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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

June 05, 1998

For the past half-dozen years I've made a spring pilgrimage to the Oakland (CA) marina to view the annual gathering of the MG faithful. Put on by the MG Owner's Club of Northern California, the event draws various models ranging from pre-World War II sportsters to some of the last to come off the MG assembly lines 20 years ago.

And while I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool MG fanatic, there is a ratty '65 MGB in our back yard awaiting restoration. It's the last remnant of a rollicking young adulthood experienced by my eldest son and since the pieces are still all there, I feel that we are part of the MG "family."

I strolled down the promenade past the pristine TC and TD models, through a cluster of MGAs and MGBs until I stumbled into an enclave of MG Midgets, probably the most underrated and maligned, but very popular sports car to ever carry the MG octagon logo on its hood. At the time, sports car critics were somewhat contemptuous of the car because it was, in reality, a re-badged Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II.

In 1958, the original A-H "Bugeye" Sprite Mark I was a dream come true to us American sports car aficionados. It was tiny (80-inch wheelbase, 1300 pounds) "spritely" (.95 liter engine, 43 horsepower) and inexpensive at around $1800. It's nickname came from the headlights that protruded frog-like from the one-piece forward hinged hood/fender unit. It carried no roll-up windows or outside door handles and access to the trunk area was gained by crawling over the flop-down front seats. It was a "parts shelf" car made from parts gleaned from sibling Austin and Morris sedans. This helped its low showroom price.

But a few years later, international tastes in sports cars had become more sophisticated and the powers-that-were at British Motor Corp. (BMC, a part of which was the Nuffield group, the early-day MG parent) decided that the Bugeye was passe and a more modern version with detachable front fenders, a proper hood and a trunk lid was the next logical step. The Series II Sprite with all these amenities was the result and its market penetration was good, even though sales of the more modern car dipped by a third from the last year of the Bugeye. It carried the same tiny engine under the hood, but the weight of the new car was 150 pounds more, cutting down performance.

Across the BMC corporate hall at MG, it was noted that the stalwart MGA (actually a larger Austin-powered sportster) was approaching retirement age and 1962 would see the curtain drawn on the six-year old car. Its successor, the MGB would come into action the next year, but MG dealers needed a modern machine to boost their sales - and they needed it quickly. A different grille and the MG logo transformed the Sprite into the car MG dealers had dreamed of: one that was cheaper (albeit smaller and slower) than the MGA but more modern looking. The MG version was quick to come about and it more or less came down the same assembly line as the updated Sprite Mark II. The Midget name was resurrected from pre-war MG use when it was applied to most small MG roadsters - including a string of factory racers that were wildly successful and popular in Europe as well as the British Isles.

When the MGB finally appeared, it carried roll-up windows and assorted other creature comforts that were lacking in its Midget sibling. The following year, the little fellow shed its clip-on side curtains in favor of honest-to-gosh glass windows in its doors that were complete with inside handles (located in a most inconvenient position, as I recall) and lockable outside door handles. Modern times had arrived at MG.

Unfortunately, accurate production and sales figures are sketchy, but it appears that there must have been a bit more magic attached to the MG name than there was to Austin-Healey. Although the cars were virtually identical (over the years the twins acquired the irreverent moniker "Spridget"), the MG outsold the Sprite in this country from its inception, though the margin was small. While the last "official" Sprite was made in 1971, production of the Midget carried on for another eight years.

Towards the end of the MG presence in the U.S., the role of the Midget became murky. The car acquired bigger engines and better gearboxes over the years (the 1.2 unit and close ratio gearbox of the Mark II and IIi being the best performers) and the popular Whitworth centerlock wire wheel became the most popular option until outlawed here by federal mandate. It final form, the same safety standards required that the body be raised on its suspension to comply with headlight height laws and the cute chrome bumpers were replaced by a ponderous matte-black polyurethane nose-piece and rear bumper.

A later corporate marriage of BMC with British Leyland resulted in the installation of the short-lived and fragile Triumph Spitfire 1.5L engine in that last Midget. When installed in the MG in this country, its red-hot catalytic converter was located so close to the engine that its coolant boiled out of the block when the car was shut down. Unfortunately the oil filter had a bad habit of draining down at the same time so the Spitfire/Midget owner was faced with restarting his or her new car with no oil in the system and no coolant in the block.

As a usable and collectible vintage sports car, the MG Midget is a great choice. It has the MG name, parts are readily available and its restoration is fairly easy. The March '98 edition of Classic & Sports Car magazine devoted eight pages to the Spridget twins and judged them to be the ideal "starter" car for the hobbyist.

Maybe my son should have invested in a Midget rather than an MGB back when he had the chance.