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Living with Alison - Episode 8

Five Years On…

Malcolm Robertson muses about using his 1957 MG Magnette as a daily driver…

It is May 2011 as I write this, and I can't believe that it is now five years since Alison and I embarked on life together on the road, and eleven years since we met. It still seems like yesterday, and like any good love affair, we still enjoy each other's company enormously. Sure, we had a tough start during those first six years of the restoration when at various times both of us were ready to throw in the towel, but I guess we both saw merit in each other and so we stuck it out, finally coming together in some sort of leather and chrome bliss in early 2006.

Our ups and downs are chronicled in the earlier episodes of this series, and I know many of you have enjoyed reading these and hopefully have been helped along in your own restorations. In fact Alison and I were both chuffed earlier this year when we got an email from John Park in Ontario Canada who had just returned from that fantastic GT35 show in North America in 2010, winning the Magnette class with his own restoration. This is what he said:

"Its been a long time since I last "spoke" with you about my car and I just wanted to say thank you for your help over the past seven years or so which you've given either directly to me or through your various articles in different MG magazines or on Gunter's web site.

I also wanted to let you know that my car won its class at GT35 at Lake Delavan Resort in Delavan, Wisconsin this past July. We had 31 Magnettes from all over the US and Canada (probably about 85% of the licensed ones) along with two Wolseley 6/90s (the only two in North America) to honor Gerald Palmer and our guests, John and Lou Shorten.

It was great to have that many (never more than five at a time previously anywhere in NA) all at once and all at different stages of restoration or aging patina from new.

I know your name came up a few times as one who has given much needed assistance to those of us who undertook full scale restorations and I hope word did get back to you that your help was greatly appreciated. Your article in NA Classic MG magazine also featured prominently in the paper displays at the show as well in our efforts to "educate" the MGA types about 4 door MGs."

Thank you John, from both of us! And by way of response, for this episode, I thought I'd give you a bit of a recap on the whole love affair but focussing on the pleasures of driving your Magnette as an everyday car.

When I was an executive employed by a large organisation, we used to bandy around "management speak", those trendy platitudes invented by academics in university business schools, or perhaps by the management consultants in organisations like McKinsey and Company, to breathe new life into, or add an aura of mystique to what is essentially the commonsense practice of running an organisation. This was good for the academics who were able to add to their publications lists and gain peer recognition, and good for the consultants who were able to persuade newly-appointed chief executives to bring them in at vast expense to apply their mystique to their supposedly ailing businesses. However, it was bad for the businesses on the receiving end of all this insight as with each new chief executive and each new wave of management fads the essential activities of the business were stalled while wheels were re-invented and corporate memory shown the door. One day one of those academics will figure this out.

So, when I took my piece of corporate memory and left my large organisation to spend more time doing the things I love in life, including writing more regularly for the readership of classic car magazines, I handed in the keys to my modern corporate car and decided that if I was going to be writing about classic cars, then I should also drive a classic car. In other words, I should "walk the talk" as the management gurus would say.

I already had a reputation for driving classics anyway, but over the years these tended to be cars that suited me as an individual. Two seater MGs mostly which were all right for commuting but less helpful as a general purpose family vehicle for a "retiree" in the third stage of life. I needed something economical with four doors, a towbar for the trailer and the capability to be "modernised" enough to make the car safe for modern traffic conditions. By this I mean capable of taking retractable seat belts, some improvements to its power and braking and a handful of other modifications to make driving easier and more enjoyable while still retaining the essential classic character of the car. An MG Magnette seemed the logical answer.

The English cars of the 1950s are the cars of my youth in Australia, which is why I love them so much. And by the 1950s, the British motor industry was generally producing cars with the qualities we now need if we are going to drive them in modern traffic. Generally, but not always. Most have reasonable road-holding, their power to weight ratios are showing signs of being acceptable, they are easier to drive than older beam axle cars from the 30s and 40s, but they tend to miss out on seat belts, disc brakes and brake boosters, flashing turn indicators, synchro on first and one or two other features which are really essential for everyday driving. By the 1960s, classics will have most of these and by the 1970s you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a modern car. I don't know why everyone doesn't drive one - think of how the earth's environment would benefit if we weren't on this treadmill of needing new cars every year.

Of course, no classic will match a modern car for active and passive safety features, so if you really want a bakers dozen of airbags surrounding you and your loved ones, or some computer which will wrest control of the car out of your hands at the slightest sign that you are becoming errant, then I guess you will need that new car after all. But then again, have we not gone overboard with these innovations and are they not becoming more of a marketing gimmick than an essential requirement. Wouldn't we be better spending more time teaching people to drive more effectively?

But I'm digressing. The MG Magnette was a fine car when it was new, but by modern standards it missed out on the seat belt thing, a proven life saver, it lacks power although its performance could be described as adequate in standard form, it still has semaphore trafficators which are quaint and quirky if you only use the car occasionally but invisible to most modern drivers if you are on the road often. In common with many English cars of the period, it also lacks cruising capability, the long legs needed to eat up the miles on motorways or freeways without the engine screaming away when you are sitting on 70 mph. It desperately needs a fifth gear or overdrive.

So, to "walk the talk" I needed to bring the Magnette into the 21st century and as part of the restoration of Alison who I bought in 1999, modernisations were built into the work as I went along. I had actually started the restoration before I retired, but it took me another three years of almost full-time tinkering before the car was ready for the road. I've appended the majority of the modernisations in a separate list in this article and you will find details in the earlier episodes. Of these, the key ones which have transformed the car from a fun-to-drive classic "but I wouldn't want to tour France in it" into an exceptionally delightful everyday driver are an up-graded BMC B-Series engine from an MGB (this is the same engine essentially, but the Magnette had the very early low capacity version of this robust unit), a five speed all-synchro gearbox and a 3.9:1 final drive crown wheel and pinion set from a Wolseley 24/80.

Many Magnette owners agonise over the brakes and some go to great lengths to fit discs on the front and a servo unit, but quite frankly I find the original drums quite adequate. I guess I'm hoping my driving practice is such that I don't have to do too many emergency stops but from those that I have done, I can vouch that you can lock up the front wheels on a dry road if you really want to, so I'm not sure that I'll ever change the brakes. I think the real reason for trying to improve them, or make the pedal effort lighter, is for the benefit of those drivers who are in a modern car most of the time and then hop in the Magnette only occasionally. The difference in pedal feel would be huge, but if you drive the Magnette all the time, you soon adjust to the greater effort required for a given amount of retardation.

So having got Alison into shape, and with five years of driving now under my belt, how do we feel about walking the talk. Well, quite frankly, we both feel wonderful. Not only do I have a car that is practical for just about all my needs, I have one that is eye-catching and which drives beautifully. She is a pleasure to jump into and head off into the modern traffic flows. I find that I can accelerate as well, if not better, than many modern cars and can cruise all day at 70 mph with the engine turning at a very relaxed 3400 rpm instead of well over 5000 rpm in its original form when it had a 4.55:1 final drive and a four speed gearbox.

And from Alison's point of view, she loves being driven. Leave her sitting for too long and she gets quite cranky, but take her out every day and she responds by being both responsive and reliable. Since our first year on the road together which I summarised in episode 7, essentially a shaking down period, virtually nothing to speak of has gone wrong. I had a minor problem with the distributor when at about the same time both the baseplate and the clamp that holds the body in position worked loose and caused an intermittent missfire that took a while to locate and fix, and I'm now on a different set of brake linings as the first set caused the drums to glaze in patches. This led to the brakes grabbing and locking up, especially on cool mornings and at low speeds. Since fitting a different material (please don't ask me what it is, ask Bruce Smith at Sportsparts in Sydney on +61 2 9875 1144), the brakes have been excellent.

My expensive but beautiful old fashioned black battery with the exposed lead terminals died after three years and has been replaced with something more modern but equally black, otherwise I have nothing to report. Alison just keeps on keeping on… She is wonderful.

I'm often bailed up in the street by interested people and invariably, after they have swooned over Alison's delightfully classic styling and told me about the one they used to own, or someone they knew used to own, they ask me what do I do for parts. Well, I say to them, one of the good things about running the Magnette as an everyday car is that there is virtually nothing you can't buy for it. And it's true. Most MG specialists carry all the usual consumables, such as plugs and points, oil filters, fan belts, hoses, etc, and many of these you can still buy from your favourite local automotive store, especially if you live in a country with a British Empire heritage. The tyres are a standard size thanks to the Magnette running the same sized wheels (fifteen inch diameter) as the old VW Beetle and many other cars, so there is quite a good range of makes and widths to choose from. And you would be surprised how cheap it is to keep a simple car like the Magnette on the road, especially if you do your own greases and oil changes.

Are there any downsides to using a classic everyday? In Australia the answer has to be that it is a tad uncomfortable in the height of summer. Air conditioning has certainly made modern cars more comfortable on a hot day, but then again, modern cars have those steeply raked windscreens which let in copious amounts of sun, so they need air conditioning. Classics don't have this same problem, so on a hot day you can survive as our parents did with all the windows open. And with all the windows open you really feel part of the environment - you can smell the summer fragrances on the air - but best of all, speaking of the environment, you can take the high moral ground when you drive a classic because you have reduced your carbon footprint by an enormous amount by removing the need for yet one more car on the modern production lines.

MG Magnette (KABJ27116) - Upgrades for the new Millennium

• MGB 1800cc three-bearing motor
• Toyota T2 five-speed all-synchromesh gearbox
• 3.9:1 crown wheel and pinion for more relaxed highway cruising
• K-Mac (Australia) front anti-roll bar
• Safety belts with retractor units to all seats
• Three child harness mounting points across the rear parcel shelf
• Lucas L539 amber indicator lamps, front and rear
• Convex side mirrors for fast and accurate lane changing
• Electronic tachometer
• Sony 10-stack CD and radio system (with control unit easily removable for concours events)
• Composite wool and reflective roof insulation
• Sound deadening and wool underlay insulation to floors, gearbox tunnel and under the rear seat
• Sound deadening insulation to the firewall
• Quartz movement clock in the original housing

In any configuration, the MG Magnette makes a stylish picture on the road

Freshly restored, Malcolm's ZB Varitone in Sydney en route to the MG National Meeting in 2006

Period Lucas amber lamps on their own plinths look as if they were original equipment

BMC B-series motor in 1800 cc form looks no different from the original 1500 cc version

Although "softened" to complement modern aerodynamic styling, the classic MG radiator grille is very much evident

A capacious boot is eminently practical for day to day use

Leather and timber - the Magnette was the last high-volume MG to use these traditional craftsmen's materials

Taking rubbish to the tip…

…loading up…

…with landscape supplies…

…or car parts - all in a day's work for the Magnette

The back seat of the Magnette is just so comfortable

Any breakdowns can be easily fixed - thank goodness for fencing wire in the Aussie outback

John Park's Varitone won the Magnette class at GT35 in Lake Delavan, Wisconsin in July 2010

  • alison in sydney
  • amber indicator conversion-low res
  • garden rubbish-low res

  • john parks magnette-july 2010-low res
  • landscape supplies-low res
  • loading the trailer

  • magnette at speed-low res
  • magnette engine bay-low res
  • magnette front view-low res

  • magnette rear view-low res
  • magnette-interior-low res
  • roadside repairs-low res

  • sleeping beauties-low res
  • spares-low res