Thoroughbred Contender or Trojan Horse? MG’s Brave New World
By Andy Bannister
One of the motoring world’s great “comeback kids” is MG, which regularly has its obituary written only to pop up again in a new form.
The company is now posed to relaunch itself in Europe under the auspices of new Chinese owner Nanjing Automobile, which has big plans for the future.
The famous MG initials, originally standing for Morris Garages, have been rather dubiously rebranded Modern Gentleman, presumably reflecting the hoped-for target audience for the
Most people across the Atlantic may be under the impression that MG died for good in 1980 when its factory in Abingdon was closed down by British Leyland, killing off its long-lived Midget and MGB sports cars. These vehicles, with their roots in the 1960s, had limped on for years with little or no investment from BL, which was intent on pushing the ill-fated Triumph TR7, itself doomed to die unreplaced.
MG and its iconic octagon badge was not destined to lie quietly in its grave, however. Just two years later, British Leyland revived MG and put the historic marque name on a sporty version of its then new small car, the Austin Metro. Enthusiasts were not happy, but the move did at least have its roots in the history of MG, which started life making souped-up versions of humble saloon cars.
The unexpected success of the MG Metro 1300 led to a host of other MG-badged Austins, including a flashy Metro Turbo and even MG versions of the dowdy Austin Maestro hatchback and the ungainly Montego saloon. In hindsight most of these cars were not that good at the time and look pretty embarrassing now in terms of the company’s heritage.
The privatisation of state-owned BL led to a change of policy, prompted by ever-closer links with Japanese partner Honda, and a decision to concentrate instead on the Rover badge, one of the few seen then as relatively untarnished by years of problems for the troubled company. The MGs were quietly phased out and the marque died once more.
Shortly afterwards, however, the badge reappeared on one of the stranger British cars of the 1990s, the MG RV8, a revived version of the MGB convertible shell with the Rover (ex-Buick) V8 and a wood-and-leather interior. Made in limited numbers, it was a particular success in Japan. The RV8, if nothing else, paved the way for the first “proper” MG sports car for decades, the little mid-engined MGF, a success story for Rover in Britain and across Europe, challenging Mazda’s MX-5, and eventually evolving into the improved TF model.
Under BMW’s brief and disastrous ownership of Rover, MG received little attention, but when the company was rescued from BMW by new owners Phoenix, a key aim was the full-blown revival of the MG badge as an antidote to the rather staid image Rover had developed.
In a replay of what happened in the 1980s, sportier but essentially badge engineered MG versions of Rover’s ageing 25 and 45 models were launched as the ZR and ZS, and Rover’s one new product, the capable 75 executive saloon and estate, evolved into the MG ZT and ZT Tourer, with one version even featuring a V8 Ford Mustang engine.
The cars were a success, but only diverted attention from the failure of Rover to attract enough sales or make money. When independent MG Rover finally collapsed in 2005, the company’s bones were picked over by two Chinese companies, Nanjing and Shanghai Automotive, who quickly shipped anything of value off to China, including the rights to all MG Rover’s range and plans of forthcoming models the cash-starved company couldn’t get into production.
There was vague talk at that time of production restarting at MG Rover’s old and historic Longbridge plant in Birmingham – the home of generations of Austins – but few believed it, least of all the company’s redundant workers.
Nanjing has, however, recently shown pictures of a lightly revamped MG TF coming down the Longbridge production line. Numbers though are pitifully small and the cars are assembled from
Chinese bits, leading to accusations of shamelessly exploiting a British heritage which no longer exists.
The cars, lightly facelifted and to be known as the TF 500LE (the 500 refers to units of production), are available to order now. Meanwhile in China, Nanjing has started selling the MG ZT under a new name, MG 7, and is talking of exports to the UK and other countries. The 7 looks superficially very similar to its ZS predecessor but should be cheaper.
If Nanjing can pull it off in terms of holding on to what positive associations MG still retains has whilst offering a British-engineered product at a low-cost price they might just have half a chance of success. It’s hard not to wonder though if this latest MG revival may go down in history as a Trojan horse, designed to overcome consumers’ suspicions of Chinese cars.
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