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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