In the 1960s there were really rather a lot of British car manufacturers. In a moment of, lets be honest, total madness, they all decided to be one called British Leyland. As a result in 2013 there are rather less.
Of those original British Leyland manufacturers only one stuck it out to the bitter end and survived – MG.
When BL was created nobody wanted MG. Stuck down in Abingdon it was cut off from the chaotic hub of the business in the Midlands. As a two-model niche manufacturer it was always in the firing line once it became clear that BL’s strategy was marque rationalisation, badge-engineering and model pruning. MG’s rather small, antiquated factory, which had limited scope for expansion, also played against it. In retrospect it is clear that BL’s priority was rationalisation without losing jobs, an almost impossible goal but one that favoured the company’s Midlands manufacturing heartland.
All of which, of course, is rather a shame. MG – in common with many of its new sister companies – had the misfortune of becoming part of BL at exactly the point when it needed to replace its model range. The 60s had been very good to the little firm – it’s Midget and B models were hugely popular in the UK and USA and profitable too thanks to simple, robust mechanicals. MG was the only true sports car brand in the BL stable and as a result carried strong cache in the market, with lots of loyal customers.
However, the inward looking BL management didn’t see it this way. MG’s geographical isolation and relative size meant it lacked heavyweight representation at senior levels in BL. The new conglomerate did recognise the importance of a decent sports car in the range, one that would earn lucrative dollars, but they could only afford to sell one. And Triumph was busy laying considerable claim to the sports car arena within BL.
It is another travesty of the British Leyland era that Triumph, which could have been so relevant to modern car buyers, died sad and prolonged death. In the early 70s the company was battling for survival, stuck with a foot in virtually every market occupied by other BL companies. Its mainstream cars competed with Rovers, Austins and Morrises. Its sports cars butted up against MGs. Its new GT car threatened Jaguar’s new XJS. Triumph’s solution to this challenge was all out war. Its head honchos fought tooth and nail to ensure the company, its factories and its models rose to the top in the BL rationalisation wars. Of course it failed, rather spectacularly.
By the time BL got around to developing a sports car Triumph had lost a lot of battles. Most of its range was ageing and even its newer cars, like the Stag, suffered from being astonishingly badly built so they didn’t sell. BL had decided that its new mid-market car, the SD1, would replace the Triumph 2000 and Rover P6 but be a Rover (albeit with some Triumph engines). The Dolomite would be limped on but ultimately this market segment was left to die by BL. The Stag would be taken outside and shot. The only nettle left for Triumph to grasp was sports cars.
In the 70s Triumph had a decent argument for making any new sports car a Triumph – it was perceived as more premium than MG (so they could charge more for a Triumph-badged car) and it had factories to fill and people to keep gainfully employed.
While BL fiddled around developing its new sports car MG and Triumph received limited investment to help limp its ancient models on a few more years. The MGB initially continued virtually unchanged but the Midget got, heresy of heresies, Triumph engines. The Spitfire evolved more significantly with cosmetic and mechanical improvements.
MG and Triumph both had input to what became the TR7, the Spen King penned travesty that was launched on a unsuspecting world in 1975. Until quite late in the process MG was led to believe the car would, at least in some guises, carry the MG badge. Perhaps the muddled BL management even imagined it might. But this seems unlikely. Because it is difficult not to see a growing sense of anti-MG thinking in some of the decisions made during the second half of the 70s. MGs received little or no investment in models or manufacturing efficiency and managers were cut out of the central decision-making process.
History will show, however, that this was ultimately really rather fortunate. While the rubber bumpers and increased ride height foisted on the MGB may have gone down in history as A Bad Thing, not putting a MG badge on the TR7 probably saved the brand from disaster. The 7 was so incredibly bad that it simply hurried Triumph’s journey to the dumper. Everything about the car was a compromise – the svelte design of the original was wrecked by decisions that were more about cost and production than sales. The engine was straight out of a Morris Marina. The interior was, to be polite, chucked together. And of course it was badly, terribly catastrophically built. Here was a car that was meant to be a successor to the Karmann-designed TR6 but which couldn’t out-drag an unladen Cortina. Eventually a V8 arrived but it was too little too late.
By the mid-80s MG and Triumph were dead as manufacturers. Michael Edwardes is often seen as the bogey man by MG fans but he simply and rather inevitably fired the gun – his predecessors had led the little Oxfordshire firm out to pasture. By the 80s it was too late and too expensive to replace the Midget and B. BL tried to flog the remains of MG to Aston Martin. When that failed BL realised that its old friend badge-engineering was A Good Thing. MG badges began to grace sporting versions of Metros, Montegos and Maestros. It was an obvious and clever plan. Unlike Triumph, MG’s niche focus on sports cars was the quick and easy way to signal to customers – Here Is The Sporty One. Of course the red go-faster seatbelts also helped. The MG old brigade grumbled into their half-empty pints of Speckled Hen but the wider car-buying public lapped it up. And why not. They may not have owed much to Abingdon’s finest or even had much Abingdon input but the MG versions were more than just rebadged cars. They had different engines and suspension tweaks amongst other go-faster goodies.
In the late 80s the MG badge engineering was phased out and for a few years MG disappeared. Then this ‘virtual’ car company became a real one in 1992 when Rover launched the R-V8, a remodelled B convertible with a Rover V8 engine. The car took advantage of the new MGB Heritage shell which finally made it possible to effectively build a new MGB from aftermarket parts. This R-V8 was expensive – and, lets be honest here, like an old age pensioner on roller skates – but it proved popular, rejuvenating interest in MG amongst hard core (mainly retired) fans. Clever stuff.
Remarkably for the former British Leyland there was a clearly thought out plan behind the launch of the R-V8. It paved the way for the totally new MGF, a car aimed squarely at the rediscovered market for cheap convertibles opened up by the Mazda MX5. The F was a roaring success mainly because it is an excellent car. At launch the F stuck to the simple MG formula of a sporting car that was cheap to buy and prioritised comfort and style as much as outright performance and handling. It isn’t compromised, it’s complete.
When BMW bailed out in 2000 there wasn’t much in the cupboard for the Phoenix Four to work with. Once again new models were needed but there was no money to develop them. So it was back to badge engineering and the only badge of any value left in the store cupboard had two familiar letters on it. Thanks in large part to the MGF, sticking a MG badge on a Rover increased its perceived value. So we got a new range of MG-badged models with something vaguely approaching visual differentiation from their softer Rover cousins. It worked rather well and would probably have continued working if the top brass had found a partner to help MG Rover fund new models. Sadly they seemed to be too preoccupied building up multi-million pound pension pots.
So when the inevitably happened and 6,000 loyal Midlands workers were cast adrift with empty pension pots, it was MG that survived. By the mid-noughties even the excellent Rover 75 couldn’t stop the Rover badge having about as much cache as a Louis Vuitton fake. Initially the new owners’ plans to launch with a limited run of rejuvenated MGTFs was met with quite a lot of perfectly reasonable cynicism. Here was an ancient design whose relaunch seemed like yet another low-budget attempt to trade on past glories. And for a while it did seem a fair assessment because despite a lot of talk not much happened.
Then it did. First we got the MG6, now we have the MG3. Sure, the MG DNA may be a little diluted and the new cars haven’t so far set the world on fire, but that isn’t the point. After decades of varying fortunes, the unloved Cinderella of the early 70s has ultimately Triumphed – it is the only brand to survive the whole of the BL fiasco (Mini, lest we forget, is a car that only subsequently became a brand). That it is the only name of any value to survive and remain relevant to the buying public is also testament to the brand’s astonishing band of loyal owners and followers. No other brand, let alone one with such mixed fortunes over the last 40 years, has a bigger club scene.
We know the value of the MG brand here at Great Escape. Alongside our popular Jaguar classic hire cars it is our MGs that people love. We have several Bs for hire in Devon, Yorkshire and Cotswolds as well as a new fleet of MGFs. They are all about simple, top down joy – you can jump in any of them, turn the key and feel instantly at home. Prices start at just £160 for the weekend.