If you’ve been on my blog before, you might remember a couple of things: a brief foray into the world of car trading and that list of ‘to be owned’ cars that enthusiasts devise, develop, add to and reject from on a daily basis. My list will naturally include a range of de rigueur machines that feature with regularity on most other enthusiasts’ catalogues, but we’ll also have a selection that others look at with derision. The one on mine which generates the most guffaws is the Volvo 262C and I can see why people laugh. But to have the MGF’s inclusion mocked was an unnecessary affront.
So much about what the F represents is what I love about cars and forms an intrinsic part of my automotive passion: that child I look back on getting to grips with magazines broadcasting the latest news and speculation. I knew of the closure of Abingdon, the history of the Morris Garages marque and the hope of enthusiasts that the Octagon would once more grace the stubby nose of a roadster. That Car Magazine campaign of the early 90s to petition the Rover Group to resurrect MG. The Autocar & Motor speculation about whether it was the new Midget or MGD. Those grainy spy shots of a Metro van body shrouding the F’s mid-engined platform. They’re not just part of Britain’s rich motoring tapestry, they’re part of the car virus that infected me.
When the MGF was revealed in 1995 it was immediately clear what an amazing job those involved had accomplished. Yes, it was revealed a year into the BMW era, but that was too late in the day for barrow loads of Deutsche Marks to change the fundamentals. The sheer brilliance and ingenuity involved to raid as many cost cutting parts bins as possible inevitably produced areas of cheapness, but nevertheless produced something different to the norm, not for the sake of it being different but because its engineers believed in the solutions they were pursuing. Mid-engined when front engine-rear drive was simple and effective? Balance and the marketability of such an exotic layout. Alex Moulton’s Hydragas suspension? Ride quality and appealed to the Citroëniste in me. And, with my fascination for the somewhat unreliable, combined with that lack of being able to perform mechanical fixes myself, there was a potentially morbid attraction to a 1.8 K-Series engine. Especially one with such difficult access.
For many understandable reasons, MX-5 is the default choice, of course it is. Reliable, bullet-proof, fine handling, and so on – I get all that, I really do, but there’s something cold and clinical about it to me, despite the fun one can have behind the wheel. And, they’re a little too plentiful to feel special. The Barchetta, Fiat’s little boat, is arguably the prettiest, daintiest and the one most likely to earn a glance back as you walk away from it in the car park. But left hand drive in the UK would become too much of a chore. To drive one, sure, I’d love to, but to own one, no thanks. But the F has got an alluring character: a cartoony expression without looking silly; curvy without being feminine; muscular rear haunches without being masculine. It deserves its place on my list.
So four years ago, when a friend mentioned she knew of an F that was being sold, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t the rorty VVC model, but an essentially standard 1.8i, on an R-plate. It wouldn’t have been the spec I’d have chosen from new but rarely is a used car purchase thus. I wanted an F that I could tinker with and this was that car.
The interior was the one with black seats and green piping, rather than the brighter red. Those early seats were rather flat, shapeless and set too high, but that apart the trim was in good condition. The plastics were matching dark charcoal, meaning with the hood up, it was a cosy coal hole, reminiscent of the hues of MGBs of yesteryear, if not with the crackle black dashboard. Other than that the radio was a non-original item, aftermarket carpet mats were landfill fodder and the handbrake gaiter was bizarrely ragged and frayed.
The outside was less happy. In Rover’s popular British Racing Green metallic, the bonnet and front bumper were peppered with stone chips as befits a car of that vintage, although a front indicator lens hung out forlornly. The doors had a serious rust issue though. It appeared that in past the seals in them had somehow allowed moisture in as they’d rusted from the inside out. The hood was sun faded, had a couple of splits and the plastic rear screen had gone milky with age and exposure to the elements.
But these were cosmetic trifles. What was clear was that it was an honest car that had been enjoyed. I’ve rarely been more confident that I was buying a rough diamond.
Job one was the biggest and most costly. The £800 required to re-spray the front three quarters of the F was a big pile of cash for me as the car dealer on a budget, but it was worth it. Dropped off on a Monday and collected on a Friday, the transformation was fantastic. Stone chips, bubbles and tin worm had been consigned to the history books.
The necessary replacement parts were quickly and easily replaced at a reasonable cost too. Living within a brief, topless drive to Rimmer Brothers just to the south of Lincoln ensured parts were obtained without having to wait for a courier to deliver them, making a dramatic transformation as they were put in place with little effort. A period Philips stereo replaced the aftermarket one making it original and was a great £15 eBay purchase. Thankfully the leads and connections were the same making it a genuine two minute plug and play job. Original new old stock MG rubber floor mats were practical and helped keep the interior clean and dry (in retrospect, admitting buying rubber floor mats for a quintessential little roadster has probably aged me about 40 years). Within days of F ownership I found leaving it parked with the roof down tended to fill the interior with dust and escapee bits of lightweight rubbish from wheelie bins. And leaves. They get everywhere all year round. I’m sure the autumnal fall gathers up in dark corners ready to pounce at the metallic clunk of an opening bonnet or the crumpling of a fabric hood.
The hood itself was a satisfying success for someone of the limited skills I possess. It was nowhere near tatty enough to warrant replacing (not that I had the financial capability to anyway) so a decent repair job was the order of the day. Black drain sealant was finger smoothed on the inside of the fabric on the split sites. They sealed the rain entry points with total effectiveness without any unsightly patches. To say you had to be six inches away to see the join was no overstatement either. The fabric itself was restored to a much younger, darker complexion by virtue of a dye with waterproofing agents within it. There was something comedic at the sight of me appearing to cover the roof in what looked like water with a paintbrush, though, but people can laugh all they want when you’re saving the cost of a new roof. But the most impressive change was that plastic rear screen. Now the last TFs (and the re-born Chinese kits) had glass rear windows, as did the MX-5 from Mk II guise of course, and are clearly advantageous. But plastic this was. A quick internet trawl revealed it was a common problem and much blogging centred around talk of plastic polishing compound. I ordered a tube of the stuff via eBay, very cynical that it would be able to work. Dubiously I began smearing the thick, white paste in spiral motions over the opaque plastic before buffing it off with vigour. I was genuinely open mouthed. Depending on the way the light hit it, from the driver’s seat you sometimes couldn’t even see it in the rear view mirror, so true was its transparency. As an aside, I later used the same stuff on a dulled mobile phone screen with equal success.
Within three weeks the renovation was complete, allowing time to enjoy it as the weather brightened, until it was time to sell.
The MGF is undeniably a sports car that was maligned and misunderstood by the wary and adored and admired by the majority of those who experienced its charms. Balance through corners was impressive, displaying fine poise regardless of the speed of approach to a bed or its arc upon arrival. The tail could be made to show some inappropriate behaviour with deft application of the throttle but not as easily as say, well the MX-5. Steering had a positive feel without transmitting every tarmac ripple and imperfection in wrist jarring fashion, weighting up as curves were plied. But what appealed particularly was that suspension and the ride quality it delivered. It was that little extra that sports cars at this end of the price range tend to be unable to master – superb handling with a compliant ride. Sure, we’re not talking of a Daimler-like waft but that Hydragas interconnection distributes conditions under-wheel with such striking composure that it makes the Mazda feel compromised. Some of you reading this may be reeling back in shock or laughter, demanding that all two-seat roadsters have their ride quality dialled up to ‘chiropractor’s delight’ setting in pursuit handling excellence. But as clichés suggest, it’d be a dull old place if we were all the same. Plus I’m not sure Mazda can churn out that many MX-5s can they?
After three months of F-ing around, I sold the MG to a guy who intended to use it as his daily commute on a 50 mile round trip – two years later, the last time I saw it, it was still going strong. It also marked my self-enforced end as a car trader, as £50 was hardly a justifiable reward for the effort involved. The next two seat MG will be for enjoying.