Introduced 1959 through to 1969 Number built MkIII - 16,676. MkIV - 14,320

In 1955, HRH Prince Philip visited BMC and was shown the styling sketches for the next generation of Austin saloons. The prince was less than impressed, and thought that the BMC styling was in dire need of some continental flair. In 1959 the company launched its Farina range of family saloons. The general shape – including the fins – was the result of contracting the Pininfarina design house to make the Austin A55 look modern. The styling was toned down by Dick Burzi, BMC’s in-house head of styling in the Longbridge design office, but the overall dimensions and the Italianate style survived. As part of the BMC consolidation, the cars of the five major brands (Austin Morris Wolseley MG and Riley) were to be based upon the same Farina platform using the now infamous concept of badge engineering.

Up until this time, the Morris Oxford (Series II, III and IV) only shared its engine and transmission with the Austin Cambridge A50 and A55, but unlike the Austin the Morris had torsion bar front suspension, tubular dampers and a steering rack. It also had wider track and longer wheelbase. Riley had their own designs; the RM series had been replaced by a large and comfortable saloon called the Pathfinder, which still used Riley’s Big Four twin-cam pushrod engine (ultimately replaced by the Westminster’s C-series 6-cylinder), but the company had also a small saloon based on the Morris Minor floorpan and a body shared with Wolseley, each fitted with a 1489cc B-series engine – the same as the Oxford and the Cambridge. Wolseley had a larger saloon, the 4/44 which like the Riley Pathfinder was styled by Gerald Palmer, but powered by an MG XPAG-derived engine denoted XPAW. That car was updated with BMC’s favourite 1489cc B-series and renamed the 15/50. And this Wolseley had a sibling in the MG Z Magnette that is described on its own page. As can be seen, the range was very short on commonality across the board, save for the B-series engine and its 4-speed gearbox.

It was this highly expensive variety of bodyshells each with different suspension and general ancillaries that Leonard Lord wanted to streamline. Having paid Pininfarina to give his Austin Cambridge a slick, modern late 1950s image, he decided this was to be the basis for all the mid-size saloons, from the Minor based Wolseley 1500 to the big six cylinder Riley and from the family Morris Oxford to the sporty Magnette – all would be replaced with a Farina. First came the Austin A55 Mk2, then the Wolseley 16/50, then the Morris Oxford Series V, then the twin carburettor MG Magnette MkIII and Riley 4/68.

The logic was sound on a business basis, but there were penalties. The earlier Austin A55 was a smaller, narrower car than the new Farina, but its axles and wheelbase were used unchanged. As a result the track was too narrow and wheelbase too short for the larger bodyshell, so the car looked very unstable. The front suspension ride height was also somewhat too high for the car, giving it a slightly awkward nose-up appearance. The larger bodyshell also gave a high centre of gravity, which made the car roll quite alarmingly on cornering. But the ride was comfortable, and although of modest power, the 1489cc motor was at least a smooth and torquey performer, so the car worked very well as a family saloon in the Austin mould. In its day it was praised for its roomy cabin, its excellent visibility and its comfort.

As an MG though, it was disappointing. The high ride height, narrow track, soft springing and weak dampers made for a wallowy sort of progress on road, the steering box inherited from the A55 was nowhere near as sharp as the Z Magnette’s rack and pinion steering, the drum brakes did not inspire confidence, and for good measure the car had no anti-roll bars. The new MG just didn’t feel sporty at all. If in absolute performance the Farina was close to the Z Magnette’s acceleration and top speed, it lacked the earlier car’s handling precision, but it was the only option under Leonard Lord’s masterplan.

Sales were reasonable; 16,676 Magnette MkIIIs were produced between 1959 and 1961, but the car was heartily disliked by those who valued the sporty feel of the Z-car. The very upright stance (part of Dick Burzi’s adjustment of the lower and more delicate Pininfarina prototype) didn’t add to the sporting appeal. On the plus side, the cornering was tenacious and the car would hold onto the road well despite the colossal lurching on bends. But this was of little consolation to the sporting buyer.

In 1961 all the Farina variants were updated. The Austin A60, Morris Oxford Series VI and Wolseley 16/60 versions had their fins much reduced, the engines were increased to 1622cc, both front and rear track were increased, the front suspension lowered by an inch or so, the rear axle moved back an inch, and anti-roll bars were fitted front and rear. The grilles of the Austin and Morris were also updated.

The larger engine was smoother and more torquey than its predecessor, the ride more stable, the cornering a lot flatter, although the cars had a greater tendency to slide than the rolly 1489cc cars. Roundabouts taken at very modest speeds generally resulted in generous application of opposite lock – helped by the crossply tyres that were standard fit – and a driver keen to ‘press on’ learned a lot about car control in the slide.

But despite all other changes the MG Magnette MkIV and Riley 4/72 gained no external styling changes at all – they looked identical to the earlier cars that had gained such a depressing reputation. By the mid 1960s tall tail fins were very much out of fashion; by the end of the 1960s the styling was very old fashioned – bear in mind for the driver looking for a sports saloon the competitors were the likes of the Escort GT and Cortina GT and 1600E, Vauxhall’s coke-bottle HB Viva GT and FD VX4/90, the Hillman Hunter GT and fastback Sunbeam Rapier, all of which looked fresh and modern compared to the ageing Farina. Despite the longer production run, and despite being nicer cars to drive than the 1489cc versions, sales fell away for the MG and Riley. When production of the Magnette MkIV came to an end in 1969, the production run had only reached 14,320 – less than the number of Magnette MkIII in almost three times as many years. Compare this figure with the 480,000 A60 and Oxford VI models built over the same period.

There is a strong parallel to the story of the MGC which was as reviled upon its launch as was the Farina Magnette. Both suffered from development budget constraint, disappointing performance and handling, and an unwise corporate belief that the public wouldn’t notice the shortfalls. The MG variant of the Farina saloon could have been so much better with relatively little effort. It would always have had the penalty of its steering box because replacing this with a rack and pinion would have been an extremely difficult task given the constraints of the front subframe. But it could have had the MGB’s 1800cc engine. It could have had the MGB’s overdrive gearbox. It could have had its suspension properly developed for sharper handling. It could have had disc brakes. It could have had better tyres. Cost is king in the car manufacturer world though, and Leonard Lord wasn’t going to spend out on any car of Nuffield heritage if that would make his Austin version look like a poor relation.

 4 cylinder, inline Capacity: 1493cc/1622cc
Bore & Stroke: 73mm x 88.9mm/76.2mm x 88.9mm Carburation: Twin semi-downdraft SUs Power output: 66.5bhp @ 5200 rpm/68bhp @ 5,000 rpm 
 Four speed manual or three-speed automatic.
Final Drive: Rear wheel drive Steering: Cam and Peg box
Brakes: Hydraulic drums all round
Wheels: Ventilated pressed steel disc Suspension: Front; independent wishbone with coil springs. Rear; solid axle with leaf springs
Length: 14ft 10”
Height: 4ft 9in”
Width: 5ft 3.5in

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