Phoenix Follies (Part One)

At a crucial moment, and to the detriment of their mainstream business, MG Rover’s management squandered time and money on frivolous distractions.

2004 MG Xpower SV-R (c) topspeed.com

It had all started so well, or so it appeared. It was May 2000 and, after months of uncertainty and worry, Rover Group, the UK’s last remaining indigenous volume car manufacturer, was independent again and back under British ownership. Phoenix Venture Holdings, a consortium of businessmen led by John Towers, had secured ownership of the bulk of Rover for a nominal fee of £10 and negotiated a generous ‘dowry’ of £500 million from BMW AG. The German automotive giant was just relieved to be rid of its troublesome English patient and Phoenix took full advantage of a distressed seller.

When Towers and his colleagues, Peter Beale, Nick Stephenson and John Edwards, arrived at Longbridge, they were fêted as heroes and optimism for the company’s future was high. The first part of their business plan was simple, but brilliant. The company would be renamed MG Rover and the MG name, then confined to one model, the MGF mid-engined roadster, would be revived.

Rover’s existing model range comprised the 25 supermini, the Honda-based C-segment 45 hatchback and saloon, and the large 75 saloon, developed under BMW ownership. All these models had a slightly genteel image and they had been deliberately positioned as comfort-orientated cars, to distinguish them from BMW’s own range, with its focus on performance and dynamic prowess. To underline the distinction, they were marketed under the soporific tagline, “Relax, it’s a Rover”.

Phoenix’s plan was to develop MG versions of all three models with a sporting dynamic bias and appropriate décor. MG Rover still possessed the engineering expertise to revise the cars’ mechanical specification appropriately and, no longer constrained by BMW stipulations as to what a Rover should be, did so quickly and effectively.  The chassis and suspension changes were overseen by Rob Oldaker, while designer Peter Stevens penned the cosmetic changes.

2001 MG Z Car range (c) mg-cars.org.uk

The new MG models, named ZR, ZS and ZT, were revealed in January 2001 while still under development, with customer deliveries starting from mid-year. Also launched was an estate version of the 75 called the Tourer and its MG equivalent, the ZT-T. No changes to the body pressings were made for the MG versions. Instead, the chrome trim of the Rover cars was replaced with black or colour-keyed equivalents. Alloy wheels, different bumper mouldings and side skirts completed the external transformation. Inside, bolstered seats, different instrumentation and trim choices created an ambience quite different to that of Rover.

Quickly and relatively cheaply, MG Rover had significantly enlarged its prospective customer base. The new MGs were well received by the motoring press. Goodwill towards MG Rover was strong in the UK, but the cars were dynamically accomplished, and quite different in character to their Rover equivalents, so the praise was deserved.

2000 Qvale Mangusta (c) bringatrailer.com

A few months before the new MG models were launched, Nick Stephenson had been approached by Bruce Qvale, who was interested in finding a European partner to distribute the Qvale Mangusta, a front-engined rear-wheel-drive sports car manufactured in Italy. The Mangusta had been styled by Marcello Gandini and was powered by a 4.6 litre Ford modular V8 engine. Supposedly inspired by the TVR Griffith, the Mangusta was originally intended to be sold under the De Tomaso marque as the Biguà, but Qvale, who had funded the car’s development, fell out with Alejandro de Tomaso over licensing and distribution rights, so De Tomaso withdrew.

Following the approach, Stephenson and Peter Beale formed the view that the Mangusta could provide the basis for a flagship sports car for the soon to be relaunched MG marque. Negotiations commenced and were concluded in just three months, with MG Rover reportedly paying £7 million for the Mangusta’s design and production equipment. The acquisition was announced in June 2001 and a concept car, the X80, revealed at the same time. The concept must have been produced very quickly and was perhaps rather underwhelming in its appearance(1) but, together with the new MG production cars, it was taken as an encouraging sign of vigorous activity and forward planning at MG Rover.

2001 MG X80 Concept (c) supercars.net

Peter Stevens, who had previously designed the McLaren F1, was commissioned to produce a new design for what would be called the MG XPower SV in production. Stevens certainly gave the SV much more aggressive styling, although there was little he could do to disguise the bluff front end and tall bonnet line, dictated by the height of the Ford V8 engine. One striking feature of the design was a large grille in each front wing behind the wheel arch(2).

Despite having bodywork constructed expensively from carbon fibre, there was more than a whiff of kit-car about the production SV. Spotters recognised headlights from the 1999 Fiat Punto Mk2 and tail lights from the 1993 Fiat Coupé. The 18” OZ alloy wheels seemed to be lost in the enormous wheel arches and the car was unusually tall at 1,320mm (52”) which was, for example, 120mm (4 ¾”) taller than the contemporary TVR Tuscan. Despite the carbon fibre bodywork, the SV weighed in at a hefty 1,540kg (3,395lbs) which was 223kg (491lbs) more than a contemporary (996 Generation) Porsche 911.

The production process for the SV was convoluted: carbon fibre body parts were manufactured in the UK and shipped to Italy where the body was assembled and fitted to the chassis, and running gear installed. This was then shipped back to the UK for finishing at Longbridge.

The SV was launched in 2003 in two versions, a 4.6 litre costing £65k and a 5.0 litre SV-R at £85k. It was one of the latter versions that Autocar magazine road-tested in June 2004. The reviewers commented on its unusual height and proportions, closer to a BMW M3 coupé than the supercars against which it was supposedly pitched. Full racing harnesses rather than seat belts were fitted, presumably to compensate for the inexcusable lack of airbags. The carbon fibre bodywork was impressively smooth, but the interior build quality was no better than TVR’s, while lacking the latter’s redeeming interesting and quirky details. Worse, the smell of adhesive was all-pervading inside.

2004 MG Xpower SV-R (c) retromotor.co.uk

The engine, bored out to 5.0 litres, produced 385bhp (287kW) at 6,000rpm. MG Rover claimed a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 5.1 seconds and a top speed of 175mph (282km/h). However, the engine note was quite coarse and intrusive above 4500rpm and the gearchange was heavy and unpleasant. Poor pedal positioning made heel-and-toe gear changes impossible. The brakes were, however, “sensational” and ride quality “remarkably fluid”, if at times “under-damped”. Steering was “quick and accurate…without being in any way nervous”.

The major problem for the SV-R was its price. £85k was “just nuts” according to the reviewer. It was deep into Porsche 911 territory and, for those that did not want the obvious choice, the TVR Tuscan or Noble M12 were better alternatives than the SVR.

Autocar’s downbeat assessment of the SV’s prospects proved to be prophetic: just 82 examples were produced between 2003 and 2005, but only nine had been sold by the time MG Rover went into administration in April of that year.

Another related folly was MG Rover’s re-engineering of the 75 / ZT bodyshell to accept the 4.6 litre Ford V8 engine and rear-wheel-drive transmission. The 75 and ZT V8 models were launched at the Geneva Show in 2004 and a total of just under 900 saloon and estate models were produced in both Rover and MG guises. They are regarded as collectible today, but whether or not they had any halo effect in boosting sales of mainstream Rover and MG models is a moot point.

These would not be the last of MG Rover’s follies. The story continues in Part Two.

(1) The X80 Concept resembled an enlarged coupé version of the MG TF that would replace the MGF roadster in 2002.
(2) This styling feature would find its way onto the facelifted 2004 MG ZS 180, where it most definitely did look misplaced.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

23 thoughts on “Phoenix Follies (Part One)”

  1. Good morning Daniel and thank you for an interesting article. I was vaguely aware of the MG Sports saloons but had no idea about the other models you have mentioned. Seems like an ongoing disaster story so anticipating more revelations in Part 2.

  2. One has to remember that this car was styled at the peak of The Fast and the Furious and WRC mania, so while objectively quite wonky looking, it was just crazy enough to enter the dream garage of a lot of young lads like myself.

    It has all the big styling tropes of the early 2000’s, so i still love it, though probably mostly for nostalgic reasons.
    The bold colours, wide bodykit, crazy vents and huge wing was just what i wanted at the time.

    I just checked the prices, and if i had the money, i would buy one right now – they’re really cheap for such a memorable low volume “supercar”!

    1. Good morning bjarnetv. Fair point about the SV’s appearance. I was clearly not part of the demographic to which it was designed to appeal! It looks like something from a computer game, and that was the point, I guess.

      Autotrader currently has two on sale, has an SV for £40k and an SV-R for £70k. Hmm, not sure about the investment potential, and there are much better developed and more polished alternatives for that sort of money.

      Still, for every bolt, there’s a nut…😁

    2. yeah, its a weird car from a “dead” brand, so it’s never going to be a Toyota GT 2000 kind of investment, but at the same time i can’t see it depreciating any lower, and it does carry a certain appeal as a halo-car that promised to revive MG, but ended as a rather memorable failure.

      You’re probably never going to meet another one on the road either, and people will most definitely come over to talk to you about it 😉

      Over here £40k is about the same price as a new Golf GTE, so i know which one i would pick!

    3. The V8 is not exotic so maintanance should be acceptable. Bodywork won’t rust and if your headlights are broken, replacement parts will be easy to source! The GTE cannot claim these advantages.

  3. The only MG-badged cars of that era that made any kind of impact in the Greek market were the ZR and the TF, the latter becoming the ride of choice for a professor who, when I was an undergraduate student and he scooted along in an ancient Suzuki Samurai, taught us Automatic Control Systems.

  4. Dear Daniel

    Thank you for this article, which inspired me to mentally travel back in time to the years 1998 to 2000. In those days, I had just finished my studies and had been hired by a renowned brand consultancy in Switzerland to strategically strengthen their extensive activities around the BMW brand and communication budget.

    The focus of our work was on BMW brand management and the reinterpretation of the MINI and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars brands for their respective revitalisation and continuation under the umbrella of BMW AG. Actually, we were more than busy with that.

    It must have been at the end of 1998 when we received a request from Munich to accompany the strategic discussions on the continuation of the Rover and MG brands. Even at that time it was known that Munich was increasingly concerned about the activities and figures of these brands (I was personally present at the Birmingham Motor Show in October 1998 when the then CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder misused the world premiere of the Rover 75, of all things, to officially report to the world for the first time about the difficulties with this brand).

    A trip of several days followed, which first took us to the former development centre in Gaydon, where the models in the pipeline at the time were revealed to us with astonishing openness. Two concepts are still fresh in my memory: a large and almost outrageously elegant coupé in the spirit of the Jaguar XJC, which, according to reports, was largely driven by Bernd Pischetsrieder and was to be the first representative of the Riley brand chosen for revitalisation.

    And then there were the new roadsters and coupes on the technical basis of the new MINI (model R50), which was itself still in final development at the time. I well remember the enthusiasm that these design models aroused among all those present. One of the more striking design features were headlight units placed on the bonnet in the style of the legendary Frogeye based on the Austin Healey Sprite.

    Our enthusiasm and confidence abruptly vanished the following day when a visit to the Longbridge factory was scheduled. The sheer size of the factory, coupled with the terrible condition of the building substance, made us realise that this was one of the major problems of this venture. What we found was so unbelievably dilapidated that at first we could not believe that operations could actually still be maintained there. We were definitely not experts in the construction and operation of production facilities. Nevertheless, it was very quickly clear that this place was largely responsible for being in such dire financial straits.

    What followed after that visit were months of ongoing debate – preferably in Munich. There was no getting away from it. And I still retain the impression today that key managers in the BMW AG head office were at that time already demonstrating an increasing reluctance to tackle the challenges surrounding the Rover and MG brands with the necessary degree of professional motivation and fighting spirit. In this respect, from today’s perspective, it is not surprising under which circumstances the separation took place in 2000.

    What remains today is the question of whether MG and Rover had any chance at all after the split? On the face of it, the deal between BMW AG and the new management of MG Rover seems to have included generous components for the latter.

    But then there was still Longbridge, what Munich dumped on MG Rover in the course of this deal. A plant whose attempts at restructuring drove the financially much more potent BMW AG to the brink of ruin. And now MG Rover was supposed to be in a legitimate position to continue this project with success. Did anyone really believe that at the time?

    Even among the existing product substance there was little light and a lot of shadow. The MG product developments mentioned above were linked to the technical platform of the MINI R50. And they no longer had access to this after the separation. Therefore, the existing Rover models had to be cosmetically trimmed to fit MG. At that time, the Rover 25 and 45 were already getting on in years and were still based on Honda components, which the company continued to have to pay for.

    And in my opinion, the Rover 75 suffered very quickly from its stylistic focus towards the past. Compared to the Jaguar S-Type, which was presented at the same time, the vehicle was clearly of a higher quality (although this does not really seem difficult in view of the S-Type’s interior at the time) – which initially earned it some applause; nevertheless, the vehicle design clearly missed the prevailing zeitgeist throughout its construction period (which, for example, was shaped by the introduction of the iPhone for the long term).

    Seen in this light, one can certainly gain the impression that MG Rover never really had a real chance of achieving lasting success without a connection to a potent major partner.

    1. Hi Mark. Thank you for a fascinating insight into the inner workings of BMW and Rover at that time. That’s a good question you pose, whether Rover had any viable path to a long-time term future after BMW disposed of it. It’s something I address in Part Two of this piece, so I’ll say no more for now, other than I suspect that BMW didn’t really care, as long as Rover survived long enough so that it (BMW) wasn’t damaged in reputational terms by its ultimate failure, hence the ‘dowry’ of £500 million, which provided vital working capital, for a time at least.

    2. Berndt Pischetsrieder must have been incredibly provoked to go so wildly off message at that motor show. There were lots of problems at Rover but that remark really damaged Rover. Provoked as he might have been it was a fabulously unhelpful intervention. “This is our new car – this company is in borrowed time… Buy our car …. Rover might not be around in five years. Thank you.”
      Fundamentally, the issue was working culture though. I lived in the UK at the time and I have lived in Europe most of the time afterwards. The UK working culture was so different to the UK´s. BMW had the burden of the historical-political tensions to contend with plus the simpler ones of being the take-over firm. I presume there was simply a lot of hostility and a lack of will to cooperate. From the Rover side proposals and suggestions were probably viewed as commands. Now as Mark reports, the facilities were antediluvian and, presumably, so too were the attitudes.

    3. I don’t think MG Rover had a hope, unless it had quickly found a new partner. It is highly doubtful that the rival plan by Jon Moulton would have fared any better – at the time, he was in protracted negotiations with BMW to buy Rover and turn it into a much smaller manufacturer, aimed at the more expensive end of the market. It’s unlikely the troubled brand could have sustained that.

      The real shame is that, firstly, Rover lost its partnership with Honda, who had been a patient and very useful ally, and then failed to capitalise on the investment provided by BMW. The Rover 75, MINI and Range Rover were all excellent products – but they weren’t able to save the company.

  5. Ford closed down Brown’s Lane, Fiat closed down Arese… Seeing that JLR make Land Rovers -and- Jaguars at Gaydon, why were BMW “stuck” with Longbridge?

    1. Gooddog: BMW inherited both Cowley and Longbridge car plants as these were the main BL/ARG/Rover Group production facilities. Once BMW decided to dispose of Rover/MG, they elected to retain Cowley as the home of MINI, as it more or less, remains. That left Longbridge, which was it seems a basket case, but buyer beware and Towers et al would have known what they were getting into.

      As a point of order, no JLR production takes place at Gaydon, nor did it in BL/ARG/RG’s day. Gaydon, once a V-bomber base for Britain’s nuclear deterrent was redeveloped as BL’s research and development centre and test track in the late 1970s. It now consists of JLR’s headquarters, R&D centre and design studio. Aston Martin are next door, as is the British Motor Museum – (well worth a visit.) JLR’s current production facilities are at Halewood (former Ford plant and once home of the X-Type), Solihull (purpose built for the SD-1 and then mothballed) and Castle Bromwich (once Pressed Steel Fisher, later Jaguar body production). There is also some sub-contracted production at Magna Steyr in Austria.

  6. The Z-Cars were a positive step that could have had a greater impact had they appeared earlier, however MG Rover was beyond saving post-BMW with the Ford V8 models being a costly and pointless diversion, the focus on the SV (and 75/ZT V8) would have been better spend on the TF GT (and 75/ZT Coupe) even if it would prove to be as effective as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Click to access mg1.pdf

    1. That’s an interesting analysis, Bob, thanks for sharing. Any idea who authored it?

  7. Hi Daniel, MG Rover was a bit shouty, obviously as a distraction from its precarious state. I’m curious as to what your conclusion might be regarding MG Rover’s chances. I’ve always found it remarkable that BMW cultivated the story that they more or less stumbled into the Rover mess, only finding out after the purchase what a precarious state the company was in. I seem to remember something about differing accounting methods: Rover made money according to their own method, but lost money according to BMW’s method. Surely that’s what due diligence is for?

    Of course, in the end they cherry-picked the most viable brand properties and, as per AROnline’s analysis, maybe they discovered that the BMW brand itself could be stretched far enough to facilitate the sales growth they were after and so felt free to cut loose the rest. It still begs the question: why go there in the first place?

    I’ve always been curious about an alternative history where Rover and Honda had kept their alliance alive. Since Honda itself has all but disappeared from Europe (certainly compared to when the alliance was there: I still see more Hondas from that period around than contemporary ones), one wonders if the result would have been the same, or that the more rigorous engineering and production principles (with a few exceptions where Rover’s engineering led the way) of Honda, combined with Rover’s local knowledge would have changed the outcome. In some ways, BMW shot for the moon with Rover and poor old auntie just couldn’t keep up. Maybe a more modest approach from Honda and Rover (provided the relationship improved again after the HH-R (Rover 400) era) would have had better results. Certainly no Rover 75, though, in that case.

    1. No Rover 75, but the 600 that preceded it was a more than decent car, based on the then European market Accord. The current (US) Accord is also a very decent model.

      However, the big question would be product planning and marketing, which always seemed hapless.

      When initial bullish sales figures were missed (undone by overly ambitious pricing or wrong market positioning), Rover would then justify this post-fact by claiming their cars were more ‘exclusive’ than rivals.

      In the rare cases where they had a sales hit, they would move quickly to correct the anomaly (usually by hiking the prices).

    2. Too true, Jacomo. Though, whether by chance or planning, the SD3 Rover 200 and particularly the R8 200 sold quite well and did wonders for their reputation (though not, perhaps, to the extent they themselves imagined). As I understand it (through AROnline), the working relationship during the Rover 800, R8 and 600 (nice cars all, and good sellers) development was quite good, souring for the HH-R development and pretty much poisoned by the BMW takeover. Still, for a while there seemed synergy there, and it did both brands favours.

      I’ve always liked the 600 a lot, its Honda sibling was very nice too (a specific model for Europe, apart from the station wagon), but the 600 was nicer. Not quite there, but inching closer to the Germans.

  8. Let’s put the cart before the horse and delve into the history that ultimately led to the takeover of the Rover Group by BMW AG.

    According to various sources and contemporary witnesses, it is all down to the first BMW X5 (E53): its preliminary development reportedly consisted of comparatively extensive discussions, studies and competitive analyses. Allegedly, Munich was for a long time somewhat hesitant about the extent to which it would be capable of developing such a vehicle concept on its own, given its existing experience and resources.

    Accordingly, there were some deliberations about taking existing concepts into consideration as a technical basis. Two vehicles attracted particular interest: Jeep Cherokee and Range Rover. Apparently, there were far-reaching discussions with the manufacturers in both cases.

    It must have been in this context that the two alpha animals on the BMW board at the time, Bernd Pischetsrieder and Wolfgang Reitzle, succumbed more and more to the appeal of the Range Rover brand. It is said that both of them, in rare unity, first tried to acquire the Land Rover brand individually from the Rover Group. And they were told: “All or nothing”.

    1. The view of BMW acting like corporate raiders remains popular among some circles, but if that indeed was the masterplan, it was executed in astoundingly incompetent a fashion.

      Within BMW, Pischetsrieder maintained the view that they were too small a business to remain independent in the long run. So like Daimler-Benz a few years later, they were actively seeking a volume brand ‘partner’, which obviously worked out just beautifully in either case. Reitzle had considered Rover a basket case from the get-go and was hence against the takeover, but initially at least he actively tried to participate in turning around the company. Once he became convinced that Rover would irrevocably constitute a threat to BMW, also as Pischetsrieder was unwilling to put the British branch on a tighter leash, he withdrew from the former’s supervisory board and only participated in the development process of the car at the time called L30 and today known as the L322 Range Rover – a product that certainly wasn’t created in isolation at Rover Group, but received considerable input and funding from Munich, too (even the design team was working under joint Rover-BMW leadership) .

      Let’s also not forget what a large leap in every conceivable way L30/L322 constituted: its predecessor was really merely a rebodied first-generation Range Rover. By the standards of the mid-90s it was hardly a cutting edge product and benefitted greatly from that sector being accustomed to utility vehicle, rather than luxury car standards. By contrast, L322 could truly be considered an S-class competitor, owing to factors the pesky Bavarians had brought to the table. So even if Rover didn’t benefit from BMW’s custodianship (despite all the money sunk into the brand), Land Rover most certainly did, the rewards of which BMW themselves wouldn’t reap.

      If BMW indeed were just after 4×4 engineering expertise to develop the first X5, they certainly paid a hefty premium. Only with hindsight can BMW’s own ensuing crisis be called anything other than fundamental and dramatic – for not only did they lose billions of Deutschmarks, but also large numbers of highly regarded executives. Eberhard von Kuenheim, chairman of the BMW’s supervisory board at the time and responsible for these omnishambles to a considerable extent, was hence on the brink of destroying what he’d helped build up over the previous 25 years. If it hadn’t been for the Quandt family’s tenaciousness, Jac Nasser might have coughed up the billions required to take over the listing Bavarian ship. Quite some risk just for some AWD know-how, I’d argue.

  9. Good morning Tom, Mark and Christopher, and thanks all for your contributions to the story that preceded the events described in my piece. I doubt that the full story of Rover Group under BMW, then MG Rover under Phoenix, will ever be revealed by the senior insiders. BMW former executives just want to forget it ever happened, and the Phoenix lot don’t want to admit to their mismanagement (and worse).

    1. Thanks, Daniel. I think you’re right: all three comments boil down to the fact that BMW did certainly gain from the whole thing (X5, Mini, Rolls), but the cost at which this was achieved and the misconceptions that must have existed beforehand are, frankly, mystifying. Such an indictment of the BMW (and as Christopher points out, Mercedes) leadership – both individuals and the entire decision making process – will probably be happily buried by all concerned. Maybe there was a certain amount of corporate hubris on the part of both BMW and Mercedes? “We know these brands (Rover and Chrysler) are a godawful mess, but we’re such good managers, just look at our track record, that we’ll right these ships too.” If ever there was a case of “past results give no guarantee for the future”…

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