March 2005. I was 27 years old, and at a stage in life where thing were about to change considerably. I was engaged to be married, and about to set foot on the property ladder, neither of which was conducive to my then job as Deputy Motoring Editor on the weekly car magazine, Auto Express.
It may have been a ‘Boy’s Own’ job and was certainly a lot more fun than where I began my career, doing court reporting on local newspapers, but long hours, many nights away from home and an office in central London weren’t ideal for my circumstances. In addition, motoring journalists really don’t get paid that brilliantly – the perks are in the job rather than the pay packet. After much consideration, it was time to use my motor industry experience, and get a proper job instead.
That job would be as a Press Officer at Vauxhall Motors, and would lead to a fascinating 10-year journey within General Motors, but when the job offer landed on the mat, it wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for. A few weeks earlier, I’d been for two job interviews in two weeks – the first with GM, the second with MG Rover.
Knowing that the Vauxhall job wasn’t going to be open for long, I took it. It was, as hindsight has proven, very much the right decision, but at the time I was actually a little disappointed. The alternative, as yet unconfirmed, was a chance to work for the company I’d loved as both man and boy, plus, I lived pretty much halfway between Luton and Birmingham, so there was little to choose between the two on that score.
By the time the letter from MG Rover landed on the mat (I still have it), I’d already accepted the Vauxhall position and, knowing how incestuous the car industry can be, there was no way I was going to change my mind. So, I stuck with my guns, albeit with a heavy heart. I began working for GM on 1 April, 2005 and, within three weeks, I was extremely pleased I’d not been swayed – it was over for Rover, and even though it came as a bit of a shock, in many ways I wasn’t surprised.
I’d followed the whole MG Rover saga as a journalist from the BMW sale to Phoenix Venture Holdings, right through to the eventual demise.
I shan’t go over the details, as regular AROnline Contributor David Morgan has something much more analytical in the pipeline and due for publication next week, but what I will say is that my own view on MG Rover’s future survival waivered around like Jon Snow’s Swingometer. One week, it was assured, the next it was doom and gloom. Yet somehow, I still craved the excitement of working there.
Absolute highlights were the amazing sales and marketing masterstroke that was the 2001 Z-Car range – as close as you could get to making silk purses out of sow’s ears. I’ll never forget my first experience at the wheel of a Trophy Blue Y-reg ZS 180, which I drove home key-for-key with a Subaru Impreza WRX. Patriotic bias aside, the ZS was by far the better car.
Or my week-long experience of a ZT 190, a different beast, but the closest thing Britain has ever had to an affordable muscle car, at least this side of the V8-engined ZT 260.
The MG TF made a lot of sense, too. The MGF was needlessly expensive to produce with its Hydragas suspension, the TF was simplified, yet still a charming and entertaining sports car.
Even towards the bitter end, when it was clear that MG Rover could only afford vanity projects, there were engineering gems. I was the first journalist in the world to drive the MG SV-R, and was also driven sideways in it at Bruntingthorpe by MG’s rallying ambassador, Gwyndaf Evans. I loved it, despite its flaws.
Then there was the Streetwise. Whisper it, but I liked the Streetwise… it was way ahead of its time.
On the minus side, I remember the pitiful experience of going from my then girlfriend’s W-registered Rover 45 Connoisseur to a post-Project Drive 2004 MY one that we had in on group test. It was awful compared to my own, early 45 – noisy, plasticky and somehow unfinished.
And then there was the CityRover… We won’t mention the CityRover.
On a corporate level, MG Rover was a journalist’s dream. A real soap opera… Not a week went by where there wasn’t one drama or another to report and, all along the rocky road that was the company’s final two years, my own experience of the MGR’s press office team was exemplary – I still know a few of them today and, having worked in a high pressure corporate PR environment where you have to deliver one piece of bad news after another (I’ve since worked through one factory closure, one brand closure and the biggest near-bankruptcy in US corporate history), I take my hat off to them all for the polite and unruffled way with which they batted off my questions.
Looking back, despite the fact my job application was still in their HR office at the time, I think the moment I realised MG Rover was on the way out was when the tumbleweed was blowing across their stand at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show. Here was a brand with a recently revised product range, which had already paid the exorbitant lease on a stand at Europe’s premier motor show, only to not turn up. That, clearly, was not good news, especially not against the backdrop of a hugely buoyant economy.
Yet throughout all that, my love for the company and glass-half-full optimism meant I always believed there’d be a future. For the past few years, that hasn’t looked great, and while I may (yet again) get some rocks thrown at me for wishing MG Motor a successful future, I don’t care. To still have some form of car making at all in Longbridge means there’s life in the old dog yet and, while Rover may have rolled over, it seems that MG may well just survive – it’ll be interesting to look back at that one in 10 years’ time and see how right (or wrong) I was…