The strange rebirth of MG Rover MSN Cars UK

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SAIC Roewe E50 Electric Cars

The strange rebirth of MG Rover

It takes a real shock to silence cynical motor industry journalists but that’s what happened when we walked into the MG Design and Engineering Centre at Longbridge in Birmingham.

And no, you are not reading an old story. The year is 2010 and I am not, as I wished in my youth, a Tardis-equipped Dr Who.

But, after five years of increasingly bizarre stories and rumours following the collapse of the MG Rover company, it is absolute fact that the two car brands are being reincarnated Dr Who style; the same only different.

Back to the future

Both are back on the road even though the owners changed again along the way. That’s worse double jeopardy than you read in a thriller when the bad guys are closing in and the building is on fire.

MG design centre

The Rover name, as some may know has morphed into the slightly odd Roewe because of ownership issues with a badge that looks like television’s New Avengers meet a chequer board. There are no plans to sell these cars in the UK or Europe.

When MG Rover collapsed in 2005 with debts said to be around £1.3 billion many people thought that was the last we would see and hear of either marque.

But such thoughts underestimated how the passion for certain things makes people fight to keep them going no matter the odds.

For, by the end of 2010, MG will launch a brand new five-door Fastback, the MG6, in the UK followed by a saloon during 2011.

Plans are also in hand for a racy three-door number (MG3 anyone?) based on the MG Zero concept car unveiled at the Beijing Motor Show followed by a new two-seater sports car to replaced the venerable MG TF further in the future.

High-five 75

MG clay model department

That any of these cars are coming seems out of Harry Potter’s book of tricks, yet even the Rover spirit lives on in the genes of the Roewe 550, a car derived from the Rover 75 and which has gone on to become the most successful car ever launched in China by a Chinese manufacturer.

That manufacturer is SAIC, or the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, (SAIC) which bought selected assets of MG Rover from Nanking, another, smaller, Chinese company.

Nanjing had bought the assets of MG Rover for £53 million after the car firm went bust. SAIC made 2.72 million cars last year of which 90,000 were MGs and Roewes. The Roewe 550 accounted for 64,000 sales.

Longbridge lives

While this was happening 5,700 miles away, at home doom and gloom stories and rumours said the vast Longbridge factory had been flattened and turned into a supermarket and that the valuable production lines had been shipped to China.

Neither story was true though some of the huge site has been built on and some is available for building.

Even the advanced paint shop has not gone. It is merely mothballed awaiting the better times that MG’s owners, SAIC, are sure will come.

Driving through the white gates familiar from so many newspaper pictures and television programmes was definitely eerie, despite the cheery Hello mate, who are you here to see?

There has been so much history here at the former head quarters of Lord Austin, British Leyland, BL, firebrand shop steward Red Robbo, Sir Michael Edwardes, BMW and, of course, John Towers and his crew who bought the business off BMW for £10.

But to open a door in MG Motor UK’s engineering centre and suddenly be confronted by literally hundreds of people sitting behind glowing computer screens was amazing.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop as we stood there open mouthed as if we had discovered the lair of a Bond villain hidden behind an innocent looking sweetshop in a provincial town.

Designing for China

Dave Lindley, president of UK operation

That’s most people’s reaction, said Dave Lindley, president of SAIC Motor Technical Centre UK, to give it its full name, and the man largely responsible for saving MG and its proud 85 year history of making sporting cars.

The Design Centre, opened to the media for the first time in 25 years was equally fascinating.

The MG Zero concept car with its unusual rear lights hidden behind a dark rear panel until illuminated and neon-like exterior trim features, one of the stars of the Beijing Motor Show, wasn’t designed in China as commonly believed.

It was created here on computer and with clay models by a team led by design chief Tony Williams-Kenny, a graduate of Coventry University.

The amount of spare space spoke volumes: other new, secret designs had been moved from the prying eyes of visitors.

Video conferencing takes place nearly every morning for an hour or so between Brum and the mother ship in Shanghai.

But while clocks on the wall show the time in the two cities, the enthusiastic Birmingham team is clearly the guiding light in all matters MG.

From a UK perceptive we have been able to influence the MG6 massively, says Lindley. We can ensure it meets the characteristics we have in mind for the car.

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Handling expert Andy Kitson, a keen amateur racer, assures me the car will be agile and without a bone-shaking ride.

MG testing system

We also bring considerable programme vehicle experience, points out Lindley, also a very keen driver and who worked previously at Rover and Lotus and still owns a Lotus Exige.

Our average engineer has 20 years’ experience while the teams in China are very young.

Ninety per cent of the content of MG6 initially will be Chinese sourced with the cars for the UK being assembled mainly from kits at Longbridge but that is to be expected this early in the car’s history.

If the car is as successful as we hope then we will start adding other models and looking at more UK sourcing, says Lindley.

Guy Jones, sales and marketing director, points out: We have full car engineering facilities on this site and significant manufacturing capacity has been maintained.

Team effort

MG Technical Centre

In the electrical lab section a computerised map is showing in real time details of an MG in Austria checking out a new satellite navigation system.

Nothing is being left to chance. I wonder where they stop for their pork sandwiches?

Though we have seen precious little MG activity in the UK, apart from some handling and trim adjustments to the TF roadster, the centre has been busy designing and engineering Roewe models for China.

In the style of the Blues Brothers getting the band back together, when MG Rover crashed in 2005 Lindley kept the highly skilled engineering team together by setting up a consultancy as part of the Ricardo automatic solutions group.

Realising that a company’s most important assets were its people, in 2007 SAIC bought the business to create the SAIC technical centre.

A year later, almost unknown even to people living in the area it relocated to Longbridge. The centre employs nearly 300 staff and plans to take on up to 50 more. Setting up the centre has cost more than £3 million and a further £1.7 million is being spent on engine test facilities this year.

Some £20 million a year is already being spent with UK and European parts suppliers.

Inside the design centre

MG is busy developing new petrol and diesel engines and work is also progressing on manual and automatic gearboxes and electric-hybrids.

SAIC Roewe E50 Electric Cars

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