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Every time I hear another tale about someone picking up an MGF for a song, £500 or so, I feel pangs of regret about it.
Sure, the low price makes the F a great starting place for the entry-level classic-car lover – as we rightly point out in this month’s Classic & Sports Car buyer’s guide – but the suggestion that the low price means it’s not a very good machine sticks in my craw.
I remember the launch of the F very well, and I’ve driven them from time to time ever since.
And even against its most popular rival (and I own a Mazda MX-5, so I know), the MGF is pretty damned good. Or perhaps I should say pretty and damned good.
In my view, two things harmed MGF values early in the car’s life.
One was the ignominious failure of the Rover Group that built it for the second half of its life. People came to think that if the company was badly run, the cars couldn’t be any good either. (That sort of thing also hurt the Rover 75.)
The second big issue was the almost universal head-gasket trouble that dogged the MGF’s 1.8-litre K-series engine. In global terms this was a fairly small thing, easily fixed and no longer an issue today, but back then if it wasn’t spotted it could result in an owner ruining a perfectly good engine. And such stories were manna to the ‘here we go again, Rover’ brigade.
I remember very well the atmosphere that ruled when the MGF was new. A few years earlier we’d had the fabulous MG EXE, the wonderfully exotic mid-engined concept penned by Gordon Sked and a youthful Gerry McGovern (now Land Rover’s chief designer).
When a few years later it became clear that Rover was not only bringing back a proper sports roadster (to balance all those warmed-over Metros and Maestros with red seatbelts and octagonal badges), but that it would be mid-engined and carry clearly recognisable styling references to the EXE, we got excited.
The first cars didn’t disappoint, either.
For pre-launch stories I was in touch with McGovern (who was Rover’s man supervising the car’s styling development at the Coventry-based MGA consultancy) and also with project chief engineer Nick Fell, nowadays a bigwig at the Horiba Mira car development group.
And I became more and more excited that so much sophistication – on both the technological and the styling fronts – was being put into the hands of owners who’d previously had to make do with archaic (if tough) MGBs.
When the car appeared in production, like most people we, at C&SC’s sister title Autocar, gave it an enthusiastic review.
Even the then-youthful Top Gear TV critic Jeremy Clarkson reckoned Rover “deserved to be applauded” for the car. Perhaps he was more of a pushover in those days.
We liked the fact that cabin access was easy, the interior was spacious and well protected, the driving position was low and sporty, there was decent boot room, the whole car was reasonably light because the K-series engine was too, and even the gearchange (the sort of thing Rovers in previous years could be relied on to mess up) worked well.
Sure, it wasn’t in the MX-5’s class, but back then there were even Ferraris that didn’t have gearchanges as sweetly precise as those affordable little Japanese roadsters.
What most impressed was the MGF’s ride and handling, because it struck compromises outside most British roadster owners’ experience.
Because the car used Alex Moulton’s interconnected Hydragas set-up it rode amazingly well, quite softly, and free from pitch. There was some body roll, but it wasn’t excessive as you can soon see if you look at road-test videos of the time.
Moulton was delighted to see his invention used for so unusual a purpose (some said he’d made so many for other Austins, Morrises and Rovers that the component costs were actually lower than springs), but his comment was that Hydragas “defidgets” the car, and he was spot on.
The F worked really well on Britain’s peculiar roads. The steering wasn’t quite as sharp as the very best, but perfectly acceptable.
I can remember driving the first road-test car away from the launch site and back to the office, convinced in the privacy of my own head that they’d aced it this time. Looking at the car’s sweetly proportioned styling out of our office window for the next few days did nothing to change my opinion.
One irony of the current low prices is that, unless the MGF you find in today’s classifieds has been badly bodged or crashed at some point in its life, it’s unlikely to suffer from terminal corrosion.
This seems a minor miracle, if you consider the fortunes and fates of British cars a decade earlier, but Fs simply weren’t particularly prone to rust.
Which is one reason for the low values: if not totalled or simply worn out, MGFs are mostly still with us.
Why not grab one now, and help this rare example of a long-lasting British car stick around for many years more.
Images: Haymarket Automotive
Don’t miss the MGF buyer’s guide in the August 2020 C&SC – click here for a preview and how to buy