What to know before buying an MG Midget?
July 11, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

How easy is it to own and maintain a 70's-era MG Midget?

I've loved these cars since I was a kid, and I'm wondering about the cost and difficulty of maintaining them. Let's assume I've found one that's in good condition now, what are some things I should consider before buying a car like this? Assume I know pretty much nothing about car maintenance.
posted by jayder to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, I started my adventures in car ownership with 70s Land Rovers, pretty much on the same technological level as an MG, though in a clunkier package. I had my ups and downs, but managed to get by with help from friends and the Internet. If you have the space and the time, I'd say go for it!

Old cars are simple to repair and maintain. They can be a pain sometimes, as things on 40 year old cars tend to break, but the joys of manual labour are underrated (I'm a software developer by day), and car repair is a surprisingly intellectual endevour (cite: Shop Class as Soulcraft).
posted by Harald74 at 11:43 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: If you can find out where it was driven, that would be helpful. If it was driven anywhere in the Northeastern US, for instance, it's likely suffering from hidden road salt damage even if the bodywork seems to be in good shape. Almost all of the British sportscars of the 70s were gone off the roads in a few years around here (Western NY) and almost extinct by 1985. Salt eats the body and chassis, of course, but can also damage wiring.

I'd be very, very cautious about purchasing one that hadn't be meticulously maintained and driven in a Southern climate.
posted by tommasz at 11:44 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do you have a garage in which to work on it and store it? Do you know how much parts cost?

I was the stressed-out owner of a Porsche 912 for a few years. It was a beautiful machine, but I was really not at all up to the task of taking care of it. I had a VW Beetle in high school that I worked on some, and I thought the Porsche would be about like that. I found out that everything's just a little more complicated, the parts are *way* more expensive, and I no longer had my dad or his tools at the ready if I needed help with something. Basically, I never drove the thing because if anything broke I would have to fix it and it would be a major ordeal. This was a precision-engineered, well-made German car with pretty decent availability of parts and expertise. I can't imagine the trouble I would have gotten into if I had a notoriously unreliable and obscure British sports car.
posted by chrchr at 11:47 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I cannot answer your question definitively, but I can say that even in the 1970's maintaining a 70's era Midget was tough. My roommate had a 71 midget in 1975, and that car broke down constantly. Some of it may have been the individual car, but clearly some was design. For example, the voltage regulator was housed in the front wheel well. An errant pebble kicked up in there would shatter it, causing the engine to instantly die. My roommate always carried a voltage regulator kit, comprised of a spare plus the two or three tools necessary to swap it out. We got so that we could change it in less time than it took to fill the tank.

That said, Midgets are one of the most fun cars I have ever driven. You sit inches off the ground and they are peppy and handle well. While I personally would opt for a early Miata, I would be happy to have a old MG to kick around in.
posted by rtimmel at 11:52 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: Labor of love for hobby/weekend driver, at best. Death trap, at worst. No airbags. No side impact reinforcing beams. No ABS on brakes. No electronic vehicle stabilization system. No engine management system (better ones cut fuel flow to the engine automatically after a collision is detected). No real crumple zone engineering. No roll cage, stock.

Get a Mazda Miata, and have all the fun of a roadster, with few of the maintenance and safety hassles. Or, if you're hell bent for beauty and nostalgia at any cost, an MGA.
posted by paulsc at 11:56 AM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My dad had an Austin-Healey, which was something of a cousin to the MG. What I know from years of being the kid who holds the flashlight for dad is that these things are a labor of love. Our Healey was driven with a menagerie of spare parts in the trunk. This can be fun, but these are finicky vehicles.
posted by dgran at 11:57 AM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: We've never had an MG (actually, Mr. Padraigin might have, I forget) but we, and our extended family, have had a lot (oh my god so many amongst us all) of tinkermobiles. The British and Italian cars seem to languish the most because parts are expensive and harder to find and they just break all the damn time, while the German and American cars we've had have been a little easier to find parts, shops, and support for.

Things that are helpful when you have an old car, that I'd suggest scouting out as part of your thought process on this:

Car clubs, with real people, in your local area--it's worth hanging out with your fellow nerds and also going to any shows/rallies/swaps they participate in
Online forums devoted to your particular car
A local shop that works on your type of car (just in case--plus it's useful sometimes to have a second pair of eyes, in person, to check out your issues and posting pictures isn't always as good as those eyes)
Numerous online/mail order resources for parts and manuals

You will also need to seriously consider time and space available. It's a big hobby.
posted by padraigin at 12:00 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I'm aware of several current schools of thought about owning 60's to 70's era British sports cars in the present era.

One is that these cars are all destined to be classics and should be treated as such, meaning to always work on them with an eye towards an eventual restoration: no mods, only use vintage and correct parts, etc. Bring your check book (or cheque book, as it were.)

Another school of thought is that these cars are gorgeous and fun on the outside but suffer from a host of well documented ills once you move beyond the sheet metal, so they are great candidates for engine and driveline transplants. Japanese motors and drivelines are the most popular choices for this as they are both more reliable and widely available. And generally cheap, too. If well executed, this course of action will lead to a car that is both more powerful, more reliable, and more technologically advanced. However, if this sort of thing is poorly executed or done in a half-assed way you end up with a Frankenstein sort of car that's all motor, doesn't handle well, and has brakes and wheels that are far too small for it's new motor; a dangerous deathtrap.

The middle ground is to drive it as is and fix it when it breaks, but only fix it enough to keep it going. This frees you of the overhead of trying to nudge it towards a full restoration, but it also leaves you with an aging and flawed vehicle.

I'm of the swap-in-a-better-motor and driveline school of thought myself, but then I like that sort of fabrication project. YMMV.
posted by mosk at 12:03 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: How easy is it to own and maintain a 70's-era MG Midget?

Not. . .

And that's based on experience gained in the 1970s (with an MGB-GT, a slightly more robust item) when they were new.

For example, you will spend hours and hours balancing carbouretters. Once you get 'em so it'll idle, something else is bound to go sigoggly before you can get around the block.

Then there's
  • The manual choke.
  • The under-engineered manual brakes.
  • The diffiicult to find parts.
  • The leaky roof.
  • The inadequate heat and ventilation.
  • The Complete lack of basic creature comforts, such as sun visors that move; you can't rest your right foot on the floor whille driving which is a bit tiring on long trips (no cruise control or A/C either). Also the exhaust pipe is right next to your foot, which gets a bit hot.
  • The lack of any modern safety equipment.
  • The vexing effects on performance caused by pre-catalytic converter attempts at emissions controls.
Again this is my experience with a four year old vehicle. It soon also developed significant structural rust requiring replacement of much of the undercarriage and suspension. Add forty years to this experience and you'll just about have the picture.

These are problems that the Mazda Miata were designed to solve in the 1980s. It has most of the styling cues and driving experience of the old MGs in a more reliable and modern package.

The World Famous has it: Understand, ultimately, that an old British car is not a mode of transportation but a costly, time-consuming hobby that can be very rewarding but is guaranteed to be labor and money intensive.
posted by Herodios at 12:06 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: voltage regulator was housed in the front wheel well. . .

Oh, yeah. Forgot about that. There were all sorts of seemingly crazy engineering decision, like that the twelve-volt models have two six-volt batteries in series: one under each rear seat.

The MG Midget and 'B -- even those made in 1979 with ugly rubber baby buggy bumpers -- are designed, engineered, and built with, at bottom, late 1950s technology.

I also went through a phase with 1960s era air cooled VWs, and it's the same story: a hobby, not a daily driver. You need alternative transportation, a place to work on cars, tools, and patience for those times when it's a perfect day for a drive, but you've got to spend it working on the car!
posted by Herodios at 12:16 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: The classic British roadster allows for glorious weekend drives punctuated by weekday evenings fixing what broke. (I remember watching someone across the street do that with a MGB for several years.) See also: Alfa Spider.

If you are in a part of the world with a decent number of owners, you'll have a useful support network -- I see quite a few where I am, as certain roads are made for them, and the climate is fairly hospitable if you have a garage. But they are definitely a leap into the deep end of old-school car maintenance, and the Miata/MX-5 delivers more time behind the wheel and less under the bonnet.
posted by holgate at 12:23 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: My parents had an MG Midget and now have an MGB, and the latter has proved more reliable than the former somehow - in relative terms, that is. My dad belongs to the local British Car Club, which I consider his Car-Tinkerers Support Group.

According to my father, it is a matter of pride to see how many kilometers you can get an MG (or any british car) to go without breaking down. He has designated the MGB as a car for driving around town only, because when (not if) you break down, well at least you can get a taxi home within city limits. That said, they did take a road trip in it - the trunk was filled with tools/spare parts for car repairs, and the only luggage they took fit behind the seat. They had some fun stories about roadside repair after that adventure.
posted by lizbunny at 12:24 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: There's an old axiom about owning a British sports car.

"If you aren't a mechanic when you buy one, you will be by the time you get rid of it".

Yeah, they're cute, they're also junk. It's the reason they're no longer made.
posted by JohnE at 1:09 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: British sports cars?
I've had an Austin-Healy and a Triumph and they were far more trouble and expense than they were worth. About 99 percent pure misery and inconvenience.
I'd agree with those who suggest a Miata instead.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:17 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I had a '73 Karmann Ghia convertible during the mid '80s and early '90s. That thing ran like clockwork -- started in subzero weather, after long fallow periods, whenever. Never caused me a any headaches. I was a dingbatty high school airhead and the mechanics were so simple that I could change oil/fuses/tires and that's all it ever needed. If a Ghia would scratch your itch for a small ancient sportscar, I can recommend it wholeheartedly.
posted by apparently at 1:32 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: Oh, and just last night on Top Gear Clarkson did a bit on what a PITA MGs are to own...and presumably it's easier to get parts and expertise in Britain, right?
posted by apparently at 1:38 PM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all these answers, folks. Very helpful ... even if it's disappointing to find out that they are so much trouble! I agree that a Miata seems like a much more practical option, but Miatas don't have the mystique and charm of a little British convertible, for me. I'm not sure why. I really do like Karmann Ghias, but I hardly ever see them for sale.

Thanks again, everyone -- and please keep the answers coming; I haven't been completely talked out of it.
posted by jayder at 2:02 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: If your heart is set on owning one of these cars, no amount of logic or sensible japanese alternatives will suffice.

- The price and condition of MGs varies wildly, spend the money and get a good one. Do not buy the first one you see, you need to compare a few to get an idea of good value.
- Keep something like 40% of your budget aside for repairs and parts, you will need it.

It is far too easy to spend a small fortune in the hope that 'just one more repair should see it through the summer'. Set yourself a budget - how much per year are you prepared to spend on this? If/when it starts costing more than that, be prepared to bail and sell it.

Lastly, don't assume a classic car will be easy/quick to sell when the time comes.

If the attraction of an MG is the performance and cornering ability - look into the Lotus elise.
If you are just after a classic cruising machine think about the Mercedes SL it's a nice old convertible that won't break down *every* weekend.
posted by Lanark at 2:05 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: Based on one of my neighbours experiences as a kid, the best way to keep a midget running was to own at least four. That ensured that you'ld probably have parts to keep one running.
posted by bonehead at 2:15 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I had an MGB, and it was all the kinds of trouble everyone is saying it is upthread. It was also the single most awesome purchase I have ever made, and I would do it again even though it was a total headache at times and I hardly ever drove it, relative to my daily driver.

Be prepared to a) lose money; b) sell it in a mood of already-nostalgic relief; and c) have an instant-bonding moment with everyone who sees your souvenir MG button for the rest of your life.

Also, d) a thrilling driving experience (albeit not in the same way as driving a machine designed to drive well :); and e) a friendly and supportive community (especially if you have local MG collectors/drivers/mechanics).

Perhaps another useful caveat is that I spent less than $1000 on the car as an initial purchase (way more than that on maintenance) and was in California at the time, so weather wasn't an issue when I had to work on it in our parking lot (!). If you just want to know what it's like to own and work on an MG, you shouldn't spend a lot of money on the experience, because you will probably want to bail sooner rather than later.
posted by obliquicity at 5:06 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: OK, pay attention here:

In 1980 (1980!!!) my then-girlfriend was doing a full restoration of a 1974 (a 1974!) MGB.

OTOH: In 1990, I bought a first-year Miata. Over 21 years later, I am still driving that Miata. It's not just the most reliable car I've ever owned; it might be the most reliable car I've ever heard of. (I drove it the first 17 years -- 17 years!!! -- without a major problem.)

Now, it weighs in the balance that the Midget is an entirely different driving experience from the Miata; but you'll be letting yourself in for a world of aggravation.

If you want to tool around in a sports car, get a Miata. If you want to work on a deathtrap, get a Midget.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:13 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I also would really suggest a Miata. I never did anything to mine, but the engine looks like it would be easy to fix. I mean, it actually looks that way. There isn't a whole lot there.

They are cheap and the car was really reliable. The seats sucked, and my body is a little screwed up still from driving it, but that's a different story, I'd just make sure you replace the seats if you find them uncomfortable.

Seriously though, they are great little cars.
posted by sully75 at 9:52 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: Have a look at Teri Ann Wakeman's Triumph TR3 pages for a bit of insight in how it is to own an old British roadster.
posted by Harald74 at 11:50 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: Just to complicate your decision a little, if you incline toward a more modern roadster instead of the classic you may wish to consider the Pontiac Solstice for comparison to the Miata. They are both great cars, but some people prefer the Solstice. I happen to own one and it feels very similar to the Healey I used to drive, except for the maintenance issues.
posted by dgran at 5:11 AM on July 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks very much for your suggestions. For a long time I had thought the Miata was too common and vanilla for my taste, but at everyone's prompting I've looked more closely at them and that may very well be what I buy. And tonight I passed a Solstice and thought, hey, maybe I should look into those too.
posted by jayder at 10:33 PM on July 12, 2011

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