Concepts and prototypes : MGF during the MGA era (PR3)

Steve Harper talks through his involvement in shaping the MGF, as it was transformed from the F16 into the mid-engined PR3 in 1990-’91.

Setting the mid-engined sports car template for MGF

Most AROnline readers will be more than familiar with Steve Harper’s work – and that’s just the work he’s completed while working for Austin Rover as a Designer and, latterly, Rover as a Design Consultant. His most recognised work is probably the Austin Montego estate – but, for the lovers of AR miscellany, you can also count the Maestro Vanden Plas wheeltrims, red seatbelts in the MG Metro and the Allegro Equipe stripes…

You can read more about this work in this amusing blog, Making the Allegro cool, but beyond that, he had a fundamental role in the genesis of the MGF, which under his direction was transformed from a neat little roadster, lacking a splash of creativity, to a shapely new-age sports car that shouted its mid-engined layout from the rooftops.

In his own words, Steve walks us through the design changes he made during his time in charge of the way the PR3 project looked. However, if you need to know more about the development of the MGF, you know where to go…

From Apprentice to Rover Special Products

‘Sent by Austin-Morris to the Royal College of Art in 1979 to further my studies in Car Design. My final project when I graduated in 1980, was a study for a replacement of the Austin-Morris Princess. I continued to work for Austin Rover Group until 1984, when I went freelance, working for Volvo, among other companies.

A career high point was shaping the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, which almost 25 years later is viewed as an all time design classic.

Escort RS Cosworth

‘After the Escort RS Cosworth project, a simple request from Rover Special Projects, just had to impress. From a time gone by, I knew what I wanted but, in March 1990, I don’t think they were ready for this – and, by the February of 1991, these wild ideas had been built.

Putting a Metro subframe behind the driver

‘Meanwhile, back in Coventry, somebody put a Metro subframe behind the driver, which became the PR3. But like so many Rover designs of that period it was relatively flat and had strong body feature lines. Upon hearing about the new project, I assembled a theme board for inspiration and direction, and set about thinking about the future of MG.

PR3 (1)

‘However, based on the fact that the engine was now behind the driver, my design philosophy was coming from a different direction. From a childhood favourite, and the most beautiful athletic cars of the day and the fact that we had just developed and built these two cars in our Studio. It was time to bring MG up to date – the sketching continued in earnest and, by the end of January 1991, the theme had evolved.

‘As on the Ferrari 348, and like I had done on the Volvo 480, I tried to bring the MG grille under the bumper. As on Milner’s Hot Rod in American Graffiti, the waist line was high and the window line was low and, like the Ferrari 250LM, I offered an alternative to the fold down flap lamp covers proposed, to give the car a cheerful face.

Giving the PR3 a cheery face


‘With the modelling beginning straight away, we had only kept the windscreen from the original PR3, and trying to find that elusive grille design, so by March 1991 we were ready for the first Di-Noc review of the clay model. With the Main Studio being required for the build of the McLaren F1, and the fact that I was actually working on two cars at the same time, the MG model was moved into MGA’s larger Studio where I could concentrate on both projects.

‘However, this did make reviews by Rolls-Royce and Rover Special Projects somewhat of a security task. The review of the Di-Noc clay model had identified that the car lacked an MG identity. We know now that, in parallel to our project, RSP was working on the MG RV8, and it was that car’s grille and front bumper lamps which were integrated into our model. The fold down headlamp flaps were also taken out of the project due to complexity issues.

Handing the car back to Rover Special Products


‘But sadly that was the last time I saw the car at MGA. I had a holiday booked in the Maldives and, while I was away, the car was re-painted with Di-Noc, reviewed and shipped out. In fact, by the May of 1991, the decision had been made to bring the design back ‘In-House’ where Gerry McGovern and his team then made numerous changes to the clay model, but as you see the essence of the winning concept remained.

‘In fact, the next time I saw the car was in 1995 when Autocar invited me to its photography session. Although proud to recognise my concept, I was alarmed at the car’s ride height on the Hydragas – but, like all these things, they sag over time!’




The PR3 in sketches by Steve Harper.



The PR3 as a full-sized clay.

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)


  1. I don’t wish to be really rude , but isn’t there rather a lot of blowing one’s own trumpet going on ? The RS Cosworth Escort ” a design classic ” ??

    • Ah…’ve discerned the fundamental nature of the felt-tip fairies…..sorry…..stylists……sorry, they like to be called ‘designers’ don’t they…..

      • Having worked with Steve for some years, you might be onto something! In fairness, it’s a common trait with stylists. It doesn’t help that the media pander to their egos, allowing them to claim credit for ‘designing’ a car when it’s actually the product of an entire studio team.

  2. Exactly………………………the RS Cosworth Escort was just a new front & rear bumper, new rocker/sill cladding & montous rear spoiler.
    Just an “add-on-kit” styling exercise!!!!!!
    What really made the car a “classic” was it’s powertrain.

    • sorry but that shows just how little you know of the RS. It was a complete new car which only shared the screen, roof, doors, lamps and tailgate from its sibling namesake. Also can you name many other 20 year old car today which still commands more than its original sales price. Thereby by that definition alone, it is a sought after classic

      • Agreed, One of the few others that fall into that requisite I can think of is ironically a Direct competitor to the Cossie, The Lancia Delta Integrale.
        Both essentially homologation specials that were very different to their namesakes

        • Maybe, to an extent, But tbh I’d be bloody proud if I’d designed it and would want everyone to know, Theres enough people out there wanting to knock you down every step of the way as it is… If you cant be proud of yourself and your accomplishments its a sorry state of affairs imo

  3. The RS Cosworth was a bit more involved than an ‘add-on-kit’. What it really was was an exercise in re-skinning a 3-door Sierra to look like the Mk5 (really Mk4 as the Mk3 was just an extensive facelift) Escort. There’s very little ‘Escort’ in the Cosworth bar the interior and the lamp clusters. Even the wheelbase differs.

    • Indeed, when the mk5 (4?) Escort was rehashed with rounded rear light clusters, the Cossie retained the original flat units.

      Then, when the full front lights and grille changed on the production car, the Cossie and WRC cars retained the original mk5 headlights with a different round grille.

  4. I wonder if anybody thought at the time that basing the car so heavily on the Metro that was already over a decade in production and first conceived in the mid 70’s was a good idea.

    I always felt the car as a result had an air cheapness lacking such basics as illuminated heater controls or backlit instruments that handicapped it.

    I am sure something better could have been done with the R8, dare I say something along the lines of the Audi TT?

      • I was thinking that, the Tomcat with a more sporty nose would have made a good MG, along with a more “rakish” convertable R8.

      • I don’t think so, as of course they used the R8 platform to reskin it into the R3 Metro replacement / 200 / 25.

        I suspect its a classic case of BL, when started it the Metro was current and project wobbled on like most of the sports car projects, until like the others it got financed, buy which time the market had moved on.

        • Given the shoestring budget the MGF was developed on, Metro running gear made good sense. Just use the same front sub-frame – a sub-frame that in 1995 would have only been recently re-engineered for the R6 K-Series Metro but mount at the rear without a steering rack. A brilliant bit of improvisation. Trying to turn the Honda based R8/R3 into a mid engine 2 seater, or front engine 2 seater for that matter would have been an incredibly expensive exercise

          • It was not brilliant as it was a common kit car solution for decades with mini and metro.

            The problem is you ended up with a sub standard solution in terms of the quality of the end product. Whilst a mid engined solution would have been unaffordable, i am not sure a front engined solution would have been any more expensive if you where carrying over subframes etc from the R8.

            Whilst i am sure VAG spent a lot on turning the TT into a Golf, i doubt Fiat spent much more than Rover on turning the Punto into the rather good and underated Barchetta.

          • Sorry meant to write Golf into a TT.

            Had they gone down a fwd car based on the R8 lets call it the MGD it would have also been able to have a MGD-GT.

          • I agree with Graham, below. From a business perspective what Rover really needed was an MG equivalent of the Audi TT – a very distinctive premium looking 2+2 (not the half baked effort like the Rover Tomcat) based on a stock R8 platform, built on the same line and sold in all markets. Coupe and Convertible versions, they could have been looking at 40k a year and serious profits.

  5. Do you really need a design consultant to get some red seat belts? I thought you would just pick up the phone to Britax or Kangol and say can I have some red ones please!

  6. MGF — the sports car you never promised yourself. At least the front of the prototype looks better than the production model. Not a car that I have had any desire to have on my drive and I have owned several sports cars including MGs, Mk1 MX5 and currently a Mk3 MX5 which is zippy, pretty and reliable. In fact everything that an MGF should have been.

    At the time I had the MX5 Mk1, I could have had a more or less equivalent MGF for less money. Having tried both, I came away with the MX5 which I owned for 9 years until changes in family circumstances forced me to sell.

    I can’t ever see the MGF becoming a classic like the MGB.

    • You mean, should MGF had been developed as a sport car with FR layout, as Reliant suggested when RSP tested some prototypes? At that time, Rover rarely had FR platforms barring Land Rover‘s expensive platforms or MGB/MG RV8‘s outdated platform…as I know. Can you tell me your idea, to make me understood your opinion, please?

  7. Always thought bashing the mud as an ‘mg’ made no sense.
    Rear engined and multiple valves would have your average mgb owner chewing through his pipe stem and running for the hills
    Conversely anyone under the age of 40 at time of the mgf’s release would think ‘mg’ represented outdated usually rusty mgb’s driven by pipe smoking old giffers, or even worse hopelessly unfashionable hotted up montego/maestros then dropping their Nokia and running for the nearest wine bar

  8. Without disrespect to Steve, but when the MGF came out I felt it looked a bit too friendly and, dare I say it, ‘soft’. I think the issues were more about the frontal styling based on the headlamp graphics which lacked ‘attitude’ and the grille design itself; ‘attributes’ finalised under Gerry McGovern’s direction. There was certainly some improvement when the Trophy 160 SE variant arrived in 2001 complete with darkened surrounds to the lighting reflectors, while the more angular approach for the TF in relation to its side graphics, rear end and frontal profiles really sharpened up the bodyshell’s styling and made it look more serious against newer competition.

    Like Steve, I too, thought the MGF sat a bit high on its Hydragas suspension. However, my real dislike was centred more on the interior. Sure, it looked clean and elegant, but there were so many ‘MG’ badges littered here and there to remind you what you were sat behind the wheel of, which was bordering on being tacky. In addition, I never felt truly connected with driving the MGF because of the high seating position in relation to the angle of the steering wheel. I felt instantly more connected with the Lotus Elise which had a lower seating position.

    The MGF is not a car I would ever want to buy and retain as a future classic, even though it will likely be the last true two-seater sports car we will ever see for the MG brand and built here in the UK. Sorry.

  9. The MGF to me looked a bit dumpy, a bit short and tall.

    It didn’t have the dramatic short and low nose to really highlight its midengined layout like ADO21 (or an Elise), or the long nose of a conventional front engined rear wheel drive sportscar, hinting at its power, like an MGB or BMW Z3

    As a result it looks too much like a transverse engined FWD car

    • I agree with maestro, the blob MGF just did nothing for me.

      Actually I’ve a soft spot for the Scimitar-based PR2, powered by a T series. Of the three options it seemed the closest to the traditional British roadster concept, except in GRP. It would have been dead simple to engineer and Reliant could have built it for them.

  10. Yes you can blame Steve, Gerry and Roy Axe for the style design but the real engineering was done by a small team of rally car enthusiasts lead by Brian Griffin at Longbridge. With little funding and lots of enthusiasm and skill they grafted a lot of standard components into the car and I think made a really good cheap sports car. (Which is the essence of MG as opposed to the glossy Chinese built “Modern Gentleman” trucks and cars)

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