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Tuesday 20th December 2011


DRIVEN: FRONTLINE DEVELOPMENTS MG LE50

Yes, it's another 'modernised' classic but when it's done with such tact and delicacy who's to argue?


For 20 years Frontline Developments has specialised in tuning classic British sporting metal - 250hp K-Series conversions for Spridgets and Bs are its bread and butter. But this is the most ambitious project yet: the Frontline MG LE50.

Period Dunlops look ace; wires as an option
Period Dunlops look ace; wires as an option
The LE50 is a planned production run of 50 brand new MGBs, celebrating the car's 50th anniversary in 2012 with the full approval of British Motor Heritage Limited - the license holder for the classic MG brand. But this is no mere re-creation; Frontline has completely re-engineered the car for the 21st century, working within type approval constraints in order to maintain a 1965 model year designation.

1965? Well, yes, for although the MGB began life as a roadster in 1962, the GT coupe didn't arrive until three years later. Frontline's goal is to deliver a compact 'grand tourer' that will still happily devour a track day, so as standard it has just the two seats and a rear luggage deck. The roof makes sense in this context, even before you learn there's now a 215hp 2.0-litre engine under the bonnet in place of the 95hp (at best) 1.8-litre B-Series.

Heritage shell means no butchered donor
Heritage shell means no butchered donor
Modern twist
Frontline has chosen to use a tweaked 2012 Mazda MX-5 unit. This isn't just for the irony: factory-coated forged pistons and solid lifters. Upgrades are 45mm throttle bodies, a new exhaust cam (the variable timing on the inlet cam already has 40 degrees of adjustment), a custom Omex engine management system and a carefully tuned exhaust.

The engine drives the rear wheels via the MX-5's lightweight, all-aluminium six-speed manual gearbox. Suspension is aluminium wishbones with adjustable telescopic dampers at the front and a multi-link set-up with adjustable coilovers at the rear to better control the live axle Frontline has to retain for those type approval purposes. Spring rates and anti-roll bars are all specific, too.

This hardware is attached to new British Motor Heritage bodyshells, which Frontline has seam-welded to maximise strength, correcting all the usual rust trouble spots in the process. Painting is handled by a local specialist (seven weeks per car...), while every component is CAD drawn and analysed to a very precisely controlled spec.

The MGB has never looked, or driven, so well
The MGB has never looked, or driven, so well
Old spice
Confronted with the LE50 for the first time, you're reminded just how pretty the MGB actually is, with an elegance that's almost period Aston-ish. The look is deliberately classic, with chrome bumpers and Dunlop wheels. Wires are a no-cost option, if you want to take this even further. Frontline can easily build you something lairier in appearance but you won't get that with an LE50 badge and the same level of British Motor Heritage endorsement.

I suspect you'd also be slightly missing the point. Which in this case is to deliver a car that looks to all intents and purposes like a classic MGB, yet goes like the absolute clappers.

Period features are faithfully done
Period features are faithfully done
First clue to this potential comes even before you've pressed the Bakelite starter button. The Smiths dials, made to exactly match the design of the originals but now fronting modern digital internals, feature a speedometer that reads to 170mph. These nestle in an Alcantara-swathed interior, beautifully hand-finished by Frontline's own trimmer, and enlivened by authentic Lucas switchgear. Thankfully, like the instruments, these control modern components - including air conditioning, heated seats and a heated front windscreen, if you want them.

Nervous twitch
Fire it up and somehow the needles flicker with that fabulous uncertainty I always associate with tasty classic machinery before settling, immediately warming the blood. The idle is smooth but with a lumpy pulse - a gentle reminder that the engine under the bonnet isn't exactly as the manufacturer intended. There's a simple round globe of a gearknob and the 'box snicks beautifully into first.

LE50 is lively, in a good way
LE50 is lively, in a good way
Despite all the modern accoutrements and 23kg of Dynamat sound deadening thorough attention to detail and some substantial weight savings in the drivetrain and elsewhere mean it's actually slightly lighter than the original. It has near-perfect weight distribution across all four wheels too, with a slight bias towards the rear. That Mazda engine is mounted low and just 12mm from the firewall, giving the LE50 a near front-mid layout.

On the road it is immediately encouraging - no fear factor, just the reassuring smack of sorted capability. There's naturally more wind noise and less torsional rigidity than a modern performance car, and the initial body movement when turning into corners is a little soft, but it is quickly apparent that the steering assistance is accurately weighted, the damping very nicely judged and the car isn't going to bite if you throw it around a little. In fact - to use the vernacular - it loves a bit of it.

Like the original but a whole lot better too
Like the original but a whole lot better too
Sing it loud
All of which is only made more invigorating by the stupendous sound of the engine - a mellow, bellowing yowl that's led by induction rather than exhaust. You'd swear the motor was greater capacity even as it screams towards the 7,200rpm peak - and the gorgeous short-throw gearbox action, which snaps through the changes so sweetly you can't help but use it far more than strictly necessary.

Judging by the way the scenery whips by the windows, the computer calculated 5.1-second 0-60mph claim feels decidedly conservative. It's the middle of December so I'm not exactly giving it full beans in first gear, but the LE50 produces superb traction and although there are no electronic driver aids there is a limited-slip diff, which stops the back end from getting too far out of hand.

Does corners like no period MGB ever could
Does corners like no period MGB ever could
With the noise trumpeting the hypnotic, charging sweep of the rev counter, the brilliant gearbox and the certain knowledge that no-one else on the road can possibly be expecting a car that looks like this to move so quickly, Frontline has already created something just incredibly joyful. That it also goes round corners in a playful manner and is set up to disdainfully deal with British tarmac frankly means I'm blatting along grinning like the proverbial pussycat in a dairy.

You know you want to
Will it keep up with a furiously driven Clio Renaultsport on a demanding B-road, or offer the outright performance of a comparatively priced Cayman? Probably not - but the LE50 has huge character, true discerning exclusivity and an enormous sense of fun on its side.

There will be only 50. Frontline already has well over 100 customer test drives booked in, and it's being sold on a first come, first served basis. Customer car number one is going to Miami. Such a well-conceived idea, built on 20 years' experience and executed with a flourish. Wonderful stuff.


FRONTLINE DEVELOPMENTS MG LE50
Engine:
1,999cc 4-cyl
Power (hp): 215@7,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 174@3,600rpm
0-62mph: 5.1 sec
Top speed: 158mph
Weight: 941kg
MPG: N/A
CO2: N/A
Price: c. £50,000 according to individual spec


   
   
   
Author: cjhubbard