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A Brief History of MG

1 June 2023

Once one of the most recognisable British motoring brands – now again on the ascendancy – the rise, fall and resurrection of MG is a story of true British determination to survive. In the centenary year, we look back on the incredible history of MG – its highs, lows and of rising from the ashes.

History of MG – Where it all started

The decisive year for the octagon-badged brand we all love came in 1921, when a fresh-faced 33-year-old Cecil Kimber joined Morris Garages as their sales manager. The Oxford-based concern was owned by William Morris, you may have heard of him… Within a year Kimber proved himself and was promoted to General Manager.

Cecil Kimber hailed from Stockport with a passion for engineering. He dabbled with motorcycles in his youth, but a bad accident soon led him to the relative safety of four wheels. Spreading his wings, young Cecil left his father’s printing firm to join Sheffield-Simplex as an assistant in 1914. The First World War saw him move first to AC Cars and then to parts supplier EG Wrigley. Cecil’s investment in the latter firm didn’t pay off, Wrigley finding itself under the Morris banner by 1923. By that time, as we’ve already discovered, Kimber was impressing the future Lord Nuffield.

In a stroke of marketing genius, and to satisfy his itchy engineering fingers, Kimber decided to boost Morris’ sales by producing sportier machines based on solid Morris Oxford underpinnings. The first fruit of these labours was unveiled in 1924. A Charles Raworth & Son two-seater body was placed atop Morris Cowley running gear to create the ‘Kimber Special’ 14/28 Super Sports, effectively MG’s genesis; the brand being trademarked later that same year.

History of MG - photo shows early MGs on display at MG Centenary event at British Motor Museum

History of MG – 1930s and the importance of motorsport

Realising the importance of motorsport in building his brand, Kimber was keen to place MG at the forefront of competition, which he spearheaded throughout the 1930s. Wins came first at Brooklands, where baffled Bentley drivers battled tiny MGs. Irish GP, Isle of Man and Ulster TT wins came in quick succession, but wins further afield in Germany, Italy and Monaco brought the fledgling brand international renown.

During its glamorous exploits abroad – the high point of which was a class win at the 1933 Mille Miglia – rapidly expanding MG was in desperate need of new premises. It effectively found its forever home in Abingdon, just a few miles up the road from Morris’ Longwall Street garages in Oxford. The MG name would remain synonymous with Abingdon for a further fifty years, only closing the doors of its ‘Pavlova’ works in 1980.

The remainder of the inter-war period saw MG breaking land-speed records, first with the ‘Magic Midget’ topping 87mph and then with the EX127, which managed an amazing 140mph on the German autobahn, allegedly piquing the interest of Mercedes-Benz in the process. Closer to home, The Cream Cracker P-type Midgets cemented the MGs durability in the most punishing of motorsports, endurance sporting trials.

Just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, MG made a crucial model, the 1936 TA ‘Midget’. The war effort meant production of the then current TC generation Midget ceased after just a year – attention shifting to building bomber cockpits and repairing Matilda tanks – though enough Midgets were in circulation for incoming US servicemen to get a taste for the little sports car that was like they’d experienced before.

History of MG - photo shows early MG

History of MG – Post War

Once hostilities ceased in 1945, many GIs took Midgets back home and MG officially exported the TC to the USA. North America soon proved a vital export market for MG, as well as for many other British makers, in the era of ‘export or die’. Sadly, Cecil Kimber died in a train crash at Kings Cross, London in 1945, ending an era in the process. Many manufacturers can’t survive the death of a founder, but MG’s resilience is legendary and it quickly bounced back.

History of MG – 1950s

Almost all the best sports cars emerge from racing origins and the next milestone MG model was no different. MG’s chief designer Syd Enever had developed a low-drag sports car by 1951 with the intention of taking it to Le Mans. With its TD underpinnings, EX176 was further developed into a road-going prototype, with the intention of exporting it to the USA as a TF replacement, but with MG now a part of the British Motor Corporation, there were wider considerations. Austin-Healey was favoured as BMC’s sports car maker, which left this new MG in development limbo. However, with sales of the now aged TF struggling, management relented and the MGA made its public debut in September 1955; following a fairly muted appearance at the infamous Le Mans race of the same year.

Strong sales of more than 100,000 MGAs meant that a replacement was inevitable and, in 1962, the world first caught a glimpse of the best-known MG of them all, the MG B. It’s hard for younger enthusiasts to comprehend today, but this seemingly perennial classic was once considered cutting edge. Very briefly, in the early 1960s, the MG B showed a bold new direction for mass market sports cars. This was MG’s first monocoque sports car and, soon after lunch, the MG B gained a new five-bearing version of the BMC B-series engine. The innovations kept coming with the arrival of the Aston-Martin-aping MG BGT in October 1965. The classically beautiful GT was skilfully styled by Italian firm Pininfarina and it gained many admirers and customers seeking greater practicality without sacrificing fun behind the wheel.

History of MG – 1970s

After making more than 500,000 Bs, and having mainly concentrated on selling two-seater sports cars for the much of its history, MG was suddenly faced with the hatchback craze that was sweeping Europe in the mid-1970s. Against a backdrop of foreign fun hatches, the once innovative and popular MG B looked decidedly stale. Worse still, as the 1980s dawned, it looked as though MG was to be consigned to history, with the closure of the Abingdon plant and the building of the last MGBs in 1981.

But this wasn’t the end as, once again, plucky MG would rise from the ashes. Britain’s answer to the hot-hatch craze was to soup-up its diminutive darlings. MG was the perfect brand with which to inject a bit of sex appeal into the frumpy Austin Rover Group’s range of Metro, Maestro and Montego. The latter of which, once given the MG treatment, was the fastest accelerating production MG to that point; getting from a standstill to 60mph in just 7.3 seconds.

History of MG - photo shows white 1972 MGB GT

History of MG – 1990s

After weathering some of the most turbulent decades in British car production, MG was kept on life support again until new owners BMW brought with them some much-needed development funds in 1995. This new stream of readies was enough to push the MGF over the line and into production. This enormously popular roadster hit all the right notes with its great looks, neat handling and punchy K-series twin-cam engine. BMW backed out by 2000 but the new Phoenix Consortium took the reins and presided over MG’s return to saloon manufacture with the well-regarded ZR, ZS and ZT ranges.

Chinese ownership beckoned from the mid-2000s and with a combination of British design and development in London and car manufacture in China, MG’s fortunes have been turned around once more. Highlights from the NAC MG UK (’05-’09) and current SIAC (’09- present) eras include claiming the manufacturer BTCC title in 2014 with the MG6, and strong sales of the firm’s new compact all-electric ZS SUV, placing it among the fastest growing car brands in the UK.

Photo shows modern, red MG

History of MG – Present Day

What they’ve needed for some time is a new ‘halo’ sports car and in 2024, they will return to the sporting market once more with the all-new, all-electric Cyberster.

It might not always have been plain sailing, but MG has ridden out various storms and seems to now reside in calmer waters.

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