Raise a glass to : 20 Years of the MG Z-cars

David Morgan tells the superbly-researched story behind the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T models conceived to give the MG brand further appeal beyond the MGF sports car.

They also helped MG Rover Group to maintain viable volume production at Longbridge.


Z-cars: A masterstroke of product and brand enhancement

MG Zed models outside Longbridge Q Gate
MG Zed models outside Longbridge Q Gate

Let’s not beat about the bush here – MG Rover Group’s decision to create a range of sporting MG saloons, hatchbacks and an estate from the Rover models was undoubtedly a sound one. Faced with models like the recently updated and renamed Rover 25 and 45 (previously the 200 and 400 Series) having reached their sales peak by the end of 2000, the new MGs played a crucial role in slowing down the rate of natural decline in year-on-year production.

The strategy also gave hope that it would buy the company enough time to secure a joint venture partnership with another manufacturer. Sadly, as we all know, both time and money ran out for MG Rover Group just one month shy of its fifth anniversary as an independent company, which was much longer than the pessimistic experts had projected. However, in that time, the company had created an impressive transformation of the MG brand and its wider customer appeal, both in the showroom and in its presence in motor sport activities. It was a remarkable feat created by talented Designers and Engineers working with a very modest budget to deliver a range of driver-focused models within a short time frame.

If that wasn’t enough, then the advertising strategy for the new MGs delivered inspiring adverts with confident slogans. Admittedly, some of these adverts caught the unwelcome attention of the Advertising Standards Agency, but that added to their appeal in conveying a more rebellious attitude for the MG brand.

In essence, the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T were a masterstroke in how to deliver invigorating product enhancement that was well received by the motoring press and buying public alike. More importantly, they also reaffirmed to the world that Longbridge wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, despite what some analysts were predicting.

New era, new owners…

In March 2000, after several months of speculation in the media, BMW Group confirmed that it would be ending its six-year marriage to the ‘English Patient’, namely the Rover Group. What followed on from that announcement became a quick and painful divorce where the forthcoming new R50 MINI and Cowley assembly plant would be retained by BMW, while Land Rover and the Gaydon Design and Engineering Centre would be sold to the Ford Motor Company.

Meanwhile, Rover Cars was expected to be acquired by venture capitalist Alchemy & Partners, although by the end of April of that year they had pulled out of the negotiations, having requested a last-minute, higher final settlement. That left the Phoenix Consortium led by former Rover Group Chief Executive John Towers, as the only remaining party interested in buying the Rover Cars business.

The Phoenix Consortium comprising of John Towers, Nick Stephenson, formerly Engineering Director of the Rover Group and now a non-executive Director of Lola Cars International Limited (Lola), motor dealer John Edwards and his Finance Director Peter Beale, had an alternative plan to save Longbridge. Whereas Alchemy had wanted to focus on just the MG brand and slim production down to 100,000 units a year, Phoenix planned to maintain volume production at Longbridge at twice this level with more continuity to the existing markets.

In addition, they also planned to continue with the Rover brand – post-administration data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) confirms this to have been a sensible strategy when comparing year-on-year production between the two brands.

The two strategies between Alchemy and Phoenix may have been poles apart, but both parties did recognise the importance, and need, to give greater presence to the MG brand beyond just the MGF two-seater sports car.

Extending the appeal of MG

Using the MG name for a range of performance-orientated hatchbacks, saloons and a stylish estate was seen by many both within and outside of the company as the most appropriate strategy for delivering a range of supplementary models with a more sporting intent. Historically, since the late 1920s, the MG marque had been represented by saloons as well as two-seater sports cars, so this further justified the strategy.

At the time of its ‘divorce’ from the BMW Group, the Rover brand did not have a consistent use performance identity to be applied across its range, even though it had become increasingly common for both premium and mass market brands to have one. Instead, Rover had continued to use a variety of performance derivative identities for its models, some of which had been created for certain export markets. In addition, it was noted that BMW was adamant that Rover models would not have sporty dynamics.

A further factor was the reputational harm to the core Rover brand’s image and the sales of its models because it was also used as a corporate business reference. This had certainly been the case for the ‘Rover’ name during the last few years under BMW’s ownership where their public discontentment of the Rover Cars division’s performance had done nothing to increase support for the company or sales of its products.

Corresponding with the author in December 2020, former Chief Engineer for Vehicle Test and Validation, Alan Matthews, said that the MG name still retained a loyal enthusiastic base and was still perceived as a sporty marque. Therefore it was the best opportunity for the company’s owners to create product expansion and longer term prospects. Kevin Jones, the then PR and Brand Communications Manager at MG Rover Group, expanded on this and said: ‘The opportunity was obvious to make the ‘staircase to heaven’ with a full range of sports and saloon cars under the MG identity.’

Rob Oldaker

Speculation in the media surrounding the prospect of using the Rover 25, 45 and 75 models as the basis for a range of sporting MG variants had been documented since early 2000 before Alchemy & Partners had revealed its interest in acquiring Rover Cars. Nick Stephenson had been talking about utilising the MG brand as an important keystone for taking the business forward. However, there had been no significant thought about what the new MG models might represent. Rob Oldaker (above), the Product Development Director at MG Rover Group, confirms that this process formally started, including with how the models might link in with a motor sport programme, after he had returned to work at Longbridge in July 2000.

During the final era of the BMW ownership period, the Development Department had been working on a number of ‘under the radar’ skunk projects. One of these was based on a 1997 Model Year Rover 200Vi which featured preliminary development work by Janspeed Engineering of Salisbury. Finished in a dark red colour with silver side protection strips, the car featured Rover 25 front wings and bumpers and also a one-off grille design featuring the MG octagon badge. While its intended purpose is currently unknown, one thing it did confirm was the desire within the company to develop more driver-focused models and wider brand utilisation.

The arrival of Rob Oldaker would play a pivotal role in making that happen. Speaking to the author in December 2020, Rob recalled: ‘I had already left Rolls-Royce and was about to take up a new role with another company when I was contacted by one of the HR people at Rover, asking me if I would be interested in working for the company again. I already knew Nick Stephenson, one of the Directors of Phoenix [Venture Holdings Limited] and a non-executive Director of Lola, through our previous roles at Rover before I had left the company in 1994 to go and work for Cosworth Engineering.

‘After discussions with Nick, he offered me the positions of Product Development Director and Managing Director of MG Sport and Racing. I thought it was a terrific opportunity to marry up some of the planned motor sport activities between Lola and MG Rover [Group] with the road car activities.’

Indeed, the prospect of a potential tie-in between Lola and Phoenix Venture Holdings (PVH) had resulted in initial discussions between Nick Stephenson as a non-executive Director of Lola and David Bowes as a non-executive Director of PVH. This, in turn, also lent some credibility to the negotiations with BMW Group at the time of the sale of Rover Cars to PVH, although discussions relating to MG Lola production cars ultimately did not progress beyond being a notion.

The remit for the MG brand

Rob Oldaker admits that in those early days there were a lot of difficulties in getting a production plan that was viable. Thankfully, the Rover models were still relatively young in 2000, although they would still require careful handling in order to maintain their sales momentum. Indeed, it was Rob and Nick who would kick-start the MG programme by trying to define the characteristics an MG should embody. Rob would later prepare a crib sheet to present to the motoring press at the press launch event in July 2001, which would convey the four core characteristics of an MG – Exhilaration, Bold, Raw and Thoroughbred.

In Rob’s words: ‘This was about styling, dynamics and the driver, as well as the connection between the driver and the road. The cars had to look good and be outrageous fun to drive, which came from an engineering perspective rather than from Marketing. Nick [Stephenson] thought that what we learnt on the race track, if it was good, could be incorporated into the road cars, which is a complete opposite to a pure marketing programme.’

Rob also disclosed that all versions in each range needed to have a consistent look, from the basic road car to those used in motor sport activities. This philosophy also extended to wheel designs such as the new ‘Straights’ design which was adopted for the full MG saloon range, from the F/TF all the way to the Lola MG EX257 Le Mans race cars. Rob had wanted a wheel that was not only very stiff in its design but also very efficient in terms of weight by having spokes that taper down towards the rim. The ‘Straights’ design which had been influenced by an existing wheel design from Rimstock before MG Rover Group’s Designers created their own version, met this criteria, offering both functionality and form.

The task of trading some of the Rovers’ elegant, understated looks for something more assertive was undertaken by a team led by Peter Stevens, who had assumed the role of Director of Product Design through a consultancy arrangement in July 2000. Peter’s involvement helped with the brand’s cache – given his amazing CV portfolio and he had already met with both Nick and Rob to discuss how to deliver this on a fairly modest budget and within an ambitious timeframe.

Creative matters: The need to find design facilities

A further hurdle to overcome quickly was the lack of a Design Studio as the Gaydon Design and Engineering Centre had formed part of the sale of Land Rover to Ford. As David Arbuckle, a former MG Rover Group Chief Designer explained: ‘When MG Rover Group was formed, we had only a few Designers within the team who had transferred across from Rover [Group] and no Design Studio to work from.’

MG Rover Group therefore swiftly decided to hire the Design Studio belonging to design consultants RDS Automotive of Southam, before establishing its own studio at Longbridge. The company was already known to MG Rover Group’s Designers as it had previously provided consultancy services for a number of in-house projects during the BMW ownership period. It was here where the design of some the new models commenced, comprising of a team of existing Rover Designers and RDS Automotive’s own Designers and Clay Modellers.

Peter Andrews was the Design Manager at RDS Automotive and he had previously worked on a number of projects for Rover Cars. He recalls there were two Design Consultancies involved in the MG programme – RDS Automotive, which initially focused on the Rover 25-based MG hatchback, and Design Research Associates (DRA) based at Tachbrook near Leamington Spa, which would develop the 45 and 75-derived MGs.

David Arbuckle confirms that DRA were used initially to develop some styling themes for these two MG models, with the small team of Designers including Paul Taylor and Adrian Griffiths who was the main Exterior Designer and also the Manager of DRA’s Design Studio.

With Rob Oldaker having a strong grounding in the MG marque, he would have an active role in setting the design remit for the MG Z-cars programme, with further input from Kevin Howe, MG Rover Group’s Chief Executive. However, Peter Stevens would lead the design programme, with David Arbuckle and Kevin Spindler being his accomplished Chief Designers, both of whom had previously worked for Rover cars as Chief Designers for exteriors.

David’s role would be heavily involved in recruiting Designers and organising them to enable the creative work to carry on within the design process. Meanwhile, Kevin Spindler was responsible for the day to day running of the Design Studio and the development of the designs, particularly in relation to how the aesthetics were being translated and incorporated.

MG X10

It was at this stage that the MG models got their own specific project codes: X10 for the Rover 75-derived MG saloon (above), X20 for the Rover 45 and X30 for the Rover 25-based offering. It would be at the end of February 2001, just before the cars made their international debut at the Geneva Motor Show, that X30, X20 and X10 would be known by their official model names of ZR, ZS and ZT respectively. Meanwhile, X11 (below), the estate version of the ZT, to be called the ZT-T (and ‘sister’ to the Rover 75 Tourer), would follow shortly afterwards.

MG X11

Fast pace for stylish designs

The role of Product Planning, led by Chris Dewing, Product Strategy Manager, was to define the ZR, ZS and ZT in terms of the feature and engineering changes from the Rover products they were based on. These changes were then circulated company-wide via three Product Development Letters (one for each product), together with a list of questions which asked for a whole host of responses from every function in the company about the cost and timing of delivering the programme through to volume production. These responses were the foundation of a Product Strategy presentation to the Board of Directors which, once approved, became a commitment from every Department to deliver to a fixed time and cost.

Chris said: ‘What was particularly refreshing was the speed with which it was possible to get major decisions approved right up to Board level, a real contrast to previous experience with BMW which had a very hierarchical management style where each level of sign-off cost time.’

Approvals for most aspects of the MG programme were slick in comparison to the industry norm, further aided by a smaller and highly-motivated team working on each model. A lot of the approvals from the Board were done in their Design Consultants’ Design Studios, and they themselves were quick to make modifications and sign-off where required.

MG X30 prototype
MG X30 prototype

The Design Team for the ZR project comprised of Peter Stevens as the design lead, Kevin Spindler, David Arbuckle, Janet Mercer and John Stark, along with RDS Automotive Designers Peter Andrews and Dave Curtis. Both Janet and John were Colour, Materials and Trim (CMT) Designers who had previously worked for Rover Cars, with John having recently retired. However, Janet managed to persuade him out of retirement to join her team of seven based at Longbridge and which would be responsible for many of the CMT enhancements, including for the interior. The same MG Rover Group Designers also worked with the Designers at DRA on the ZS and ZT projects.

For the ZR range, the exterior styling programme already had a good starting base in the form of a body styling enhancement (BSE) pack comprising of a front bib spoiler, side sill extensions to lower the perceived trim height and a ‘bi-wing’ rear spoiler. RDS Automotive had put forward the idea for the accessory BSE pack during the development programme for the Rover 25 and they initially developed and tooled it for Rover Group Accessories, which would fund it. Peter Andrews led the creative design for this and Kevin Spindler and Bruce Bryant oversaw it from a client perspective. The BSE pack would form part of the range of accessories for the sales launch of the Rover 25.

MG X20 prototype
MG X20 prototype

Peter Andrews had originally also proposed a valence for the rear bumper with a splitter within it, although it was not taken forward as a production item for the Rover 25. As part of the ZR’s exterior design programme, the idea was revisited to complete ‘the look’ and bring harmony to the rear bumper. However, the original valance design had to be modified as the position of the rear tow hook meant there wasn’t sufficient clearance for the bumper to be lower. In the end, the splitter had to be removed from the design.

Peter Stevens would design the signature MG grille for the ZR with its bright-finish woven mesh infill, as he was already involved in the design for the ZS and ZT and had particular cues he wanted to express in the brand identity for it. This included wanting the badge plinth raised up in the grille to tie in with previous MGs like the TC which also led into a thin central vane.

The ZS and ZT models, in comparison, did not have any existing accessories items to aid their visual transformation, and so MG Rover’s Design Team, working in partnership with DRA, had to start from scratch. The ZS programme followed a similar approach to the ZR in carrying over the existing bumper designs. However, the design programme for both bodystyles would need to deliver a deeper front spoiler and rear valance, new side sill extensions and rear spoiler treatments.

Transforming the Rover 75 into an MG offered even more scope to create design divergence, with Peter Stevens’ influence leading to an all-new front bumper design complete with its own exclusive indicator lights. However, painting the chrome finishers in body colour such as the waistline strip would be an expensive process to do, although it was viewed as essential for giving the ZT greater standalone appeal. It was Kim Johnson, with his experience in paint manufacturing, who advised them how to achieve this.

The rear spoiler designs for the ZS and ZT were the work of Peter Stevens. His portfolio of work including a period spent as a Design Consultant for Subaru and Prodrive producing the exterior design and aerodynamics for the Impreza and WRX-STi road and rally cars, so he was able to draw on that knowledge for the MG saloons. The end results might have been stylistically dramatic, but they also had the benefit in reducing upforce at the rear to ensure they were more stable at higher speeds.

One design feature Rob Oldaker was responsible for suggesting was the neat heat shield in the rear bumper which had been influenced by the one used on the Alfa Romeo 156 Touring cars competing in the 1999/2000 Super Touring Championships. MG Rover Group’s rendition differed from it as a means to change the rear-end signature appearance of the MGs to give a tighter-fitting look and technical-function aspect to the tailpipes, which also tied in with the snug-looking fit of the bigger wheels in the wheel arches. Peter Andrews adds that the heat shield for the ZR helped made the design look more cohesive while for the ZS and ZT it provided a cost effective design solution to deliver exposed exhaust pipes and create further brand differentiation to the models’ Rover counterparts.

Giving customers ‘wheel’ choice

At launch the MGs would be offered with a choice of two alloy wheel designs – the new ‘Straights’ design and an alternative multi-spoke configuration called ‘Hairpins’. This was done at the request of Marketing who wanted customers to have a choice of different designs. The Hairpins design was actually an existing style known as ‘Active’ and it was already fitted as standard to the Rover 25 GTi and 45 2.0-litre V6 Connoisseur. However, its availability would be withdrawn from Rover models and instead become the wheel fitted to entry-level variants in the MG saloon ranges. It was logical, clever and cost-effective.

To add further visual impact, the initial range of exterior colours would include a choice of three existing colours from the Rover Cars mainline palette – Anthracite, Platinum Silver (Zircon on the ZT) and Solar Red, and three new colours exclusive to the MG brand – Trophy Blue pearlescent, Trophy Yellow and new Le Mans Green pearlescent.

The interior enhancements would focus on new sports-style front seats with improved lateral support, revised instrumentation graphics, new ‘technical’ finish inserts for the dashboard fascia and console, a thicker steering wheel rim and a redesigned uniquely-MG gear-knob (like a MOMO accessory). Peter Andrews recalls that the original plan had been to have grey kidney-shaped panels in the leather seats although, in collaboration with the Colour and Trim team, he pushed for bolder colours, which all models gained. These helped tie the exterior colours to a specific colour for the seats’ fabric detailing and leather inserts offered in a choice of blue, green, red or yellow.

Dynamic enhancements

MG Rover Group employed a team of 300 Engineers at Longbridge, many of whom would be involved in the MG Z-cars programme. Rob Oldaker recalls that there was a strong ‘can do’ attitude by the Engineers towards meeting the challenges they were presented with. As he explained: ‘There was a close working relationship between different departments, with the Design Engineers being responsible for turning ideas from the Design Studio into an engineered and productionised form, as well as with the proving and delivery of the vehicles.

‘Engineers loved this work and sometimes they had to go against the grain of past policies, which they did very well.’

Once such example was when Engineers in the NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) Department, who had traditionally focused on delivering refinement, were asked to retain the sound and feel of a sports car with some of the NVH levels for the MG Z-cars. As Rob revealed, this had to be done very carefully, needing careful measurement and modelling to enable selective sounds to deliver the required noise signature inside the cars.

Transforming the already competent Rover models into more driver-focused offerings was a core requirement of the MG programme and it was here where the cars created some of the biggest revelations of what MG Rover Group’s Chassis Engineers could deliver.

Jules Carter was Head of Chassis, while Andy Kitson was Manager of Chassis Development for all Rover and MG products which carried out the tuning and development of ride, handling, steering and brakes. Andy recalls that the changes introduced for all the ‘Z’ car models were lowered ride heights through new spring rates which also increased ride frequency. In addition, the Delphi 2005+ dampers were also more specialised and received new calibrations, some of which included rebound springs to reduce roll and improve the handling balance.

Rob Oldaker’s notes confirms that for the ZR model the front springs were 44% stiffer and the rears 42% stiffer than those on the Rover 25. The Rover 45-based ZS’s spring rates were 66% stiffer at the front and 78% stiffer at the rear, while the front anti-roll bar was 52% stiffer. For the ZT the front springs were 72% stiffer and the rear springs 70% stiffer than those fitted to the Rover 75, while the suspension bushes were 40% stiffer at the front and 22% at the rear. The ZT also had solid front and rear sub-frame mounts to give more control feel to the steering, while its anti-roll bars were increased by 17% at the front and 76% at the rear.

Alan Matthews confirms that the suspension bushes were also changed along with increasing the castor on the suspension geometry. For the ZR the tiebars were shortened, while the Rover 45’s front radius arms were swopped over from one side to the other for the ZS. Andy Kitson recalls this was a clever (and very easy) modification in order to achieve the desired increase in castor on the front axle which played a significant part in transforming the ZS’s great driving dynamics over that of the ‘more sublime’ Rover 45.

Two other prominent members of the Chassis Team were Alan Phillips, who was involved with suspension revisions, and Alan Isaac who was involved in a lot of the improvements to the steering. Andy confirms that both the ZS and ZT models featured quicker ratio gearing for the steering, while all models received new power steering valve characteristics. Even the brakes were improved by having bigger discs on the flagship model in each range.

However, the bigger 17-inch ‘Straights’ wheel design with a width of seven inches and corresponding bigger tyres for the ZR and ZS models did impact on their turning circle. Therefore, lockstops were needed to avoid interference (tyres rubbing), while there was also the need for some suspension bump travel restriction.

One obvious problem some of these enhancements presented was in relation to using snow chains in export markets. As Rob explained: ‘The standard chain size wouldn’t have worked, so our Chassis Engineers went for a snow chain with smaller link sizes. Even new chocks had to be designed to go in the coils of springs to lift the ride height of the cars to enable them to be transported round the world.’

Testing, testing…

Rob Oldaker confirms that development cars were tested at a variety of locations, including MIRA, Millbrook Proving Ground and also at Bruntingthorpe which has a long straight section. At MIRA, the Dunlop Handling Track was used to simulate a narrow race track.

Andy Smith, the Manager for whole dynamic vehicle sign-off, confirms that a lot of the on-road testing of the MGs started out by using Rover models sporting many of the planned dynamic enhancements. That way they did not need to be concealed from prying eyes, apart from when they got nearer to production and some sign-off tests would have to be done with camouflage. But that was inconvenient as it drew more attention!

As Andy explained: ‘So much work was done on our favourite roads normally in Wales, of which the roads around Rhayader and the Elan Valley were very useful, particularly the Cwmystwyth mountain route which was particularly good for suspension end of travel performance. From a safety viewpoint this work was mainly done in the hours of darkness where there was no leisure horse riding, and we could observe other traffic from a distance and also see that sheep’s eyes showed up as well as road cat’s eyes. These sojourns sometimes ended up at the Pembrey circuit which is how it was recommended and chosen for the press launch.’

Andy also disclosed there were occasional trips to Germany were MG Rover Group’s Engineers incorporated visits to a number of test facilities such as the Robert Bosch Boxberg proving ground at Boxberg-Windischbuch, which was a big dynamic pad used for mainly transient braking conditions. There were also visits to the Nurburgring racing circuit, where Engineers had already learnt a lot from their previous experience when BMW owned the Rover Group. Nearby to the Nurburgring was the A1 autobhan from Blankenheim down towards Koln, which was importantly not speed restricted, so was an ideal spot for high speed cross stability testing.

‘For all this work, we went well prepared with adhesive black tape and cardboard from which we would fabricate aerodynamic additions, to be assessed in conjunction with any suspension modifications, hence achieving a nice harmonious balance,’ recalled Andy. ‘In this area of Germany, we also discovered some rather interesting mountain routes, which offered something different from the more bumpy Welsh roads.’

One of the more specific aspects of dynamic performance, particularly on the ZR, was that of stability in undulating bends. For this work the Trac Môn racing circuit on Anglesey was used, and again a bend called Swedenkreuz on the Nurburgring for higher speed work of around 120mph.

‘We always took the cars up to the north of Sweden for ‘Wintertest’. That involved a great deal of ABS, DSC performance and interaction, and particularly steering feel, traction and stability work. In later development, the rear-wheel-drive ZTs were always great fun up there, but they did reveal a rather serious axle tramp condition that took a good time to sort out!’ confessed Andy.

Further evaluation also came from frequent ride and drive sessions being organised where MG Rover Group’s Directors and some Senior Managers got to test the cars on a variety of different roads on routes organised by Andy. Along with planning the routes, including changeover points for drivers, Andy also ensured that employees also got to evaluate competitor vehicles set as the benchmarks.

As Rob Oldaker explained: ‘It was important to have people from within the company driving those cars who were more independent in their feedback than those closely working on the project.’ Rob remembers that Nick Stephenson, Kevin Howe, John Parkinson (as Sales and Marketing Director) and himself were heavily involved in these ride and drive sessions. Other Board Directors representing HR, Finance, Manufacturing and Purchasing were also involved when available, as was new Sales and Marketing Director John Sanders and PVH Director John Edwards.

As the MG models came nearer to their scheduled production, they would feature more of the approved production body design and interior features. Some of the later development cars would occasionally be seen being driven on public roads wearing X***KOX registration numbers.

Ending months of speculation

On 23 November 2000, MG Rover Group released a one-page press release to officially announce its intention to build MG saloon models. Titled ‘MG Rover unveils first details of MG saloon car plans for 2001’, it confirmed that ‘three MG sports saloons will be in production during 2001 and result in Longbridge manufacturing a total of eight different models’. In addition, as part of the development of the MG brand, ‘it will also become involved in a range of motor sport activities, including participating in the Le Mans 24-hours race in June 2001’. Supporting the press release was a photo of MG X10, finished in Anthracite.

Further details of the MG line-up were not formally made public until 30 January 2001 when the press gathered in the Conference Centre at the Longbridge assembly plant to watch the covers being pulled off the three MG saloon models by MG Rover’s Chief Executive Kevin Howe. The reveal examples were a ZR three-door finished in Trophy Yellow and a ZS saloon and ZT finished in Trophy Blue. The chosen hues had been introduced for the recently announced MGF Trophy 160 SE, which was also displayed alongside the MG saloons. Collectively, they helped to reinforce the sense of optimism the company had for the direction the business was taking to considerably expand the MG brand.

It was also confirmed that each saloon range would be offered in three engineered trim levels – Entry, Core and Ultimate versions. Entry models would refer to the majority of the showroom specification variants in each model, while Core would refer to the flagship performance version. Ultimate would be reserved for very high performance variants with a ‘halo’ appeal which would follow in due course. A fourth identity known as ‘Extreme’ MGs would be more specialised and provide a direct link between the motor sport programmes and the mainline production MGs built at Longbridge. Suddenly, MG began to look very exciting…

It’s Showtime: Revealing their production identities

Details of the models’ official production identities would not be announced until 27 February 2001, in time for their public debut at the 71st Geneva Motor Show. Giving the models their own separate identities to further distance them from their Rover counterparts was seen as essential to reinforce their standalone appeal, but also minimise accusations of the cars being just ‘badge-engineering’ exercises.

Kevin Jones suggests that the origins behind the ‘Z’ identity emerged from an evolutionary development, namely accepting the donor ‘sister’ products and also referencing the classic MG ‘Z-series’ saloons, such as the ZA and ZB. The identities also showed logical size and relationship. As Kevin explained: ‘At the time there was certainly a very strong appreciation of the MG heritage within the company and from MG enthusiasts and considerable club following – the largest of any brand.’

Now officially known as the ZR, ZS and ZT, each version boasted a wind tunnel-tested body styling package and the liberal use of colour-coded bodyside trim, lowered and uprated sports suspension and woven mesh grille treatments. Inside, the cabin the most obvious features were sports front seats, new ‘Technic’ inserts for the dashboard fascia and revised instrumentation graphics. The end result helped make the new MGs look and feel modern and purposeful.

MG ZR

Available in both three- and five-door form, the ZR with its curvaceous body and squat stance was a particularly attractive looking entry-MG model – especially in the Le Mans Green pearlescent paint colour featured on the Geneva Motor Show car. Few doubted it was targeting younger buyers looking for a hot hatch with ‘street cred’.

The mid-sized MG ZS, finished in Trophy Blue pearlescent for the Geneva debut, was the oldest and most challenging model to transform. Despite this, it still managed to look appealing with its chunky hi-level spoiler design and those amber coloured indicator lights, which further distanced it from the understated Rover 45.

Supplementing the Solar Red-coloured MG ZT saloon on the MG Rover stand was the ZT-T Sportswagon which had been officially announced at the Geneva Motor Show. In Motor Show guise it was finished in a one-off colour called Typhoon (which would later become part of the Monogram exclusive colour palette) and sported a tailgate spoiler and 19-inch alloy wheels, neither of which would become production items. To go on sale in September 2001 as part of a phased launch programme, the ZT-T would be the first ever production MG estate variant.

MG Rover Group also chose this motor show to reaffirm its intentions to deliver a V8 version of the ZT and ZT-T complete with rear-wheel drive. Writing in the April/May 2001 issue of MG World, MG historian and author David Knowles said that MG Rover’s staff would not reveal who the engine’s supplier was, although they did confirm that it would not be coming from Munich. However, the same magazine did confirm that the Core model would feature a 260hp V8 engine, while the Ultimate version would produce 375hp.

MG excitement for all

Even before the new models were announced a decision had already been made to offer each model with a range of engines. Entry-level models would have a standard tune engine shared with the Rover models (for efficiency, cost and choice), while the flagship model in each range would have either a tuned version of an existing engine or something extreme.

The ZR line-up would comprise of the stock 103hp 1.4-litre K-Series engine in the entry level ZR 105 model, while the ZR 120 would have the 120hp 1.8-litre unit. Sitting at the top of the ZR range would be the ZR 160 powered by a 160hp version of the 1.8-litre unit with Variable Valve Control (VVC). This extra 15hp over the regular 145hp VVC engine, which had seen service in the ‘R3’ Rover 200 Series and more recent Rover 25 GTi model, had been achieved by fitting a larger diameter throttle body and an enlarged airbox where there were now two intake pipes feeding into it.

The ZS would employ a similar approach – using the current 120hp 1.8-litre from the Rover 45 in the entry ZS 120. However, the flagship ZS 180 model would feature the 175hp 2.5-litre KV6 engine. This was perhaps not too much of a surprise as back, in 1997, Rover Cars had announced its intention to offer this engine in the Rover 425 V6 Limited Edition. Alas this became a stillborn project, although a number of engineering cars had still been built.

Instead, the new 150hp 2.0-litre version of the KV6 engine would find its way into the Rover 45 from July 2000. It would be MG Rover Group’s Engineers who made the decision to introduce the more powerful 2.5-litre engine complete with a manual gearbox in the MG ZS 180. Engineers would also look at the noise signature inside the ZS 180 to ensure it delivered a thoroughly more vocal intent.

As with the ZS, the ZT would be offered with a choice of just two petrol engines at launch. According to early press release announcements the original intention had been to offer a mildly tuned 160hp version of the 2.0-litre KV6 engine in the entry level ZT 160, although this ultimately did not happen.

There are a variety of views on why this did not happen. Several sources suggest that a lack of low end torque meant that it was shelved in preference to a de-tuned version of the 2.5-litre version. However, Rob Oldaker states that the 2.0-litre engine was actually more capable of being tuned than the 2.5-litre version. Alan Matthews adds that it was possible Power Train Projects (PTP) had done some initial work on tuning the 2.0-litre KV6, although it would have been quicker and easier to detune the 2.5-litre version for the entry level ZT.

Furthermore, at the time a lot of engineering resource was going into preparing a new turbocharged 1.8-litre K-Series engine for introduction in the MG ZT and Rover 75 in 2002. A mildly-tuned 2.0-litre KV6 was therefore likely to have limited appeal once the forced induction four-cylinder K-Series became available.

The tuned 190hp 2.5-litre KV6 was a natural progression for this engine as the range-topping ZT 190 model. This was achieved by a calibration change as well as a change to the camshaft timing, while freeing the exhaust inlet enabled more sound to be brought into the cabin. The mountings of the exhaust were also changed.

In the end, the production ZT would be launched with two versions of the 2.5-litre KV6. In due course the engine line-up for each model would be expanded with the availability of a diesel engine option and further petrol engine options. Rob admits that he was initially against offering diesel engines in any of the new MGs, although Marketing put forward a persuasive argument about the growing popularity of diesel engines in a more sporting package.

Outrageous fun for all: Back in motor sport

MG Rover Group revealed its full programme of motor sport activities for the MG marque at a press conference held at the National Exhibition Centre on 26 April 2001. Rob Oldaker, as Managing Director of the subsidiary company MG Sport and Racing Limited, announced its formation as well as the launch of its associated sub-brand, MG XPower. He confirmed that the role of MG Sport and Racing would be to focus on MG’s motor sport programmes and also manage the engineering development programmes for the motor sport vehicles and the specialised road-going MG products that would evolve from them.

Rob had announced at the event: ‘We sum up the brand essence of MG in the phrase ‘Outrageous fun for all’. To our way of thinking, outrageous fun is a serious business. So we have set up a serious business to generate it.’

The first activities for MG Sport and Racing would be entering two MG Lola EX257s at Le Mans 24 Hours race in June. EX257 had been designed and built by Lola Cars International with input from Peter Stevens and it would compete in the LMP675 class.

MG-Lola-EX257

Beyond this, there was also the announcement that Lola and Advanced Engine Research (AER) were consultants for the engineering of EX259, an MG ZS racing saloon being prepared for the TOCA Tour series. Two cars using a race-tuned version of the 2.0-litre KV6 engine would start track testing in July and make their competition debut at the Silverstone International meeting on 8 and 9 September. EX259 would also take part in the last three events of the 2001 British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) to provide ‘shakedown’ testing in preparation for the full 2002 season. Anthony Reid and Warren Hughes were confirmed as the drivers, while West Surrey Racing (WSR) would manage the team, having previously run successful BTCC teams for Ford and Honda.

Last, but by no means least, the MG ZR would see the MG name returning to rallying. Known as MG EX258, the rally-prepared ZRs would compete in the new Formula 3 Super 1600 category, with rally experts GSE Motorsport being responsible for the vehicles’ development and management. AER would be responsible for developing and preparing the 1.6-litre K-Series engine in these cars, which would be driven by British Rally Championship driver Gwyndaf Evans. Testing was due to begin in June, with the first outing of the car being scheduled for the five-day Cardiff-based Rally GB held in the third week of November.

Before then, two works MG ZRs would also take part in the grueling London-Sahara-London World Cup Rally, covering 6,000 miles in 20 days, starting on 30 September.

The ZR was seen as a real enthusiast’s car and to raise its profile with the motor sport fraternity, MG Sport and Racing worked closely with the MG Car Club at Abingdon which led to a race championship called the MG Trophy, run by the MGCC, using cars developed by Brian Griffin (a Director of MG Sport and Racing) and his team at Longbridge. The cars were ready in time for the 2001 season using the 160hp VVC K Series engine. For 2002 they would be upgraded to a very-special 190hp 1.8-litre non-VVC engine and ultra close-ratio gearbox, both developed in-house by PTP (Power Train Projects). Rounds took place at all the major UK circuits, plus the mighty Spa Francorchamps track in Belgium. The success of the series can be judged by the fact that it is still running in 2021, an impressive twenty years after that first season.

David Jones was the Commercial Director for MG Sport and Racing as well as Brand Manager for MG, so was in control of brand and marketing strategy alongside all commercial and sponsorship activity. He recalls that the distinctive grey and lime green strip for the XPower brand had been created by Peter Boutwood under his company R. T. Crimes Limited. Peter had a background in fashion and professional design and also enjoyed the buzz of being an amateur racing driver in Formula 3. He had also designed the distinctive bright yellow livery for the Jordan Grand Prix team during their partnership with Benson & Hedges.

‘For the XPower brand, the base grey was influenced by the new and brand-distinctive standard road car colour palette at the time, while the green was actually luminous yellow which, under flash photography, changed to lime green,’ explained David Jones.

Rob admits that he informally coined the lime ‘green’ hue as Chernobyl Green, although he confirms that MG Rover Group’s Board of Directors thought the cars, whether race cars at Le Mans, Touring cars or rally cars, would look brand-distinctive and spectacular in this colour scheme when captured on television or in photographs. The chosen shade of grey would eventually be offered on production MGs as a mainline colour known as XPower Grey.

Forming part of the ‘XPOWER’ logo would be the letter ‘R’ reversed to mirror the ‘cut-out’ detailing within the letter ‘P’. David Jones explained that this was done to not only be different but to also be seen as wanting to challenge ‘the convention’.

Impressing the motoring press

It would not be until Monday, 2 July when the press would get to sample the MG Z-cars for themselves at a high profile press event centred-around the St. David’s Hotel in Cardiff.

Kevin Jones discloses that the event started at the hotel with an initial briefing on the MG brand, business objectives and a product overview, followed by a long ride and drive session to the Pembrey Circuit where journalists would then get to drive further examples around the race circuit. Once back at the hotel early evening for a more-in-depth press briefing, the itinerary continued the next morning with a more engaging road drive into the Brecon Beacons. These events were repeated over four nights and held over a two-week period, which also included fleet and other key invited parties.

The initial press demo fleet was registered on registration numbers within the Y901 – Y937 BJW registration range. The fleet of ZRs predominantly comprised of the core ZR 160 variant although there were a few examples of the entry-level ZR 105 available. The majority of the ZS models were the ZS 180, while the ZT variants were mainly the ZT 190 saloon. There were also two MG ZT-Ts in attendance which sported the registration numbers Y936 and Y937 BJW, although these were static display examples and not available for driving assessment at this event.

Kevin Jones recalls that the appraisal cars came in a mixture of exterior colours and specifications, with some close timing with the delivery of some of them arriving JIT (Just In Time). For operational prudence, there was a separate fleet of dedicated (unregistered) track cars – seven of each model – at the Pembrey Circuit. These went on to become Company fleet demonstrators. The ZR 160s were finished in Trophy Yellow, ZS 180s in Trophy Blue and the ZT 190s in Solar Red.

If that wasn’t enough to whet journalists’ appetites, there was also a one-off example parked at the centre of the roundabout outside the hotel’s reception. This special car was there to give an indication of the direction the company was intending to take with an ‘Ultimate’ version. Dressed in MG Sport and Racing’s grey and lime green livery, the MG ZT XPower 500 had been built to illustrate the integrity and extremities of the chassis and powertrain engineering.

MG ZT XPower 500 Extreme

Such a concept was perhaps not much of a revelation to journalists as, back in May, the company had announced its intention to unveil one-off MG ‘Extreme’ vehicles which were to be specially built for demonstration and promotional purposes. At the time, there had been a suggestion that an MG ZT Extreme (above) would have 500 horsepower, ‘this time from a large, highly modified V8 engine driving the rear wheels (…Core ZTs are rear-wheel-drive V8s),’ as had been quoted in a recent press release. However, the speed of delivery of such a car was perhaps something of an impressive surprise.

The press release supporting the ZT XPower 500’s reveal disclosed that ‘the V8 installation is the first in the MG ZT and preludes the launch in the spring of 2002 of road going 260hp versions, before an ‘ultimate’ version with 375hp is introduced, itself heavily influenced by the ZT XPower 500.’

Rob Oldaker confirms that the ZT XPower 500 featured a 500hp supercharged, quad-cam 32-valve 4.6-litre Ford V8 engine mated up to a six-speed manual gearbox and it was rear-wheel driven. Each evening during the press event this ‘ultimate’ MG would be fired up for journalists to hear, with Rob himself doing a few doughnuts in it to demonstrate it could live up to MG’s new adage ‘outrageous fun for all’. Kevin Jones remembers that Kevin Howe would regularly start the engine and rev it to the delight of journalists, although such was the bravado of this on a cold engine that it needed some remedial work when it returned to Longbridge!

Arranging such a big launch event for the Z-cars with modest resources proved to be a challenge, although the majority of the motoring press were immensely supportive of the new MG saloons, while at the same time, understandably also being sceptical.

What the press said…

Published road tests confirmed that MG Rover Group had produced some compelling cars to help broaden the appeal of its range. When journalists from Auto Express compared the ZT+ 190 against the Jaguar X-Type for its Autumn Special 2001 issue, it wrote: ‘Whereas the Jaguar patters over broken surfaces, the ZT+ 190’s firmly dampened smoothes even the tiniest of dips and crests to a muffled thump. And, while the baby Jag succumbs to the inevitable body roll and understeer when taken to the limits of adhesion, the MG keeps gripping and gripping, thanks to its wider track.’

With the ZT winning the shootout, road testers concluded: ‘Already a good car, the Rover 75 has been transformed by MG’s talented Engineers into an excellent sports saloon. A strong, refined V6 engine, grippy chassis and a tasteful yet classy interior mark the ZT+ 190 out as a superbly well-rounded package.’

In a similar road test against the Volkswagen Passat V6, published on 26 September 2001, the same publication wrote: ‘…the ZT’s 2.5-litre V6 is the more rewarding of the two. The 190bhp unit could maybe do with more character across the range, but it hums sweetly through each responsive shift of the five-speed manual gearbox. The Passat’s 2.8-litre V6 might be power packed but its delivery has too much vigour and urban progress can be somewhat jerky without super-smooth clutch application.

‘Value may not be a pre-requisite for a sports saloon, but even the range-topping ZT+ 190 is a steal at £21,095. The Passat is only £645 more, but on running costs, insurance and price of adding extras, not to mention a more accommodating boot, it’s a refreshing change to boast that it can really pay to buy British.’

Jason Barlow, in his road test of the ZT+ 190 for BBC Top Gear summed up: ‘The ZT is two-thirds of a BMW M3 for half the price of a BMW M3. That’s one hell of an achievement.’

The MG ZS 180, though, was something of a dark horse. As Kevin Jones recalled: ‘As much as we could, we promoted to the motoring press that the most impressive story was the ZS, as the chassis balance and V6 best combined a driving thrill. Journalists Richard Bremner and John Simister were amazed by the MG ZS, especially given its parentage, but they knew the Honda underpinnings had the potential if tuned for purpose.’

BBC Top Gear presenter Tiff Needell was one of a number of journalists who gave the ZS 180 a glowing endorsement. In the episode broadcast on 26 July 2001, while driving around the Pembrey Circuit he extolled: ‘The ZS gets off to a flying start with a smooth, torquey power delivery of the two and a half litre V6. It growls away beneath the bonnet and puts you in the right sort of mood. …For a front-wheel drive it is about the best I have experienced; they’ve really got the balance between front and rear right and…. the traction is also excellent. It sits very flat on the road, it does not feel too harshly sprung. This is sorted!’

Road testers from Auto Express had similar sentiments in their review, published 11 July 2001. Despite criticising the ZS for ‘lacking space, design flair and high-quality build’, they were impressed enough to write: ‘Tightly spaced gear ratios and a strong slug of torque mean performance arrives in an effortless fashion and, compared to rival machinery such as SEAT’s Leon 20 VT or VW’s Bora 1.8 T Sport, the ZS makes for an intriguing proposition. Rarely these days will you find a car with such a unique character.’

The ZR 160 was the model that initially attracted the most interest from journalists, as the entry-level range, although it was the one that received more mixed reviews. Auto Express was less than impressed by the fit and finish of the test car’s body kit and the dated interior design, while criticism was also aired in relation to its crashy suspension and thrashy engine which needed to be revved hard to reach its peak torque at 4700rpm. Top Gear’s Tiff Needell conveyed similar disappointments about the ZR’s lack of damping on the suspension, lazy turn-in on the steering, as well as the poor driving position.

However, CAR magazine heaped praise on MG’s supermini hot hatch. In the September 2001 issue it wrote: ‘The road is damp in places and a 160bhp is a lot to funnel through a little car’s front wheels, but such questions aren’t hovering about the MG. Its traction is extraordinary, the lack of tug and torque steer equally so. This is one tied-down front end.

‘And it has the most fantastic throttle response. It means you can blip-snick instantly down through the gearbox, itself controlled by a lever with a shortened throw and an aluminium-decorated knob. Such economy of movement, such keen response. God, this is fun.’

CAR concluded: ‘The MG ZR was designed to be massive fun, to be a proper hot hatch in an age of encroaching tepidity. If you’re wondering, its more raw and less complete than the new Mini, but those who place moving thrills above static iconography will enjoy it more, which is quite a feat.’

But would those initial road tests have much influence on the buying decision of the general public?

Let sales begin!

The ZR, ZS and ZT range officially went on sale from 23 July 2001, with dealers receiving an example of each model. The range would initially be offered in two trim levels for the showroom: Entry for the standard specification models, along with the Plus versions offering additional equipment, and ‘Core’ for the high-performance derivative sitting at the top of each range.

The ZR range started with the ‘low insurance friendly’ 105 version priced at £9,995 and boasting standard accoutrements such as 16-inch ‘Hairpins’ alloy wheels, sports suspension and sports seats featuring ‘Matrix’ woven fabric for the centre panels.

For a further £1600, ZR+ models came with remote central door locking, electric front windows, door mirrors and a sunroof, front fog lamps, height and lumbar adjustment on the driver’s seat, a leather and alloy gear knob and a leather steering wheel. The Core ZR 160 featured most of the equipment found on the Plus models, along with 17-inch ‘Straights’ alloy wheels, air conditioning in lieu of a sunroof, side sill skirts and a bigger bore sports exhaust with twin tailpipes. The 160’s sports seats were trimmed in ‘Monaco’ fabric, with the leather side bolsters featuring inserts and stitching finished in blue, yellow, red or green, dependent on the chosen exterior colour. Most of these features could be specified as extra cost options on the Entry and Plus versions, while there was a £500 premium to pay for the five-door bodystyle.

The ZR line-up also included the ZR 120 with Stepspeed CVT transmission, which was £900 more expensive than the same model with a manual gearbox. Lastly, there was the Turbo Diesel which was powered by the home-grown 101bhp 2.0-litre L-Series engine.

The ZS range followed a similar trim level and specification philosophy as the ZR, with 16-inch alloy wheels and Matrix trimmed sports seats forming part of the standard model’s specification. Further refinements such as air conditioning and electric front windows came as standard on the Plus model which also had its rear ZS badge finished in a rhodium finish rather than black.

The range kicked off with the ZS 120 model priced from £12,495 in five-door guise, while the Plus model cost £1,000 more. Sitting at the top of the line-up was the Core ZS 180 which cost £15,595. The saloon bodystyle added a further £800 to the purchase price over that of the equivalent five-door version.

Heading the MG range was the ZT available in 160 and 190 guises. Priced from £18,595, the entry-level ZT 160 offered niceties such as electric front windows and air conditioning. The Plus models added £600 to the list price, but boasted automatic temperature controlled (ATC) air conditioning, electric rear windows, a CD autochanger for the Kenwood stereo and a bootlid ‘wing’ spoiler. The ZT 190 was priced from £20,495.

Both variants featured 18-inch alloy wheels in the ‘Hairpins’ or ‘Straights’ design, dependent on model, while there was also an impressive array of stand-alone options focusing on upgraded Kenwood in-car entertainment systems, navigation systems and more luxury features such as heated seats and an electric rear windscreen blind.

The range would be joined by the ZT-T Sportswagon from late September 2001. Commanding a premium of £950 over the equivalent saloon, the ZT-T featured greater practicality, including a stylish tailgate with a separately hinged opening rear window and the availability of self-levelling suspension as a £350 option.

The dealer’s perspective

Stephen Fussell worked for a North Somerset-based MG Rover dealership at the time of the MG models’ arrival and remembers it was a great time for the dealership. He said: ‘At the time we were riding on the crest of a wave after the sale [of Rover Cars] to Phoenix and the realignment of some of the models in the marketplace, further helped by Rover special edition models, plus extra versions of the MGF.

‘We had a large showroom and the decision was made to split it into half – one half devoted to each brand. We had a launch party for the MG saloons and the Rover 75 Tourer and the response was excellent, with most of the orders being for the ZR. Two members of staff, including myself, also ordered brand new ZRs on launch night.’

Stephen reckons the biggest shock was with the MG ZS. As he explained: ‘We were aware of the good platforms on the 25 and 75, but MG Rover Group transformed the somewhat staid Rover 45 into quite the sports saloon. We had had 2.0-litre V6 Rover 45s at our dealership. A great car, smooth and responsive when pushed, but the ZS 180 was a real rocket ship and it certainly looked the part too with its aggressive rear spoiler.’

The initial sales launch demonstrators were restricted to the core models only and in one bodystyle, together with a restricted choice of paint colours. Vehicles were automatically allocated to dealerships rather than Dealer Principals being able to specify the required exterior colour and specification. ZR 160s were offered in three-door form only and the ZS 180 in saloon guise, both available in either Trophy Blue or Trophy Yellow. The ZT 190 was available in either Solar Red or Trophy Blue.

Advertising the new MGs

Supporting the sales launch were slick advertisements for both television and print publications. The one-minute advertisement created by M&C Saatchi made its debut during the week commencing 23 July 2001, including during the commercial break for the German Grand Prix shown on ITV1. David Jones disclosed that its proposition was to convey the MG brand as the ‘antidote to the anodyne world’. The storyline showed a man in his late twenties with a dull, routine life which doesn’t encourage freedom of choice, briefly escaping it by getting into his MG ZT. This further reinforced the MG brand’s core slogan ‘Life’s too short not to’.

Print advertisements were also unleashed using the heading ‘The Full Fat, High Caffeine, Maximum Strength MG ZR’ (or ZS, ZT, depending on the featured model). The ZR and ZS print adverts showed frontal three-quarter views of the car on a blurred road surface, together with a blurred background.

However, within a month of the print and poster adverts appearing, BBC News reported that the Advertising Standards Agency had ordered MG Rover Group to drop the advertisement as a single complainant had said the imagery ‘placed an undue emphasis on speed and irresponsible driving’. While MG Rover Group disputed that the imagery of the featured vehicle itself wasn’t blurred, the advert was put on hold while they challenged the ASA’s judgement.

In response to the ASA’s findings, John Sanders, Group Marketing Director for MG Rover Group said: ‘The advertising campaign does not talk about speed – it is designed to appeal to people who like the freedom to make their own choices and not to be dictated to by the current obsession with denying oneself the pleasures of life.’

David admits that banning the advertisement had a higher cut-through benefit than when placing the advert itself, and MG Rover Group was aware of the additional exposure this could bring to the brand.

By September 2002, there was a new heading for some of the print campaigns: ‘The last time you had this much fun in a car you ended up a parent.’ For the MG ZT-T, it was: ‘The non-organic, high cholesterol, maximum strength MG ZT-T’, featuring a non-moving frontal three-quarter view of an example finished in Le Mans Green.

A year later and the image of an MG ZR 160 finished in XPower Grey had the caption: ‘MG ZR from £9995. Blurred scenery as standard.’

By early 2005 there had been a shift away from promoting escapism from this world of control, to more of an emphasis on the discounts available on new MGs such as the ZT. However, for the ZR, there was a quirky print advertisement showing an image of a Dentist under the caption ‘more root fillings’. The new slogan for the MG brand was now ‘Let’s take the MG’, which was potentially open to alternative interpretations beyond just the appeal of driving an MG.

Pushing the boundaries of performance and personalising

MG Rover Group maintained its confident approach with the MG brand by unveiling the MG ZT XPower 385 (above) at the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show, which was described in the press release as a ‘road-going development of the ZT XPower 500 Extreme’. With a quoted price of under £40,000 and a potential maximum speed of 175mph, it further reinforced the company’s quest to push performance boundaries and take on Audi’s RS4, BMW’s M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG. Beneath the display car’s Monogram paint colour of Typhoon it featured further evolutionary developments of the ZT’s styling by incorporating some of the additional aerodynamic forms from the XPower 500 Extreme.

MG Rover Group had also chosen Frankfurt to announce its new Monogram personalisation programme to enable buyers to have an even greater choice of paint finishes, materials and individual trim colours for the interior. Speaking to the author in October 2002, Colour and Trim Designer John Stark confirmed that he and Janet Mercer had come up with the idea for the Monogram programme in 2000 to enable buyers to reflect more of their own personality in the build specification of their new car. The Monogram programme comprised of a range of carefully selected exterior paint colours, trim materials for the seats and technical components, all of which would be incorporated as part of the vehicle’s mainline build. Today, cars painted in these colour-flip colours remain very collectable with higher transaction prices paid.

For those buyers not wanting something this specialised in its specification (which also increased the vehicle’s lead time), the range of mainline colours was expanded from November 2001. Joining the current six colours were the mainline colours of British Racing Green, Copperleaf, Royal Blue and Tahiti Blue; the latter colour restricted to just the ZR and ZS. All of these colours were already available on the MGF and Rover models.

Further enhancements in 2002

With the new MGs having already received plenty of praise from the motoring press and also generating additional showroom traffic for MG Rover dealers, there was little need to make any major changes. But in 2002 came a number of subtle enhancements to the range.

The most noticeable change for the ZR was the adoption of a new one-piece ‘shark fin’ spoiler design for the upper tailgate. Chief Engineer for Vehicle Test and Sign-Off, Alan Matthews, recalls that the hi-plane style tailgate spoiler needed to undergo a re-design fairly early on in the ZR’s production when it was discovered to be a problem in car washes. This could result in the painting cracking through movement.

The new one-piece ‘shark fin’ spoiler with its central strengthening spar was designed by Peter Andrews and not only addressed the issue but also looked more distinctive. At the same time it also delivered a cost-saving benefit by replacing the original ‘R3’ 200 Series spoiler that the accessory item sat against, and also involved less labour as the assembly was simplified. Beyond the new rear spoiler, further revisions were also made to the deeper extensions to the bumpers to ensure a more integrated fit.

In May of that year came further evidence of MG Rover Group’s desire to make MG ownership even more accessible with the introduction of the home-grown 101hp 2.0-litre L-Series turbo diesel engine in the ZS, priced from £13,195.

For the ZS line-up, the ‘Technical’ finish garnish rails for the door casings were no longer fitted as standard, but had now become an extra cost option. Meanwhile, on the ZT and ZT-T, new halogen Projector headlamps were introduced as a £200 option, while chrome finishing strips for the waist-line and rear number plate appliqué could be specified as a no cost option in place of the colour-keyed items (albeit this was short-lived).

The launch of the ZT and ZT-T 180 Sports Auto model earlier on in the year featuring the 177bhp 2.5-litre KV6 engine enabled buyers to enjoy the added refinement of automatic transmission.

This was followed in July by the availability of the BMW-supplied 116hp 2.0-litre M47R engine for the ZT and ZT-T. Known as the CDTi, this oil-burning derivative could be specified with the extra cost option of automatic transmission.

However, just one month after the CDTi went on sale, MG Sport and Racing announced the availability of a post-registration XPower diesel upgrade chip to extract more power and torque, without affecting fuel economy. Costing £490, the upgrade enabled the M47R engine to develop 129bhp, with torque increasing from 260Nm to 300Nm.

One further enhancement for the ZT was a more pliant suspension. Rob Oldaker recalls that, after the ZT’s launch, there had been criticism from some quarters that it was too stiff, including from PVH Chairman John Towers. Therefore the springing and damping had to be changed, with the suspension set-up being reduced to be 40% stiffer than the Rover 75. This change was done very quickly. For those drivers who wanted the original sports suspension set-up, it would be offered as a £175 option. Autocar drove the ZT with its revised suspension for the issue published 1 January 2003 and concluded: ‘Vastly improved ride without spoiling the car’s sporting character. Doesn’t often work, but in this case less is definitely more.’

These changes also coincided with a new lower bootlid spoiler being introduced. This had been undertaken by Peter Andrews within the MG Rover Studio, which would be fitted as standard on the entry-level models from August 2002. The standard ‘hi-plane’ wing spoiler would remain as a standard feature on Plus models.

The 2003 Model Year

MG ZR and ZS Atomix

MG Rover Group did not formally reveal details of its 2003 Model Year cars until Press Day on 22 October at the 2002 British International Motor Show held at the NEC. As with the Rovers, changes for the MGs would look to prolong sales interest through the introduction of new feature content and technology.

The ZR, in line with the Rover 25, had been given a subtle revision which saw the deletion of the black finishing trim for the vertical door pillars in preference to the painted surface. The Light Rhodium finish insert fitted to the rear of the dashboard fascia was also discontinued, while the front door bins were redesigned to sport cup holders and CD stowage provision. Rear parking sensors and Trafficmaster, a new traffic congestion warning device built into the fascia’s digital clock, were also introduced as extra cost options.

The exterior colour range was also revised, with Starlight Silver replacing Platinum Silver on the ZR and ZS and Zircon Silver on the ZT, and Nightfire Red replacing Copperleaf on both the ZR and ZS. Tahiti Blue had been quietly dropped during the previous months. Meanwhile, the new XPower Grey metallic that featured on MG’s Le Mans, Touring and Rally cars had actually been available on the Z-cars range since the summer, albeit it with an extended lead time.

Perhaps the most notable enhancement for the ZR and ZS was the availability of a special edition ‘AtomiX’ derivative (above), bringing together MG’s racing association with all-girl pop group Atomic Kitten. Along with offering extra specification and more assertive styling through featuring sill finishers and an aerodynamic front spoiler, AtomiX models also came in a choice of just three mainline colours: Le Mans Green, Solar Red and XPower Grey. While not being built as a strict limited edition model, it was announced in October 2002 that around 500 examples of the ZR 105 and 300 of the ZS 120 AtomiX models would be built.

Economy Drive

MG ZT 160

One of the most important changes for the ZT line-up in 2002 was the introduction of a new tax-beating engine. Mating the 1.8-litre K-Series engine up to a Garrett turbocharger may not have been anything radical in an engineering sense, but for the company car user the changes proved to have fiscal benefits. Known as the ZT 160 1.8T, the new model had a CO2 rating of 194g/km compared to 225g/km for the V6 powered ZT 160. The combined fuel economy figure for the 1.8 T was 34.9mpg against the V6’s 30.0mpg.

At the same time as the launch of the ZT 160 1.8T, MG Rover Group also announced that the uprated 129bhp diesel engine would now be offered in a new line-built model in the ZT/ZT-T range, to be known as the 135 CDTi. Meanwhile, for diesel-powered variants specified with Automatic Temperature Control (ATC), it was possible to specify an optional parking heater costing £400 whereby, functioning independently of the ignition, the interior could be warmed up and the windows de-iced.

MG Rover Group had worked hard to give diesel-powered ZT offerings an even wider appeal through enhanced performance without effecting emission levels, so it came as no surprise to find the commitment extending to the ZR and ZS. From January 2003, an uprated 113bhp version of the 2.0-litre L-Series turbo diesel engine could be specified as either a post registration upgrade chip, or in new line-built ZR and ZS 115 turbo diesel derivatives. The ZR 115 turbo diesel also gained rear disc brakes which the standard 101bhp version did not have.

For those owners wanting lower running costs but not wanting to go down the diesel route, MG’s range of LPG-equipped models had been extended from the 1.8-litre ZR 120 and ZS 120 to the ZR 105.

Express Delivery

MG Express

February 2003 saw the role of the ZR range being expanded to provide a car-derived van offering. Available in either 105bhp or 160bhp petrol or 101bhp turbo diesel form, the MG Express was visually identical to the regular hatchback apart from having fill-in panels for the rear quarter lights. Inside, there was a full-time flat load floor area in place of the rear seats.

It required no major engineering changes, yet it managed to diversify the brand’s model portfolio into another uncharted territory – albeit in very small numbers, as around 337 were built in total, according to data from the website MG Rover Build Info. Prices ranged from £8264 for the Express 105, rising to £11,488 for the 160 version.

Eighth wonder

For die-hard enthusiasts, the real jewel in the MG’s crown would be the arrival of the V8-powered ZT 260 in September 2003.

Talk of building a rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered version of the ZT had been rife since the unveiling of the Zed saloons to the motoring press in January 2001, although it would not be until their press launch in July of that year that there would be a physical car to support the claims.

Rob Oldaker disclosed to the author that the company had originally wanted to use a General Motors V8 engine, namely the Generation IV 5.7-litre V8 used in the Chevrolet Corvette and Holden Monaro. However, General Motors would not agree to supply it as at the time they were developing the Vauxhall Monaro which used the same engine and, as a consequence, would compete with the MG ZT 260.

MG Rover Group’s Engineers also evaluated the Lotus 3.5-litre V8 which had been used in twin-turbocharged form in the Lotus Esprit. However, Rob was concerned about the torque such a relatively ‘small’ capacity engine in non-turbocharged form would have compared to larger capacity V8s. The fact it was also a very expensive engine to buy in was a further factor that helped to rule it out. In the end, they went for the iron-block, single-overhead cam 4.6-litre Ford V8 engine, as it was a ‘chassis-drop’ engine which came with numerous ancillary parts as well. MG Rover Group, as a third party, had also found Ford to be an easy company to deal with, no doubt helped by them intending to continue using the 32-valve Ford V8 engine in the forthcoming new MG XPower SV supercar.

Adopting the project code X12, transforming the front-wheel-drive platform to rear-wheel drive was by no means a quick or easy task, with MG Rover Group sub-contracting out a significant part of the development project to automotive design and engineering specialists Prodrive. Despite MG Rover Group claiming that sales would commence in spring 2002, delays in the X12 project, resulted in the project being taken back in-house to be completed in rapid time and with it the required changes to the Longbridge production track for its rear-wheel drive integration.

One of the main difficulties that needed further refining was a problem with axle tramp experienced when driving on a damp surface. While it wasn’t an issue on dry and wet surfaces, it still required Andy Smith and his team to do some complex mathematical modelling of the driveshaft’s stiffness and damping, drive-train, gearbox mounting and engine mounts before they ended up with a refined car that the driver could be ‘abusive’ with on all surfaces. As a consequence, the ZT 260 would take up its role as the fastest ever production MG saloon, albeit some eighteen months later than envisaged.

The V8 engine from the Ford Mustang was mated up to a Tremac five-speed gearbox, while a new multi-link rear suspension had also been designed to replace the Z axle. When provoked, the ZT 260 could lift its skirts and sprint to sixty miles-per-hour in just 6.2 seconds and reach a top speed limited to 155mph. It also had bigger rear discs than the front ones, such was the power that needed harnessing!

To further convey the premium intentions of this flagship saloon, it was offered in either standard trim based around the Plus spec of the four- and six-cylinder models, or a new, more opulent SE version. The SE model possessed standard equipment such as electrically adjustable front seats trimmed in full leather, Hi-line satellite navigation with Teletext equipped TV tuner, electric sunroof, Xenon headlamps and new 18-inch ‘Apex’ alloy wheels. Prices ranged from £27,995 for the standard ZT 260 to £33,750 for the ZT-T 260 SE.

Autocar drove the ZT 260 for the issue dated 11 November 2003 and was upbeat about its appeal. It concluded: ‘But what it [MG Rover] will have is a characterful and highly entertaining rear-drive saloon with both the space and pace to warrant anyone’s attention with £27,995 to spend. The fact it is British merely adds to its appeal, but this will not be its only asset, not by a long chalk.’

And the ZT XPower 385?

Details relating to the ZT XPower 385 with a supercharged version of the same engine remained scant, with no confirmed details when this Extreme version would be unveiled in production guise. However, there was a loose timing of the final quarter of 2005 being considered as a likely launch date for production examples.

Peter Andrews confirmed to the author in January 2021 that the supercharged Extreme version of the X12 (V8 saloon) and X13 (V8 Tourer) projects had been totally restyled over the Prodrive-developed show car in readiness of production. These had centred around exterior changes which he had been involved with.

‘We were successful between the concept and the production car development to have a whole new rear bumper and carbon fibre bonnet outer to make the changes more integrating and befitting of a M3 competitor,’ he said. ‘However, although we tried and tried, through the growing pains of the project, we never achieved the buy-in from the project to integrate the flared arches into the body in the style of the Audi S and BMW M products. As a result, it always looked too aftermarket in comparison, which was a real shame.’

A further item he was involved with was a new wheel design which was similar to the 11-spoke design offered on the MG TF. However, there were subtle differences to the design fitted at the rear as the offsets allowed a greater amount of depth at the rear for a more drawn-in Lamborghini style. Peter confirms the idea got as far as first-off samples but he never got to see them on the car, with the wheel design never being shown publically.

‘I was really looking forward to that car being launched,’ admitted Peter. We were so close – all the A Class Surfacing had been done, but the business’s priorities had changed.’

New entry level versions and more luxury added

By the time the ZT 260 had reached showrooms in September 2003, both the ZS and ZT ranges had been supplemented by new entry-level models in the form of the ZS 110 powered by a 109bhp 1.6-litre engine and the ZT 120 featuring the normally aspirated 120bhp 1.8-litre K-Series unit. Both models showcased the new five-spoke ‘Mirage’ alloy wheel design offered in 15- and 17-inch form respectively.

The last change to the Z-cars range before the announcement of the facelifted models in 2004, was the availability of full leather seat facings as an optional extra. Leather seat facings had been available on the ZT and ZT-T since the first quarter of 2003, although it wasn’t until the autumn of the same year that it was extended to the ZR and ZS. For the ZT range, the high-spec SE trim level was also made available for the 180 Sports Auto and 190 models.

Comprehensive updates in 2004

The MG XPower SV in better times

As MG’s 80th anniversary arrived in 2004 there was news of comprehensive revisions for the entire Z-cars range. Updating the line-up was now needed to further prolong their sales life until MG Rover Group had managed to secure a joint venture agreement with another manufacturer to help fund the production delivery of the new mid-sized model, codenamed RDX60.

These revision programmes, in reality, had relatively small development budgets to fund them. However, they would still require MG Rover’s Designers to deliver significant styling differences over the current models, including deliberately referencing design cues of the MG XPower SV supercar (above) to strengthen MG’s family ‘look’ across its model range. Beyond this, the updates also needed to identify opportunities where the company could reduce the cost of some of the components used and, where appropriate, also standardise further items across more variants.

In tandem with the updated MGs there would be similar facelift programmes for the Rover models. This enabled some elements to be shared across both brands because of the cost of tooling up for new components such as headlight units, rear bumper mouldings and tailgate/bootlid outer panels for the ZR and ZS. These were needed in order to create the biggest update to their graphics.

Developed in-house under Design Director Peter Stevens, aided by Chief Designer Kevin Spindler and Design Manager Anthony Williams-Kenny, each model would have its own design lead. The ZT design programme was led by Robin Austin, the ZS by Dave Curtis and the ZR by Peter Andrews. Janet Mercer’s team would be responsible for colour, materials and trim, assisted by Nadia Arthur.

Stylish update for the ZT

The revised MG ZT/ZT-T was the first model to be revealed. Announced on 27 January 2004, the updated ZT sported a more chiselled looking front bumper assembly with projector headlamps sitting behind a single lens cover. Together with an updated grille design influenced by that of the MG XPower SV supercar, the ZT managed to look more dynamic and modern.

All models also had a new rear bumper design and a ‘centre-line’ ZT badge design for the tailgate/bootlid. And it didn’t end there as for the ZT 160, 180 Sports Auto and CDTi models there was an attractive new alloy wheel design called ‘Grid Spoke’. For the interior, ‘Summit’ woven twill fabric replaced the ‘Matrix’ design for the seats while ‘Axis’ cloth replaced ‘Monaco’ for the Plus and Core variants. The ten-colour exterior colour range was also refreshed, with Firefrost Red micatallic replacing Copperleaf, Goodwood Green pearlescent superseding Le Mans Green and Black Pearl micatallic taking over from Anthracite.

Offered in three trim levels, dependent on engine option, the revised ZT/ZT-T line-up commenced with the ZT 120 priced at £16,225, rising to £34,490 for the ZT-T 260 V8 SE.

‘New Style R-evolution’ for the ZS

The ZS was the model that had faced the biggest struggle to hide its advancing years, although that had not deterred the Design Team from delivering an inspiring effort to update it. Announced on 8 April 2004, the external changes predominantly focused on a new, more sculpted front bumper design, an MG XPower SV-inspired grille design and a more prominent looking projector headlamp treatment.

A new body styling package was fitted as standard to the ZS 180 featuring flared wheel arch extensions and air vents in the front wings. Together with sill extensions, they accommodated the increased wider track and a new 17-inch 11-spoke alloy wheel design.

Rob Oldaker disclosed that the vents in the front wings had come about as a result of him having a conversation with Dick Bennett of West Surrey Racing (WSR), who wanted to introduce them to help improve the frontal aerodynamics of the works EX259 cars he was running in the British Touring Car Championship. A further benefit was that they also got rid of some of the engine’s heat behind the front wheels. WSR had already done some preliminary research and found that they helped to improve frontal downforce.

As well as having a functional gain for the BTCC cars, the side vents referenced more of the MG XPower SV’s styling cues for the road cars. Rob confirms that it was actually quite expensive to change the pressings for the ZS’s front wings in order to accommodate the vents.

Further exterior changes included a new rear bumper moulding which now housed the number plate, a new tailgate/bootlid outer skin with centre-line badging and the introduction of the Grid Spoke alloy wheel design. The exterior colour range was also updated to embrace the three new colours already introduced on the revised ZT, along with Ignition Blue to replace Trophy Blue and Rio Red to supersede Solar Red.

While these updates may have helped give the ZS a more contemporary profile, the revision to the rear profile did not receive universal praise from enthusiasts, some of whom thought it looked bland and bulky, though there was a growing trend for an un-cluttered appearance.

However, it was better news on the inside as MG Rover Group’s Designers had finally managed to address some of the criticisms of the old dashboard design which had first seen service back in 1995 in the HHR/Theta Rover 400 Series. For starters there was a new dashboard top moulding and centre console, soft touch switchgear, a satin finish to the carryover column stalks and new satin chrome-finish rotary air vents inspired by those found in the MG XPower SV. ‘Axis’ cloth replaced ‘Monaco’ in the ZS 180.

Despite these updates and a competitive pricing structure, many road testers remained critical of the quality of trim for the interior and felt MG Rover’s efforts could not hide the age of this car.

Maintaining the ZR’s sales appeal

Less than a month later after the announcement of the revamped MG ZS it was the turn of the ZR to emerge with a bold new makeover. The ZR was a particularly important model for MG as it had it been the UK’s best-selling hot hatch for several years and the Longbridge assembly plant desperately needed it to remain that way for the foreseeable future until they could replace it.

Following the same approach as for the ZS, the new look ZR featured revised rear graphics courtesy of a new bumper moulding housing the number plate and a new tailgate outer skin with centre-line badging. At the front a more sculpted front bumper with new headlamp units and an MG XPower SV-style grille gave the ZR a more assertive profile. The range of alloy wheels was extended to three to include the new ‘Grid Spoke’ design available as an extra cost option. The ZR would also adopt the same nine-colour exterior palette as the MG ZS.

The interior was also overhauled to include a new dashboard fascia moulding with soft touch switchgear, a satin-finish for the existing column stalks design and new rotary air vents finished in satin chrome. There was also a revised floor console courtesy of the Streetwise.

In many ways the ZR managed to carry off the updates better than its bigger brother, thanks largely due to its curvaceous body style looking more youthful. Then again, journalists were under no illusion of how old the origins of this model were when they came to appraising it.

ZR-X concept is revealed at Motor Show Live

MG ZR-X Concept

The new-look ZR and ZS had their first public outing at Motor Show Live 2004, held from 27 May at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. On display alongside the updated models was the ZR-X concept which had been built by MG Sport and Racing to showcase some of the options and accessories they were planning to make available for the ZR.

Finished in the Monogram colour of Biomorphic Green, the ZR-X concept design had bigger 18-inch, 5-spoke alloy wheels, lowered suspension and aerodynamic improvements such as a deeper front splitter design and rear valance, complete with larger tailpipes. Finishing the exterior changes were bright finish woven mesh grilles, ‘M3’ door mirrors and ‘ZR-X’ badging.

The ZR-X gave a hint of some of the styling, tuning and dynamic enhancements which MG Sport and Racing could offer through its XPower brand.

MG ZR XPower was a concept, but it should have been a production model
MG ZR XPower was a concept, but it should have been a production model

A Trophy to remember

By December 2004, the MG ZR had not only retained its position as Britain’s best-selling hot hatch, it had also become MG Rover Group’s best-selling model too, outselling the more comprehensive Rover 25 range.

In January 2005, MG Rover Group announced the ZR Trophy and Trophy SE as supplementary derivatives to the regular models which offered buyers the visual appeal of the range topping 160 variant, but in a more value-for-money led proposition. The Trophy, for example, came with standard features such as 16-inch ‘Grid Spoke’ alloy wheels, side sills and rear bumper extensions, an electric sunroof and a CD player. The SE version added 17-inch ‘Straights’ alloy wheels, air conditioning, part-leather seats with new Axis seat centre upholstery and an MP3 player. Both versions were available with either the 103bhp 1.4-litre K-Series petrol or 113hp 2-litre L-Series turbo diesel, with the 120hp 1.8-litre K-Series being restricted to the Trophy SE variant.

The Trophy editions also signified a greater link between a showroom proposition and the activities of MG Sport and Racing. Aside from the distinctive new tail lamps there was the opportunity to specify ‘M3’ style door mirrors and sculpted sports sills normally reserved for MG Sport and Racing’s accessories catalogue.

Available in a choice of just six mainline exterior colours, prices ranged from £9,995 for the ZR 105 Trophy to £13,345 for the 115 Turbo-diesel Trophy SE five-door. The existing ZR 160 remained the performance flagship of the ZR range.

Sadly, the Trophy models would signify the last notable enhancement for the MG Z-cars range, as just three months later MG Rover Group had entered into Administration and the production lines had ground to a halt. Production would resume briefly under the Administrators whereby a small number of remaining examples of the ZT still on the assembly line would be completed. But beyond this, no more MG Z-cars would leave the assembly line at Longbridge.

Conclusion: So were the ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T a success?

Make no mistake, when MG Rover Group announced the MG Z-cars in 2001, no-one expected them to single-handedly secure Longbridge’s future. For this to have happened, it would have required sales volumes to be consistently strong for both the MG and Rover brands and the company’s Directors to have secured a joint partnership agreement with another manufacturer. Despite the appeal of the MG brand, as figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) confirm, by the end of 2003, every model in the MG range (as well as for the Rovers) had reached their natural sales peak.

Production figures from the SMMT show that production diversification from the core Rover brand had played a significant part in reducing the rate of natural decline in year-on-year production. The figures show that for 2002 to 2004, as full sales years for the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T, the ZR had accounted for approximately 37% of combined Rover 25/MG ZR production in 2002, 39% in 2003 (which also takes into account the Rover Streetwise and car-derived van production) and 45% in 2004.

For the same period, the ZS accounted for nearly 21% of combined 45/ZS production in 2002, a peak of 29.2% in 2003 and 27.8% in 2004. The MG ZT, in comparison, had made up 17.7% of combined 75/ZT production in 2002, almost 21% in 2003, and 22% in 2004.

Using the same SMMT data, which covers the period 2000 to 2005, a total of 81,564 MG ZRs had been built out of approximately 326,000 examples of the combined 25/ZR/Streetwise/car-derived-vans production. The MG ZS and Rover 45’s combined production was 175,553, with 27,111 examples being for the MG ZS. For the MG ZT, 27,093 examples were built compared to 157,118 Rover 75s (although this figure does not include pre-2000 Rover 75 production).

The figures suggest that the approach by Phoenix Venture Holdings to continue delivering models under both the Rover and MG brands had been critical for underpinning their goal to maintain volume production at Longbridge. This was still the case in 2004, the final full year of trading, where production had declined to 106,213 vehicles. By the time the curtain fell in April 2005, models such as the Rover 25/MG ZR and 45/ZS were essentially old designs with little more to give in terms of ongoing development opportunities to help reverse their sales decline.

Despite this, what the MG Z-cars did show without any question was the sheer determination of everyone at Longbridge to return MG back into a global brand with a range of models that demonstrated its sporting nature both in the showroom and in motor sport. This was achieved in spite of the hurdles of a modest development budget and limited time to get them to market. Therefore, for the near four years they were in production, the MG Z-cars can be considered to have been a success.

Fond memories from those involved

Corresponding with the author in December 2020, Kevin Jones said: ‘There was a genuine feeling that we were doing the right thing for MG, and it was certainly on a roll, what with the motor sport involvement, the XPower brand and SV project. These were very busy times, but we achieved in months what some took years to consider. We certainly covered many miles on this journey and created brilliant times.’

Rob Oldaker also has very fond memories, saying: ‘I had a very busy five years at MG Rover Group, but they were extremely rewarding ones. I also found our motor sport activities to be terrific. The business of trying to win at the weekend was very important to the company, with motor sport being a key engineering tool to help authenticate and benefit the road cars and their ongoing development. For example, our experience from entering the ZR in rallying was used to improve the castor angle and alter the front suspension on later road cars.’

Andy Smith enjoyed his role working with the Chassis Development Team, disclosing: ‘They were great times. There are always aspects of cars that more time and money could have improved, but I was generally happy with our results on this lot, except perhaps the ZR’s refinement, which was a bit agricultural, but it was a fun little car, which really was our goal.’

Peter Andrews is as equally enthusiastic about the MG projects, saying: ‘The Z-cars were a good part of my career.’

David Arbuckle said: ‘I have very fond memories of these cars, especially the ZT and ZT-T which were well-made cars, while the ZR was good fun. A lot of positive things happened in the early days of MG Rover Group.’

David Jones considers the Z-cars were crucial in creating an enhanced interest in MG, which itself was key to the company’s future prospects. He said: ‘We were very successful in translating the halo effect of motor sport through MG XPower onto the sales of road cars and the reputation for the MG brand as a whole. We tapped into a latent enthusiasm that reignited the passion for the MG brand as a whole. The brand was the true antidote to what was a very anodyne world… and [it] really did shake things up for the better.’

Saving our ‘Zed’ models

Today, the MG Z-cars are still finding a new legion of enthusiasts as affordable modern classics. However, if you want one then don’t hang around too long, as according to information provided by the MG Car Club, around 78% of examples originally registered with the DVLA are no longer registered as being on the road. These findings have led to the club launching a ‘Save our Zeds’ campaign in January 2019 which looks to highlight the alarming demise of these models, as well as promote them as a fun and affordable entry into MG ownership.

Rob concludes: ‘The teamwork and skills needed to bring the ‘Z’ car ranges to reality was pretty inspiring stuff and it was great to have worked with so many like-minded people who could see the opportunities and also have fun realising them. The reception at the press launches and on the race tracks was so gratifying after all the extremely rapid effort. It was a very rewarding time for me, especially when the press later presented us with various awards for our efforts.’

With so much commitment from those involved in creating the Z-cars as well as efforts by the MG scene to try and preserve existing examples, it is clear these models have had a major contribution in extending the appeal of the MG marque.

So why not join me in raising a class to 20 years of the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T and treasuring those examples that are still with us?

With thanks to Peter Andrews, David Arbuckle, John Batchelor, Chris Dewing, Stephen Fussell, David Jones, Kevin Jones, Andy Kitson, David Knowles, Alan Matthews, Rob Oldaker, the late John Stark, and Andy Smith for all their help for this article. Thanks also to the MG Car Club, the MG Rover Build Info website and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

MG Range, 2005

34 Comments

  1. One of the constant arguments in the heritage railway world is when does a preserved steam locomotive cease to be a preserved locomotive. When it has had a new boiler and firebox, the frames heavily repaired, etc, etc, how much is left of the original? At least it still looks – in general – how the original looked.

    Two current car brands are unrecognisable from their original models: Mini and MG. What moral justifications are there to put a Mini or MG badge on the present products?

    • Applying the MG badge to the current Chinese product is a bad joke but SAIC own the brand and morals don’t enter into it. MINI at least has a traceable line of descent dating back to the ARG days.

      • You could argue that with many brands over the years. Are Jaguar really an imbodyment of its history? Probably a very loose fit. It is the same in most parts or the economy these days.

  2. With the proposed 160 hp MG ZT 2-litre V6 in mind, instead of being limited to just the former would the ZS have benefited from featuring a 150-160 hp 2.0-litre V6 Manual between the ZS 1.8 120 and ZS 2.5 180 V6?

    For the ZT V8 / 75 V8, was not aware MG Rover originally wanted to use a GM LS Small Block V8 or evaluated the 3.5-litre Lotus V8 Twin-Turbo for possible use in naturally aspirated form. The former would have tied better via the Rover V8’s GM roots had GM agreed to supply the company compared to Ford, while the Lotus V8 proposal despite being more exotic and expensive would have at least harked back to the Rover V8 in terms of having roughly similar displacement.

  3. @Eric Hayman
    Slightly confusing argument there. Comparing a restored locomotive or vehicle to a company or brand is comparing apples and oranges. The vehicle is restored to preserve its original state as it is a historic item. A company is continually evolving, changing hands, releasing new line-ups (or not, in the case of the many that go bust).

    Great article anyway, if a little daunting in terms of length. May be better presented in multiple parts?

  4. It was a good idea to add MG branding, but it was poorly executed. Look at how BMW apply M Sport, Audi S Line and Mercedes AMG line. The Rover MG’s looked like they had been developed by Halfords by comparison.

  5. I agree the name game is bazaar. I have a 70 year old proper MG. According to a lot of Press, the new MG All Electric SUV is one of the best of its type. But are they connected in any way except that a Chinese company bought the name MG? Of course not. When I was in the furniture trade years ago, we had exactly the same thing. I went to three ‘closing down’ parties of household name furniture manufacturers – but someone, having closed the factories and fired everyone – bought the names. Now folks buy furniture because they know its good – mum had some. They are as connected as my MG and the Chinese one!
    Thank you for this great article though – and of course connection with the ‘octagon’ had much greater integrity in those days. If only we could have saved MG Rover 16 years ago. British people wanted to ‘go it alone’ through Brexit. Buying British is now getting ‘cooler’ and more respected. You can see where I’m going with this…….
    If the new Grenadier Defender lookalike was conceived in a pub by two enthusiasts, I know a nice little pub…..

    • Unfortunately that defender isn’t going to be built in Britain are all so I hear!

    • Well Vauxhall is soon going to have to ditch it’s ridiculous ‘British Brand since 1905’ slogan when Ellesmere Port stop producing Astras, and it becomes a Stellantis electric van production centre (not sure where that leaves Luton though)! All far removed from the superb article regarding the Zeds though, which just goes to show what a great job little MGR did to keep the doors open for a few more years. Small and mass market was never going to be profitable in the long term, but what character they had.

  6. Good article.

    ZR’s have got to be worth buying and putting away as investments for former millenial boy racers in the same way that 106/Saxo prices are on the up – the ZS has long been recognised as a great driver’s car and 75/ZT prices are also increasing.

    Interesting that in China SAIC has blown the dust off and is developing the XPower brand, eg 10 speed gearbox on MG6 LE PHEV even with lime green seatbelts…

    https://carnewschina.com/2021/07/19/mg-6-xpower-launched-today-limited-edition-performance-car-has-a-10-speed-gearbox/

    More photos at;

    https://www.autohome.com.cn/news/202107/1178264.html#pvareaid=102624

    I wonder if XPower derivatives will be seen over here to keep younger (cough, cough) MG enthusiasts happy…? Future return to BTCC anyone?

  7. I owned a 2003 / ZS+120 in X Power grey from 2006 till end 2008. One of my favourites. I am bemused that the ZS badge is now applied to the Chinese MG crossover.

    Most owners of these are probably unaware of the original MG Rover car that first carried the name.

    • @The Wolseley Man
      “Buying British is now getting ‘cooler’ and more respected.”
      Is it? Any examples?
      The Ineos Grenadier isn’t one as it will be built in France (and will cost the same as an actual Land Rover Defender, so is hardly a car of the people).

  8. “Let’s not beat about the bush here – MG Rover Group’s decision to create a range of sporting MG saloons, hatchbacks and an estate from the Rover models was undoubtedly a sound one.”

    I’m not so sure about that. The creation of the Z-cars certainly enhanced the brand equity of the MG marque but it also stripped the Rover brand of much of its remaining value. MG became more sporty and interesting while Rover became correspondingly more staid and unappealing.

    In order to sell cars in sufficient quantities, MG Rover Group needed to use both marques to their fullest potential, not just one of them.

    • @ Craig, the Z cars probably kept Rover alive for a few more years, but certainly not enough to keep the company viable. BMW and Ford took the best bits.

    • @Craig:

      This is a good point which definitely needs to be remembered, as sales of the Rover models were selling in larger numbers in most markets than their MG counterparts. Therefore, resources permitting, further enhancement of the Rover models was definitely needed to not only enhance brand equity, but also improve sales. However, it is unlikely this would have been enough to have prevented what happened to the company, unfortunately.

    • @ Glenn Aylett
      @ David3500

      You both appear to be implying that, by the year 2000, the Rover marque had lost so much of its value that the only option open to MG Rover Group when creating the Z-cars was to brand them as MGs. I disagree! I think the Rover marque still had sufficient brand equity and that MG Rover Group’s marketing strategy, which put the lion’s share of the company’s effort into the MG brand, was a mistake.

      The problem is that the creation of the Z-cars continued BMW’s flawed marketing strategy for the Rover marque which was that it should be a luxury-only brand with no sports pretensions. But luxury-only brands, in this sector of the market and in this day and age, fail because they are regarded as staid and unexciting. Reference how manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Ford succeed by combining luxury with sports characteristics under one marque.

      So while I think MG Rover Group was right to produce these performance cars, I think its marketing strategy for them was wrong. The Z-cars were derivatives of existing Rovers and therefore should not have been badged as MGs. This is because brand integrity is important to the buying public which wants to know that it is being sold an actual Rover or an actual MG – not a Rover that has been re-tuned, re-trimmed and hey-presto is now an MG. BMC and British Leyland demonstrated that such badge-engineering serves only to devalue a marque, depress sales and ultimately kill the business. Surely MG Rover Group’s management were aware of this.

      In my opinion, the Z-cars should have been integrated into the Rover range as sports derivatives of the 25, 45 and 75. The Rover marque already had a strong and recent track record of combining sports and luxury characteristics in the very desirable Rover Vitesse models of the 1980s and early 1990s so this was a proven and viable option. In such a way, the Rover marque could have been revitalised rather than left to wither on the vine with the consequence that sales were lost. By the same token, MG’s brand equity would have been enhanced by concentrating on its recent history of producing pure sports cars through its TF and SV models.

      • @Craig:

        I think you might have misinterpreted my views about the Rover brand from 2000 onwards, so I apologise if my views came across that way; I definitely did not look to imply it.

        As a Rover enthusiast (of the Rover brand itself rather than of the generic name informally applied to ‘the company’), I personally thought the creation of the MG Z cars to improve the equity of the MG brand beyond just a sole, single sports car was a good one. It was certainly a useful and quick strategy to use for trying to reduce the rate of sales decline of the company’s models in the short term. However, I agree – this should not have been at the expense of denying the Rover brand similar opportunities for product enrichment and creating coherent ‘halo’ offerings whose appeal would cascade down to the ‘lesser’ models in the Rover line-up. After all, this was the brand that had been most effected commercially by the fallout from the BMW ownership period and it was therefore important to have also put significant efforts into enhancing it in terms of new product actions, marketing strategies and brand management. Sadly this was not forthcoming.

        Delivering special editions such as the 25 and 45 ‘Impression’ and ‘Spirit’ based on value-for-money was not what was expected of the Rover brand and it did nothing to improve the equity of the brand, which incidentally, was actually the most important brand for MG Rover Group in terms of short- and medium-term vehicle sales. As you say, when you use another marque identity for labelling the performance variants of another brand’s models, it potentially has the problem of devaluing the kudos of the main brand, namely Rover. Did sales of the MG Z cars actually help sales or the public’s perception of the Rover’s offerings? Sadly, no, they didn’t.

        The only issues with the MG Z cars’ design and engineering specification was how extreme they were. The ride on the majority of them was extremely unforgiving (I regularly drive one) and the bold ‘in-yer-face’ styling not to everyone’s taste, therefore possibly being completely out of character with the values of a Rover, including its previous high performance-derivatives. Who knows, but with the right resources available and the same level of commitment to the Rover brand – as well as identifying a consistent use performance identity (whether existing or new) to be used – there was no reason why Rover could not have delivered its own take on high performance offerings with a ‘halo’ appeal, but with a distinctly different appeal to that of the MG Z cars. The stillborn 75 Design Theme was a nice starting point to have worked from, possibly aided by a more prominent grille design, such as that seen on the later 75 V8 – I’m sure such themes would have translated well across the 25, 45 and 75 models as well as further enhanced their appeal.

        Finally, many knockers of the Rover brand often look at it from solely the UK market perspective, although in reality outside of the home market the name does command a more appeal than many doubters realise.

        I hope this clarifies the initial points I was making.

    • MG was the only marque still owned by MGR though, with the Rover name being used under licence from BMW. They were maybe looking to a future that was only MG (a bit like now), as it was seen as being less tainted than Rover. It might have been different if the there were still current coupes and cabriolets in the Rover range, at the time. The Rover range then is a bit like the current MG is to me. Good value, efficient cars but not appealing to anybody less than middle aged or wanting something a bit sporty. That’s nothing to do with where they’re built or body styles, as you would probably now be buying a foreign built Rover crossover now anyway!

  9. The initial ZR, ZS and ZT were probably a success, though the RWD ZT I suspect cost far more in time and cost than it ever delivered in terms of revenue

    What did strike me was when the excellent article mentioned that MGR had only 300 engineers. Even with the external consultancies used, that’s an unsustainable level of resource to ever replace the core models, when you consider that JLR recently had 10000 at Gaydon and 6000 at Whitley, and struggle to keep up with their rivals

    At best the MGs did show what MGR could do with an existing model; if they had been bought by a larger manufacturer they could have been used as the basis of a performance brand, though probably more as a development works, rather than a manufacturer.

  10. Coming back to the actual article, the MG Zeds earned a lot of respect from journalists and the market. As though MG became the BMW M-range of the Rover group. And if a ‘proper’ MG is a ‘hot’ Morris then surely the Zeds can lay claim to being proper MGs.

    Interesting that the article discusses ‘sales peaks’. Not a concept commonly encountered on here but important to understand because car sales do generally peak in year 2 or 3 before declining. That’s why manufacturers tend to facelift their models to maintain interest around year 3 and replace with a new model after year 6 or so (see 3-series, Focus, Astra, Golf, MINI).

    Unfortunately for MG Rover all 3 of their base models we past their peak by 2004 and with no realistic prospect of replacement products or partner company falling sales were inevitably if unfortunately bound to finish the company.

  11. MG Rover was too small to survive on its own and the sales volumes were too low from its ageing line up. Shorn of Land Rover and the new Mini, the company was reliant on three models that were ageing and falling in popularity. By 2005, MG Rover only had 3% of the market, exports were minimal and there was no money to develop new cars. Also Project Drive had cheapened the cars and the lingering problem with HGF on some K series cars was another reason people weren’t buying.

  12. Excellent full sized article appreciated by those of us who can enjoy something requiring more than the attention span of a mayfly. This is most unusual in any form of publication today. Keep up the good work.

    • All the articles on here are interesting, informative and sometimes amusing, and the debates are good and reasoned. My favourite car site and fair play to Keith for keeping it going for 20 years.

  13. The Z cars showed what British engineers could achieve with 50p, a socket set and some plastic body kits. Sadly they also gave the owners time to asset strip and plunder the company.

    They were also the solution to a problem that shouldn’t have existed. Selling cars seen as old people’s cars in the 90’s was suicide. In some ways that is ridiculous. A real young person’s car is a 1litre minimum spec city car with no toys and minimal insurance costs. So the people buying Mondeo’s and 3 series were hardly young.

    Alas that didn’t matter, Rover’s old man image killed the company and the Z cars were a cheap attempt to fix that problem.

  14. An excellent article, thank you.

    My view is that the Z cars were a great success given the funding, resources and time available, along with the need to urgently bolster sales of the MGR range of cars. Z car sales shows that the idea was sound. They cleverly complemented the comfort bias of their Rover equivalents.

    As to badge engineering, did anyone ever complain about Ford sticking the famous Ghia badge onto tarted up models? No! Furthermore, did Ford get lambasted for creating S models of their cars by sticking on a bit of black trim, a few equipment upgrades and so on to crudely engineered leaf sprung cars? No!

    My only concern is that there should have also been a Rover 75 Vitesse halo model, a brute of a Rover that took its performance genetics from the SD1 TP Vitesse.

    Once again, I read above about Rover’s old man/middle age image, an often used phrase without any substance of detail. If Rovers were only attractive to people in this age range, then there are enough of them alive with money in their pockets to buy them. However, I’d like to understand what those who use the phrase actually mean.

    • @ Eamonn, some good points, but someone buying an Escort 1.3 Ghia would be buying a car with a similar level of equipment to a Granada Ghia for far less money. Also a Mark 2 Escort with metallic paint, vinyl roof and sports wheels always looked the part, far more than an Allegro HL. Always a fan of the Ghia badged Fords as they looked excellent inside. Mind you, the S badged Cortinas were a bit pointless and you paid a premium for a bit of black trim and a very slight improvement in performance.
      At the other end of the scale was the dreaded Popular trim, vinyl seats, rubber floor mats and a completely stripped out interior. Anyone desperate to have a new Escort or Fiesta bought these, or had a fleet manager with a sadistic sense of humour when a 1.1 Escort Popular arrived as a company car. Most buyers probably had the sense to buy an L, which added cloth sears, fitted carpets, a rear denister and cigar lighter.

      • I’m sorry , Glenn, but we shall have to differ : I wouldn’t have been seen dead in a Ghia badged Ford, which were monuments to bad taste in a way that only Ford could manage

        • @ christoperj storey, iI thought the Ghias looked quite good, like Ford trying to make owners of humble cars like Escorts feel special. OTOH the Popular spec, intended to evoke memories of the rock bottom Ford Popular from thirty years earlier, was typical of the sort of meanness Ford and Vauxhall specialised in for entry level models, not even a demister as standard and one sun visor. I think the Popular and E spec( later ES) on Vauxhall Chevettes also made people want to shell out a bit more for an L just to escape the horrid vinyl seats.

          • Vauxhall also ran with the Viva E (for economy) in 1976 onwards. It was a renamed Viva base model with the letter E stuck on its boot. At the same time there was the L & GLS trim Viva’s and Magnums – much better.

        • Were Ghia badged Fords not just employing the same sales technique as Rover did from the mid-‘80s onwards?; take a conventionally engineered and cheap to run car and add a few bells and whistles and “fancy” touches to make them more appealing. The apex of this sales tactic was arguably the chrome-grilled R8 range, which served Rover well in terms of sales.

          Each to their own, and I can see how this diluted the engineering and styling purity of the original designs. The car buying public seemed to like it though. At least those with disposable income to buy a car at least (so usually middle aged buyers).

          • @ John Shuttleworth, Ford knew wood, chrome and vinyl roofs made buyers feel special and someone in an Escort or Cortina Ghia thought they were inside a much more expensive car. Also the Ghia badges inside and out told other motorists someone was quite affluent or had moved up the company car ranks. Then there was the premium on these cars when they were sold used, as they also came with extras like tinted glass and fitted radios that were optional or not available further down the range. Ford were on to a winner with the Ghia trim level and it lasted over 30 years.
            OTOH this did hide some quite dull and ageing technology in the Cortina, which was found wanting when far better rivals like the second generation Cavalier and Volkswagen Passat was launched.

      • @ Glenn… I know what you mean. My friends first car was a MK2 Escort 1.1 Pop. I nearly bought an Escort MK1 for my second car in 1976 but was lucky enough to afford a Viva X14, HC which was better trimmed.

        I agree the Ghia badged Ford’s were well equipped and looked the part with extra chrome and wood interiors. The MKIV Cortina Ghia was an aspirational car for me.

  15. Having first owned an HHR Rover 414, that encouraged me to buy a newer R45 Olympic S that I also enjoyed. After that I felt the need for a more sporty looking & performing car. The fully color coded MG ZS 1.8 fitted the bill and I found it to be a much better handling car than the Rover’s.

    Perhaps not quite as comfortable but the half leather sports seats were nice. Wish I had kept it longer but re-sale values had dropped so couldn’t put off for long. Good memories of all three cars though.

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