Concepts and Prototypes : MG EX-E (1985)

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?

Left to right: Richard Hamblin, Roy Axe and Gordon Sked with their creation: the EX-E
Left to right: Richard Hamblin, Roy Axe and Gordon Sked with their creation: the EX-E

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 shown, 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:

MG EX-E styling sketch produced by the Roy Axe studios in Canley
MG EX-E styling sketch produced by the Roy Axe studios in Canley

‘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.

MG EX-E design process

‘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.

MG EX-E concept

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.

The mechnical make-up of the car was also interesting, in that it used a detuned version of the MG Metro 6R4's power plant mounted amidships.
The mechanical make-up of the car was also interesting, in that it used a de-tuned version of the MG Metro 6R4’s power plant mounted amidships

‘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 interior was led by Richard Hamblin and here we were after a totally unique and high tech look to reflect the new technology that was emerging but at the same time keeping a theme of sports car driver involvement. Heads up displays and computer readouts were incorporated.
The interior was led by Richard Hamblin and here we were after a totally unique and high tech look to reflect the new technology that was emerging but, at the same time, keeping a theme of sports car driver involvement. Heads up displays and computer readouts were incorporated

‘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!’

Keith Adams


  1. I always wonder if the EX-E influenced Honda in the development of the NSX and if an MG badged mid-engined car using a transverse V6 might have enjoyed greater sales success than the NSX.

    • In my opinion it is no coincidence, as Honda and Austin-Rover were in a close relationship at that time.

      For another example just look at the similarities between the Honda Beat and the MG-F. No coincidence there either.

  2. A fantastic looking car. Considering the choice of power-plant and the cars layout and styling, am I the only one who can see similarities with the later Jaguar XJ220?

  3. Clearly a massive influence on the MGF from the rear and side – looking at the taillights and the shape of the side windows.

  4. Hints of XJ220, Corvette, MGF about it.

    With a 6R4 engine and possibly getting Reliant to produce the fibreglass body, could it have been put into production?

  5. the MG 6R4 engine WAS used in the XJ220 was it not….which is probably another reaosn the above car didnt go into production – too much competition in one company other than that it looks great even by todays standards 🙂 alex

  6. Alex Scott

    They could have used a NA version of the Rover V6 with roughly the same displacement / power as the similar Honda NSX (maybe even more along with a single-turbo version) that could have been used in other Rover Group cars or even install the stillborn 306 bhp 3.6 KV8 engine had the MG EX-E gone into production, neither of which would have really threatened the 542 bhp twin-turbo Jaguar XJ220.

  7. Just a little extra info….
    I worked in product planning at the time and 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 over 2 months and it came back with blobs of clay here and there.

  8. We have just seen the car at gaydon absolutely love it still looks amazing today they were two on display one looking a little sorry for itself

  9. Nice looking car… looked futuristic then & now. A bit like a British “Knightrider”, where’s David Hasselhoff??

  10. This could have been a winner and a successor to the TR7 and MG sports cars from the seventies. Using Rover 800 engines, with the Honda V6 being the range topper, the MG EX-E could have been a huge success in America, where the MG badge was much missed.

  11. While previously speculating on the unbuilt Rover KV8 and Rover V6 engines being possible in-house options for a production MG EX-E (albeit with the latter featuring 24-valves, DOHC, fuel-injection as well as potentially turbochargers akin to the distantly related Buick V6 turbo as used in the Buick GNX), it seems there were other potential in-house options had they reached production.

    A number of them via a more Volkswagen EA827-like E-Series ranging from an inline-5 turbo/bi-turbo (see original RS2 for latter), 90-degree V6/bi-turbo (see original RS4 for latter) as well as 90-degree V8/V10s in both NA and turbocharged form, though have doubts in the case of the V10 let alone a related 90-degree V12.

    The other being W8/W12 engines derived from the narrow-angle V4/V6s.

  12. A suggestion was made that Reliant could have made the body. Thank goodness they didn’t. The kit car maufacturer Ashley Laminates were one of the few people who could make a fibreglass body look good. The original Scimiter body (an Ashley derivative) was better but the later hatchback body was dreadful – there was usually four ‘bird baths’ in every bonnet!

  13. Interestingly, when I read that ARG should not manufacture the EX-E on the fact that this was not their market, first thing that came to my mind was the NSX, which was a great car with a great look.
    I believe the EX-E could have had a similar fate.

  14. In some respects the MG EX-E would have been a logical successor to a hypothetical MG badged Rover P9, the latter helping to lay the groundwork in establishing the marque’s credibility in the segment beforehand.

    Speaking of references to Lotus and the Esprit, the experimental 1992 Lotus SID project would also utilize the same Metro 6R4 V6 drivetrain as the EX-E with an output of 300 hp.

    • What a fascinating story, Lotus certainly did some very interesting and very clever things, yet we’ve still not seen the results of all of this research turn up in road cars.

  15. Did anyone else notice the Metro with a mini-Maestro front end behind the Montego in the opening preamble of the video? Was that due to be a facelifted Metro if the Maestro had gone down well?

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