It wasn’t only Matra’s Renault Espace Gen 3 that MG Rover had been interested in – Longbridge executives could have ended up reviving the MG Midget name with this fascinating prototype, and also coined the CityRover name for it…
Back in 2000, MG Rover’s management was in a terrible pickle – ‘gifted’ a £500m dowry – that amounted to three months’ turnover – from former owners, BMW, a range of ageing saloons, a roadster, and a crumbling factory badly in need of investment, things were looking bleak no matter how positive a spin could be put on the situation. Although the return of MG saloons was a welcome addition to the MG Rover range, what was really needed was genuinely new and exciting products – the sort of niche cars that small producers like MG Rover could turn their hand to more easily than the volume sized opposition.
Niche cars couldn’t be conjured up from thin air, though, even with what remained of Rover’s talented engineering team – but luckily, the solution was readily at hand. Look for partners – companies plying their wares at international motor shows and in need of serious investment were targeted. It didn’t take long for MG Rover to come up with Matra as a potential bedfellow – the innovative French company was about to part company with Renault, and needed to find another company to work with if it weren’t to go under.
During 2000, Matra unveiled its radical, and rather interesting M72 Prototype – a car designed to fill a specific niche in the French market. The sub-350kg car, which bears a passing resemblance to the Lotus 340R was designed to fit in with legislation that allowed 16-year olds to drive cars, as long as they fell within that weight limit, and its engine produced less than 20bhp.
Although these cars aren’t popular outside of France, the higher powered (50bhp-plus) versions of this radical vehicle were considered to have some potential… and it was with this in mind, that MG Rover began to talk to Matra about a possible deal.
The open wheeled prototype was production-ready, and could have hit the streets by 2003 – and this was where MG Rover would come in. It could supply the finances to get the project up and running in term for a sales deal – one that would have been similar to that discussed with the Gen 3 Espace. The car itself definitely had some potential – and MG Rover coined the name CityRover with this car in mind, although just how far discussions about this project went, we’re still not sure.
However, what we do know is that with a predicted on sale date of mid-2003, and pricing of around £5500 for the 50bhp version, the motorcycle engine powered CityRover would have been aimed at a small market niche, but one that could have been pretty profitable given Matra’s expertise in the field, and the potential future demand for citycars designed specifically for commuting.
In the end, Matra and Rover couldn’t agree terms, and the French company was swallowed up by Pininfarina – and deals with the Indian Company, Tata, and the buy-out of Qvale resulted in the only all-new MG Rover products, the CityRover hatchback, and the XPower SV supercar – neither of which were greeted warmly by the press.
For more information about the M72, visit Lennart Sorth’s excellent Matrasport website.