MG TC, TD and TF Midgets: small British sports cars to a ‘T’
On page 60 of my very worn copy of the January 2, 1956 edition of Motor Manual, heading the ‘Guide to Used Cars’ section, I found this interesting commentary:
Sports cars continue to sell well – the popular MG TC now bringing more than it did at this time last year. This applies, of course, to those in better condition.
In 1956, there was no such thing as a classic car market. Used cars became old bangers in only three or four years, in many cases: hence the qualifier ‘those in better condition’. By the time this edition had gone to press, the first truly modern MG, the MGA was already on sale in Britain, but it does not appear with the Magnette in the magazine’s new car price list. The magic of the MG brand and the new MGA is apparent on the back cover colour ad for Benzol. Behold a painting of a red MGA racer, bumperless and bonnet-pinned:
Any experienced racing driver will tell you the addition of extra BENZOL to his fuel is a must to get Optimum Performance from his engine.
Who knows, maybe news of the sleek MGA encouraged more used car buyers to grab themselves a TC?
Although it was the TD that sold in the greatest numbers, my view is that of the closely related TC, TD and TF models, it is the earliest car that is the most historically significant.
The MG (Morris Garages) brand had built itself a brilliant reputation in Britain many years before the outbreak of World War Two. In his landmark MG by McComb. F. Wilson McComb observes that in 1933 MG’s Abingdon factory was the only one in the world dedicated exclusively to sports cars. But the cars were expensive and sales actually slowed in 1933.
MG was probably marketing too diverse a range of products at this time and some rationalisation followed. William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) had never been keen on corporate involvement in motorsport but he and managing director, Leonard Lord, gave MG boss, Cecil Kimber, some leeway – at least until mid-1935 when MG was forced to abandon racing. Morris took control of the Abingdon factory and MG’s brief was to develop new models that were less specialised and had a greater degree of parts interchangeability with Morris and Wolseley (bankrupt and taken over in February 1927) cars.
In June 1936 MG released the first of its T-Series Midgets, the TA, to supersede the PB Midget. While the PB had used an advanced but temperamental overhead camshaft engine, the new car was powered by an overhead valve unit developed from the Wolseley Ten’s. The TA was bigger but cost exactly the same as its predecessor. The irony for our story at this point is that even in 1936 purists complained about the humdrum mechanicals of the least expensive MG sports car (and some also complained about its synchromesh gearbox; I guess the idea was to jump out of your cold shower on a rainy day, lower the hood and double de-clutch your way around the streaming countryside!) But the simpler, torquier and more spacious Midget sold strongly, due to its broader appeal and superior comfort, thanks to a softer ride.
The TA remained in production until 1939 and a total of about 3000 found buyers. A telescopic steering column was introduced in 1938. The TB arrived in April 1939, months before World War Two and just 379 were made. The previous year Morris had introduced a new shorter stroke engine. MG’s engineers bored this 1140 cc unit out to 1250 and it was named the XPAG. It was equipped with twin 1 ¼-inch SU carburettors. The compression ratio was 7.25 to 1 and peak power was 54.4 (every .4 counts) brake horsepower at 5200rpm. More importantly, it gave 64lb/ft of torque at 2600rpm.
The war had barely finished before MG dusted off the TB demonstrator and made a few improvements, principally a wider body. By the end of 1945 the company had built 81 TCs. When it was discontinued in 1949, a remarkable 10,000 cars had come down the Abingdon line.
Like its predecessors, the TC had hydraulic brakes, which were by no means to be taken for granted in less expensive cars even in 1945. But it had semi-elliptic springs front and rear (six mounted transversely up front and seven per side at the back). Few buyers found anything to complain about. Even though the TC’s true top speed was little more than 75 miles per hour, acceleration was lively with zero to 50 taking 15 seconds. You could cruise at 60, which was still unusual in any car with such a small engine.
The body comprised an ash frame, steel framework, some plywood panelling and steel panels. There were 21 louvres on the side-opening bonnet. The handbrake was still the standing-up-vertical fly-off type. There was an electric clock (which required winding) and a fuel reserve switch but no gauge (although a green light flashed when the tank was down to the last two and a half gallons). The dials were silver-grey with dark brown needles. The driver and front passenger occupied a split-bench seat. That narrow little windscreen could be folded flat, a feature long since rendered impossible by the all-reaching tentacles of safety legislation (but no-one makes the front of trucks safe for pedestrians to tangle with!)
All TCs were fitted as standard with 19-inch wire wheels. (It is one automotive fashion that has gone in both directions: through the 1950s wheel diameters got smaller – 48-215 Holdens had 15s, FEs 14s and HDs 13s – and we know what has been going on seemingly without respite since about 1978 when the Commodore SL/E had huge 15-inchers!) That may sound cool, but the MG’s wheels were just 2.5 inches wide! Interestingly, too, there was the option of competition wheels, which were 16-inch items.
I have gleaned much of this information from a superbly trainspotting volume by the famous automotive historian, Anders Ditlev Claushager. Here is a rich sample from Original MG T Series:
A particular point concerns the colour of the radiator slats. These were usually painted to match the upholstery colour. On the TA and TB, upholstery usually matched the body (compare the colour section) so evidently the radiator slats were painted body colour, but contrast colour upholstery was found on cream, black and some green cars, and these would have the radiator slats in the upholstery colour. On TCs (and, presumably, TDs), if a car was green with green upholstery, or red with red upholstery, the slats were painted body colour; but on a black or cream car with red or green upholstery, the radiator slats were finished in shades of red or green which were rather brighter than the normal MG Red or Shires Green used for the paint on the body on cars of these colours.
Like all British automotive manufacturers, the Nuffield Organisation (as the grouping of Morris, MG, Wolseley and now Riley brands was known) was forced by the government to export the greater part of its production. For the first time, MGs were shipped to North America, all 2001 of them right-hand-drive because that was the only version MG built! Even before official exports began, these little cars had been seen in the hands of soldiers, movie stars and then racers; many a driver of a lumbering American Chevy, Ford or Plymouth must have stared in bewilderment as a TC sped past.
In the Australian context, it is significant that the very first issue of Modern Motor, June 1954, had a red MG TF as its cover car. Here, as in the US and, indeed, the UK, the relatively inexpensive Midget represented a ticket to ride, a defiance of the mundane. My own first experience of travelling as a passenger in an MG came in 1967 when one of the boys at my school took me out in his cream TF 1500, bought by his parents for $450. At the time you could buy a tidy FJ Holden for $200, so the MG had held its value well.
The first MG I drove was my then best friend’s 1951 red Y-Type Tourer. It was New Year 1969. With its 1250cc XPAG engine and heavy body, this car was a fair bit slower than a contemporaneous TC but had the same quick and beautifully weighted steering, fold-flat windscreen, great exhaust note; it felt like an invitation to escape. Though less desirable than any of the T-Series Midgets, the Y-Type Tourer was much more exciting than my own 1960 Fiat 1100. Interestingly, this car had also cost $450 one year after the aforementioned purchase of a TF. On rarity, it had them all beaten and I don’t recall ever seeing another.
MGs stood pretty much on their own in Australia in the mid-1950s. They were used in club motorsport events like hillclimbs and rallies, as well as raced. What they lacked in outright speed they made up for in agility and charm.
I say early on in this story that the TC is the most important of our T-Series Midget trio. It was undoubtedly the immense success of the TC in the US that shaped the general thrust of the development of the TD, which unlike its illustrious predecessor was also built in left-hand-drive form. The TD was also the first MG sports car with independent front suspension rather than transverse semi-elliptics and the first with rack and pinion steering (replacing the old-fashioned Bishop cam gear system). It was equipped with 15-inch disc wheels which would stand up better to bad roads.
Back in the 1950s and into the 1960s, the distinction was well made between handling (the overall dynamics and balance of a car) and roadholding (grip). Less of the latter placed more emphasis on the former; when grip levels are low, the balance or lack thereof becomes apparent. On narrow cross-ply tyres, roadholding will always be marginal and sliding a T-Series MG around a race track must have been enormous fun; I wish I’d tried it!
The TD’s grille was lower and the whole car was wider, up to 4.5 inches so at the passenger compartment.
Interestingly, the TD’s chassis was mainly derived from MG’s first postwar sedan, the charming Y-Type. The engineer of the independent front suspension comprised coil springs and wishbones (the upper ones being formed by the lever arms of the dampers) was a talented man called Alec Issigonis.
In a 1953 road test, The Autocar’s writer valiantly attempted to summarise the appeal of the little MG:
It is interesting to try to analyse the points which, collectively, make the TD such fun to drive.
The feel of the car on the road inspires confidence and there is the impression that even an indifferent driver could make a good showing behind the wheel; however long the journey, the actual driving of the car is beguiling all the way. In traffic its small size and good visibility make it very manoeuvrable and the flexibility of the 1 ¼-litre engine is such that one can trickle along at 10 mph on top gear, using the lively acceleration on third and second gears to pass through comparatively narrow openings in the traffic. For the daily shopping it could not be more convenient; its small size and good steering lock make parking an easy matter.
The high-geared rack-and-pinion steering is light, accurate and sensitive, and small movements of the wheel produce a quick response…Speeds up to 65 mph are reached easily…The gearbox, with synchromesh on second, third and top, and its short, remote control, central lever, are a joy to use – to such an extent that one tends to use third gear more than one needs…
Another obvious positive was value for money. I don’t have Australian prices but the T-Series Midgets were comparable with the Holden. In the UK in 1953, the TD commanded £752 compared with the Austin A30 at £554 and the Wolseley 4/44 (which used a detuned XPAG engine) at £844.
The TD Mark II, introduced in May 1950, was primarily aimed at the US market. It had a taller final drive ratio and 57 horsepower, thanks mainly to larger 1 ½-inch SUs. This should have been the last of the T-Series Midgets but corporate fate once again determined MG’s direction.
In 1952, the Nuffield Organisation merged with Austin to form the British Motor Corporation. The Austin-Healey was to hand and so Leonard Lord vetoed the proposed new MG (essentially, what became the MGA). Instead, MG was instructed once more to revise the Midget.
The resultant TF, launched that same year, was well received in the UK but was derided in the US where the Healey and Triumph’s TR2 were not only absurdly faster but had modern lines. With its lowered nose section, the TF was the first Midget not to have a side-opening bonnet or a real radiator cap atop its chrome grille. The TF’s octagonal exterior cap looked great but was purely decorative, the entire grille concealing the radiator behind. (I imagine purists shuddered. What would those same purists have made of the new Austin-engined MG sedan having more power than the hastily reworked sports car?)
The TF’s 1250 XPAG engine was the same as the TD Mark II’s but was shortly joined by a bored-out 1466cc version, called the 1500. Even so, 63 brake horsepower at 5000rpm and a top speed of 85 miles per hour was little to drive home about in 1954!
The TF was the first Midget with a pressurised cooling system (four pounds). Thanks to Clausager, I can happily report that of the 9600 TFs produced, 6463 of them had wire rather than disc wheels.
Nowadays, of course, any T-Series Midget is treasured and disappointments experienced when the TF was new have long been forgotten. In summary, it seems beyond doubt that all these cars have exerted enormous charm for more than six decades, but their heyday on the new car market – the time when this particular brand of motoring was most desirable – was circa 1949-51 before more modern sports cars and a new breed of faster sedans became widespread; hence their appeal as classics is slightly different from when they were new in a time when a top speed of 80 miles per hour was fast indeed for a family sedan. While the MGA was a different beast, the true successor to the TC/TD/TF Midgets arrived in 1958 in the lovable guise of the Austin-Healey Sprite.