When the last MGB came off the production line on 23 October 1980, victim of a high pound and British Leyland's incompetence, it was more than the end of just another car. More than half a million MGBs had been produced in 28 years. Despite its many faults, it had brought fun to millions who could not afford the flash of the E-Type or Aston. Terry Waite, whose MGB was restored by the MG Car Club while he was a hostage, called it 'a classic English car . . . a lovely car to drive - the nearest thing to sailing'.
Last week, Rover, as BL is now called, agreed with the specialist engineer Mayflower to develop a new sports model, codenamed the PR3. Mayflower's subsidiary, Motor Panels, will design and make the body, while many of the mechanicals will be borrowed from the Rover 200 series. The car will probably have a mid- mounted 1600 engine and cost about pounds 15,000 in today's money. It should be available in three years.
In one sense the PR3 will be just another British sports car, joining the 20 or so already produced here. Britain has more specialist sports-car makers than any other country, some, such as Morgan and TVR, highly profitable. Rover has just started producing an MG sports car, called the RV8. It looks much like an MGB, but it costs pounds 26,000 and is intended mainly to keep the name alive. Only 750 RV8s a year will be built. 'It is a good publicity exercise, but not really a car the average MG owner can relate to,' says Geoff Shirt, technical adviser to the MG Owners Club.
What sets the PR3 apart will be the numbers produced. Total production of all existing British sports cars is around 8,000 a year. Rover is aiming for 20,000. Not quite the 55,000 produced in 1972, but enough to rival the chief usurper of the British sports cars' throne, the Mazda MX-5.
In the early Eighties the Japanese spotted the hole the British had left in the market, and filled it with efficient if soulless sports cars. Then they produced the MX-5, which cleverly aped many of the features that made MGs so attractive. It was fun, pretty and tolerably fast. Mazda produced 53,000 last year.
The MX-5 is not an MG, though, and that is why Rover's new car could succeed. The loyalty to MG is phenomenal, even though in its final days the cars were hardly enthralling. In the late Seventies, Car magazine dismissed the MGB as 'decrepit'. It was laden with emission-control equipment and bulbous rubber bumpers to satisfy US regulations; it was rough, not particularly comfortable, and could be seen off by many run-of-the-mill saloons. Ther were still plenty of people who wanted to buy it but it died not through lack of demand but simply because it was being sold at a loss.
During the Eighties the MG name was kept alive as a badge on Rover's sportier models. The MG Maestro Turbo was the fastest volume-produced car in the world, though the dowdy image of the Maestro meant it never caught the imagination of the GTI set. Some purists sniffed at this badge engineering, but the first MGs were sporty versions of staid Morris saloons. 'The company invented the GTI we know today,' a Rover spokesman says.
Nevertheless, the car most people missed was the sports car - the MGB or its little sister, the Midget. The design of both went back to the Fifties; the idea behind them, to the Twenties. Cecil Kimber, managing director of Morris Garages, started producing what he called 'a performance sports car for the working man' in the late Twenties and that, more or less, is what the MGB and the Midget became 50 years later.
Another slogan was 'Safety Fast' - which set the car apart from sports models that, according to Bill Wallis, vice-chairman of the MG Car Club, 'would rocket but wouldn't stop'.
MG did, however, build a formidable reputation on the track. In the 1933 Mille Miglia race, it beat Maserati and Alfa Romeo on their home ground, and in 1935 the company's catalogue could boast that in the previous four years 'MG has won more races than any other make of car in the world'. In 1957 Stirling Moss broke the land speed record for 1.5-litre cars, driving an MG special at 245mph, and throughout the the Sixties MGBs made their mark in the Monte Carlo and other rallies. This heritage gave MG the sort of reputation that marketing managers would die for. But Rover's market research in the Eighties showed that it was the less macho, almost hippy-like image of the MG that was missed most. It came up with expressions such as 'escapism and youth', 'breaking with conformity' and 'times gone by'.
It also became clear that MG was now suffused with a rosy glow that disguised the failings of its models. One of Rover's more lyrical research respondents said that the MG 'is an icon now, with emotional values above its original worth. Like Marilyn Monroe, it is more loved than when it was alive.'
The MG Owners Club has 50,000 members, making it the biggest one-make car club in the world. It ran into a spot of bother when its secretary wrote an editorial complaining that its classified pages were being used for homosexual contact ads. In the ensuing storm the cult status of the MG became clear. 'Most of the MGs where I live in Hackney are driven by dykes,' said Jeni Bremner, who discovered their joys from a former lesbian lover.
Will the new car succeed? A F Rivers-Fletcher, a former MG test driver who, at 81, still races the cars, says that 'bodywork will be the main factor. It has got to be rather like the MX-5, but they've got to make it sufficiently MG
The designers have a heavy reponsibility: the hopes of generations of hair-in-the-air enthusiasts lie on their shoulders.
(Photographs and graph omitted)