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.
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.
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.