Future classics

Future Classic: 2002–11 MGTF

by Andrew Frankel
14 December 2023 3 min read
Future Classic: 2002–11 MGTF
(MG Rover)

When it first appeared in 1995, the MGF was lionised by the world’s press in general and by the British media in particular. After years of nondescript product, undeserving of the octagonal badges they wore, here was a two-seat MG sports car whose lovely shape promised a driving experience in the finest traditions of the brand. It was a true successor to the spirit of the legendary MGB, but with its mid-mounted engine configuration, Rover’s genius little K-series motor providing the power, and innovative Hydragas suspension serving up unlikely ride quality, the MGF was more even than that. It was genuinely innovative, too.

Available as a standard car with 120bhp or with variable valve timing on the inlet camshaft to yield 145bhp, it may not sound massively powerful today, but you have to appreciate that expectations were somewhat lower back then, and that, with a kerb weight either side of 1100kg, a little power tended to go quite a long way. The ‘VVC’ was capable of a 7sec 0–62mph sprint, which was faster than any Mazda MX-5 of the era was capable of mustering. As was the MG’s 130mph top speed.

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It sold strongly but was denied access to the US market, where it could have flown. The reason? BMW was MG Rover’s parent company and had just launched the rather unremarkable Z3, and it didn’t want to be shown up by a mere MG in its most important overseas market. So even if it had been good enough, the MGF was never going to pose a serious threat to the dominance of the MX-5.

As it transpires, however, there was another problem, too. So keen had MG engineers been to ensure the car was as safe and secure as possible, despite its relatively short wheelbase and mid-mounted engine with its comparatively low polar moment of inertia, it had been set up very much on the side of caution. So, no, there were almost no circumstances in which you might lose the back end in anything that might be regarded as ‘normal use’, but the corollary of that was the handling was somewhat stodgy, a state not in the least improved by its standard electric power steering, which robbed the driver of that vital sense of connection to the car. So while it was a far better car than the MX-5 in most practical senses – it was more comfortable, more spacious, more practical and more refined – it appeared to miss the point that what actually mattered, what made the MX-5 the darling of all who drove one, was how much fun it was to drive.

MGTF front 3/4

It took a long time to fix, but fix it MG did. The TF was launched in 2002 as a thoroughly updated and upgraded version of the MGF. No midlife nip-and-tuck, this. Peter Stevens – the man who styled the McLaren F1 – was put in charge of sharpening up the car’s appearance, and few would deny what a superb job he did. There was a choice of 115, 135, or 160bhp engines for the car, but by far the greatest change was the abandonment of the Hydragas suspension for conventional coil springs and dampers.

MGTF K series engine
Rover K-series engine. (MG Rover)

It would be lovely to say this had been done to help provide that feel and connection to the road the MGF lacked, but the truth of the matter was that the Hydragas units were derived from those used by the Rover Metro, and when that went out of production, it was uneconomic to keep building its parts.

But they say necessity is the mother of invention and, regardless of the reason Hydragas got dumped, it worked. The MG TF was a far more taut, drivable, and entertaining car than its predecessor – perhaps even the car the MGF should have been all along.

MGTF 1.5 millionth
This TF, finished in Monogram Jubilee paintwork, was the 1.5 millionth MG produced. (MG Rover)

So it’s sad to think the reason for its demise had nothing to do with any inadequacy on its part, but that it slid into the history books alongside the rest of MG Rover in 2005. It did make a kind of a comeback in 2008 when MG’s new Chinese owners put a very lightly facelifted TF back into production at Longbridge, but it was a fairly half-hearted effort. Its hour had passed, and in 2011 the book slammed shut for the final time.

Today you’ll pay around £3000 for a clean, low miles MG TF with the popular 135bhp engine, which about the same as you’d pay for an MX-5 from the era, but less than a quarter of what you’d pay for a similarly old Lotus Elise powered by essentially the same engine. Of course, the Lotus has the looks, the brand, and a wildly better driving experience to its name, but for someone looking for a rather more user-friendly but still fast and fun British mid-engined two seater to take to the pub every so often, a well-chosen example of the now increasingly rare MG TF makes a strong case for itself, especially at such an enormous discount.

(MG Rover)

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  • Stan says:

    My 160 is a pleasure in all situations with its power and low weight making a quick yet economical car with mid engine stick to the road and it passes the uelz, with works hard top its snug and comfy even in winter. All at an affordable price

  • Ian Kennedy says:

    You’re portraying the Hydragas suspension in a negative light however we have a hugely successful business refurbishing and selling Hydragas units all over the UK and worldwide and fitting refurbished units to customers’ cars all over the UK. We have an agent in France who buys refurbished units from us and fits them to his customers’ cars in France. This year has been our busiest year ever with a record turnover. Therefore obviously the Hydragas suspension is not the bad thing you make it out to be and thousands of people want their MGF to have its original suspension working perfectly and don’t want coil springs, the same as our customers with other cars such as Metros, Allegros and Maxis. https://hahsltd.co.uk

  • Giles Thirsk says:

    Have a 160 TF and previously had a MK1 MX5. MG is quicker and a bit more pointy through the Twisties, but just doesn’t communicate through the steering wheel like Mazda’s hydraulic power steering.

  • Adrian Moran says:

    Had my TF for 3 years, and it’s never let me down. Makes the day to day commute a whole bundle of fun, no matter what the weather and that’s with the soft top.

  • N.williams says:

    My 2003 , 135 , cool blue , 31000.0
    Is still the best looking car out there
    She has been in the garage, every day , and night since I boughter in 2003
    W50RED , one pampered car !!!
    Unfortunately, I have to think about selling her , as we have 5 grandkids , we are running out of room , and there is no way the mgtf , is staying on the driveway , if anyone is interested in this beautie.
    Contact , red.williams@hotmail.co.uk

  • Tone Schofield says:

    I own an 03 plate TF135 and an 01 plate MGF. The slightly older MGF feels more responsive and agile, especially on tight bends, although my TF has a somewhat more solid feel about it. Since buying my TF more than a decade ago, it’s had two new head gaskets and quite a few upgrades, including some original red leather MG seats. Both cars are fun to drive and I hope to still own them when they’re rather more ‘classic’, although the TF has close to 100k on the clock.

  • Andrew Parker says:

    Agreed, I had a Hydragas MGF VVC and the ride / handling was supple and sublime. Over-firm suspension on UK backroads will just make the car skip and bounce rather than ride. I bought an MX5 afterwards and it was garbage.

  • Barrie Stirk says:

    I have two MG TF’s, a 135 ( BRG with cream Oxford leather and wood) and a 160 ( Trophy Blue). Both have a KMAP map. The 160 is certainly a fun car to drive over 5K revs when the VVC kicks in. I enjoy driving them due to the fact you can “drive them”. More fun than my 4 series BMW convertible, which is a lovely car, but it drive you. So easy to drive.

  • Pete Cotton says:

    I love my TF160 Monogram, I use it as much as possible, probably more than the daily car. It is sedate in town, bonkers outside when the vvc kicks in revving to 7500 rpm yet can still turn in 38 mpg driven sensibly. It’s been to Le Mans twice and many other places. Speedo should read smiles per hour!

  • Alex says:

    Ive had a 1999 1.8i mgf in tahiti blue for the past 6 years, she’s had several upgrades including cams and inlet manifold and 4 pot brakes amongst many more and she’s an absolute joy to drive and own. Planning to keep her for the rest of my driving years

  • Paul Carpenter says:

    Here in France a LHD TF can sell for €9-12k. Over the top perhaps but on these roads they are a perfect year round driver. No salt on the roads in the south so rust isn’t really an issue if you brought a RHD one over before the tin worm got to it.

  • Phil says:

    I owed a relatively new MGF VVC (Silver) with a lovely red leather interior, faux wood dash inserts & ivory coloured dials. I’ve got to be honest, while the suspension was compliant on British B-roads, the overall experience was poor. For me, a weak car, rust on the sills behind the front wheels, leaks after heavy rain, interior rattles which drove me insane, starter motor issues (if you know, you know) and to top it off…. plastic rear screen cracking/split all within 12 months of ownership. I resolved all the issues & promptly sold the car, luckily for me, I recovered all my funds with the sale. Fast forward 4 years & couple of cars later, I purchased an S2000 without any of the above issues which I still own to this day. My overall experience with the MGF VVC, not great & not a strong car in my experience.

  • Chris Nicholls says:

    I have owned 3 MGF’s and one TF over the last 15 years. Love them, great value for money and so underated by the motoring press and hence the public. Good for us owners as we get great cars for the money.
    Currently have a MGF Trophy 160 that has hydrogas suspension but it is stiffer than normal F’s so harder ride but great handling. Looks and goes great under 7 secs to 60 is quick even by today’s standards.
    Plan on keeping the car for as long as I can before we get forced into boring modern electric cars 🙁

  • lee gavin bridge says:

    I’ve had 6 TFs including a monogram one and 4 Fs. They are a fantastic way into classic motoring. Idiots moan about the head gasket issue but this is easily remedied by a number of mobile specialists. Rust is creeping in but nowhere near as bad as an MX5. Parts are cheap and plentiful and there is a hugely active owners scene.

  • Julian francis james says:

    Have had our 2001 MGF limited edition with front and rear spoilers for 20 years and its been a brilliant car,I will have to replace the rear window this year but might have to sell as my wife has back problems and no longer travels in it.

  • John says:

    I’m the guardian of a Y reg 2001 MGF in Old English White. Just a standard car with 44k on the clock. Had it 6 years. Just had the head gasket and a few other bits replaced by Rough Luck Racing (great service at reasonable price). Been to Italy, Scotland, the Lakes and all points in between. Very economical returning 50+ mpg on a journey, fun to drive and agree speedo should read Smiles. As long as I can get in and out I’ll keep it.

  • Panos Sampokilis says:

    I am a new MGF 1.8 owner, and I have only great things to say. I am the owner of TT/S3/Octavia 8N/8L/1U ,some stock and 2 with extreme tuning, and have changed more than 20 sportscars in my life. The feeling of the nibble yet perfectly balanced MGF reminds me of the joy of pure driving moments. I am considering to upgrade Hydragas to springs, but maybe not because it will spoil the feeling of the car. A true collectible, and a real MG, following the MG heritage, after driving an MGB for years!

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