Blog: MG Rover’s flights of fancy

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists


I’VE BEEN busy working on what I believe is the last chapter of the BMC>Rover story, which documents the Phoenix years, and how the company’s management risked everything on a single-shot strategy: ‘to find a partner… or die.’

In the end, it came down to this – the board knew that there was no way in a million years that MG Rover could go it alone and fund the development of the RD/X60 (Nexus) model, so it waited for a generous prospective partner to come along and help shoulder the costs.

And they waited… and waited… and waited.

Still, it was a brave – perhaps rash – gamble, and had it paid off, the ‘Phoenix Four’ would have been hailed as heroes and probably given the keys to Birmingham for saving ‘The Austin’ from a fate called death. But the Phoenix Four were playing for very high stakes – going eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese, even as the house of cards called Longbridge began to topple.

We all know the result – the deal collapsed amid growing Chinese concerns about MGR’s solvency… the deal probably wasn’t as close as John Towers claimed (he said it had been ’20 minutes away from being signed’), but it was in all likelihood closer to being completed than not – and if nothing else, the whole sorry affair has been something of a salutory lesson for any other weakened UK companies considering negotiating with the Chinese.

if nothing else, the whole sorry
affair has been something of a
salutory lesson for any other
weakened UK companies considering
negotiating with the Chinese.

Roy Axe once told me about his dealings with China – and how they are tough negotiators, who won’t give anything away unless it is in their ultimate interests. He said that his company, Design Research Associates, did some work for a Chinese client – and even though monies were promised, they never transpired, well, not until much later. His words were: “never assume you’ve been paid; not until that money is safely tucked up in your bank account”…

Those words certainly came back to haunt me, when it became clear that SAIC had pulled out of negotiations after having secured those IP rights.

I wonder if John Towers would have been so eager to sell, had he heard that lesson from someone previously stung?

Still, what’s done is done, and history will record whether the single card gamble was the best strategy for Towers to play… Perhaps it was the only strategy in town, when there was no money in the bank.

What has become very clear in the days that followed ‘Black Friday’ (April 15 – the day PwC announced the game was up and that there would be mass redundancies at Longbridge) is just how far away from production reality the Nexus actually was. At Austin-Rover, we always knew that the ‘months from production’ claims made by some were sheer fantasy, having been told so by several contacts in MGR’s supply chain, but what we had been misled about by ‘those in the know’, was how far (or not, as it turned out) Nexus was along its development cycle.

Ex-employees have been surfacing on the excellent web forum and revealing fascinating (and ultimately tragic) snippets of information about the programme. One correspondent stated that the final style of Nexus had yet to be decided, and following a meeting with SAIC at Easter where several design schemes were shown, and knocked back, the design team still had not fixed the exterior design of the car.

So, when I picked up this week’s Autocar design, which shows ‘all the cars they never built’, the futility of MGR’s plight really hit home. The magazine recalled that same Easter meeting, and revealed computer images of what was on the table. What it didn’t tell you is that the Chinese seemigly didn’t like any of them enough to feel major confidence in them…

Yes, the company had a technical package partially in place (thanks to the fundamental excellence of the 75’s platform), but there were no running prototypes, no finalised designs… nothing of any significance. It could have, had TWR not gone bust, but that’s another tragic twist in the tale…

In five years of ownership, and disregarding what happened at TWR, the ‘find a partner or die’ strategy meant the company had not moved heaven and earth to get their car significantly developed on its own, relying instead on the prospect finding a rich partner from a rapidly industrialising economy to foot the bills racked up by a serious development programme, and that had netted very little… which is very sad.

In fact, MGR’s design legacy is beginning to appear to be little more than a few (impressive) photoshopped design schemes, some clay models, and three motor show concept cars (TCV, 75 Coupe and MG TF GT).

Please someone tell me I’m wrong…

If you were there at the Longbridge PDC and know more, I am dying to hear from you.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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