By Stuart Grant with photography by Mike Schmucker
As a classic car kid growing up in the 1980s and early ʼ90s, all my information was pulled from dog-eared third- or fourth-hand international publications. Of course, the fancy Italian and German sports cars or aristocratic big Brits that filled the glossy sections of the magazines had me dreaming, but my real interest was in the affordable and achievable classics that could also double as a first daily car.
If there was one classic that stood out head and shoulders above the rest, it was the MGB – and rightly so. Good-looking: check. Decent performance: check. Availability: check. Spares’ supply and back-up: check. Reliable: check. Practical: check (especially in GT format if a daily). Affordability: check.
What the writers failed to mention was the cool factor. In my opinion they should have – I’d seen some ground-hugging, wide-tyred Bs on track and thought they was cool. It got even cooler when a racer arrived with an even wider V8-powered GT, complete with ‘Sebring’ body kit. And hey, there was even a GT that has traversed Africa a handful of times – seriously cool!
Then the Internet came along, and it seems the MGB fell out of favour with those entering the classic game; suddenly ropey Porsche 356s, lowered BMW 2002s, bumperless Alfa GTVs and ageing Land Rover Defenders filled the young classic lovers’ Instagram feeds.
This increase in popularity drove up prices for these cars, but this has led to an interesting spin for the somewhat forgotten MGB – classic newcomers are now seeing the traditional benefits of the B but adding cool stuff. Search the hashtag ‘MGB’ on Instagram. 1960s racer-look roadster: check. Dropped, de-chromed and lowered GT running on widened black rims: check. Rubber-bumper GT fitted with a Rover V8, raised and ready for a historic Dakar stage: check.
It’s inspiring. And I want a B to make my own.
After chatting to a few of those in the know it seems clear that there are some models that are more suited to certain mods than others. For those wanting to convert the four-pot to Rover V8 power, the best place to start for an easier engineering solution is with a rubber-bumper version. Cars from late 1974 and onwards are the best of the rubber-bumper batch for this, with the full under-bonnet pattern the same as the factory V8, and if you have some pounds to spend, there are some off-the-shelf conversions available.
This is not to say that earlier cars can’t have four extra cylinders, it just means more work, more skill and more money are required. First up is the radiator position, which on both chrome and early rubber bumpers needs to be moved forward – this means removal of the existing radiator mounts from the inner wings and addition of the late type. Factor number two in the make-life-a-bit-more-difficult department is the engine-mounting brackets, which are of the earlier four-bolt square pattern, rather than the round single-bolt type found on the V8 and later cars.
More power needs more control, and any V8 mod would need a look into better braking, springs that can balance the weight out and probably a gearbox that can handle the grunt. On the local front, builders have found the Toyota Cressida box does the job, but this would need modifications to the mounts and propshaft.
De-bumpering and fitting a Sebring nose (the first race for an MGB works pair was at Sebring in 1963) is possible on all MGBs but is best suited to chrome cars for both engineering ease and aesthetics – the increased ride height of rubber-bumper vehicles means that they don’t hug the ground like a racer. There are ways to lower your rubber bumper though. The first and best is to convert to a chrome bumper set-up by swapping out the front subframe, changing the last 30cm or so of the chassis to a chrome bumper section and changing steering rack mounts to create clearance for the new steering column position. It is possible, easier and cheaper to use shorter front springs and lowering blocks at the back, but this does reduce suspension travel by about 4cm, so could lead to the car hitting bump stops on an uneven road.
So what is the solution for my ultimate MBG? Well… it’s complicated. For those early weekend breakfast runs and Highveld autumn evenings I want a chrome-bumper roadster like the one pictured here. I’d need a few tweaks to suit my boy-racer palate: Minilite-type wheels, a lower stance, lumpy cam, fruity exhaust and trumpets to broadcast the throaty carburettor suck. (Yes, I like the racy theme.) So, I’d also look at removing the bumpers and going the Sebring route down the line – maybe add some roundels and numbers. A hardtop would be better for road trips but if that’s the purpose, I’d go with a chrome-bumper GT on wire wheels. Lowered, of course, with the Sebring kit and the wheels in black.
For the sound and grunt I’d go for a V8 conversion. But because of a lack of the required mechanical skills, I’d go rubber bumper. I’d keep the rubber bumpers (they are actually plastic) and rather than worry about lowering it, I’d raise it instead. Like some Instagrammers have done to Alfa Juniors, GTVs and Porsche 911s, I’d fit some high-profile chunky rally tyres, a whack of spotlights and a roof rack and pretend I was on the East African Safari Rally or an early Paris-Dakar. Just imagine the sound of the Rover V8 carrying across the dunes…
But back to the decision making. My skill, space and time conundrum creeps back in. I simply can’t do a V8 conversion. So why not just a regular four-pot rubber bumper? There is a growing trend in the classic car world of buyers starting to notice previously unloved models – have you seen the climbing prices for the Alfa Romeo 116 Alfetta or even the prone-to-rusting Sud? The past aversion to cars like these meant a large number were left to rot or modified beyond recognition, and the supply of solid 1970s and ʼ80s commoners decreased dramatically, making them a rarity today – which to a classic guy is a good point.
And a rubber bumper is a good car, delivering some of the original B charm but with softer suspension, more comfortable seating and more practicality. It’s comfortable at modern speed limits too, has an almost endless list of spares suppliers and is the perfect for the DIY mechanic, so it’s an ideal daily.
There you have it. I am no closer to an MGB solution. It’s easy to see why it led the way on the sports car sales charts in period. For the same reasons, the B was the go-to classic for many years and is now making a hard charge with a new generation of classic motoring influencers.