Pity the poor MGF. It spends years in development hell somewhere in the depths of Longbridge as Austin Rover umms and aahs over what to do and then, finally, when it sees the light of day Mazda has already stolen its thunder. It still manages to outsell the MX5 yet all anyone talks about, to this day, is how the MX5 is a proper sports car and the MGF isn’t as good.
2015 is, remarkably, the 20th anniversary of the MGF’s launch, itself 6 years after the MX5 arrived. In 1995 what nobody actually expected was for MG to rise like a Phoenix from the flames. MG had been killed off in 1980 (the decision to end production was announced the day after the company’s 60th anniversary) with the brand consigned to high performance versions of Austin Rover’s humdrum models.
The launch of the MGF was both surprising and odd. Rover was as usual struggling, despite BMW ownership, and investing in a low volume, relatively complex sports car hardly seemed a priority over rejuvenating the company’s lacklustre mainstream models. And yet the MGF hit the spot. Whereas previous MGs had been relatively simple, almost rudimentary cars more sporting than sports car, the F was the real deal. Mid engined, propelled by a decently swift motor and neatly styled, the new MG was almost alarmingly good compared to some of Rover’s contemporary offerings. The car was also fairly well screwed together and, while not cheap, it wasn’t daftly priced.
All of which explains why the MGF sold well. The steering may have been too light, the gearchange a bit porridgy, the chassis may have had more Metro origins than dealers would care to admit, but the car was easy to own and fairly practical. It was also fun to drive, neat-handling and swift. What it wasn’t sadly, was very reliable. The K-Series engine is one of Rover’s better efforts, and it has proper sporting credentials from powering the Lotus Elise, but the one thing it isn’t, at least in the MGF, is dependable. The MGF’s Achillies heel is its head gasket, thanks in part to its mid-engine layout which restricts cooling and therefore causes overheating.
So 20 years on, where has all this left the MGF? The car has a loyal, enthusiastic following but so far it has failed to ignite the wider world like the MGB. Or, indeed, the MX5. While the miniature Mazda has proved a hit with the young as well as the old, the MGF has drifted into a more amorphous zone, a cheap weekend-stroke-second car popular with couples. Mostly this seems to be a consequence of its woeful reliability: buying a MGF is certainly a risky prospect, it’s not so much a question of if as when. Which at least has one advantage: the F is cheap as chips. You can get into a road legal F for a few hundred pounds. And I do really mean A Few.
It may seem odd, then, that we have two MGFs on the fleet and just one MX5. If all I’ve said is true, who would hire one? As it turns out, quite a lot of people. Today, 20 years on, the F may not be an ideal purchase but it is a good car to hire. Everything that made it good when new still applies: it’s quick, comfortable and practical. It’s also engaging and characterful to drive. I owned a mk1 MX5 for a couple of years: it handles much better, changes gear better, perhaps even looks better. And it has none of the F’s reliability woes. But for me it lacked character: it felt like driving a very good washing machine. The F isn’t like that. The MG is fun, it doesn’t flatter the foolhardly like the MX5 and it’s comfortable to drive over any distance, unlike the MX5.
It may take a while for the F to be seen as a worthy successor to the B but let’s hope that day does come. Because the F is, whisper it, much better than a B: sure, you say, it was designed 30 years after the B, of course it is. But it’s more than that: the F does the job it was designed for better than its predecessor.
You can discover the F at our Midlands or Peak District sites from £160 for the weekend. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk. Mention this blog and claim 10% off.