1977 MG Midget or 1980 Triumph Spitfire: Which Is Better Qualified To Represent The LBC?

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Good morning and happy Friday! You might have noticed from the header image that we’re doing something just a little different today. The Friday roundups were feeling just a little formulaic, like a CBS cop drama (“Tonight, on NCIS: Omaha…”), and I wanted to mix it up a bit. So on Fridays, for a while, I’m throwing out the rule book and doing whatever I feel like (Gosh!).

First, let’s look at how yesterday’s toys did:

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Close one, but the Baja Bug wins. I’m sure neither one will have trouble finding a new home, though; they’re both way cool projects.

Now, today, we’re upping our standards (like Pat Paulsen!) and looking at a pair of cars in much better condition than our usual fare. These two are from a category near and dear to my heart: little British cars, or LBCs, for those in the know.

But before you go thinking these are too nice for the likes of us, keep in mind that these are both late-stage British Leyland products, and as such, no matter how nice they may look, both are still projects. (Hell, they were projects when they were new.) But they’re also both pretty solid examples of the breed, and either one would be a hell of a lot of fun on summer weekends. So let’s check them out.

1977 MG Midget – $8,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter inline 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Burbank, CA

Odometer reading: 73,000 miles

Runs/drives? Quite well, according to the seller

The story of the British auto industry from the 1950s to the 1980s is a story of mergers, acquisitions, quality control problems, strikes, bankruptcies, and really fun to drive little sports cars. The MG Midget, introduced in 1961, started out as a clone of the Austin-Healey Sprite MkII, but outlived the Sprite by almost a decade. By the time this MkIV Midget was built, the original BMC A-series engine (shared with the original Mini) had been replaced by a Triumph engine – actually the same engine as the Spitfire below.

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It had also acquired a set of big black rubber 5 mph bumpers similar to those on the MGB, but I always thought the Midget wore them better. It looks like a happy little frog. If you don’t like the big bumpers, the good news is that the Midget is easier than the B to retrofit with the old-stype chrome bumpers. It looks really cool with no bumpers at all, for that matter.

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Make no mistake; this is a tiny car. It’s snug inside, and you had better like your passenger a lot. But that smallness and snugness translates to a wonderful immediacy and imtimacy with the road. You hear modern Minis and Fiat 500s described as having “go-kart-like handling;” they’re Buick Electras compared to an MG Midget or Austin-Healey Sprite. You can feel everything this car is doing, every bump in the road, every rail in the gearbox sliding into place, every loading and unloading of the suspension through the turns. It’s not fast, with only 65 horsepower on tap, but it’s so responsive that you won’t care.

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This Midget isn’t perfect, but it is really nice. There’s something odd about the paint on the hood (sorry, bonnet) and a few other places. But being a California car, there shouldn’t be any worries about rust. Inside, it looks really nice, with fresh upholstery and carpet and a new Moto-Lita style steering wheel. The seller says the top needs replacing, but a replacement is included. A bunch of unspecified mechanical work is also mentioned; it would be worth looking over the receipts to see what has been done. These are simple and stout cars, but they’re not low-maintenance.

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These cars have been bouncing along the low end of the classic sports car market for a lot of years, but they’re starting to gain some respect (and value). Like most classics, it’s better to spend a little more to get a good one, unless you’re looking for a long-term project (take it from someone who knows). This looks like a good one, but not too nice to drive and enjoy.

1980 Triumph Spitfire – $8,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter inline 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Dundee, OR

Odometer reading: 62,000 miles

Runs/drives? Like a top, the seller says

Rival to the Sprite/Midget, but also its stablemate after the British Leyland merger, the Triumph Spitfire was always just a notch cooler than Healey’s little roadster. Maybe it’s the styling by famed Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, or the swing-axle independent rear suspension, or the name taken from Britain’s most famous WWII fighter plane, or the way the bonnet opens with the entire front of the car flipping forward like a Jaguar E-Type. Whatever the reason, the Spitfire was a big success for Triumph, selling over 300,000 examples during its 18-year run.

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This Spitfire is one of the last, from the final year of production. Although saddled with gigantic rubber bumpers like the Midget, and hobbled with a single Zenith-Stromberg carb like the last of the MGBs, the Spitfire’s handling got better and better as years went by. Triumph continued to develop and improve the swing-axle rear suspension right up until the very end. In stock form, the US-spec model is slow, but the twin SU carbs of the UK-spec Spitfire can be retrofitted to make it a little quicker.

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This Spirfire looks to be stock, and very well cared for. The seller lists a lot of recent work, and it looks like they started with a nice clean car to begin with. It wears its original paint, and has had an interior refresh like the Midget, including the same Moto-Lita style steering wheel as the Midget (they’re a really popular upgrade for British sports cars).

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I came really close to buying a car almost identical to this one about twenty years ago, for $2,000. Looking at this one makes me wish I had gone for it. I still love the styling of these, and I don’t care that it can be outrun by an automatic Kia Rio. It’s a cool, fun, and still affordable bona-fide British classic.

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And look at that big chrome fuel cap right in the middle! And the big chrome latches on the sides of the bonnet, and those sharp steel wheels… This Spitfire comes with the factory hardtop, as well, so the fun doesn’t have to stop when the skies get cloudy.

OK, obviously I’m biased. I have loved little British cars since I was very small, and it’s wonderful to see a pair of them in such good condition for such reasonable prices so many years later. I’d take either of these in a heartbeat, but which one do you prefer?

 

QuizMaker

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92 Responses

  1. Spitfire all day.
    My torso is too long for the Midget.

    Midget story I’ve told places before:
    My dad had a 60s Midget in the early 70s. He was much smaller than I am, being 5′-6″. He had a Midget as his only car when he and my mom got married. I don’t know the year it was, but at worst 10 years old. It wouldn’t go over 40mph with the top up, so he commuted in Michigan winters with a Midget with the top down.
    Now my mom is 5′-8″, but my dad’s sister was only ~5′-2″. Occasionally all three of them fit into that Midget… Look at that interior again…

  2. I remember these were everywhere in Canada when I was a kid. People would drive them all winter with the soft top. I think we were hardier then.

    One of my neighbors used to buy British cars that were not running well, sort them out and then resell them. I got to ride in a bunch of old Britboxes. To this day, the smell of a British car interior instantly takes me back to 1976.

    Even as a sixth grader, the MG Midget was cramped – it’s like a regular MG that shrunk by 30%. My favorites were the MGB-GT and the TR6. My least favorites were the Maxi and the Marina (now that was a total POS that even he couldn’t get to run right).

  3. I would like either of these. I think I would go with the Midget for reasons I cannot explain. Of course I would have to try it on to see if it fits. I don’t thing you could go wrong with either as long as you realize they will be costly and time consuming.

  4. How would you like your heart broken? How would you like to lose all your knuckle skin? What would you like covering the stains on your driveway? What looks better being towed back home?

    Of these, the Triumph wins in this contest of masochism.

  5. A little biased here because I own a 1980 Spitfire (which I bought running for $2,500, so yeah, this one is a bit on the high priced side), so I couldn’t decide if I have to vote Spitfire out of loyalty or for the Midget because I already have a Spitfire, so if I was picking one to buy, I’d dig having two different cars.

    But how can I vote against the Spitfire? it’s just too beautiful. And as an owner I can confirm that it makes everyone else smile when you drive by. No one road rages at you because you exude too much happiness. You could cut a dude off doing 45mph while sticking up both middle fingers and the response would be something akin to “Aw! The guy in that cute little frog car just cut us off! Get a picture!”

    Gotta disagree on the carb advice, though – Mine has the intake/conversion for a single weber and it’s perfection. Easy to maintain, starts every time.

    Mine does lack the Overdrive, though – I don’t dare take it on an Interstate. It can do 60mph, but only under loud protest.

    And saying a Kia Rio could outrun it is a bit of overkill. There are cars much smaller than a Kia Rio that could outrun it. Thankfully I am never bothered by being outrun.

    1. The prices are definitely creeping up. I bought my MGB GT for $2300 six years ago, and it’s maybe one notch scruffier than this Midget. I couldn’t touch one like it today for less than twice the price. It’s nice to see them getting their due, but the good cheap British sports car party is almost over, I fear.

    2. Weber conversions for the 1500 Triumph engine do work really well. My first car was 1977 MG Midget that I bought around my 18th birthday in 1992. It had the original Zenith-Stromberg, and I only converted to the Weber when the auto-choke mechanism made starting difficult sometimes. Had the car had a manual choke (like 1976 and earlier cars), I probably would have kept the ZS. Performance did improve with the Weber, and incidentally enough, I converted to a manual choke Weber instead of keeping a water choke or going to an electric choke model. When I got my 1970 MG Midget, I did play around with fitting the same Weber, albeit re-jetted for the smaller 1275 A-Series engine, after I got a manifold for it. Never could get it to run well, though, and that could be because the A-Series has siamesed intake ports where the Triumph engine has a port for each cylinder.

    3. My first car was a Triumph GT6, and to this day, it’s still my favorite. No, Kia”s blowing your doors off… umm, yeah.

      I purchased a Porsche 944 from the original owner, which had a mere 69,000 miles after 33 years. I’m driving it home from Humboldt, and I hit central California, and a Kia full of high school kids pull alongside of on the freeway giving me Thumbs Up (For some reason, High School kids go crazy for 944s’) all smiles, and they blow by me. I’m in 5th gear and pushing the 944 for all it’s worth…

    4. Yeah, the overdrive is almost a necessity now. These cars are priced like they already have them, or the market has moved up a lot more than I realized.

      I’ve had the folks’ ’71 at interstate speeds (70-75) with the standard 4 speed. “Buzzy” is an understatement. Bit more power from free breathing on the older cars if memory serves. We have a parts car with overdrive sitting in my spare garage, so eventually we’ll get that solved.

      1. Call me a masochist, but I loved flying down the highway in a ’70 Midget at 65 – 70 mph where the engine would be pulling around 4200 rpm with the stock 4 speed and a 3.9 diff gear ratio. Used to

        1. My ’79 Spitfire 1500 with a 3.89 Rear and no overdrive (1:1) regularly is on the highway doing 70mph plus. At 86mph its at ~5000rpm. Longer drives 90+ minutes on the freeway starts to wear on you, but it won’t cause me to avoid doing it.

  6. I just can’t vote for either of these today. I owned a ’78 MGB almost 30 years ago and figured I’d be over the trauma by now but I guess I’m not. That thing ruined me for all things British, for years I couldn’t even wear Reeboks or watch Monty Python. To this day I’ll see a nice Triumph motorcycle and my first thought is what it will look like broken down on the side of the highway between Hankamer and Anahuac.

  7. They are both overcooked sixties design and tecnology, coverred in sad black plastic, that should have been out of production long before 1977 and 1980.

    But I would go for the Spitfire and strip it for as much plastic as possible.

    And I just love the flipfront on those, so you can sit on the front tyre and do engine work.

    I owned a ’63 once, which had lived in La Jolla California before I registrered it in Europe. Lovely fun car! https://www.instagram.com/p/CIqTu35lTes/

  8. I never understood the hate for MG’s BRB (Big Rubber Bumpers). At least they sculpted them into something that follows the lines of the car. The Spitfire’s giant stuck on erasers are awful in comparison. I still like the Spitfire better, though, but it should be red or yellow.

    1. I agree. As the owner of a ‘75 MGB for 22 years, I’ve come to like the looks of the rubber bumpers more than the chrome. They make the car look pointier and less stubby, and also more modern. BTW, the Midget is too small. The Spitfire is a way cooler car.

  9. “…these are both late-stage British Leyland products, and as such, no matter how nice they may look, both are still projects.”

    My current British cars are an ’82 Austin Allegro and an ’83 Austin Maestro. From my perspective, Spridgets and Spitfires represent BL at the height of its powers.

    Of the two, my vote is for the Spitfire. I’ve owned a couple of MGs, a B and a Metro, but never yet a Triumph. Besides, I like the color.

    1. A what and a WHAT, now? Fuck me, you’re brave. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw either of those on the road. I’ve owned both and neither was fun. I do have a soft spot for Allegros though just for the looks. Especially the Vanden Plas.

      1. “Brave” is one word for it, but the general consensus among my family, friends, coworkers, and the majority of random strangers involves other words.

        In my case it’s the Maestro that’s a VP. It’s the car shown in front of the closed garage door when looking at my user profile. The Allegro didn’t make it into that shot.

      1. There’s a guy on a forum I’m on that has one that is all patina’d, interior was trashed when he got it, and the engine and transmission were completely shot.

        So he got a wrecked Miata and swapped the front and rear subframe in, then installed the drivetrain. He kept the patina. Its one of my favorite builds out there. Pure modern handling, around double the HP with a stock Miata drivetrain, its just a great car

        1. Hell yeah, that sounds fun as hell.

          I wish Mazda would do a fixed roof coupe, a CRX-like hatchback, and maybe a long roof “shooting brake” variant. Keep it small, RWD, 2 seats, 4 cylinders, naturally aspirated with an available manual.

  10. I’ve never actually wanted to own a roadster, but I’ve loved LBCs for as long as I’ve been aware of cars. MGs are great, but Triumphs are *always* cooler. Dunno why, just an immutable law of nature.

  11. A word of warning about California cars. It has become a shorthand for “rust free” and this can be misleading. A few years back an acquaintance of mine bought a very shiny XK150, described (accurately) as a a one owner California car. The new paint was explained away by the original having faded in the sunshine.. It transpired that the one owner lived in a beach front house and regularly drove the car on the sand. It was possibly the most dangerous pretty car I have ever seen.

  12. Spitfire for sure.

    It’s a mechanical crapshoot with either (had an MGB for a bit that was so-so in that category), but the Midget always seems to me to telegraph “cute” more than anything, while the Spitfire kinda seems like a good lightweight boxer…small but scrap-ily tough.

    Also, the polished plywood-ish dash panel just fits that mojo.

  13. Not a roadster guy. I get that they’re fun to drive, but I’d rather have a fixed-roof coupe.

    I have no idea what to pick. They both look about the same to me, neither one strikes me as anything but a generic British roadster that will spend more time on jack stands taking up space in the garage than it will on a twisty road.

    6 one way, half a dozen the other.

    1. I must retract my statement about roadsters. There are a couple British roadsters I’d absolutely love to have, both made today, slowly, by Morgan.

      I still don’t care for either of these, though. Morgan has charm and style for days. These, not so much. At least to me. I fault no one for loving either or both.

  14. A ’75 Spitfire was my first car, and the car on which I learned to drive a manual. Awesome little car! The ability to work on the engine while sitting comfortably on the front tire is definitely a bonus, since you will spend a lot of time in the engine compartment of either one of these.

    Unfortunately, my dumbass 16 y.o. self thought I was the second coming of Jackie Stewart and took a 30 mph curve at 60. That day I learned a lesson about swing axles. Unlike its aviation namesake, the cars don’t like to put their feet in the air and relax on their backs. I had it a whole 10 days before rolling it. Top down, Stray Cat’s Sexy and Seventeen still playing on the radio.

    So I’d choose the Triumph over the MG even if the Triumph was a rusty pile of parts and the MG was a concourse winner. But I’m biased.

  15. I love both of them. The Spitfire would be my pick based on the smooth curves and having the best name a fighter ever had, but I don’t think you could go wrong with either car.

    I wish I had the extra scratch to pick up a British roadster like this while my dad can still drive. He’s from England and drove manuals his whole life until he bought a hybrid a few years ago.

  16. I’ve owned a Midget and a Sprite and those cars were a blast to drive. I piked the Spitfire just because I’ve never owned one. Now if that Midget was ’74 or older, that would have been the choice. Those bumpers, increased ride height and it having a Triumph engine was the deal breaker.

  17. Aesthetically, these are not the most attractive variants of their perspective models. However, based on looks, I would go for the Spitfire. Plus, people have been building chrome bumpers and tuning kits for these late-model BL roadsters for years, so I can make it look and go as good as its pre-emissions predecessors.

  18. I voted Spitfire because we’ve owned several Triumphs in my family. I learned to drive in a GT6+, and I “helped” (I was probably 5 or so) my Dad wrench on an old Spitfire when he bought “someone else’s project”.

    It had the driveline out of a Mazda RX-7, and it went like stink driving from the previous owners to our house. Dad tore into it trying to fix all the issues. Most of the issues were the result of a father and son engine swap project that generally consisted of the father giving the son money to do things to the car, and the son buying cocaine instead.

    It never ran after that first day. I do distinctly remember the day it lived up to it’s name by literally spitting fire out of the carb and nearly burning down our garage. It left not long after.

  19. Someone lay some knowledge on me; what the what is the raison d’etre for those black rubber strips from the door back on the trunk? I cannot even come up with a facetious use for them.
    Help me out here, willya?

    1. It’s not rubber but a strip of moulding which is there to cover the external flange where the panels meet. On earlier Spitfires there’s a similar flange along the tops of the front fenders, too.

  20. Not knowing anything at all about which one is less temperamental, or less rare, or less expensive to maintain (basically assuming they’re pretty much interchangeable in the PITA department), I’ll take the Triumph because is does have much prettier lines. But they’re both overpriced. And I guess we can call them shiteboxes.

  21. Midget, I can deal with it and it’s smallish by comparison bumpers

    The poor Spitfire, those Dagmaresque bumpers, I’d have to spend more than the car is worth to be able to look at it without cringing! Which is a damn shame!

  22. This poll is near and dear to my heart, British car guy all my life, three Sprites. Never owned a Spitfire, but I have driven many.

    I voted for the Spitfire. If these had been early cars would be a closer call for me (probably pick the Midget), but the Midget with rubber bumpers (and Triumph engine, the A series was a very good motor that responded well to mods with readily available hop up parts, it is the small block Chevy of the Brit car world) was just such blasphemy back in the day, still can’t get over it. The Spitfire aged with more grace and has a little more room inside. Though as Mark noted, a Sprite, especially the earlier, lighter cars, is a razor sharp handler out of the box, and can still compete with much newer cars on the Auto-x course with some modifications.

    BTW–the poll thing–no way out–had to close the whole window to get the poll to close, Android phone.

  23. The Spitfire is just a better looking car than the MG, so that gets my vote. Wouldn’t really want either since I don’t like picking bugs out of my teeth, being taller than average. Sure would be fun though if I fit.

    Had a friend who, just before we graduated high school, bought a older TR6 (don’t remember the year), and we drove it hundreds of miles down the Florida to celebrate after being released from HS prison. Never put the top up, and were both wind and bug burned by the time we got there. The TR6 had overdrive, which died on the way down, and then proceeded to completely die shortly after arriving.

    We didn’t care at first since we were staying for a week, and then my friend met a girl through all the parties we attended, decided to stay until she left. Luckily I managed to find another group heading back to our same general area who were nice enough to give me a lift. Never appreciated a hardtop more on that drive back. Friend actually ended up marrying the girl he met, and had a couple of kids, no idea what happened to the TR6.

    1. My buddy is 6’4″ and has 5 of the silly things. He adores them, but he has to drive them without tops because his head sticks out over the windshield. His whole family is LBC crazy. He has Spits, his sister has two midgets, his brother a ’63 land rover lwb, and his dad has a ’59 sprite, and a late ’40s singer roadster that he’s working on stretching to fit onto a spit chassis so he can drive it(it’s just a body with a few misc. interior parts so don’t hate him for cutting up something rare).

  24. I like this variation on the game. I’m looking forward to more expansion beyond the “shitbox” genre.

    It took me an embarrassingly long time to try to figure out what “LBC” stood for in the title before I started reading the article. I eventually landed on “Litish Breyland Corporation” which I now wish were real.

  25. Those prices are bit too steep for either car, at least to me.
    But, I have to vote Spitfire. They are a much better looking car, and the IRS, even in all the variations over the years, can be made to handle well. Easy to pull the plastic bumper covers off and expose the chrome.
    The Midget always seemed to be a poor representation of the Austin bug eye, so I never gave them much thought.
    I bought a 78 Spit for $500, complete, running, and in pretty good shape, but needing main bearings. Pulled the motor, fixed the bearing issue, and drove it for 9 years as my only car through sun, rain, snow, and I rarely put the top up. Not a fast car, but fast enough to have fun and get tickets (it was red, so that probably contributed to a few tickets), and with the overdrive, I could easily cruse at 70-80 mph.
    Perfectly reliable car other than the axle halfshaft u-joints, of which I went through a few.
    Unfortunately, I sold it to buy a Westfalia, and shifter rail in the tranny lost its c-clip just a few days later on the poor buyer! If anyone sees a red 78 spit with houndstooth pattern on the front seats at 90 degrees to each other (thanks dad!), that would be my old spit!
    I now have a GT6, the hard top six cylinder version of the spit. Faster car for sure, but not as nimble feeling.

  26. I gotta show the Midget some love. I like the lines on the Spitfire better, but I’ve got fond memories of whipping around some beautiful rural roads in a Midget and an MGB (that someone else owned, so I didn’t have to maintain them) many years ago. Also, I know we stan brown wagons, but for a sports car the Midget’s color is WAY better. Also better for catching the eye of the monster truck drivers all around you on the road. I don’t think you can truly appreciate how big modern cars are until you hit the highway in an MG!

    1. Boy, you ain’t kidding. I’m eye-level with the skidplates on lifted pickups. Of course, I had a Miata for eight years before I got the MG, so I’m kinda used to it, but it definitely gets your attention when one of them comes up behind you.

      Color definitely matters, too: my MG is bright yellow. I don’t think I’d want a dark-colored one.

    2. That’s a great point.

      About a decade or so ago, I came across an E-Type convertible in urban traffic. While I took in its sublime beauty, I also was downright shocked when it pulled up at a light next to a more-or-less current-model Accord. The difference in size was jaw-dropping.

      I guess I always think of cars like Jaguars as mid-size (I know, relatively-speaking they are), but seeing it next to a modern car really drove home how big vehicles have gotten.

  27. $8000 should buy you a really nice late 70’s Midget. I love a well sorted MG, but $8000 seems too high for this. I think this is a $5000 car, and with the paint issue, you’d be better off getting the best one you can buy where someone else has spent too much money on it already. Or get an MGB and have a lot more space for a little more money.

    1. That’s why I’d want to see the receipts for the work done on the Midget. If it’s really as good mechanically as they say, then you offer $7,000 and see if they bite.

      Then, you remove the rubber bumpers and sell them at the next swap meet, flat-black the bonnet, and install some big round driving lights up front. Looks cooler, and gives that Triumph lump 100 lbs or so less to lug around.

  28. Prices are too high but Spitfire all the way because of nostalgia. My best friend (who remains so 40 years later) had a ’75 1500 and we had some great times in that car. It was slow, slow, slow, but the handling was awesome. Also, it required roughly one hour of work in the garage to drive it for an hour (an exaggeration, but one meant to prove a valid point about its unreliability). I remember a stuck throttle, electrical issues, and a host of other things that would have destroyed all the love in a less charming car.

    When the times were good, they were awesome – running it up the route of the Duryea Hillclimb to the Pagoda in Reading PA, bombing the local back roads at whatever speeds the wheezy little engine could muster, and riding with my friend driving, a girl in my lap and another very petite gal behind the seats (those were different times back in the early 80s – don’t do that now!).

    And for those who objected to crossing out the word “shitbox”: whatever most British sportscars and luxury cars may be, and regardless of how unreliable and finicky they are, the word does not apply in my book. On the rare occasions they are working they provide far too much joy for such a perjorative term.

  29. As a former long term owner of a TR3B I couldn’t possibly vote for anything but the Spitfire. Having said that, it is still far and away the better car to instantly put your butt into a real English roadster. The hardtop alone is enough to swing the deal to Triumph. As an other said, “Too bad its not BRG”.

  30. Look, they are both rust prone, maintenance intensive, definitely leave you stranded on the highway pieces of junk. But they are also some of the most fun you can have on four wheels. As someone who has owned multiple examples of both, you are definitely going to want the spitfire here. They always looked better than the MG, no matter the year, and you just can’t go wrong with a full flip front end!

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