MG Rover wanted to form alliances with other industry players, but no one could have predicted a tie-up with failed Italian supercar builder, Qvale Modena SpA.
However, in 2001, that’s what happened, and work soon started on producing a re-styled version of the Mangusta – and, with it, plans were hatched for the revival of MG’s sports car credentials. Here, then, is the story of the MG XPower SV…
MG XPower SV: Wonderful irrelevance
The MG XPower SV was launched amid much ballyhoo during the 2002 Birmingham Motor Show – and proved once and for all that MG Rover very much harboured the ambition to change the MG marque’s image from one of the producer of saloon-based roadsters and tuned -up Rovers, to that of an ‘extreme’ manufacturer of bespoke supercars. The SV was a very interesting car, which was placed into a unique niche within the supercar market by MG Rover. It was more raw than a Ferrari, more aggressive than a TVR, and certainly more exclusive than a Porsche.
Whether this niche was too small, or even existent, is open to conjecture, but its eventual sales performance indicated buyers didn’t fall for its charms. At the time of its launch, things had seemed so different. MG Rover received 27 confirmed orders for the car at Birmingham, and that, the company said, proved there were a number of buyers who bought in to the XPower SV. At the exhibition the vehicles were presented in an exclusive manner with fancy protection covers and polished paint.
An Italian affair
The MG XPower SV was one of those cars that proved the automotive industry might be comprised of many different companies and countless individuals, but it is still a very small world. The genealogy of the SV is a very interesting one indeed and it certainly bears recounting in these pages.
Back in 1996, DeTomaso (the company that bought Innocenti from BLMC in 1975, remember?) launched its Biguà prototype at the Geneva Motor Show – the intention of the company was to productionise this car for worldwide consumption, and replace the fabled Pantera in the affections of supercar buyers. With this in mind, and like the Pantera and all other production models before it (except the Vallelunga), the Mangusta was designed around an American power unit – this time, the 4.6-litre Mustang V8 – and conceived to pass the stringent safety standards laid down by the American legislators. Body styling was somewhat unique – some would say ugly – but, as the Biguà was penned by Marcello Gandini (also responsible for the Innocenti 90/120), its credentials were still considered to be impeccable.
However, the cost of turning the motor show prototype into production reality would prove to be a huge financial burden for the tiny Italian company – one which would require outside financial assistance. That is where Kjell Qvale (pronounced ‘shell ker-vah-lee’) enters into the story of the XPower SV: Qvale had something of a chequered history – his involvement in the automotive industry originated in 1947 when he set up shop importing MGs on the West Coast of America. This lucrative business soon expanded and was renamed British Motor Car Distributors (BMCD). The company eventually became the US importer for Bentley, Jaguar, Lotus and Rolls-Royce. Qvale spotted the potential of the VW Beetle and began importing these into the US before anyone else, back in 1953. BMCD had also proven to be very successful at importing and distributing specialist British cars and, as a result, British Leyland awarded the company the official franchise to handle all their products.
It was at this time that Qvale began its long-standing relationship with Italian manufacturer, De Tomaso, commencing imports of its products into the USA.
By 1970, Kjell Qvale had begun his first flirtation with the manufacturing business buying out the troubled Jensen company – and, after two years under his ownership, the Jensen-Healey made its appearance on the market. This was a car that had all the ingredients to succeed, but for many documented reasons, most notably lack of reliability, this sure fire hit never happened for the company, and it went bust in 1976. However, Qvale continued in the import business and also retained a presence in the UK with the formation of International Motors Limited, the importer for Subaru and, for a time, Hyundai.
Manufacturing was always unfinished business for Qvale and, when De Tomaso presented the Biguà concept at the Geneva Motor Show in 1996 but was unable to fund the development of a production version of the car, he saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help shape the new car for the US market. Thanks to their long-standing relationship, Qvale Auto Group provided De Tomaso with the funding required to complete the development of the car with the agreement that the final product would be sold under the De Tomaso brand, as the De Tomaso Mangusta. However, in the event, the agreement between the two companies foundered over distribution and licensing issues and, in 1997, Qvale Auto Group established an Italian subsidiary, Qvale Modena SpA, to manufacture and market the model as the Qvale Mangusta. Qvale Auto Group reportedly invested over US$30 million in the project and Kjell Qvale’s son, Bruce, was put in charge of the operation.
From Modena to Birmingham
The first Mangusta left the production line on 10 November 1999, but sadly it would prove to be a short-lived venture, as customer demand for the odd-looking car proved almost non-existent – a total of 284 (including a number wearing the De Tomaso badge) were produced and sold before the newly-created MG Rover Group Limited, which was harbouring ambitions to expand its own performance car range and move upmarket from the MGF, acquired the assets of Qvale Modena SpA on 19 June 2001 for the sum of £7 million – the struggle was over for Qvale, but the gain for MG Rover was immense.
However, the Modena factory remained open pending an announcement about MG Rover’s future plans for the facility. Bruce Qvale made an optimistic statement, reflecting the fact that their fledgling company was always going to struggle in this most image conscious of markets: ‘This transaction benefits both companies, because it combines the design and engineering strengths of the Qvale Mangusta project with the financial resources, brand recognition and production expertise of the MG Rover Group.’
In one fell swoop, MG Rover had picked up a fully-developed, front-engined sports car, that had been fully homologated for the US market. Essentially, the purchase of Qvale Modena SpA saved MG Rover some three years of development time and gave the company a car to sell in the USA.
The design was soon shipped back to England, and Peter Stevens’ Styling Studio launched into designing a new set of clothes for the Mangusta – a style that would not only be unmistakably MG, but also make a statement of intent about where the company was going. There were, of course, compromises inherent with adopting an existing floorpan, not least those of maintaining scuttle height, width and crash structures. This was because there would be much less homologation involved in introducing the car if its structure stayed with that already type-approved.
Restyle to success?
And so it was: the X80 was swiftly styled around the Mangusta’s skeleton and, on 11 September 2001, the concept was officially unveiled to the press at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The time span between MG Rover purchasing Qvale Modena SpA to the announcement of the new car was a mere three months – an astonishing achievement, even if all of the engineering work was in place already. Stevens may have rushed to get the design out on time (and thereby upstaged the Germans at their own motor show), but it looked very good, and created a huge amount of interest. Stevens, ever the perfectionist, felt that the final product would look somewhat different to the initial X80 prototype, as there were several aspects of the design that he was less than entirely satisfied with. Not only that, but the press did not give the car an unconditional thumbs up.
There were also questions to be raised about MG Rover’s business plans for the car. The initial idea was to produce an aluminium-bodied version of the car at the rate of about 10,000 per year at Longbridge – a Brummie XK-R rival if you like – but it soon became apparent that, given the lukewarm reception which the car received at the hands of a largely sympathetic press, this was an unattainable dream.
Stevens takes X80 in hand
Stevens went back to Longbridge to re-design the car – and MG Rover re-evaluated its plans (see the Aria gallery for one styling option that was turned down). Fundamentally, the X80 package was a good one, and one that the company had no intention of abandoning. The first change to the business plan was to move the project out of the mainstream business of the company, handing it over to the MG Sports and Racing division. A new company was formed called MG X80 Limited, and Peter Stevens was made the Managing Director. This was absolutely the right thing to do, given Stevens’ credentials as a hard-core car enthusiast, and his pedigree of designing the right packages for the right time – one only needs to look at the McLaren F1 and the 1987 Lotus Esprit to appreciate that he deeply understood fast cars.
The re-design of the car was quite comprehensive, and Stevens made it quite clear that he intended the X80 to be used as a racer, and not a cruiser. MG Rover certainly backed him in his thinking; a fact reflected by Stevens himself who said, ‘By February 2002, the project was well advanced. X80 as you saw it was going to be a fine motorcar. But at board level we realised that it did not push forward the boundaries of what we feel MG stands for. The MG XPower SV will, like all our MG models, extend our expected performance envelope and break the established rules. But it will also have impeccable road manners. As our Chief Engineer, Giordano Casarini would say: “the car will aggress you!”‘
It was interesting that Stevens should mention Giordano Casarini at the launch of the XPower SV, because the Italian would have a great deal of influence on the development of the car’s dynamics. Significantly, he had been involved with the car right from the beginning of its life, when it was a De Tomaso. He had followed the car when Qvale took it over, and remained with it when MG Rover bought out the company. Speaking to Autocar magazine in 2002, Casarini emphasized that he admired Stevens’ commitment, whilst approving of the direction that his company was taking the X80: ‘I was unaware of Stevens, he lived in a different world until I went to MG… I’ve worked with a lot of Designers, Gandini and others, but Stevens knows more than any of them. It is good to know that the person you are working with knows what he is doing.’
And that he did…
The development of the car continued apace and, although it seemed to the outside world that the whole X80 project had died a peaceful death, the car was in fact undergoing a radical overhaul. The motoring public only became aware of the X80’s continued development when Autocar magazine published a scoop photo of a pre-production prototype undergoing speed trials. The car in this form looked exciting, and revealed that there was much behind the scenes work going into the way the car looked. Styling changes owed much to airflow management, but it is fair to say that the changes were just as much about attitude.
As well as this, the X80 was treated to a weight reduction programme that encompassed replacing the plastic panels previously used with carbon fibre – knocking over 100kg off the total weight of the body in white. The range of engines used became a much more open topic for discussion: previously, MG Rover had announced that the X80 would use 265 and 385bhp versions of the quad-cam Mustang engine – but, once the car became the responsibility of X80 Limited, and it became a more focused road and track racer’s tool, a deal was done with Roush tuning, so that the car could be sold in any state of tune desired by the customer.
A glamorous launch
Finally, the X80 – now known as the XPower SV – was revealed to the press on 22 October 2002 and, because of the sheer boldness of the design and the breadth of changes in just one year, it managed to startle most of those present. That was the beginning of it – in the speech which Peter Stevens gave at the launch of the car, he spoke about the performance and power as if they were qualities back in fashion. A refreshing change, it has to be said: ‘It is certainly performance orientated with its V8 engine producing 465bhp. 0–60mph (100km/h) will take just 4.2 seconds. Rumours in the press suggest a 200mph top speed. That’s true!’ A proud proclamation to make! He added, ‘Horsepower will start at 326, but customers will be able to specify the amount of power they want – although we may limit that to around 965bhp!’
This upper power limit was reined-in by the time of its on-sale date – November 2003 – but, even so, MGR was keen to link it with the record winning ZT-T that clocked 225mph at Bonneville: ‘Customers can also specify the engine from the 225 mph MG ZT-T Bonneville rated at 765bhp (and beyond if required) which will give top speeds of well over 200 mph and suitably electrifying acceleration.’
Peter Robinson of Autocar magazine managed to ride shotgun with Giordano Casarini, and had this to say of the handling: ‘…it’s easy enough to discern an almost total lack of roll, dive or squat. In this regard, the MG feels remarkably well sorted.’ However, it was not until 2004 that the press managed to bag drives of the definitive production version.
The Geneva Motor Show of 2004 marked the launch of the second phase in the SV production cycle, with the launch of the uprated SV-R version. If the 320bhp of the original version was a little bit tame, the ‘R’ could prove to be the ideal antidote, with a more healthy 410bhp output. This extra performance was extracted through the use of an XPower version of the all-aluminium, 32-valve, double-overhead camshaft V8 engine. Built in conjunction with V8 tuning specialist Sean Hyland, the car’s performance was given an appreciable lift: acceleration from 0-60mph, came in at less than five seconds with a top speed of ‘around 175mph’. Modifications to the braking system (larger Brembo discs) and a larger wheel/tyre combination meant that the extra performance was properly harnessed.
On the road… to ruin
Autocar magazine loved the car – but not without reservations. Richard Bremner praised the chassis: ‘No question – MG Rover’s Sport and Racing division has done its work on the SV’s chassis. Around Brands Hatch it’s grippy, steers with precision and it’s damping not only controls the body with the vigour of an over-zealous traffic cop, but allows the springs to mop up bumps too. So a chassis that has been optimised towards road use proves more than man enough for a work-out on the track – something the SV has in common with lesser MGs. All of which means its neutral balance can be indulged to satisfying effect, especially since the brakes shed speed with great efficiency.’
Sadly, Autocar reported one or two brickbats about build quality, and questioned its price in the face of talented rivals from TVR and Noble. No-one, including the magazine, would ever accuse MGR of lacking bravery for putting it into production, though…
Those opinions changed after April 2005, when MG Rover, then MG Sport and Racing went into administration. Soon the accusations came: why build a supercar, when the company needed a 45 replacement? What were they thinking of? Speaking to the creator of the MG EX-E concept car of the 1980s, Roy Axe, the company had gone through a similar decision-making process (and come to a different conclusion) in the past. He said: ‘The EX-E was developed by Spen King and BL Technology into a car that could have been put into production, and many of us wanted to see it appear. Sadly, Harold Musgrove realised that supercars weren’t what MG was about – correctly concluding there wouldn’t be a market for it.’
He added: ‘I’m surprised the decision-making process didn’t come to the same conclusion this time around with the XPower SV.’
MG Rover’s doubters may have felt the XPower SV was a frivolous thing – something remote from the business of building family cars, but it did show real imagination (some would say stupidity) by the company’s management. Despite being re-appraised as a production prospect once under the auspices of MG Sport and Racing (production volumes were dropped, and the price raised accordingly), the XPower SV didn’t seem to find a natural home in the market place.
MG Sport and Racing didn’t own the Modenese factory in which the XPower SV was built – it leased the facility and its workers were from Italian chassis builders Vaccari & Bosi. The carbon fibre bodies were made by OPAC in Turin, the chassis originated from another of Vaccari & Bosi’s factories South of Modena, and the engines were supplied by Ford in North America. The finished cars were then shipped back to England for final painting and fettling. In all, it was an efficient little operation, and the plan was to build between 120 and 130 cars per year over the SV’s four-year model life.
There was a bullishness from within the company about its chances of success. The car’s DNA ticked all the right supercar boxes, and it had a sheer drop dead gorgeousness (though not all loved it). Few wondered how it could fail. Ex-F1 driver Mark Blundell seemed to think so, commenting at the launch: ‘The MG XPower SV is aggressive and raw, and at the same time stylish and refined. I have driven many of the world’s top sports cars and this car is in the same league. From the unique sound of the exhaust to the precision steering the MG XPower SV has all the qualities I look for in a sports car.’
However, perceptions soon changed when the prices were revealed. Make no mistake, this was an expensive car.
The final list price for the entry-level 320bhp version was set at £65,000 with the SV-R rising to £82,950, and that put the untried MG up against some very effective machinery indeed. It looked good enough on paper – and the those who drove it say the chassis is up to the challenge… However, it’s range of abilities was patchy to say the least – with reports of poor build quality and unreliability in the press cars rapidly circulating.
Did MGR get the message across? After all, the XPower SV may have cost similar money to a Porsche 911, but it did offer the USP of a ‘genuine racer for the road’ thanks to its carbon-fibre construction. In the end, it seems buyers didn’t really care – with perhaps nine or ten finding homes. Such a shame…
Thanks to Steve Cropley for permission to use Autocar’s picture at the top of the page.