About 12 months ago, I was giving my previously-owned MG ZS 180 a lick of wax outside the house when a cruel passer-by, with nothing but pre-conceived ideas to go by, commented: “Mate, you can’t polish a t#rd”.
Not the most helpful of comments, but I remember it well. I recall thinking, at the time, that in some respects that’s exactly what the MG Rover design and engineering teams had done back in 2001, as the very first ashes rose from the Phoenix takeover.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. When the Phoenix Consortium inherited the remnants of MG Rover from BMW in 2000, what they got for their tenner wasn’t actually that great. As well as the debts and hard-to-shift inventory of unsold Rover Group vehicles, a BMW dowry with strict terms attached and a largely outmoded factory, they also got a woefully outdated product range. A range that, history dictated, would never actually be replaced, yet was already getting long-in-the-tooth at the time BMW sold up.
With the exception of the 75, which was a fabulous car, but not one that was being sold into a high-enough volume market, the package included the 25 and 45, both recently revised to get the 75’s ‘family’ face, the MGF and, well, nothing else.
With no money in the development budget, the newly-formed MG Rover Group was alone in its quest to seek investment, bring in new models and, at least for the time being, keep the company afloat. What it achieved during those final five years was nothing short of remarkable, despite the best efforts of the senior leaders, investment partners and the Government to try and prevent survival from happening.
There were, of course, plenty of wrong decisions during the period. But one that could not be faulted was the decision to revitalise the MG brand and usher in a new range of performance-themed saloons and hatchbacks that would give the cars some much needed youth appeal.
The move had some pretty harsh critics. I was working as a motoring journalist at the time, and recall the amusement of some of my colleagues when they were told that ‘hot’ versions of the Rover 25, 45 and 75 were coming along. I wish, for their sakes, that when the new models first came out, they’d come with MG Metro-style red seatbelts – my colleagues were expecting no less.
The skepticism remained unfettered even after the 2001 Geneva Motor Show, when, less than a year after the BMW sale had finally gone through, MG Rover whipped the hankies off three cars that were set to bring in a whole new generation of buyers. Like it or not, for that’s what happened…
Big wheels, bright paint, bold spoilers and aero kits – the new range of MGs weren’t subtle. Nor, indeed, was MG Rover’s marketing strategy. The boldness with which they got behind the ‘Buy British’ message and the bullishness of the MG brand’s advertising wasn’t lost on the automotive industry parody website, Sniff Petrol, which ran a series of spoof MG Rover ads (they’re all in the Sniff Petrol archive, but only one is ‘borderline’ publishable here – look away now if you’re easily offended).
Still, the media believed that the cars might be all mouth and no trousers. But as MG Rover’s Product PR Manager at the time, Kevin Jones, recalled in a recent interview with AROnline: “We had to very quickly elevate the MG brand from just MGF into TF, ZR, ZS and ZT within a year, and have motorsport programmes with all – it was so exciting, and the rapid development was impressive with such modest investment. They were cars enthusiasts could relate to – all had alloy wheels, spoilers and in bright colours. They were very successful. Our best moment was persuading (nay, almost forcing) motoring journalists to drive the 45-based ZS – and when they returned, their grins were like tattoos – you couldn’t get the smile off their faces.”
It’s a time I remember well. As a junior staffer on Auto Express at the time, I didn’t get to attend the press launch, but I did spend a week in the company of a Y-reg Trophy Blue MG ZS 180, which I had immediately after a weekend with a Subaru Impreza WRX. Both were fabulous cars, but only one had soul. I’d not been a fan of the HH-R 400 Series at all (my begrudging respect for that model came later, and is a different story), but my opinion was transformed overnight. Here was a car that not only had a bold and brash appearance, but had the performance and handling to go with it. I refer you, again, to my opening paragraph…
The ZT, likewise, was a cracking car to drive, leaving only the ZR as the lukewarm option. Until the VVC 160 came on the scene, lower-powered ZRs didn’t quite live up to the lairy looks. Lively and pleasant they may have been, but pure performance cars? No.
That, though, was not a bad thing. Britain’s youth was currently in the grip of the post-Max Power ‘Saxo’ culture, and what worked for Citroen was about to work just as well for MG Rover. With a little bit of help from girl band of the moment, Atomic Kitten, MG was about to entice a whole new generation of young, primarily male enthusiasts who wanted an inexpensive car with bold good looks, good handling and plenty of tuning options. Something that, in its own way, was one of the lynchpins on which the MG brand was built over the previous 70 years…
There are some critics who say that the Z-Cars weren’t the success they were purported to be. But I simply don’t believe them. Okay, so the Rover 25 may well have remained the company’s best-selling car right up until late 2004 (after which the ZR took over), but it had fleet, rental and various other sales outlets in which it could be sold. ZR was almost exclusively retail, and was drawing people into showrooms who would never have dreamed of setting foot in a Rover dealership – the fact it became the best-selling model at all proves its astonishing popularity in a market that did little to support its parent brand.
Nostalgia, as we all know, is a powerful thing and, while there are still plenty of ZRs on the road today, according to figures on www.howmanyleft.co.uk the number of road-legal ZRs remaining has more than halved since 2010. If you’re a younger enthusiast who remembers them with affection, buy one now, as they won’t be around forever.
The MG Z-Cars, then, were not enough to save the company. However, in my humble opinion, they were enough to bring new customers in at a time when they were needed most, and keep the company and its dealers alive much longer than many critics expected. That five year period was, and should have been, long enough for MG Rover’s bosses to bring in new investment and some all new products.
It wasn’t, but as we all know, that’s a different story…