Blue MG F on the road

MG F

BUYER’S GUIDE

MG F review

MX-5 too obvious but Lotus Elise too extreme? The overlooked MG F could be the bargain modern classic roadster of choice…

What Is It?

A mid-engined ‘90s sportscar with a Rover K-Series engine and celebrated British sporting badge on its nose? No, not the Lotus Elise but the MG F, this much underrated modern classic restoring the brand’s reputation for building affordable open top sportscars after the Mazda MX-5 successfully rebooted the genre for a new generation with its clever homage to ‘60s European roadsters … like the MGB.

Having been jolted into action MG wisely realised it couldn’t do the same, the F arriving in 1995 on cleverly repurposed mainstream underpinnings with a mid-mounted K-Series engine and sleek styling from a team including JLR’s current design guru (and Mr. Range Rover) Gerry McGovern.

Now as back in the day, the MG F feels somewhat lost in the no man’s land between the accessible fun of the MX-5 and hardcore appeal of the Elise, though it retains a strong fanbase for its combination of comfort, handling and affordability.

Corrosive Areas

Sills

Door edges

Wheel arches

Checklist

  • MG F first launched in 1995, two years ahead of the Lotus Elise with which it shares its K-Series engine and mid-engined layout
  • First models used the regular 1.8-litre K-Series with 120PS (85kW), soon joined by a 145PS (107kW) 1.8i VVC option – these are faster but need commitment revs to unlock it, peak horsepower not coming until 7,000rpm
  • Repurposed Metro subframes and Hydragas suspension are a distinctive MG F feature and mean great ride comfort but spheres can leak and rusty subframes are considered a deal-breaker so check before buying
  • Facelifed cars from 1999 onwards are often referred to as MkII models and have various detail upgrades, including a different centre console on the interior and revised wheel options, with bigger 16-inch rims for the VVC
  • MkII also saw the introduction of a new 1.6-litre base model, while towards the end of production a CVT auto and limited edition 160PS (118kW) Trophy version were also added
  • Trophy 160 upgrades included improved breathing for both intake and exhaust, stiffer suspension with a 20mm drop in ride height, AP Racing brake calipers with bigger discs, optional forged 16-inch wheels, front and rear spoilers, two-tone colour-coded interior trim, an aluminium gearknob and more – these now command a healthy premium
  • MG F relaunched as the MG TF in 2002 with heavily revised styling, stiffer body, coil-sprung suspension and various other upgrades – it’s a sharper car but less comfortable than the original
  • Production ran until 2005, restarting briefly in 2007 with British assembly of Chinese-manufactured knock-down kits branded as the LE500 – these have a following of their own but many prefer the British-built originality of the F and TF
  • K-Series engine is generally tough and those that haven’t been damaged by well-documented head gasket issues and overheating should have had necessary upgrades by now
  • Issues to be aware of include plastic dowels between head and block that can cause misalignment if the engine has overheated and should be replaced as a matter of course when replacing the head gasket; also beware rattling cam bolts and VVC units; coil packs on pre-facelift cars also vulnerable to water ingress through bonnet vents
  • Usual checks for cross contamination of oil and coolant especially important – if possible check the oil filler cap, which is under an inspection flap that requires a socket set to access
  • Make sure oil pressure and coolant rise evenly and settle consistently as engine warms up
  • Gearbox considered bombproof, but check linkages for play and clutch and handbrake cables while you’re at it
  • Low ride height or overly firm suspension on a regular MG F suggests leaking Hydragas spheres, which can be regassed in some cases by specialists but may need replacement – if left damage can occur to suspension mounts
  • Bodywork generally resists corrosion well, but many cars may show faded or otherwise worn paint and there are rust traps where the sills join the rear arches if drain holes are blocked; side vents and rear numberplate surrounds also corrode and rusty subframes, engine mounts and front box sections can be terminal
  • Electrically assisted power steering can fail but this may just be an easy fix with a fuse or ECU unit under the dash; early VVCs had non-assisted steering so this may also explain a heavier than expected wheel

How does it drive?

If the mid-engined layout is a departure from the string-backed driving glove vibe of older MGs, the foundations of adapted Metro subframes and the Hydragas suspension they carry is rather more in keeping with the parts sharing traditions. The soft set-up they provide might not sound especially sporting but, in fact, are something of a unique selling point for the MG F, given it rides with both poise and refinement that stands apart from rivals like the MX-5, Toyota MR2 or more hardcore Lotus Elise.

The K-Series engine it shares with the latter is a cracker as well, with a revvy character and, in VVC form, enough pace to keep you entertained. True, you sit a little high and, where fitted, the electrically assisted power steering isn’t the last word in communication. But the MG F’s natural balance, confidence inspiring grip and sense of fun are all very appealing.

And if you want this but with a more focused vibe you can hold out for the sharper Trophy version, or go for the later TF with its stiffer and conventionally coil sprung suspension.  

 What’s good?

As the pool of MX-5s that haven’t succumbed to rust, modding or thrashing gets smaller and more expensive and Elise values are going inexorably skyward the MG F remains a very affordable choice, and an increasingly attractive one. Decent build quality and rust resistance also count in its favour, likewise the fact most will have led gentler lives than some of the more obviously sporting alternatives.

Size, weight and performance are all perfectly in tune with the kind of weekend B-road blasts you might want a car like this for and it’s affordable enough to tuck away in the garage for sunny days without tying up too much cash.

And while the vibe and looks may be very different from more traditional MG roadsters, it’s still an unmistakeably British sportscar, and one very much in tune with our roads and tastes. All backed up with a strong fanbase, parts supply and knowledgeable community of owners and specialists to keep them running.

What’s bad?

Thanks to its famously small coolant capacity the K-Series engine has a bit of a rep for overheating, warped heads and blown head gaskets, but this is a known quantity these days. Most cars should by now have had sturdier replacement parts fitted and so long as you’re diligent with the maintenance and checks on fluid levels there’s less need to worry.

Hydragas suspension units can cause bother as the rubber spheres crack and leak (check for suspiciously low ride height or unexpectedly stiff feeling ride) but specialists can repair or replace, or even swap out for coil springs if you’re really worried. Or go for a later TF, which ditched the Hydragas completely.

The mid-mounted engine means great handling balance but isn’t as friendly for DIY maintenance as an MX-5 or older MGs, and regular jobs like belt changes and even oil top-ups can be more of a faff than you might like.

Cheapness is a double-edged sword as well, and means some cars will have been run on a shoestring with minimal care. But there are enough that have been looked after properly, so you can afford to be picky.

Which model to choose?

All MG Fs use versions of the K-Series engine and have essentially the same character so it’s a question of how much performance you want. 1.6s are perhaps a little less appealing and, unless you need a two-pedal car, the CVT auto is probably best avoided. The standard 120PS (85kW) 1.8i is a nice balance of power and performance, while the VVC models are usefully quicker and a little feistier if you don’t mind revving the engine out to get its best. The Trophy is faster still, looks more aggressive and has stiffer suspension and upgraded brakes but comes at a premium, so of the first-generation cars we’d probably go for a nice VVC and save the change for upkeep.

If you don’t mind the stiffer suspension or more modern looks the TF is another option, and one with a slightly different character, the same but more so for the reborn Nanjing era models. But, coming full circle, an original 1.8i with or without VVC according to tastes and preferred driving style is probably the most faithful, affordable and appealing way to enjoy an MG F.

Specifications – MG F 1.8i VVC

Engine

1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol

Power

145PS (107kW) @ 7,000rpm

Torque

174Nm (128lb ft) @ 4,500rpm

Transmission

Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,070kg

0-62mph

7.0 seconds

Top speed

130mph

Production dates

1995-2005 (includes UK-built MG TF)

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MGC front three quarters exterior

MGC

BUYER’S GUIDE

MGC Review

Hated by the contemporary motoring press but a favourite of the now King Charles, the MGC’s moment may yet come…

What Is It?

With the Austin Healey 3000’s 1950s underpinnings showing their age the MGC was developed to create a more contemporary ‘big-six’ sportscar out of the more modern unitary foundations of the popular MGB.

Like many British cars of the era internal politics behind the scenes sadly meant the C never quite lived up to the promise, with production only running for three years after barely 9,000 were made. Much of the blame for this has been laid on the use of the heavy, iron-blocked C Series six-cylinder engine over various lighter motors that had been proposed during development, and the lack of preparation for the press cars driven by the first crop of journalists.

Their assessment that the leaden engine, heavy steering and unfavourable handling lacked the sparkle of the four-cylinder basically doomed the C from the start, though in later years enthusiasts and specialists have since unlocked its potential.

Corrosive Areas

Front wing to scuttle seams

Sills

Inner wings and floorpan

Checklist

  • At a glance the MGC looks very similar to the four-cylinder MGB – giveaways include the transverse bulge in the (aluminium) bonnet for the radiator and a smaller offset teardrop-shaped one over the lead carburettor
  • Under the skin the MGC uses a different front suspension layout, with longitudinal torsion bars running under the floor pan to the inner wings through triangular box section chassis members – check these carefully for corrosion
  • Many of the rot-prone panels unique to the MGC are hard – or impossible – to get hold of, so inspect the underside and inner arches especially carefully
  • Multi-layer sills corrode from the inside out and, by the time you can see the rust, major work will likely be required
  • Same goes for the seams between the front wings and windscreen scuttle, edges for doors and bootlid, scuttles, boot floor … the list goes on
  • 9-litre six-cylinder is thankfully tough, proven and under stressed so shouldn’t be cause for too much concern if looked after properly and the usual checks for the condition of oil and coolant indicate a clean bill of health
  • All-synchro manual gearbox can be a little baulky to use, but shouldn’t make any nasty noises – check the overdrive on third and fourth works if present; automatics should go on forever
  • Saggy headlinings aside, interiors can be revived relatively easily, so don’t be put off by a shabby cabin if the structure is sound
  • University Motors – or UM – cars with Downton engine upgrades are desirable, but easy to replicate; not a problem if done honestly and properly but if you’re seeking a true original do your due diligence to be sure of originality
  • Fat-arched Sebring racers offer a tempting vision for conversion into something fruitier and more muscular if that’s your wish

How does it drive?

While the MGC was the most powerful car the brand had yet built more was made of the extra 98kg the iron-blocked six put over the nose, and the less favourable weight distribution compared with the B. A situation not helped by the fact that the first press cars were apparently supplied with under-inflated tyres that accentuated a reputation for nose-heavy, understeery handling which has stuck with the MGC ever since.

While carrying nearly 200kg more weight overall than an equivalent MGB and, diplomatically, more planted as a result, modern tyres and some sympathetic suspension modifications like poly bushes and rear end reinforcement from a Panhard Rod, Watt’s Linkage or an anti-roll bar can apparently work wonders, while engine mods can unleash the untapped potential under the bonnet.

None of these changes need mess with the spirit of the car, which, on reflection, successfully realised the dream of a gruntier, more mature take on the MGB with longer cruising legs.   

What’s good?

Not much compared with a B, if you follow the herd. But history is coming round to the MGC, and the very fact it’s a lot rarer than its much more commonplace relative adds some novelty value even if most casual viewers won’t notice the subtle external differences of the bulges in the bonnet to make space for the radiator and forward of the twin carbs.

It may be heavy but that six-cylinder is built tough, responds well to period authentic tuning modifications and has a more sophisticated sound and character than the more familiar 1.8-litre four-cylinder. Under-appreciation has also meant values compared with big Healeys and other six-cylinder equivalents have looked relatively reasonable.

And while the motoring press at the time may not have liked it the then Prince Charles certainly did, keeping his Seychelles Blue MGC GT for three decades before handing it on to Prince William as a birthday present.

What’s bad?

Most people won’t be able to tell it apart from a B, and those that can will probably delight in telling you it’s not as good anyway. So, defending your choice to the classic car know-it-alls at the local car meet or pub car park may get tiresome.

Like any car of its era rust is inevitably going to be a concern with any prospective purchase, a situation not helped by the fact that while the MGC looks the same as a B from the outside it uses different panels underneath and not all of these are as widely available (if at all) when it comes to restoration.

In its way corrosion has a nasty habit of progressing from the inside out as well, so a car that presents well superficially could be hiding all manner of horrors within.  

Which model to choose?

Given a short production run and smaller numbers choice is pretty much limited to roadster or GT, and between manual and automatic gearboxes. Transmission-wise the automatic fits the MGC’s stated aim of being a more grown-up cruiser, but most keen drivers will seek out manuals, those with the optional overdrive on third and fourth especially desirable.

Body style will be down to personal taste, the appeal of summer lanes with the roof down obviously a big part of the MG dream while the GT’s coupe bodywork is perhaps the more stylish and definitely gives you more options and space for long trips away.

You’ll pay handsomely for the privilege and need to be sure you’re looking at an original but if you can score one of the limited number of cars bought at the end of production by London dealer University Motors and sold with a range of Downton engine tuning packages you’ll have a properly desirable and spicy MG on your hands.

Specifications

Engine

2.9-litre six-cylinder petrol

Power

152PS (112kW) @ 5,250rpm

Torque

236Nm (170lb ft) @ 3,400rpm

Transmission

Four-speed manual/three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,109kg (roadster), 1,177kg (GT)

0-62mph

c. 10 seconds

Top speed

c. 120mph

Production dates

1967-1969

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MGA buyer's guide

MGA

BUYER’S GUIDE

MGA review

One of the prettiest of all the ‘60s British sportscars, the MGA is a stone-cold classic and still fun to drive to this day…

What Is It?

Though it still ran on a separate chassis, the MGA was a huge step forward for MG when it launched in 1955. The enclosed bodywork inspired by an aerodynamically styled TD race car that ran at Le Mans four years earlier. By broadening the chassis rails and dropping the floor beneath them the MGA was a much more resolved design, though, the sweeping curves of the low-slung body reminiscent of the contemporary Austin Healeys but with a lightness of touch that still looks good.

The pushrod B-Series engine may have been relatively old tech but with aluminium panels, rack and pinion steering and a stiff frame the MGA felt more modern than many contemporaries, and is still fun to drive on modern roads. A mere fraction of the 100,000-plus total production were actually sold on home soil, the MGA a key player in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s British sportscar export boom. Its MGB successor picked up where the A left off, but the earlier car is arguably still the more attractive.  

Corrosive Areas

Chassis rails and sills

A- and B-pillars

Front wings

Checklist

  • The MGA launched as a bare-bones roadster, the steel-roofed Coupe that followed in 1956 adding luxuries like wind-down side windows and a more plushily trimmed interior
  • Original 1.5-litre B-Series pushrod engine replaced by a 1,588cc 1600 version in 1959, this in turn succeeded by the 1961 1600 MkII with a 1,622cc engine, all fuelled by twin SU carburettors
  • Competition inspired Twin Cam version based on the 1,588cc block arrived in 1958 and was significantly faster and more powerful, though temperamental and prone to failures; later versions with lower compression and reduced power were relatively more reliable
  • MGA 1500 had drum brakes all round, which are adequate for the performance if nothing more; 1600 introduced disc brakes up front while Twin Cams and De-Luxe versions of the 1600 feature disc brakes all round with centre-lock wheels
  • Rear lights are the easiest tell-tale of what version MGA you’re looking at, with 1500s using a single combined unit on the trailing edge of the rear wing and 1600s introducing a separate indicator above this; 1600 MkIIs use a horizontally mounted Mini light cluster moved inboard and under the boot shut line and a different grille with more upright vertical strakes
  • Regular B-Series engines are generally tough and proven, and long-lasting with proper care; make the usual checks for coolant in the oil and signs of overheating; a small dribble of oil from the back of the engine is normal but anything more significant is a concern
  • Engine transplants are not unusual, and larger and more powerful MGB motors are a straightforward swap
  • While Twin Cams can be made more reliable they still require considerably more upkeep and specialist maintenance; rebuilds when things do go wrong can be very costly
  • Four-speed gearbox generally tough, though synchro on second gear can graunch – rebuilds possible but retrofit five-speed transmissions from Ford Sierras or Mazda MX-5s are also a popular upgrade and improve motorway running
  • Front suspension requires regular lubrication to prevent premature wear to components
  • Rack and pinion steering should be sharp and precise – any knocking or looseness is likely down to worn ball joints or other suspension parts
  • MGA is built on a steel chassis with a steel shell, though door skins, bonnet and boot lid are aluminium and the floor panel is wood
  • Rust is an issue inside and outside the structure, with the sills especially vulnerable along with the chassis rails running inboard of them; front wings also go inside and out, along seams and around headlights; also check rear wings, rear chassis crossmember and boot floor
  • Panel gaps are a good indication of chassis alignment and the quality of any previous restoration work; front bumper should be flush within its recess in the valance, door gaps should be consistent and everything should line up
  • Coupes generally considered less valuable than roadsters, but are more difficult and expensive to restore

How does it drive?

Sportscar buyers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were spoiled for choice when it came to cute-looking and relatively affordable British-built roadsters, the MGA perhaps sharper to drive than the contemporary alternatives from Triumph and Austin Healey by virtue of its body stiffness and rack and pinion steering. That stands it in good stead for modern-day drivers as well, given it feels nimbler and more precise than many of its era.

The regular B-series engine may not have been anything fancy but is proven and gutsy in its power delivery, and there’s plenty of knowledge for further tuning or even the option to fit a more powerful engine from an MGB if you crave extra performance. With this, the later front disc brake set-up and perhaps even a retrofit five-speed gearbox from a Ford Sierra or Mazda MX-5 you have perhaps the perfect combination of late-‘50s looks with more modern driving manners.  

 What’s good?

The looks are an obvious draw for the MGA, the simple, unadorned lines and classic proportions never bettered in the day. If not blisteringly fast the MGA is quick enough to entertain, and perfectly encapsulates the fun of driving with the roof down along a classic British B-road. In earlier versions with the screens removed you’ll be getting plenty of that wind in the hair ambience as well, while later ones feel a little more luxurious all things relative thanks to luxuries like wind-up side windows.

Meanwhile the appealing simplicity of the design is matched with a corresponding lack of fuss in the mechanical parts, more exotic Twin Cam aside. Assuming you’ve got one with sound bodywork the rest of the upkeep should be well within the wit of a keen amateur mechanic, while the interchangeability of parts and vast knowledge base among enthusiasts and specialists means plenty of help is available if you get stuck along the way.

What’s bad?

Like any car of its era the MGA is vulnerable to corrosion, and if it takes hold sorting it properly can be a complicated, time consuming and ultimately expensive job. This is further complicated by issues like electrolytic corrosion where aluminium panels meet steel structure, the potential for wooden floors to rot out and the added complications of a separate chassis to worry about.

While the vast majority of MGAs were sold overseas, and many lived in drier climates where corrosion will have been less of a concern, they’re all of an age now where it needs to be kept on top of, and most will have been through at least one restoration over the years. The quality of that work will be key to whether you end up with a dream come true or living nightmare.

If provenance matters the ease of engine swaps, mechanical upgrades and conversion from left- to right-hand drive also makes original cars rare beasts indeed. Convertible roofs are meanwhile famously basic and fiddly, so if you want to drive in all weathers or store it outside you may be better off with a coupe. They’re getting expensive as well, while Twin Cams can prove ruinous to make good if someone has bodged the engine rebuild.

Which model to choose?

The more exotic nature of the Twin Cam and its feistier performance have obvious appeal for both the mechanically curious and those wanting the most exciting MGA driving experience. But this comes at a significant cost in terms of purchase price and ongoing care, so is probably best reserved for the more committed MG fan. The more innocent delights of the regular pushrod-engined cars are no less appealing. A sunny day on your favourite twisty road with the MGA’s handling and feelgood looks will be equally enjoyable.

In terms of which one to get the answer will, inevitably, be ‘the best one you can find and afford’ with structural integrity probably the most important consideration. Beyond that the early 1500s have a purity of style and purpose that feels very appealing, though they can be very basic. Going the other way the later 1600 MkIIs have a bit more power and more relaxed nature thanks in part to their extra torque and longer gearing. We’d probably split the difference and go for one of the earlier 1600s with the old style rear lights but the extra flexibility of the slightly bigger engine.

Specifications – MG MGA 1600

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol

Power

79PS (58kW) @ 5,500rpm

Torque

118Nm (87lb ft) @ 3,800rpm

Transmission

Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

927kg

0-62mph

c. 14.2 seconds

Top speed

c. 101mph

Production dates

1955-1962 (total production run for all models)

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