The MGF and TF development story shows how the Rover Group created an appealing mid-engined sports car on a shoestring.
The MGF showed genuine engineering flair when it was launched – thanks to the use of VVC and Hydragas suspension.
The MGF and TF development story: full circle
During the 1980s Austin Rover was very keen to ensure that the MG marque did not drop out of the public eye. With the plethora of saloon models and the active involvement in motor sport, there was no way that the company would allow customers to forget! Of course, the only problem with this plan was that, in the mind’s eye of the average customer, MG spelled convertible – and no way would tuned saloons with red seat belts fit the bill.
Austin Rover was working on proper MGs, and had been since 1984 with the AR6-based MG Midget, but of course, these early projects were well out of the public eye. What the company really needed was a way of announcing to the world, their sporting intent for the marque.
MG EX-E: re-invigorating the marque
That is where the MG EX-E came into the story.
In the closing months of 1984, the decision was made to build an all-out MG sports car prototype with the sole intention of being displayed at international motor shows and reminding people that Austin Rover was a forward-thinking company with ambitious plans for MG.
The new concept would also give the company the opportunity to show off to the world what BL Technology had achieved in terms of construction techniques and aerodynamic packaging. The styling team, newly headed by Roy Axe, was also given the chance to flex its creative muscles; Gordon Sked and Gerry McGovern would both very publicly make their names because of the success of the new MG.
It was Austin Rover’s Chairman and Chief Executive, Harold Musgrove, who ensured that the car was premiered at an international motor show rather than Birmingham – his reasoning being that Austin Rover needed to re-establish their image on the continent – and so it was: on 14 September 1985, a raiding party from the Midlands stormed the Frankfurt Motor Show with the startling MG EX-E.
Rebooting MG with a radical new look
What marked the MG EX-E out as being particularly significant was the fact that the Canley styling studio had moved the MG name forward in one massive step – the styling was radical; being ahead of its time featuring a cab-forward stance and, like the ECV3 before it, a drag co-efficient of 0.24Cd. The MG EX-E also boasted a structure design that was similar to the ECV3, comprising of a bonded aluminium skeleton clothed with plastic external panels.
The concept allowed for a very lightweight car, but it was extremely expensive to employ in a production car – and the reticence of the company to commit to this in a production car was echoed in Gordon Sked’s comments: ‘It is a structure we are currently proving and clearly we wouldn’t risk the car if we weren’t confident in the system.’ This slightly evasive comment was somewhat at variance with the motor show PR-speak, which hinted at a production run. Sked again: ‘We have put a lot of thought into how it might be put into production.’
The engine dipped into the more exotic end of the Austin Rover Group’s parts bin: interestingly, the decision was to use the compact and light MG Metro 6R4 engine in a fairly mild state of tune (250bhp) hooked up to its four-wheel-drive transmission.
High-tech inside and out
The hi-tech theme was carried into the interior as well. Much thought was expended on how to optimise dashboard ergonomics, and the Canley design team’s solution was certainly startling. The main instrument cluster was presented in digital form (as was the fashion in the mid-1980s) using fluorescent red LEDs.
Above that, a head up display was projected onto the windscreen, which would show engine revs under hard acceleration and road speed when cruising – the idea being that only relevant information was relayed to the driver. Austin Rover even gave this system a remarkably self-important name: the “Reflex information monitor”. Despite the title, the system certainly had benefits – especially so, considering priority warnings would also be relayed in the same way.
All in all, the MG EX-E looked like a remarkably exciting concept car – and the frisson of excitement generated by the merest possibility of its production certainly had the desired effect of boosting the image of MG no end. Roy Axe certainly received much praise for the design his studio had produced, and he summed up his pride in the EX-E by saying, ‘it’s nice to see a real sports car.’
Once the glare of the motor show lights had faded – work continued back in Cowley on a road going MG convertible – and one thing was for sure; it would not resemble the MG EX-E in any meaningful way.
F concept takes a bow…
Between 1985 and 1989, work on a neat little front-engined two-seater convertible, called the MG F-16 showed that many within Austin Rover were keen on re-entering the sports car market. The reasoning behind the car was simple: MG as a marque was ripe to be exploited, and what better way to do it than to develop a new sports car; something to finally replace the MGB?
Although, the F-16 was never much more than a rolling design study, fashioned in the sidelines, it certainly softened management’s attitude to the idea of a new MG-badged sports car. All the Designers were extremely keen to follow through the concept; especially their Director – Roy Axe.
The background to why the development of this car never really gained momentum throughout the last half of the decade can be put down to uncertainty over the company’s finances, the failure of the mid-range saloons on the market – and the Government’s keenness to farm out Rover to the private sector.
Putting the sports car higher up the agenda
The new MG convertible was not regarded a priority in Rover’s forward planning and, although the F16 was advanced enough to have been mocked-up as a full-size prototype, management approval was not forthcoming.
However, the idea never went away and given the right climate, a two-seater MG convertible would make a return. After the sale of the Rover Group to British Aerospace in 1988, the climate began to look more favourable, and many within the design team did believe that the F-16 concept could make the leap to production reality.
In 1989, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel and, thanks to the improved financial position of Rover, the MG idea began to gain momentum right the way through the company. The pivotal moment in the gestation of the MGF came later in 1989, when the Japanese launched their modern interpretation of the Lotus Elan.
The Mazda MX-5 effect
Upon seeing the Mazda MX-5 for the first time, Gordon Sked knew that the Designers had been right all along in pushing for a new MG convertible. It was obviously a bitter-sweet moment for him, and he has been quoted as saying that the MX-5’s announcement made him feel like crying.
There was an obvious reason for this – work on the F-16 had been underway at Canley since 1985 – and, had the company given the project its blessing, they could have had the car (or a derivative of it) on the market before the Mazda ever saw the light of day. Thanks to the MX-5, the world had now changed – for the better – but it meant that any manufacturer who launched a mass-market two-seater convertible subsequently would undoubtedly be accused of jumping on the MX-5 bandwagon.
However, the MX-5 had appeared and, following the critical acclaim it received in the press, Rover management had no doubt that they needed to produce an MG to compete in the same market. The Mazda’s sales success in the months that followed backed that up… The MG was on!
From concept to reality
The final piece of the MGF jigsaw was the formation of Rover Special Products. The raison d’etre of this division was simply to take on Rover Group projects that were considered too marginal for the mainstream design teams to consider working on. RSP was manna from heaven for the new MG, simply because it allowed for much in the way of flexibility during the design process without actually taking too many resources away from the mainstream design team, which was busy working on upcoming Rover saloons and hatchbacks.
As a result, the project was given some direction, and a commitment to production looked much more likely. An overall designation of, ‘Phoenix Revival’ (or ‘Phoenix Route’) was assigned, and in an exercise to work out what was the best route to follow in devising the new car, three subsequent MG convertible prototypes would be given PR designations.
Under the direction of Rover Special Projects division, the PR3 project was designed and developed by Steve Harper, during the first months of 1991. The design theme, inspired by the TWR XJR15, was first sketched in the January of 1991, and then developed over the next month, in which time, the distinct shape of the MGF was soon established. Full size clay modelling began in March, and the ‘red car’ was first shown to Rover management that same month.
Phoenix route options take shape
|PR1||This was a continuation of the F16 project, being front-engined, front-wheel drive. Motor Panels built the running prototype and based it upon Maestro running gear, but using the 2-litre M16 engine.|
|PR2||PR2 was built by Reliant on a Scimitar SS1 chassis. Layout was classical – front-engine, rear-wheel drive and the power was provided by a 3.9-litre version of the venerable Rover V8 engine.|
|PR3||PR3 was produced by the Luton-based automotive consultants ADC and was a mid/rear design, echoing the layout of the Fiat X1/9 and Toyota MR2. More…|
The PR1/2/3 exercise was an extremely astute one: outside contractors were used in order to keep costs down, and each of the three parties were given an F-16 body to work with and a mechanical configuration to adhere to.
Within the space of a few months, RSP had received the finished prototypes from Reliant, ADC and Motor Panels, and serious evaluation of the road behaviour of each one ensued. Each car had its fans within the company, but it was decided that the best way to settle the issue would be to undertake and management drive exercise, in which the three cars would be seriously tested back-to-back.
One attendee was John Towers, who was there in his role as Director of Product Development. The exercise was most interesting, for all those that attended, and although the build quality of the prototypes was a little rough and ready in places, a good impression of each car could be reached.
Making the mid-engined choice
Although technically very interesting, PR1 was the first to be ruled out, because of its front-wheel-drive layout. It was felt that, although it offered an extremely competent compromise in the handling department, its reliance on the Maestro floorpan meant that it would be running on soon-to-be-obsolete componentry.
The choice was, therefore, between the hairy 3.9-litre rear-wheel-drive car, and the more sophisticated mid-engined layout. Both layouts had their adherents, but in the end, the more forward looking of the two was chosen…
After much deliberation, RSP settled on the mid-engined layout for the new car, dubbed the PR3, because of the superior road behaviour offered by the layout – this was in the days before the Lotus Elan proved once and for all that front-wheel-drive cars could be made to handle as well as their rear-wheel-drive counterparts.
Moving from Canley to MGA developments
Previous MG Midget and F16 prototypes may have been front-engine/front-wheel drive, but that was because of the ease of employing existing running gear. Although the front-engine/rear-wheel-drive option had its fans inside Special Products, it was ruled out on cost grounds: a mid-engined car could use an existing engine/gearbox package without major modification, whereas a rear driven car would require an entirely new platform and running gear.
In January 1991, with Rover’s own Design Department working feverishly on the Rover 600 and the rest of the so-called Portfolio range, Special Products sensibly commissioned PR3 styling proposals from ADC, IAD and MGA Developments.
Out of the three companies. MGA Development’s version was deemed the most suitable by management, and it was from this proposal that the final MGF shape was created. The design brief given by Rover was open – there needed to be a conceptual relationship with the MG EX-E, as well as more contemporary rival convertibles.
It also needed to be unmistakably an MG, with an overall feeling of Britishness. Rover’s management reviewed MGA’s PR3 proposal and liked what they saw. Steve Harper, a member of the team that worked on the PR3 for MGA recalled their reaction: ‘The feedback we got was very positive. The high rear deck went down well, as did the bodyside surfacing and the car’s squat stance, but the front end treatment drew some criticism – too anonymous, not MG.’
MGF comes in-house
By May 1991, MGA signed off their PR3 proposal and passed it over to Canley for final productionsation by EX-E stylist, Gerry McGovern and Gordon Sked. Many subtle changes were made at this stage of the process – the windscreen became lower, the flanks were lowered and the overhangs shortened.
Significantly, major changes were made to the front of the car, where fuller, rounder headlights were incorporated and a traditional MG grille arrangement that aped the post-1976 MGB. Happily, the Gerry McGovern arrangement was considerably more stylish than the rather heavy-handed original.
So the styling was an amalgam of new-age thinking and traditional MG design cues, the engineering and concept owed nothing at all to any previous production cars by the marque. The MG ADO21 and EX-E may have shared a mid-engined layout, but neither was anywhere near being a production reality.
So, thanks to Rover’s insistence that the PR3 was to be as British as bangers and mash, it was heart warming to see that the Rover parts bin was raided – and no Honda at all crept into the design, a temptation for any Rover Engineer during the early 1990s. There was only one choice for the power unit: the K-Series engine, but surprising for observers, the suspension used was Dr Alex Moulton’s Hydragas – hardly an obvious choice, given the cars in which it was previously used.
But Hydragas worked especially well with the mid-engined MG because it could be tuned specifically to provide accurate response during direction changes, without being too nervy. As Alex Moulton related in Autocar magazine at the launch of the MGF, “it de-fidgets the car” because of its best property – the front/rear connection. Being short of wheelbase, the car was potentially very susceptible to becoming unsettled on rough surfaces – but the interconnected MG suffered far less than its rivals.
The 1.8-litre version of the K-Series engine is an engine that was never originally designed for a mid-engined installation. As has been relayed elsewhere, the K-Series engine was an optimised package for use in small and medium-sized hatchbacks – and, as a result, it was an extremely compact power unit.
However, Rover Group Powertrain was faced with the pressing need to replace the bought-in Honda 1.6-litre engines – and, because of this need, the big block K-Series was born. Some very ingenious engineering solutions were employed to squeeze extra capacity from the K-Series engine, chief of these were new cylinder liners, called damp liners, which allowed an increased cylinder size by fitting bigger bores into the same block size.
The result was four cylinders squeezed into the same size block – a longer throw crankshaft effected the enlargement from 1.6 to 1.8-litres. Continuing Rover’s loaves and fishes reputation, the entire budget for the engine programme was, ‘less than £200 million’.
Boosting the output with VVC
For the faster version of the MGF various methods of boosting engine power were investigated. Alex Stephenson, Rover Group Powertrain’s Managing Director stated: ‘we looked at everything, including turbos and superchargers, but VVC offered the best package…’
Basically, Variable Valve Control (VVC) was a concept that Rover had been working on since the launch of the K-Series engine in 1989. Under the codename Hawk, the intention was to boost power by continuously varying the inlet cam period – and this was finally achieved in their first development engine, run in 1993.
The secret to the VVC system was a clever mechanical link between the inlet camshaft and its drive – the engine management system altered the relationship between the camshaft and crankshaft. The result was that, at high revs, the valves were held open to boost power, but at low revs, the valves remained closed longer, thus increasing torque.
The step-over point was at 4000rpm, it all meant that VVC enabled versions of the K-Series exhibited the likeable quality of being nicely torquey and driveable at low revs, but when you wanted to press-on, the power would come in gradually above 4000rpm. The effect was somewhat akin that that of the Honda VTEC engine, but with the advantage of having better low-down torque characteristics.
At last… a new MG
When the MGF was launched on 8 March 1995, the impact it made on the press and public was significant. Following over a decade of Rover’s Anglo-Japanese products, RV8 aside, here was the first all-British car produced by Rover since the Austin Montego. And as CAR Magazine related at the time, ‘even more heart-warming is that some of the people involved with it are figures from some of the happier chapters of BL’s troubled past [like] Dr Alex Moulton, Engineer Brian Griffin [who] is the son of Charles Griffin, once the engineering chief of Austin-Morris, [while] Peter Parker, who worked on MG’s variable-valve-control system, cut his teeth on Austin’s experimental gas-turbine cars.’
The press loved the car – and the MGF was soon making friends in the showrooms, too. The MG was welcomed back into the realms of mainstream sports cars – sales were brisk and the car enjoyed a very positive image. Following the launch of the Rover 200 and 400, the MGF soon became a member of the Rover ‘Niche’ line-up, which included the 200 Cabriolet, Coupe and Tourer – and it began to win new custom for the company. Certainly, the MGF compared with the then-current crop of opposition, which included the Fiat Barchetta and Mazda MX-5. Where the MGF scored heavily against both cars was because of its mid-engined layout and cuddly, but sexy looks.
Autocar was impressed with the new car and it showed in their road test verdict of the 1.8i version: ‘It would have been so easy for Rover to stick an MG badge on the nose of a mediocre car and once more rely on the marque’s image to do the selling. This has not happened. Rover has instead created what is, in all probability, the world’s most complete and affordable open two-seater. From traditional MG fans to those wanting something more stylish than the chopped-about hatchbacks that pass for convertibles these days, the MGF should prove a blessing. It is an all-British car of which we can be unusually proud.’
Handling and ride were marked as being exemplary – and, although as a mid-engined car with its low polar movement of inertia, it should have been more ragged at its limits and it was not. Rover’s Engineers had engineered a massive safety margin into the chassis, and ensured that the MGF was all-but impossible to oversteer, let alone spin.
However, the Hydragas sprung chassis did exactly what Moulton promised – it ‘de-fidgeted’ the car. The downside was that, along with the electric power steering, it managed to de-sensitize the car a little too much. Okay, the limits of adhesion were way beyond cars such as the Mazda MX-5, but that all-important feel was a little bit muddied.
This may have been disappointing to the road testers, but as ex-Formula One driver Mark Blundell put it when speaking about the MGF, ‘I feel, for the average driver, that this is much safer because you can back off the throttle and bring in the front end, as opposed to trying to use a lot of ability to catch it.’
Comparing the MGF with the Mazda MX-5
Russell Bulgin put it in these terms when comparing the MGF to its arch-rival, the Mazda MX-5: ‘The MGF is for chaps, the MX-5 is a bloke’s car. Chaps like to reminisce about the MGB, talk about their purchase down at the pub. All a bloke craves is a quiet road with some invigorating bends and the odd off-camber surprise. So why have Rover been clever with the MGF? Because there’s a strong argument for saying that, to the everyday user, the MX-5 is too much sports car.
‘The MGF feels amiable for commuting and would be a great motorway companion, too. Roomy inside, with a decent boot and a civility, which is more than skin-deep, this is a sports car for the driver who isn’t too sure about sports cars. Is satisfying that person such a terrible mistake for Rover to make?’
Of course, the answer was no – and sales of the MGF backed this opinion.
No plans for US exports
Unfortunately, plans for exporting it to the USA were put on ice by BMW, which felt that it would threaten its own newly-launched Z3 model. The company cited homologation costs as a reason, but engineering the MGF to be as user-friendly as it was points to a development programme aimed squarely at the US market – and BMW did not want their British division to spoil the party.
The MGF was left pretty much untouched during the BMW years, but scant months after the formation of MG Rover, new versions of the car began to appear – the intention was to increase the driver appeal of a car that had been criticised at launch for being uninvolving.
The first signs that the regime was serious about MG and its products was the arrival of the MGF Trophy 160 – an uprated version of the VVC car, which sported firmer suspension settings, redesigned bumpers and larger wheels. The Trophy may have not been subtle, but it certainly signalled the intent to give MG a harder image than perhaps BMW had cultured during their tenure.
From F to TF: losing the ‘gas
Plans were already afoot to thoroughly update the MGF, though – and, in January 2002, the results were launched: the MGTF.
The renamed MGTF evoked memories of its 1953 forebear, but only the nameplate was common. The new car was totally contemporary – and, unlike many facelifts, the results of Peter Stevens’ work were totally successful, stylistically. Sadly, the TF received new and conventional suspension: out went Moulton’s Hydragas displacers, in came springs and dampers. The TF, therefore, marked the end of the road for the Hydragas suspension system – arguably one of the finest features employed in the BL range during the 1970s and ’80s (…and ’90s!)
The MGTF sold well for MG Rover – and should have been good enough to go on and lead a long life… However, due to the company’s slide into oblivion in April 2005, it ended up dying before its time. Ten years into the life of the ‘F-type’ MG, when it finally went to meet its maker, the TF still looked better than the MGB ever did.
What the MGF and TF achieved during their lifetime was to re-establish the marque in the eyes of the buying public, but also re-invent the brand. Following the closure of Abingdon, there was a misty-eyed nostalgia for the products of MG even though they never offered anything more than simple, crude convertibles and badge-engineered BMCs and then Austin-Rover products. There was definitely magic in the name, but a real risk that, as MGs fans aged and moved on, the brand could have gone to seed – Rover was clever with the MGF because although the company played lip service to the products of the past, it engineered an advanced car which looked forwards.
Because of the brave and bold decision to make the MGF the car it was, MG moved forwards.
It seems so sad that the plug was pulled when it was – when the TF remained the best-selling car in its class in the UK.
Nanjing Automotive, which owns the rights to the MG nameplate as well as the production tooling, began production of the TF at Longbridge – and, although initial cars were almost identical to their MG Rover counterparts of 2005, there were a number of engineering and production improvements incorporated. Most significantly, the entire production process would take place under one roof (so no more need to ship in bodies from STADCO, nee Mayflower), although a significant amount of parts would now be imported from China.
Longbridge was officially re-opened in May 2007, at which point, the company rolled out its lightly facelifted version of the TF. Although the changes were minor, the event marked a new beginning for the Longbridge plant, which for a long time looked to have no future in carmaking.
A coupe version was planned for production in the USA at the Ardmore Air Park in Ardmore, Oklahoma, with construction of the Ardmore assembly facility beginning early in 2007 and production scheduled to start by the third quarter of 2008. However, problems between the Americans partners and Nanjing Auto over differences of opinion regarding MG’s future, led to delays, including the resignation of the venture’s high-profile spokesperson, Duke T. Hale.
In the end, the TF‘s relaunch never really gained the momentum that was expected for it, and production officially came to an end in Longbridge in 2011, with the roll-out off the new MG6 fastback taking its place.
- The MGF was so-named because the ADO21 was called MGD during development and the MG EX-E covered the MG-E name nicely. Even though the MGD name was used during the development of the car, the media for once were wide of the mark when the speculated that the new car would be launched as the MGD.
- The MGF was not the first production MG to sport a mid-engine – that accolade went to the MG Metro 6R4.
- The bore and stroke measurements of the 1.8-litre K-Series engine were all but identical to the B-Series found in the MGB – 80.0mm x 89.3mm compared with 80.3mm x 88.9mm.
- Rover’s VVC system started life with piston manufacturer AE. Then the patent lapsed and Rover keenly stepped in.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.