For the latest instalment in our MGR@10 Month coverage, Craig Cheetham catches up with MG Rover’s former Product PR Manager (among other things), Kevin Jones.
Kevin, who is now Head of Communications for Peugeot in the UK, went to work for what was then British Leyland as his very first job and remained there for over a quarter of a century, right up until the company’s final days. He is also one of the motor industry’s true gentlemen, and a bona fide car enthusiast with an MG TF of his own.
AROnline’s Editor caught up with Kevin earlier this year to ask if he’d be happy to talk about MG Rover Group’s demise to coincide with the 10th anniversary. Here, he speaks openly about those final days for the very first time, including how he accidentally killed off the supercharged MG ZT 260 – it’s a fascinating read…
How long did you work for MG Rover Group (or whatever it was called that week), during which years, and in what capacity?
26.5 years to be precise – 21 August 1978 until 9 April 2005 (JRT Technical Apprentice, five years in Press Garage admin and the rest in the Press Office, mostly as Product Press Officer).
What was the best moment of your time there?
I had many ‘good times’ at the sharp-end, but surprisingly, the last ones were some of the best – simply because we were in control (not held by a bigger force), spoke plain English, it was exciting and we got things done in weeks that a big organisation would take months to accomplish.
What was the worst?
The British Aerospace times were not times of great security – we always knew it was transitionary.
Which Austin/Rover/MG model do you believe was the best, and did/do you have a personal favourite?
That’s quite a hard question, given that times get better every decade. I would probably pick the SD1 Vitesse – I saw it develop (from prototype ‘Rover Rapide’) and subsequently had so many good times in it. They even made models of the press cars…
Is there a car they should have launched, but didn’t?
The MG Metro Turbo was due to look like the Tickford Metro – with carbon-fibre wings, etc. It looked fab, but didn’t make it. Another in later times was the Supercharged MG ZT V8 – which wasn’t due to get the 2004MY look. I said to Kevin Howe that it was ridiculous (that it wouldn’t) and he agreed – so cancelled it!
And is there one they did, but shouldn’t have?
The CityRover was the Tata Indica and not something we felt was a true Rover. It met a brief, but was too late and too cheap to make a difference. There was too much resistance to accept the changes that we knew were necessary.
MG Rover did a pretty good job of keeping the wolf from the door after the BMW sale by launching the Z-car range of Rover-based MGs. Were these in planning before BMW departed, and how much of a role did they play in providing ‘life support’ to the brands?
Immediately we had freedom from BMW, the whole product range was reviewed. There had been some assumed relationships with Lola (from where Nick Stephenson had been) to produce ‘MG Lola’ versions. When it was decided it couldn’t or shouldn’t happen, a way of placating Lola was to run the Le Mans car – which partly explains why we ran so many XPower-backed race programmes – 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.
How soon in the run up to the events of April 2005 did you realise it had started to go badly wrong? And at what precise moment did you know the writing was on the wall?
Every day you went to work wondering, but, honestly, only as we entered 2005 did the clues begin to assemble. We’d hear some suppliers hadn’t been paid. But we just kept our heads down and hoped the China deal would come to something. It was quite a possibility and seemed plausible.
Did you ever, hand on heart, believe that MG Rover was going to have a long-term future, and if so, in what form did you expect that to happen – as a volume or niche manufacturer?
It certainly could have – but for the number of employees. There were too many for the business requirements. Individuals were often displaced, Engineers came into Marketing as ‘experts’, but it couldn’t be sustained with those overheads. We had considerable latent talents but often it was against all odds.
The model was operating as something of both – and our success kept us in business a couple more years than the critics believed. It could have continued, but the moment of change occurred when it became a story about the Phoenix Four pensions’ issue. I think the end was drawn from that moment.
In your opinion, what could the various stakeholders have done differently (if anything) to see MG Rover survive in one form or another?
We were a private company, thought of still as a public one. The Directors were playing poker with the banks, but had a smaller company been formed with choice people and facilities, maybe a division of its former magnificence could have taken it forward. Also, SAIC were badly advised – because, had they taken it over, as was, most likely more of it would have survived, albeit the product integrity was ageing fast – and, 10 years later, it has still not caught up.
How close to production did the RDX60 get? And do you believe it could have been the answer to MGR’s problems?
It wasn’t – to both questions. It was flawed – a cut and shut, used existing platform technology and was too big (and ugly, to be frank).
Likewise, how production-viable were the coupe variants of the Rover 75 and MG TF?
Both were concept flights of fantasy, to show prospect-Chinese that our designs had future potential, but they were both a façade. With time they could have been made, but there was no money…
Was MG Rover right to concentrate on low-volume specialist models such as the SV supercar, ZT 260 and 75 V8?
The plan was to build a ‘staircase to heaven’ with MG the exciting and dynamic brand. With all the many things done and achieved, never before has a brand moved so fast and up, than was achieved with MG in those few years. The V8s were part of that strategy and would have been delivered two years previously had the contract to make them not been offered to Prodrive, who dithered. When it came back inside it took months to deliver, which explains why we had the pre-2004 look. Also, because the Ford V8 was being used, we only had a short time to use them before emissions regulations prevented it from being sold.
Some would say the SV was even more risky. Just 30 RHD and 30 LHDs were made, but every brand needs a halo product and it was right, if too expensive, but the critics didn’t always understand the journey we were taking – such was the speed of its acceleration.
Today, 10 years after the dust has settled, do you look at things more pragmatically, and do you still feel an emotional connection to MG Rover?
Absolutely… I certainly believe we did everything possible to keep the company alive. Our part was keeping it going for much longer that would normally have been the case. Fate and inevitability were unfortunate, but we’d had so many ‘last rites’ moments, it in itself became the normal survival condition. It wasn’t comfortable, but our pride was in our survival.
It remains a major part of my life and I have few regrets. We did it with honour, respect and good business ethics – nothing underhand.
It’s not much, but there’s still an MG presence at Longbridge. What do you think the long-term prognosis is for the MG brand, and is it right to bring it back under Chinese ownership?
In my mind, I’ve moved on and times change. I had the better years, spent more time as a PR for these two brands than any other and came away with my reputation in place, so can’t really speak about its future in others hands – just to say I was very lucky to have had the experience.
And finally… could you ever envisage Rover, Austin, Morris, Triumph or any of the other former BMC/BL/ARG brands returning to the European market?
Only in my dreams… BMW retained ownership of some Triumph (Spitfire) and other names, but these are now protected for posterity and as products of history and times passed. When the Z3 was launched, there was a real attempt made to use its platform for an MG and Austin Healey. It could have worked, a la VAG Group, but BMW was quite protective and little open to risk.