MGR@10 Month : Zed or dead? How a miraculous marketing strategy kept MG Rover on life support

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

About 12 months ago, I was giving my previously-owned MG ZS 180 a lick of wax outside the house when a cruel passer-by, with nothing but pre-conceived ideas to go by, commented: “Mate, you can’t polish a t#rd”.

Yes, you can polish it. And I did...
Yes, you can polish it. And I did…

Not the most helpful of comments, but I remember it well. I recall thinking, at the time, that in some respects that’s exactly what the MG Rover design and engineering teams had done back in 2001, as the very first ashes rose from the Phoenix takeover.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. When the Phoenix Consortium inherited the remnants of MG Rover from BMW in 2000, what they got for their tenner wasn’t actually that great. As well as the debts and hard-to-shift inventory of unsold Rover Group vehicles, a BMW dowry with strict terms attached and a largely outmoded factory, they also got a woefully outdated product range. A range that, history dictated, would never actually be replaced, yet was already getting long-in-the-tooth at the time BMW sold up.

No amount of bling could make the Rover 25 look fresh and appealing
No amount of bling could make the Rover 25 look fresh and appealing

With the exception of the 75, which was a fabulous car, but not one that was being sold into a high-enough volume market, the package included the 25 and 45, both recently revised to get the 75’s ‘family’ face, the MGF and, well, nothing else.

With no money in the development budget, the newly-formed MG Rover Group was alone in its quest to seek investment, bring in new models and, at least for the time being, keep the company afloat. What it achieved during those final five years was nothing short of remarkable, despite the best efforts of the senior leaders, investment partners and the Government to try and prevent survival from happening.

There were, of course, plenty of wrong decisions during the period. But one that could not be faulted was the decision to revitalise the MG brand and usher in a new range of performance-themed saloons and hatchbacks that would give the cars some much needed youth appeal.

MG Rover previewed the new Z range in January 2001, ahead of its launch at the Geneva Motor Show the following month
MG Rover previewed the new Z range in January 2001, ahead of its launch at the Geneva Motor Show the following month

The move had some pretty harsh critics. I was working as a motoring journalist at the time, and recall the amusement of some of my colleagues when they were told that ‘hot’ versions of the Rover 25, 45 and 75 were coming along. I wish, for their sakes, that when the new models first came out, they’d come with MG Metro-style red seatbelts – my colleagues were expecting no less.

The skepticism remained unfettered even after the 2001 Geneva Motor Show, when, less than a year after the BMW sale had finally gone through, MG Rover whipped the hankies off three cars that were set to bring in a whole new generation of buyers. Like it or not, for that’s what happened…

ZS, ZR, ZT: The one on the left was the best...
ZS, ZR, ZT: The one on the left was the best…

Big wheels, bright paint, bold spoilers and aero kits – the new range of MGs weren’t subtle. Nor, indeed, was MG Rover’s marketing strategy. The boldness with which they got behind the ‘Buy British’ message and the bullishness of the MG brand’s advertising wasn’t lost on the automotive industry parody website, Sniff Petrol, which ran a series of spoof MG Rover ads (they’re all in the Sniff Petrol archive, but only one is ‘borderline’ publishable here – look away now if you’re easily offended).

Most of Sniff Petrol's spoof ads were much, much ruder...
Most of Sniff Petrol’s spoof ads were much, much ruder… (Pic: Sniff Petrol)

Still, the media believed that the cars might be all mouth and no trousers. But as MG Rover’s Product PR Manager at the time, Kevin Jones, recalled in a recent interview with AROnline: “We had to very quickly elevate the MG brand from just MGF into TF, ZR, ZS and ZT within a year, and have motorsport programmes with all – it was so exciting, and the rapid development was impressive with such modest investment. They were cars enthusiasts could relate to – all had alloy wheels, spoilers and in bright colours. They were very successful. Our best moment was persuading (nay, almost forcing) motoring journalists to drive the 45-based ZS – and when they returned, their grins were like tattoos – you couldn’t get the smile off their faces.”

I don't recall reading a single bad review of the ZS, save for a few (perfectly valid) comments about horrible interior trim
I don’t recall reading a single bad review of the ZS, save for a few (perfectly valid) comments about horrible interior trim

It’s a time I remember well. As a junior staffer on Auto Express at the time, I didn’t get to attend the press launch, but I did spend a week in the company of a Y-reg Trophy Blue MG ZS 180, which I had immediately after a weekend with a Subaru Impreza WRX. Both were fabulous cars, but only one had soul. I’d not been a fan of the HH-R 400 Series at all (my begrudging respect for that model came later, and is a different story), but my opinion was transformed overnight. Here was a car that not only had a bold and brash appearance, but had the performance and handling to go with it. I refer you, again, to my opening paragraph…

The ZT, likewise, was a cracking car to drive, leaving only the ZR as the lukewarm option. Until the VVC 160 came on the scene, lower-powered ZRs didn’t quite live up to the lairy looks. Lively and pleasant they may have been, but pure performance cars? No.

The ZR wasn't the pick of the Z-Cars, but it was definitely the one that caught on...it became the fastest selling MG ever
The ZR wasn’t the pick of the Z-Cars, but it was definitely the one that caught on…it became the fastest selling MG ever

That, though, was not a bad thing. Britain’s youth was currently in the grip of the post-Max Power ‘Saxo’ culture, and what worked for Citroen was about to work just as well for MG Rover. With a little bit of help from girl band of the moment, Atomic Kitten, MG was about to entice a whole new generation of young, primarily male enthusiasts who wanted an inexpensive car with bold good looks, good handling and plenty of tuning options. Something that, in its own way, was one of the lynchpins on which the MG brand was built over the previous 70 years…

There are some critics who say that the Z-Cars weren’t the success they were purported to be. But I simply don’t believe them. Okay, so the Rover 25 may well have remained the company’s best-selling car right up until late 2004 (after which the ZR took over),  but it had fleet, rental and various other sales outlets in which it could be sold. ZR was almost exclusively retail, and was drawing people into showrooms who would never have dreamed of setting foot in a Rover dealership – the fact it became the best-selling model at all proves its astonishing popularity in a market that did little to support its parent brand.

Nostalgia, as we all know, is a powerful thing and, while there are still plenty of ZRs on the road today, according to figures on www.howmanyleft.co.uk  the number of road-legal ZRs remaining has more than halved since 2010. If you’re a younger enthusiast who remembers them with affection, buy one now, as they won’t be around forever.

 

ZRs are disappearing fast - over 50 per cent have gone since 2010
ZRs are disappearing fast – over 50 per cent have gone since 2010

The MG Z-Cars, then, were not enough to save the company. However, in my humble opinion, they were enough to bring new customers in at a time when they were needed most, and keep the company and its dealers alive much longer than many critics expected. That five year period was, and should have been, long enough for MG Rover’s bosses to bring in new investment and some all new products.

It wasn’t, but as we all know, that’s a different story…

Craig Cheetham

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.

33 Comments

  1. MG ZT-T CDTi 135 in X-Power Grey with grey alcantara. I had a 52-plate one new. the clutch sorted me out. I almost ordered it as an auto as well. Damn!

  2. I decided I wanted a ZS during my ownership of an HHR400 and bought one (ZS+120, 53 plate, X Power Grey) in 2006. During two and a half years ownership it gave me very little trouble – just usual service items and tyres/brake pads.

    I always liked the extra colour coding, Hairpins alloys, half leather trim and white dials! Although it delivered a firm ride, the handling was good. Had MG Rover continued, no doubt I would have bought a ZT after that…

    Craig’s Trophy Blue ZS looked great – was always a nice colour!

  3. I can vouch for the MG ZS’s superior dynamics. As the owner of a post-facelift 45, my car has the advantage of having the MG’s suspension. Even with a lump of an L series under the bonnet, handling is sublime.

  4. I remember in early 2001 attending a local MG ‘M’ meeting for enthusiasts of the 1980s MG saloons and there was certainly plenty of optimism for the new range. Well… apart from the prospect of a diesel engine option. “A diesel powered MG!” “Can you believe they would do such a thing?” was the horrified response. I privately thought the idea of a sporty hatchback with a torquey diesel engine and offering good economy was actually a good thing – Volkswagen certainly proved that with the Golf GTD.

    Two years later I drove an MG ZR in standard 101Ps form and found its tidal wave of torque and slight turbo lack to be rather good fun and it certainly shifted when the turbo was spinning. Admittedly the ride was fairly harsh and it did feel slightly nose heavy, but its turn-in and steering response was not any worse than my MG Maestro.

    In late 2006 I was behind the wheel of a new unregistered example and driving it home (at the time there were no unregistered diesel-powered Rover 25s or Streetwises left in the remaining small dealer network) as a new addition to the family, to replace my accident damaged MG Maestro as a ‘main’ vehicle. Eight and a half years and 25,000 miles later the MG ZR turbo-diesel recipe still creates a big grin on my face.

  5. Could there have been a better way of boosting sales of the ageing 25 and 45. I think not. Would a young male ever have considered a Rover 45? Not too likely. Although the 75 was still new, the ZT and ZT-T similarly brought new custom. Like you say, Craig, a brilliant marketing strategy.

    My ZR 105 followed a Rover 75. I adjusted to the big difference straight away. I love my ZR including its ride. Very firm yes, but never uncomfortable.

    I’d like to try a ZS. Its handling is generally regarded as outstanding but the ZR never receives quite the same praise.

  6. Then there was the MG ZT 260, using the Ford Mustang V8, a more thuggish version of the Rover version that I once saw outside my local MG Rover dealer with the comment on an advert on the window” are you man enough to drive this?” Truly a future classic, a British sporting saloon featuring one of America’s most famous engines. Had the ZT 260 been marketed in America, who knows?

  7. Not to sound like a killljoy, but…
    Would not the overall image of Rover cars have been improved if these were not sold as MGs, but as a Vitesse series or something like that? would not the “trickle down” effect have have been more benefitial for the image of more humble Rovers?

    • An interesting thought.
      Vitesse versions would have helped the image of more humble Rover models and improved their sales. Vitesse models would have been more closely associated with lower level Rovers. However, would a Rover Vitesse series have brought quite as much new custom for MG Rover as the Zeds? I don’t think so.

    • Rover Vitesse variants might have possibly improved the overall image of Rovers though not in place of MG’s Zed lineup.

      • Agreed. It was something I did put to MG Rover Group’s product planners and marketing personnel on numerous occasions from early 2001 as I felt there was a need to also extend the product ‘enhancement’ policy to the Rover brand. Sadly it was met with little enthusiasm and the official line was you could not have performance-derived MG saloons and also performance-derived Rovers. Why not?

        The MGs were quite restrictive in some areas, particularly in terms of interior colourway choice and suspension options. The Rovers were not. Using a new performance-derived halo sub-brand for Rover would have presented an alternative opportunity to ‘fill’ the void.

        • Definitely, the Rover Vitesse models could be more luxury compact express orientated yet compared to the top-models of the MG Zed lineup feature a lower power output.

          The Rover 45 Vitesse could feature a 160-180 hp 2.5 KV6 unit in both manual and automatic gearboxes, while the range-topping MG ZS would feature either a 190 hp version of the 2.5 KV6 or an emissions compliant 200 + hp 2.0 T-Series Turbo (that was proposed yet not pursued at the time) along with an upper/mid-range MG ZS with a 150-160 hp 1.8T K-Series unit.

          The Rover 25 Vitesse meanwhile could feature a 150-160 hp 1.8T K-Series unit, while the MG ZR would feature either an uprated 170-180 hp 1.8 VVC or a 1.8T K-Series with the same output.

          Not quite sure where that would leave the Rover 75 Vitesse though aside from the Ford V8.

        • I’ve quite fancied a 1.8 ZR instead of my 1.4 25. While I want the power I’m not convinced about the harder suspension and some of the other detail differences (no steering wheel controls, what’s that about??). The 25 GTI looks quite attractive so I’m sure they would have appealed to different markets if they had done more with the Rovers.

    • Vitesse could have been used for equivalent Rover models – ie. tuned engines, subtler wheels but top spec equipment and a focus more on ride than handling.

      It still had a whiff of Alan Partridge about the name, the Max Power brigade wouldn’t have bothered.

    • No, I don’t think it would have helped. With or without a Vitesse model, Rovers were too far down the “Hyacinth Bucket” path of naff suburban social climbing by this point.

      The absence of Rover badging on the MG ZR/ZS/ZT range was a major contributor to their success, and no doubt helped to bring in younger customers who otherwise would not have set foot in a Rover showroom.

  8. Agree with Nate… a single Vitesse model of the 25, 45 & 75 would have been sufficient, but continue wth the more overtly sporting MG Zed series. I got £2,000 p/x for my 53 plate ZS in 2008. I feared it would be less.

  9. I used to work for a Honda dealer in the mid noughties and one week a bright yellow ZR was traded in for a Civic. We all thought I would go straight to auction however the sales director wanted for the forecourt. One Thing that stood out was the massive shut line and panel gaps on the car. With the doors closed I could easily put my fingers through them. I thought this is terrible I thought they moved on from this and with all the imput over the years from Honda and later BMW it was dire.

    However the car sold and the customer was happy that was all the mattered really it just surprised to see that on a car in 2007.

    • It was basically developed post Honda but pre BMW though. According to the figures on this site the development budget for the original R3 was around £200M, to put that into perspective Ford spent upwards of £1BN on the original Focus at around the same time and the Metro was around £275M nearly 20 years earlier.

      When you’ve got that little to spend something is going to give. It’s a miracle they managed to produce anything as good as it was. The Z series was a masterstroke in making those designs go even further.

    • The gist of Craig’s article is the success of the Zeds, what a very clever piece of marketing they where. To go on about panel gaps is needlessly specific here. Anyway, your sales director could obviously see the car’s appeal.
      As pointed out below (another Chris) the R3 was an amazing achievement, success on a tiny, tiny budget (what BL>MGR were so good at).

    • Glenn, I was only thinking recently that no motorway journey seems to be complete without seeing a broken down BMW. The new occupants of Montego Bay!

    • That I can believe the Germans are not so robust as they once were. The official figures out the other week prove it.

      • Two BMWs in the bottom ten.

        Top of the tree were mostly Toyota and Lexus, but I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed with the quality of my old gen7 Celica.

        Radiator near the bottom of the intake such that it gets stonechips and leaks? A clutch made of chocolate? An oil sludge issue that Toyota knew about? And overall quality – the fuel flap held on by a weak weld, the rear bootlid struts that can barely hold themselves, the plastic moulded interior with the central electric window switches etc.

  10. I am another who wanted to see something in between the ‘baseball cap on backwards’ image of the MG versions, and the ‘pipe and slippers’ of the Rover. Although looking at Craig’s ZS in a nice shade of blue, it doesn’t look too ‘Max Power’ apart from possibly the rear spoiler. The interior is indeed horrible and cheap looking, but I wouldn’t mind a well-fettled ZS these days.

    With aggressive alloy wheels nowadays coming as standard on even pretty mundane motors, the alloys fitted to the Z cars actually look pretty subtle. I for one think that simple unfussy designs always look better than convoluted spoke designs that twist and branch. Hence these MG alloys, the BMW ‘Turbine’ alloys on the E34 5 Series, and the XJ Series 3 ‘pepperpots’ with their clean, simple geometry still look striking to this day.

  11. I had two Zeds, both ZS 120’s, the first was a 120 hatch the second a 120+ Saloon with Humongous spoiler (was car of the month on this site at the time), loved them both, my only bad decision was two days after the company went bang, the Dealer in Ipswich put a Delivery mileage 75 Connie in Firefrost up for sales at £10k, i was on my way to my parents, so the days after went back and it, along with a load of others were all sold…. I have regretted not putting a £100 deposit on the car there and then…. and still kick myself for not doing so.

  12. Craig, I believe your passer-by may have been making ironic reference to CAR magazine’s GBU summery for the ZS at the time. After complimenting the Z’s performance and handling they summed up with something like, ‘yes, you can polish a turd ! ‘.

    • Easy! One of the MGR mobile mechanics has a couple, what could be more appropriate!! Must be on pretty stellar mileages too.

    • I could’ve sworn to have seen an MG Metrovan before, though it could’ve been a combination of a Metrovan and MG Metro bits…

  13. It’s amusing that people still make fun of those red seat belts. No one ever seem to complain when the Germans get the same idea. On the contrary, many comment positivly on the “super cool” belts in our SLK, and yes then are red… I sometimes add that Mercedes got that from MG, much to the consternation of all but fellow anoraks.

    PS. I was at that press meeting at Longbridge early 2001 and clearly remember Rob Oldaker lamenting that the UK media at the time loved making mockery about previous generations of MG saloon cars. The Z range was probably better recieved. Perhaps because they were actually quite good, or even excellent as in the case of the ZT 190.

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