19 May 2011

Mighty Good Buys: Which MGB models are best?

Editor’s note: Our friends at Classic Motorsports compiled a comprehensive buyers guide dedicated to the MGB. Below is an excerpt; click here to read the article in its entirety.

Why is the MGB such a favorite with classic car hobbyists? The answer is simple: It is good-looking, fun to drive and easy to maintain. These are the same reasons the MGB, with a few changes, was successful in the new-car market for nearly two decades. Today, good examples are easy to find, inexpensive to buy, and are backed by a fantastic network of MGB enthusiasts to provide support and share the fun of ownership.

A brief review of the MGB’s history provides an easy answer to what is considered the “best” MGB to buy: The cars from model years 1966 and 1967 get that accolade. They still carried the classic body style, highlighted by shiny bumpers and a pretty grille. Under the hood, the engine had been converted to a very reliable five-main-bearing design that produced nearly 100 horsepower at the flywheel. Inside, the seats were upholstered in leather, with lovely contrasting piping, and the dashboard was adorned with black crackle-finish paint and toggle switches, evoking memories of fighter planes and the Battle of Britain.

As with all classic cars, the best of the breed attracts the highest prices, so it isn’t surprising that these cars have the highest values. However, even for the very best restoration of the most desirable model, prices are still at a level that wouldn’t buy a half-decent Austin-Healey of the same vintage. Unrestored versions are occasionally found for $5000 or less, and the highest prices fetched at auction don’t exceed $25,000. Very good examples can be found for $10,000 to $15,000.

In terms of preferences, the earlier cars from the 1963 through 1965 model years, with their three-main-bearing engines, and known by their “pull-handle” doors (though a few five-main cars had the pull handles), are considered almost as desirable because of their traditional features and relative rarity. At the other end of the chrome-bumper period, the 1973 cars, with more comfortable seats, a center console with storage compartment and armrest, practical headrests, and the restored glove box, might be considered the next level in the pecking order. Even the vinyl seats can be recovered with a leather trim kit.

Even among the rubber-bumper cars there are some subtle distinctions. The 1977-’80 cars are preferable to the 1975-’76 cars, since they received front and rear anti-roll bars to correct handling problems and had some interior and engine-compartment improvements. It’s worth noting that the “Limited Edition” versions offered in the U.S. in 1979 and ’80 often turn up in very good condition with low mileage, having originally been bought by collectors and tucked away for investment purposes. They didn’t appreciate very much, and still usually sell for less than a comparable-condition chrome-bumper car, but they represent an interesting variant.

However, the differences in years, and even matching numbers and original specifications, don’t get a lot of attention in the MG hobby world. Instead, quality of bodywork and paint, tidiness of interior trim and, above all, performance are the variables that really make the difference in determining how much a particular MGB is worth.

Better yet, later models can be retro-engineered to the 1967 standards, and then upgraded with modern modifications, such as the new Moss supercharger, to the owner’s own tastes (see modifications sidebar on page 40). Even in California and states that share its air quality standards, any car built in 1973 or before is usually fair game for removal of emissions systems, upgrading of carburetors, the addition of a supercharger, and other modifications.

For anyone on a budget and handy with tools, even the inexpensive rubber-bumper models can be upgraded. Many enthusiasts have discovered that when the bumpers are painted the body color and the ride height reduced to more normal levels, the car is a pretty sleek alternative to any modern roadster. In a state where emission requirements aren’t too strict, a swap to a good five-main-bearing engine from the late ’60s is easy enough. Kits and instructions are even available to show how to fit a Rover or Buick V-8, or a variety of other six- or eight-cylinder or rotary engines.

With the variety of engine variations among the various export markets and from year to year for individual markets to cope with regulatory changes, a factory service parts list and one of the excellent workshop manuals are essential. This factor is worth bearing in mind when buying and working on a car that has been modified by previous owners. Parts ordered strictly by catalog and serial number may not always fit a modified car.

Regardless, with the large number of cars still on the road, brand-new parts of quite good quality are readily available. Few hobbyists even bother to part out old MGs any more, since it’s generally just as easy to buy a new piece from the Moss Motors or Victoria British catalogs.

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