Our Cars : Meet the Fleet No.3 – MG ZS 180

Craig Cheetham

Looking good - when Craig first acquired his ZS, it didn't quite look like this...

Looking good – when Craig first acquired his ZS, it didn’t quite look like this…

Okay, so there are quite a few of these to go through – indeed, until I sat down and worked it out for this very purpose, I’d lost count of how many cars I actually owned (18 at present…).

This one follows a path that, so far, may seem a little familiar in that I rescued it from being on the danger list. I do that quite often – it’s time-consuming, stressful and somewhat chaotic, so in all honesty I can’t put my finger on why I enjoy it so much. But I do, and in doing so I tend to secure the short term future of many I car I think worth saving…

This one’s story is fairly straightforward. Like all good car enthusiasts, I have a mate who knows how cars work infinitely better than I do. He runs a very small country garage (more a large shed, with a bank of regular and grateful clients who, more often than not, are enthusiasts themselves). Last summer, my wife found herself in need of a short-term transport solution at the exact same time as Tony found himself in possession of a 2003 MG ZS 180. EF52 LLO belonged to one of his regulars, who had owned and looked after it for six years. Then, on a frozen morning in February 2013 (there were a few…) the local bin men lost control of their truck on their rounds and it slid gracefully backwards into his driveway, clobbering the ZS down its passenger side and taking out both doors, a mirror and the front wing.

As bought - ZS 180 had been clobbered by an errant bin lorry...
As bought – ZS 180 had been clobbered by an errant bin lorry…

In retrospect, the car stood up incredibly well, with only panel damage and no structural impairment, but apparently the owner had been thinking of getting something more economical anyway. Rather than pursue an insurance claim, the  local council handed over a (rather generous) cheque for £2,000 and the owner bought a diesel Vectra, leaving the broken ZS to Tony to do with as he wished.

His original plan was to break it and sell the bits, but a fortnight later, after a chance email conversation, I found myself in possession of a fully MoT’d and slightly taxed ZS 180 for £375 all in. Pretty it wasn’t, but it got us out of a hole. It also had a full set of nearly new Falken tyres (they’re excellent, by the way) and new discs and pads, plus the assurance (but with no written proof) that the belts were changed at 96,000 miles, against a mileage at the time of 98,700.

Of course, I should have left it there… In time, the ZS was replaced by a significantly more boring VW Golf (she’d strive to differ, I’m sure) and the battered ZS was surplus to requirements. But by that point, it had beguiled me. I used to drive these quite a bit when they were new. I always liked the Z-Cars, and the ZS 180 was, in my opinion, the ultimate. MG Rover’s engineers had clearly spent a lot of time developing the car properly and even today there are few that can match it for all-out poise, grip and handling reassurance. If you haven’t driven one, don’t laugh – this was one of the BEST performance saloons of its day, and even now, 13 years since its launch, it remains a superbly focused driver’s car. Sure, it has the usual nasty HH-R Honda cabin, badly laid out switchgear and weirdly cramped driving position, but in my mind that’s all forgotten once you fire up the KV6 and exploit the truly remarkable chassis. It also looks the part, too, though I confess I do prefer the four-door. At this price level, though, we’re in beggars and choosers territory – plus, we have a pushchair to lug around…

Nobody would disagree that the ZS's cabin was its weak point (would they?), but the pleasure is all in the drive.

Nobody would disagree that the ZS’s cabin was its weak point (would they?), but the pleasure is all in the drive.

So what to do? Initially, I looked at stripping it out to create my own track day car (quite how I’d ever get to do track days with three small kids and a full-time job was a bridge I’d cross a bit further down the line), until one idle evening I was browsing eBay and discovered a Trophy Blue ZS 180 saloon that had been flung driver’s side first into a lamp post. The car was just up the road in Peterborough, the passenger side was undamaged and the owner needed rid quickly, as he’d bought a new car and there was no insurance claim, as it only had third party cover (or so he told me, in broken English…).

There was no going back for this chance eBay find - but to transform the project ZS 180 it was £150 well spent...

There was no going back for this chance eBay find – but to transform the project ZS 180 it was £150 well spent…

...and here's why. All of the nearside panels were perfect, despite its altercation with a lamp post.

…and here’s why. All of the nearside panels were perfect, despite its altercation with a lamp post.

 

And here they are today! Both doors, two wings and a bumper live on, and Craig's ZS is transformed.

And here they are today! Both doors, two wings and a bumper live on, and Craig’s ZS is transformed.

The following day, I’d somehow convinced Tony and his dutiful Talbot Express flatbed that they should accompany me on a nocturnal mission to collect it. £150 changed hands, and we stripped it on the back of the transporter – with both NS doors, both wings and the front bumper finding their way onto EF52 LLO and several other bits rescued for the parts shed. Alas, with no storage we couldn’t take everything that might be useful and it was certainly a wrench to weigh in the shell with engine and box still attached, but we still recouped most of our parts investment by flogging the boot spoiler, naff ‘Lexus-style’ rear lights, a couple of alloys and the aftermarket stereo on eBay. Meanwhile, Tony took the glass for a customer’s Rover 45 that had, unfortunately, had its windows put through by some drunken moron the previous week and I rescued what trim bits I could for the ZS before we dragged it off to the yard. A good parts haul, and by far the best ending for a car that was way beyond salvation anyway…

Over the following two weekends, EF52 LLO was transformed. I replaced both front wings as the driver’s side one had developed a small rust scab, both doors complete with door cards still attached (they’re very slightly different, but it took my wife six months to notice…) and the front bumper. There were still a few scuffs on the lower part of the new bumper, but I discovered by complete coincidence (as I had a tin in my shed from my old 205 GTi) that MG Trophy Blue and Peugeot Miami Blue are essentially the same colour. I’ve tried, and I genuinely can’t see the difference…

The lower half of EF52 LLO's front bumper is actually Peugeot Miami Blue - but can you tell?

The lower half of EF52 LLO’s front bumper is actually Peugeot Miami Blue – but can you tell?

I followed my efforts up with a full valet and, all of a sudden, had a really smart and respectable looking ZS 180 that drives as tightly and as rewardingly as I remember them when new, despite having just ticked over 100k on the clock. It’s not mint, and it has the usual butterfly valve rattle, but it’s genuinely now in very, very nice condition. Sure, I could probably have found one in as good nick for the same amount of money and far less time and effort, but where’s the fun in that?

Another one rescued, and which for the past three months has been providing me with dependable daily transport. I do have a new job on the horizon, though, which comes with a company motor, so very soon the ZS 180 will be surplus to requirements – and this time I really can’t afford to keep them all so once again it’s future hangs a little in the balance. Either the ZS goes, or one of my 800s, or my Volvo 240 (more of that later) – especially as there’s quite possibly a new addition to the fleet imminent. More on that one later…

Craig Cheetham

About the Author:

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

15 Comments on "Our Cars : Meet the Fleet No.3 – MG ZS 180"

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  1. Adam says:

    Keep them coming, Craig!! :)

  2. Ben Adams says:

    That is sublime, you really do know how to be ‘in the right place at the right time’.

    Keep them coming!

  3. Dave Dawson says:

    I am well aware that the chassis of the ZS is regarded as the best of the Zeds. However, given the Civic/400 origins its overall appeal should be lacking. Surprisingly though it’s not. The styling is very successful, especially that front end. The seats enhance the interior sufficiently and, Craig, I don’t think the dash is that bad – remember that in a 306 GTi!!

  4. Dave Dawson says:

    I think though the ideal would be a 2003 or earlier ZS with a 2004 facia transplant!!

  5. ant80 says:

    I like them a lot – very overlooked imho!!

  6. Hilton D says:

    Nice looking car… Trophy Blue always looked good on the Z cars. I owned a 53 plate ZS+120 in X Power Grey. Liked the half leather seats, white dials, Hairpins alloys and extra colour coding etc. Apart from routine services, replacing tyres and brake pads it never gave me any trouble and was my favourite HHR MG Rover car.

  7. Mark M says:

    Lovely car, Craig. Fancy selling it?

  8. Francis Brett says:

    Had a black one, think it was a 01 or 02, a post-accident repair, non-runner, turned out the slam panel hit the rear camdrive and I had to replace three cams and ten valves, I was a bit pissed off because I gave strong money.

    Nevertheless, what a great three months I had before selling and I assert it overmatches an Impreza WRX for handling.

  9. Cliff says:

    “…MG Rover’s engineers had clearly spent a lot of time developing the car properly and even today there are few that can match it for all-out poise, grip and handling reassurance. If you haven’t driven one, don’t laugh – this was one of the BEST performance saloons of its day…”

    Craig, I agree 100% with your words. Back in early 2001 I thought I was going to buy a Seat Leon Cupra or a Subaru Impreza with my company car allowance, but I thought I’d try a ZS 180 before making up my mind. I was hooked as soon as I took it down one of my favourite twisty biking roads. The Z was actually a far better drive than either the Cupra or the Impreza, and quite a bit cheaper – especially as the dealer had knocked off a further £500 on the screen price of a ‘pre-reg’ between me viewing it and going back to do the deal.

    I kept it for a very enjoyable 3 years and 65000 miles before a job change forced me back into a company car – a Citroen C5 (I was not happy !!!).

  10. lancerqrl says:

    I bought a 4-door ZS 120 as a trade in from work almost a year ago, set of wipers to get it through the MoT and a year’s cheap motoring – with handling that leaves almost every modern car with much more power in its wake.

    Its party trick is to turn into a junction or side street and floor it, just love watching VWs and Audis disappear behind you as they can’t get round sharply enough. So much so the wife’s Audi had to go, to be replaced by a Fiesta ST, which although awesome in handling and on a par with the ZS, the electronic trickery can be felt in the Fiesta compared to the natural ability of the ZS.

  11. Glenn Aylett says:

    My SEO (departmental manager) had an ’04 plate one which she bought not long before Rover went under. It was a very nice car, but as the Rover dealer switched to selling Nissans, when it was trade in time, and she wasn’t struck on the Qashqai, she traded in the MG for a SEAT Leon FR, which she said was just as exciting to drive.

  12. Darren says:

    Great cars and bargain buys today.

    Still got mine I’ve had from new, preserved with 28k dry miles on clock and doing fewer than 1k a year now.

  13. Paul Taylor says:

    Strange coincidence your Rover dealer went to Nissan, our’s did, too. Not a patch on the character of the Zs…

    Indeed, my Dad still has his ’54 plate Rover 45 from that dealership as he has no inclination to get anything from the Nissan range, even though he bought his cars from that dealer for over 30 years.

  14. Nigel says:

    Had a ZS 180 Hatch, Mk2 since June 2005 and NO plans to dispose of it. Not as quick in a straight line as many more modern offerings, but when the twisty bits start, then a most enjoyable engaging drive. Always been reliable and rustproofed and soundproofed from when I bought it. Very solid car. Designed in an era when Honda were growing on the back of quality, before cost was stripped out of cars, and I don’t mean the Project Drive “deletions” which have all been made good. Underrated bargain!

  15. Mark Hayman says:

    I agree what most coments made, i have a 54 plate in firefrost, am lucky to have rear spoiler, sunroof, fitted in mine. Its shame though i cant fit a spare 17 alloy wheel in the wheel space in the back, it has one of space saver type one installed, i noted with the 05 plated ones have the suede inserts on the seats, rear electic windows and radio controls in steering wheel fitted as standard, Iam sure it had a Rover radio installed with cd multi changer also, where as the earlier ones had a Kenwood radio installed with cd changer, my one was a retro fit as the garage was purchase from just installed the changer on the floor of the boot area not using the correct bracket mounted on lhs of boot area, i since obtained a bracket and installed changer as should of been, now get the boot carpet out etc,i have also obtained the radio controls and leads and interface units to have my dab kenwood radio controlled from steering wheel,as other coments am going to keep mine as also done 42000 so far. I noted in a 2004 brochure that they display one with black ash inserts on the day instead of the engineers grey, would to obtain a set i think it look nice as they do in some the late R 45s, its a well solid car but not well built compare to my R reg R420gsi as door handles keep braking!! . Good luck to all keeping there z180s going. Regards mark

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