“It is an exhilarating and predictable car to drive, with a performance that invites one to drive it hard – and to go on driving it.
It has many of the intangible qualities that make a sports car what it is, not least of which is a natural charm that continually increases one’s affection for it.” Autocar, 8th November 1963.
By the mid-1950s the major players in the British Car industry had turned relatively small volume car manufacture into something of an art form; have a Supermarket Sweep style dash through the parts stores grabbing a selection of components intended to serve in more mundane vehicles (zero development and tooling costs there then) and hang these off a bespoke chassis and body designed to appeal to the sporting enthusiast. Having done just this with the 100/4 and 100/6, Austin Healey, encouraged by BMC’s boss Leonard Lord, turned their hand to a ‘little’ Healey, and the Sprite was born; an open two seater with a fairly rudimentary folding roof and just enough space for a week’s worth of luggage, assuming you were on good terms with your traveling companion. In this case the chassis and body became one, a rigid unitary construction platform composed of mostly flat panels manufactured by John Thompson Motor Pressings in Wolverhampton. Onto this Pressed Steel in Swindon mounted a virtually unstressed outer skin, the rear section being permanently attached while the front hinged upwards to reveal the engine and front suspension. The off the shelf parts were for the most part Austin A35 (suspension, front brakes, back axle, ubiquitous A Series engine and gearbox) while Morris contributed the steering rack from their Minor. All this served to keep costs to a minimum and the Sprite’s launch price of £455 plus tax made it cheaper even than a Lotus 7, which not only had very few components but the buyer was expected to screw them together too.
Launched in 1958, by 1960 sales of the Sprite were tailing off and it was thought that a face lift (an apt term given the Healey’s styling) was required though with the benefit of hindsight, the downturn might have had more to do with the market in general than anything inherently wrong with the car. Having said that, some adverse comments regarding the lack of an opening boot and the ‘afterthought’ headlights perched on the bonnet may have had some influence too. Coincidentally at that time MG were looking for a ‘starter’ model to sit below the MGA and having been up the Mini derived blind alley coded EX220/ADO34, the glaringly obvious solution was to offer an MG version of the Sprite, giving BMC two bites at the small sports car cherry. It was a strategy that was doubly sensible given the Sprite was already a cuckoo in MG’s Abingdon factory nest. A few luxury touches such as vertical grill slats, external trim strips, a plusher interior and more detailed Jaeger instruments (ironically still made by Smiths who provided dials for the Sprite variant) justified a £30 higher retail price and served to differentiate the Midget from its Sprite twin, keeping both sets of brand-loyal customers happy.
Famously Sydney Enever’s MG design team were set to work on the rear of the ‘Spridget’ while the Healey boys tackled the front. As Geoffrey Healey himself so eloquently put it in his definitive work, “More Healeys: Frog-eyes, Sprites and Midgets”, “His design might not have agreed with ours.” Indeed… Sensibly Healey and Enever ducked the corporate red tape and the designs joined up, literally. To be fair to BMC, in the MK 1 Sprite the quarter elliptic rear springs fed all their forces into the bulkhead and the boot floor was only there to keep your luggage off the road. Semi elliptic springs were always planned for the MG so a redesigned rear end was necessary and it made sense for MG to come up with it. Up front a more easily opened bonnet with conventional headlights and wings was the brief, even if the original car’s legendary engine and front suspension accessibility was then compromised.
With the styling finalised by the summer of 1960, in August ‘Frog-eye’ Sprite “body” number 45355 was diverted from John Thompson Motor Pressings and united with the first new style outer panels. It is not known if these were produced on the new tooling at Pressed Steel or hand-made but today the car exhibits a number of fabricated panels that were later productionised. Some of the features unique to GAN 101 are shown in the photo gallery:
The first Factory ‘Development Car’, as they referred to it, was completed on 17th August and given Chassis Number GAN 101 which was stamped onto a cut-down MGA Chassis (body in MG parlance) Plate.
Production cars started at GAN1 101 which can be decoded as follows:
G - MG
A - Small engine under 1,200cc
N - Open 2 seater
1 - 1st model in the series with GAN2 being the later MK 1 with the 1100 engine and disc brakes, GAN3 the MK2 and so on. The development team apparently omitted the 1 from the model identification section of the chassis number as the car was not a 'Series Production' machine. Interestingly Denis Wharf of the MGCC Midget Register tells us the Development guys enjoyed picking obscure chassis numbers with the prototype B GTV8s having numbers continuing on from 251 – MG’s telephone number at the time.
Turning to the engine, this carries the number 9CG/U/H 101 which tallies with the copy of the continuation ‘buff’ log book on file and breaks down thus:
9CG - Later, improved 948cc engine, (stronger crankshaft, double valve springs, larger carburettors etc.) as fitted from the start of Midget and MK2 Sprite production.
U - Centre-change gearbox. This was standard fitment on Frog-eye Sprites whereas all Midgets and MK2 Sprites had close ratio 'boxes which would be identified by DA in this section of the engine number.
H - High compression engine option.
With Frog-eye Sprites being fitted with ‘9C’ engines (a whole 3 BHP down on the later version) this is clearly not a stock 1960 production unit. Doubtless BMC had been developing the Sprite engine since 1958 in anticipation of updated models and it seems this is more than likely the first ‘9CG’ example built. Given its ‘101’ number it was clearly destined for this car, especially as on production machines the engine and chassis numbers do not normally match.
The first of a handful of pre-production machines, GAN 101 was retained at the Factory, possibly being used as a mobile test bed and for publicity photographs and the like until the MG Midget was launched in the early summer of 1961. On 26th July it was registered YMO 307 (a Berkshire number consistent with Abingdon being in that county at the time) and sold, quite possibly to an employee of the company – development cars and the general public often not being a particularly good mix.
The copy of the continuation log book shows that by 1973 it was owned by a Mr Brian Lambie of Hinkley Road, Stoke Golding, Nuneaton though it is not known if he was aware of its significance. In the car file there are two photos which look to date from the 1960s or 1970s but we can’t be sure in whose ownership the MG was at the times they were taken. In 1977 it passed to a Mr Arthur Bell who had no concept of the Midget’s significance which only came to light when he was buying some parts for it; the dealer cross referenced the Chassis Number and found it was outside the range for production cars. Having effectively been ‘hiding in plain sight’ GAN 101 quickly became known to the wider Spridget community.
Thanks to Mr Malcolm Bell, son of Arthur, for getting in touch having seen the MG in Classic and Sports Car magazine. He and Mrs Bell have been able to confirm that Arthur went by his middle name of James and that he and Brian Lambie were work colleagues and friends. When the Midget changed hands it was in poor condition, stored in a barn and the transaction was concluded for the princely sum of £20; Malcolm recalls the MG being tipped onto its side while a new floor-pan was welded in. Once repaired and spruced up, the Bells used the Midget extensively when they lived in Nuneaton and later when they moved to Wakefield. On September 11th 1979 (the day the Bell family moved house) Mrs Bell drove the Midget from Wakefield to Driffield and this seems to be the last time the MG was on the road. Thanks to the Bells we can confirm the photos show Jim working on the car in Wakefield and Mrs Bell with James’ mother proudly standing by the Midget in Driffield. We can’t help thinking it would be nice to reunite Mrs Bell with the MG once it has been restored.
The current MG enthusiast owner bought the Midget, by then needing full restoration, from Mr Bell in February 2009 and photos of the car then are shown in the gallery. The intended restoration was commenced but the owner only got as far as stripping the MG before he was offered a job running a restoration company in Australia and it was tucked away in a poly-tunnel at his parents’ house in 2010 where it remained untouched until he returned to the UK and we liberated it with him a few months ago.
We won’t dwell on the condition of the Midget, much less the driving experience, but suffice to say it requires a full restoration. Though now stripped, it arrived at its current resting place looking fairly complete and on its wheels while the owner has made a start collecting new body panels. The photo gallery shows just a selection of the components that have been removed from the shell but if you have any questions about specific items, do please contact us via the tab above or by phone.
The history file with the car contains the current V5C in the owner’s name, a couple of copies of previous V5s and a copy of the continuation ‘buff’ log book along with the photos previously mentioned. There is also some correspondence from British Leyland and MG to Mr Bell regarding the potential sale of the Midget to them though this ultimately came to nothing. The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust Certificate is also present along with a disc of photographs taken when the current owner collected the MG from Mr Bell. A slightly scruffy Owners Handbook accompanies a well-used Workshop Manual, parts catalogue and selection of magazine articles.
With 2021 celebrating the Sixtieth Anniversary of the MG Midget, there surely couldn’t be a better time to acquire this, the very first example.