The wraps came off the MG EX-E at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1985, and the automotive world sat up and took notice. The car was conceived to showcase AR Design, but proved that MG could be modernised effectively.
Under the skin, it was based on the MG Metro 6R4, and was designed for production – but it never progressed beyond the motor show circuit. Design Director Roy Axe recalled the story for AROnline in 2007.
MG EX-E: the octagon gamechanger
First shown to the world at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, it is fair to say that the MG EX-E shocked visitors simply because it was so attractive and so unexpected. At the time of the EX-E’s debut, MG could only offer the M cars – sporting saloons and hatchbacks – so it came as a pleasant surprise to note that the company was still interested in the idea of designing and producing sports cars.
The EX-E’s frontal design and glasshouse meant it bore a striking resemblance to the previous year’s Honda HP-X concept, styled by Pininfarina. A lovely vignette from the programme was offered by Austin Rover Group Product Planner, Tony Burton, who recalled: ‘Roy asked me if he could borrow my Lotus Esprit for a couple of days to use as a dimensional reference model. He kept it more than two months and it came back with blobs of clay here and there.’
In concept form, the EX-E was something of a technical tour de force, with a drag coefficient of 0.24 as well as many ideas that looked good, but probably wouldn’t have made it into production. Being one of Spen King’s creations meant it had an aluminium spaceframe that was bonded together – costly then and now. The self-coloured, unstressed plastic body panels were a novelty, too. The glass canopy with integrated targa panel would probably have been a nightmare without air conditioning, too.
Could it have been built?
It was also built with the possibility of production very much in mind. Underneath, it rode on an MG Metro 6R4 platform, and was designed from the outset to be powered by a version of its engine – and Design Director Roy Axe (below) confirmed that BL Technology was involved in a proposal to productionise it. This brought Roy’s team close to Spen King’s and, as Roy confirmed, it was an ‘interesting experience.’
The equipment tally also reads like a modern car’s options list – it had been designed to have active suspension, parking radar, LCD digital instrumentation and a head-up display. Remote central locking, a rudimentary navigation system, automatic windscreen wipers and lights were also envisaged – as was hands-free operation for the car’s in-built cellphone.
The idea of putting the EX-E into production was tossed around following a very favourable press reception. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, where the EX-E was first show, Harold Musgrove said: ‘as a car enthusiast I would dearly like to build the MG EX-E. As a businessman — well, that could be a different matter.’ In the end, management – rightly – saw limited chance in this model being a success, and that MG was hardly the brand with which to spring a surprise attack on the supercar market.
The story of the MG EX-E in Roy Axe’s own words:
From this point I felt that I should really pressure to create and show a true show car for the international show circuit. The Rover 800 was running into timing difficulties due to quality issues and there was nothing happening otherwise than the less than exciting introduction of the Maestro and Montego.
I felt that the company needed a shot in the arm, something that would excite the press and create copy world wide, something unexpected. I also needed something to say to the design fraternity that ARG had a new design operation that could compete world wide, this in order to attract the quality of new people I needed for the work in hand.
I owned a Ferrari 308GT4 at the time and felt that a sports car of this type updating the Ferrari and showing that England was just as capable of producing a car with world-wide appeal, would do the trick. Marketing were against the idea as ARG did not make such cars and that it would prove to be a sales distraction.
How to market a production MG supercar
Harold Musgrove was enthusiastic but also was aware of the marketing position and felt the project had too many downsides to go ahead as a full project. After discussions, however, it was agreed that we should proceed with the design aiming for the Geneva show of 1984 as a target. The model was to be made more credible by creating a chassis and mechanical spec to compliment the styling and the engine chosen was the one being developed for the MG Metro 6R4 rally car.
Spen King from the Gaydon experimental department was brought in to work out the chassis details and we in design worked with Spen to develop a proposal.
Up to that point, I did not really know Spen but had been an admirer from afar so to speak. Spen was and is a man with very strong opinions and I think it is fair to say so have I! As a result some vigorous discussions took place as we battled for a package that would retain the drama of the intent to produce a show car of world class.
I enjoyed working with Spen and it was a real regret on my part that the opportunity to do much more with him did not arise again other than the use of the small car body design on the BL Technology ECV3 concept.
The visual goal was for a sports GT of generally Ferrari 308 size and proportions, but with a totally unique look. We decided that the MG name was the only appropriate one to use and that E followed F as a logical type name. I am an aircraft enthusiast and a follower of military aircraft style, if that is the right term. I was very impressed by the F16 Falcon fighter with its command pilot position and surrounding bubble canopy and this was the inspiration I gave to the design team.
An influx of Chrysler design talent
The Design Manager for the exterior of the project was Gordon Sked and the small team of Designers included some new college grads and Gerry McGovern, who was new to the company having joined from Peugeot. Gerry had been hired by me directly from school as something of an experiment years earlier at Chrysler UK.
The project started well then got bogged down as such projects often do. I remember one weekend morning getting the team together and thrashing out some of the forms. The form had become heavy and I felt it should take a cue from the 308 and have the bonnet surface be below the wings creating a lighter look and the great view forward from the cockpit that I so admired in the Ferrari.
The problems were sorted out and the form that eventually became the final model emerged in the three dimensional development.
MG EX-E: From Frankfurt to Gaydon
The final sketches used in the publicity covering the design process were, in fact, produced after the event as it were. Gerry McGovern was involved in the project and did those drawings but, in fairness to the others, he was not the sole Designer, it was a team effort.
The model was cast in fibreglass and painted and it looked fantastic. There was still the resistance to showing it until I unveiled the final finished model to Harold Musgrove. He was convinced and with just a few days to the show opening at Frankfurt, he instructed that the model would be shown.
The results are there to see by referring to the press reports of the time. The car received a wonderful reception and ARG was the subject of much speculation for the future.
The show model is still around and when I last saw it at the Gaydon museum I felt a great deal of personal satisfaction for the design which has, I feel, stood the test of time well and would not look out of place if introduced today, though this is, I admit, a very biased opinion!