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