Blog : 20 years of MG Rover

David Morgan looks back to May 2000 when the remains of the Rover Group were sold by BMW to the Phoenix Consortium for a token £10 and MG Rover was created – and explains why he still admires the efforts of the company’s employees in the battle for survival.

John Towers

Cast your mind back to 9 May 2000 and you might just remember the images of four smartly-dressed men led by John Towers (above) in a Moonstone-coloured Rover 75 2.0-litre V6 Club driving through the Longbridge assembly plant’s Q Gate to a heroes’ welcome. And to all intents and purposes it was a time for celebration, as the deal to save more than 6000 jobs at one of the West Midland’s largest employers had been pulled off. It had also shown that the perseverance of David (namely Rover) had overcome the might of Goliath, in the form of the BMW Group, in an increasingly globalised world.

As someone who loves to see the underdog trying to overcome adversity, I was genuinely impressed. Could the soap opera that Longbridge had become in automotive circles finally be free of the proverbial shackles it had been wearing for decades, I wondered? Was it finally able to tread the path it actually wanted to go down on its own free will? Who knows, perhaps there would even an opportunity to engage in talks with other manufacturers which were less overprotective than either BMW or Honda had been. Lovely ideas, even if they were perhaps bordering more on the realms of fantasy than hard-nosed reality.

However, there was no doubting the level of optimism and goodwill that existed within the Longbridge workforce. To keep this message of confidence about being truly independent in momentum, the press office were soon whetting journalists’ appetites with new product releases to fill editorial space. In those early days, the most notable offering was the new estate version of the Rover 75 (below). Could a practical estate really look more handsome than an elegant saloon? In my eyes, yes, it can. I found that I suddenly had a liking for estates.

Fast forward to early 2001 and you really saw a new level of slickness and determination when the company invited journalists to Longbridge for the reveal of the new MG ‘Zed’ saloons (below). Rather like when Crossroads returned to our screens in March 2001 and delivered a more polished transition between scenes and different storylines compared to the stale Gabrielle Drake era, MG Rover Group’s efforts were in overdrive.

The cars themselves were appealing, too. Engaging to drive and with body styling to appeal to the ‘yoof’ brigade, the MG’s were like chalk to the Rover brand’s more elegant and luxurious Double Gloucester. It was a clever (and relatively low cost) strategy in terms of engineering and marketing.

Sales of the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T helped reduce the decline in annual sales of models which had already exceeded their natural sales peak. What they didn’t do, despite popular belief, and according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ data, was outsell the Rover offerings in the full like-for-like sales years. Until, that is, during the last six months of the company’s trading when the MG ZR suddenly became the company’s biggest seller.

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

Sadly, as we all know, the sentiment of supporting the underdog would be short-lived among the press and wider public. Stories eventually started emerging about the financial remuneration package of the four Directors who had saved Longbridge from certain closure. One Sunday newspaper, it seemed, had a constant pipeline of news coming out of Longbridge to the extent that barely a week went by without a headline news story about the company’s Directors or its continuing trading losses.

Here was a saga that wasn’t going away. We were now transfixed more by coverage about the corporate workings of Longbridge’s latest custodians than the romantic notion of cars coming off an assembly line helping to reinforce the once proud ‘made in Britain’ message and supporting British jobs. The reputational damage was immense…

There were, of course, numerous other factors at play which led to the collapse of ‘our’ car company in April 2005. Most were based on simple macro-economic principles, others linked to known of reliability issues which undermined customer confidence and a few related to obvious legacy influences that could only be overcome in the long term and with serious investment. If you wanted even more spice in the recipe, then every man in his armchair who didn’t work at Longbridge had a story ‘from the shop floor’ to tell. Take your pick on which route you trust.

Lions led by donkeys

That said, one thing I have never been in any doubt over was the immense efforts made by MG Rover Group’s employees over that period (and before then too). Looking back at the article I penned for AROnline in 2015, I’d already forgotten about some of the projects and research programmes employees were involved in to help give the company a reasonable chance of survival. Even now, I still have nothing but respect for their determination and commitment to the cause.

The world has moved on from the MG Rover Group era and globalisation has become even more intense in relation to corporate survival and job security. But amidst the daily congestion comprising of newer generations of car designs with an increasingly homogenous appearance, there are still a surprising amount of Longbridge-built Rovers and MGs doing their daily trundle. And, yes, my heart still warms to their ongoing survival and a big smile of appreciation never fails to creep across my face.

Sadly, though, that surviving MG Rover car parc doesn’t include the symbolic Moonstone Rover 75 2.0-litre V6 Club which signalled the beginning (and end) of independence – its MoT expired in 2011.

John Towers MG Rover May 2000

18 Comments

  1. Wonderful cars. My wife has a 2003 Moonstone Green Tourer CDTI & loves it. My Connoisseur SE V8 Saloon is a total delight. Having had it adapted to LPG 4 years ago [ a well-fitted & brilliant, Italian “Zavoli” system ] it’s now affordable to run – returning, would you believe, the equivalent of 40 MPG with no noticeable loss of power. Wonderful cars.

  2. I have had a driving licence since 1981, both cars and motorbikes, in the late 80s I was commuting on a bevel drive Ducati, which required in around the 30K I did on it 2 roadside retrievers by the AA. That was the least reliable form of transport I ever had, and I have owned Talnot, Peugeot, Volvo, Alfa, Abarth and Mini until I bought a brand new MG ZT 260 in Jan 2004.

    I did only 25K in 3 years on that car, principally because it spent in total 8 months off the road being fixed and accumulated 6 roadside recoveries.Supposedly to appease my grumpiness the car went back to Longbridge to be fettled my the team that did the press cars. Apparently it was just fine, it still had a gearbox rattle at 3000 rev but apparently they all did that, the man at Longbridge said. However after MG Rover went bust an independent Rover dealer found the gearbox bell housing was not been torqued up correctly and it no longer did rattle.

    I wished them well and wanted to support British business, but unlike the Alfa 159 that followed it, I never missed my ZT260 when I handed it back in 2006, I am sure the finance company took an eye watering loss on the residual.

    So my view, as a customer, was Donkeys led by Opportunists however I would add to that Towers and his merry men were handed the keys by the Politicians who wanted to cover up their part in causing BMW to pull out.

  3. I have owned 2 zs 180 covering 10 year’s mk1 and currently got a mk2 zs 180 hatchback had this one 8 years . The absolute best cars i have ever driven. VERY underrated cars , yes they do have issues but so does every car . Cheap easy fixes . Love messing with my zs . Never sell it

  4. Think you for this excellent piece – I can never get enough of reading about the end of MG Rover – still trying to get my head around the facts and the fiction.
    The K series engine killed my beautiful Rover 75 3 years ago within weeks of owning it. I will still have another one – but a V6. Just on looks alone they are maginificent in an age of the bland and mundane. The driving experience was superb without the harsh ride of today’s crashy suspensions and harsh plastic interiors.

  5. Before the collapse of MGR, I remember seeing images on their website of Rover 75’s in two tone colour Monogram schemes as options. They included light & dark blue metallics, BRG & silver, black & Firefrost red etc. and looked really good.

    I only ever saw one for real in Newcastle (black and red 2 tone) and it was impressive… Hard to believe it’s now over 15 years since their demise

  6. It’s interesting that two decades from this significant milestone, so few of these cars remain on the road now. And so few care. Maybe that’s blog-worthy in itself…

    • Which makes it important that we cherish and promote ownership of the remaining cars Keith. Which of course you do. Saab will be in the same situation in the next ten years.

    • Amazing how many are still around and the 75 seems to have lasted better than the 800 or SD1, where most seemed to vanish by 1995. I wonder if those who own 75s realise now this iast the last big Rover and are hanging on to them as they will become classics soon.

  7. I do remember that day when Rover was apparently Saved. I was sad to see the brand ultimately fail, despite the efforts made. I have very fond memories working on, and driving most of the models produced from the 60s through to the 80s. I am now enjoying my first, and probably only AR car, a Rover 820si (big fan of MG Meastro and all Montego models) as money and space available to store an additional car is limited. I salute all those owners that still fly the metaphorical Flag of a great brand lost. I’d like to think we are on the cusp of a resurgence of interest in cars made in Britain, which will hope ensure the survival of the remaining examples.

  8. I see very few R 75s now but those I do see appear in reasonable nick for their age (05 Reg the last ones usually). They still stand out with a bit of character compared to the current crop of Audi’s, Bimmer’s etc.

    Interesting point… I wonder how MG Rover would have approached the current trend in manufacturing Hybrid & electric cars (if they had the development funds). Sadly We’ll never know…

  9. I am still running my 2003 75 2.5V6 Tourer that I bought in January 05. It has been a fantastic car and despite its near 200K mileage it still runs very well. It was very reliable until it reached around 13 years old when a combination of clutch, suspension and water pump issues have meant that over a period of time I have spent far more on the car than it is worth but to me it is worth every penny. It still puts a smile on my face every time I drive it. My wife still drives a 2005 25 Diesel that we bought new in 2006. It was not built to the quality of the early R3 models but has proved reliable and has been a good workhorse.

  10. It’s interesting that some of us hardly see any 75’s and others see quite a few. In my little Cotswold town I know that right now there will be a silver 75 Tourer in the high street and I could take you to at least three saloons in the town. Back in the day, popularity was often decided by the strength of the dealer but after 20 years that does’t wash. There must be at least three 25’s in the town as well.
    We do what we can to fly the British flag here. There is some talk of Johny Foreigner taking over but I can’t see that happening. A couple of absolute bounders have bought something called an ‘Audi’ so a few of of us have notices on our drives – MG’s only – No Audis! Stiff upper lip and all that. We beat them in 45 and we’ll beat ’em again!

    • @ The Wolseley Man, they were sold by a well regarded local dealer and the cars were popular with older, better off drivers, the types who would buy the car to retire with and look after it. Obviously, numbers are thinning out now, but I can think of three in daily use where I live.

  11. They must have been doing something right with the Rover 25’s and the later MG version because I see a fair few of them still going strong and looking relitavely unmolested!

  12. We all know that many mistakes were made and in purely economic terms, it was always going to end the way it did because MGR were too small to be big and didn’t sell enough cars that people wanted to buy, mainly in the Golf/Focus segment. For me, the biggest accomplishment of the Phoenix group was to keep thousands employed making cars for as long as they did. I still have my 75 v6 and it has been a great car although it needs paint attention, but I will regret if I get rid of it.

  13. Shame mg rover are no longer with us but still a few knocking around in my area…..mostly 25 s and 75 s……don t see many z’ds anymore though…..which is a real shame because I read somewhere that at least 75% Of them have gone to the scrapyard! I for one still have my zs 180 in Henley blue….immaculate and still really good fun to drive…..used as a second car as I run a Freelander td4 as a main car. Tucked away I still have a burgundy rover 216 cabriolet and can t bear the thought of parting with any of them. Good cars that deserve saving and getting rarer each year.

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