MGR@10 Month : The demise of MG Rover – an American view

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Richard Truett

The very last auto industry event MG Rover (MGR) took part in came on 12 April 2005 in Detroit. Alan Warburton, Iain Fleming, James Scott and Neil Butler of Powertrain Limited, MGR’s money-making engine and transmission operations, were in Detroit with Camcon to present a paper on camless engines at the giant Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress.

I visited SAE that year and was surprised to see MG Rover had a small display in the UK industry area in the giant Cobo Center and that there was an MG TF on the floor, top down and looking spectacular. On the car’s instrument panel were cards to fill out asking attendees if they thought the MG TF should come to the United States.

MG was reportedly planning to take the TF to the USA
MG Rover was reportedly planning to take the MG TF to the USA

For those of us keeping track, the British Racing Green MG TF at SAE was just the second car which Rover Group/MGR had exported to the USA since it dropped the Sterling line of Rover 800s in late 1991. Sometime in the mid ‘90s, an MGB built from a new shell came to the USA to demonstrate the quality of the panels. That MG TF was the only other car that Rover officially sent to the USA.

After Rover withdrew for the third time from the USA, we Americans never again saw another Rover-built car offered here. We missed everything that came from 1992-2005. Some of the 1990s Rovers, the 800 Coupe (originally planned specifically for the US market), the Tomcat and the 75, likely would have done well here, provided the quality was at least as good as German cars.

MGR’s presence in the USA after Sterling was limited to Land Rover and Range Rover up until the time BMW bought Rover Group and broke it up. MGR skidding into receivership did not affect much in the way of Land Rovers here.

sterling 825
Federal-spec Sterling 825 – Rover’s last big effort to crack the USA market

We had the slow-selling Freelander with its K-Series V-6. But that had got a reputation for blowing engines and was fading badly. So when MGR went bust, the Freelander died in the USA shortly thereafter.

Perhaps the biggest blow for Americans from the MGR debacle is that it once and for all crushed the hopes of MG’s strong American fan base. They’d been waiting since 1980 for MG to return.

MG was the sports car America loved first and we never stopped buying them. It was hoped that the MG TF would come to the USA someday when MGR were free of BMW. However, with Sterling gone, Rover no longer had a U.S. dealer network for cars and Land Rover dealers had their hands full.

MG fans in the USA have always been extremely loyal to the brand
MG fans in the USA have always been extremely loyal to the brand

But MGR’s managers were definitely thinking of North America. The company set up shop in Mexico in 2003 to sell the 75 and the MG TF and both were launched successfully there. The numbers sold in Mexico were not big, but it was a good start and it put MGR right on America’s doorstep. And there were rumblings that the Ford Mustang-powered MG SV, which was based on the bones of the already-federalized Qvale Mangusta, would lead MG’s return to the USA.

Rover 75 made it as far as Mexico...
Rover 75 made it as far as Mexico…

Of course, nothing came of it. And when the end came, no one here could have predicted how things have turned out for MGR.

Who could have guessed that:

  • MG would be reborn as a Chinese brand of solid, but unexciting budget cars
  • Roewe would be created carrying – initially at least – the DNA of Rover
  • The troublesome K-Series would be re-engineered and its faults rectified
  • Ford would pay BMW millions for the Rover name and then bundle it up with Land Rover to sweeten the deal for India’s Tata to take over Land Rover and Jaguar
  • Jaguar Land Rover would rise up and surpass MGR’s sales volume and play a major role in vaulting Great Britain past France in automobile production

Yes, it’s been a strange decade since MGR went to the wall hasn’t it?

Somehow, though, I feel the story is not over yet. It may not happen soon but, if Jaguar Land Rover keeps growing, I believe there is a very good chance that we will see the famous Rover longship badge once more.

Dead? Don't be so sure, reckons Richard...
Dead? Don’t be so sure, reckons Richard…

18 Comments

  1. Did any 75s & TFs make their way over the Mexican border as either grey or private imports?

    Also the US is the type of place that Rover would do well. In terms of brand image, the marque has become eclipsed by the likes of Audi & Volvo which it was formerly on level terms with. In the US there is more of a market for middle of the road brands as is shown by the likes of Nissan, Honda & Toyota.

    JLR have talked about overseas production facilities being a potential vehicle for further globalisation. Perhaps they could follow the lead of the aforementioned Japanese brands by building a plant in the US.

    • I believe that it is difficult for non-federal approved cars to be imported into the US, unless they are on the special historic cars register (a law which was supported by Bill Gates such that he could import a Porsche 959).

      It would be interesting, nonetheless, to see Mexican tourists in the US in Rover 75s.

    • There is a Canadian registered TF that shows up at the British Car Show here in Washington state. That’s the only one I have ever seen here.

  2. Interesting that MGR was thinking of selling the TF in the USA. Could people in the States also have taken to the 75? It was over ten years since Sterling and I think the 75’s obvious ‘Britishness’ would have helped. Then again, if a few HGFs made your news it would soon have been all over.

    I wouldn’t describe the current MGs (3 & 6) as ‘budget’. More a case of cheaply priced.

    • Probably more “sub budget”, not competing with the likes of Kia & Hyundai on their design and innovation, but making up for any shortfall there by undercutting on price.

  3. It struck me that a Golf sized hatch with a Range Rover/Discovery type style to it – but proper Golf sized and proportioned, not an SUV, could drop the Land and Become a Rover – Doubt they would want to stick a Viking badge on it though.

  4. Yes, I also have believe Rover will return one day. JLR is growing and in the future it will need to launch smaller cars. And the appropriate brand for that would be Rover because it would be depreciating for Jaguar to launch a car smaller than XE.

  5. Perhaps we should all take a drive over to JLR HQ on Saturday after POL and start campaigning for the return of Rover as a sub brand to Jaguar and Land Rover. Both of which, whilst greats sets of cars and improving, aren’t my type of cars, I have no need for a medium/large saloon or 4×4. Much preferring Sports cars and supermini’s

    I would also hate to see Jaguar lose its prestige as BMW, Audi have done..and rover once did.

    Is the new XE the car that the Rover 75 should have been?

  6. MGRover airfreight to the USA a Silver MGZT and a 1936/39 MGSA for an MG enthusiasts weekend event at Minnesota in 2001. Cars not driven on open road but demonstrated around large private campus area.

  7. The Sterling was let down by poor quality and never recovered from a very shaky start in America, even when the cars came right in 1988. It’s a shame as Rover could have played on the link with Honda, one of the most popular makes in America, and later on I’m sure the 600 and 75 would have been popular in America.

    • I would be more specific and say that there was poor engineering in all areas of Sterling. Cowley had already proved their quality credentials with the Triumph Acclaim.
      I can vividly remember being on the docks at Newark 1987 maybe, there was a long line of ex Texas lease cars. On closer inspection they all had the same faults! Vent trim missing off every driver’s door. Bit of wood trim missing off every fascia……..It was like an example of reliability testing – done by the customer unfortunately!
      I dread to think what happened to these cars 100+. Probably dumped at sea.

    • JLR have spent £15 billion so far “reviving” land rover and jaguar. It will take a lot more cash to make a sustainable business.
      How much do you think it would cost to bring back Rover?
      It’s not likely in the short or medium term!

  8. The 75 could have done well in America as it was a saloon, and most American car buyers still prefer saloons. Also its Britishness and retro styling would have gone down well in a country where Jaguars have always been very popular.

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