1953-1958 MG Magnette

Soon after two English automaking rivals joined forces to become the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in the early 1950s, the combine released a new type of small sedan -- the 1953-1958 Magnette. Its radiator badge said MG, but its design and engineering had other influences, too.

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It didn't look like an MG, somehow. In the early 1950s, the British were used to T-Series sports cars and sweet little Y-Type saloons (sedans). MGs were craggy and old-fashioned, with flapping fenders, headlamps that stuck out in the breeze, and suspensions hard enough to rattle your teeth.

But the new Magnette ZA of 1953 wasn't like that at all. It looked smooth, it rode well, it went around corners without a skip, and it had comfortable space for four people. Strange.

But only until we learned who had designed it. Not the diehards from Abingdon (MG fanatics didn't like steel roofs anyway), nor the Old Guard at Morris Motors, either. It was a new man, Gerald Palmer.

Having created the stylish 1947 Jowett Javelin saloon, complete with wind-cheating body and flat-four engine, Palmer had been tempted back to Morris as chief designer for the entire MG and Riley ranges. "All I had to do," Palmer once said, "was to produce new cars. There was no product planning, nothing. All I had to do was to come up with ideas, which I hoped would be accepted. Luckily they were."

Though conceived at Morris, the ZA Magnette was one of the first cars introduced by BMC, born on March 31,1952, with the long-debated "marriage" of two longtime rivals.

On the one side was Austin Motors, established in 1906 at Long-bridge, near Birmingham in the British Midlands. Its founder was a farmer's son, Herbert Austin, later Sir Herbert and (from 1936) Lord Austin in recognition of his contributions to British industry.

One of his company's biggest prewar successes was the small, spartan, inexpensive Austin Seven of 1922. Boldly, Sir Herbert set up a factory in Pennsylvania to build it as the American Austin, starting in 1929, but sales were poor despite the deepening U.S. Depression, and production ended after five years.

The car was soon redesigned to become the American Bantam, built by a reorganized company that later submitted the winning design for the U.S. Army jeep.

For information on the development of the 1953-1958 MG Magnette, continue on to the next page.

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1953-1958 MG Magnette Development

Volume production of unit-bodied                              Magnettes began in 1954.
Volume production of unit-bodied Magnettes began in 1954.

Gerald Palmer's work on the 1953-1958 MG Magnettes was a long and arduous tale. Morris Motors, BMC's "other half," was founded in Cowley, near Oxford, by William R. Morris.

He, too, was knighted (in 1929) and made a peer of the realm (in 1934), choosing the title Lord Nuffield. By that point, his enterprise, subsequently retitled the Nuffield Organisation, encompassed not only the Morris and MG marques but also Riley and Wolseley, two of many companies Sir William picked up along the way.

Lord Nuffield was a distrustful sort who never liked Lord Austin, so it's ironic that the Austin-Morris "wedding" was largely brokered by a man who had worked for both. This was Leonard Percy Lord, production wizard and self-styled car designer.

Though Morris was Britain's dominant motor company as early as 1913, Lord helped make it even bigger -- only to be fired by Lord Nuffield in 1936 in a dispute over profit sharing. Vowing revenge, Len Lord got himself hired at Austin some two years later and was heading the place by 1942 (after Lord Austin's death the previous year).

By the early 1950s, he had built Austin into a near sales equal for Morris, helped by newer, more modern postwar cars. But Lord knew that cutthroat competition was hampering both companies and had long favored a merger with Morris. It took him several years, but typical of the man, he finally managed it.

Such was the backdrop for Gerald Palmer's work on the ZA Magnette. His first proposal, accepted with few dissenting voices, called for not just a new MG but also a new Wolseley saloon sharing the same basic unitized construction, running gear, and styling.

In a ploy worthy of General Motors, he distinguished the models by having the Wolseley sit two inches higher, which he thought could be done with fair ease by modifying the fenders, underbody sills, and suspension pick-up points. At first, MG had little to do with this car, having no formal design office at the time.

But MG general manager John Thornley insisted on having final approval as to styling, use of the famed MG octagon badge, and other details. He also chose the name, recalling MG's 1930s series of fine six-cylinder Magnette sports cars.

The first-series ZA model ran through 1956 and was powered by a 60-horsepower 1.5-liter engine developed by BMC stablemate Austin.

For information on the MG Magnette ZA, continue on to the next page.

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1953 MG Magnette ZA

Whether ZA or ZB, Magnettes rode a 102-inch wheelbase. The 1958 ZB showed off the chrome fender/door spear that replaced the curved front-fender brightwork on the ZA.
Whether ZA or ZB, Magnettes rode a 102-inch wheelbase. The 1958 ZB showed off the chrome fender/door spear that replaced the curved front-fender brightwork on the ZA.

Gerald Palmer was obliged to use existing engines, gearboxes, and axles for his new MG/Wolseley, which was also originally intended to have a separate wood-framed body than the MG Magnette. This thinking reflected a good deal of indecision within the Nuffield group, as well as the British motor industry's general complacency of the day.

Then BMC was born with Leonard Lord in charge. He wanted a new family of engines phased in as soon as possible, so Palmer's assumptions had to change.

The upshot of all this was that the new Wolseley, called 4/44, was launched as scheduled in autumn 1952, using the old MG powertrain as first envisioned. But the Magnette, which had been set to appear first, was delayed a full year so it could be the first car using BMC's new B-series engine and transmission.

The unit body/chassis was contracted to the Pressed Steel Company, an independent bodymaking concern whose factory was just across the road from BMC's big Cowley plant, where the cars would be painted.

But for some reason, it was decided to assemble the Magnette at Abingdon (just south of Oxford), while the 4/44 would be made at Cowley alongside other Wolseleys (and Rileys). Illogical? Maybe, but such thinking would prove all too typical of BMC.

The new models' appearance was another matter: certainly remarkably curvaceous and attractive, compared to previous MGs.

"I had been to several Continental [auto] shows," Palmer stated, "and had realized that some Italian styles were really wonderful. British styling, by comparison, was just pathetic. As with the Javelin, so with this new car, the styling was all mine. This time I wanted to . . . approach Italian themes. [So] I had to get the roof and the floor-pan right down, which partly explains the unit construction. Another thing was that Pressed Steel were doing [much of] the body engineering, and it all made volume-engineering sense."

The high-grade appointments of the Magnette's four-place cabin featured leather upholstery, full floor carpeting, and a pull-down armrest for rear-seat occupants.

The Magnette powertrain was also largely engineered elsewhere, yet it's remarkable that the main project team comprised only Palmer and 10 engineers. Nowadays, of course, with the aid of computers, it would take at least 100 people merely to decide a car wasn't worth doing.

The Magnette ZA was released in October 1953, but apart from a handful of motor-show vehicles, only eight were built by the end of the year, mainly because production of the brand-new B-Series powertrain took time to crank up.

Series production didn't begin in earnest until February 1954 and reached about 80 cars per week by year's end. In 1955, however, the rate soared to more than 180 a week, which meant that the ZA was the fastest-selling MG saloon ever.

Learn more about the MG Magnette B-series on the next page.

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1953 MG Magnette ZB

By 1950s standards, the MG Magnette was a beautiful little car, and Italian influences were everywhere to be seen. (Look at contemporary Lancias if you want proof.) So what if the trunk was small and there wasn't much space in the rear?

It was a lot roomier than the old Y-Series, and a traditional MG radiator proudly fronted one of the most-modern saloon shapes to come out of Britain for some time (the latest Jaguars excepted).

But the ZA Magnette looks small -- and it was, being only 167.5 inches long on a 102-inch wheelbase, and slim across the hips. It didn't have much power, either.

Though the 1489-cc version of the new B-Series four-cylinder eventually reached 72 horsepower (in 1956-model MGA two-seaters), it produced only 60 horsepower in initial Magnette tune.

But that was a lot more than the old YB's 46 horses, and the Magnette had a slick new four-on-the-floor gearbox to help exploit it. The latter would also show up in the MGA, and no one ever complained about that.

Though the ZB was made for just two years,

its production totals exceeded those of the ZA.

The Magnette's B-Series ohv four-cylinder engine was a much-modified version of the powerplant introduced with Austin's new 1947 A40 Devon, a small car that sold moderately well in the U.S. Though never very refined, the sturdy B-Series would power numerous BMC models for nearly two decades.

There were two initial displacements, 1200 and 1489cc, but size gradually crept up, first to 1588cc (MGA 1600), then 1622 (MGA 1600 Mk II), and finally the 1798cc version that powered MGBs through the last of their kind in 1980.

The B-Series was also used in various BMC/British Leyland light trucks into the 1980s, and lasted until 1997 in India's Hindustan Ambassador sedan based on the mid-1950s Morris Oxford Mark II.

Check out the next section for details on MG Magnette performance and styling.

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1953-1958 MG Magnette Performance and Styling

B Magnettes with the standard-width window offered less rear visibility than Varitones, but were cheaper and somewhat more popular.
B Magnettes with the standard-width window offered less rear visibility than Varitones, but were cheaper and somewhat more popular.

The MG Magnette handled remarkably well. Superlatives flowed when the British weekly, The Autocar, tested one in November 1954: "Wet roads or dry make little difference to its performance . . . [A] slight controllable drift in the approved fashion, and a very slight heeling over, were the only indications of high speed. On the road, then, the standard of its cornering is very high."

Of course, with only 60 horsepower to move nearly 2,500 pounds, the ZA was not a fast car even by British standards, but it did appeal for its looks, character, and furnishings.

Like the smaller, recently introduced Morris Minor (same design stable, different trainers), the new Magnette offered great roadholding and inch-accurate rack-and-pinion steering.

Its front coil springs and wishbones were right for the job, and the beam rear axle (hung on semielliptic leaf springs) was carefully controlled by a sturdy torque arm running from the axle housing to the bodywork.

Even so, first thoughts were not correct thoughts, for an extra front suspension tie-bar had to be added, and the torque arm was deleted before the first cars were delivered (but after the public launch), as engineers found that it simply did not work very well.

The ZA also made a good impression inside. Here was a four-seater with no "I'm bigger than that" pretensions, which meant separate front seats, a proper gear-lever and central parking brake on the floor, but also genuine leather upholstery and carpeting instead of rubber mats.

The instrument panel looked to be adorned with wood, but closer examination showed a rather low-rent combination of wood, painted metal, and Bakelite plastic. There were only four body colors at first, and precious few options, but there always seemed to be a queue to buy.

Although not quite the "quality car" BMC had hoped for -- there was no getting away from the dashboard "wood" -- the Magnette looked neat enough. And with an all-in U.S. price of $2,475 (POE East Coast), it was a fair modern imitation of the traditional upmarket British car.

Learn about updates made to the 1953-1958 MG Magnette in our final section.

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1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, and 1958 MG Magnette

Gerald Palmer's Italian-influenced exterior design was quite a departure for an MG, but the Magnette's radiator grille left no doubt about its parentage.
Gerald Palmer's Italian-influenced exterior design was quite a departure for an MG, but the Magnette's radiator grille left no doubt about its parentage.

A few changes were made early on, including the addition of swiveling front-door vent windows in March 1954 and the availability of more nonmetallic colors. Meanwhile, the slow production build-up had magazine editors fighting to publish tests (most had to wait until model-year 1955). A number actually purchased their own cars for the purpose.

BMC wasted no time sending Magnettes to the lucrative U.S. market, doubtlessly hoping to capitalize on the loyal following built up there by MG's sports cars. Figures are hard to come by, but we know that 312 Magnettes went to the States in 1954, and it's likely more than 300 were exported the following year, when the dashboard was covered entirely in attractive polished wood.

The MG Magnette was further freshened up for 1957, when the ZA became the ZB. This involved minor trim changes, including different decoration on the flanks, plus four more horsepower (via Increased compression and double valve springs) and higher overall gearing. The big news, however, was a weird new transmission option called Manumatic and an available "Varitone" body style.

Developed by Automotive Products/Lockheed, Manumatic was essentially a clutchless manual transmission not unlike Volkswagen's later "Automatic StickShift." It relied on a concoction of electrics and hydraulics that disengaged the clutch plate when the driver put pressure in any direction on the gear-lever knob; take-up from rest was provided by a centrifugal clutch.

Manumatic worked well so long as everything was in perfect adjustment, but that was rare. And because it cost an extra (about $140), it was not popular. Only 496 such cars were sold (about 110 exported to North America) before the option was quietly dropped in 1958.

The Varitone body option was more successful, partly because it included a larger rear window that was wrapped around slightly, American style. It also sported smart duotone paintwork, with the second color running from hood to roof to trunklid and down the sides to follow an upper-body crease line.

Varitone Magnettes looked good, but BMC made a meal of the body, hauling standard "small-window" shells across the road from Pressed Steel to Morris Motors, where the aperture was enlarged by hand.

There was a price for this work: In Britain, a Varitone cost 8 versus 1 for a small-window mono-color ZB. (At then-current exchange rates, those figures translated to $3,018 and $2,915, respectively.) But the option proved popular. Of the 18,525 Magnettes built in 1957-1958, Varitones accounted for 7,803 assemblies, about 42 percent of the total.

Overall sales also improved as time went on. No fewer than 9,438 ZBs were built in 1958, the final calendar year for this Magnette generation -- peanuts by Detroit standards, maybe, but it certainly made Abingdon's planners proud.

Though too heavy to be a successful competition car, the final Magnettes had a top speed of 86 mph, very brisk for such a small-engine British saloon. And the MG was still regarded as one of the best-handling sports saloons of its day.

By this time, Gerald Palmer had long since moved on to work with GM's Vaux-hall subsidiary in Luton, leaving behind an uninspiring group of engineers operating mainly out of BMC's other main factory, the one-time Austin plant at Longbridge. They didn't look likely to come up with a better Magnette.

Sure enough, the new Mark III of 1959 was a dreadful thing for which the British press never had a good word, being simply a hotted-up version of a lumpy new-generation Austin Cambridge. At least it was never assembled at Abingdon, where John Thornley and his colleagues were much happier building MGAs, Austin-Healey Sprites, and, soon, MGBs and Healey 3000s.

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