Could MG Ever Become Great Again?
By Andy Bannister
In a move which almost no-one believed would ever happen, new MG roadsters have started trickling down the production line in Longbridge, England, nearly four years after the last British-owned volume car producer went bankrupt.
The revival is, of course, entirely due to the MG brand’s new owners, China Nanjing Automobile Corporation, which continues to entertain prospects of a global revival of the once-great brand. Its heyday was in the 1960s when for a brief time people couldn’t get enough of the open-topped Midget and MGB, like the classic wire-wheel example pictured above which I recently came across on a trip to Madeira.
Optimists may be rejoicing at the latest news, but scratch beneath the surface and the prospects for MG still look shaky, to say the least.
For a start, only 500 examples of the revived MG TF Roadster (in a newly-titled but little changed LE500 form) are being produced at first, and the giant Longbridge works is hardly a manufacturing plant any more. The body and 1.8-litre British-designed 134bhp powertrain are now shipped from China and simply assembled by the tiny UK workforce.
Another unknown is how many people will be prepared to pay serious money for an MG after all that’s happened in recent years. Some die-hard marque fans clearly will, with reports saying that 70 per cent of the first 500 have already been pre-sold.
Other consumers are going to be much more wary, however. Values of MG-Rover cars plummeted after the company went out of business, and while the saloons may have been harder hit than the limited volume TF it has hardly helped an already-tarnished badge.
Then there’s the car itself. The TF is now pretty ancient as modern cars go, being based on the 1995 MG F, conceived at one of Rover’s rare moments of optimism and for a time deservedly Europe’s best-selling budget open sports car. The facelift to create the TF was six years ago and hardly radical.
Meanwhile, the competition – notably the Mazda MX-5 – is now a lot more sophisticated and capable. In addition, a whole array of electric-roof cabriolets from mainstream companies have stolen a large section of the market, particularly among female buyers.
Amazingly, the latest TF’s price of £16,399 (more than $32,000) is higher than the base MX-5 on the UK market, although the MG does promise some nice features including a unique piano black interior with sports style leather seats, parking sensors, and alloy wheels in either chrome or matte black finish. Most press pictures have shown the car in vivid orange, but a choice of paint finishes will be available.
A few short years ago, the company had a pretty good network of dealers across the UK and much of Europe, but these have all been lost to other makes – Kia and Hyundai snapped up a good few of them.
The Chinese are clearly excited about the lure of the octagon badge, despite insisting nowadays it stands for Modern Gentleman rather than the original Morris Garages. However, how many modern buyers really think of an MG as anything but a nice old classic car?
In the United States, MG hasn’t been on sale for well over a quarter of a century, and the last examples of the marque imported, for the 1980 model year, were feeble old relics with puny engines and styling ruined by clumsy “federal bumpers”.
British Leyland mercifully never put into production the MG-badged Triumph TR7 that was planned at one stage, or that could have been the final indignity.
Nor were Americans aware of the existence of MG-badged sporty versions of various 1980s Austins or the other MG saloons that followed them.
The lure of rich pickings in the USA still appeals to MG’s owners. However, an ill-conceived recent Chinese plan to assemble a coupe version of the TF roadster in Oklahoma has apparently sunk without trace, and common sense suggests was probably doomed from the start.
Meanwhile, the British dealers who have so far signed up to sell the revived TF are specialist sports car retailers – the sort who once sold TVRs – and clearly they aren’t going to be expecting to sell a volume product. MG’s recent adverts in the Britith motoring press talk of the 500 units as if that is the totality of production plans.
Maybe if it does sell out, Nanjing will be content to let the car solider on for a couple of years in tiny numbers to supply the fan base, while they concentrate on trying to sell Chinese-made saloons. Limited exports to Europe – which had a surprisingly soft spot for the little MG – could be also be on the cards.
The real question is whether – particularly in the current climate – the company is prepared to spend serious money on designing a TF successor when it’s unlikely much of a market for such a car exists in China itself.
MG, together with arch-rival Triumph, once ruled the small open car field, with only the Italians seriously in competition. That was long, long ago, however.
Getting the price, quality and appeal of such a car right today and selling it successfully around the world – including an eventual return to the US market – sounds like a pretty tall order.
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