Is it time to love the MGF?
Pity the MGF. Launched in the shadow of the MX5, it was always the drop top sports car that you shouldn't buy.
And yet, in a manner repeated years later in a vote about Europe, The People didn't listen and the MGF outsold the Mazda in the U.K.. They thumbed their collective noses at the media and made it easily the UK's most popular convertible. Buyers loved it despite its high price and shonky reliability because it was a blue-blooded British sports car - and a MG to boot.
That popularity, however, became its Achilles Heel. The MGF had a fatal flaw - it ate head gaskets for lunch - and as a used buy supply massively exceeded demand.
A Mixed Legacy
Today, over 20 years since those first MGFs hit the road, the car has a slightly mixed legacy. There are a lot about, they're not quite classics yet and the image is an odd mix, a sort of tweedy hairdresser in a flat cap. And yet, I think the MGF is a sure-fire future classic.
Rover had been playing around with reintroducing a sports car since the 1980s, but with no great conviction. In 1989, when Vickers bought the company, that changed, helped in part by the success of the F's nemesis, the MX5. From then on development of a 2 seater sports car picked up pace and the MGF was launched in early 1995.
The new car was made possible by incorporating a lot of parts from other cars, including the Metro and Rover 200. But it was still, on paper, a revelation - mid-engined and rear drive with a punchy 1.8 litre engine. It looked good too, managing to make a nod to Heritage without becoming its slave.
But from the driver's seat the impression was less positive. The steering was ultra light, with very little feel, the Hydagas suspension was too soft and slow for press-on driving and the interior, well, it fell apart quite a lot.
This only seemed to matter to journalists. In the mid 90s British buyers still had a residual 'buy British' bias and they liked the F's relative comfort and luxury compared to the Mazda. They didn't like the head gaskets made of cheese, though. Poor production techniques and cost-cutting meant that head gasket failure was a 'when' not 'if' time bomb affecting early cars. MG Rover took three years to identify the problem but even later cars suffered.
Along with MX5s of the same period, F's also rust. A lot. Tatty MGs quickly became a common sight beside busy roads, their roofs ripped and tyres deflated.
And yet the MGF's fundamental strengths saw it remain in production until the company's collapse in 2005. Gradual but minor tweaks - and a new name - kept it vaguely relevant to buyers. These also saw it relaunched when MG was reborn under Chinese ownership. There's a strong argument to be made that the F's success enabled the brand to live on and evolve into the current range of mainstream models.
The MGF is currently in that dark no-man's-land between banger and classic. My own low mileage F cost £600 a few years ago.
The sheer volume of cars flooding the second hand market pushed down values, making costly head gasket repairs uneconomical for used buyers and giving the MGF a risky reputation.
But that appears to be starting to change. With the earliest MGFs now over 20 years old values for good cars are beginning to rise - £1,500 is now about as cheap as they get. A few dealers are even chancing their luck asking £5,000 or more for low mileage cars in desirable specifications - that's usually an early sign that the market is turning in a car's favour.
Attracted by the low prices, most buyers end up swayed by the car's character and abilities.
This has to be good news for anyone after a cheap, fun, modern classic. Because the F really is fun - with the head gasket sorted it's easy to live with, easy to drive and as reliable as any other mass-produced mid-90s car.
As rough cars fall by the wayside, MGFs will become scarcer and good cars more sought after. I wouldn't be surprised if, in a few years time, the MGF occupies a similar place in a our hearts to the MGB. It's certainly a much better car.
Buying a MGF
MGF's are plentiful and cheap - you can still get your pick up of cars for under £2,000. But there are a few things to watch out for. With prices so low it doesn't make any sense not to buy the best you can find.
Here is a very simple guide to buying a MGF - it's not comprehensive but will help you avoid the obvious pitfalls.
1. Don't buy any MGF unless you've got proof that the head gasket has been replaced with the later, stronger gasket set. Don't take the seller's word for it - insist on paperwork
2. MGF's rot. And rot. Check the rear arches and sills for evidence of rust or, more likely, cheap repairs. Walk away if it's rotten or has been bodged
3. Hydragas cars are prone to sagging, which indicates the system is tired or needs regassed. Regassing is an easy and cheap procedure, but cost this into your purchase
4. Interiors are very poor quality - parts are cheap but with prices so low it doesn't make sense not to buy the best you can.
5. Check the roof mechanism carefully - it's a very good and generally robust system but the material tears and the rear screens mist. Again, either haggle the price or walk away - a replacement hood will likely be the cost of the car
6. The gearbox linkage is notoriously weak - a slack, woolly change indicates there is a problem. Walk away
7. Many MGFs will by now be little-used summer cars. They're cheap cars so likely sit outside unloved during the winter. So check the length of the MOT and don't buy one without a long or full ticket. Emissions issues, catalyser problems and rot can get expensive.
8. Check the specification - in a bid to shift units MG created many different specifications and limited editions. Series 2 cars (identifiable by smoked front indicators) are generally better built and specified. VVC cars are the most desirable and certain specials like the Wedgewood attract premiums
Summary: the MGF is still a cheap, plentiful car. It's also a popular weekend car. And that mix of low cost (and therefore low investment) plus limited use can be a toxic combination. Try to find a cosseted car in the right colour and trim specification, check the head gasket history and spend as much as you can (but avoid the £5,000 showroom queens).