By Rodney McDonald
After driving for an hour in a Gulf Coast downpour, we arrived at the warehouse address we were given. The roll-up door opened as we got out of our car and there it sat: a scruffy MGB GT in the oh-so-seventies color called Blaze. The hour’s drive was the last leg of a journey that began unexpectedly at an all-British car show in the year 2000.
Over 20 years ago, as that day’s events wound down, the members of the South Alabama British Car Club were busily loading up show paraphernalia. I was working with my brother, Alan, loading up something or other when an affable gentleman came up and told us about his 1971 MGB GT. It was home in his garage, but it was rather special. The photos he showed us of his car included a roof top sign with British Leyland and MG logos and script indicating that this was the 250,000th MGB built. To say we were stunned would be a bit of an understatement. The owner said he would love to restore the car, but his job and other life obligations prevented it. We chatted a bit longer, but our attention was needed elsewhere. When we returned, the man and his photos were gone.
In the early 1970s, the MG company knew that they were heading for a milestone in MGB production. Production of the ’B had easily passed that of the MGA and it was nearing the quarter million mark. This sparked a promotional idea by British Leyland in the USA: MGB number 250,000 would be given away to a lucky entrant here in the states—BL’s largest export market.
Advertisements were placed in enthusiast magazines trumpeting the achievement and inviting entrants to visit their local Austin-MG dealer and fill out an entry form. Thousands did and a young man from Mobile, Alabama, did as well. And he won.
William Newton was notified that he won the car, and it would be presented to him at the new Road Atlanta race course during the SCCA runoffs in November, 1971.
William (or “Fig” to his friends) made the trip to Atlanta where he was treated like royalty. He had his photo taken in a custom windbreaker with MG and BL logos along with his nickname embroidered on it. Press releases were circulated to major newspapers and magazines around the country and the publicity folks at British Leyland must have certainly congratulated themselves on a job well done.
Fig took his MGB GT home to Mobile and into obscurity.
It’s said that Fig was not a real enthusiast for his car, but he drove it for a number of years until some problem or other caused him to park it in a vacant lot in the early 1980s. Fig moved on to Birmingham, Alabama, but the forlorn MGB GT remained on the Gulf Coast.
Enter Tony Wilson. Tony was an MG enthusiast who drove an MGB GT starting from his high school years and for decades after. A friend of Tony’s at the time told him about another car like his that was supposed to be something special. It was sitting outside and he urged him to look at it. Tony did inspect the car and he was smitten. He negotiated with Fig through his parents who still lived in Mobile until a price was agreed to. It included the car, the signage, and an envelope full of photos, ownership documents, and press releases. Tony borrowed a trailer and took the MGB home to his garage in Mobile where it would stay parked out of sight for almost 40 years.
The car was thought by many MG historians and enthusiasts to have been lost. Just another old British sports car unworthy of attention that ended up in a scrap yard, waiting to become razor blades or gardening buckets.
After our brief chat at that car show, I became a tad obsessed with finding the MGB and its owner so we could continue our conversation and perhaps let the world know that MGB number 250,000 still existed. I kept up the rudimentary web site that the South Alabama British Car Club had at the time, and I dedicated a page to seeking information about the location of the car and to try to get back in touch with the owner, whose name by then I had forgotten. I later kept a blog about all things related to the classic British car hobby, and I would put a story out there asking for information about the car once in a while. Occasionally, there would be a post on the MG Experience web forum on the subject, but nothing concrete came from any of it.
Then, in 2020 an email arrived from Tony Wilson stating that it was he that talked to my brother and I that day in 2000 and that we would be welcome to visit him at his home in Mobile. Yes, he had finally seen my appeal for information about his car. Then the pandemic kicked in with a fearsome vengeance and the meeting would have to be put off.
Early in 2023, Tony reached out again, saying that he had retired and was moving from Mobile to his hometown in Mississippi. Would we like to visit? Does an MG leak oil? Yes, we would.
We were given the address of a former Sears Hometown store in a small eastern Mississippi community. We found our way there and was greeted by a smiling and proud Tony Wilson. The same sign that was photographed on the car on the Abingdon production line and in the British Leyland publicity shots was sitting on top of the car, the way it was over 50 years ago.
We must have chatted for about an hour when it dawned on me that I wanted to get some photos of the GT for my records, but the rain never let up. Indoor photos would have to do.
The prize GT is a bit rough, but it is complete. There is some rust perforation on the rear hatch and the orange paint has badly faded. The interior is complete with the exception of the carpeting in the passenger area. There are cracks in the dashboard top which is to be expected of the plastics of the time. Save for the windshield, the glass appears to be original to the car.
Equipment-wise this was a fairly high-end specification car with an BL-labeled AM-FM radio and overdrive. It’s on Rostyle wheels. It missed out on the wire wheel option.
It was difficult to read the engine number but, like a lot of early-seventies cars of the time, a lot of the emissions equipment was removed. No, we didn’t sniff the tailpipes.
The serial number of the car was front and center: GHD5UB25000G. THE 250,000th MGB produced. Or maybe near that. Serial number assignment at the time was a bit loose so the actual 250,000th car may have been built sometime in the same month, but for British Leyland’s purposes, this would be the car.
My brother and I talked with Tony as we took pictures, and he told us that he once ran into William Newton when he visited the world-renowned Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham. There are several lovely MGs in the Barber collection and Tony was chatting with one of the museum guards about his special MGB GT. The guard turned to him and said, “Yep, that was my car.” Tony had finally met the man he bought the car from all those years ago. Sadly, Fig passed away in 2013.
As we started to wrap up our visit, Tony pointed out several bits of air cooled VW parts on his warehouse shelf, as well as Sears appliance parts, odd tools and the like. “Oh, by the way, that’s an airport searchlight over there, too.” Our man had eclectic tastes, for sure.
He asked us if we had time for another stop on our way back home in south Alabama. We followed him into the surrounding farmland outside of town to a nondescript Quonset hut set back from the narrow road.
Inside was his latest acquisition—a 1972 MG Midget in immaculate condition. Further back in the building was his collection of six-cylinder Honda motorcycles as well as a VW Thing that is purported to have been owned by another Mobilian, the late Jimmy Buffett of laid-back island music fame. Tony was working on proving that connection.
So, what is to become of the MGB we spent so much time in tracking down? Tony says that now that he is retired he hopes to become more proactive in the restoration of the prize car. And he would like to renovate his original MGB/GT and spend more time driving his MG Midget. Excellent plan, Tony.
Whatever the outcome, be it restoration, renovation or preservation, the 250,000th MGB appears to be in good hands, just as it has been for a very long time.