Back in 2001 MG Rover launched the MG Z series saloon range, a short term sticking plaster to keep sales up and buy some more time for new models to be developed. With some effective (if a little crude in places) engine and suspension tweaks from Rob Oldaker, and styling changes from Peter Stevens and Harris Mann, it was a decent attempt to get some good publicity and a bit of breathing space for the company. Christ knows the place needed it; MG Rover was overstaffed and building cars in decrepit surroundings, but at least they now had a focused, bullish management team looking to grab the company by the scruff of its neck and get MGR speeding towards a brighter future.
Well, that’s what we were led to believe anyway because, at the same time as the ZT launch, that so-called focused team had wet their fingers and stuck them in some handy plug sockets to green light one of the most stupid decisions ever in automotive history was also made. MG would produce a new car to headline the range. A ‘halo’ model. AN SUPERCAR.
Precisely why any of the directors at MG Rover thought it would be a great idea to waste millions on stretching the MG brand far, far beyond its traditional markets can only be explained by those involved. Unsurprisingly, Towers, Stephenson, Beale and Edwards tend to shy away from talking to anyone these days. Which is a shame, because any written notes taken of the meetings they had about this mental idea would make for fucking hilarious reading.
Anyway, the chain of events to all this started over in Italy, where Qvale were wondering what to do with a steaming turd of a sports car called the Mangusta, which they had bankrolled DeTomaso to create for them. Launched less than a year earlier in the US and inspired by the TVR Griffith, the Mangusta had already spent about 6 years in development, cost a minor fortune to get out the door, and was tanking. And with good reason too; chassis designer Enrique Scalabroni came up with a heavy brick of a platform festooned with awkward hard points for Gandini to drape something sexy over it. The legendary stylist took one look at this brick on wheels and went on a 5-day Grappa fuelled bender, finally delivering a shape for the Mangusta that can only be described as pigshit ugly. Very pigshit ugly.
Qvale were now in a bit of a jam and so to try and give sales volumes a lift they went looking for a partner to put the Mangusta in European showrooms. After trying everyone they could think of and getting the bums rush, an office junior got out the Giallo Pages, found the number for MG Rover and got through to Nick Stephenson, where he was asked if he fancied a tie-up.
This is where things went badly awry.
If anyone else with a brain at Longbridge had taken the call they would have politely turned down the idea of their dealers being distracted away from selling MG and Rover badged cars for some bloated, gopping tat. The issues of replacing three ageing models and turning round a fourth, plus sorting out a troublesome petrol engine and finding a new diesel, should have been far more important than helping out another company in an even worse position.
But for some reason, Qvale’s call sparked a deranged idea about making V8 powered high-performance models, headlined with a powerful sporty number for £40 grand to get loads of attention for the company and push for a tidy slice of the premium market. And on the face of it, who wouldn’t be attracted to the idea of coming up with a range of batshit fast motors? Churning out dreary little hatchbacks and olde-worlde saloons is so boring. Glamour, speed, desire, that’s where MG Rover needed to be. And the Mangusta, with a chassis ripe for re-bodying, seemed to be the perfect cut-price place to start.
The idea may sound perfectly reasonable, inspired even. But there were a few minor details that made the whole caper an unspeakably idiotic suicide mission.
First, MG had no history and no credibility in competing in a rarefied market dominated by the likes of the Porsche Boxster. The utterly gorgeous MG-EXE, unveiled back in the mid-Eighties and a concept very much in the same vein as this idea from MGR, was little more than a pitch for more talented designers to come and work for Roy Axe. Harold Musgrove ruled out any idea of it entering production – and he was bang on the money there. MG’s brand history was rooted in mildly jigged up saloons and modestly sporty two-seaters. And if you still think an MG supercar is a fantastic idea then take a look at the VW Phaeton – a luxo barge with the Beetle’s badge on the nose. You only see them at airport taxi ranks or chuffing round council estates. Way to go, Piech.
Second, if you’re going to make a move upmarket you need to do it from a financially sound position – and even then be aware it could cost you. BMW found this out the hard way when it produced the 507, a nice V8 roadster based on the 500 saloon platform at the suggestion of US dealer head Max Hoffman. It very nearly put them out of business. VW lost money on every Phaeton built and only continued to make them because Chairman Piech refused to admit his pet project was a stupid idea only driven by his ego. MGR needed every penny to focus on sorting out the core problems they had, not pursue a man-in-a-shed fantasy.
Third, if you’re going to make something expensive, make it desirable. Strangely, MG did at first have a stab at this when they launched the X80 concept. The awkwardness of the Mangusta underpinnings compromised the styling – check out the grille treatment for the radiator / underbonnet airflow – but it did have some promise, if also erring towards being a bit bland. It needed work, particularly on the flanks, and the detail was lacking, but it had some potential.
Somehow then, this daft twattish idea had resulted in a concept that, if nothing else, didn’t look laughably bad. So who downed a pint of gin one lunchtime and threw it out for a pimp-my-ride tank?
The smart money seems to be on MD Kevin Howe, who has form for such stupidity; his insistence on the 75 Coupe nose using the David Brent grille, specifying the ZT380 with an almost undriveable suspension setup, and later repeated his complete disregard for taste when selecting the hideous final design for the RDX60 tells you everything about this fat, shouty clown. But little matter, it was Peter Stevens who took on the new brief to replace the slightly dull X80 and out-do TVR with the SV, a blunt-nosed, be-winged, Millwall FC tattooed bastard that could only be loved by a 4 year old tripping on blue Smarties. The interior continued the two-fingered salute to style with wobbly switchgear and trim not so much fitted inside as casually hurled in from a considerable distance. It was enough to make kit car builders shake their heads in disappointment.
And last, a car really needs to be as efficient to build as possible. Oh boy, did they take a dump on this one. Carbonfibre panels made in the UK, chassis made in Modena, all trucked to Turin for slapping together with engines from Michigan before shipment back to Birmingham for ‘fitting out’. A logistic and production nightmare that only the blindly stubborn would allow to go ahead, although after dithering about with this project while the cash reserves started to dwindle there was little choice. Yes, the exotic materials made the SV over 100Kg lighter than the Mangusta. But it forced a massive price hike – the top line SV-R model was now camped in 911 GT3 territory. The MG SV was Cherie Blair pitched against Heidi Klum in a swimsuit contest.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that the company folded before the SV was on sale for too long, although that fact that 80 were shifted still makes you marvel at how some people lose all rational sense and part with their money for such a grunting cow’s arse of a motor. But the sheer folly of the idea, and the waste of resources and money accompanying it, means that the SV will forever be remembered not as a some sort of last hurrah, but as a shining example of the incompetence of the people who took over the MG and Rover names and ensured they died the most undignified of deaths. And for that they deserve our everlasting derision.
There is a place in our hearts here at MacDroitwich that will always belong to the R8 Rover 200/400 Series.
I have blogged previously about just how fantastic I find this glorious range of cars yet I do find myself questioning just how good they actually were.
My reasons for doing so are quiet simple really; 1. whenever we get into discussions about the R8 and talk about it’s rivals, we find it so easy to dismiss virtually every one of them and 2. despite the fact almost a million R8s were made, so few remain (and I’m not just talking about now, they’ve been disappearing massively for the last 10 years).
So let’s look at the rivals first; starting with the Escort. Ford replaced one of the UK’s best-selling cars with one of the most uselessly powered, under-developed cars seen before or since. A major bollock-dropped.
Vauxhall’s Astra, again a good seller had just been subject to a very minor facelift shortly after the launch of the R8 that did little to lift it to the same levels of quality or refinement that had been set by Rover, the Astra F that followed in 1991 felt a big step away from this, yet still struggled to match the R8.
Then there was Renault. It’s recently released 19 range had replaced the 9 & 11 and, despite being built to decidedly ‘French’ standards, rather than those that Rover had set the bar at, was a competent car, escpecially as you went up the range.
It’s a similar story with Citroen and their ZX model, the Volcane and GTI were a glorious thing, the versatility of the estate model giving particular cause for concern too, as Rover’s 400 tourer set itself more as competition for the Alfa 33 Sportwagon, BMW 3-series Touring and the like, rather than for the lower-end of the market occupied by the ZX.
Peugeot were in the unfortunate position that the 309 was beginning to feel very out-dated and the 306 was still 2-3 years away. Once the 306 did arrive however, this proved itself to be worthy competition to the 200/400, even if indirectly.
There are similar stories throughout every brand you look at; the VW Golf in MkII and MkIII form had strong followings, regardless of their obvious flaws – lacklustre performance and rust being but two; the Volvo 440/460 range was another, hampered by it’s engine range – borrowed in-part from Renault – and also held back by it’s handling and it’s price-tag.
The Fiat Tipo, Nissan Sunny, Toyota Corolla and Mazda 323 all formed part of a disappointing field of runners & riders that, it could be said, helped galvanise the image of the R8 whether justified, or not.
Now I’m not saying that the R8 doesn’t deserve it’s reputation. The K-series, at time of release, was a revelation. The build quality and fit and finish was a class above the rivals. It looked fantastic, drove superbly and evolved into a diverse range that offered economy or scorching performance, brought hatchbacks, coupés, saloons, estates and cabriolets and a choice of gearboxes. A real range.
No, I’m saying that perhaps, had there been better competition out there, then maybe, just maybe it wouldn’t have felt as good.
That brings me on to the second point; is the survival-rate down to the fact that, once better alternatives DID come about, was it worth saving them anymore?
The R8 was the most successful car since British Leyland days in terms of volume, yet at a time when other brands where thriving, I hope, it was because of the positives that it possessed, rather than the flawed crap it had to compete with – I’m much happier thinking that it was.
As far back as late 1994, Rover’s designers had all but settled on the final look for the firm’s new flagship model. A retro-inspired design that some would say was intended to court controversy with it’s combination of cutting-edge technology and classic design cues.
OK, so we all know that side of the story, however, at no point during the endless design meetings and focus group sessions that no doubt took place, did those talented Rover Group folk account for the proportion of future owners that would be devoid of taste to such an extent, their cars would end up looking like they had ram-raided a tacky shop owned by some straggly-haired vegetarian specialising in wind-chimes and health crystals.
For reasons no one can quite work out, anyone who now owns a 75, is over-come by the all-engrossing desire to stick anything from plastic wood, plastic chrome, extra badges and even chrome wheel embellishers on top of alloy wheels, to these once fine vehicles.
Indeed, on the Rover 75 & ZT owners club website, a topic regarding ‘walnut*’ accessories runs to 138 pages.
It is done in such a hap-hazard, nonsensical manner, one can only assume these imbeciles are either in the final stages of dementia, are suffering from a traumatic childhood experience that has clouded their judgement so poorly that nothing makes sense any longer or they are simply motoring arseholes.
I love the R40 and always have, yet I would gladly see these utterly RUINED specimens sent to the crusher rather than prolong their indignity any further – ideally with their owner still sat in the fake-wood festooned flea-pits.
As we so often end up saying;
WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
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