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The MG Midget
For more detailed history of MG Midget, see
Background to the Midget
Back in the 1920's, the M-Type Midget had been developed from the baby Morris Minor. The result was a basic, cheap, fun two-seater, with sporting pretensions which triggered a whole dynasty of Midgets. It was the Midget series which had established MG as a manufacturer of sports cars with an excellent reputation in motor sport.
This range of cars had culminated in the TF which was seen as a Midget too far. By the time it was laid to rest in 1955, the design was out of date and out of step with what was required, since sports cars were becoming bigger, more sophisticated, more powerful, and more expensive. It seemed doubtful that we would ever see a Midget again.
In the late 1950's, yet another basic, cheap, fun two-seater was developed from a "baby" car. This time, the more modern equivalent of the old Austin Seven was used, the A30/35. This new two-seater car was the Austin-Healey Sprite, which appeared in 1959 and was built at Abingdon. It was designed to use as many parts from the corporate parts bin as possible. Most came from the A35; front suspension, engine (a 948cc pushrod, overhead valve, four-cylinder A-series unit fitted here with twin SU H2 carburetors and producing 42 HP), gearbox and back axle. The steering rack was that used on the Morris Minor. Brakes were hydraulic drums all around, though front discs were available from the Donald Healey Motor Co. as a performance upgrade kit. The rear suspension used quarter elliptic rear springs and control arms which reduced unsprung weight at a low cost while providing for some entertaining rear wheel steering effects while cornering hard. This use of off the shelf parts helped keep the development costs to a minimum.
While much was raided from the parts bin, some things were new for BMC. The Sprite would be the first BMC sportscar to feature a unibody construction and enter full scale production. Stiffness was provided by box-like sections sills and cross members, a deep transmission tunnel, the scuttle, and the box shaped boot. At the front, the cross member for the suspension and steering was carried on a pair of chassis legs which projected forwards from the scuttle bulkhead. This car became known as the "Frogeye" Sprite (or "Bugeye" in the United States) due to its headlamps being set into the front of the one-piece front end with a mouth-like grille being mounted on the front edge. The original intention was to make the front and rear sections from the same pressings (to save tooling costs) and have flip up headlights. When it was determined that the flip up headlights would be far too expensive, that concept was dropped, but the headlight position was retained. At the time this did receive some criticism, though now many find them endearing.
Midget Mk I
In 1961, the bodywork of the Sprite came in for a major restyling. The central cockpit portion remained essentially the same, but the front and rear bodywork was completely restyled and redesigned to give the car a more conventional squared-off appearance. The engine and running gear was essentially the same as the earlier Sprite, but output was up to around 47bhp, which lead to increases in performance also. In this form, the car was known as the Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II, but shortly after a Deluxe version was announced. It had been re-badged to become known as the MG Midget. Aside from cosmetic changes and a slight increase in horsepower the running gear from the frogeye Sprite was retained for both the Sprite and the Midget unchanged.
The original Sprite's one piece front end had been dropped in favor of separate wings, front panel, and a pancake type rear-hinged bonnet. Another first was a lockable boot lid which greatly eased accessibility to the boot. The headlamps had been moved to the forward corners of the front wings, while the indicators and side lights were mounted immediately below this. A full-width grille filled the gap between the front wings and lights. At the rear, the "square" styling theme was continued and was extended as far as the tops of the rear wheel arches being squared-off. The rear lights were fixed in the upper extremities of the rear wings, and there was a separate boot lid. The flat windscreen remained, as did the removable soft top and side-screens.
Interestingly, the front end was restyled by the Healeys at Warwick, while the rear end of the car was re-styled by Syd Enever's team at MG and closely resembled the embryonic MGB. It is still unclear why BMC asked the two design teams to work on styling different parts of the same vehicle and specifically instructed MG not to talk to Healey about what they were doing. However, with the two teams based in such close proximity to each other they very soon got together to ensure that the changes being made would agree when brought together on the same vehicle.
Midget Mk II
The new Midget was to find a ready and enthusiastic market among the dedicated MG fans, as it was a sports car with all the traditional MG characteristics - it was small, inexpensive, fast, and safe with predictable handling. Above all, it was a fun car.
For 1963 the Midget Mk II was given a 1098cc version of the A-series engine, which developed 55bhp, and improved transmission ratios in an attempt to make the car more competitive with Triumph’s Spitfire (launched in 1962). At the same time, the twin-leading-shoe front drum brakes were dispense with and replaced with disc brakes. Also, centre-locking wire wheels became an option at this point.
In the following year, the Midget MkII was introduced. This car had revised rear suspension, with the quarter-elliptic leaf springs being replaced with semi-elliptic ones. There were multiple reasons for this. One of them being that the mounting points for the quarter elliptic springs had a tendency to rust out and this was a major issue at such a high stress point. Another was better lateral location of the rear axle. It was, however a compromise, unsprung weight was increased some, and the car lost the rear wheel steering effect that enthusiasts had enjoyed up to this point. In response to the spitfire (which had wind up windows, more space, and comfort in general) the windscreen was redesigned along the same lines of the MGB unit. This allowed the fitment of wind up door windows for the first time. The tops of the doors were revised with a squared off ridge along the top, and the rear bodywork was slightly revised so that this squared off section on the doors could be smoothly blended into the bodywork. The removable top was retained, but revised to fit the new windscreen.
The Midget Mk III
The Midget Mk II had continued to sell until October 1966, when the Mk III model was introduced. Once again, the engine had been enlarged - this time it had the 1275cc A-series unit developed from the one used in the Mini Cooper S (used here in a de-tuned state). This produced 65bhp and could propel the little car to a top speed of 92mph. In 1967 a smog pump was fitted to all cars exported to the USA to meet increasingly stringent regulations.
Although there were no really obvious changes to the appearance of the car, there were minor ones. Perhaps one of the most important of these was the addition of a folding soft top, which replaced the one which had to be fully removed to be stowed. To accommodate this change, the rear bodywork was slightly revised, with the squared off ridge now running all the way around the rear of the cockpit.
By 1969, BMC had been swallowed up by British Leyland, and the new management had some changes in store. Up to this point the MG Midget had been a more up-market version of the Sprite, as it had a lot more chrome including a very classy looking vertical slatted grille. However, management decided the cars were due for a facelift.
The trim for both the Sprite and the Midget were now identical aside from some badging differences. A flat black stripe covered the rocker panels and a chrome strip was set just above it. The grille was now a black grid type with a chrome strip running about an inch from its perimeter and a badge in the center to denote what make the car was. The rear bumpers were changed from being a single piece to being a split type, and both front and rear bumpers were slimmed down. Initially the horn push was moved from the center of the steering wheel to the turn signal stalk, and the steering wheel was revised. The new steering wheel featured three flat spokes which featured some sporty looking holes along their length. Initially the factory changed the finish of the windscreen frame out of concern that US legislation may be pending that would mandate an anti glare design. Thus, it was anodized in black. New steel wheels were designed with a distinctive pattern that the factory called "Rostyle". While the new ideas about the horn control and the blacked out windscreen frame would be soon revised, the rest of the changes stuck.
Now that the Sprite and Midget looked identical, BL management felt that there was no point in selling the Sprite beyond the home market. In addition the Healey name was dropped. For the 1970 model year, the last Sprites would be sold in the UK as “Austin Sprites”. It would be their last year of production. Meanwhile back in the USA, the 1275 Midget continued to sell well and had generated a loyal following, but since its nearest competitor was the Triumph Spitfire, many expected one of the cars to be dropped but neither were to get the chop - yet.
In 1972, the Midget received further styling changes. The rear wheel arches were made round for the first time since the Mk1 Sprite much to the delight of sporting enthusiasts who wanted to fit wider tires on the car. The Rostyles were redesigned and from here on the pattern would remain unchanged. It was at this time that MG was facing increased work load to ensure that the cars met the increasingly strict environmental and safety regulations that were being implemented in the export markets, and in particular the USA. This work was such that it severely restricted the resources available for the development of new models. In the long term it was to be the eventual downfall of the MG. With the approach of new crash regulations, a quick, short lived revision was made that made the car more resistant to impact damage. The bumpers were now fitted with rather large overriders made of rubber about the size of toasters. The frame was stiffened, and for the first time rear bumpers were reinforced by frame members instead of merely being bolted to the rear valence panel.
The Midget Mk IV
In late 1974 a new and, as it turned out, final version of the Midget arrived. It was known as the Mk IV although it was officially still the Mark III. As with many large groups, rationalization was now the name of the game for British Leyland. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make the A-series engine meet the required exhaust emission standards and still develop enough power, whereas this was easier with the larger-capacity Triumph unit. That engine was a 1493cc, four-cylinder, pushrod, OHV unit, and to save on development costs, the triumph transmission from the spitfire was used here as well. However, unlike the spitfire, the overdrive version of the spitfire’s transmission was never offered as an option. Fitment of the overdrive unit would have required revision to the transmission tunnel, and with all the other structural revisions taking place it may be that the tooling costs would have outweighed any sales that may have been made on an overdrive equipped Midget. The bigger engine, capable of producing 66bhp did little to cope with the increased weight of the car so while top speed was slightly improved, all around performance was little better if not worse than that of the earlier a-series unit. Part of the problem was the change from twin SU carburetors to a single zenith Stromberg unit, along with plenty of emission control equipment for the US market. In England and a few other countries, the car was fitted with SU carburetors and had much better performance than the American versions.
Along with the new engine and transmission came what many saw as less desirable changes. One of these was the introduction of the "rubber-bumpers" which were designed to meet US crash test legislations. These added considerably to the weight of the car, but were sculpted such that the car was still instantly recognizable as a Midget.
Furthermore, to ensure that the bumpers were at the correct height, it was necessary to raise the ride height of the car by a couple of inches. This obviously had the effect of reducing the roll stiffness at the rear, but contrary to popular belief the cars handling was not really impaired by these modifications. For 1975’s golden jubilee celebrations, a one off Golden jubilee MG Midget was produced using a similar trim package as the golden jubilee MGB’s. It would be given away as a promotion.
The End of the Midget
The Midget continued to sell well in its Mk IV form with only minor alterations until it was finally dropped in 1978 from the US market. In the UK the car would soldier on through the middle of the 1980 model year. The last car was painted black, and rolled off the assembly line in December 7, 1979. Many mourned its passing, but in truth it had come to the end of its line and the resources had not been made available to develop a successor.
The Midget had grown old gracefully from its Mk I original through to the Mk III successor, but it needed replacement at that juncture, when the design was 20 years old. Further development on the same chassis would have been doomed for any manufacturer, and it is a pity that more resources were not made available for sports car design back in 1970's. In total, 355,888 Sprites and Midges were built between 1958 and 1979.
Of this the second dynasty of Midgets, many of them provide their owners with the type of no-nonsense enjoyment experienced by their predecessors who bought MG's original Midget the M-Type around 70 years ago. Through their enthusiasm the MG legend will live on.
Revised by Seth Jones 3/19/09. Original author unknown.
For more detailed history of MG Midget, see
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