There’s a legendary story that when Mazda engineers were developing the Miata, they were so adamant about capturing the intangible “Britishness” of a classic roadster, that one of its engineers was told to daily drive a vintage Lotus Elan while the team reverse-engineered a number of classic British roadsters to understand just what made them so special. So to say that the little Mazda owes a lot to the Elan is an understatement – hell, it even looks like one. And with nearly one million Miatas sold since its introduction 25 years ago, the Lotus has rightfully earned its place as one of the most influential sports cars in history.
But there’s more to the Miata’s Japanese-engineered Britishness than just the Elan. Because when it launched in 1990, it was aimed at Baby Boomers who once owned the classic roadsters the Miata was based on. With only 16,000 or so Elans built, not many prospective Miata buyers ever owned a Lotus. The vast majority of them owned MGBs, the venerable sports car that bridged both the Swinging ’60s and the Malaise Era, and with 512,243 cars sold over an 18-year span, it was the world’s favorite roadster before the Miata came along to steal its crown. To understand the Miata’s success and enduring appeal is understand the MGB, and the effect it had on the sports car world a half century ago.
While Mazda had to engineer pedigree into its roadster, the MGB was a true successor to the sports car throne. In 1945, MG launched the TC Midget, a 55 horsepower roadster that traced its roots back to 1936. Compared to the giant chrome steel sedans in the U.S. at the time, the spindly little roadsters may have looked delicate and antiquated, but they handled like a dream, were easily hot-rodded, and were great racers to boot. The TC first became a favorite of well-heeled American officers stationed in England, and when it was time to come home, they brought their MGs with them, introducing the land of the free to a whole new concept: The sports car.
With the exception of high-priced toys for the rich like the Murcer Runabout and Stutz Bearcat of the 1910s, and the Auburns and Duesenbergs of the ’20s and ’30s, the sports car was largely nonexistent in America at the end of the 1940s. The MG changed that. Thanks to the popularity of the TC and subsequent TD, a small but intense interest in sports cars began to grow. By the early ’50s, Jaguar, Porsche, and Ferrari had begun to sell cars alongside MG in America, and in these early days, the imports could be seen pitted against each other on race tracks across the country every weekend. By the middle of the decade, however, the market exploded, as Chevy had introduced the Corvette and given it a V8, and Jaguar and Ferrari’s cars grew more powerful by the year. The sports car segment was here to stay, and it was no longer cornered by the flare-fendered MG. In 1955, the company replaced its antique T-type car with the MGA, a modern, pretty roadster that brought MG into the modern age.
The MGA was a contender too. Cheaper than a Porsche, the roadster was a favorite at Sports Car Club of America events, and even competed in NASCAR between 1960 and 1963. But the game was changing so quickly, that by the early ’60s, MG needed an all new car to keep up. On top of the Corvette, Jaguar E-Type, and the more expensive offerings from Ferrari and Porsche, buyers could now choose from a crowded field of affordable roadsters from Triumph, Austin-Healey, Sunbeam, Alfa-Romeo, and even Datsun. But the MGB stood out, and with its clean lines reminiscent of a mini Ferrari 250 GT California, and affordable $2,605 base price, it was an instant success.
Compared to the outgoing MGA, the B was practically a luxury car, with a bigger cockpit, amenities like roll-up windows, and a top that was actually easy to operate. It also had a thoroughly modern monocoque body, a lower center of gravity, handled better, and had more power. Even as Detroit was cranking up displacement and boosting the horsepower, the MGB spoke to thousands of buyers in a way that a Mustang or Charger never could. In 1965, MG released a fastback coupe version called the MGB GT, with its greenhouse tastefully styled by Peninfarina. The Mark II Bs and GTs were introduced in 1967, but the majority of changes were under the skin, and the B proved so popular that the company barely changed the car through the end of the decade.
By the ’70s, U.S. safety and emissions standards began to change quickly, and MG kept up the best it could to keep the car salable in its biggest market. The cars were still popular, but by 1974, safety mandates meant its restrained chrome grille and bumpers were replaced by heavy black rubber beak, taking away from the car’s charm, and marking the beginning of the Mark III cars. Still, the MGB endured, even while muscle cars virtually disappeared, and the market for affordable sports cars started to dwindle in the face of stricter requirements. But by the end of the decade, the MGB was one of the oldest cars on the market, and MG, a brand owned by British Leyland, was under severe financial strain. MGB production ended in 1980, when British Leyland closed MG’s lone factory in Abingdon, and discontinued the brand.
But the MGB’s story doesn’t end there. British Leyland revived the marque in 1982, and used it to sell a series of rebadged Austins. By the ’90s, British Leyland was long gone, and MG was owned by Rover. In a bizarre twist, success of the Miata spurred Rover to get the MGB’s tooling out of storage and introduce the RV8, a limited edition V8-powered take on its iconic roadster. It followed up with an all-new car, the mid-engined MG F, but it just couldn’t capture the magic of its predecessor.
Today, the MGB is one of the most popular and versatile classics on the market. With its iconic looks, simple mechanicals, and low buy-in (running examples can easily be found for under $10,000), it’s a perfect classic car for the hobbyist. The car’s two biggest demons are its unpredictable electrical system and rust – both common problems on British cars of the era. But if you can conquer those, it’s a small price to pay for a truly timeless and rewarding driving experience.
In 1962, the MGB was a cheap, capable sports car with world-class looks, great handling, and a popularity that lasted for decades. Sound familiar? Sure, Mazda did all these things on a larger scale with the Miata, but without the template created by the small British automaker that practically invented modern sports cars, it might never have happened at all.
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