Essay : Rover’s rise

The following is a work of fiction by Adam Sloman, based upon some facts, a few ‘what ifs’ and a large dollop of the author’s imagination.

Any quotes attributed are entirely fictitious.

Or how Rover might exist today in a parallel universe…

IF, back in 2005 you had predicted MG Rover would have no less than three cars as best sellers in their respective sectors, many would have called you a madman. However, as of June 2010, MG Rover has done exactly that. The road from near bankruptcy to success has not been an easy one, but now, the company’s fortunes are firmly on the up as MG Rover looks to ape it’s British Motor Corporation predecessor and once again become a truly global player.

‘The company was struggling. I won’t lie,’ says John Towers, MG Rover Chief Executive. ‘We were losing money, had a badly aging model line-up, and little or nothing to replace them.’

Rover Group’s divorce from BMW had left the company with little resources to develop new models and a new partner was badly needed. Former bedfellow Honda were sounded out, but declined, still smarting, no doubt from the end of the previous agreement the companies had previously enjoyed. MGR’s management knew something different was required; they needed serious financial backing to ensure they could improve the quality of their products. ‘We initiated an in-house procedure called ‘Project Drive’, it allowed the company to make significant savings, but ultimately hurt our product’s quality’. The company reached out to new partners, and found one, in the form of China’s Shanghai Automotive (SAIC).

In agreement eerily similar to that of the BL/Honda tie up that gave birth to the Triumph Acclaim, SAIC was keen to understand the Western market and begin development of its own cars. An agreement with MGR worked well for both parties. SAIC got access to both the MG and Rover marques, as well as the research and development teams here in the UK; MGR got the benefit of a large, General Motors-style parent to fund development of new models and expand into new markets. On 7 April 2005, the UK Government, led by Tony Blair confirmed it had agreed a bridging loan for MG Rover of £120m to allow the deal to be completed. Then Chancellor Gordon Brown saying, ‘This is a key deal for the British economy. It secures the jobs of over 6500 works, as well as Britain’s place amongst the key players in the motor industry.’

A little over a week later, on 15 April, the deal was complete, and at a historic ceremony at Birmingham’s Longbridge factory, MG Rover became part of SAIC.

The first car subsequently launched under the new regime was the Rover 75 Coupé. The, car together with its V8 engine, was met with rave reviews, this ‘poor man’s Bentley’ giving the Rover name a significant shot in the arm, raising its profile over night. The new management was keen to press home that Rover meant quality, MG meant sportiness.

By December 2005, the first MG Rover-branded cars began rolling off the Chinese production lines at an all new facility in Lingang and the company began plans to return to the US market, initially with three cars, the TF, SV and aforementioned coupé.

While work on new models continued behind the scenes, the 75 received a final facelift in 2006, as well as an all-new diesel engine, the 16-valve G-series, being deployed across the range offering up to 160bhp, the new engine offered buyers a credible alternative to the likes of VAG’s TDi. In an effort to further differentiate the MG and Rover models, the ZT retained the 2005 front and rear ends.

With improved sales in the UK, and impressive Chinese launches, the summer of 2006 saw a new company created, MGR America, and the first new MGs on sale in the US since 1980. MGR America’s cars were a combination of Chinese-built cars (TF and Rover Coupé) and UK-built SVs. The TF became an immediate success, with long waiting lists and sales outstripping its rivals such as the Mazda Miata (MX-5 in Europe). MG, it seemed, was still the car America loved first. The SV became a popular sight at race-tracks across the US, as the car proved its motor sport mettle in the US Le Mans Series. Availability was strictly limited, and just 500 SVs made it to the US before SAIC took the decision to end production of the car in late 2007.

Back home in the UK, development work at Longbridge continued. Work on the replacement TF, ZS/45 and ZT/75 was well under way. Meanwhile, the TF range was bolstered by the worldwide launch of the TF GT, a successor to the legendary MGB GT, the fixed head TF proved particularly successful in the States, were it became a popular low-cost alternative to Audi’s all conquering TT.

2007 also saw the first of the new TF and GT hit the roads; meeting rave reviews by all who drove it, with the GT being an especially strong seller both here in the UK and US. The old TF was redeveloped as a new, budget roadster, taking on the famous Midget moniker. The Midget joined the TF and Coupé in the US, cementing the marques niche status. So successful has MGs assault on the US market, that former owner BMW has stated its intend to relaunch the Triumph brand state-side, and wrestle away MG’s market share.

With the MG house in order, management’s attention turned to Rover, and its intent to bring the marque back to its roots. Over 2006 and 2007, the 25 and 45 ranges were rationalised, and by 2007, both had quietly disappeared from the price-lists, together with the much maligned CityRover. ‘With SAICs support we’ve been able to properly focus on what Rover is all about, if you look at the brand’s history, we’ve always built large saloons,’ says stylist Peter Stevens. ‘In my opinion, the smaller cars somewhat devalued our heritage.’

While the 25 and 45 were consigned to the scrapheap, the ZR and ZS went from strength to strength with the launch of the X cars in 2006. MG’s X Power brand found success amongst the younger MG buyer, and the supercharged ZR-X and ZS-X cemented this support. The MGs were successful on track too, with X Power going head to head with Vauxhall’s VXR Racing, with driver Colin Turkington winning the first of three BTCC Driver’s Championships in 2006.

Rover 55 launched in late-2006, and proved an immediate hit...
Rover 55 launched in late-2006, and proved an immediate hit…

With test mules spotted around the world undergoing testing, many knew that the long-awaited new cars were just around the corner and by late 2006 we saw the launch of the new Rover 55, and the new MG ZS. Developed in both Birmingham and Shanghai, the car was unveiled at the Birmingham International Motor Show in September 2006, before being launched in early 2007. Press praised the emphasis on quality in the new Rover, with AROnline concluding after its first drive, ‘The new 55 represents Rover’s historical qualities in a wonderfully modern package, without the need for fussy, retro-styling.’

Chinese buyers flocked to dealers, keen to put down their Yuan for their own piece of Britain. While in the UK, Rovers were modern and cutting edge, their Chinese counterparts featured acres of wood, leather and chrome, playing up to the British car stereotype. Rover saloons led the way in Asia, while MG became the popular choice of the young, and young at heart in Europe.

MG ZS was a hit in BTCC racing as well as on the road...
MG ZS was a hit in BTCC racing as well as on the road…

The new ZS was considerably larger than the car it replaced but also was met with largely positive reviews and continued MGs dominance of the BTCC as an RAC backed ZS won the championship in it’s debut season. The US now finally boasted its own production facility too, in Ardmore, Oklahoma, building cars in a completely knocked-down form.

With the 55 Rover had its foot back in the door and a new large car became the priority. Working under Peter Stevens was designer Lee Mitchell, who had already created the successful 2006 75 facelift. He was thrilled when bosses in China tasked him with penning the new 75. ‘The P6 was also very much in my mind as an influence on a modern Rover saloon. I felt the new vehicle should be sporty, unique and tough looking, something that would banish any lingering olde worlde image that Rover had at that time. I did not personally feel that another retro styled vehicle was the way forward.’

By the end of 2009, MG Rover had three best sellers on its hands. The TF and its hardtop brother were the best selling sports-cars in the UK, closely followed by its Midget sibling. Despite it’s age the ZR continued to sell in respectable numbers, being especially popular with young drivers thanks to its insurance friendly 1.1- and 1.4-litre engines, with the last ZR leaving the Longbridge lines in September 2009.

With MG at number one and three in the sales charts, things were looking very good for the group and its Chinese parent, with the 55 fourth overall in the ‘medium executive’ sector. The launch of the new 75 in January of this year was timed perfectly. Together with its coupe sibling, dubbed the P7B by some, the car quickly found favour within the Executive sector, with the British government ordering several examples for their ministerial fleet.

‘Twenty-ten looks like being a good year for us,’ says Towers. ‘We’ve got the ZR replacement due in May, and the new 75 Tourer for later in the year.’

With decent financial backing, MG Rover has finally been able to succeed in getting the most from the niche market segments it has been so successful in, without the overwhelming financial pressures it previously laboured under. Few would have predicted this five years ago, but if MG Rover has proved one thing in its history, from BMC, to BL, to Austin-Rover group to today, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Keith Adams

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