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Happy Birthday: MGF

Published 01 September 2015

September 1995. A nation awaited with baited breath, as England’s answer to the Mazda MX-5, a car that had completely reinvigorated the sports car sector, finally hit the market.

Here was the third new model to hit the road since BMW took over Rover, and with it returned one of the most famous sporting marques of all time.

It’s difficult to put into context today, but, at launch, the MGF was one of the most hotly anticipated cars you could imagine.

What’s even harder to believe, for those of us old enough to remember, is that it was 20 years ago this month that the MGF first hit the road. Developed by Rover Special Products with a design refined by Gerry McGovern’s in-house styling team, the F was the first two-seater MG sports car since MGB and Midget production had ceased at Abingdon in 1981. The MG badge had soldiered on for a bit, attached to Metros, Maestros and Montegos with red seatbelts, but fans of true sports cars saw them with nothing but cynicism.

MGF (3) (1)

The F, on the other hand, was a proper sports car. It was designed, as was the case with every Rover Group car, under an extremely tight budget. Rover’s marriage with Honda had collapsed, the 600 saloon, as the final offspring, having almost got stuck in the birth canal. Politics were rife, pennies were being pinched and belts ever-tightened, and as a result the MGF was a car full of compromises. The switchgear was mostly Metro or Rover-200 sourced, leading to criticism of the cabin for being a bit bland, while both subframes were pinched from the Metro, but installed in reverse to accommodate the car’s mid-engined, rear-drive layout.

At launch, hardcore road testers criticised the high driving position, as well as the overly supple Hydragas-sprung ride. It wasn’t, they claimed, as ‘edgy’ as the benchmark Mazda.

Yet despite its shortcomings, the F had a lot going for it. It was achingly pretty. Performance from the standard 1.8i was lively, while the 143bhp VVC model was genuinely potent – not huge in terms of power output, but the linear delivery thanks to the valve gear and the MGF’s light weight gave it a 0-60 time of just a shade over seven seconds. It was also an MG, and that meant it had a lot of credit in the bank to start off with.

Unsurprisingly, it quickly became the best selling sports car on the market, putting the famous octagonal badge firmly back on the map, and for the first few years of its life was an extremely desirable car. It sold in huge volumes, but it was only after it had been on sale for a few years that the MGF’s Achilles Heel came to the fore. The K-Series engine, which in many ways was a brilliant design in terms of packaging, developed a reputation for head gasket failure (particularly in 1.8-litre form, earning the car the unfortunate nickname ‘HGF’ in the trade). Due to a less than ideal gasket material, plastic dowels and a low overall coolant capacity, the engine was prone to the head and block moving, causing the gasket to blow and the engine to overheat, sometimes terminally if the coolant was allowed to run dry. A multi-layer gasket, developed later, more or less eradicates the issue completely, but mud sticks, and even today the MGF is a car that suffers a poor record for reliability and a reputational problem to boot.

MGF 1.8VVC (1)

The irony is that, head gasket issue apart, there are very few other problems. Subframe mounts can rot, hoods can inevitably get a bit tatty, but overall the MGF is more resilient than most – even if you do need to spend £500 getting the head gasket done, you’re unlikely to find yourself sucked into thousands of pounds worth of welding, which is the shortfall of most early MX-5s.

Buy an F that’s had the head gasket done (they’re no more expensive…) and what you’ll get is a cheap, durable, characterful sports car with a legendary badge, and one that, should you look after it, will only appreciate in value.

It may be languishing, semi-unloved, in banger territory today, but all that will change when it’s remembered for the true classic it could have been, and very nearly was. After all, nobody turns their nose up at a Triumph Stag these days, do they? And that had a similar reputation for self-destructing if badly maintained…

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