Why you’d want an MGA
When motor racing photographer George Phillips entered his TD for Le Mans in ’51, MG designer Syd Enever produced an attractive streamlined body for it that was virtually the finished shape of the MGA.
The car’s 116mph top speed showed its aerodynamic advantages, but its occupants sat high, on top of the chassis. Enever set young draughtsman Roy Brocklehurst the task of devising a new design, moving the side rails outwards to drop the seats.
Scuttle shake, often the bane of separate-chassis roadsters, was eradicated by building a substantial ‘goalpost’ structure on the frame, supporting the front bulkhead. Aluminium-skinned doors, bonnet and bootlid helped to keep weight down.
Completed in 1952, it was at first rejected by BMC management (which was about to launch the Healey 100) and became a record-breaker, but in 1954 it was prepared for production.
The corporate B-series Austin engine, newly enlarged to 1489cc, made it a much more appealing prospect than with the costly XPEG unit. Three aluminium-bodied race prototypes were built for Le Mans in ’55, one finishing 12th and one 17th. They ran again at Dundrod, testing twin-cam developments and disc brakes even before the production model was launched.
The pretty MGA proved extremely popular, safe and fun, with a high door-line that made it feel comfier than many rivals. A lively performer with a throaty roar, it boasted precise rack steering.
Those unhappy with its poor security could soon opt for the civilised Coupé, but access was even more of a struggle than with the roadster.
Calls for more performance were answered in 1958 with a dual-overhead-cam derivative of the B-series engine, with hemispherical combustion chambers, 9.9:1 compression ratio and big valves. Expensive and unreliable, it was phased out in favour of uprated pushrod engines that, when tuned, could match Twin-Cam performance.
By the time the 100,000th MGA had been built in March ’62, it was the world’s best-selling sports car. Only 5% were sold new to the home market, 80% going to the US, so most cars now in the UK are re-imports.
It took six years for testers’ requests for a higher top gear to be answered, but criticism of the hood was never addressed. Rust is the main enemy of surviving cars, followed by lack of originality, although there are still plenty of excellent examples around.
MGA: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
The B-series is a robust unit, thriving on regular maintenance. Tired ones show low oil pressure when hot (should be 50psi-plus at speed), high oil consumption, blue smoke, rumbles and rattles, plus poor performance.
If it’s worn, rebuild or drop in an MGB unit for instant performance boost. Check for water loss; the head can crack.
Front suspension is simple but needs greasing every 1000 miles and wears quickly if neglected: look for play/odd tyre wear. Anti-roll bar optional on MkII.
A lot is exposed underneath, including batteries, chassis and springs. Axle is robust provided it’s not run dry: check for oil getting into rear brake drums.
Feel for tired synchro, particularly on second. Overdrive can be retrofitted with chassis mods. Five-speed ’boxes are popular: £966 + Sierra transmission.
Brakes and clutch
Dual master cylinder for brake & clutch is £96; drum brakes are adequate if not abused. Front discs are better and all-discs the ultimate, but costlier to rebuild.
Colour choice was limited, but specials were common. Dash could be trimmed in leather, vinyl or rexine. A nice cabin
is a bonus, especially with deluxe seats.
Hard to erect single-handed, the hood often stays furled under a tonneau. Check material, frame and sidescreens are in good order and fit together well.
MGA: on the road
The standard MGA should perform briskly; if the engine feels flat, it needs attention. Raising the hood will reveal how it fits, plus the noise of the running gear.
Various stages of tune were offered, involving polishing ports, changing carb needles (or swapping for bigger carbs), an uprated cam, higher-compression pistons and so on. Some, such as a crossflow head or a supercharger kit, are now sought-after, but over-zealous tuning may affect tractability for normal road use.
The Twin-Cam’s high compression when new was its undoing, resulting in holed pistons – 8.3:1 became available and something less than the standard 9.9:1 is advisable now. High oil thirst and an inaccessible dipstick didn’t help; it was also too easy to over-rev. Despite some common parts, its cylinder block differed from the standard model. Incorrect sparkplugs and ignition settings also contributed to piston-holing issues, but today a Twin-Cam can be a reliable as well as sparkling performer if carefully maintained.
Any MGA should feel confidence-inspiring, with light, precise rack steering on crossplies or radials. The Motor found that running all tyres at 27psi avoided understeer – a recommendation that’s still followed (30psi works well with 155s). An anti-roll bar was optional on the MkII.
Many cars now in the UK are imports, mostly from the USA and conversion from left-hand drive is straightforward. Cheap, plentiful parts availability has encouraged owners to upgrade many items, not to mention appearance: 60% of MGAs were white when new, but few are now. Tracing a truly original car can be a challenge.
MGA price guide
- Show/rebuilt: £35,000*
- Average: £18,000*
- Restoration: £6000*
- Show/rebuilt: £25,000*
- Average: £14,000*
- Restoration: £4000*
- Show/rebuilt: £45,000*
- Average: £27,500*
- Restoration: £12,500*
- Show/rebuilt: £40,000*
- Average: £22,000*
- Restoration: £11,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
1955 Sep MGA launched
1956 Stylised instrument markings simplified; factory hardtop offered (aluminium first, later glassfibre covered with black vinyl)
1956 Nov Coupé announced: wind-up windows, locking doors
1957 Power up 4bhp, gives 102mph in Coupé
1958 Jul Twin-Cam launched: all-disc Dunlop brakes, centre-lock disc wheels, vinyl dash, deluxe seats; all MGAs get slightly larger bowed bonnet and optional deluxe seats
1959 Close-ratio gearbox option for Twin-Cam
1959 May 1600 replaces 1500: Lockheed front disc brakes, revised lights and sliding sidescreens (also changed on Twin-Cam); 0-60mph 13.3 secs
1960 May Twin-Cam discontinued (2111 built); 1600 De Luxe offered with all-disc brakes and knock-on wheels (395 built)
1961 Jun MkII: 1622cc (86bhp, 97lb ft), new grille, horizontal rear lights, higher final drive, vinyl dash, seatbelt mounts; 0-60mph 12.8 secs, 105mph
1962 Jun Production ends
The owner’s view
“I bought my first MGA for £105, aged 19,” recalls owner Julie Eaglen. “It was a bit of a wreck, but had an MoT, and I scraped the cash together to keep it going. A delight to drive – as long as you’re not in a serious hurry! – it was my daily transport, covering thousands of miles until its chassis needed a second rebuild. So, sadly, it had to be sold.
“I promised that one day I’d buy another: in 1989, I found myself almost priced out of an overheating market, but persevered. There’s something so wonderful about the engine note, roadholding, seating position and gorgeous looks – and the smiles I get make me feel as if I’m providing some kind of social service. Most mechanical things are straightforward and parts availability is fantastic, and reasonably priced.”
ALFA ROMEO GIULIETTA SPIDER
A jewel, with superb all-alloy 1290cc twin-cam engine and delectable body with wind-up windows plus a proper, easy-to-erect hood. Parts and restoration are costly.
Sold 1955-’63 • No. built 17,096 • Mpg 25-35 • 0-60mph 11 secs • Top speed 100-112mph • Price new £2123 (1959) • Price now £40-80,000*
Less civilised, more gutsy and quicker, plus a bigger boot and optional overdrive, the TR was more expensive and cruder than the base MGA. Top parts availability and easier to restore.
Sold 1955-’62 • No. built 74,947 • Mpg 24-32 • 0-60mph 10.8 secs • Top speed 105mph • Price new £991 (1959) • Price now £15-35,000+*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
MGA: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
The MGA is a paradox – one of the last new designs built with wooden floorboards – but now, who cares? It’s a fun, lively, stunning-looking ’50s sports car that is easy to drive and cheap to run.
Accurate, original spec (look for details such as the full toolkit) will be highly valued in the future, but a well-restored, rust-free body is the crucial consideration for now.
- Exceptionally good-looking
- Brisk, usable performance, particularly the Twin-Cam models
- Practical and economical
- Eligible for many forms of motorsport
- Limited luggage space
- Roadster difficult to secure
- Convertible hood is a pain to erect
Sold/number built 1955-’62/101,082
Construction steel chassis, steel body
Engine all-iron, ohc 1489/1588/1622cc ‘four’ with twin 11/2in SU carburettors, or alloy-head dohc 1588cc ‘four’ with twin 13/4in SU carburettors; 68bhp @ 5500rpm-108bhp @ 6700rpm; 77lb ft @ 3500rpm-105lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission four-speed, three-synchro manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic springs; lever-arms f/r
Steering rack and pinion, 23/4 turns lock-lock
Brakes 10in drums, 11in front discs on 1600, all-103/4in discs on Twin-Cam and De Luxe
Length 13ft (3962mm)
Width 4ft 10in (1473mm)
Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2388mm)
Weight 2044-2128lb (929-967kg)
0-60mph 16-9.1 secs
Top speed 98-114mph
Price new £940/1026/1195/1282 (roadster/Coupé/Twin-Cam/Twin-Cam Coupé, 1959)
BUY A CLASSIC MGA