Jason Barlow: Rover's marriage of inconvenience
Tuesday 14 December 2004
These are not good times for prole-targeting Marxist-Leninists.
These are not good times for prole-targeting Marxist-Leninists. The hairy-faced firebrands of the previous generation are all now running the country, trading favours with foreign steel magnates or helping people with their visa applications. Margaret Thatcher may have swept the unions into obsolescence, but the working class disappeared too (for today's working class, read the overtly materialistic "chav"). The bottom line? Everyone is happy. Or possibly unhappy. But a committed capitalist, whatever.
Yet, sweetest of sweet ironies, one of the heroes of the faded revolution is currently having the last laugh. Almost 30 years after the Longbridge union convenor Derek "Red Robbo" Robinson paralysed the British car manufacturing with his agitprop, it looks like communism might be the answer after all. Britain's only remaining "volume" car-maker is cuddling up to the Chinese.
So what do we know? Well, the proposed deal sees the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) injecting £1 billion into MG Rover in exchange for a controlling 70 per cent share. The unions believe this is enough to safeguard the 5,200 jobs at stake in Longbridge. The whole arrangement should escort the reborn MG Rover down the M6 in the direction of the land of milk and honey, while "Land of Hope and Glory" plays stridently in the background.
Or maybe not. Despite recent press excitement and confident statements from MG Rover, this is far from a done deal. Indeed, the Chinese seem irritated that the company's directors have gone public before the ink has even dried. That's understandable, as there's speculation that the ink never will dry, and that when MG Rover finally goes under, it can just blame those slippery Chinese. This endgame could be less than six months away.
But let's rewind for a moment, and examine the two things that have most piqued the interest of observers. First, there's the question of what SAIC can possibly get out of this putative deal. Many things. Now, with flagging domestic sales, dwindling profits and more draconian legislative demands at home, it's gold rush time for the big Western players in the booming Chinese car market.
The potential is enormous; potential profits bigger still. But while the Chinese government is keeping a watching brief on the modernisation of its economy and growth is good, it's not planning to let the West have it all its own way, either. The domestic Chinese car industry needs to get its act together, achieve major uplift and begin a determined export drive. SAIC (now building GM and VW products under licence) is not in a position to achieve this. With a majority chunk of MG Rover and access to its skills, perhaps it'll be able to.
Or maybe not. Why MG Rover? Why choose Dot Cotton if you could have Scarlett Johansson? How much expertise is actually left? Answering this second bunch of issues is much trickier. There are many more attractive potential partners for SAIC, but they guard their technologies jealously and wouldn't consider surrendering the key assets or intellectual property rights in the way that MG Rover has no option but to concede to.
What we're talking about here is a marriage of (in)convenience. MG Rover gets a cash lifeline. The Chinese get a foothold denied to them in major export markets, as well as some Western technical know-how. And we might get a new car, rather than a range of ageing duds that have been facelifted so many times, their headlights have ended up in the boot.
The car in question, which is codenamed RD/X60, looks pretty good, with taut surfacing and the sort of upright modernism for which Rover was once so famous. It's based on a shortened 75 platform, which is stiff and competitively crash-worthy despite its age. And though the 75's sophisticated BMW Z-axle rear suspension is likely to be replaced by a far less tricky torsion beam set-up, there are still enough decent engineers at Rover to rescue it.
Would I buy one? After the Citroen C4, Ford Focus, VW Golf, BMW 1-series, Renault Megane or Peugeot 307, maybe.
Or maybe not.
The writer is the editor of 'Car' magazine
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