CLASSIC CAR REVIEWS - MG MIDGET

The MG Midget can trace its lineage back to the Austin-Healey Frogeye Sprite, the car which brought affordable sports car motoring to the British public in 1958. In 1961 the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk2 arrived, and with it the badge engineered MG Midget – a better appointed version that shared the majority of components with its Austin-Healey stablemate.

Original cars were fitted with a 948cc A-series engine – the same engine that was used in the Frogeye in 1958, only uprated from 43bhp to 46bhp. Twin SU carburettors and the revvy nature of the A-series engine made performance engaging, if not truly quick. By 1962 the ageing 948cc engine was replaced by the updated 1098cc A-series, which was also shared with the Morris Minor, amongst others. Peak power was now a healthy 56bhp and the front drum brakes were replaced with more powerful discs as a result. While early cars certainly have their charms, they are somewhat lacking in creature comforts – a heater was only an option and windows were in the form of side screens, or curtains.

By 1964 the Mk2 Midget had arrived and, in response to the launch of the Triumph Spitfire, upgrades included such comforts as wind-up windows, external door handles and an extra 3bhp.

The Mk3 Midget came along in 1966 and with it the biggest change to the model range so far – the addition of the 1275cc A-series engine that was used to power the legendary Mini Cooper S. But fans of the model were left disappointed when they discovered that though the engine was largely the same, a lower compression ratio meant that the new motor only produced 65bhp compared to the Mini’s 72bhp. Nonetheless, the new engine was a superb unit that gave the Midget much greater real world usability.

Mid way through the Mk3s production run the Midget gained round wheel arches in place of the previous squared-off design, though this would only be the case for a couple of years. The arches were quickly changed back as they provided a great deal of rigidity to the body shell, the round design having a detrimental effect on the cars handling characteristics.

The final incarnation of the Midget name would come in 1974 with the launch of the Midget 1500. Moving away from the dated A-series engine, the new car was fitted with a 1493cc engine borrowed from the Triumph Spitfire, the Midget’s closest period rival. An increase in torque from the larger displacement engine resulted in a second being taken off the car’s 0-60mph time, but the new engine was not universally well received. Though gaining torque, the new motor was not as revvy as the popular 1275cc A-series, and was also much less tuneable. Heavy black bumpers were added due to new US safety regulations, which proved unpopular with buyers.

Since the 70s and 80s the MG Midget has been the budget sports car of choice and first starter classic of many. Its low running costs, diminutive size and small purchase price make it the perfect car to drive into the world of classic motoring. Fortunately, little has changed over the past 30 years – the Midget is still a bargain classic.

Early models are becoming increasingly rare and values are rising – expect to pay in the region of £5000 for a nicely finished 60s model. At the other end of the spectrum, late 1500 models are the cheapest – largely due to their unattractive black bumpers. A runner can be had for as little as £1000, but be careful. The Midget’s bodywork may look simple from the outside, but beneath the outer bodywork lies a complex warren of box sections and water traps. Even a good looking car can be rotting from the core. The best way to avoid bodywork pitfalls is to purchase a car that has had an extensive photographic restoration carried out recently, and has been cared for since. Don’t think this will cost you the earth though – it still costs much more to restore a Midget than the car’s value post restoration. Take a healthy budget of £3500 and benefit from someone else’s time and money – buy the best you can afford.

VITAL STATISTICS

ENGINE 1493cc/4-cyl/OHV

POWER 71bhp@5000rpm

TORQUE 82lb ft@3000rpm

TOP SPEED 102mph

0-60MPH 12.3secs

ECONOMY 25mpg

GEARBOX 4-speed manual

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

 

 

BODYWORK

 

Everyone will tell you that a Midget’s bodywork is by far the most important check list item. And there’s plenty to keep you going, as these cars can hide rust in many places. Don’t feel guilty about bringing a magnet when you inspect a car.

Aim to buy a car that’s been at the very least part-restored, as these little drop-tops rust with the best of them. Classic rot-spots include the rear wheelarches, the bottoms of the A-pillars, the boot floor and the leading edge of the bonnet. The bonnet is particularly crucial when closing a deal, since localised repairs, while possible, are time consuming and potentially expensive, as the area is double-skinned. Often, it’s quicker and easier (and therefore cheaper) to replace the entire bonnet. Also check the front valance (which bears the brunt of thrown-up stones and road debris), the sills (what appears to be minor rot here often hides much worse corrosion beneath) and the floorpan.

Look very carefully at the outer and particularly the inner sills and the A-posts. Watch out for bodging as well as rot here. Be extremely suspicious if the doors don’t close easily. This could be a sagging bodyshell which could to be put on a jig to get things right. 

Another major and potentially expensive rot spot are the rear spring mounting boxes, visible behind the seats. Be suspicious if the rear tyres are mysteriously near the top of the wheelarches. It’ll probably be rotted boxes rather than saggy springs and be pricey to put right. While you are checking this have a look at the footwells, the rest of the floorpan and the transmission tunnel.

ENGINE

The A-series is reasonably durable, but doesn’t take kindly to indifferent maintenance or rough handling, so anything other than quiet idling should set alarm bells ringing. Blue exhaust smoke is never a good sign and can indicate worn valve guides and/or piston rings and bores. Don’t worry unduly about light tappet noise or a gently rattling timing chain – it’s all part of the A-series’ ‘charm’ – but an engine that sounds like a lump hammer in a washing machine is going to cost you dearly.

Evidence of emulsification inside the oil filler cap is particularly crucial on a 1275cc car – they’re prone to head gasket failure – while rumblings from the bowels of a 1500cc engine is likely indication of imminent bottom end failure. It has a reputation for lunching its bearings, crankshaft and pistons/rings, too. Again, blue exhaust smoke under load is the main giveaway here.

Rough running on all cars – particularly when hot – can often be cured by replacing points/condenser with electronic ignition and fitting a new distributor.

Replacement engines are relatively easy to find and parts are available – though a professional rebuild will go into four figures. If a car has excellent bodywork a less than perfect engine shouldn’t put you off.

RUNNING GEAR

Gearboxes are robust rather than bulletproof but will normally still function when there’s some wear. Ironically, the Marina-derived gearbox fitted to 1500s is probably the nicest and most durable of them all, but as with the earlier gearboxes, any car that jumps out of gear is probably due a transmission re-build. Early cars are also prone to worn synchromesh on second gear as well as halfshaft spline wear. Any whines or drones from the gearbox during a test-drive is bad news.

All Midgets – even the 1500s – should handle like overgrown go-karts, so any slop in the steering or suspension indicates that something’s amiss. Trunnions and kingpins will wear quickly if they’re not greased regularly, while overly bouncy suspension is indicative of worn shock absorbers.

Replacement ‘boxes are around and specialists will rebuild yours for £500 or so.

Halfshafts may also be past their best.

The front disc rear drum braking system is more than adequate for the car. The car has a dual master cylinder for the clutch and brake systems, Check for leaks around this unit.

INTERIOR AND ELECTRICS

There’s not a great deal to any Midget interior, and what there is, is readily available from parts specialists such as Rimmer Bros, so even a scruffy interior shouldn’t necessarily kill off a prospective purchase. Main problems to look out for include a leaky hood (new vinyl replacements can be had for around £200), water getting into the cabin during heavy downpours (often more a design fault than a problem specific to a given car) sagging seats and peeling dashboard trim.

Electrical systems are simple but as these cars are now in their forties any original wiring is going to need some scrutiny, and again check for those bodges

OUR VERDICT

As a first classic, the Midget has few peers. A well-sorted example is an absolute blast to drive and its diminutive shape makes 50mph feel like 150mph. The A-series engines are the most tuneful but the 1500 has bags of torque, while all cars handle beautifully yet offer a compliant ride. Parts back-up is second to none and both of the main clubs have super-active Midget sections. Factor in knife and fork mechanical simplicity and a surprising degree of practicality, and the case for the Midget is clear to see.

Just about anyone who looks at an MG Midget is going to smile, and driving one if these cars will mean you breaking out into a full-size grin, even if you might have a squeeze getting into the car. And that can be a fun challenge in itself.

Lots of lovely A-series engine and gearbox whine, the feeling you are travelling at least 20mph faster than indicated on the speedo, surprisingly communicative steering and entertaining handling.

Maybe Midgets are too numerous for us to realise just how pretty a car they are. The cars are comfortable too, once you’re inside. You might not want to thrash a 1275cc Midget down the motorway but they’ll cruise around the legal limit.

You’re getting 30mph and more with careful driver, just about anything you need for the car is instantly available, they are easy to work on and there are specialists galore out there. And if you are not happy with a standard Midget there are countless modifications.

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