MG Rover and Matra? Now there’s a winning combination, and one not as outlandish as it seems. Briefly, the two companies considered joining forces to build a Rover-badged version of the Renault Espace Mk3.
Keith Adams tells the tale, and the follow-on that briefly had MG Rover considering building a rather different CityRover…
The strange story of how MG Rover almost won the Espace
Back in 2000, MG Rover’s management was in a terrible pickle – ‘gifted’ a £500m dowry – which amounted to three months’ turnover – from former owners, BMW, a range of aging saloons, a roadster and a crumbling factory badly in need of investment, things were looking bleak no matter how positive a spin could be put on the situation.
Although the return of MG Z-cars was a welcome addition to the MG Rover range, what was really needed were genuinely new and exciting products – the sort of niche cars that small producers like MG Rover could turn their hand to more easily than the volume sized opposition.
Niche cars couldn’t be conjured up from thin air, though, even with what remained of Rover’s talented engineering team – but, luckily, the solution was readily at hand: look for new partners. It didn’t take long for MG Rover to come up with Matra as a potential bedfellow – the innovative French company was about to part company with Renault and needed to find another company to work with if it wasn’t to go under.
MG Rover’s desire to build an MPV explored
This time, the deal was to have been struck between MG Rover and Matra over the production of the Matra-built Espace Gen III, which had recently been phased out by Renault. When Renault developed its own Espace replacement, Matra looked for a partnership with another car maker and approached Rover (the only major carmaker not to have an MPV in its model portfolio by this time).
Matra submitted design and engineering proposals for a Rover MPV. MG Rover conducted negotiations with Matra, as the French company possessed the sole rights to the platform, which it designed and produced for Renault.
According to an informed source, MG Rover was ‘ninety per cent’ of the way to signing a deal with Matra to build a rebadged and lightly revised version of the previous Espace. Technically, it would have been simple for MG Rover to make the car look like its own as, the old Espace understructure was relatively easy to restyle given the fact that the panels were not load bearing. The plan advanced as far as devising an engine strategy, which revolved around the usage of Peugeot diesel engines and the KV6 engine.
MG Rover and Matra couldn’t agree terms
The promising plan went sour when MG Rover and Matra could not agree on production volumes. Matra was hoping to achieve something like 100,000 units over five years, whereas MG Rover were being more realistic, by projecting half that. There were also the potential implications of using the KV6 engine, as it was more expensive than the Renault V6 that had been used in Matra’s own costings.
MG Rover was perhaps being pessimistic, but given its patchy European dealer network and non-existent image in some European countries, it paid to err on the side of caution. There was also the important issue of funding: MG Rover was of limited means and the Matra project would have taken resources away from important future models…
The plan would have not been without merit though, as the previous generation (Matra) Espace was still a mightily competent machine at the time, even at the end of its life. In many ways, it was a superior car to its Renault-designed replacement.
Moving on from the Espace to the M72
Another product that MG Rover briefly looked at was the fascinating Matra M72 – a car designed to fill a specific niche in the French market. The sub-350kg car, which bears a passing resemblance to the Lotus 340R, was designed to fit in with legislation that allowed 16-year olds to drive cars, as long as they fell within that weight limit, and its engine produced less than 20bhp.
Although these cars aren’t popular outside of France, the higher powered (50bhp-plus) versions of this radical vehicle were considered to have some potential… and it was with this in mind that MG Rover began to talk to Matra about a possible deal.
The open-wheeled prototype was production-ready, and could have hit the streets by 2003 – and this was where MG Rover would come in. It could supply the finances to get the project up and running in term for a sales deal – one that would have been similar to that discussed with the Gen III Espace. The car itself definitely had some potential – and MG Rover coined the name CityRover with this car in mind, although just how far discussions about this project went, we’re still not sure.
Could it have been an alternative CityRover?
However, what we do know is that, with a predicted on sale date of mid-2003 and pricing of around £5500 for the 50bhp version, the motorcycle engine powered CityRover would have been aimed at a small market niche, but one that could have been pretty profitable given Matra’s expertise in the field and the potential future demand for city cars designed specifically for commuting.
In the end, negotiations between MG Rover and Matra floundered in the Autumn of 2001. Matra, which had been very keen on the deal, did try very hard to make it happen but, in the end, the companies could not quite clear the final furlong. This breakdown in the talks resulted in the entire Espace Mk3 production line was being closed, as no other buyer for the car could be found. Incidentally, the loss of the Renault Avantime (which had been cancelled due to unsustainable sales volumes) could have had a knock-on effect on the Rover MPV, had the plan had gone ahead.
For more information about the M72, visit Lennart Sorth’s excellent Matrasport website.