Images: Deepanjan Sarkar
The introduction of the post-war MG Magnette series is an interesting one. BMC was newly formed in 1952 after the merger of the Nuffield and Austin groups and the Managing Director of this new organisation, Leonard Lord, initially wanted to kill off the Morris group marks—namely, Wolseley, Riley, MG and Morris.
But the expenses involved in doing this and the expected public outrage made him (thankfully) decide otherwise. Instead, what he came up with was a very clever idea of ‘badge engineering’. His plan was to use the same basic underpinnings across a few brands but make them distinct enough to retain their individual identities. Thus was born 2 types of saloons: a mid-sized Wolseley (4/44) and an MG saloon which resembled each other, and another set of much larger saloons, this time a Riley (Pathfinder) and a Wolseley (6/90).
The Wolseley 4/44 was to be the more luxurious of the two mid-sized saloons and debuted in 1952, a year before the MG. The MG was chosen to be the more sporting saloon and was intentionally launched a year later so that it could benefit from BMC’s newly developed 1500 cc B-series engine whereas the Wolseley was fitted with the old XPAG engine, a 1200cc unit from the earlier MG Y series. But that wasn’t the only difference between the siblings.
The new MG sports saloon, christened the MG ZA Magnette, featured twin SU carburetors, a newly developed floor shift gear change (the Wolseley made do with a column change), a body lowered by 2 inches, rack and pinion steering and different suspension and shock absorber settings for sportier handling. Another notable feature was its monocoque construction, shared with the Wolseley, a first for the MG brand.
All these changes made the MG Magnette a very different car from its sister Wolseley. The MG had 60 bhp on tap and could hit a top speed of 80 mph with brisk acceleration. The car’s road manners were excellent and it indeed was a sports saloon. By the start of manufacture, the only body panels shared between the MG and the Wolseley were the roof, front doors and boot lid. This along with the reduced ride height, gave the MG saloon a more sporting appearance.
Not that the BMC skimped with some luxury in the Magnette—the interiors were leather trimmed, the dash and door caps were of wood, a heater was standard, as was a centre armrest between the rear bench. The Magnette was a very comfortable and fast saloon blessed with superb handling. When the Magnette ZA was launched in 1953, initial public reception was lukewarm as the styling was a complete departure from the distinctive MG designs seen upto then. However, all the good characteristics of this new car started gaining favour and the Magnette soon became a sales success!
The MG Magnette featured today is a 1955 ZA which has spent most of its life in Calcutta (Kolkata). I knew this particular car as Mrs. Misra’s, who happened to be a school teacher of mine from way back! The MG would be seen everywhere, as it was her daily car, chauffeured by her faithful driver. I believe Mrs. Misra inherited the car from her father who bought it in 1968 from a Mr. Mill of Union Carbide, who was shifting back to the UK. The car had always been well maintained; it had to be, being Mrs. Misra’s daily car. The Magnette was also a regular participant at the annual Statesman Vintage & Classic Car Rally.
A few years back, Mrs. Misra called me over to her house to assess her beloved MG that had served her family so well, for decades. Everything seemed in good order. I later heard that the car was sold to a young man by the name of Darshan Sanghvi. Little did I know then that Darshan would become a close friend over the years!
The car couldn’t have gone to a better home than the Sanghvis. Darshan’s wife Bali and their twin sons, Vedant and Vivaan, are deeply fond of their delightful MG. Darshan drives the car as much as possible, regularly joining in for Sunday drives organised by the Classic Drivers Club (CDC), including driving on the highways as well as a couple of out-of-town jaunts.
Fortunately, I have ready access to the lovely MG and have driven her a few times. The car has a pleasing shape, sporty and elegant at the same time. The distinctive MG grille stands proud and upright while the back is sweeping and sleek. The interiors are very well trimmed with leather and lots of wood. Darshan has recently replaced the aftermarket Moto-Lita type steering wheel (which was an eyesore according to me) with a correct ZA steering wheel that he found in Canada.
And boy, it’s a beautiful steering wheel, typically large as was the fashion in the 1950s. The 1500 cc B-series engine is refined and quiet and responds well to throttle inputs. And yes, the handling is indeed great, as is the suspension. To sum up, the MG Magnette ZA is a fast, elegant and refined saloon, which can carry 4 passengers in great comfort.
Darshan’s MG has never really been restored as far as I know. Mrs. Misra would always keep it well serviced and Darshan has kept this up. The car must have had a few overcoats and an upholstery job in the past; possibly 10–15 years back being the last time it received an overcoat. Mechanically too, it has received only routine maintenance and replacement of worn out parts, nothing major. As a consequence, the car feels a little tired now and Darshan is aware of this which is why he intends to undertake a comprehensive restoration in the near future!
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