Snag to give the car it's oft-bestowed nickname, is not the last word in reliability. That's largely due to that burbly V8 engine, the motor that otherwise gives the car so much character. It eats head gaskets for breakfast and that's before it succumbs to the myriad problems associated with its under-developed design.
There's also that roof, which is a copy of the Mercedes SL's mechanism in the same sense that a Mitsuoka Viewt is a copy of the Jaguar Mk2. Practice does make perfect, but it's not a system that will cause you to marvel at the designer's genius.
But these are the reasons why Stags are cheap, and probably always will be. The reality is that any Stag that's survived for 45 years is going to be a reasonably dependable example. And the car's multifold weaknesses are well documented and easy to fix or avoid.
So why not take the plunge? Because if you do you'll discover a car that has so much going for it. It looks great, the interior is gorgeous, with acres of wood, and that V8 is a sonorous delight. Auto or manual, the car is relaxing to drive just like a 1970s Triumph should be - tactical steering, sweet gearboxes and decent brakes. It may not be a proper convertible but it makes a good fist of trying, plus it is a genuine 2+2 - good for kids and ok for adults on short journeys. And it has a decent sized boot, which the MGB really doesn't (despite appearances).
5. Lotus Elan SE (M100)
Back when MG was creating a cheap sports car for the masses, Lotus was doing exactly the same but for slightly more affluent customers. The original Elan was so perfectly executed - except, perhaps, for its ability to keep running reliably - that when Mazda decided to launch its own sports car it simply copied the original Elan wholesale.
When Lotus itself chose to re-enter the volume sports car market, Mazda had got there first. So it had to execute a rethink. The result was the Elan SE, a small, nimble front wheel drive Lotus designed for volume production.
The Lotus makes this list because in many ways it was meant to be a new MGB: simple, reliable and fun.
The public, sadly, thought otherwise. The M100 Elan was launched in 1989, a couple of months after Mazda's MX5. The comparison was immediate and obvious - Mazda had brilliantly reinvented the Elan for a modern generation. Lotus hadn't.
The new Elan, which was Lotus' first ever front wheel drive model, did handle brilliantly. But it was front wheel drive, which enthusiastic drivers sniffed at, and the MX5 was more engaging and therefore more fun. It also looked odd - Peter Stephens svelte and low original had become tall, wide and blobby on the journey from drawing board to factory.
And then there was the build quality issue. Mazda made cars cheaply and reliable. Lotus had a reputation for doing the exact opposite. Although, in the Elan's defence, it was well developed and much more reliable than the cars that went before it. But the Elan was expensive to build and sales were never high enough to recoup its development and production costs. The plug was pulled in 1995 with less than 5,000 cars sold.
Today the Elan is the Lotus that everyone has forgotten about. Which means it's cheap. So you get a well engineered and quick car with superlative handling for much less than the price of a MGB. You will have to put up with bits falling off and patchy supplier network - this is no MGB - but every time you get behind the wheel you'll be driving the best handling Lotus since the original Elan. For smiles per mile, it's surely worth the risk.
And here's the elephant in the room. There is a car that does everything a MGB does but better. It's reliable, simple, easy to own and backed by an as-good support network. And its name is the same length.
Of course, it's the MX5. The little Mazda is as ubiquitous as the B but has none of that car's downsides. It's genuinely fun to drive with brilliant handling and precise steering. It's not quick, but that's its charm - you never run out of road in a MX5.
And while you need to rely on specialists to tune and personalise your MGB, which was only ever available as one long-lived version, there is a MX5 for everyone. There are so many special editions that it's very difficult to keep up with them.
And the clincher? It's cheap. Early Mk1 cars, with the pop-up headlights, are starting to become expensive but they're still under £5,000. Later Mk2 and MK2.5 cars are absolute bargains - a budget of £2,000 will give you a really good choice of cars. MX5s rust but parts are cheap and thorough inspection will help you weed out the duds.
If, after all that, you're still wedded to the idea of a MGB, then great. There are better cars out there and cheaper ones, but the B is perennially popular for some very good reasons. It's reliable. It's got an unrivalled parts and supplier network. When you buy one you get access to one of the biggest car clubs in the world with all the excellent social opportunities that provides. There is so much more to the B than simply a car.
But if you're prepared to turn off the path well travelled I think you'll discover some alternatives that deliver in different ways. Whatever you choose, happy motoring.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733