Hi-Gear Engineering MGA Five-Speed Conversion – A Do It Yourself Adventure
That’s the first thing I read upon receiving the four boxes that comprise Hi-Gear Engineering’s five-speed conversion for the MGA. Opening one of the boxes, I found the same message writ large: “THERE IS NO OIL IN THE GEARBOX!” And after removing the Styrofoam packing protecting said gearbox, I read it yet again: “Gearbox – NO OIL!
Okay, then. Consider me warned.
There was a time when shifting with a “four-on-the-floor” was the defining feature of sports car motoring (no three-on-the-tree for me!). But sporty or not and even in the best of condition, the four-speeds typically fitted to British cars did have their shortcomings.
MG four-speeds, for example, are great for negotiating twisty two-lane roads where you can use them to advantage by more precisely modulating speed and torque. But in pretty much all the classic British cars I’ve driven on the highway, fourth gear just isn’t tall enough to cruise comfortably.
So when faced with a rebuild of the now-ancient three-synchro’ gearbox in my 1956 MGA (crunching ever-more unhappily from third into second), thoughts of a five-speed conversion started to make much more sense. After all, it wasn’t only the worn syncho’ rings that would get resolved; there would be other benefits.
For example, a lower engine speed on the highway should improve fuel economy, and may even keep the engine running cooler; I’d have a full synchromesh transmission and it would arguably produce less wear and tear on both the engine and the occupants. True, a five-speed would not be original to the car, but my car’s not fully original anyway (somebody changed the front drum brakes to MGB discs at some point in its long history, for instance).
When it comes to the choice of five-speed transmission for the MGA, there aren’t a lot of options. But this is a well-worn path taken by many MG owners over the years, and during that time the Ford T-9 (Type 9) gearbox used in the European Ford Sierra has been found to offer ideal features for transplant. It’s light, it’s compact, its ratios are compatible with the MGA and it has been readily available.
Unfortunately for North Americans, however, that transmission is very rare here. Used only in the short-lived and low sales-volume 1980s Merkur XR4-Ti (effectively a turbocharged European Ford Sierra hatch), sourcing a T-9 more realistically requires ordering from the U.K. where the Sierra was much more popular. Fortunately, the excellent kit available from Hi-Gear Engineering in England includes all the components, including a transmission should you need one, necessary for a straightforward conversion. Cost for the MGA kit is 850 pounds sterling, plus 675 pounds sterling for the standard Sierra five-speed transmission. Shipping is extra.
Hi-Gear Engineering founder and owner Peter Gamble has been in the five-speed conversion business for over 20 years, now, and his business has grown steadily. Founded in 1994 after modifying his own MGA 1600, the already retired Mr. Gamble discovered a new career duplicating his efforts for thousands of equally gearbox-challenged MG owners. Over time, he adapted his kit for the MGA 1500, the MG TC, TD and TF, the MGB (early and late), and the Magnette. He’s also ventured into Triumph territory supplying kits for TR2-TR6 models (for details, go to hi-gearengineering.co.uk).
Hi-Gear Engineering supplies kits to Moss Europe, Moss Motors, the MG Owners Club, Brown & Gammons and Frontline Developments. However, you can bypass the big suppliers and order one directly if you like. The affable and helpful Mr. Gamble – a genuine trove of information on five-speed conversions — is only a phone call away.
“It all started when I put one in my own MGA,” he recalls. “Then it turned out that a friend wanted one for his car, then another and another. Pretty soon my wife and I were in the transmission business!”
Happily for buyers of the Hi-Gear kit, Mr. Gamble is a stickler for precision and detail. Over the years he’s refined the component parts (which include a new driveshaft, custom bell housing, clutch release lever pivot, mounting brackets, gaskets, spigot bushing, modified gear lever assembly, clutch plate, gaskets and hardware) so that installation requires drilling only four holes to accept the new gearbox mount. The MGA clutch cover assembly, clutch release lever and clutch slave cylinders are re-used. You will be impressed by the quality of the packing and the parts you receive from Hi-Gear Engineering. No, I’ve actually understated that. You will be blown away by the quality of the packing and parts you receive, and the professionalism they clearly represent. No cutting, welding, bending or serious “persuading” is necessary for the installation, and that’s a direct result of the Mr. Gamble’s engineering savvy, high standards and comprehensive supplied instructions.
All that said, as you may know, removing the MGA (and MGB) transmission is an “engine-out” operation. Looking at it optimistically, here’s an opportunity to clean up your engine bay, easily install that radiator shroud, service the steering rack, re and re your carb’s, gain access to several other hard-to-reach areas and components, and possibly work on your anger management.
On the other hand, it’s not a small job and you’ll definitely benefit from the presence of an engine hoist and one or two friends to help out. In my case, I was the student helper, and the two friends (thanks, Andy and Terry!) supplied the hoist and the expertise.
Except for a couple of seized bolts, wayward tools and learning to work by feel in some cases, it all went smoothly (although if child labor is permissible in your area, you may wish to avail yourself of some small hands on occasion). In fact, getting the engine out was easier than I expected, leading me to think that revenge would be exacted when we tried to put it back.
With the transmission out, the engine on a bench and everything ready to accept the new engine/transmission assembly, you can fit the beautifully machined replacement bell housing to the new transmission and after uprating the clutch plate with a new (included) MGB version, test-fit it while everything’s easily accessible. It should slide right in if you have everything correctly in place.
The gearbox itself is a lovely thing to behold and I’m sure that many MG owners would be happy to display one as an attractive ornament in the living room (okay, maybe the den…), such is its fine finish and form. Nonetheless, you’ve likely only ordered one, so in the car it goes.
Once assembled, and after installing the new driveshaft and transmission (don’t forget to pre-install the two top bolts on the bell housing before pushing it into place) it’s a theoretically simple maneuver to lower the engine into the waiting transmission and onto its mounts. I should point that that you haven’t bolted the transmission to the frame yet (it’s supported by trolley jack at this point) as you will want to shift it and the engine to effect a smooth pairing.
This is when the temperature increased in the garage; the engine becoming surly and uncooperative, hanging from the hoist like a disinterested teenager, and apparently totally indifferent to hooking up with its new partner. Red-faced, focused and determined, with beads of sweat forming on his brow, at one point I saw Terry reach for an ice pick and I truly feared for my inner fender.
When that failed, we were reduced to using a broom as a lever (Andy used to curl…), and I must say, that did the trick.
Now under the car, the transmission mount is fitted via four bolts through holes drilled into the chassis rails. It is challenging, especially if your car’s on jackstands, rather than up on a hoist. Hook up the clutch release lever and the job is pretty much done.
You’re now the owner of a five-speed MGA!
Well, almost. Even after refitting the radiator, carburettors, electrics, speedometer cable (a new longer one supplied but a better option is to order an angle drive from Speedograph Richfield and use the original cable), exhaust, tachometer cable, gearshift with optional five-speed graphic, along with all the other sundry bits and pieces, there’s still one thing you need to do.
“There is no oil in the gearbox!”
Ah, the taste of oil. There’s really nothing like it, is there? Peter Gamble thoughtfully supplies two liters of the specific synthetic oil you need for the Ford T-9. Pumping it into the hard-to-reach filler while on your back using a giant syringe builds character, for sure, especially as it drips all over your face. The good news is you only have to do it once. Why not do it earlier? You have to tilt the gearbox to install it, which will cause the oil to escape via the rear oil seal. Trust me on this.
After bleeding the clutch hydraulics and getting feel back into the pedal, I was initially alarmed by the fact that the shifter wouldn’t move at all. It’s because the gear oil hasn’t been distributed within the gearbox. Don’t worry. Eventually, you’ll engage a gear, then another, and after a spin around the block, all will be well.
And on the highway… Ah, bliss. The gear we’ve dreamed of is now available and your MGA settles into to high-speed cruising with a modern, relaxed gait. A bonus is that the shift “feel” is close to that of the original gearbox, so other than the extra gear, the driving experience is largely unchanged.
A lot of people want this kit, and there lies the irony. As time passes, demand is exceeding supply. The bell housing, driveshaft and fittings are no problem as they are custom made, but the Type-9 gearbox is, as they say in England, getting “thin on the ground.” They were current in the 1980s, after all, and as Peter Gamble says, “We’re seeing less of them, and when we do, they need significant work.”
Eventually, supply will dry up and a more modern and available alternative will need to be identified if demand remains steady. Get ‘em while they last, is my advice regarding this transmission. However, there is now an option. As of 2018, a five-speed Mazda kit became available. This I haven’t tried, but it sounds good and is worth considering. I would have, had it been available a few years ago.
Here’s the link: Vitesse Global 5-Speed Conversion