AROnline’s longer-standing readers might recall that, back in the day, then-MG6 owner, Martin Williamson, contributed articles about his experiences of the model. Martin has since switched to Jaguar Land Rover and beyond for his daily transport.
However, he still has a 1966 MGB GT, a 1967 MG 1100 and a 2005 MG ZR 105 on the family fleet and so retains a close interest in the marque – here, then, are his reflections on MG’s recent past and future…
MG: What are the scores on the doors?
April 2005, a month which will forever be indelibly imprinted upon the memories of every AROnline reader – the month when the dreaded, yet inevitable, happened as both MG and Rover ceased to be a British-owned and based manufacturers. As the dust settled, some enthusiasts replaced their cars from the sale of stock, convinced this was their last chance to buy a new MG or Rover. For fans of Rover this has since turned out to be the case – the Rover badge now sits forlornly at the back of a Jaguar Land Rover Limited-owned cupboard at Whitley in Coventry…
But what of the MG brand? Well, today, ‘the man in the street’ knows the Chinese now own the badge but, until about three years ago, he wasn’t fully aware the marque was back in the UK with a limited range of models for sale – that probably explains why, until 2017, MG’s sales were on the low side.
So, how has China treated MG?
Much has been written about the first decade of Chinese ownership so there is little point in revisiting that at any length. However, by way of a reminder, the initial sale of MG Rover was to Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation (NAC) with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC) left holding the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) to the Rover 25 and Rover 75 which the company had acquired a year earlier.
Naturally, many assumed that SAIC had engineered the situation in order to buy the business without any financial baggage and that left some enthusiasts cheering on the rank outsider, NAC, with others vowing never to buy a Chinese MG.
In very short order, much of what remained of the Longbridge production facilities was shipped to a new plant in Nanjing. In the meantime, SAIC was convinced it would be able to utilise the Rover badge on its own products, but Ford, having bought the Rover name from BMW in 2006, refused permission and so the Roewe name was created for the Chinese market, with no licence to sell these products outside of China.
NAC’s money runs out
In late 2007, NAC ran into the age-old MG problem. Financially, although NAC had a Joint Venture (JV) with Fiat, the company was struggling after presumably putting so much focus on its new brand. The Chinese Government intervened and, in April 2008, a ‘merger’ officially took place between SAIC and NAC. This gave SAIC a much-needed export licence, which allowed the company to export Roewe models re-badged as MGs, while NAC got access to some vital newer models which were in development.
The UK story picked up again for MG enthusiasts in 2007 with news of the return of the TF. However, 2008 marked the point at which the MG ZR and MG ZT would have required some significant updates in order to comply with European Type Approval – much to the dismay of many a keen ZR and ZT owner, that limited the return of the brand until newer models were available.
Instead, NAC launched with the MG TF in the UK, assembling the TF at Longbridge. There had been significant development to bring the TF back as many of the original parts suppliers were no longer in business. Apart from some obvious changes to the front bumper and instrument cluster, and along with just one engine choice (the revised N-Series 1.8-litre with 135bhp), the TF was back, looking much as it had done previously in 2005. The launch model, the LE500, a limited edition of five hundred, was kitted out with a lot of extras such as leather seats, air-conditioning and a hard-top at a list price of £16,399 – cheap enough compared to the same specification in early 2005, when the price would have been well over £20,000.
MG’s rebirth was being ignored
The problem was that, while there was much fanfare from within the MG community at its return, there wasn’t much notice being taken by the general public. Even if Joe Public knew the TF was back, Joe Public would naturally think of head gasket failure combined with a somewhat jaundiced view of Chinese manufacturing and dismiss the TF without a second’s thought. At this stage, Mazda was selling its unquestionably better third-generation MX-5 (NC) at a slightly higher price with a choice of engines and offering a folding metal roof Roadster Coupe (RC) option. Add in the recession caused by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and sales of the TF were predictably slow.
Many of those in the original Dealer Network were the smaller, specialist-type franchisees who, having signed up on the promise that new MG models were on the way, focused on performance car sales and were keen to have a new sports car on their forecourts. It took until May 2011 to see a new model, the MG6, in the showroom – available in just one body style, with one petrol engine (the TCi-TECH) and a manual five-speed transmission, the MG6 was no sports car. Add in what many people still erroneously believed was a K-Series Turbo petrol engine, honest fuel economy and emissions figures, which were not competitive with European benchmarks, and the MG6 was unsurprisingly a slow seller. With only one model on offer targeting a declining sector of the market, and the TF no longer available, many dealers gave up, with sales suffering even further.
Shortly after, in July 2011, the MG6 Magnette (below) was added to the range and, in December 2012, a new diesel engine was offered. All this was proving too little, too late. The press reviews of the MG6 were scathing about the bland interior and its lack of quality and refinement, while many MG enthusiasts felt it lacked the sporting appeal of the MG Z range and were quick to dismiss it owing to its Chinese origins and all that implied in terms of the perception of quality. Moreover, many still felt that SAIC’s actions had – even if only indirectly – forced the closure of MG Rover.
Taking to the tracks in the BTCC
It wasn’t all bad, the company had its moments with a shrewd move into the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), but it failed to capitalise on that success. What we got at the end of 2012 was a questionable BTCC special edition that offered none of the power gains for which enthusiasts were calling. Worse, the company did not capitalise on its 2014 Manufacturers’ Championship win. Aside from the BTCC, there were other sponsorship deals such as one with British Athletics, and a cycling team amongst others, though yet again the value that these offered was debatable.
The MG3 was originally launched in China and other overseas LHD markets at the end of 2011. However, the UK launch took place amidst much fanfare at Silverstone in June 2013. Thousands of MG enthusiasts were present but, with the MG community being so prolific online, the car had already been judged negatively by some purely on looks. For the UK launch the MG3 was given a small makeover to address issues that needed resolving for European compliance, including the fitment of Daylight Running Lights (DRLs).
However, yet again it was launched with just the one petrol engine, in one five-door body style. Furthermore, on paper the New Small Engine (NSE), a naturally-aspirated, iron block 1.5-litre engine producing 105Ps, looked to be a retrograde step, lacking the low down grunt of even the 1989-launched 105hp 1.4-litre K-Series 16-valve engine, and again with comparatively poor economy and emissions figures, and a five-speed manual transmission the only option – things were not looking good.
MG3: UK design, Chinese build
The Design Team at SAIC Motor UK Technical Centre Limited (SMTC), the Longbridge-based UK engineering and design arm, had at least gone further than on the 6 in terms of adding more sporting appeal to the simple interior along with a list of personalisation options. With a more youthful appeal, in a growing sector of the market place, and a more focused advertising campaign playing more on the ‘Cool Britannia’ theme, plus more positive press reviews, the sales of the MG3 have been a much greater success to date and it is currently still selling reasonably.
The MG3 has maintained a relatively steady average of around 150 sales a month, far better than the 6 ever managed. Of course, this has also been helped by offering it at a much lower price than the competition with a low cost of servicing and a low Group 4 insurance, making for a very appealing second car or a first car for younger and/or budget conscious drivers. The reality is that the MG3 buyers are a broad spectrum from teenagers to pensioners, with more buyers increasingly coming from outside of the enthusiast community.
The MG6 was updated in 2015 and, although a better car quality wise, with a number of improvements taken onboard following an initial survey of the owners in 2012, it was limited to six hundred units with diesel options only – that was rumoured to be a way to clear the Longbridge site of unsold diesel powertrains. MG Motor UK Limited’s then Head of Sales and Marketing, Matthew Cheyne, made a big point of the increasing demand for diesel even though, at this stage, diesel was already becoming a questionable commodity thanks to increasing emissions regulations.
By 2016, MG Motor UK had decided against bringing the second-generation MG6 to market which, in hindsight, was probably not a bad move given how Ford and Volkswagen have this sector of the market tied up with the Focus and Golf respectively on competitive lease deals.
Changing tack, chasing the SUV market
Instead, like most volume manufacturers, MG Motor UK switched its focus to the ever-growing Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) and crossover sector, launching the MG GS (above) in May 2016. However, as the MG GS was more likely than not approved for sale in the UK under the European Community Small Series Type Approval (EC SSTA) provision, registrations were restricted to less than 1000 units per annum – either way, the MG GS was not a sales success and nor was it an attractive vehicle, looking nothing like the earlier concept. MG Motor UK’s range therefore remained a two-model offering, with sales slowly increasing thanks to the success of the MG3.
However, in 2018, things radically improved with the addition of the smaller ZS SUV model and a significant facelift for the MG3. These more positive developments have since been followed in 2019 by the launch of the ZS EV (with its electric powertrain) and the GS replacement, the HS. MG Motor UK now offers a total of four models if the ZS EV is counted as a separate model.
Okay, so 15 years on from the collapse of MG Rover, where is MG headed and how does the UK-based community feel about the brand now in its 97th year? Back in 2015, the business was not looking great, although starting to show some green shoots as the expression goes, with a huge expansion into new and existing markets elsewhere. If any market proved as difficult as the UK, then that would be Australia, where the rebirth got off to as calamitous a start as it did here in the UK. In addition, new plants were being opened outside of China in Thailand for producing right-hand-drive vehicles for existing Commonwealth markets, while India has more recently joined with its own plant and a unique range of SUV models.
Moving up the UK’s sales charts
Certainly, the UK sales growth was into triple figure percentage points by 2016, but that hides the fact the real numbers were still low. However, in the last two years there has been a significant gain in the sales figures – with sales of 13,075 new cars in 2019, and hence a 45% increase versus 2018, MG is now the UK’s fastest-growing car manufacturer. MG Motor UK currently has 104 franchisees in the Dealer Network and so potential buyers are more likely to find one near them, while the increased choice and inclusion of automatic transmission options on the ZS and HS, along with the ZS EV has provided a greater choice.
Moreover, at least until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intention was to increase the total number of franchisees to 120 by the middle of this year and further petrol, hybrid and EV models were to be added to the range during 2020/2021. Indeed, back in January, MG Motor UK’s current Head of Sales and Marketing, Daniel Gregorious, was saying that, under the company’s mid-term ‘Momentum & Growth’ plan, the aim was to achieve 30,000 sales by 2021.
However, it’s difficult to predict how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the industry as a whole and SAIC in particular. The post-lockdown recession, undoubtedly the biggest issue, will put paid to sales across the board, although MG Motor UK was one of a handful of companies which recorded a continued increase in sales for March 2020 compared with March 2019.
There may, though, be a risk that, given COVID-19’s country of origin, anti-Chinese sentiment might well see a further hit for SAIC. That said, MG Motor UK was one of the few motor companies in the UK (along with Jaguar Land Rover) to step forward by donating 100 ZS EVs to the National Health Service (NHS) for use by its personnel free of charge for six months. With the public’s adulation of the NHS at an all-time high, this was a very shrewd move on MG Motor UK’s part.
Rebalancing as a UK-branded import
In the early days of MG’s return to the UK market, many felt that MG Motor UK was simply a ploy to convince the home market in China of the ‘Britishness’ of the brand, but that did beg this question: why not just fund the design studio rather than attempt to sell into a competitive, quality conscious and aspiration-driven market like the UK?
In fact, that is basically what has taken place with a downsizing of operations in the UK, an almost complete withdrawal from the Longbridge site, fully-assembled cars now being imported from the Thailand plants and a new corporate office in London. With the recent growth and ‘steadying of the ship’ under newer, seemingly more competent management, one can only assume that SAIC are in it for the long term and are committed to the UK, and indeed, now too, the European markets.
The Chinese certainly don’t rush into anything, instead taking the slow and steady approach. They have not become a superpower through ‘crash and burn’ strategies. But MG as a volume seller? That is a tough one to sell to Western enthusiasts, probably more so than it would have been by starting from scratch with a completely new brand. Most enthusiasts and the public alike think of MG as a niche sports car brand which sits alongside a bigger, volume brand.
Understanding your heritage
While the Chinese were new to the concept of MG ten years ago, the idea was to market the brand based on its British heritage. That they have done in China, with a tag line of ‘Since 1924’ used almost everywhere else except in the UK. They have played on the ‘Cool Britannia’ theme in their marketing. To view the promotional material in other markets, it also looks very professional. In the last five years, a sense of that professionalism has found its way into the UK market and now, with a long enough track record in the market, the public are starting to pay attention, particularly to the value-for-money aspect of the pricing.
From the days when the marketing material was adequate at best, but anodyne and lacking in spirit, there is now a sense of what the brand is and where it is going. There is now a sense of who buys an MG, now a positioning so to speak, and it is isn’t aimed at traditional MG enthusiasts. As enthusiasts point out, the cars might just as well have some other Far Eastern badge on the nose. MG Motor UK had the toughest customer base to win over – the UK is, after all, the birthplace of the brand.
Jaguar Land Rover and MINI have proved that foreign ownership is not an obstacle to creating desire and selling cars globally to buyers hungry for a slice of British style with a nod to the brand’s heritage. Nor is there a problem in changing the traditional perception of the company to include new products to take on newly-emerging sectors of the market such as SUVs. The clue, though, is that the new parent companies (Tata Motors and BMW Group) left design and production in the UK and financed the British teams to do what they do best: make cars that people want with a strong whiff of still being British. That’s exactly what NAC and, subsequently, SAIC should have done, surely?
MG: now engineering for Europe
However, it must be said that while, in theory, SAIC could have reached its current sales status a lot sooner with a more Western approach to its business and marketing and models, it has ultimately reached it after playing a long game. In the process the brand has probably lost the core enthusiast base who have all moved on, but it is now starting to find its own core base of enthusiasts in terms of a loyal customer network. Enthusiasts can be a thorn in a company’s side, an emotive baggage holding the company back. So, losing the enthusiasts is not always a bad thing since, in reality, the hardcore aficionados represent a very, very small percentage of the overall sales.
My thinking five years ago was that the company should start by designing the car for Europe rather than designing at lower cost for Eastern markets and then trying to improve things for Europe – looking at the recently-launched HS (above), I’d say that the Designers and Engineers at SAIC have excelled themselves at designing for Europe first. The interior is one of the best out there for the price, not just in terms of specification, but just the overall feel of the materials and the fit and finish within. If the MG6 had been this good from the start, then the sales would have been so much better. The fact that SAIC has proven it can bring such a product to the market sets a precedent for future models – that can only be a good thing for a continued increase in UK market share.
Not only has each successive model launch shown that company is capable of increasingly improving its quality, it is clearly confident of their reliability of design and, learning, too, what it takes to set the pace in the Western markets, joining Kia with every model now coming with a seven-year warranty.
Is another sports car coming?
What about that sports car, then? MG Motor UK and SAIC management must be tired of being asked the question about when they will offer one. The fact it is continually being asked indicates just how much fans and the motoring press want to see one again. Not everyone will buy one, but the fact that it exists will create desire. A halo model is always a tough business case to justify on sales numbers alone, but one that must be made for a fabled brand such as MG.
Understandably, in order to sell in volume, it is necessary to offer cars that appeal to a broad market. At the same time, though, a business must have a unique, focused product to be viewed as desirable. MG Motor UK’s Head of Sales and Marketing, Daniel Gregorious, acknowledges that – he has recently told Autocar’s Lawrence Allan that, if the next two models launched in the UK – an MG5-badged EV Estate based on an updated version of the Chinese-market Roewe Ei5 and a plug-in hybrid version of the HS – do well, then the company’s next move will be to launch a production version of the E-motion concept (above), which was first shown at the Shanghai International Automotive Show in April 2017.
This, though, won’t be the conventional MGB or MGF/TF type sports car. Instead, it will be more of an SV-like performance model, with four-wheel drive courtesy of two electric motors and a 0-60mph time of 3.0 seconds – that would undoubtedly be one of the quickest MGs ever produced. Daniel Gregorious told Autocar that the production version of the E-motion ‘will make a great halo flagship car.’ Interestingly, he added: ‘We’re only planning one model like it at present. But if we can do well with mainstream models, there could be plenty of opportunity for more sporty models in the future.’
Back in 2005, EVs were still a novelty, with few ever thinking they would be the future. By 2015, EVs were very definitely the new age and now, in 2020, just about every manufacturer is offering one. Whether we as traditional enthusiasts want that is open to debate – with the majority of us still thinking of ourselves as petrolheads, the concept of an EV sports car may be an anathema. However, with the kind of performance being offered, it takes MG into a bold new world and shows that SAIC is focused on the future and not the past.
Simply put, as a storied manufacturer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t when it comes to the enthusiast base, so if we have one consolation to take from this, it is that the Octagon will live on, not just as a badge on volume production vehicles, but as a badge with a halo model that signifies performance credentials and, as MGs have always done, encapsulates Safety Fast for a whole new generation of enthusiasts.
[Editor’s Note: This article is an update of one which Martin wrote for publication in the April 2015 issue of MG Enthusiast magazine and in which he reviewed the decade from the time of the collapse of MG Rover. However, the number of new models launched by MG Motor UK, the significant increase in sales and the growth and stability of the Dealer Network have prompted him to update that original article for the April 2020 issue of local West Cheshire MG Owners’ Club magazine, WC Reading Matter – the article above is a revised version of that one.]