A Daydreaming Designer Imagines If MG Kept Making Sports Cars In The Eighties

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It’s hard to imagine how a nation could go from a global industry leader to barely surviving in their own market within barely a few decades, but it happened. The often-told story of the British automobile industry involves labor relation disasters, complacency towards serious quality issues, and in-fighting between competing brands under the same roof. Ultimately, the result was great English marques being purchased by the Germans and even by companies based in nations like India that had actually been assisted in the startup of their own auto manufacturing by the United Kingdom in the first place. But what if companies like MG had managed to hold out just a bit longer?

With the collapse of parent company British Leyland, some great brands disappeared either permanently or for a long period of time, sports car maker MG probably being the most notable.

Lacking money to create new models, the lineup of MGs in the late seventies was made up of nearly twenty-year-old designs with black rubber bumpers and jacked up suspensions to meet headlight height requirements.

Screenshot (81)

source: Mecum and Mecum

Attempts to continue the name by BL went nowhere; probably for the best considering the rather wonky Triumph TR7-based MGs that were proposed. Jason reported on these earlier if you want to take a deeper look at examples of strange badge engineering:

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source: Twitter

Once it became clear that Leyland would have to shed the weight of MG in order to survive, Aston Martin stepped up with an offer to take on that sports car brand. There was a multi-phase plan to first update the MGB as best they could, and then make an all-new body version with the same floorpan but new mechanical components to be determined. The Phase I facelift and Phase II redesign were done by none other than William Towns, the person that gave us the knife-edge Lagonda and the wood bodied Hustler, among other things:

Aston Mgb02

source: Classic Driver and Classic & Sports Car, January 2012

However, the board at Leyland realized that Aston was in worse shape than even they were, and the best solution appeared to be pulling the plug. The MGB and Midget roadsters were discontinued in 1980, with no immediate replacement in sight.

The storied MG name was then stuck onto various hatchbacks and sedans in the eighties; a sad fate for the marque that brought the affordable sports car to the people, especially American buyers who would not get the RV8 and MG-F two seat roadster revivals that appeared briefly much later.

The Alternate Reality

Looking back at 1980, you could argue that there was definitely a need for a new sports car on the market.  The Alfa Romeo and Fiat roadsters available at the time were nearly as old as the MGB, and Leyland’s own rather unloved TR7 was about to go the way of the MG.

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source: Bring A Trailer and Bring A Trailer

I am not about to even try to discuss the malaise-era politics and labor (sorry, labour) issues of the UK, but Leyland was short on cash, and the government could certainly have fixed that. I mean, they DID give tens of millions to an ex-General Motors executive to build a rather silly gullwinged stainless steel coupe that turned into a disaster, didn’t they?  Wasn’t one of the greatest sports car marques in history (dating back the 1920s) more deserving of the money? Shit, they kept the monarchy around just because they’re part of the British mystique, so roadsters with wood dashboards should have been preserved as well.

Let’s say Leyland did develop a replacement for the MGB, which I guess we can call the MGD (there already was an MGC, the beer that name references was not British, and the disease it is an acronym for was unknown…I think).

To prove how bad things REALLY were in 1980 for Leyland, they didn’t even have a rear drive small car other than the crappy Morris Marina that I could steal parts from for a new MG design. In fact, the situation was so dire that I actually needed to assume that they would redesign and develop an entire other car to use as a donor.

The car I chose to rework was something most Americans don’t even know about: the Triumph Dolomite, particularly the Sprint version. This little sedan featured a surprising-for-the-time four-valve-per-cylinder engine and was, according to contemporary reports, as close as Britain came to a small BMW fighter. Still, the Dolomite was nearly a decade old (and in reality about to be discontinued) in 1980 so a redesign and restyle would have been needed for it to live on in 1981. With the addition of independent rear suspension and four wheel discs, this little bulldog-looking thing would be more crude than products from Munich, but likely be faster and more rortin’ snortin’ fun.

1979 Triumph Dolomite Sprint B 54e3b7e97b610

source: Car Throttle and The Bishop

Now that we have worthy modern mechanicals from one fake car to put into another fake car, let’s see how we could apply something like Sir Town’s styling to the new MGD. His Phase II sketch is clean but just looks a bit too squared off, even for him, and it doesn’t look like an MG or even a sports car at all (it looks a bit too much like a nicely modified LeBaron convertible, really). While admittedly in 1981 nobody was doing ‘retro’ yet, even then each new model of a car typically had at least something that called to mind the predecessors, and have some ‘MGness”.

As such, I didn’t go full wedge shape, but I did add a laid-back nose with composite headlights and a reshaped low profile MG grille in chrome to go back to the pre-rubber-bumper style most people preferred. A more raked windscreen fronts a taller cabin, so now the crazy three wiper setup won’t be needed anymore. Smooth alloy wheels go with Town’s typical aesthetic, and also sort of call to mind the simple wheels on early MGBs. The overall look is cleaner and more austere than the outgoing MGB, but still available in glorious shades of brown.

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source: The Bishop and Aston.Co

Let’s get the tough part out of the way; we know the US spec nose will NOT be the same, but my design for that at least seems somewhat intentional. Rectangular sealed beams are too small to fit in the Euro opening so they would need to rise like on a Z31 300ZX when illuminated. In the deep chin spoiler we would need to add rubber ram-bar 5MPH bumperettes, which would likely have to exist in back as well (like on a Porsche 928).

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source: The Bishop

Also like the 928, in back the loop-shaped surround is a flexible body colored piece that mimics the back of the MGB, but the tall taillights of that earlier car are replaced by Rover SD1 units. Also, you might remember that there was a closed MGB coupe called the GT with a rear hatch door, so the MGD could offer this format as well:

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source: Superclassics and The Bishop

Inside, the dashboard features a sweep shape that echoes the traditional MG grille shape, with black or walnut trim surrounding central air vents with a slot pattern that will cause our man Adrian Clarke to start singing God Save The Queen…I mean King, sorry. The trim and specification of the Italian competitors had gone up by then (as had the spending power of the buyers in the demographic) which explains the wood trim plus available power windows and air conditioning. Note the shape and the cut lines on the lower dashboard to allow relatively easy left hand/right hand drive conversion. The large wood panel in front of the passenger is for an airbag that never came; it also might be good to have the fusebox there since you might be accessing that thing more than the radio controls in a British car. I kid! I kid!

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source: The Bishop

I know what the comments section will say- if the MGD had been produced it would have been a reliability disaster. We’re gonna see anecdotes about English Lucas electrics and why-British-drink-warm-beer jokes. Considering that concurrent Jags and later Sterlings (Honda-based Rover) sold here were still rather nightmarish, I think those predictions would have been true, and I honestly don’t care.

You see, the Japanese spent countless hours on computers replicating the looks and sounds of something that was hammered together in a barn. They in fact made a perfect copy that wouldn’t miss a beat in a quarter million miles. But a pastiche is a pastiche even if it’s a great pastiche, and in my alternate reality you could have had the real thing in the 1980s as long as a little electrical smoke now and then didn’t bother you.

There might still be a British monarchy, but there are no more MG roadsters, and we are a lesser place for it.

 

1981 MGD / MGD GT (US model)
Base Price: $12,380
As Shown: $14,850
Options Shown on Photo Car:
Air Conditioning
Electric Windows
Metallic Paint
Abingdon Package (Leather Seating Surfaces and Walnut Dash Finish)
Aluminum Wheels
Alpine AM/FM Cassette Stereo

Drivetrain:
2000cc DOHC 4 cylinder, 4 valves per cylinder
127HP (US model)
5 speed manual transmission

Chassis:
Strut independent front suspension
Semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension
4 wheel disc brakes
Rack and pinion steering

Performance (US model):
0-60  8.5 seconds
Top speed: 125MPH

 

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28 Responses

  1. Nice work. Sort of reminds me smaller/cheaper version of a 1987 Cadillac Allante which I really liked at the time but never could’ve ever afforded then.

    Even if MG could’ve held on with an 80’s roadster, the 1990+ Miata NA would have run it off the edge in every way.

    1. bertfrog- The Miata didn’t appear until ten years after this would have been introduced, and as you can tell I was trying to sort of reposition it in the market anyway. The MG demographic was changing (i.e. getting older and richer) so I made the design more mechanically sophisticated and expensive (plus made the interior more Jaguar-like upscale) to be maybe even more of a touring car/Benz SL than a true bare-bones sports car.

      1. This is really true, MGBs were thick on the ground during the summer in affluent suburbs well through the ’90s, a lot of them were probably college cars that got hung on to and shared garage space with new BMWs and Audis

    2. They ended up reviving the MGB in the early ’90s as the RV8, mainly for export to Japan, then did the all-new mid engine F in the mid ’90s, which was designed to pass US crash tests and emissions, but was never sold here as BMW feared it would overlap too much with the Z3. Had it been, it would have been through Land Rover dealers.

      Supposedly, the Rover 75 was designed for US sales, too, there were clay models of them with US spec lighting and reflectors, but BMW again vetoed that to avoid hurting 3-Series sales. Very different cars, but similarly priced

    1. My granddad had a Dolomite Sprint, always wanted one ever since.

      He also had a few proper old Jaaaag’s when they weren’t old, and I’ve always loved those too.

      Unfortunately I hate welding up rusty junk so until I win the lottery I’m destined to avoid such things / admire them from a distance as I know what’s best for my sanity.

  2. I find your time-shifted MG entirely plausible, and I’m glad it wasn’t built. The high windshield combined with the short wheelbase says “sporty” not sportscar and would have been quite a hit with hairdressers and cheerleaders.

    A few years back I drove a Dolomite Sprint through the Alps and it was a surprisingly good sports sedan, when it wasn’t trying to destroy itself. In the Age of Yuppies, an updated Dolomite Sprint could have worked. Unfortunately, British Leyland’s idea of updating is a quick restyle without addressing any of the previous model shortcomings.

    1. SquareTaillight- it’s less hairdressers and more the typical MG enthusiast that wanted one back in the fifties or sixties when they were in their 20s. Now they are pushing 50 and have some empty nester cash and just flat out don’t want a true sportscar. Yes, that is sad, but I gotta go where the money be at.

  3. A few random thoughts:

    Look up what the name MG stands for. You’re not buying a car, you’re buying a service experience. 😉

    Fight me, I think the rubber bumper MGBs look better than the chrome ones, It is probably one of the best looking solutions to the US regulations of the time, along with Porsche’s adaptations. I find they actually look better integrated than the old chrome stuff.

    My grandfather had a Dolomite Sprint. I remember him driving me around London like he stole it. Scared the crap out of me. He was in his late seventies by then and seemed to consider himself invincible. I still had a will to live…

    That Dolomite was quite memorable. Something about the size and spirit always stuck with me. It was a four door sports car that was actually as low as a sports car. Years later when the 3rd and 4th generation Civic sedans showed up, I swear they looked and drove like a reincarnation.

    1. I bought an MGB this summer and even though it was the cheapest one not in pieces, it has been pretty reliable overall. Some wear parts like kingpins and bearings need replaced and the heater core was bypassed due to a leak, but the engine always starts right up.

    2. andyindividual- I really do think that the Dolomite (and quite honestly any of the Triumph sedans from the late sixties as well) had the potential to be competitive with BMWs, but they didn’t stand a chance with Leyland. Unlike a company such as GM, their individual divisions (Austin, Morris, Triumph, Rover, Jaguar) all had very unique personalities, which of course competed internally.

      Instead of a new Dolomite, Triumph’s final car in the 80s was the Acclaim; a rebadged Honda Civic.

    3. I’ve long maintained that the rubber bumper cars would’ve been better received had BL been able to color coordinate them, instead of just being plain black. Black exterior trim wasn’t really a thing at that point (unlike the 80’s when it became far more common), so the bumpers really stood out against the body. I’ve seen numerous B’s with the bumpers painted to match or coordinate with the body color and it looks far better than the plain black a lot of the time. The black works better on some colors, and oddly I really like it against white, especially with black tape stripes down the sides. BL was actually considering painting them but couldn’t find paints that would reliably retain its pliability and adhesion to the rubber.

      If they’d done that, and a better job of handling the suspension (it was jacked up to respond to new headlight height regulations, which ruined the handling), the later cars would probably be a bit better received.

  4. At first glance your front 3/4 view bears a disturbing resemblance to the early 90s Australian Ford Capri.
    As a side note, 80s BL could have tried using a small FWD platform for and MGB successor, possibly the MG Metro in two seater soft top form.

  5. The body of the roadster version isn’t all too dissimilar from the MG PR2 concept Reliant built in the early ’90s, which is proof that the aesthetics and design language are spot-on for the era. Would have fight right in with the Scimitar SS1

    1. Ranwhenparked- yes, I did look at the SS1 since that was supposedly one of the Phase II MG concepts. I kept mine angular but not quite as wedgy to keep a bit more of an MG family resemblance. But I still tried to maintain the styling language of Mr. Towns.

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