Introducing the first in a new series, AROnline’s Editor takes a sideways look at some of the cars we love to love and asks if they were, indeed, all they were cracked up to be…
From the outset, I want to make it clear this new feature isn’t an attempt at MG-Rover/BL-bashing. I’ve owned and loved enough of our cars to consider such a thing tiresome and pointless.
Irreverence, though, has its place – and there are enough ups and downs and trials and tribulations of the company that eventually died as MG Rover for even the most ardent enthusiast to recognise that not every decision made was a good one. Indeed, there were some pretty stupid ones – without them, MGR may well still be here.
And to my mind, the decision to shoehorn an American 4.6-litre Ford V8 under the bonnet of the Rover 75 isn’t up there with the greatest…
The luxury-oriented 75 V8 and the lairy MG ZT 260 twins were announced at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show and were met with quite a bit of interest. Rear-wheel-drive, with a modest sounding but beautifully effective 260 bhp on tap, there was every reason to be quite charmed by the pairing. Indeed, I was lucky enough to drive both of them when they were new – a 75 V8 which I drove out the gates of Longbridge to a photo shoot in the Lickey Hills about a month before the official on sale date, a pre-production ZT-T and a brace of ZT 260s in which I spent a couple of weeks on road tests, one a Tourer, the other a saloon.
At the time, I loved them. Indeed, I waxed lyrical about them in the pages of Auto Express (if you feel the need, the original review is at this link). Like so many of us, I guess, the simple fact is that I wanted to believe.
Retrospectively, though, the decision to introduce the V8 engine into the 75 was one of corporate stupidity, of, perhaps, the highest order. While Longbridge’s engineering team were busily adapting the 75 bodyshell to accommodate a rear-wheel-drive set-up, developing a drivetrain, new suspension, bespoke exhaust components, type approvals, body strengthening – none of it simple – the company’s mainstream models were beginning their journey to hell in a handcart.
In 2002, it wasn’t yet as obvious as it soon would be. The marketing masterstroke that was to take the ageing 25 and 45 models and revitalise them in the form of the MG Z-Cars, complemented by the unarguably impressive 75-based ZT, had seen an upsurge in interest, as well as orders, and while profitability was still a huge question mark, MG Rover and the Phoenix consortium were doing a lot better than many had expected – at least from a customer-facing perspective.
Within the corridors of power, it’s highly likely that the writing was already pencilled on the wall. Looked at with 20:20 hindsight, there’s no possible way that giving the V8 project the green light was a sensible idea. At the time, though, MG Rover was all about performance, with a presence in Touring Cars, rallying and a huge amount of marketing weight behind the revitalised MG badge, through which the company was reaching younger buyers. Rover, by comparison, had gone stale – from its 1990s heyday, it had developed a fuddy-duddy image made worse by the stewardship of BMW, which was cautious of juxtaposing its own brand values with those of Rover at its most aspirational.
That debate is for a different day, though. Here, we’re asking the question why, and under what pretence of sensibility, could MG Rover have gone ahead with a complete re-engineering programme for an expensive, low-volume, tax-inefficient niche model when the rest of the range was living on borrowed time? Surely the money could have been better invested in quality improvements, making the interiors of the 25 and 45 more akin to the quality, luxurious feeling of Rovers of yore? Would the cross-range cost-cutting of 2003’s Project Drive have had to take place if the V8 development money hadn’t been burned on a white elephant? After all, only 900 V8s were ever made, all expensively finished by hand. Months later, Rover was trying to plug the gap left by the ancient 100 models by importing substandard CityRovers from India. Suddenly, somewhere, the sums start not to add up.
Don’t get me wrong. I still, to this day, adore both the 75 V8 and the ZT 260. One of them, at least, is on my automotive bucket list and while my preference is for the 75 (I like a bit of posh), I’d happily take a ZT 260 and its somewhat more raucous character, or even own both so I can make the most of my Jekyll and Hyde days. They’re wonderful cars, and the car nut in me (which is the everyday me) is extremely grateful that they didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.
Sure, they’re flawed. The huge gearbox housing that intrudes into the cabin, and the cheaply trimmed way in which MG Rover tried to disguise it (less so on the 75 V8) is the most obvious flaw, the transmission tunnel intrudes into the passenger cell (after all, the bodyshell was designed for front-wheel-drive), the trim is flaky in places and MG Rover never actually supplied any official engine pictures for a very good reason. On early cars, at least, there was no smart cover to the engine bay, and the installation looked a bit Heath-Robinson under the lid (a condition of me borrowing one as a motoring journo was that we agreed not to publish any engine pictures, for example). But I loved them. As did so many other MG Rover fans, and by all accounts most of the people who bought one. They were, of course, great to drive as well.
But really? Hand on heart, was this a good idea or an utterly stupid one? If the aim was to breathe life into the old dog through defying convention, a full re-engineering programme wasn’t the right way to go. Rear-wheel-drive V8 muscle cars were not what the refined European car market was demanding, and MG Rover would have been far better off putting what limited resources it had into making the very best job it could of the cars its dealers were being forced to sell into an increasingly sophisticated and competitive market. Add in the fact that the European economy was, at the time, heading towards the very peak of an economic boom period, and the availability of easy finance, cleverly-crafted finance and leasing deals, credit for almost everyone and a zero deposit, easy terms payment culture and it’s easy to see why MG Rover’s more sophisticated rivals were storming ahead in the sales charts. For a saving of three or four quid a month, would you really have preferred a Rover 45 over a VW Golf or Ford Focus? All credit to you if the answer’s yes – but you’d definitely be in the minority.
On its own, the Rover 75 V8 programme didn’t kill the company. Indeed, there’s a counter argument that suggests its demise was already inevitable, and maybe MGR’s engineers were just showing the world what they could do before the impending interface between the fan and the excrement, but the fact remains that it was a very curious decision for a company that was on BMW-backed life support at a time when the car market was undergoing massive changes of its own.
In better times, with better funding, the 75 V8 and ZT 260 could have been more relevant, better developed and flagships for MG Rover to be immensely proud of. But these weren’t good times and they weren’t going to get better – and for that reason more than any, they’re nothing more than a footnote in a world of might-have-beens. Wonderful cars, but complete follies. Today, we should celebrate the fact that they’re cracking cars (let’s not take anything away from the engineers here…), but also consider the absurdity with which they came into being.