The most powerful version of the rear-wheel-drive MG ZT spent a long time in development – and, in the end, it didn’t make it into production, as time ran out for it.
Wearing the coveted chassis number one, the ZT XPower 385 is another of those fascinating might-have-beens that never saw the light of day. Keith Adams tells the fascinating blame and counter-blame story of a bust-up between MG Rover and Prodrive…
BMW M5 Basher?
One of the most fascinating announcements made by MG Rover management in the immediate aftermath of the BMW sale was the proclamation that the company would be developing a range of rear-wheel-drive MG saloons based on the front-wheel-drive Rover 75.
Eyebrows were raised, given the general opinion was that MGR would not last more than two years, and such bold cars are not the domain of a company in terminal decline. However, the prototype was shown around various motor shows, and reaction from potential buyers and the press was extremely positive.
MGR stated that the V8 versions of the ZT saloon and ZT-T Tourer would be available in two forms: the 260bhp ZT and ZT-T V8, and the other, the 385hp XPower ZT 385 version. The power source would be the V8 Ford Mustang engine (ironically also to be used in the XPower SV, although this was not in place when the ZT-Extreme was conceived) and there would be much chassis development – handled by Rob Oldaker.
The launch was provisionally set for late 2002, and MG enthusiasts (and those looking for a spiritual successor to the SD1 version of the Rover Vitesse) sat and waited in anticipation…
…and waited and waited and waited and waited.
Prodrive given the job
In good Rover tradition (look at the MGF and RV8 for examples), the development of the car was outsourced – in this case, the company tasked was Prodrive. The people behind WRC Subaru Imprezas were charged with the major task of converting the 75/ZT back to rear-wheel drive.
Given the fact that the Rover 75 platform was not based on the rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 or 5 Series, the conversion was far from straightforward (for a start, there was not enough room for a rear differential without major body modifications).
The development phase was, therefore, not trouble-free and it was reported that the collaboration went sour. One major issue was the cost of the project: according to one journalist, development costs were alleged to have spiralled, going some five times over their original budget.
A Prodrive Engineer, who worked on the project, countered this: ‘As for the costs spiralling out of control, the project was taken on at a fixed cost which wasn’t exceeded, although MGR then tried (and failed) to get some of that money back through the courts.’
As a result of this, development was taken in-house, and as can be seen from the accompanying photograph, the development XPower ZT in near-production trim was spotted out and about in the Midlands.
It certainly looked good on the road. Jon Mower, who saw it in action, and took the above photo, said: ‘…the front of the car did not have the standard MG ZT grille; it was similar to that of the new SV. The tyres were different sizes, front and rear…’
As can be seen from this picture, the stance of the MG XPower ZT 385 is somewhat more adventurous than the already sporting MG ZT V8; the wheelarches have been widened considerably (in a similar way to the Audi RS2, 4 and 6 models) in order to house wide enough rubber to handle the 385hp this car is reported to put out.
According to one Engineer, who worked on the project, it shared little with the standard ZT 260, and that would explain the fact its development dragged on for so long. He said: ‘The shell was standard but, apart from that, there was very little shared in common with the production ZT 260- basically because it was no good. We spent a lot of money sorting the chassis out, because Prodrive was a bit wide of the mark. The original cars were basically totally re-engineered to sort out all of the problems.’
According to a Prodrive Engineer, this was not the case: ‘Despite being given an incredibly vague design spec, which amounted to “Put this V8 in that car, and make it an M5 beater,” we developed a car that rode beautifully and was all but unstickable from the road. However, MGR decided quite late in the programme that the superb ride and handling that matched the M5 was too safe – they wanted it to be ‘edgy’ and to have the feeling that it was barely tamed.’
He added: ‘The tuned ZS that they gave us as a target example was almost dangerous (I know the production ZS is far better than that). But, as the customer is always right, Prodrive tried to meet this change in specification, although with the project so far down the line at this point, all that could be done with the remaining budget was to tweak the already-designed setup, resulting in an unsatisfying compromise.
‘I don’t hold a grudge against any of the MGR Engineers, as they were largely kept out of the project by their management until it was too late and, knowing how good many of them are, I can understand their resentment at someone else being given such an interesting project. But the blame for the failure of the project, and for the ultimately compromised chassis of the initial 260s, lies at the door of the MGR managers, not Prodrive.’
ZT 385 prototype problems
Our ex-MG Rover Engineer recalled: ‘There were actually a couple of 385s rolling around when the company closed. However, you would not have been able to spot the difference between a 260 and the 385 as there was no external differences apart from the extra intercooler radiator mounted at the bottom of the normal rad.
To make the full-blown version, the brakes were to be uprated, as was the suspension, to take the wider wheels and tyres at the front. We also needed a body kit for it – which existed in CAD form. There were some other areas to look at too, but the bones were there so to speak.’
As a road car, the prototype was not without its problems, and it was guaranteed to give its test pilots something to think about at speed. Our Engineer recalled: ‘It was a unique vehicle… that proved a living nightmare to drive and look after. I reckon the best thing you could have done with it, was drop it off a cliff. It was badly executed and could have been so much better.
‘The gearbox was a pig to use, the drivetrain was unbalanced and the vibrations were awful. No heater system or ventilation packs. Over 80mph, the whole thing wobbled, over 120 it became frightening; and from 150 on, it took a brave soul to keep it there.’
A sad end
Disappointingly, the MG XPower ZT 385 never hit the showrooms, having been delivered to MG Sport and Racing to prepare for production – and, following Sport and Racing’s fall into administration, the car was sold by tender auction for an undisclosed sum to the MG Owners’ Club during December 2005. Our Engineer commented wryly: ‘I hope whoever bought it spends a lot of time and effort sorting the problems out on it… like throwing away the rear end, and fitting a proper production specification rear six-mount subframe on it!’
Roger Parker of the MG Owners’ Club summed up the work that needed completing on the prototype to make it run and drive as MG Rover intended: ‘There are several parts missing such as the bonnet and front panel, but the MGOC plans to bring the car back to a roadworthy specification. At this time we have not fully decided on the detailed look as there is a new-style rear bumper with prominent raised surrounds inbuilt to the panel before any metal finishers are fitted.
‘This is an all-new look not seen before, but fortunately goes well with the front panel style. I favour the 385 style as seen in the Frankfurt image, although the cost of returning to the original Typhoon paint is probably too expensive, especially since the Aurora finish is full and production quality.
‘This will also need the individual rear styled spoiler which, unlike the rounded ZT 190 one, has a different style with a clearly lowered centre section similar to the style on the ZS 180 hatch. I have trialled a route to achieving this with reasonable ease also!’
Nic Fasci, one of the Engineers who worked on the car, summed-up: ‘The ZT 385 was always a “show item” and way off the final production car. Great bit of fun though. ZT 260s were great, and the production car would have been absolutely fantastic with the most amazing soundtrack, too. Happy days and proud to be a part of that bit of history.’
With thanks to: John Mower for the picture.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.