Market Spotlight

British Invasion classics: how're they doing now?

by Andrew Newton
30 June 2022 8 min read
Image
RM Sotheby's.

With all that’s going on in the collector market these days, good-old-fashioned British sports cars are often overlooked. Mainstream models from MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey offer that rare mix of gorgeous-yet-unpretentious styling and a fun-focused, minimalist mindset that’s missing from most cars built since 1980. They’re also highly rewarding choices for any enthusiast who cares less about the 0-to-60 time than how a car makes them feel. Sure, you might need to get your hands dirty a little more often, but that’s part of the appeal.

British sports cars are a huge part of the collector car market and have been since before many of the folks writing here picked up a keyboard. There’s a reason, though, that we don’t devote many headlines to old English roadsters: Insider reports on market trends, and this corner of the market hasn’t seen dramatic change. “Stable” and “quiet” describe most British car values relative to the frenzy among other sub-$50k collector cars, and Hagerty’s British Car Index is traditionally among the steadiest of the seven indices we track. But with everything from Mustang IIs to Mondials getting far pricier over the past 24 months, even some British car prices have awakened from their slumber. With that, we figured it was a good time to check in on five of the most popular British classics.

1946-55 MG T-Series

1952 MG TD front three-quarter
RM Sotheby’s

Just after World War II, American servicemen stationed in Britain hopped into the T-Series, and a love affair for the ages was born. Many had the little MG imported to the U.S. on their return home or bought one at a Stateside dealer when they became available in 1947. Their new love was a cheap date, too—the T-Series could be bought for a little more than half as much as that other landmark postwar sports car, Jaguar’s XK120.

Largely a carryover from the prewar TA and TB, the 1946-50 TC was far from cutting edge, but it was still a revelation for a nation unaccustomed to tiny, nimble, minimalist roadsters. It helped spawn the sports car market in the U.S. and launched countless racing careers—Carroll Shelby himself won his first race in a TC.

An updated TD arrived in 1950 with improved handling, better ride, wider wheels, and somewhat frumpier styling. With nearly 30,000 built, TDs are also more common than the other two models combined. The final T-Series, the TF, got fared-in headlamps, a different interior grille, more interior room, and in 1954 an available 1466cc (up from 1250) engine that brought performance up to a thumping 63 hp.

When it comes to values, the T-Series is pretty straightforward. Historically, it has been the picture of stability, with cars changing hands at moderate prices and a steady pace almost regardless of what happens in the rest of the market. There is, however, a hierarchy in the T-Series family.

The TC is the most crude and the least practical (they're all right-hand drive), but it's the purest and the original, so it's worth the most - $43,700 in #2 (Excellent, or like-new) condition. The TD is by far the most common and considered the least attractive, so this middle child is worth the least at $27,800. The TF is the fastest, most developed and arguably the best-looking, plus it's the last MG with the traditional prewar styling laid over an ash frame. TFs carry a #2 value of $36,500, while TF 1500s are worth $40,300.

By modern standards, these cars are almost more akin to carriage than car. They're not comfortable, they'll struggle to keep up with modern traffic, and they don't stop well. But they are fun, not to mention simple, rugged, and easy to live with and work on. Since they're all rather similar to own and similarly charming to look at, the TD is arguably the best value.

1955-62 Triumph TR3

1960 Triumph TR3A rear three-quarter
RM Sotheby's

Between cheap and cheerful MGs and more luxurious, expensive Jags slotted Triumph's attractive yet affordable sports cars. On American shores, the TR3 was Triumph's first sales success. Although the TR3's 1991cc overhead valve four is famously descended from an old Ferguson tractor, as a genuine 100-mph roadster and the first British production car with front disc brakes, it was a very popular road and rally racer in period. It feels a lot faster than it is, due in large part to its smooth torque delivery and dramatic, down-cut doors that expose its occupants to Mother Nature.

The first major update for the TR3 came in 1957 with the TR3A (never officially referred to as such by the factory), which added a wider and more prominent grille and such lavish equipment as door handles and a locking trunk. In order to placate US dealers who feared people wouldn't like the new TR4 (spoiler: they did), Triumph introduced the TR3B (again, never officially referred to as such) in 1961 with a larger 2138cc, 105-hp engine.

TR3 prices peaked in 2013 and slowly decreased till last year, when they experienced a minor bump. Nevertheless, their median #2 value is down 15 percent over the past decade. The spread between TR3, TR3A and TR3B is small but significant with TR3s currently at $18,700, TR3As at $19,500, and TR3Bs at $22,500. Add $1000 or more for a factory hardtop.

With its swoops and flourishes, nothing looks quite like a TR3, especially for the money. Fortunately for enthusiasts, few signs point to them getting any more expensive: values have been quiet relative to other classic roadsters, and they aren't attracting new young buyers. Baby boomers and older account for 72 percent of insurance quotes for TR3s, even though those buyers make up just 41 percent of the market as a whole. Longer term, they'll likely remain a great value.

1969-76 Triumph TR6

1976 Triumph TR6 front three-quarter
RM Sotheby's

The TR6 wasn't the last Triumph. That sad honor goes to the 1981 Acclaim, which was essentially a rebadged Honda. Nor was it the last Triumph sports car, as it was phased out in favor of the wedgey TR7 and TR8, aka "the shape of things to come." However, with its supple curves, body-on-frame construction, a throaty long-stroke engine, and minimal luxury inside, the TR6 was the last of the old-school Triumph roadsters.

Indeed, the TR6 was something of a dinosaur from the start. Introduced just in time for the Datsun 240Z to make "traditional" sports cars seem obsolete, the TR6's narrow cockpit, bouncy ride and rather crude independent suspension represented little change from the old TR4.

On the other side of the pond, the TR6's 2.5-liter pushrod six made a punchy 150hp with Lucas mechanical injection, while twin Stromberg carbs stifled US-spec cars to about 100hp. For 1974, the TR6's chrome bumpers gained weight and sprouted large rubber overriders for US safety regulations, further diminishing performance. Despite that, the engine's eager nature and satisfying exhaust note made it a back road joy. In a review on Top Gear, James May called the TR6 the "blokiest bloke's car ever built," and Paul Newman clinched his first SCCA National Championship in 1976 at the wheel of a silver and black TR6.

Triumph built over 90,000 TR6s, with the vast majority of them finding homes in America. Rust has claimed many, but TR6s remain easy to find in any condition and parts availability is generally quite good.

Unlike many other open-top Brits, TR6 prices haven't been sleepy at all. Not long ago, these were sub-$20,000 cars all day, but they started appreciating in the late 2010s. Median #2 value is up 50 percent over the last decade, to $34,300. The gap between great cars and average ones has widened considerably, though, and driver-quality TR6s can still be found in the mid-teens. The difference in price between early slim-bumper cars and later ones is minimal, but later ones came in louder '70s colors like Java Green or Magenta, if that's your thing. Desirable options include a luggage rack, overdrive, factory hardtop, and wire wheels.

Fifty years on, everything from the '70s looks old-fashioned. The 240Z may have outclassed the TR6 in period, but the Triumph's anachronisms don't stick out as much through the lens of time. Besides, with a straight-six and wood dash before you, the TR6 provides a Big Healey British experience at a significantly lower price.

1958-69 Austin-Healey Sprite

1959 Austin-Healey Sprite front
RM Sotheby's

By the late 1950s, the Brits sold as many two-seaters to sports car-hungry Americans as they could screw together. But Donald Healey saw an opening at the market's entry point: young gearheads with sports car dreams who couldn't quite swing a Porsche or an Austin-Healey 100 didn't have many choices. The Sprite was Healey's answer, and for $1795 it bought you no windows, no outside door handles, no trunk lid, all-drum brakes, and 43 buzzing horsepower from BMC's 948cc A-Series four.

The headlights, which Healey planned on being retractable, were left in the fixed up position in order to save costs, and that awkward but adorable choice earned it the nickname "Bugeye" (or "Frogeye" back home in the UK). It wasn't just about looks, though: with precise handling thanks to its low weight and unibody construction, amateur racers across the country filled race grids with the little Sprite.

After 1961 and nearly 49,000 Mk I Sprites sold, Austin-Healey updated the model to a more conventional shape and fitted more powerful engines until discontinuing the Sprite after 1969. The nearly identical MG Midget soldiered on another decade until 1979. There's no beating the original, though. It's impossible not to be charmed by the Bugeye's smiley-faced grille and big, cartoon-eye headlights.

Cute counts for a lot in the world of little sports cars. With a #2 value of $28,000, a Bugeye is worth about twice as much as a later "square-body" Sprite. It's even pricier than the larger, more powerful MGB.

Like many other mainstream British roadsters, Sprite values have seen more growth over the past two years than they ever have before, but appreciation has been more pronounced for Bugeyes. Upgrades like disc brake conversions, later 1275-cc engines and 5-speed swaps (often from a Miata) are common, but have little effect on value. Bugeyes were dirt cheap for decades and often modified, so factory originality isn't necessarily expected. What's more important is overall condition and quality of work performed.

1962-80 MGB

1973 MG MGB front three-quarter
RM Sotheby's/Darin Schnabel

Until the Miata came along in 1989, the MGB was the de facto cheap roadster. While the Miata may have perfected the British formula and is itself now a classic, the MGB is still the go-to collector roadster. MG built 512,243 examples, and by count of cars insured with Hagerty, the MGB holds the titles of second-most popular sports car (after the Corvette) and second-most popular import (after the VW Beetle).

Launched at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show with modern monocoque construction, the MGB carried on with incremental revisions till the closure of the Abingdon plant in 1980. In 1964, the 1978cc B-Series engine gained a five-main-bearing crankshaft, and after 1965 cars switched the "pull handle" for the doors to a push-button. The MGB GT arrived in 1966 with a rear roofline by Pininfarina, and although it's technically a 2+2, you wouldn't want to ride back there unless you were a piece of luggage. The 1967 MGB revised the interior trim and seats, the 1968 cars got a padded dash board, and headrests came in 1969. The 1970 MGB got a recessed black grille, rubber tips on the chrome bumper overriders, and Rostyle wheels. The biggest change, though, came halfway through the 1974 model year when the 'B was festooned with huge black polyurethane bumpers. A raised ride height messed with handling, and the engine was robbed of horsepower, of which MGs had little to spare.

Like most other MGs, MGBs are a known quantity with steady prices. Over the past couple of years, though, all the activity elsewhere in the market has caught up to these British staples, and good cars have gotten pricey.

Early MGB roadsters currently carry a #2 value of $22,900, while those in #3 (Good) condition command $11,500-$12k. MGB GTs, meanwhile, are $18,200 in #2 condition and $7200-$7500 in #3 condition. Appreciation over the past five years isn't much in dollar terms, but #2 values are up about 10 percent while driver-quality cars haven't appreciated as much.

The 1970-74 cars—the last of the chrome bumper 'Bs—currently carry #2 values of $22,200 to $22,600 in roadster form and $21,300 to $21,500 in GT coupe form. This generation of MGB has, surprisingly, appreciated 42 percent since January 2020, bringing values more in line with the purer, earlier cars. Perhaps people aren't as turned off by the padded dash and other trim differences as they used to be.

The later, compromised rubber bumper MGBs, meanwhile, have been left behind. Their #2values are down nearly 4 percent over the last five years to $15,100. The final 1980 models are worth more at $16,400, and one option to look out for is the "Limited Edition," which added special black and silver paint, alloy wheels, air dam, and sport steering wheel. These 'Bs can command $1500 or more over a base example.

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Comments

  • Ken says:

    Nothing on the Austin Healey 100 series? Disappointed.

  • David Winstead says:

    My #2 red 1959 Bugeye always excites a crowd. 5 speed transmission and wire wheels are perfect for this rapidly appreciating car

  • Denis Allen says:

    I’ve owned 2 B’s. A 69 and a 71. By far my favorite was the 69. Unfortunately both were totaled in accidents. I owned a 65 Corvette as well and still prefer the 69 B.

    • Robert W says:

      @Dennis Allen… I am with you. Owned 3 mid-years 2-65’s & 64). Owned Healy, then MGB… found I was driving the B 5 to 1 to my ‘65. First cars that I owned that made my Vette feel like a 65 bonneville.

  • Bob Snyder says:

    I had a 74 MGB and a 76 MG Midget. Both fun cars, but lots of work to keep them running. I now have an 80 Triumph TR8. Way more fun with V8 power, and very reliable compared to the MG’s. The TR8 is starting to show some price appreciation, but it is still the best kept secret of the classic British roadsters.

  • John Prather says:

    IMHO……the “Bugeyeguy”.com has single handed raised the on going value increase of the Austin Healey Mark I Sprite. His constant refinement and availability of reliable “bits” has given DIY’ers confidence to own, drive, and maintain these FUN little brit cars. His blogs always SAFETY driven, freely shares tips to keep your pride and joy running like a sowing machine….:). Wrenching on my 4th BUGEYE driver, I thank Bugeyeguy Dave and his mighty crew for keeping these FUN rides on the “byways” of USA and not destiny to become “Barn Finds/Garage Finds” again. All insured with Hagerty….:) John P. in Kansas

  • Roland Walters says:

    My first car was a new 65′ Tartan Red B, black leather interior with red piping and a tonneau cover, soft top and hardtop also in red. Wasn’t smart enough at the time to realise the value of the electric overdrive option, but did get the painted wires and knock-offs! Cost was 2,200 cash and the Navy shipped it home from Scotland for me. Great car to head to college on the GI Bill with. And at 78 still have the two seater bug and own a 04′ MAZDASPEED factory turbo Miata which is like a B on Steroids. Great a experience with both cars.

  • ken tilly says:

    Great little cars. I have never owned a Frog Eye but have owned it’s successor the Midget and had a lot of fun with it.

  • Barry S. Cohen says:

    I own a 1956 Austin Healey 100-4 in very good condition and a 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster fully restored and am curious what the values are fro these today?

  • Craig says:

    The Austin-Healey 100 to 3000 series deserves more coverage than the Bug-eye. Much cleaner more aerodynamic lines and more appealing to the eye.

    • Robert Jenson says:

      Craig: shhhhhhhhh. We’ve been keeping the big Healeys a secret for a long time. Don’t blow our cover now. Had a 3000 BT7, now with my son, and my original purchase of a 3000 BJ7. When we’re out with other big Healey folks, we get a lot of interested folks asking “what is that.? We keep ’em hidden away.

  • RL Wilkins says:

    Why no mention of the MGA and MGC?

  • Ralph S says:

    HOW ABOUT THE STSTUS ON THE HEALEY 100.

  • Bill E says:

    My ’59 Triumph TR3A with a 3B engine turns heads with many not having a clue of what it is. I bought it on-line in 2013 to replace one I had purchased in 1993… but that is a story for another time! Originally pale yellow, it is now a less-than-superior applied BRG with a few dings and dents but otherwise in fair condition. Probably JC Whitney side curtains (bummer) and a number of other non-original elements BUT a pure pleasure to drive.

  • Walt Smith says:

    Hey! What about the MGA?? IMHO the prettiest of all the 50s British cars

  • Judy Nagel says:

    I owned a 1967 TR4A for about 7 years. It was red with a black interior. My father taught me how to change fan belt, spark plugs, and install a new battery. I loved my TR and wish I still had it.

  • Tony Dell says:

    My first car was a Triumph TR4. BRG with black interior I will never forget that car what great fun!!!!

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