Sean O'Grady: The car that died for a lack of love
Published 12/09/2007 | 15:09
I think I've found out why MG Rover went bust. No one loved it. Sorry, I did that for dramatic effect. Obviously lots of people loved it.
They loved the interesting cars that came out in spite of the fact that the firm was strapped for cash; they loved the heritage; they loved the Brummies who worked there, maybe apart from the "Phoenix Four" who oversaw its final collapse. There have been some nasty allegations about those boys. No too many people loved MG Rover sufficiently to actually buy a Rover 75 or MG ZR, but there we are.
However, having met the project manager of the doomed RDX60 project, I now know why MG Rover didn't have a future. I recently bumped into this individual at a car launch, and he was more than happy to talk to me about the project he worked on – although he was employed not by MG Rover, but by TWR, the consultancy that was charged with engineering it. He was also keen not to allow his identity to be known; presumably because none of us wish to be associated with failure, however heroic.
"No one loved it," was what he said about the RDX60. It was about five years ago that MG Rover was putting what it could into the much-needed replacement for the Rover 25 and 45. It was the mid-market car to compete with the Focus/Astra/Golf classes of this world. Without it, MG Rover really was going to be relegated to the Lada class of car manufacturing – selling an outdated design for a rock-bottom price. No fancy grilles were going to alter that. It was, as so many had been, a "make or break" car. But unlike, say, the Metro in 1980, there was little fervour attached to it.
My contact himself was pretty much told that he'd be taking responsibility for the vehicle, seemingly because no one else at TWR wanted to touch it. Perhaps they sensed the vibes from MG Rover. It seems that throughout the entire development of the new MG/Rover, none of the Phoenix Four – men who, after all, actually owned this company and not just managed its decline – ever came to see it. Like a neglected child in care, it was never seen by it parents. They had better things to do, cavorting with their fancy Chinese and Indian suitors. Everyone knew that MG Rover didn't have much cash; it's a bit more disappointing that it didn't have much faith.
The next most depressing thing about my contact's tale was the revelation that RDX60 was going to be no world-beater; it was a "mediocre" thing. Now, if that meant that it was, say, as good as a Focus or a Golf, that would be praise indeed. But coming from a small carmaker that really needed a hit, "mediocre" was not going to be good enough.
The "alternative history" of MG Rover can now therefore be written, with the "what ifs" filled in. If MG Rover had somehow found the money to build the car – courtesy of Tata, Nanjing Motors, Shanghai Automotive or HM Government – it would have gone on to the market and achieved respectable – but no more – sales success. Appropriately (given MG Rover's sponsorship of them), it would have been an Aston Villa of a car, not a Chelsea. End of.
And, by the way, where's the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's report into the MG Rover collapse? It's cost nearly £10m so far – and I've beaten 'em to the story.