Rover takes the lead in open-top revival

Sales of open-top sports cars, which had all but died out just 10 years ago, are soaring to their highest levels since the glory days of the 1970s according to motor industry figures, as affluent buyers rush to spend rising disposable incomes.

Rover's decision to revive the MG concept with its new hi-tech small sports convertible, the MGF, ignited a sales explosion which relieved executives hope will become a prolonged shift in consumer buying patterns. In 1996, its first full year on the market, Rover sold 6,180 MGFs, with waiting lists at dealers stretching from weeks into months. At one stage in 1996, second-hand MGF prices were higher than the list price of new cars.

However, the knock-on impact of the MGF launch has kick-started the whole market, leading to an surge in sales of the first of the new breed of small convertibles, the Mazda MX5, costing between pounds 14,500 and pounds 18,500. Introduced in 1989, the MX5's UK sales had fallen from 2,246 to only 910 by 1993. Doom-mongers in the industry warned the demand for small sports cars had been grossly overestimated.

Yet last year Mazda sold almost 4,000 MX5s, outstripping demand for what were thought to be "volume" models such as Ford's hard-top coupe, the Probe. So far in 1997 sales are even stronger, with MX5 sales in the UK outselling the US.

Jay Nagley, an industry expert with the marketing consultancy Quadrangle, explained: "The introduction of new models like the MGF has led to a revival of interest in existing ones like the MX5. The sports car market is notoriously fickle and the winners in the convertible market have badly hit sales elsewhere for other car makers."

Mazda said buyers tended to be either the "independent young," aged under 30, or the "independent old". Rover said buyers of the Longbridge-built MGF, which costs up to pounds 19,500, came from all age groups with a 50-50 split between men and women.

David Heslop, managing director of Mazda Cars UK, said: "The economic recovery is there and that clearly helps, but what we've done is to reflect rising consumer confidence by aggressive pricing. As the economy begins to lift, all kinds of new customers are saying to themselves `why don't we take the plunge?'"

However, both manufacturers insisted they were not about to flood the UK market with convertibles. "We've deliberately not raised MGF production. As long as supply and demand stay as they are then used prices will stay high and that's only what new buyers deserve," said a Rover spokesman.