The 1953 MG Magnette was one of the first results of the British Motor Corporation acquiring a number of British independent manufacturers from 1951 to 1952. Among these was MG, who had used the Magnette name in the 1930s for some very exciting sports racers—the name had cachet.
After the Second World War, MG built the YA and YB small sedan and tourer from 1947-53, but they were expensive, prewar in style and never found a market. The YA four-passenger tourer was adapted into the far more successful MG TD. Meanwhile, Leonard Lord, head of BMC, eyed the new unibody Wolseley 4/44 as a potential MG sedan.
Adapted by Gerald Palmer, designer of the excellent Jowett Javelin, the Magnette ZA was launched at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show. Deliveries began in 1954 with the ZA being built through 1956. The body was Italian in inspiration, with a smooth fastback design. It was powered by BMC’s 60-hp, 1,489cc OHV B Series engine, with twin SU carburetors. Despite looking like the Wolseley, only the front doors, trunk lid, and roof were shared.
The MG sat lower, had handsome wood trim, leather front buckets seats, and a four-speed close-ratio-gearbox. It had coil-and-wishbone independent front suspension, a solid rear axle, and leaf springs with rack-and-pinion steering—it certainly felt like an MG.
The MG ZA was built until 1956, and 18,076 were sold. The Motor magazine reported 79.7 mph top speed, 0-60 in 23 seconds and 20 mpg U.S. Most were stodgy colors, as was the fashion: black, gray, green, and maroon. It was replaced by the ZB in 1956, which looked similar but had bigger carburetors and an 86 mph top speed. A total of 18,524 were built by 1958, including some equipped with automatic transmission, and the most desirable version- the ZB Varitone—had a two-tone paint scheme divided by a chrome strip with a wraparound rear window.
In 1958 Sergio Pininfarina redesigned the entire BMC lineup, with a familial shape—rather like the Peugeot 404. All the marques were continued with different grilles, leading to complaints of “badge engineering.”
It was brilliant marketing and quite cost effective. The Austin A55 and A60 Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Wolseley 15/60, Riley 4/68, and MG Magnette Mk III all shared the same body shells with slight variations in tail fin details, different front panels, and grilles. All were powered by the BMC B-Series engine in various stages of tune. The Riley and MG featured wood dashboards and leather seats. Under the hood they sported twin carburetors, giving a top speed of 85 mph. Further up the family tree, the Wolseley 6/99 and Austin Westminster used similar designs with the 3-liter, 6-cylinder engine that was also found on the Austin-Healey 3000.
In common with the rest of BMC’s B series cars, the Magnette received a 1,622cc engine in 1961, creating the Mk IV. This model boasted increased performance and an 88 mph top speed. Handling was improved by front and rear sway bars. The Magnette Mk IV was built until 1968, when the entire Farina range was retired. Production numbers totaled to16,676 Mk IIIs and 14, 320 Mk IVs.
Unlike the front-wheel drive 1960s MG 1100, the Mk III and Mk IV Magnette sedans were not sold in the U.S.; though some have been imported from Canada. They are solid performers with a pleasant interior, but body and trim parts can be hard to find.
By contrast, the early ZA and ZB Magnettes have been warmly received by MG collectors—many keep one around for convenient and economical daily transportation. Due to the cars being prone to rust, California or Arizona cars are the best option.