It is well known that MG Rover and China Brilliance were in talks about the co-development of a new generation of executive cars. For the first time, AROnline tells the story of the ill-fated Joint Venture.
Erik van Ingen Schenau provides details of the story behind the interesting badge-engineered Zhongua 75-800, which appeared in China in 2004 wearing the Huachen (or Brilliance) logo, while a former MG Rover Engineer, who was intimately involved with the project, tells the tale of when he and his colleagues tried to fit Rover engines into a Brilliance BS6 saloon…
The tale of the Brilliance 75 and Rover BS6s
The proposed China Brilliance-Rover tie-up was to have led to an interesting arrangement: a Joint Venture executive car for global consumption and Far Eastern production of the Rover 25 and Rover 45 ranges. Sadly, because the tie-up never progressed much beyond the press announcement, all these promising plans went out of the window. AROnline has pieced together the story for the first time.
The background to this promising Joint Venture was that MG Rover was in desperate position after the BMW sale in 2000. It needed to increase sales and update its model range, and its management was busily seeking new Joint Ventures to enable that to happen. During those early months after the formation of MG Rover following BMW’s sell-off, various partnerships were seriously pursued.
Some of MG Rover’s ill-fated Joint Ventures
These included Matra in France, Fiat in Italy, SsangYong in South Korea, Tata in India, Proton in Malaysia and China Brilliance. Of course, we know that Tata gifted us the CityRover – but MG Rover had historically had a good relationship with Proton. That one led to a team being set up within Longbridge to study a new medium car based on the Proton Gen2, which was then in development.
According to an insider: ‘The Malaysian company was also interested in buying Rover 75 technology including the KV6 and K4-1.8 and the electronic and safety systems. Discussions took place, but eventually came to nothing.’
Following the failure of the Malaysia deal, MG Rover began looking into the possibility of working with the Chinese. Our insider recalls, ‘Teams were also despatched to talk to Chinese companies for both sale of licensed engine manufacture and technical assistance.’
MG Rover and China Brilliance start talking
The first public sign that MG Rover and China Brilliance Industrial Holdings (CBIH) were talking came in a premature press release from the UK company on 21 March 2002. It stated that the two companies were discussing a Joint Venture into large cars and that, if these talks failed, it had also been approached by other Chinese companies keen on doing business with the British.
At the time of the announcement, Kevin Howe, MG Rover’s Chief Executive said: ‘This is a wide-ranging global alliance that spans the full breadth of both companies’ activities, and presents many opportunities. I am delighted that we have so much in common. Brilliance has achieved outstanding results in a very short space of time and demonstrates world-class standards in everything it does. It is clearly the leading automotive manufacturer, in the world’s fastest growing car market.’
The companies had actually been in conversation since 2001 (see timeline below), a fact confirmed by our insider, brought together through indirect links with BMW. In China, Brilliance pressed on with new vehicle plans, initially looking to buy Powertrain from BMW (before the company let it stay with MG Rover) and then moving towards devising some interesting production cars.
Rover 75 surfaces in China as the Zhongua 75-800
The first concrete signs that there was an impending deal between MG Rover and China Brilliance came in 2002. Unveiled on the Guangzhou Commodity Group’s automobile trading company’s stand at a Chinese exhibition show, the Rover 75-based 75-800 (below) was a surprise to all those attending. The power unit for the car was the 2497cc KV6 engine and, apart from the new badges, it was identical to all other Euro-specification 75s.
However, according to a source close to the company, the car was produced when MG Rover and China Brilliance were in negotiation, and its role was to woo the Chinese and help secure a collaborative deal. Another source confirms this: ‘This particular car was one of two dozen evaluation cars shipped to Brilliance in late 2001. They were complete LHD export specification Rover 75s built at Longbridge with one or two changes (like an MG number plate plinth to take a round Brilliance badge fitted in China).’
MG Rover people went out to China to investigate setting up CKD assembly of 75, transfer 45 production and start-up production of a four-door notchback version of the RDX60 – which was the plan before the deal floundered. At the same time, and previously unrevealed, MG Rover began development on the Brilliance BS6, and installing the KV6 into it for the Chinese market.
MG Rover works on the Brilliance BS6 in the UK
China Brilliance’s engineering and design capacity was still very much in its infancy. And that’s why it ended up in conversation with MG Rover. Our insider continues: ‘Brilliance had been working with Italian Design houses and electrical system suppliers to supplement its infant engineering team.
‘CBIH did manufacture vehicles, minibuses and cars and were supported in their manufacturing by BMW. The main factory was in Shenyang and was like something out of Disneyland. Most of the manufacturing equipment was of German manufacture and brand new. Literally next door to this plant was the BMW plant which was under construction. About 60 BMW Engineers were on site mainly tutoring CBIH staff in quality and supplier issues.
‘Following a feasibility study carried out by MG Rover Engineering, a next-step proposal was agreed to install KV6 into a new Brilliance BS6 saloon (above). This was done in the flight shed workshop.’
What the KV6-engined BS6 was like to be driven in
The engineering mule was completed rapidly and without fuss, but still caused our insider some grief on its test drive. ‘Following initial shakedown, the car was demonstrated to CBIH management. A hairy drive at 5.00pm through the traffic and down the M42 was undertaken by a CBIH executive, who deployed the skill of a whirling Dervish, and never used the indicators once.’
Following a positive response from the test drive, MG Rover was tasked with deploying a team to lead discussions in Shanghai and Shenyang. MG Rover’s offer to CBIH was that it would design and develop the installation and facelift the BS6 saloon, including styling and chassis improvements.
‘A hairy drive at 5.00pm through the traffic and down the M42 was undertaken by a CBIH executive, who deployed the skill of a whirling Dervish, and never used the indicators once.’
Our insider continued: ‘Shortly after we returned to UK the head of China Brilliance, Dr Brian X Sun, was investigated by the Chinese authorities and an arrest warrant issued. Further discussions were discontinued and the cars shipped back to China. By this time, talks with SAIC were progressing and became the main route.’
The reason for the sudden pullout by China Brilliance was the upcoming Joint Venture agreement with German car manufacturer BMW. The MoU signed between Brilliance Auto and BMW clearly stated that Brilliance Auto was not allowed to form partnership with other car manufacturers. BMW and Brilliance Auto only got to know each other after a failed joint venture attempt by – then BMW-owned – Land Rover and JinBei, part of the Brilliance Auto Group, with planed to produce the Land Rover Defender on a CKD basis in northern China.
Timeline of the MG Rover-Brilliance talks
|Brilliance announces plans to buy the BMW-owned Powertrain engine plant at Longbridge. The Chinese company would buy K- and KV6-series Rover 75 engines. The intention would be to fit these engines to a car based on the Rover 600 platform, which Brilliance had bought some time previously. There were also discussions regarding the expansion of the Brilliance range to encompass cars based on the Rover 25 and 45.
|MG Rover announced that Brilliance senior executives had attended negotiations with MG Rover’s Chief Executive Kevin Howe concerning joint model and engine development. Also discussed were a proposed joint research and development centre and a common component supplier base. The first collaborative venture would be one to develop an all-new car to replace the 25/ZR, which was due for replacement in 2005.
|MG Rover announces that it and Brilliance will create a Joint Venture to develop and produce automobiles. The partners will jointly own the company; equity being split 50-50. The alliance will enable MG Rover cars to be produced in China, and MG Rover will be able to develop vehicles based on Brilliance models. The jointly-developed cars include a new medium-sized car, for which the styling direction was previewed by the TCV concept.
The deal would result in jointly-developed Rover 25 and 45 replacements, with the potential for an off-roader and people carrier. The companies’ respective delegations were headed up by Kevin Howe and Dr Brian X Sun.
|MG Rover parent, Phoenix Venture Holding Group, claimed that the alliance between MG Rover and Brilliance was solid, despite the sudden departure to the US of the Chinese firm’s Chairman Mr Yang Rong; wanted in China for alleged involvement in ‘economic crimes’.
|MG Rover announces talks early in 2003 to rescue its Joint Venture deal with Brilliance. But Rover has also been approached by other Chinese companies and may look for new partners if talks fail.
With thanks to: Erik van Ingen Schenau for providing the pictures, an insider for his recollections, and Graham Arnold for his general assistance with this feature.