Some interesting cars are misunderstood for too many years, and the MG Magnette MkIII and MkIV definitely fall into this category. Had the British Motor Corporation made the wise decision to use another model name, the Octagon-badged 1½-litre 'Farina' would have stood a far greater chance of establishing a niche. Such Magnettes are now amongst the rarest post-war cars to bear the MG name, and Jon Langford, the owner of this immaculate 1964 example, regularly encounters people who are unaware that there was ever such a car. In fact, he reports that many only seem to have heard of the Austin or the Morris, and that plenty don’t know of the Riley or Wolseley variants either.
Back in the mid-1950s Leonard Lord, the then head of BMC, commissioned Battista 'Pinin' Farina to style the new generation of medium-sized and large saloons. According to Martyn Nutland’s fascinating book Brick by Brick: The Biography of the Man Who Really Made the Mini – Leonard Lord, the chairman had been mulling over European stylistic ideas for quite a while.
At the same time, the company also embarked on a programme of what became known as badge-engineering – a form of rationalization that was much derided in later years, but for which there were sound economic reasons because Austin and the Nuffield Group had merged in 1952, and Lord was faced with the potentially huge financial penalties from integrating and reforming 7000 outlets for the two historically bitter rivals in the UK alone. The solution was to use the various BMC marque names across one standard body, with minor engine and stylistic changes to differentiate between them. This was not an unknown practice in the UK – Morris and Wolseley had employed the same coachwork since the 1930s – but using five badges on the same design did mark new territory.
As a result, the successors to the Austin A55 Cambridge, MG Magnette ZB, Morris Oxford Series III/IV and Wolseley 15/50 would share the same body but wear different grilles; there would also be a new Riley for country GPs and solicitors. The first of the line was the Wolseley 15/60 which debuted in December 1958, followed by the Austin Cambridge A55 MkII in January 1959, the Magnette MkIII in February, the Morris Oxford Series V in March, and the Riley 4/68 in April.
In terms of hierarchy, the Austin was the entry-level model, being slightly less well-appointed than the Morris, while the MG was the penultimate version before the dizzying heights of the Riley. It shared the 4/68’s B-series engine with twin SU carburettors, while a tachometer justified the slightly higher price of the diamondbadged Riley Farina – £1072 as opposed to £1028 for the MG Magnette. The omission of a rev counter on the traditionally sporty MG marque did little to reconcile traditionalists to the new model, however!
The MG and the Riley also boasted slightly less exuberant tail fins and the Magnette was promoted as a ‘Pedigree saloon with debonair lines.’ The advertisements further claimed a driver could enjoy ‘the calm you get from unruffled overtaking.’ The messages were clear – with a Magnette MkIII you too could enjoy a standing in your local rotary club that would be denied to your average Ford Consul MkII De Luxe owner, while ‘ruffled overtaking’ was clearly the province of spivs and TonUp Boys. Meanwhile, BMC’s copywriters further indulged in hyperbole with promises of dashing performance in a car that was ‘sleek as a panther, urgent as an arrow.’
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