News Analysis : Making the business case for a new UK-built MG sports car…

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Clive Goldthorp

Opel GT (1)
Could Vauxhall’s GT Concept point the way to a new MG sports car? We can dream…

Ask diehard MG enthusiasts which new model they would most like to see SAIC Motor launch and the vast majority will probably say a two-seater sports car. AROnline has discussed ‘the sports car question’ with both Guy Jones, the then Sales and Marketing Director of MG Motor UK Limited, and David Lindley, the Managing Director of SAIC Motor UK Technical Centre Limited (SMTC UK), when interviewing them in the past, but recent developments have made their respective responses all the more significant.

Guy Jones went on record as saying that ‘MG sports cars are part of the Product Plan’ while David Lindley told us that: ‘I share the passion and enthusiasm of many of your readers to see a new MG roadster in the future. I also believe that it is essential to maintain our brand value that we consider having this type of product within our model range.

‘Any replacement for the MG TF will, of course, need to present a viable business case. The comparatively low-volume forecast for this type of product means that the programme profitability becomes far more sensitive to engineering investment and production costs. Reduction in these costs can potentially be achieved by platform sharing between OEMs [such as the Joint Venture between what is now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Mazda Motor Corporation which resulted in the new Fiat 124 Spider and fourth-generation Mazda MX-5]. The alternative route is to utilise a suitable architecture (or major architectural elements) from within the group.’

The disruptive dynamics – think autonomous driving and electric or plug-in hybrid powertrains – currently at play within the global Automotive Industry might, at first glance, make establishing a commercially-sustainable business case for a two-seater, MG-badged sports car an even harder task now. However, the recent developments already alluded to above may, in fact, have provided SAIC Motor/MG with a real opportunity to do exactly that…

What, then, are the recent developments concerned? Well, firstly, SAIC Motor’s partner in SAIC General Motors Corporation Limited (SAIC-GM), General Motors, will be unveiling a new Opel/Vauxhall GT Concept at this week’s Geneva Motor Show. Our colleagues at CAR Magazine say that the GT Concept, which takes some styling inspiration from both the 1965 Opel Experimental GT Concept and the 1966 Vauxhall XVR Concept, will be powered by a three-cylinder 1.0-litre turbocharged engine which produces 143bhp and 151lb ft and will have a kerbweight of less than 1000kg. The engine is one of the Small Gasoline Engine (SGE) family which has been jointly developed by General Motors and SAIC Motor  – a four-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbocharged derivative will feature in the new MG GS SUV when that hits the UK market in June.

Vauxhall describes the GT Concept as a ‘template for future sports cars’ so a production version could be on the cards. However, as Automotive News Europe’s Guild of Motoring Writers award-winning UK Correspondent, Nick Gibbs, has pointed out, ‘the problem is scalability. Last year, in Europe, Mazda sold fewer than 7000 units of the MX-5, the so-called ‘people’s sports car.’ Opel couldn’t make those numbers profitable on an all-new [rear-wheel-drive] platform.’ Gibbs has a solution, though: ‘Opel needs halo cars like [the GT Concept] and so does GM’s Chinese partner, SAIC… An Opel-MG rear-wheel-drive sports car reviving the iconic MGB sports car and developed by British and German engineers at Vauxhall and Opel would give MG a big boost in Europe and in China, where MG Motor uses its British heritage as a big part of its sales pitch.’

The comment from David Lindley cited above suggests that he and his colleagues at SMTC UK may already have had the same idea as Automotive News Europe’s Nick Gibbs and that what we might be about to see here is the first evidence of some carefully-crafted, Chinese-backed corporate choreography… However, even with the additional volume which a two-seater, MG-badged sports car based on a production version of the Opel/Vauxhall GT Concept might generate with sales in the UK, Europe and, possibly, the USA – remember that SAIC Motor already has a bridgehead there with SAIC USA Inc. in Birmingham, Michigan – both General Motors and SAIC Motor will still need to ensure that their respective sports cars can be manufactured and marketed profitably.

Interestingly, that commercial driver makes the second recent development referred to above particularly relevant. The British-owned company behind the re-launch of the TVR marque planned for 2017, TVR Manufacturing Limited, announced last year that the next generation of TVRs – at least four new models will be brought to market over the next ten years – would be manufactured using the Gordon Murray Design Limited (GMD)-developed iStream® assembly process. AROnline readers can access the relevant Press Release via this link but here is the important part: ‘The simplified [iStream®] assembly process means that the manufacturing plant can be designed to be 20 per cent of the size of a conventional factory. This could reduce capital investment in the assembly plant by approximately 80 per cent.’

AROnline understands that, even now, MG Motor UK’s manufacturing facility at Longbridge has a theoretical maximum capacity of 150,000 units per annum – more than enough to accommodate the production of, say, Chevrolet, MG and Opel-badged two-seater GTs and roadsters in significant volumes. MG Motor UK’s then Sales and Marketing Director, Guy Jones, told AROnline back in May 2010 that the ‘Minimum Efficient Scale’ (MES) or breakeven point for Longbridge was ‘certainly nothing like [the] 200,000 to 250,000 units per annum’ which we had assumed.

Think, then, what the MES might be if General Motors and SAIC Motor (or even a new Joint Venture company) were to convert the existing CAB1 and/or CAB2 buildings at Longbridge to GMD’s iStream® assembly process and manufacture their new two-seater sports cars there. Remember also that the Lease on the site between St Modwen Properties PLC and Nanjing Automobile Corporation (UK) Limited was originally for a term of 33 years from 22 February 2006 and so should have another 23 years to run…

That said, even if the projected numbers did support a commercially-sustainable business case, the product would still have to be bang on the money in order to be a sales success – especially in the US. Our US Editor (and Automotive News Engineering and Technology Reporter), Richard Truett, takes the same view as his colleague at Automotive News Europe, Nick Gibbs – back in January 2014, Richard wrote: ‘When the time comes for MG to return to the US, it should do so by starting with a proper two-seater roadster, rear-wheel drive, of course. Such a car fits the American image of MG.’

Opel GT (2)

A rear-wheel-drive Toyota GT86-like MG GT 2+2 and/or a two-seater roadster based on the Opel/Vauxhall GT Concept, which was designed, engineered and built in the UK, should stand a real chance of success in the US. After all, as our man Truett has said, ‘MG and affordable high-performance with British style is a recipe that can work here in the US.’ Imagine, then, a top-spec model powered by the 250bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged version of the SMTC UK-developed MGE (formerly NLE) engine which the company’s David Lindley mentioned to us back in August 2012…

Ironically, AROnline’s Editor, Keith Adams, visited the Longbridge site last week and subsequently observed on social media that ‘the place was like a ghost village.’ Hopefully, though, there may soon be some grounds for believing that might just change in the not-too-distant future.

Clive Goldthorp

Clive claims that his interest in the BMC>MG story dates back to his childhood in the 1960s when the family’s garage premises were leased to a tenant with an Austin agency. However, back in the 1920s and 1930s, his grandmother was one of the country’s first female Garage Proprietors so cars probably run in his genes! Admits to affairs with Alfa Romeos, but has more recently owned an 06/06 MG TF 135 and then a 15/64 MG3 Style… Clive, who was AROnline’s News Editor for nearly four years, stood down from that role in order to devote more time to various Motor Racing projects but still contributes articles on as regular basis as his other commitments permit.

32 Comments

  1. Total Mazda MX 5 sales for all of North America is around 10,000 units, new model too so they will not maintain that quantity. Subaru and Toyota sold about 18,000 units combined of their BRZ/ FRS.

    Even if you eliminated all the other competition , the worldwide entry level sports car market is very small. The mid priced Audi TT , BMW , Mercedes and Jaguar don’t sell high volumes either.

    You can’t make a business case for this, this is the last thing MG should do without having a successful CUV or saloon.

    If you want a MG sportscar, buy a real one (an Abingdon built classic) .

  2. Much as “diehard MG fans” might pine for low slung two door sports cars, proper market research of that demographic would probably indicate that they would actually be much more likely to buy mobility scooters and associated products.

  3. Probably wishful thinking, sadly. The market for proper sports cars has really shrunk, everyone wants to drive SUVs these days, even convertible sales seem to have declined, remember that glut of hard top convertibles 10 years ago?

    Does MG have that much market awareness in the US these day anyway, 35 years after the last MGB was sold there? It would need a massive relaunch – MINI had the power and credibility of BMW behind it.

  4. There is no possible case for an MG built in the UK – elsewhere possibly, making it cheap to produce, with quality, can be done, there are many premium quality produced cars built in China, so this could be done, but, there is no market, yet, for it in China, until that changes, we wont be getting a sports car. and thats a shame.

  5. Totally agree. The last, best hope for MG in America died with the MG V8. Might as well try and revive Lanchester or Alvis. If I told you they were going to revive Packard over there you’d know it was hopeless; patriotism and fond memories aren’t selling points any more.

    Look at the investment that had to be made to get Triumph Motorcycles back in people’s garages.

  6. The GT Concept looks like one of my 4 year old’s Hot Wheels cars, and not in a good way.

    I had no idea MX5 sales (on both sides of the pond) were so low these days – that is very sad as the 4th gen car looks great. As others have said, the cheap sports car sector has had its day. If Mazda can’t make the numbers work with a 25 year history of being the best cheap sports car available, who can?

    MG should offer a souped-up GS instead. Speedy crossovers like the Juke Nismo and Mini Paceman are where it’s at. How many Juke Nismos does Nissan sell?

  7. Andy W,

    Actually, I believe that the figure for European sales of the Mazda MX-5 quoted by Nick Gibbs in his Automotive News Europe article might, in fact, be for the third-generation MX-5 which would then have been in the run-out phase.

  8. Post WWII through mid 1970s British manufacturers dominated the sports car market in the US. TR7/ TR8 was the last hurrah and the least said about that the better.

    That particular marketing niche is done and no amount of wishful thinking is going to resurrect it.

  9. Sports cars of the two seater variety are a tiny market at best and best left to specialist manufacturers. MG would have to invest a fortune in a product that would only sell in penny numbers.

  10. Having owned some rather hot motorcycles (Rg500 square 4 2 -stroke) in my distant past, I arrived at the opinion that public roads are not racetracks and I discourage the sale and development of “aggressive” sports vehicles for use on public roads and the style of driving they foster. There exists the option of MG building small numbers of race track only cars for the interested amateur, Yamaha did this with their TZ250/TZ350 clubmans racers. Such a model would not require expensive crash testing/emissions compliance etc and the overheads are lower.
    I recall how Chevron race cars were developed, the engineers eschewed drawings and draftsmen, they simply built a prototype in bare metal in a workshop and tested on a race circuit, when they had the car “right” the prototype was used as the jig for the production models. Fred Dibnah would have approved of this method I’m sure

  11. SAIC and GM are closer together than often realised, indeed geographically SAIC may reverse takeover GM assets/technology according to a recent article (rather squeezing out the need for its own MG and Roewe brands). However, given that the Thailand plant is apparently so under capacity knocking out RHD MG’s I wonder if it might get first dibs at producing an MG two seater.

    I wonder if SUV’s will get so ubiquitous that there’s eventually a market reaction back to more retro vehicles?

  12. Well, given that we captioned the top photograph above with the words “Could Vauxhall’s GT Concept point the way to a new MG sports car? We can dream…” the message at the end of the video which Vauxhall has released today seems more than a tad appropriate: “If you can dream it, you can create it.” Here’s the link to YouTube:

    Vauxhall GT Concept Published by Vauxhall on YouTube 29 February 2016

    Maybe, that message can be interpreted as General Motors, Vice President, Design Europe, Mark Adams, and his colleagues setting themselves up for the challenge of building a production version…

  13. Given the volumes the MG3 and MG 6 sell at I guess they could keep fixed costs down by building any MG sports car in a garden shed!

    Its just not going to happen. Why cant we just write MG off and move on? The other remaining bits of BL continue to go from strength to strength from a British Manufacturing base. MG is a total irrelevance.

  14. GM USA had the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, both available as soft tops. About the same size and stance as the concept shown here.

    Both models were a parts bin specials. The soft-tops were really difficult to erect in a hurry .

    A coupe version of the Solstice was available for about 1 year but the coupe T top couldn’t be stored within the car so if you left home without it you were SOL if it rained.

    Pontiac and Saturn brands died along with Hummer due to the 2009 bankruptcy, if the sports car idea had some merit I am sure they would have relaunched at least one of the models under another surviving brand.

    • On the way to the show room everyone thinks that they want a two door sports car but they leave in a people mover. In five years they’ll all be buying self-driving cars and the marketing will centre on “lounging” room and connectivity for the iDevices…. a canvas roof wont appeal

  15. @ Chris C, I think the SUV phase will end if another recession hits, particularly in America, where sales tanked during the last one. However, small two seater sports cars will never be more than a tiny market as they are so impractical and manufacturers like MG had to create four seaters like the MGB GT to survive.

  16. Sorry to be such a bucket of cold water on things, but do many of the real BL/AR/Rover Group lovers and followers on here really give a toss?

    For me, I loved the vibe and feeling of pride from 89 through to 93 when Rover Group reinvented itself and had the momentum to actually look really good.

    I was absolutely gutted when the Germans got hold of it but now realise that this was probably the biggest chance we ever really had for seeing these brands and much of the decaying underlying infrastructure properly invested in and once again really thrive.

    As we know BMW bottled it.

    I was overjoyed when Phoenix took them over but quickly lost interest when I saw how amateur and fascicle it became with such dated product lines, project drive destroying a lot of what I thought were the core values of a Rover, etc.

    For sure I shed tears when it went pop and drove to the rallys from the SE to support the workforce and show some loyalty.

    Then when the chinese got hold of it and now seeing some of the stuff which is “MG”, I find it pretty awful.

    Is this just me and am I just stupid? Somehow it just does not have the core things which were the magic, Cowley, Longbridge, the history, the foibles, etc.

    Sorry to be off topic and sorry to rain on any parades.

  17. Sorry, Paul above says exactly how I feel without all the blah blah I put.

    It seems I am not alone. I have far more interest in brands which are associated with the old BL group sites and infrastructure than I ever will have for these cheap MG’s.

    In my opinion, old William Morris would more than likely be turning in his grave if he could see what had happened to what was once a proud, leading world brand.

  18. The classic British sports cars were all about wrapping up a set of cheap and cheerful oily bits from manufacturers volume saloon ranges in a sporty little two seat roadster to sell to Americans.

    The spirit of these cars lives on, not in the MX5 as in truth Mazda appears to have lost the plot as that whilst it’s a fine car, its also contains a lot of bespoke components and so has become more expensive and exclusive. The true spirit lives on in the Audi TT, which can be best described as a Golf in drag and is viable because of the brand values earned through its premium products such as the S4 & S6 enable it to carry a healthy price premium that an MG could not justify.

  19. When one thinks about the history, MG was unique , and ( like Jaguar) depended on a series of strong personalities for its driving force. It was the creation initially of Cecil Kimber , and driven by him despite William Morris’s reluctance . After WW2, it was driven by John Thornely, to volumes with the MGA and later the MGB which Kimber would have been staggered by. Really, there was no imitator until the TR and later the Spitfire came along. As others have pointed out, this was a niche market and one which was peculiarly of its time. I suppose it is fair to say that it was overtaken by the small high performance saloon , initiated by the Mini Cooper and later imitated widely. So, I have sadly to agree with Glenn that the days of such a niche product may well have passed

  20. Although I would love to see MG build a proper 2 seat sports car again, I can’t see it happening anytime soon. As mentioned by others here, the market seems to want more Crossovers & SUV’s (not me!).

    Also as documented on this site, sales of the MG6 have been very low (and I’ve still yet to see a real MG3). The new GS may give MG a better presence – time will tell. Keith’s note about “Ghost Village” Longbridge still doesn’t bode well

  21. Honda only shifted 100,000 S2000s over a 10 year production run, that is with all the advantages they have over a set up like SAIC who sell in significantly fewer markets.

    Yes they could do a 2 seater and assemble it in CKD form at Longbridge but what we be the point – it probably wouldn’t be pretty and it probably wouldn’t sell

  22. If you want a car like this, buy a Mazda. They’re good and there isn’t really much room in the market for anything else.

  23. If they do make one, can they make sure it has windows in the doors? That is something that the Vauxhall designers seem to have forgotten about.

  24. I recently bought a ex demo Toyota GT 86 and absolutely love it. It’s a lightweight, relatively simple, rear drive true sports(well grand tourer) car in the image of a Triumph GT6 or MG BGT.

    I am an MG enthusiast and own a crusty Midget that I’ve had for about 10 years. The point is that when I purchased the Toyota last year, there is no way on this planet that I would have bought an MG badged Chinese offering even if a car such as the one in the article was available. The reason for this is simple: The Toyota has credibility in spades. Car enthusiasts want to come over and talk to you about it. Contrast that with a modern MG. The MG badge is valueless and worse is now held in derision and contempt by car enthusiasts. If you turned up in a £23k MG people you just laugh at you. It’s sad and depressing but therein lies the reason why it will be a total flop.

  25. No I don’t believe that the MG badge is valueless. It is still well known and has historic sporty connotations. The MG3 and 6 although derided on this site in fact look sporty and indeed are sporty to drive and enjoy. I don’t regret buying my 3 for one minute. It is a niche market car for enthusiasts who appreciate its’ fine qualities. Yes, it largely comes from China, but so does an Apple I Pad. Not one thing has gone wrong in a year’s hard motoring. Good luck to MG and the boys and girls at Longbridge with the GS. They really deserve every success.

  26. Ok agreed, the MG badge is not valueless. Applied to the right product as we saw with the Z series cars, it had a great deal of market appeal.

    So the last time the badge was used to any positive effect was 11 years ago. Not very impressive is it?

    If the current 3 series car is as good as some people are making out on this forum, then I suggest that the car should be marketed not as an MG but with an honest Chinese badge. I’ve been following this debacle over the last few years and I strongly believe that the MG badge is a hindrance rather than an asset in this context. Surely it’s worth a try and let’s face it they couldn’t sell many fewer cars than they are managing now.

  27. SGE – Small Gasoline Explosion, there I corrected it for you.. GMs version of Ford’s Eco-boom. Especially after the local Halfords puts 40W50 in it at its second service..
    There is a very good reason motorcycle manufacturers almost never used turbo engines – because if they go seriously wrong your legs and testicles are later found hanging from trees.. Not to mention turbo lag.. Bad bad idea, there are much better ways to get power from an engine as cleanly or close to, than upping the compression to Max Wedge/Sonoramic levels and adding a turbo to something that belongs on a sit on mower.

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