1954-1955 MG TF

Did you ever drive a 1953 MG TF or later model? Not just cruise in it, but drive it properly and hard, and truly fling it about? If you did, do you remember how taut it felt, how it thrilled every nerve in your body until it reached 80 mph -- and then ran out of steam? Afterward, didn't you just end up beating your hands on the steering wheel, cursing, and wishing the performance could match the handling? 

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1955 MG TF 1500
The British-made 1955 MG TF 1500 was mostly exported to
 the U.S. See more pictures of classic cars.

Today, just like all those years ago, these impressions are as strong as ever. It's still amazingly frustrating, isn't it? Here's a great chassis with hairline steering, an engine that sounds as if it could rev forever, and a gearchange so slick it makes you want to sell your Microsoft shares to own an MG TF.

There now. In two short paragraphs, we've summed up the TF, forever and a day. It should have been better, but because of its square-rigged shape and small engine, MG couldn't make it any faster; not even the engineers at Abingdon could overcome the laws of aerodynamics. As the last of the famed T-Series breed that was nearly two decades old when finally discontinued, the TF had no choice but to live on borrowed time (and MG's fine reputation) throughout its short two-year lifespan.

In the late mid-Fifties, when the TF was announced, self-styled experts all sang the same tune. They harped that the TF was obsolete from the day it was announced and that it looked old-fashioned at a time when everyone was looking for futuristic "envelope" shapes.

More telling, they made it known that the TF was far too slow to keep up with Triumph's new TR2. Although TF sales held up well at first, the public soon came to agree with the critics. Thus, within two years it was all over for the TF, and the 100-mph MGA took its place.

1955 MG TF 1500
The 1955 MG TF 1500 was never even advertised in Britain.

But if the TF was such a disappointment, why have classic values held up so well? Instead of buying a well-restored TF 1500 today, a collector could acquire two TR2s or two MGAs. Amazing isn't it? No matter what complaints the pundits made back in late 1953, today's enthusiasts couldn't care less what they said. If dollars talk -- as they most assuredly do -- then the TF is the most desirable of all the MG Midgets.

MG's first two-seater Midget, the M-Type, was launched in 1928, and for the next three decades a series of Midgets was designed, built, and sold from the Abingdon on Thames factory. A recognizable style was settled upon in the Thirties: upright radiator grille, flowing fenders, cutaway doors, canvas-framed side curtains, fold-flat windshield, and a skimpy soft-top mechanism. This basic formula changed little, and only gradually, through 1955.

The M-Type gave way to the J2 of 1932, and the PA took over in 1934. The first of the T-Series cars, the TA Midget, arrived in 1936. MG clearly liked the letter "T," because the TA was replaced by the TB in 1939, the TC took over in 1945, and the TD bowed in 1950. The TF, the last of the distinguished breed, appeared in the fall of 1953.

On the next page, learn about the fascinating origins of the MG TF.

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The origins of the MG TF are easy to trace. But one question remains: what happened to the TE? After all, logic would suggest that TE should have been next in the progression of names, but supposedly the schoolboy-humor connotation of "tee-hee" ruled that out straightaway. From there, it was, of course, a simple step up the alphabet to arrive at the TF title, which was immediately adopted.

1955 MG TF 1500
The 1955 MG TF 1500 featured 63 horsepower
and independent front suspension.

Along the way, gradually and without fanfare, Midgets grew longer, wider, and heavier. Engines, meanwhile, were expanded and became more powerful: from 20 horsepower in the M-Type, to 63 horses in the last of the TF 1500s. Independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering arrived in 1950, but almost every other Midget feature remained traditional.

MG originally was owned by William Morris (later Lord Nuffield), who had founded the marque bearing his name in 1913. In 1935, MG -- which stood for Morris Garages -- was sold into the Nuffield Organization. The T-Series was the first of the rationalized models following that corporate change.

Earlier Midgets had featured high-revving, overhead-cam engines and gearboxes without synchromesh, but the TA ditched such traditions. It ran instead with a conventional, less sophisticated overhead-valve engine, but adopted the smoother-shifting synchromesh for the gearbox. Enthusiasts who delighted in exhibiting their driving skills via double-declutching were horrified. Progress, they complained loudly, was something they could do without.

Describing the TF's layout is simple enough, but digging out the origins of the running gear takes a little longer. The bodyshell was modified TD in detail, but 1930s-shape in styling. The four-cylinder engine had its roots in a late-Thirties Morris sedan, while the chassis and suspension were derived from a postwar MG sedan, which was itself derived from a 1939 Morris. Who said that only Detroit went in for such complex mix-and-match, off-the-shelf operations?

1955 MG TF 1500 interior
The interior of the 1955 MG TF 1500 was little
changed from previous models.

Basically, therefore, the TF featured a separate box-section chassis frame with coil-spring independent front suspension. The overall layout stemmed from the MG YA sedan of 1947, which had been designed before World War II. The front suspension itself, little changed, would be used on the MGA and MGB until the end of MGB assembly in late 1980.

The TF's bodyshell was little more than that of the TD wearing a different nose and tail, the facelift having taken place in a very "fast-and-dirty" operation in 1953. The engine, familiarly known as XPAG in the original TF, was an old favorite at Abingdon, for it was a tuned-up Morris unit that the TB had used as long ago as 1939, and there had been little change since then.

Many design elements, such as the sloping front grille and the handsome semi-integrated headlamps, were new to the TF -- but they made the styling no more modern than, say, a '37 Ford. In any case, the new lines hid a chassis that was deeply traditional even by MG standards. Worse, the aerodynamic qualities of the upright shell were truly awful, which explains the very limited top speed and the (relatively) poor fuel mileage achieved by most owners.

On the next page, find out about the 1945-1949 MG TC, which led to the MG TF.

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The 1945-1949 MG TC was the first MG model to cross the pond and come to America. Until the late Forties, American sports car enthusiasts knew little of the MG, in good part because the firm had completely ignored the North American market before World War II. Production of Midgets, in any case, was tiny -- about 1000 units a year was normal -- and the few cars that went for export were most often sent to Britain's loyal "Empire" territories. The very first Midget to receive left-hand-steering wasn't sold until 1950.

1955 MG TF 1500
Though a British-made car, the 1955 MG TF 1500
was primarily sold in America.

It was during World War II that United States servicemen stationed in England discovered the Midget. Legend has it that U.S. Air Force pilots saw their opposite numbers -- Britain's fly-boys -- scudding abound the countryside in noisy little British sports cars.

Fascinated, the U.S. officers tried the little cars for themselves, and were incurably smitten. In almost every book, play, and film of that period, the same scenes, it seems, were always acted out: Dashing officer meets and dates girl, rushes her out to dinner or drinks in his MG sports car, proposes marriage, and flies off happily into the sunset.

After the war, some servicemen took Midgets back home to the States, setting up a demand for more of the captivating sports cars. At the same time, Britain's "export or die" policy during the rebuilding period after the war also encouraged (practically forced) MG to seek out the booming U.S. market in order to bring home precious Yankee dollars. Thus, exports of right-hand-drive TC Midgets to the U.S. began in 1948. Even though a mere 2,001 crossed the Atlantic in two years, MG management liked what it saw, and endeavored to make the next Midget, the TD, more suitable and appealing to American buyers.

The 1945-1949 MG TC -- a throwback to the TB of 1939, and even the TA of 1936 -- was a real anachronism. For example, its flimsy chassis employed beam axles at both ends. The ride was rock-hard, the tread exceedingly narrow, but with direct high-ratio steering and the high-revving XPAG engine, the TC provided plenty of driving excitement.

Partly because there was still an acute shortage of new cars in the U.S. in the late Forties, TCs sold well, but MG's designers knew they would have to do better when money became available to update the car. Casting about for a new chassis, they looked again at the MG YA sedan (which they had not yet actually fully developed), saw that this car's independent front suspension was a great advance, and engineered a new frame to support it.

MG, meantime, was happy to let everyone know that the new independent front suspension had been shaped at Morris Motors by an ambitious young engineer named Alee Issigonis. He wasn't famous at the time, but in a few years all that would change, and his best-known achievement would be the Austin/Morris Mini (which is still in production!).

1955 MG TF 1500
The 1955 MG TF 1500 was the last model
with this bodyshell.

Once the new chassis had been drawn up, the rest of the car followed in a rush. The TC's engine, transmission, and back axle were all called to serve again, a wider and altogether squatter version of the wood-framed bodyshell was produced, and the TD was ready to go on sale for 1950.

Despite the fact that it was still only an 80-mph car, the public loved what it saw, even though the TD rode on disc wheels instead of the traditional wire-spokes. TC production had peaked at 3,085 cars in calendar-year 1948, but in 1952 MG built no fewer than 10,838 TDs. It was no coincidence that most of these cars had left-hand drive, and that the bulk of them were shipped across the Atlantic to the United States.

Although the XPAG engine could be tuned to give a great deal of power for its size, truth to tell was that the TD had such an awful shape that it was never very successful on the race track. For gymkhanas or open-road touring, and for beating up Detroit iron on twisty mountain roads, a TD was fine, but almost any slippery-shaped sports car could show it a clean pair of taillamps at higher speeds.

On the next page, find out more about the 1951 MG TD.

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The 1951 MG TD eventually gave way to the TF, after sales flagged. But designers made do without the capital to give it a facelift for as long as they could.

1954 MG TF
The 1954 MG TF was eventually modeled
from the MG TD.

Although MG designers, led by Syd Enever, had produced a specially shaped TD for Autosport photographer George Phillips to drive in the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, they never got permission to put it on sale. This was a pity, as it was a very smart-looking car, and the true forerunner of the MGA.

A year later, Enever went one better with Project EX175, matching a modified version of that sleek envelope bodyshell to a brand-new frame, which allowed driver and passenger to be seated much lower. This was powered out of necessity by TD running gear. Although one step closer to the MGA, it was still three long years away from acceptance by corporate management.

In the meantime, MG's owner, the Nuffield Organization, had merged with Austin. The newly formed firm was called the British Motor Corporation (BMC), and Austin's Len Lord became the master of the group. MG officials tried to get approval to build the streamlined EX175, but were rebuffed in favor of the Austin A90-engined Healey project, which resulted in the sensational Austin-Healey 100. Because money was diverted to the Healey project, there wasn't enough left to develop an all-new MG.

By this time, TD sales were flagging. Even though no capital was being made available, MG General Manager John Thornley and his team were still desperately searching for a new model. Triumph, after all, had revealed its new TR2 sports car. Costing very little more than a TD, it boasted 90 horsepower and an impressive 105-mph top speed. To even begin to match it, the old TD needed a serious facelift.

During two weeks of May 1953, Enever, Cecil Cousins, and two other engineers built a prototype -- later to become the TF -- without making a single drawing, and without conducting a single test! As Cousins was quoted in an interview in later life, "We got hold of a TD and said: 'All we have to do is to lean the radiator back a bit, then...'"

Starting with a stock TD, the small crew in those two short weeks gave the car a sleeker nose and a more graceful tail to match. The radiator was sloped back, the bonnet (hood) line was inclined downward 3.5 inches to meet it, headlamps were partially faired-in, and the front fender profile was modified.

At the rear, the exposed fuel tank and the spare wheel carrier were made more rakish, the rear fenders sported a shapelier flare to match, and the interior was revamped as well. As on the TD that was about to be replaced, the bodyshell was built up in the old-fashioned way over a wooden skeleton. The net result of the changes was a car that was two-inches longer, one-inch wider because of the more flamboyant fenders, and about a half-inch lower due to a revised top and top-iron shapes.

For the first time on a T-Series sports car, separate, individually adjustable front seats were fitted (the common backrest of previous models was discarded), and the new instrument panel featured handsome octagonal-shaped instruments. Curiously, they were now mounted in the center of the dash, making them more difficult to read than in the TD, where the speedometer and tach faced the driver.

And stranger still, there was still no fuel gauge. Windshield wipers were cowl-mounted, much safer than placing the wiper motors atop the windshield frame as before, where they could be struck by an occupant's head. The most important visual change to purists was that the TD's steel disc wheels could be -- and often were -- replaced by the much sportier center-lock wire-spoke wheels.

One retrograde design detail that mechanics probably cursed was the arrangement for getting to the engine. For the first time, the hood side panels were fixed, so access to the engine bay was somewhat limited. The use of pancake air cleaners was one result of this change, and although engine noise hardly topped the list of MG's problem areas, it's a fact that intake noise was more pronounced in the TF than in the TD.

Development? There wasn't any! John Thornley drove the prototype for the first time on May 12, 1953, and gave the go-ahead at once. Over the next several months, the Morris Bodies Branch factory in Coventry, which built every Midget shell, produced the needed new panels and press tools.

Their job was made easier because the center section of the new bodyshell -- cowl, doors, and rear corners -- were virtually unchanged. Just to prove that every finalized part would fit together properly, another prototype was assembled in August 1953, and series production followed closely behind in September.

On the next page, learn more about the 1954 MG TF, and view pictures of the car that received only a "friendly" reception.

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The 1954 MG TF received a friendly reception when it was introduced, but no one -- neither media man nor customer -- ever went into raptures over the performance. If looked at as a more highly developed TD, then the TF was acceptable, but it wasn't the new MG that most enthusiasts had been awaiting. This, incidentally, didn't surprise or dismay MG's managers because they agreed with every sentiment, although they were, of course, very discreet about the comments they made in public.

1954MG TF Roadster
The 1954 MG TF Roadster looked more graceful
than the TD it replaced.

The fact was that the TF, priced in the U.S. at $2,250, was no longer a performance bargain. It might have looked more graceful than the TD it replaced, but it was no faster, and it was a bit less economical at that. The new TR2, which could honestly claim a top speed nearly 25 mph faster than the TF, sold for very similar money, and offered more space, more modern full-width styling, and threw a sizable luggage locker into the deal as well.

No matter, the British seemed to like the TF. The Autocar magazine stated that it "has been restyled to produce a much cleaner external appearance though retaining the MG Midget characteristics," while The Motor opined that "the MG Midget open sports 2-seater has been very much improved for 1954."

1954 MG TF Roadster
The 1954 MG TF Roadster was actually little
more than the TD warmed over.

Opinion-makers in the U.S., however, were particularly scathing. Perhaps because of that, sales began to dry up after the first rush of customers had been satisfied -- those who will always buy a new model, even before knowing whether or not it's better than the old.

Mechanix Illustrated road tester Tom McCahill's famous retort, "Mrs. Casey's dead cat, slightly warmed over," was joined by Road & Track's more sober judgement: "The new TF is an anomaly, a retrogression. ..." Even so, R&T admitted that "the fact remains that the entire staff of R&T vied with each other to produce the best reason for using the MG."

1954 MG TF Roadster
The 1954 MG TF Roadster was less popular
in the U.S. than in Britain.

So it wasn't that the TF was a bad car. It was actually a good car, well-built and thoughtfully equipped by the standards of the Thirties -- but not the Fifties. Not even the return of wire wheels, and all those wonderful octagonal touches, could save it. If, like the Morgans that followed in the Sixties, a lot more horsepower had been available, sheer brute acceleration might have made up for the lack of top speed, but with only 76.3 cid/1.25 liters and 57 horsepower up front, there was no chance of that.

On the next page, learn about the engine that powered the MG.

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The 1954-1955 MG XPEG engine was an enlarged version of the dear old XPAG engine. For MG's managers, this was the one last despairing effort. With a new cylinder block plus an extra 5.5 mm/0.22 inches in the bores, it displaced 1466 cc/89.5 cid. Having already been run on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in MG record cars, like the EX179, the little four-banger was easy enough to tune for everyday use.

1955 MG TF 1500 engine
The 1955 MG TF 1500 engine only marginally
improved performance.

MG engineers must have known that this engine could only serve as a stopgap, and would only be able to keep the TF on life-support for a limited period. Even though the XPEG engine was 17 percent larger than the XPAG, it developed only 10 percent more horsepower and 17 percent more torque. Such were the TF's barn-door aerodynamics that top speed rose by a mere five miles per hour.

XPEG engines became available in the autumn of 1954. The first up-engined cars, installed in what was called the TF 1500 and badged as such on the engine bay covers, were produced in November of that year. Once the pipeline had been cleared of TF 1250s (as they retrospectively became known), the TF 1500 took over completely, and until the last examples were built in May 1955, the vast majority were exported to the U.S. Compared with the original TFs, the 1500s were sold at the bargain price of $1,995.

Amazingly, the British public was never told about the existence of the TF 1500, and no press advertisements ever appeared. In the end, just 144 TF 1500s were delivered to British owners when new, though many more of the 3,400 copies built have found their way back to the UK in recent years.

As already noted, acceleration (or lack thereof) was the major weak point of the TF. Road & Track tested both the 1250 and the 1500 versions, obtaining a 0-60 time of 18.9 seconds for the former, 16.3 for the latter. That put it about on par with a six-cylinder Ford with Ford-O-Matic, although the dedicated TF driver had more fun getting there.

1955 MG TF 1500 engine
The 1955 MG TF 1500 engine was upgraded as
a stopgap before the whole car was redesigned.

Despite the low curb weight of just under 2,000 pounds, the 63 net horsepower of the TF 1500 just wasn't enough to keep pace with other cars of the mid-Fifties, even with what Americans considered economy cars. What the TF needed was a good two-liter engine like the TR2, whose 90 horses could scoot it to 60 mph in just 12.5 seconds. Still, with the top down and the driver involved with rowing the gearbox, the TF felt faster than it was, and the handling made up for a lot.

Even five months before the TF 1500 went on sale, MG had finally convinced the bosses at BMC that a new model was desperately needed. Once again, the smooth shape of EX175 was offered for approval, and this time it was accepted, with the proviso that it be powered by BMC's new B-Series engine and transmission units.

Thus it was that the MGA was finally born. When it went on sale in the fall of 1955, MG buyers were ecstatic, and Abingdon production would soon be booming as never before. But don't sell the TF short. Not only had it served its purpose of buying time for MG, but to many eyes it is the most beautiful MG ever built.

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The 1954-1955 MG TF was a much-appreciated facelift of the aging TD. Find production numbers for 1954-1955 MG TF in the following chart.

1954-1955 MG TF: Production
Model Production
1953 TF 1250
1954 TF 1250
1954 TF 1500
1955 TF 1500
Total TF 1250
Total TF 1500
Total TF-Series
Total TF-Series, U.S. Models

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