Words and pictures: Keith Adams
NAC MG UK’s Sales and Marketing Director, Gary Hagen, in the Visitors’ Centre at Longbridge
Wander around Longbridge today and the first thing that strikes you is the emptiness – we’re currently sitting in the Visitors’ Centre, once the home to MG Rover Direct and, before that a place where deals were done but, apart from a small selection of MG’s back catalogue, the place is deserted. You cough, it echoes – and that’s not a vibe you’d expect to pick up at the headquarters of a company that’s pressing the re-launch button within earshot of anyone still listening.
Indeed, rolling into Longbridge these days is a strange and slightly haunting experience for anyone who’s been there before. Considering the place used to produce well over 100,000 cars a year, the first thing that strikes you – well, it hits you like a medicine ball in the solar plexus, really – is just how quiet everywhere is. All still a bit 28 Days Later.
It’s a strange backdrop for our meeting with NAC MG UK’s Sales and Marketing Director, Gary Hagen, but one which seems fitting for so many reasons.
Longbridge: Gateway to Europe
TFs are coming off the line now but are occupying only a tiny amount of Longbridge’s capacity – new models won’t put a strain on the factory and there’s plenty of evidence that preparations are well underway for higher volume production runs.
‘Longbridge is NAC MG’s gateway to the West and to be making cars for the English-speaking market certainly makes sense for us,” Hagen says. ‘Right now, if anything, the financial case for building cars here is better than it has ever been – with the price of fuel being what it is, the cost of shipping cars from China has become a very real factor.”
Hagen’s understandably cagey about the Future Product Programme, though, and, while building the next generation of MGs at Longbridge is definitely being planned for right now, the picture he paints is still composed of broad strokes. After years of broken dreams and failed promises, Hagen’s brand of measured realism is perhaps what’s needed in order to retain some perspective.
|The TF LE500 is just the beginning – a way of getting MG back into the marketplace…|
With an automotive industry background spanning 17 years in the USA working for companies as diverse as Ford, Volvo, Mazda and Lotus, the American is most definitely a pragmatist. ‘Two years ago, I was involved in negotiations between NAC and Oklahoma Global Motors LLC – the deal fell through but I was asked to stay on in the UK as part of the team. What I saw was a unique opportunity not only to re-launch a brand but also to work closely with the Chinese,” he said.
Perhaps that’s the case, but enthusiasts have grown impatient with the lack of information that’s flowed out of NAC MG, especially in China, in the past couple of years, while the media have done their best to hype up the situation.
New cars are coming
Next MG will be a mid-sized saloon, based on the Roewe 550.
‘Oh, there are new cars planned,” Hagen said in response to the question. ‘The TF LE500 is just the beginning – a way of getting MG back into the marketplace.” It seemed fitting that we were sitting near an RV8 – a car that previewed the launch of the MGF in 1995. ‘Late next year we’ll see a revised TF and continue to see the Mazda MX-5 as its principal rival.”
An insider has already confirmed to AROnline that, riding on the TF’s platform but with further chassis tweaks, the new roadster will be dynamically very capable indeed and has already impressed in testing. Featuring new front- and rear-ends, as well as a much needed new dashboard and revised seating position, the new car will priced ‘competitively’.
‘We’re planning a four-car range of MGs – first to arrive will be a mid-sized saloon sharing its platform with the Roewe 550. The planned introduction for this car is late 2010 and, looking at today’s marketplace, I see the main opposition as being the Mazda 6,” he added.
‘After that, there will be a C-segment compact and a B-segment supermini – and, no, that won’t be the MG3 SW, which has been a major success for us in China. Clearly, we have the capacity to build these cars in Longbridge and the Chinese are keen for this to happen.” The enthusiasm for MG’s re-launch is clear to see in Hagen’s answers and he countered press criticism of an apparent lack of activity at Longbridge robustly.
|We’re planning a four-car range of MGs – first to arrive will be a mid-sized saloon sharing its platform with the Roewe 550. The planned introduction for this car is
‘When NAC came to Longbridge, there was nothing – no other company was seriously interested and we’ve had to start from scratch. This is effectively a new company and we’re being realistic with our goals.”
Hagen also took the opportunity to clarify what some commentators have interpreted as a measure of confusion concerning NAC MG UK’s likely markets. ‘We’re starting with the UK and Ireland and, once we’re up to speed, we will be pushing to sell in Europe. The USA isn’t on the short-term radar as an anticipated market for us but, with the right product, it would be good to return there.” The American market’s probably the toughest in the world to conquer and MG needs to play any strategy very carefully indeed – Hagen’s all too aware of past failures.
Here in the UK, the Dealer Network continues to take shape. Hagen says: ‘We are targeting smaller owner-driven dealerships – the kind that are family-run and have a loyal clientele – and will adopt this strategy for the foreseeable future. 70 per cent of the dealers to have committed to the MG franchise to date were formerly MG Rover dealers. We need dealers who can offer a specific MG branded area and who will be able to allocate two dedicated staff members to the MG franchise: one for sales and one for aftersales.
‘Having said that, start-up costs for new dealers are low (less than £20,000 all-in) and, although we set these conditions, we see it as an investment in the future. We may only have TF LE500 to sell now, but soon there will be new models to sell as well.”
Marketing has never been an issue for MG – considering its tiny production volumes, there can’t be many members of the car buying public who aren’t aware of the return of the TF thanks to the huge amount of media coverage. Hagen adds: ‘We’re saying ‘judge us on our product’.”
Hagen: ‘We definitely need to get back into racing,”
According to Hagen, MG’s core values are simpler to nail – affordable, sporty and fun to drive being qualities that readily spring to mind and so, with those key attributes in the marketing team’s minds, it’s no surprise to see Alfa Romeo, Mazda and SEAT as the OEMs which the Chinese most closely want to match with NAC MG UK.
All three brands have as an enthusiastic following as MG’s but they all also have either a lengthy historical or current involvement in Motor Racing. ‘We definitely need to get back into racing,” Hagen countered. ‘Ideally, sooner rather than later, too. We’re already having an ongoing dialogue with at least two interested parties.” AROnline reckons that, given MG’s still recent association with Touring Cars, a return to the British Touring Car Championship or even a move into the World Touring Car Championship might be on the cards.
Overall, Hagen’s stance was upbeat but tempered with a dose of realism. If, as he claims, MG has been rebooted into a new beginning, then the emptiness of Longbridge is merely the calm before a slow-burning storm takes hold. The overriding impression one picks up from NAC MG UK’s Sales and Marketing Director is that the Chinese know exactly what MG is all about and that Longbridge will have an absolutely essential role to play in their plans for the long-promised rebirth. We’re tempted to conclude that, given the right economic conditions, full-scale production will return to Longbridge and look forward to seeing how the plans develop from next year.
AROnline believes that, on balance, MG enthusiasts can, with some justification, be quietly confident about the renaissance of the MG marque.
Better late than never…