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.
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.
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.
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.
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.