MOTORING The sporty Rover's return

The first MG for 15 years was unveiled in Geneva last week. The marque that means sports car is back, says Roger Bell
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The Independent Culture
ANYONE with a whiff of unleaded in their nostrils will be celebrating MG's return this week. The launch of the new MGF at the Geneva motor show last Tuesday marked the second coming of Britain's best-loved sports car. The great provider of motoring whoopee is back in the frame.

Of all the defunct names suspended in the parent Rover's cryogenic vault (Austin, Healey, Morris, Riley, Triumph and Wolseley are still on ice), that of MG had the most sentimental appeal and commercial clout. It was the only obvious candidate for resuscitation, though Healey could yet receive the kiss of life, too. Bernd Pischetsrieder, head of BMW, Rover's owner, is known to have a soft spot for classic British sports cars, and Japan's appetite for them is insatiable.

MG means sports car. Never mind that the legendary initials stand prosaically for Morris Garages, the Oxford-based car dealer that started building special-bodied "bullnose" Morris Cowleys - custom jobs, if you like - 70 years ago under Cecil Kimber, MG's founding father. Since then, the name MG has become synonymous with perky funsters and lightning record breakers: even today, the 255mph achieved by the 1.5-litre EX181 streamliner in 1957 looks impressive.

Though the popular B, the last volume-made two-seater, was pensioned off 15 years ago when MG's Abingdon headquarters was closed, the evocative octagonal logo is still universally admired. MG's pulling power has not been diminished by hibernation. If anything, the reverse is true. Rover's recent limited-edition RV8 retro car, spawned by the B as a stop-gap image booster, has probably done less than the MG Owners' Club (the world's biggest one-make club, with nearly 50,000 members) to sustain interest in a marque buoyed up like few others by nostalgia and affection.

Everyone loves MGs. Real MGs. They are unpretentious, good-time cars, accessible in terms of both driveability and price. There is something about them - call it the Tiger Moth effect - that evokes memories of a golden age of transportation. With their characteristic radiator-grill "grins", they exude a cheeky confidence which is altogether less threatening than that of more macho sports cars. Bluff, blustery and beguiling, they are stronger on character and agility than they are on sheer pace.

Only Ferrari, perhaps, has inspired more books. "The MG charisma is no illusion," writes Wilson McComb in the definitive tome on the marque. "Most models have been honest in design and execution ... they have offered the buyer a slice of motoring pleasure that was at least equal to that of other sports car manufacturers. This is a story of achievement that should not be ignored." MG's general manager, Richard Monk, sums up the car's enduring appeal more simply: "It's an affordable sports car, steeped in history," he says.

From those humble, premium-priced Morris specials evolved a marque that came to symbolise mongrels for the impecunious (about 1.4 million to date), rather than thoroughbreds for the rich. MGs are more flat-cap than deerstalker. They were never like pre-Fiat Alfa Romeos, custom-built down to the last rivet. To keep costs and prices down, they drew heavily on the parts bins of adjacent mainstream runabouts. Exceptions like the expensive 1958 MGA Twin Cam, which had its own tetchy engine, were generally short-lived. Morris (later Nuffield) was the first donor of vital organs. Subsequently, parts came from the troubled conglomerate that evolved into the Rover Group via BMC, BMH and British Leyland.

Purists who dismiss as unworthy mutts the family MGs made since the demise of the B in 1980 forget that rakish saloons have been a part of MG's game plan since the Thirties. However, even Rover now concedes that Metros, Maestros and Montegos in MG drag may have taken badge-engineering too far. There will be no more Magnas, Magnettes, SAs, Y-types or, heaven forbid, turbo-charged Montegos. Rover has pledged to restrict the MG imprint in future to exclusive sports cars like the F. That leaves room for an F two-plus-two and a V6 derivative before the decade is out, but not for an MG-badged Rover coup.

At least the MGF remains quintessentially British. It owes nothing to BMW or Honda, Rover's estranged partner, though Mazda might have played a catalytic role in its birth. By rekindling demand for the sort of alfresco motoring that Britain once sold en masse to the world, through MG and its arch-rival Triumph, Mazda's MX-5 is said to have influenced Rover's decision to relaunch a ragtop two-seater. Not that the pert MX-5, currently the world's most popular sports car (with 350,000 sales), is the F's only serious competitor. Also unveiled at Geneva last week was Fiat's Punto- based front-drive Barchetta and Renault's spectacular Speeder - a concept prototype destined for small-scale production.

Other rivals include Alfa Romeo's Spider, BMW's Roadster, the coming new Lotus (as well as the ongoing Elan), Caterham's, sleek new 21 and the resurrected Reliant Sabre. After a decade or more of hot-hatch substitutes, real sports cars are back.

The MGF may have wrong-footed Jaguar (what will it now call the E-type's successor?) and number-plate speculators anticipating the MGD (they forgot the fourth and fifth letters of the alphabet had been allocated by Rover to stillborn MG prototypes), but sports car freaks should be drooling neat Castrol. Technically, the new mould-breaking MG is more Toyota MR2 than Mazda MX-5. As in the sports Toyota, the F's four-cylinder engine is mounted behind the cockpit, Ferrari style, which is the ideal place for it dynamically, if not the cheapest. It provides race-car balance and traction, not to mention light steering, at the expense of packaging efficiency. Who needs spare space in a sports car?

The bodywork, styled in-house by Rover, is uniquely MG but, true to form, much of the running gear is shared. Though the F-type's 1.8- litre engines are new (there's a choice between 120 and 145 horsepower), their significance is that they will reduce Rover's dependence on expensive Honda engines in other models. The more powerful of the two, the 130mph 1.8 VCC (for variable valve control), has an amazing induction system which boosts performance without penalising economy or emissions.

In utilising as many borrowed parts as possible, including interconnected Hydragas suspension la Metro/100, the F espouses classic rationalisation. Humble though its genes may be, however, the sum of the parts really is quite special. Perhaps too special for those cash-strapped enthusiasts who were expecting a simpler, more affordable car. If the F breaks with tradition it is in being more upmarket, more aspirational than most previous MGs. Not that the MG Owners' Club is complaining: "We think Rover has a winner. The new car has our full support," says Richard Monk.

The MG's prices won't be announced until the summer, but they are expected to span the £16,000-£18,500 range - that's more than the MX-5, but less than an MR2. That the MGF is to be sold through only 125 selected Rover dealers (out of around 600) suggests a degree of exclusivity that eluded MGs A, B and C, never mind the Midget.

Cecil Kimber might not have recognised the technically sophisticated F as a typical MG, but he'd surely have been proud of it. !