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The launch of the MGA in 1955 marked a huge departure for MG. The MGA, borne our of racing and record-breaking cars would be stylistically and structurally different from all of its production predecessors. From the 1929 M-Type Midget right up to the 1953 MG TD Midget the production MG’s has a distinctive upright rectangular radiator, headlamps which were separate from the body and a tall generally ‘square-rigged’ appearance. By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s this shape, as attractive as it is, looked decidedly dated when compared to the streamlined Jaguar XK-120 and Porsche 356 introduced in 1948. In addition, the upright shape and high drag coefficient of the MG’s were a disadvantage on the track. This latter problem was in the mind of race car driver and Autosport photographer George Phillips when in 1950 he convinced the MG team at the Abingdon to design a special streamlined body to fit on an MG TD chassis. His request was for use at the 1951 Le Mans race. MG design chief, Syd Enever set to work on what was to become the roots of his later masterpiece. That 1951 Le Mans car, given the experimental car number EX176 and registered as UMG 400, bears a close visual resemblance to the eventual MGA production cars.

The end of the line for the square-rigged MG’s – the MG TF. The fared-in headlamps were an acknowledgment of changing times and more streamlined sportscars in the 1950’s.

Alas, two problems beset UMG 400. Although the streamlined car proved faster than upright bodied TD’s or the pre-war supercharged MG K3 Magnettes, the engine gave out after only three hours of racing at Le Mans and the car did not finish. In addition, the design of the MG TD chassis was such that the seats sat high on top of the chassis rails. With the low streamlined body of UMG 400 the poor driver sat very high and was quite exposed. However, Enever felt that with a new chassis and other the tweaks the streamlined car could be the foundation for the next generation of MG production sports cars. He took the proposition up the chain of command.

George Phillips
George Phillips at Le Mans in 1951 with the ancestor of the MGA. The use of an MG TD chassis put the driver’s seat far too high. That being said – the shape of the subsequent MGA is clear (image from North American MGA Register https://www.namgar.com/articles/article/mga_history/origin_of_a_species/ )

Now, here was the problem. In 1952 Morris Motors merged with Austin to become British Motor Cars (BMC). The Chairman of the new company, Leonard Lord, had some history with Morris and some antipathy it is said. He favoured the development of a streamlined sportscar being developed by Austin and Donald Healey. This would be another ground-breaking model – the Austin Healey 100/4. MG had to put any plans for a really new car on hold and instead produced a stopgap model, the MG TF. This was to be the company’s last traditional square rigged car with an ash frame to the body. Some acknowledgment to the changing times and customer demands came in the form of fared-in headlamps and a smaller grille which was sloped. The TF is a lovely car and much admired today. In the 1953, however, it did little to please traditionalists or those looking for a more modern MG.

EX179 cutaway illustration
MG’s early 1950’s Bonneville Salt Flats Speed Machine – EX179. The chassis on the car provided some of the inspiration for the innovative MGA chassis. The new design allowed the driver to sit between the chassis members and not on top. Believe it or not, but the engine was the Morris XPEG unit used in the MG TD! (image from MGAGURU https://mgaguru.com/mgtech/variants/vt104_ex179.htm)

The company had long been involved in setting land speed records for small displacement cars at the Bonneville Salt Flats. In the early 1950’s one of these cars was EX179, which was a successor to the famous EX135 of the pre-war period. These sleek speed machines had been clocked at 200 mph and set a number of speed records. The innovative chassis of EX179 was to be a forerunner of the MGA chassis. This chassis design was quite innovative in its day. As developed for the MGA it allowed the driver to sit down between the side members rather than on top of the chassis rails. This greatly lowered the driving position relative to the body of the car and made for a more aerodynamically efficient and comfortable car. By 1953 Leonard Lord and BMC approved the development of a new streamlined model. It was to be introduced in 1955 and three prototypes would be entered at Le Mans. Aside from the modern body and chassis design, the new car would also be using the BMC B-series engine with four cylinders and 1500 cc of displacement. The car really did represent something of a whole new generation for MG – and the model designation A seemed appropriate. The MGA was off and running at last!

Red MGA 1600 and British Racing Green MGA 1500. Note the resemblance to the Le Mans race car of 1951 – UMG 400

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