MGR@10 Month : A motoring journo’s view…

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

March 2005.  I was 27 years old, and at a stage in life where thing were about to change considerably. I was engaged to be married, and about to set foot on the property ladder, neither of which was conducive to my then job as Deputy Motoring Editor on the weekly car magazine, Auto Express.

Happy days. Happy days indeed...
Happy days. Happy days indeed…

It may have been a ‘Boy’s Own’ job and was certainly a lot more fun than where I began my career, doing court reporting on local newspapers, but long hours, many nights away from home and an office in central London weren’t ideal for my circumstances. In addition, motoring journalists really don’t get paid that brilliantly – the perks are in the job rather than the pay packet. After much consideration, it was time to use my motor industry experience, and get a proper job instead.

The Editor at the wheel of a facelifted ZS 180 in 2004 - I remember borrowing this car and driving it to a stag weekend in Blackpool...
The Editor at the wheel of a facelifted ZS 180 in 2004 – I remember borrowing this car and driving it to a stag weekend in Blackpool… (Picture: Auto Express)

That job would be as a Press Officer at Vauxhall Motors, and would lead to a fascinating 10-year journey within General Motors, but when the job offer landed on the mat, it wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for. A few weeks earlier, I’d been for two job interviews in two weeks – the first with GM, the second with MG Rover.

Knowing that the Vauxhall job wasn’t going to be open for long, I took it. It was, as hindsight has proven, very much the right decision, but at the time I was actually a little disappointed. The alternative, as yet unconfirmed, was a chance to work for the company I’d loved as both man and boy,  plus, I lived pretty much halfway between Luton and Birmingham, so there was little to choose between the two on that score.

By the time the letter from MG Rover landed on the mat (I still have it), I’d already accepted the Vauxhall position and, knowing how incestuous the car industry can be, there was no way I was going to change my mind. So, I stuck with my guns, albeit with a heavy heart. I began working for GM on 1 April, 2005 and, within three weeks, I was extremely pleased I’d not been swayed – it was over for Rover, and even though it came as a bit of a shock, in many ways I wasn’t surprised.

I’d followed the whole MG Rover saga as a journalist from the BMW sale to Phoenix Venture Holdings, right through to the eventual demise.

I shan’t go over the details, as regular AROnline Contributor David Morgan has something much more analytical in the pipeline and due for publication next week, but what I will say is that my own view on MG Rover’s future survival waivered around like Jon Snow’s Swingometer. One week, it was assured, the next it was doom and gloom. Yet somehow, I still craved the excitement of working there.

Absolute highlights were the amazing sales and marketing masterstroke that was the 2001 Z-Car range – as close as you could get to making silk purses out of sow’s ears. I’ll never forget my first experience at the wheel of a Trophy Blue Y-reg ZS 180, which I drove home key-for-key with a Subaru Impreza WRX. Patriotic bias aside, the ZS was by far the better car.

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I liked the MG ZS 180 so much that, 10 years later, I bought my own…

Or my week-long experience of a ZT 190, a different beast, but the closest thing Britain has ever had to an affordable muscle car, at least this side of the V8-engined ZT 260.

The MG TF made a lot of sense, too. The MGF was needlessly expensive to produce with its Hydragas suspension, the TF was simplified, yet still a charming and entertaining sports car.

Even towards the bitter end, when it was clear that MG Rover could only afford vanity projects, there were engineering gems. I was the first journalist in the world to drive the MG SV-R, and was also driven sideways in it at Bruntingthorpe by MG’s rallying ambassador, Gwyndaf Evans. I loved it, despite its flaws.

Then there was the Streetwise. Whisper it, but I liked the Streetwise… it was way ahead of its time.

On the minus side, I remember the pitiful experience of going from my then girlfriend’s W-registered Rover 45 Connoisseur to a post-Project Drive 2004 MY one that we had in on group test. It was awful compared to my own, early 45 – noisy, plasticky and somehow unfinished.

Craig at the wheel of a late Rover 45. The facelift model was much better than the post 2003 'Project Drive' models
Craig at the wheel of a late Rover 45. The 2004 facelift was a much better car than the post 2003 ‘Project Drive’ models (Picture: Auto Express)

And then there was the CityRover… We won’t mention the CityRover.

On a corporate level, MG Rover was a journalist’s dream. A real soap opera… Not a week went by where there wasn’t one drama or another to report and, all along the rocky road that was the company’s final two years, my own experience of the MGR’s press office team was exemplary – I still know a few of them today and, having worked in a high pressure corporate PR environment where you have to deliver one piece of bad news after another (I’ve since worked through one factory closure, one brand closure and the biggest near-bankruptcy in US corporate history), I take my hat off to them all for the polite and unruffled way with which they batted off my questions.

Looking back, despite the fact my job application was still in their HR office at the time, I think the moment I realised MG Rover was on the way out was when the tumbleweed was blowing across their stand at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show. Here was a brand with a recently revised product range, which had already paid the exorbitant lease on a stand at Europe’s premier motor show, only to not turn up. That, clearly, was not good news, especially not against the backdrop of a hugely buoyant economy.

All of these cars were revised in 2004. None were at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show
All of these cars were revised in 2004. None were at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show

Yet throughout all that, my love for the company and glass-half-full optimism meant I always believed there’d be a future. For the past few years, that hasn’t looked great, and while I may (yet again) get some rocks thrown at me for wishing MG Motor a successful future, I don’t care. To still have some form of car making at all in Longbridge means there’s life in the old dog yet and, while Rover may have rolled over, it seems that MG may well just survive – it’ll be interesting to look back at that one in 10 years’ time and see how right (or wrong) I was…

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.

27 Comments

  1. The snippet of history from ten years ago that sticks in my mind was the then Labour government doing its bit to protect jobs and save a life of British industry. Well I say save jobs but in reality this equated to a 6 week bale out to keep MGR running just past the local election of which Longbridge was part of the constituency.

    Absolute disgrace but highlights why Labour cannot be trusted.

    Nige

    • There was absolutely nothing the Labour government, or any other government could have done to save Rover in 2005. It had been absolutely run into the ground. If some hugely expensive and pointless bailout had been put into place to effectively nationalise Rover it is certain it would have still ended up bust long before now, particularly given the impact that the 2008 global economic crash had on the whole car industry. Naive to imagine anything else.

      • Blair was only too happy to bail out the banks to the tune of billions – why he could not dip into the UK piggy bank to save 6000 jobs beggars belief, if had kept MGR afloat for a few months more the deal could have been done with SAIC and hopefully set them on the road to recovery.
        The news clips of the police and Blair’s cronies turning up at Longbridge in BMWs and other foreign metal highlights everything that was wrong with Blair’s policies – where was the buy British policy for all police/government vehicles? – France, Germany Governments always buy locally produced vehicles so why could not Blair?

  2. A nice insight from a journalist’s perceptive. Sadly most of the press coverage I recall in the final year was from one or two middle-of-the-road newspapers who seemed to carry a negative story every week about the future prospects of MG Rover Group. Were these journalists really delivering factual news or simply playing a game of ‘let’s see how far we can push things to the edge before the company falls over’? Well, it certainly felt that way whenever I read the Business section in my parent’s middle-of-the-road newspaper every week.

    How demoralising it must have felt for the employees of MG Rover Group who clearly put a lot of commitment in. As you say, the efforts of the Press Office were exemplary.

    Like you I had a soft spot for the Rover Streetwise, as well as liking the Premium grille design previewed on the 75 V8, the exterior update on the 2004 MG ZS 180 and the effective update of the MGF into the sharper looking TF. Amazing what their design engineers could achieve with so little time and money at their disposal.

  3. Some interesting observations from Craig and the comments about the empty MG Rover stand at Geneva 2005 sums it all up… I had “the pleasure” of owning both a 2000 R45, then a 2003 ZS+120 in X Power Grey, which was my favourite.

    I agree the Z series were worthwhile developments of their Rover counterparts -I decided I wanted a ZS not long after buying my 45. The next step would have been to buy a ZT but after the demise of 2005 it never happened. I still aspire to return at some point to MG ownership.

    Craig’s right, the facelift 45 looked better after the project drive economies, I think the example above is in Sonic Blue?

    • The colour featured on that facelifted Rover 45 is Ski Blue. Sonic Blue was a much darker hue, similar to Oxygen Blue which itself had featured on the Rover 25 and 45 Impression and Impression S special editions since 2001.

  4. I also like the Streetwise. There’s a tidy one running around very close to me.
    One would look good parked in the drive alongside my ZR!

    The TF was very clever – cheaper to produce yet sharper, an effective modernisation of the F.

    Of the 2004 facelifts I always thought that on the 45 was particularly effective. The ‘Roverisation’ of the base Honda was starting to look very dated, especially with all the Project Drive touches. The facelift looked a lot more modern, appealing even if the cut backs were continuing. I remember being surprised that I didn’t see more on the road. I was forever “facelift 45 spotting”!!

  5. It’s a shame, but Rover was in terminal decline and its market share was down to 3 per cent when it folded. As I’ve suggested before, Rover should have ditched the 25 and 45 and concentrated on the 75 and MG ZT. I know this would have meant a smaller Rover, but the company could specialise in what it was best known for, large luxury cars.

  6. For nearly 12 months now, I have enjoyed my “mid life crisis” MG TF. It’s in Xpower grey and was built towards the end of March 2005, about 3 weeks before the demise of The Firm.
    As a 2005 model, in my view, it’s one of the best TFs. Amongst other improvements, it has a glass window in the soft top, and a softer ride than earlier TFs, more like that of the F, I’m told.
    But being an MG Rover, it’s not without its foibles. Pektron relay issues mean that at one point I had no intermittent wipe, no working driver’s door window, and a deadlocked passenger door. Still, all fixed, for the moment. “Heritage”, and “they all do that, sir” are 2 terms we’ve all learned to read about quite often.
    Moreover, the car has the iconic K series engine, (it’s a 135 model) which has been known to have its moments. Don’t get me wrong, the engine in mine has been fine.
    Touch wood, it’s running beautifully, at present.
    Makes an excellent stablemate for my 1998 S reg Rover 420 GSI, also grey, which got kicked out of the garage overnight to make way for the 2 seat topless temptress.

    It’s worth reminding us that 10 years ago, a lot of newspaper column inches and other media time was focused on the Phoenix Four. Where are they now?

  7. I’m relieved that I am not the only one with a MGR love affair. At 61 years of age I have just bought an 05 plate MG TF in Firefrost Red and , I love it to bits . Yes it will no doubt have it’s moments when I curse it but, even at 10 years old it has had many admiring comments. I just want to get into it and drive it. Totally impractical as far as I can see but so what. I could have sold my trusty MG ZR and got peanuts for it as a ‘part ex’ but I couldn’t see the point so the TF has joined the ‘Fleet’ . Roll on summer !

  8. An interesting read as always Craig, and wow, wasn’t that a lucky career choice?
    I’m interested to read your comments about the MG SV-R at Bruntingthorpe.
    It’s a facility we use from time to time (it’s only about 7 miles away from where I work) and I remember going there one afternoon when a V8 engined Rover 75 was being hooned around there very sideways and being filmed for a TV Commercial or something. The car was all stripped out & had a roll cage like a proper raving car but I don’t think it ever competed in anything.
    I’m struggling now to remember what colour it was (probably something like British Racing Green?) but is certainly sounded great and whoever was driving it know what he was doing, I wonder if that was Gwydaff too?

    • Good article, Craig.

      When I bought my MG6 a couple of years ago, I was offered 500 quid for my 2002 ZS 120 Stepspeed (Trophy blue – the best colour). After 8 years of reliable driving (apart from the dreaded HGF) she owed me absolutely nothing but, my reply was “I have more in rubber and brakes on it than that, so I’ll just keep it”. 2 years on and 87k on the clock she’s still good and will still blow the socks off you when you floor it in Sport mode. OK the MG6 is much more quiet, smoother and ultimately faster than the ZS on the run between London and Edinburgh but there’s not all that much in it for give and take driving and the ZS will return 39-41mpg on such a run (more than the MG6S at around 37mpg) and I’m not hanging about.

      I still love it and she shows every sign of going on for a while yet – HGF allowing…

      PS MG6 is is Union Blue – again the best colour!

      All best, Jim Robertson

  9. I’m so pleased to see so many Rover 75s around, all of them in immaculate condition. This does seem to be one durable car and the last big Rover certainly had better rustproofing and quality than the Leylad era cars.

    • Glenn, in recent times I’ve thought “not so many tidy 75s around now”. Still, I can imagine Cumbrian folk having more taste, more appreciation of the 75 !!

  10. Craig,

    I remember the picture of blue 45 and reading the article in AE. At the time I was about ten. I had no idea it was you behind the wheel. For some reason your caption for a picture of the keys “At last, the Rover 45 gets a modern key fob.” sticks in my mind!

  11. @ Dave, the ones in Whitehaven are usually immaculate, there is a pristine 2002 model in metallic green in the Market Place. It does show people care about these cars.

  12. One saving grace from the death of Rover was the desirable bits for other manufacturers such as Mini and Jaguar Land Rover are doing well and JLR in particular are booming, seeing sales soar and the workforce double since the end of the recession. While the loss of Rover is sad, at least something survives and is doing well from the ashes of British Leyland/ Rover. Also the Mini seems to be expanding from a retro two door hatchback into a whole range of cars, which can only be good for the factory at Cowley.

  13. As the owner of a late 45, I agree that the facelift was most effective. The dash has a far more modern look about it than the earlier one. Having previously had a facelift 25, I can say that the 45 has dated better than the 25.

  14. Interesting read, Craig.

    Serious question – did you notice any particular bias at Auto Express towards particular car companies, or nationality of car companies? Did certain companies provide better perks for the test drives etc.?

  15. “I’ll never forget my first experience at the wheel of a Trophy Blue Y-reg ZS 180, which I drove home key-for-key with a Subaru Impreza WRX. Patriotic bias aside, the ZS was by far the better car.”

    My thoughts exactly – and after test driving both in December 2000 I used my company-car opt-out money to buy a brand new (well, pre-reg’d) ZS180 instead of the Impreza WRX I thought I was going to buy.

    And if I’d got a Pound for every time someone asked me if it was a BMW I’d have been able to buy another one.

  16. @David3500… I must admit I had never heard of “Ski blue”, just Sonic blue and others. MGR must have made many shades of blue back then.

  17. I covered the MGR closure for my website and also saw the fallout first hand in my Midlands town where the potentate of the local MGR dealer – which quickly went bust – was one of the Phoenix Four; bye bye a couple dozen jobs. Then there were the little widget factories that had been supplying Longbridge with things like boot lid hinges for decades. Bye bye more jobs. Some of those buildings are still for lease a decade on.

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