Driving Impression – 1959 MGA Roadster

The MG car company (MG is an acronym for Morris Garage) was one of the earlier British manufacturers.  Their early cars were, somewhat primitive (not unlike most every other manufacturer), but, with few exceptions, the MG name has been associated with “sports” cars. 


 The MGA roadster is no exception.  In fact, if there were ever a quintessential TRUE “sports car”, the MGA has to be near the top of the defining marque for that term.  The first MGA model was introduced early in 1956, and was an instant sensation in the automotive press.   These cars, as well as their predecessors, were assembled at the company’s plant at Abingdon-on-Thames by true British craftsmen.

With an original list price of some $2,620 (this price included virtually everything, since there were few options, other than radio, windshield washer, and wire wheels), the MGA was not super inexpensive (a new 1956 Corvette could be had for about $3,120, a new 1956 Porsche Speedster was $2,995), it did weigh in favorably, price-wise with other traditional British sports cars… A Jaguar XK140 was a whopping $4,315.

There is just no way to fault the sweeping lines of the MGA:


And the beautiful new “A” stood out in marked contrast with it’s predecessor, the “T” series MGs.  These older classic roadsters, while “cute” suffered from angular lines, stood high on their frames, had no trunk, offered negligible power, had an extremely narrow track,  abysmal handling, and enough wood components to build the Mayflower.

The MGA offered sleek, streamlined minimalist styling, devoid of any external trim save the front grill (not even a door handle… the latch is activated via a “pull-cord” inside the door), a trunk, beautiful knock-off wire wheels, a heater, excellent brakes, a peppy 78 horsepower engine capable of achieving 95 mph, and handling unsurpassed by ANY other roadster of the same vintage.  Additionally the all-metal construction (well, except for the easily-replaced plywood floorboards) was a big step up from the previous models.


By contrast, the contemporary Porsche speedster mustered only 55 horsepower, did NOT have the precise rack and pinion steering of the MGA, provided ineffective heating from its aircooled engine, and offered only pressed steel wheels.  One thing the speedster DID come standard with, was the infamous Porsche trailing throttle oversteer, a nasty little trait that surprised many a driver who wound up facing the traffic behind him!

Some 100,000 MGAs were built during the model run of 1956 – 1963, which means there are still quite a number left in the US.  Unfortunately, many of these cars, being in the lower price range for British sports cars, have been left languishing in open fields and barns, and rust has taken its toll.  However, as these beautiful cars become more and more in demand, many of these barn-finds have been resurrected. 

Less than 10 years ago a nicely restored roadster could be had for under $20,000, but no more.  These days, a well-restored MGA (of which category I consider mine) will command a price in the $30,000 range.   There is every reason to believe that prices will continue to rise for a good rust-free roadster in original or restored-to-original condition .

With that preface, let me introduce you to “Cedric”, our beloved 1959 MGA 1500. Cedric joined our family in early Fall of 2008 after a long search to satisfy my yen for a true British sports car.  When found, Cedric was residing in California.  I flew out in early September, and drove the little car all the way home.  (more details on this journey can be followed on another blog subject http://blog.auldridge.org/2008/09/12/bringing-cedric-home/)


All in all, Cedric has proved to be a reliable, inexpensive and simple to maintain automobile.  The little 4 cylinder OHV engine couldn’t be any simpler to maintain, and there is plenty of elbow room in the engine compartment when the need arises:


Getting into the car can be a bit of a challenge, especially with the top up (but who drives a car like this with the top up, except during unexpected rainshowers?).  My 6’2″ frame approaches the limits of human body fitment in the cockpit, and does require learning a special, step-by-step ingress procedure to first clear one’s feet of the door post, then to negotiate both legs under the huge steering wheel.  Once in the car, however, the fit is nice and snug, if not a bit too upright for my tastes (British cars of this vintage didn’t acknowledge the need for adjustable seat backs).  The sensation is one of being INSIDE the car rather than just being IN the car.

Once settled in, the first impression is that this is just going to be too tight, as one knee more or less rests against the outer bulkhead, while the other rubs against the transmission tunnel.  After a bit of adjustment though, all the body parts just seem to settle in to a nice comfortable, supported position.


Starting is simple and consistently successful.  The beautifully British twin SU carburetors do not have an accelerator pump, so don’t waste your time pumping on the throttle during startup.  Just turn on the key, listen for the “tick-ticking” of the fuel pump, (when it stops that’s a sign the carburetor bowls are full) pull the manual choke out all the way and twist to lock open (full choke also increases the throttle setting and hence increases idle RPM significantly).  Finally, pull hard on the manual starter knob (no pesky starter solenoid to go bad on this baby), and expect the engine to roar into life almost instantly!

As with all British SU-carburetted engines, in cold weather you’ll need to wait a few minutes for the engine to come up to operating temperature, otherwise the old baby will pitch, buck, and spit like a yearling colt. 

Once the engine is at operating temperature though, (and this comes quickly with this little machine) you’re good to go.  Depress the fairly light, hydraulically actuated clutch pedal, slip it into gear, and off you go!

This little engine just wants to rev and rev.  It will never win a drag race, but it will always sound like it could power a semi-trailer.  Due to the somewhat limiting 78 horsepower, it is necessary to really “put your foot in it” and take it right up to redline (about 5,500 RPM’s) if you’re going to get any momentum. 

With a factory quoted 0-60 acceleration time of some 13 seconds, you’re not going to win any stoplight races.  What you WILL get, however, is the thrill of flogging this little engine right up to redline in every gear, every time!  You’ll hit about 65 in 3rd gear before settling down into 4th.  Try “getting on it” in your fancy-shmancy Corvette and you’ll be having an unpleasant conversation with one of those guys on a white motorcycle.  In the MGA however, you’ll just have a big grin on your face all the while staying somewhat speed legal.

The gearshift as they say in the trade mags, “falls readily to hand”, and is a delight to use.  The short stubby shifter is precise, and quick, and slips right into the desired gear without anguish or protest. 

In addition to the somewhat non-standard aft-and-left reverse gear position, a new driver must acclimate to the absence of a synchronized first gear.  To put it simpler, you WILL NOT downshift to first gear while the car is in motion (unless you fancy the sound of grinding metal).  Non-synchro first gear transmissions were more-or-less the standard for British cars of this vintage.  Fortunately, there is little reason to need to select first gear unless the car IS at a complete stop.  The gearing of the transmission is such that first gear is only good for, perhaps 15 mph at full bore.  This little British engine offers a reasonable amount of torque at low RPM, so second gear suffices just fine for virtually any driving situation short of a full standing startup.  Nevertheless, a driver accustomed to downshifting will need to retrain himself to accomodate this minor impediment.

Automotive pundits generally do agree that the MGA roadster handled as well as anything else on the road in the late 50’s.  A present day drive down a winding road bears out these opinions.  This little roadster just sticks and sticks to the road, belying the rather simplistic rigid rear axle, leaf springs, classic yet primitive-by-today’s-standards lever-arm shock absorbers, and narrow tires.  

For braking, the 1500 MGA through 1959 relied on the old tried-and-true drum brakes (front wheel disc brakes were an upgrade beginning in 1960).  The Brits did it right… adjustment of the brake shoes can be accomplished from the outside of the wheel, through a little hole in the brake drum… no crawling under the car.  While the drum brakes might not hold up under extreme racing condition  needs, they are without fault for all street driving situations:  simple to maintain, more-than-adequate braking power, and actuated with light to medium brake pedal effort without need for power assist. 

Playing a supporting, if not starring role in the handling department, is the superb rack and pinion steering.  Unfettered by fancy power assist systems, there is simply no steering gear offered today which provides such precise feel and control of the road.  The lightweight  construction of the car (a mere 2,015 pounds compared to a modern-day Honda S2000 roadster: 2900 lbs) renders power steering unnecessary, and the huge (and beautiful banjo-style) steering wheel provides all the “assist” necessary for effortless steering.  Turn the steering wheel a mere 1/4″, and you’ll soon be off the road!

No this is not necessarily a car you take to the track and bring home trophies (although there is an active vintage racing community, made up of MGA’s and other similar marques).  But for the pure pleasure of driving, and having the feeling of being at one, man and machine, the MGA roadster can’t be surpassed.  Air conditoning, power steering, air bags, electric windows (windows, what windows?), radio (you really think you can best the sound of that engine with rap music?), navigation systems, run flat tires, plastic bumpers, xenon headlights, alternators, check-engine messages, computers, idiot warning lights? Fuggedaboutit!  None of those options are necessary to experience a true driving adventure.

Enjoy, instead, the pure visceral thrill of feeling the wind in your hair, and hearing the lovely music of a tight little engine, accompanied by all the essentials a vehicle needs: precise steering; more than adequate brakes; a sporty high-revving engine capable of maintaining speeds well above legal limits for hours on end; a tight, quick-shifting transmission; beautiful quick-change knock-off wire wheels; an easy-to-erect top and side-curtain windows for those rainy days, and a toasty heater.

A final benefit in owning one of these magnificent machines comes with the admiring attention received at every stop, accompanied with frequent “thumbs-up” signs from other drivers who have to settle for the family SUV for their daily commute!

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