Advertisement

We Drive the Very Staid, Very British RBW Electric MGB Roadster

rbw electric mgb
We Drive the Very Staid, Very British RBW Roadsterralph bohannon
rbw electric mgb
bohannon

Could anything be more English than this? It's a cool, crisp day, and we're dodging rain showers in a tiny open-topped sports car. Birds are singing, the smell of freshly cut grass is in the air, and all is right with the world. There is one thing missing, though. Well, maybe two. Instead of the sounds of a strained little four-cylinder engine, there's the gentle whir of an electric motor, and there's not a single drop of oil or other miscellaneous fluid trailing behind us. This is the RBW Roadster—a beautifully restored and reengineered MGB with an electric drivetrain and impressive hardware hidden under evocative sheetmetal.

RBW is launching the Roadster and a coupe GT model at Pebble Beach later in the summer, claiming a fresh take on the electrification of classics. "Everyone is obsessed with numbers," begins Peter Swain, CEO and founder of RBW. "But there has to be a market for people who understand balance, the importance of light weight, and the pure entertainment of a sports car with a 50:50 weight distribution."

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

The RBW Roadster has just 70 kW, or 94 bhp, and despite a low kerb (er, curb) weight of 2860 pounds (similar to an original MGB), its performance is old-school "swift" rather than EV lunacy. Zero to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, a top speed of 87 mph, and a range of 160 miles, or 200 miles with an optional bigger battery. At $135,000, it's not cheap either. However, it's so much more than merely an EV drivetrain stuffed into a classic body. Swain was determined to improve on the MGB's dynamics so that it's safe and thoroughly engineered for the performance available.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, the look is MGB, but everything is pretty much new. Front and rear suspension is now double-wishbones with coil-over dampers, the braking system is lifted from a Mark 6 Golf, and the rear-mounted motor sits within a new subframe that isolates the torque effect of the motor from the car's monocoque. The batteries sit up front where previously the engine was located, so instead of a generic skateboard-style construction, the RBW mimics the weight distribution of the original MGB.

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

Dynamically, the benchmark was a modern Miata and—this is where it gets interesting—the whole chassis concept is modular and scalable. So, any front-engined, rear-drive coupe could conceivably get a similar treatment, and cars with a bigger footprint could benefit from bigger motors.

The cars to be unveiled at Pebble Beach are being built when we visit RBW in Lichfield, amid the Midlands of England (around 120 miles north of London). It's an impressive facility, and Swain's passion and the pride he and chief engineer Ian Mills share are tangible. Mills started his career in motorsport before moving to various OEMs (Jaguar Land Rover, Triumph motorcycles) and then landing at Continental Engineering Services, where he designed and built the first Smart car with an EV drivetrain way back in 2005. His OEM approach melds well with Swain's insistence on a tested and proven concept. Plus, he loves cars. Which helps.

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

That OEM mentality includes a collapsible steering column, a crash-tested battery box, and five CAN Bus units with crash sensors that will disconnect the batteries in the event of a collision.

The fit and finish of the cars is terrific. In the shop, new bodies from British Motor Heritage are refined and, according to customer specifications, deseamed to provide a cleaner, slightly more modern look.

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

Of course, all this would be for nothing if the cars creaked, rattled, and drove like crap. I get a quick taste during a short test drive on the road in a very early production car, then some sideways fun on small local sprint track before a quick blast in a more powerful and lighter track-day version of the RBW Roadster that was just built for a bit of fun. All the effort hasn't been for nothing.

Jump in and it's familiar MGB—only with the quality elevated. That means a snug little cockpit, a wide central tunnel that pushes the pedals toward the outside of the car, and a handbrake that's impossible not to whack a knee against when climbing in. RBW has done its homework engineering the drivetrain and its integration. But "MG knee" is still part of the experience.

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

Select "D" by turning the rotary controller on the tunnel, and the Roadster is ready to go. It rides nicely, and although the structure doesn't feel nearly as rigid as a modern convertible, it isn't much in the way of nasty flex. And the steering column doesn't turn to jiggly jelly entering a corner as in many older roadsters. The strengthening work done to the shell and the more sophisticated suspension system mean it feels cohesive and light on the road.

Performance is effortless and quick enough. As with all EVs, the step-off is impressive, but the lack of outright power means it fades as speeds rise. Yet, it doesn't really matter. Placing the six lithium-ion batteries—and hence the mass—where previously there was an engine is a clever way of maintaining the vintage sports-car feel. That Miata target is evident. The RBW has plenty of body roll but also progressive, easygoing manners on the limit. Silently sliding a little electric sports car around does feel like proper under-the-radar fun. Even the electric power steering works nicely.

rbw electric mgb
ralph bohannon

For all the good stuff, it's clear that the Roadster isn't truly thrilling. There's just not enough performance or control. All the performance targets are met and many exceeded, but the MGB isn't a car that inflames the senses or inspires poetry and lust. Its nostalgic appeal, handsome lines, and old-world vibe transcend the actual capabilities of MG's original creation.

In England, the RBW Roadster is a great pub car. Something to pootle to the pub in on a Sunday, have a roast meal, and then trundle back home down leafy lanes. In the strange world of the restomods, it's also a pretty good value (think of the hours required to simply restore an MGB). I like that it focuses on preserving and enhancing the original car's qualities rather than supplanting them with huge electric motor–enabled performance at all costs.

rbw electric mgb
bohannon

The architecture also has huge potential on all sorts of cars—from Jaguar E-Types to Ford Mustangs. Essentially, they'll 3D-scan the incumbent engine, create a battery box of similar shape, and fill it with battery cells (in this case, Nissan cells). Then the scalable rear subframe—complete with motor, driveshafts, and double-wishbone suspension—can be tweaked to suit each application. Now you've got a crash-tested, fully proven system that isolates the torque reaction from flimsy old structures yet preserves or enhances performance and weight distribution.

The RBW Roadster is enjoyable, even if it won't set anyone's hair on fire. The new Roadster and the GT version will look fantastic at Monterey Car Week. However, the idea of transplanting this system to other cars could be problematic. Throwing out a wheezy, archaic four-cylinder engine is hardly a crime. Doing the same for a Jaguar straight-six or a thunderous V8? That's another matter entirely.

RBW's start is, well, impressive. And the company has big plans too. Including a production facility in the U.S. in 2025. There's never a reason not to encourage lofty ambitions.

premium access to road and track
premium access to road and track

A car loverHearst Owned

You Might Also Like