Rambling on at the keyboard again about all things MG…
It’s been interesting to watch MG’s subdued relaunch in Britain over the last few years. What does it say that only a few were sold each month for most of 2013? Part of what that message conveys — from an American point of view – is that if Britons won’t even buy them, the new generation of MGs must be awful.
Of course, there’s more to it than that.
Dealerships are few, and worse, MG’s advertising and marketing has been disappointingly poor. Even if MG’s quality was spot-on perfect and even if the cars offered outstanding value, sales would still probably be small. I can’t see MG making much progress until the company creates a strong UK Dealer Network and a reputation for exceptional customer service. That, coupled with aggressive and consistently good marketing, might accelerate MG’s return to prominence.
Making MG into a major brand, though, will be hard work. It requires a strong leader with vision and a company willing to give him the long-term financial backing and freedom to execute it. But I don’t see anything that resembles more than a token effort from MG at this point. Sometimes I think the real reason for MG’s presence at Longbridge is mostly to legitimize the marque in China – if you look at the way the Chinese market MG in China, it’s all about the marque’s British heritage.
I can tell you many Americans – me included – want to see a successful MG rebirth. If MG builds on the success it has enjoyed in China and conquers Britain and then Europe, the brand’s long-awaited return to the US market can be contemplated. But that should not happen with today’s MGs.
I’ve looked at MG’s current line-up and I can tell you that none of the vehicles wearing the MG name today would likely find much success in the US market.
Today’s MGs are okay looking, but there is very little about them that is distinctively British. These new MGs could be any car from any where with any name on the nose. In the USA, Korean automakers have taken the lower end of the market with an array of well-equipped, value-packed, stylish vehicles. And today’s MGs would fare poorly against that juggernaut.
MG would struggle here because hatches are not looked upon as they are in Europe and Asia. Most hatchbacks in the USA are inexpensive vehicles aimed at buyers who can’t afford better. And let’s not forget that, to Americans, MG does not have a tradition or image of making sporting saloons. You will recall that BL withdrew MG from the USA in 1980. We missed out on everything that came after.
When the time comes for MG to return to the US, it should do so by starting with a proper two-seat roadster, rear-wheel drive, of course. Such a car fits the American image of MG. The target: MX-5. And it must be better than that car by every standard of measurement. Then MG should quickly follow up with a hot hatch to take on the Ford Focus ST and a compact all-wheel drive performance saloon, much like Subaru make. MG and affordable high-performance with British style is a recipe that can work here in the USA.
You need only look at the first generation of the MINI Cooper to see what Americans want in a British car. It needs to look British, not generic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that future MGs must have retro looks – that’s a dead end – but MG must develop graceful, original styling that ages well and can be kept fresh without major sheetmetal changes every few years.
In terms of technical sophistication, MG could carve out a niche for itself by developing a DNA that focuses sharply on lightweight, user-friendly cars that are not laden with devices that require programming and fiddling with. With an MG, you should be able to simply get in and drive. To me that means, one small nav screen, no voice recognition or internet connectivity. There would be a decent radio, a powerful air con system, electric window lifts and door locks and that’s it. The gauges would say SMITHS on them or Morris Garages and the exhaust note would have a nice, crisp tone – a classy nod to MG’s past.
And speaking of the past, MG has something going for it that no other brand can claim: MG was the sports car America loved first. Let’s now correct the historical record here. Forget that often repeated nonsense about American servicemen in Great Britain in WW2 falling in love with MGs and bringing them home. That’s total rubbish – only a few thousand MGs were ever made before the war and MG was not a common car. Also, the only cars on British roads were government and military vehicles. American servicemen were not zipping around the English countryside in MG sports cars, scarfs flying in the wind during WW2. It didn’t happen.
The truth is that between 1946 and 1950, America, flush with cash and left undamaged by war, was the place to sell cars. And nearly every brand with a credible vehicle tried its luck. MG had the market to itself. There were no American, German or Italian sports cars at that time. Those first post-war MGs were like nothing else on the roads here. They were light and fun to drive and they out-handled ponderous American tanks. MG opened the door for Austin-Healey, Triumph, Sunbeam and everyone else selling sports cars. MG consistently sold more cars every year than any other British brand and most foreign brands until 1980, when BL withdrew MG from America.
Despite being gone for 34 years, MG still has a strong sports car image and a devoted following here. It’s hard to find someone who didn’t have an MG in their family or who doesn’t have some story to tell about a ride in an MG.
Done right, MG could be follow Triumph and MINI and be the next British marque to successfully return to the United States.
In 1995, Triumph successfully returned to America with a fresh lineup of world-class motorcycles. Since then Triumph has built a reputation for quality, craftsmanship, performance and value. America is once again Triumph’s biggest market.
MINI has proven that Americans’ appetite for affordable British-made cars is still strong. More than 600,000 have been sold here since launch in 2002.
And so we in America wait for an MG lineup that is true to the image of the brand that we still hold dear. To MG’s Chinese overlords, I would say stay out of the US until MG combines quality, unexpectedly strong performance, classy and timeless British styling with outstanding value in cars that are true to the brand. That will be the ticket for admission and success in the USA.
Richard Truett is a true British car enthusiast, having owned a string of Triumphs. He works for Automotive News and is also AROnline’s US Editor.