By Stuart Grant with photos by Etienne Fouche

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The term sports car is believed to have first been used in 1928, and while it is difficult to clearly define the meaning, most would agree to it being a small rear-wheel-drive, two-seater, two-door vehicle that offered spirited performance, nimble handling and more often than not came in soft-top form. Initially the handmade nature of these machines meant sports cars were exclusive and commanded high prices, but when the British turned this around with mass-produced sports cars, the stage was set for some of the fiercest sports car brand loyalty debates in history. We put the Triumph TR and the MGA, bitter sports car rivals, head-to-head.

It may seem odd that a country that averages in at 133 rain or snow days per year and a regular temperature as cold as a Highveld winter day had such an affinity for making and using soft-top sports cars. But be that as it may, the world is a better place with Morgans, Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, MGs, Lotuses and more still filling car events around the globe. We could have included the likes of the Healey, Lotus and Morgan into the story, but these offerings tend to be slightly more exclusive and, as we all know, you are either an MG fan or a Triumph fan. I know Triumph owners who own Morgans and guys who park a Healey alongside their MG, but I am yet to find a soul with both an MG and TR in his set.

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Triumph aficionados might point out the comparison is unfair as the real competitor to the TR should in fact be the more primitive MGTD and not later A. But aesthetically it makes more sense to use the curvaceous A and not the cycle-mudguard TD. And in our defence, we pulled a TR3, which like the MGA was launched in 1955, and not the earlier, but very similar TR2. So the TR guys claim their machine to be earlier and better than the A, and the MG guys rebut this by pointing out that the Triumph power unit was basically a Massey Fergusson unit.

Both are somewhat true. The MGTD, launched in 1950 and sold through to 1955, was basically a combination of the MGTC (1945-1950) running gear and the MG Y-Type (1947-1953) sedan chassis and looked the part of a pre-war sport car. The zero to 60mph sprint was completed in 18.2 seconds while reaching a top speed of 77mph. The TR2 traces its roots to a failed bid for the Morgan Motor Company by the Standard Motor Company boss, Sir John Black. Still hankering for an affordable sports car, Black ordered the development of a prototype (designated with the title 20TS and then TR1) based on the Standard Eight chassis and 2-litre Standard Vanguard engine – a cast-iron lump originally developed for Ferguson Tractors. Walter Belgrove, working under severe budgetary constraints, designed the simple body with a modern curved nose leading into more traditional flat side panels, cutaway doors and truncated rear.

It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty though and despite being critically tested by former BRM driver Ken Richardson, who referred to it as a “death trap” thanks to dodgy handling, 20TS went public in October 1952 at the London Motor Show. Reviews were a mixture of positive and negative, but most felt the cramped cockpit and the lack of real luggage space were the major concerns. Following the show Richardson was offered a job alongside Harry Webster’s design team, trying to rectify the car’s faults over the 1952/53 winter period. A lack of rigidity was the crux of the matter, and this was solved by beefing up the chassis. Brakes too were improved upon, and the old tractor lump re-tuned for better performance and reduced to 1991cc to fit in with under 2-litre motorsport category rules.

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While 20TS/TR1 was in this state of redevelopment, the designers also acted on the luggage space issue and re-engineered the tail by extending and raising it, and a proper boot found home. Within twelve weeks the revised Triumph, now the TR2, was ready for mass manufacture and production units started assembly in July 1953, only 10 months after the original prototype was unveiled at the London Motor Show. Motorsport was part of the plan, with a Richardson-led competition department set up, and the TR2 held their head up high at Le Mans, on the Mille Miglia and Monte Carlo Rally, RAC Rally and the Ulster TT at Dundrod. The second prototype TR2 wrote its name in the record books when it clocked 124mph on Belgium’s Jabeke highway thanks to only a few aerodynamic aids.

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Off the bat the TR2 was a sales success and became the world’s cheapest 100mph production car, with a top end of 107mph, and it hit the 60mph mark in 12 seconds – significantly quicker than the MGTD. TR2 sales continued through to October 1955 when the TR3, essentially a facelifted TR2 with a touch more power, was announced. It was a busy time in the British sports car niche with MG having just released the all-new MGA to the market at the September 26 Frankfurt Motor Show. Gone were the pre-war looks of the TD and a new full-width body incorporating curved wheel arches impressed the onlookers. Initially the pretty A came with a 1489cc B-Series engine as found across the BMC group’s range of vehicles and could muster up maximum speed of 97mph and a 0 to 60mph in 16 seconds.

In September 1956 a Coupé version, still with the same engine, was offered to the market but the real excitement came in April 1958 when a performance model was added in the form of the MGA 1600 Twin-Cam engine. In Twin-Cam format the MGA was able to sprint to 60mph in 13 seconds and on to a top end of 114mph (183km/h). Unfortunately, the Twin-Cam had detonation issues and proved unreliable, and sales were poor. To counter the slow revenue stream, MG went back to its more conventional single-cam engine layout in May 1959 but upped the capacity to 1588cc on the new MGA 1600, which saw acceleration to 60 coming in at 14.2 seconds and top speed just making the magical tonne mark on 101mph. A Deluxe version of the 1600 sported left over wheels and disc brakes from the Twin-Cam on all corners and allowed MG fans to crow over their Triumph TR rivals about the sopping power.

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Triumph fans will be quick to point out that the TR3 was the first large-scale production car to see the fitment of disc brakes when it replaced the font Lockheed drums with Girling discs and callipers early in the TR3 production. And they’ll remind you that other than the Twin-Cam and Deluxe models, the MGA soldiered on with the older Lockheed drum system. Breaking into the American market had been key for both the makers and with the TR3 hitting the shelf earlier than the MG, it took an initial stronghold on the affordable, cheerful and reliable sports car market Stateside, and in the rest of the world for that matter. It is estimated that of the 13 377 TR3s made between 1955 and ’57, nearly 90% were exported out of the UK. 90% seems to be the popular number with that percentage of the 101 081 MGAs built between 1955 and ‘62 also shipped out from England. Making up this number were 58 750 MGA 1500s, a total of 40 220 MKI and MkII 1600s and 2 111 Twin-Cams.

To be fair to the Triumph crew, the figures would improve if we added in the TR3A figures that replaced the 3 midway through 1957. The 3A was basically the same as the 3 but featured a full-width front grille and over a four-year period, 58 000 TR3As were manufactured. By 1961 a new Michelotti-styled Triumph TR4 took centre stage but at the dealers’ request, a small number of TR3s was churned out due to fears that the public might not approve of the totally new styling direction.

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MG also embraced an all-new look for the swinging sixties with the launch of the MGB. And so the fight between the pair continued into the next decade. To many, the B became the ultimate affordable sports car and continued life up until 1980. Triumph did well with the TR4 and 5 variants but its next real MG contender was the TR6, which again sold brilliantly in the all-important American market. Interestingly the fierce foes were both produced locally at Durban’s Motor Assemblies from CKD (Complete Knock Down) kits. And like the international motorsport scene, both the MGA and TR did well on local racetracks with names like Zunia Smith, Dave Charlton and John Myers often behind the TR wheel, while thanks to success in an MG A Twin, Bobby Olthoff made enough of a name for himself to see him racing the cars overseas at the likes of Le Mans. The MG versus Triumph battle is one that will thankfully never be settled. I mean, what would a car meeting be without some friendly banter between both camps’ protagonists? It’s a decade-old duel with the TR2 up against the TD, the TR3/3A taking on the MGA, the B versus TR4/5 initially and then the TR7 later, and the TR6 head-to-head with the six-cylinder MGC. Of course, there is also the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire comparison. Long may the healthy rivalry live.

TR2/3/3A/3B - 83 527
MGA 1500/1600/Deluxe/Twin cam - 101 081

Oct 1955 to Dec 1956 TR2 - 354
Jan 1957 to Oct 1958 TR3/3A - 624
Feb 1961 to Feb 1963 TR3A - 72
TOTAL 1050

March 1957 to Oct 1962 MGA - 740

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11 months, 2 weeks ago

Great article, thank you. I own both a ‘3A and MGB GT, surely there are other dual owners of these marques too? No rules to what should be in anyone’s garage. Great photos too.

Agree, my father owns TR3 and wants an MGA Coupe - Stuart CCA 11 months, 2 weeks ago

He always says "MG, Britain's greatest Triumph" - Stuart CCA 11 months, 2 weeks ago

If that’s his 3, the same colours live on my 3A, so good to see. - Thukela 11 months, 2 weeks ago

Yes that is his. Had it 50 years next year. - Stuart CCA 11 months, 2 weeks ago

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