And the old shall be made new: Why is this year's Motor Show, which opens in Birmingham next week, like a revivalist meeting? Gavin Green explains

THE British International Motor Show, this country's showcase for all that is new and shiny in the car business, will have an unusual star this year: a 30-year-old MG. This says all you need to know about the state of the British motor industry.

The MG RV8 is a rebodied and mechanically revised MGB. It uses a tweaked version of the Range Rover's aluminium V8 engine - which itself goes back to the early Sixties - and has new body panels, apart from the doors, scuttle and sills. The suspension has been heavily facelifted, but cannot hide its antiquity: its rear suspension uses archaic leaf springs. Ride comfort is unlikely to be one of the car's strong points.

Like all new Rovers, the RV8 will be substantially better made than British cars used to be. Classy leather and wood swathe the cabin, and the paint and panel fit are in a different league from previous MGs (as, owners of old models will be glad to hear, is rust protection).

The price is in a different league, too: the RV8 costs pounds 26,500. But Rover, increasingly good at marketing (and increasingly hesitant when it comes to engineering innovation), is confident that there are sufficient buyers to gobble up the small production run of 15 cars a week. The target customer is the executive in his forties who wants a classic car to play with at weekends, but does not want to get dirty maintaining it. The RV8, after all, is backed by a warranty, by Rover's big dealer network, and should be more reliable than any old MG.

While the car is something of an engineering irrelevance, it is of great significance to Rover. It is the first of a new breed of MGs, and represents the marque's return to the sports car scene after an absence of a dozen years. Next up, in about three years, will be a smaller and cheaper mid-engined roadster. This will be completely new and made in greater volume than the RV8.

Rover has a few other new models at Birmingham. The 200 coupe range, which includes the fastest car the firm has ever made, should give the handsome Vauxhall Calibra some competition in the burgeoning coupe segment. The Rover 400, in effect a 200 with a boot grafted on, gets a new nose, like the one on the latest Rover 800, to give it more class. And, as if a new 30-year-old car is not enough, Rover will launch a cabriolet version of the 33-year-old Mini alongside its new soft-top Metro. At more than pounds 12,000, the Mini makes the MG look great value.

Still on the subject of old cars being given new leases, the Range Rover has just had the most thorough overhaul of its 22-year history. The new air-sprung longer-wheelbase model, the Vogue LSE, is also the priciest Range Rover ever, at a fiver below pounds 40,000.

While the British motor industry may be in bad shape, the motor industry in Britain is doing very well - largely thanks to the Japanese. Recent research suggests that by the turn of the century, Britain will be building more cars than any other European country, apart from Germany. Nissan is already well established in Sunderland, production of the new Honda Accord has begun in Swindon, and the first Carina E will arrive at the end of Toyota's Derbyshire production line late this year.

The most important new British Japanese car to be shown at the NEC is the Nissan Micra. A rounded, distinctive and friendly looking little vehicle, the new Micra is the first small Japanese saloon to be made in Europe. It competes in the biggest sector of Europe's car market, against the likes of the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio, Peugeot 205 and Fiat Uno. Key target markets include France, Italy and Spain, where Japanese imports are restricted but sales of EC-made 'Japanese' cars are not.

Of the other British-based but foreign-owned makers, Ford is showing its restyled new Escort and Orion models, two years after unveiling its last versions. Why has Ford revised these cars so soon? Because the original cars were dynamic duds, deficient in ride, handling and mechanical refinement. They got a pasting from the press, and from many owners. Ford knew it had to do better, so it has revised the cars mechanically in the past year, and has now changed the styling, too. As a result the cars are much better, if not class winners. Birmingham will also be the last major motor show appearance of the Sierra, now 10 years old: it will be replaced early next year by the front-wheel-drive Mondeo.

Ford's two British prestige makers, Aston Martin and Jaguar, both have new cars at Birmingham. The Aston Martin Vantage, based on the cheaper (if pounds 134,000 is cheap) Virage model, has a supercharged V8 motor that is said to be the most powerful engine ever fitted to a road car. Full details will be announced on Tuesday.

Troubled Jaguar has introduced a host of revisions to its XJ6-series saloon, including fitting a driver airbag as standard. In all, 139 changes are being made to the core structure of the car. Externally, though, the new model has not been altered, proof that Jaguar is still as poor at marketing as ever.

General Motors' Vauxhall is to show mildly facelifted versions of the Cavalier, and a new British- made V6 engine to go in it. The engine will eventually find its way into a host of other Vauxhall models and various Saabs. The British-made Peugeot 405 is also facelifted, and gets a more solid dashboard.

The European makers never treat the Birmingham Show that seriously - the Paris Salon is usually held just before, and guess which city busy German, French and Italian car bosses prefer?

Fiat, however, is showing off its Cinquecento baby car, several months before UK sales start. Citroen has three-door versions of its excellent ZX, including a 16-valve sports model. BMW will show its V8-powered 7-series models, which compete against big Mercedes and Jaguars. Lancia, further in the doldrums than ever in the UK, has a restyled Thema executive car which, sadly, is unlikely to excite much interest.

Mercedes' biggest selling model, the mid-range W124 series, has just been upgraded with multi-valve engines. There will be a range of new models on display, including an estate and a pounds 44,950 cabriolet four-seater. Also making its British debut is the new SEC coupe: the top V12 model will cost pounds 93,500. Renault shows its new Safrane executive car, but not the new baby, Twingo. The Safrane is likely to join other recent big French cars on the UK sales scrapheap: Britons just do not like big French or Italian saloons, no matter how their makers may tempt us and no matter how handsome the offerings.

Back on the subject of rising from the dead - this year's unofficial theme - Chrysler returns to the UK after a 13-year absence (when it sold its European operation, including its Ryton plant, to Peugeot). The American maker is showing its pounds 50,000, 165mph Viper sports car, and two new Jeep models, thereby reviving another great name from the past. The pounds 12,995 Wrangler takes on the smaller Japanese off-roaders, while the bigger pounds 15,995 Cherokee will provide stern competition for the much pricier Land-Rover Discovery, and the top off-road models from Mitsubishi and Toyota.

The British International Motor Show is held at the NEC in Birmingham from Saturday 24 October to Sunday 1 November. Opening times: 9am to 7.30pm (9am to 5.30pm on the last day). Prices: pounds 7 adults, pounds 3.50 accompanied children and senior citizens.

(Photograph omitted)

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