We happened upon this very presentable MG-B the other day in our supermarket parking lot. It’s a ’73, one of the last that had chrome bumpers; later ones had to wear federally-mandated energy-absorbing ugly rubber snouts. It made us nostalgic for our first car, a ’68 MG-B, the model year was the first in which the B, introduced in 1962, came equipped with shoulder belts. Ours was blue and had wire wheels and was pretty snazzy when we bombed around Europe that summer when revolution was in the air.
Yes, the appeal of an open sports car piloted by a craven youth, pumped up on Gauloise cigarettes and the camaraderie of student uprisings was an intoxicating mix. It was a dream come true for a kid barely out of his teens — actually still in his teens at the beginning of that summer — but something of an illusion because, truth be told, the car was not very good.
We should have realized something was up when we went over to the London facility where left hand drive, US safety standards-compliant (shoulder belts, etc.), MGs were delivered to Americans who had pre-purchased them. It was both exciting and frightening to contemplate finding one’s way around London in a brand new sports car that we’d be driving on the “wrong” side of the road. But gratification was delayed for reasons never explained. We arrived at the appointed time for delivery and waited. And waited. And waited. After three hours, our new “B” was presented and off we went to who-knows-where in those wild and wooly pre-GPS times.
We were loathe to drive it much around London since it was impossible to park even back then. The matter of driving on the “wrong” side with a left-hand drive car made things especially daunting but, soon, we made our way across the channel — pre-chunnel, this was via ferry — and got to open up the car on the Autoroute. No speed limit back then so, hot damn!, driving 110 mph with the top down proved to be both an exhilarating and enlightening experience. Our wind whipped ‘Jewfro’ stood up on end as we charged through central France on our way to the promised land, La Côte d’Azur. On the way, at breakneck speed, we learned an important lesson: the faster one goes the more fuel (premium) is consumed. The ‘B’ was fitted with two SU carburetors, the pre-diluvian BMC B-series 1,800 cc motor that dated from the mid-1950s. It churned out 95 hp and mileage was supposed to be around 25 mpg. The problem is that at full throttle, fuel intake rises precipitously and the tank held under 12 gallons so we had to endure costly fill ups every 120 miles or so.
That was our fault, not the car’s. Deeper into our trip through the continent, a red light came on the dash; the owner’s manual led us to believe this indicated unequal pressure in the brake lines. Losing one’s stopping ability in the middle of the Apennines seemed a tad reckless even for those of us for whom speed limits seemed pointless. Off we went to a local Innocenti (BMC’s proxy in Italy) service facility where the mechanics appeared amused about our talk of la pressione non è uguale tra i freni anteriori e posteriori. Because UK and European market MGs didn’t actually have a brake pressure inequality warning light, this was alien territory to our Innocenti innocents whose company we enjoyed in beautiful Orvieto.
Ultimately, we gave up on ever having a brake pressure warning light to which any heed was paid and, indeed, life was the better for it. After Italy it was on to (then) Yugoslavia/today’s Croatia. Less than 100Km north of Dubrovnik we chugged to an involuntary stop on an incline as we attempted to wend our way to Czechoslovakia. This was the first notable instance of electrical failure, a trait that would become a hallmark of this otherwise very nice blue MG-B.
A truck driver, attracted, one tends to assume, to the allure of an on board glamorous companion, stopped to see how he could help. He whiped out a pocket knife and did a whole wire stripping number on the spark plug wires and scraped the breaker points in the car’s ignition system. The car roared to life and we were back on our way to adventures in the land of Dubček and socialists gone gooey, pre-Soviet invasion. Our MG-B with UK plates made everyone assume we were British — they were oblivious to the left hand drive and our Yank origins. “Hey, English, want change money?” was a recurring inquiry. It was embarrassing to explain that we weren’t English and that we didn’t want to change money because there’s not all that much to buy with it. On a dark, moonless night in Prague we drove up a street looking to connect with groovy Czechs at some bar or club and soon realized that the street ceased to exist but the tram tracks continued. Our MG-B was high and dry, hung up on the above ground tracks while, of course, there was an active street car, with bell clanging insistently, stuck directly behind us. Before long, a small crowd had gathered and were kind enough to pick the MG up, six or seven on a side, and carry it off the tracks onto a surface that connected to a passable street. Again, not the car’s fault but certainly something notable from a geopolitical point of view.
About three days before Soviet forces deposed Dubček and installed a puppet government, we found ourselves in West Germany when the MG-B came to an all too familiar halt on the side of a four lane highway. It was a re-run of our Croatian experience on a certain level but the cause was an accelerator pedal cable that had snapped, the pedal flush to floor. Soon, a US Army vehicle pulled up and a grinning kid jumped out. Wouldn’t you know it? He was a helicopter mechanic from a nearby base. He fixed the collapsed accelerator pedal with some — yes! — bailing wire and we were back on our way.
The car survived the streets of Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Amsterdam and back to Paris from which it was dispatched to the New World and a rendezvous with its ever hopeful owner. Back in New York, things were going well with the car except for the time when it was started and flames shot out from under the motor. Luckily, the firemen were busy doing something more worthwhile than saving a flaming MG. The conflagration diminished in short order and the car continued to charm and vex.
We drove it out to California — Berkeley, natch — and made a side visit to Madison to pick up a new set of points, condenser, ignition coil and rotor though we admit that we didn’t go there in the MG. It was stuck on the side of the road in the Wisconsin Dells, 50 or so miles away. Our trip to Mad City was in the chase car we were fortunate to have accompany us out west. It was a VW bus, slow as molasses but, taking into account MG breakdowns, it registered a higher coast to coast average speed that the car whose corporate motto was “Safety Fast.” Glad we didn’t have to test the former and, as noted, the latter only pertained intermittently.
Later, after another cross country trek, It broke down in a snowstorm in the middle of the wilds of New Jersey, necessitating a knock — how cliché! — on the door of a farm house since cell phones were decades away. We’re honest when we tell you that absolutely no shotguns were involved in that episode. Ultimately, an exhaust system that detached in the middle of New York’s Columbus Avenue and some touch and go overheating adventures manifested during bumper-to-bumper jaunts to Jones Beach actually began to help it sink in that this wasn’t really such a good car.
It seemed like a consummate act of disloyalty to abandon and/or sell the car that had failed you on numerous occasions over the course of its short history. In the end, reason, of a sort, prevailed and the blue MG was traded in on for a blue 1970 BMW 2002. While the ink was till drying on the 2002 purchase agreement the MG showed up back in the new vehicle area at the BMW dealer. Seems the used car manager realized the car had its — how shall we say? — shortcomings. Our salesman was instructed to raise the purchase price of the BMW to compensate for precipitous and instantaneous depreciation of the MG that we had traded. I took this as a sign that it really was right to get that glorious MG out of our lives. I held my ground and threatened to walk since the contract had been unilaterally broken by the dealer and I was certainly in the legal right. It was not my concern that they had bought a pig, albeit a good looking one, in a poke (which must be some kind of dark garage). A deal is a deal and so it was; the MG-B was, kicking and screaming, out of our lives.
That’s the story of a first car, an MG, that provided, as they now say, some wonderful “teaching moments.” These include to not go 110 miles per hour down a French Autoroute and expect to maintain your hairdo or win the Mobilgas Economy Run. It’s also not a great idea to try to translate the English language owner’s manual (U.S. edition) into Italian while your car is on a lift and the staff is having a lunch with wine break. We also advise against driving at a high rate of speed in an East Bloc country on a road that turns into a trolley line. We also recommend having both an on board fire extinguisher and several spare sets of critical ignition parts for inevitable need.
We also learned that when an MG-B, when it works, can be the source of great fun and excitement and lots of stories on which you’ll look back and wonder what the heck you were thinking. OK, we remember: you were thinking “I must have a British sports car as soon as possible!” That dream did come true and we survived it. We’re somewhat the wiser for the experience but probably not all that much.
We’re wildly nostalgic to see this ’67 MG-B that’s for sale in nearby Vero Beach, FL. You can get one for less than half the $12,900 asking price but it probably won’t be anywhere close to as nice. If you’ve got a spare 18 minutes you might want to watch this mini-documentary about the rise and fall of the MG-B. Get out the Kleenex.
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