Following Don Hayter’s passing last week, we revisit our feature on his personal project car, first published in our June 2014 issue
There have been several attempts to keep the ‘Abingdon Octagon’ on British roads – the RV8, the MGF and TF, the Z family, and now the MG6 and MG3 – but it’s fair to say that none have captured the buying public’s enthusiasm in the way that the MGB did.
Of course, times have changed, and in a marketplace that is now littered with accomplished, gutsy two-seaters with impressive – and at times breathtaking – performance and handling, the ethos behind the B inhabits another world.
But could things have been different, had those in charge of the pursestrings loosened their grip just a little?
Unfortunately, we will never know and, perhaps surprisingly, the man who could have so easily been responsible for making that happen doesn’t really mind that it didn’t.
“I guess it could have been the case,” reflects Don Hayter, former chief engineer at Abingdon, “but what we did at MG was still pretty groundbreaking. I’m happy with what we achieved.”
Hayter relaxes into his armchair, positions the walking stick to one side and gazes into the distance.
As the 88-year-old pulls dates, names and anecdotes from the past with apparent ease, it’s easy to forget that more than half a century has passed since the MGB took to the road and an icon of British motoring was born.
The B proved an immediate hit and, over the ensuing 18 years, went through a mild evolutionary process.
In 1974, in a bid to satisfy Federal safety legislation, the last incarnation was born. What would come to be regarded as the least-desirable of the line, thanks to those shovel-fronted rubber bumpers, was the final nail in the coffin for the MGB, yet behind the scenes there were efforts to keep the embers glowing with the O-series project.
The USA wasn’t just responsible for design changes on safety grounds; it also imposed an emissions stranglehold that led British Leyland to instruct Hayter to look into a replacement for the ageing 1798cc in-line ‘four’.
Work began on several potential successors, with Hayter investigating the overhead-cam O-series in 1.7- and 2-litre forms; and a compact 1.1- or 1.4-litre alternative, the S-series.
All were put through their paces with excellent results – at least six MGBs with full emissions controls made their way across the Atlantic and passed the stringent American smog tests.
All looked promising for the future of the MGB and the O-series power unit, but things were far from rosy in the boardroom and, with the rumoured Aston Martin takeover looming for the British Leyland-owned company, the project failed to receive the backing it needed.
The latest evolution of the B was signed off and ready to be put into production for the US and Canadian markets, yet further progress was halted and eventually the axe fell on MG.
The cessation of the project meant that there were around two dozen bodyshells surplus to requirements – the later-built ones featuring a number of modifications to the pressings in preparation for impending production, and it is one of those that sits before us today.
“I’d always wanted to build a V8 roadster, so I sold myself one of the spare bodyshells,” explains Hayter, with a mischievous and rather proud smile spreading across his face – there is clearly still a small part of him waiting to be reprimanded by his superiors for what would today almost certainly be considered ‘not on’.
“I didn’t tell the management, of course, but it was all above board. I paid just under £1000 for the body – I’ve still got the receipt actually.”
And with that, the small hand-written document is produced from the car’s history file, proving (if proof were needed), that Hayter paid precisely £939.55 for the roadster shell.
That receipt also mentions the purchase of several other parts, including exhaust manifolds, but of particular note is a hard-top: the prototype, in fact, as built by Denis Ferranti Laminations Ltd.
Sadly, this is no longer with the vehicle – Hayter decided matter-of-factly that he was never going to fit it and that it was just taking up valuable space in the garage, so it was sold.
The next receipt to emerge from the folder is rather more significant, and provides the missing piece to this curious jigsaw.
Dated 24 March 1980, it reads thus: ‘1 V8 Engine Unit. No EXP 147. 1972 Emissions – Obsolete. £15.00.’
Rewind to 1971, and Syd Enever’s retirement from MG resulted in Roy Brocklehurst becoming chief engineer.
One of his first tasks was to look at putting the Rover V8 unit into the MGB – a clear attempt to capitalise on the appeal of Ken Costello’s conversions, which were already on the market, but using the experience of MG’s Design Office to address certain areas that weren’t acceptable for production.
A flexible steering-column coupling replaced a welded joint, while a bonnet bulge was initially deemed inevitable to make room for a Holley carburettor – although the latter was shelved when a pair of HS6 SU carbs were made to fit within the existing (and far more tasteful) layout.
Just two years later, things were to change once more.
“I got into the car with Roy and he told me that I was now chief engineer at MG,” recalls Hayter. “He had been transferred to Longbridge as chief vehicle engineer at Austin-Rover, so my first job was to pick up where Roy left off and put the V8 into production.”
A shade fewer than 3000 V8-engined BGTs were built but, after just three years of production, management opted to halt the supply of Rover engines to MG based on the low production figures and the BGT V8 was discontinued.
Back to 1980 and Hayter realised that, with the imminent closure of MG, a suitable powerplant for his roadster shell was under his nose.
“Still in the stores was one of the test engines. It had been run on a test rig but put straight back into storage, and with the end of the V8 project had been rather forgotten about.”
As with the body, Hayter arranged to buy the engine to satisfy his long-harboured desire to build a V8-powered roadster, but along with the unit itself came one small bonus.
“See those rocker covers?” he asks, once again grinning enthusiastically as he points under the bonnet. “Those are the first ones ever produced with the cast MG logo on instead of Rover. They were the prototypes for the BGT V8.”
Having gathered all of the parts he needed, Hayter set about putting his car together at Abingdon – in doing so making it the only factory-assembled V8 roadster in existence.
And that isn’t the only unique thing about the Hayter MGB: “It has the larger front brakes of the O-series cars, and you can tell that it’s one of the special shells made by Pressed Steel of Swindon because of the bulge in the inner arch, which was introduced to allow for a fuel-injected engine.
“There were only about 10 bodies produced with that pressing design, and I reckon that five or six are still around.”
Hayter lived with the car for the following 33 years, and drove it extensively.
“We went to Italy in it once,” he says. “I wanted to drive around the Monaco circuit en route, but we also went to see Dick Burzi who styled the Austin Atlantic and had retired to Ventimiglia. I showed him the car and he merely said ‘That’s all right, isn’t it?’ – and that is high praise from Dick!”
In addition to a well-deserved holiday, the trip served another purpose. “It was the first time I got to check the fuel consumption on a long run: 29mpg!” Hayter announces with pride.
After three decades together, Hayter and his unique B have now parted company.
“I just can’t maintain it any more,” he admits sadly. “It was time to let someone else enjoy it and that was when Edward came along.”
Edward Vandyk, that is, an unashamed MG enthusiast who owns several Twin-Cam MGAs. Although he wasn’t on the lookout for a B at the time, Vandyk couldn’t help but make an offer when the V8 rarity came up for sale.
Fortunately for us, however, he isn’t overly precious about his cars and, as soon as the showers clear, he urges us to take the B for a blast.
The first realisation on the road is that there is no drama; no kick in the back from the increase in power over a standard four-cylinder; and above all no ‘shouty’ soundtrack.
In fact, the noise is so sedate that at first you might be forgiven for thinking that there is a factory-spec B-series under the bonnet – albeit one that has been mated to a decent stainless exhaust.
That impression changes when you put your foot down, of course: the roar is still subdued but you soon start to notice the purposeful burble as the wind whips around your ears – becoming more evident as you catch an enhanced version bouncing off an adjacent brick wall.
The acceleration is impressive, but any fears about the packed engine bay resulting in extra weight over the front end and affecting the B’s trademark friendly handling are unfounded: the aluminium block and heads bring it in at around 40lb under the weight of the old ‘four’.
The fact that the unit is mated to a standard B gearbox means that you retain the lovely short-throw change on the stubby lever, and a deft flick of the knob-mounted switch kicks in the Laycock overdrive after a breath’s pause – relaxing the revs and lowering the tones once more.
It is hard not to think of Hayter’s Italian adventure and consider how perfect this combination of open top and power on demand must have been – and even harder not to lament that MG never explored this particular route.
Clearly its chief engineer knew what he was doing when he began amassing the parts for this one-off vehicle, yet even in retirement Hayter’s ingenuity and experience didn’t go to waste.
Aside from restoring an MG J2, when a local care home needed an engineer he soon found himself working three days a week modifying wheelchairs and other equipment before going on to develop a new type of head support for those suffering with Multiple Sclerosis.
“It was terrible to see, of course, but I’m glad to have helped in some way,” he says, before explaining his work on fettling replacement knee and hip joints.
“The patient would be in theatre and they would rush a new joint round to me for some modifications to ensure a good fit. Within my lunch hour it would be altered, sterilised and back in the theatre next door!”
And it’s impossible not to resist a final cheeky question to this Abingdon stalwart: did he pop the famous octagon on to those spares before sending them back?
“No. I wanted to, but apparently that sort of thing is frowned upon!”
Images: Malcolm Griffiths