The low-cost tin-top ideal for beginners to get started in racing
There’s a multitude of tin-tops that you can go racing in but one of the cheapest to run is the MG ZR 160 used in Class C of the MG Trophy. Here’s what you need to know about it
There is a vast array of cars and championships in club motorsport that are portrayed as being entry-level introductions to the sport. But not all of them are as basic as they first appear and the machines instead require a raft of repurposing to make them fit for the race track. The MG ZR 160s that form Class C of the MG Car Club’s MG Trophy Championship do not fall into this category, however. Instead, the regulations have been specifically designed to ensure that this division is as accessible and cost-effective as possible and is an ideal starting place for those just beginning their racing journey.
“The 160 class essentially is just a road car with the interior stripped out,” explains Dan Surridge, who has worked on ZRs for decades having originally been an engineer with MG Sport & Racing, running the cars nationally and internationally before the company went bust. “The whole point of the 160 class was to keep it as simple as we can. People talk about buying a car, taking out the seats and going racing and, in this case, it’s exactly that. They’re an incredibly cheap car – what’s expensive with an MG is very cheap [compared] with other manufacturers.”
Doug Cole – a long-time MG Trophy competitor, who has also built scores of ZRs and runs several under the DC Motorsport banner – adds: “It’s almost a turn-key car. Apart from the tracking and tyre pressures, there’s not a lot you can do – it’s really tightly controlled.”
The championship features double-header sprint contests at six MGCC events and incorporates three distinct classes, with Class A being for the fastest ZRs on slick tyres, while Class C has the most standard machines. Cole – who has recently started working for the Mercedes Formula 1 team as it expands into yacht competition with an America’s Cup entry – describes the MG Trophy’s racing as being “really close and fun”.
“You will struggle to find anywhere else where you can race and have fun for the money we pay,” he says.
When looking to race a ZR, one of the first decisions to take is whether to build a new car or buy an existing ready-to-go Class C machine.
Buying a car for the MG Trophy series will set you back between £4000 to £4500
Photo by: Gary Hawkins
“If you want to buy a second-hand car, there’s plenty for sale,” says Cole. “You’ve got to be budgeting for a new clutch plate and new wheel bearings, and an engine and gearbox refresh because that will stand you in good stead for the whole season.”
If going down the route of buying a car already made for the series, Cole estimates it would cost between £4000 and £4500, or £3500-£4000 for a “bargain basement” one.
He adds that if “you’re fairly mechanically minded”, you can run the car yourself and reckons that, including entry fees, it can be done for £3500 for a season. And this value would be even less for those aged under 25, as they receive discounted entry fees and club registration. But, with a few more tyres and a couple of trackdays – Cole advises these as being more useful than costlier test days as there is potential to complete far more mileage – then it is around the £5000 mark. However, he adds: “Most people sidle up to a team and most of them charge £160-£180 a day.”
Alternatively, donor cars can be picked up cheaply and the required engines and gearboxes are widely available. Most of the expense instead comes from installing the mandatory safety equipment, such as the roll cage, seatbelts and fire extinguisher. Relatively few modifications are permitted, with the addition of polybushes to the suspension one of the small number of changes allowed.
It is not just on the circuits that the MG ZR provides a cost-effective entry to motorsport, it is also ideally suited to a variety of different disciplines
But, even though the car is very close to road-going specification, there are still a few key points worth bearing in mind when looking to run one for the first time.
“They’re a really easy car to work on,” says Surridge, whose CMC Motorsport concern builds and runs ZRs as well as supplying a number of control parts for the MG Trophy. “They’re quite simple and, once you know their foibles and know how to get around them, they’re a good clubman car.”
One such foible can be a problematic head gasket on the 1.8-litre K-Series engine used in the 160s.
“That can be pretty much eliminated by having the engine built carefully using the correct gasket and correct practices,” continues Surridge. “What was once thought of as a ticking timebomb, that’s not now the case. These engines are quite simple and, with a bit of mechanical knowledge, people can build them in a shed as long as they know what they’re doing. There’s lots of guides on the internet and there’s lots of information from reliable sources.”
The MG ZR range is considered one of the easiest to work on for beginners
Photo by: Gary Hawkins
Cole also advises keeping a close eye on wheel bearings and recommends replacing them every three meetings. But, similar to any other car, he says preparation is key – suggesting between two and four hours is spent in the build-up to a race meeting to ensure everything is in good working order.
“They’re very simple to run and it’s all down to preparation,” he says. “Some people will leave the car on the trailer and go to the event and wonder why it doesn’t start. You’ve still got to do regular checks and run good oil.”
Once they have mastered the basics, many drivers soon progress up from Class C to the ZR 170s of Class B.
“The 170 class is a similar engine with better suspension and more performance parts,” explains Surridge, while the main increase in running costs comes from a tendency for drivers to use more new tyres during a season. Some convert their 160 into 170-spec, while others opt to sell and buy a new car already tailored to Class B.
Either way, there is a clear route by which drivers can progress onto faster and more modified machinery without breaking the bank and while continuing in a friendly paddock – “we’re all enemies on track but off-track we all help each other out,” says Cole. A perfect example of what is possible came in the Brands Hatch opener earlier this month, when Matt Harvey won Class C on his debut in a car he runs alongside two fellow motorsport engineering students.
But it is not just on the circuits that the MG ZR provides a cost-effective entry to motorsport, it is also ideally suited to a variety of different disciplines.
“The 1.4-litre cars are really popular in Targa rallying and road rallying – at the grassroots of rallying,” states Surridge. “There’s still lots in stage rallying. You can almost take a race car, change the spring rates to something a little softer, put a second seat in, build some guards on it and go Tarmac rallying. It shows the flexibility and versatility of them. On any given weekend, there will be people in ZRs rallying, racing, sprinting or hillclimbing because they’re cheap to maintain and, on the whole, quite reliable. They handle very well and are very easy to drive quite quickly.”
That versatility perfectly underlines why the ZR continues to be popular some 17 years after production ended. “You could have as much money as you like but you wouldn’t make the car any faster because everything is so standard,” concludes Surridge of the 160 versions. And, when competing in a true entry-level category, that is exactly what you want to hear.
MG ZRs have also been taken to the rallying scene
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
MG ZR Tech Focus
There is a choice of tyre supplier in Class C with drivers using treaded race rubber. Dunlop Direzzas have traditionally been used, but these will no longer be accepted from next year, with competitors either using Toyo Proxes or – from the end of this season onwards – Yokohama Advan tyres.
This is another example of an area where the MG Trophy’s regulations have evolved over the years as Class C originally featured road tyres. But Cole says this meant the 160s “were a lot slower than the other classes and the closing speeds were too large”, so race tyres were mandated.
A standard gearbox supplied by CMC Motorsport is used for Class C, which Cole describes as being “completely bulletproof”, in order to keep costs down. “I build all of the gearboxes for the MG Trophy because they’re sealed gearboxes and it stops people messing around bringing in different ratios and stops the costs going up,” explains Surridge. “I then seal them and everyone is racing with the same gearbox. They will last two, three or four years without needing to be rebuilt – and they’re not hugely expensive to build and refresh.”
"People who are just getting into racing can go out and have a race. The last thing you want is for the car to break down all the time because you won’t get any [racing] experience" Dan Surridge
The standard road-going suspension is used in the ZR 160s but this is one of the few areas where a limited number of modifications are allowed. Polybushes can be fitted, while lowering springs – supplied by CMC – can also be used.
“Originally, they ran completely standard springs and suspension but, once you’ve removed all the seats and weight, the cars looked like they were on stilts!” admits Surridge, who adds the only changes to a standard road-going car have been made based on experience and to improve reliability. “The Trophy allowed lowering springs to be fitted to allow them to come down to a more sensible ride height.” If a driver progresses up to the 170s of Class B, two-way adjustable suspension is then permitted.
The entry-level Class C of the MG Trophy for the ZR 160s features the 1.8-litre K-Series motor. Cole stresses, when buying a car, “you have to try and get one with a good engine or get an engine built”.
Problems with the powertrain can occur but these are easily avoided with a little extra initial investment.
“We recommend rebuilding every three years and only rarely do we need to put new parts in,” explains Surridge, whose CMC Motorsport concern builds engines along with a variety of other parts.
“People who are just getting into racing can go out and have a race. The last thing you want is for the car to break down all the time because you won’t get any [racing] experience.”
The versatility of the MG ZRs underlines why it is still so popular some 17 years after production ended
Photo by: Gary Hawkins
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