The latest chapter in the chequered history of MG, one of Britain’s best-loved car marques, is sure to be a defining one. The 83-year-old brand was relaunched once again last week, this time in China. New owner Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC) unveiled the first MG cars to be made in the Far East since it bought the bankrupt MG Rover group for £53m in 2005.
MG, which originally stood for Morris Garages, has been reincarnated as "Modern Gentleman" in a bid to bring the brand up to date. Nanjing is making MG TF sports cars and two models of its 7-series, the MG ZT saloon, at a new plant in its home city. Final assembly of right-hand-drive cars is due to begin at MG Rover’s former headquarters, at Longbridge, Birmingham, next month.
General manager of NAC MG Zhang Xin said at last week’s launch: "We are keeping the original British flavour, but, in the future, the major market for MG will be in China." Priced at between £12,000 and £26,000, MGs will be beyond the reach of most of the Chinese population, costing more than two years’ salary.
But Xin said that incomes in China are rising so fast that Nanjing believes it can break even on the MG project in just over a year, and has set a global sales target of 200,000 after five years.
Guy Masters, UK managing director of global motoring consultancy and executive search company Courland Automotive Practice, says the likes of Aston Martin and Bentley have successfully modernised brands with heritage, but he is not convinced by MG’s "Modern Gentleman" positioning.
"I can understand why they have chosen it, but I don’t think a British company would have come up with something like that," he says. "The risk is that it becomes a 1970s bank manager’s car. If they can come up with a modern interpretation of MG they have got a chance, but these cars just look like old interpretations."
NAC MG (UK) appointed former Lotus and Volvo marketer Gary Hagan as sales and marketing director ahead of the relaunch of the MG brand in the UK this summer (MW March 8).
The company is also thought to have appointed Room 251, a new agency set up by Cogent Elliott founder Bill Husselby, to handle its UK advertising account.
One advertising executive, who has worked with MG Rover in the past, believes the agency and NAC MG (UK) must shake off the old Rover tag in order to be successful.
Image is everything
"Rover was a brand that was in a lot of trouble," he says. "Alan Partridge drove a Rover and that said everything. But there is massive affection for the MG brand. If they can leverage that affection, then it definitely has a future. The way for MG to survive is to do what BMW has done with Mini, and that’s to bring an historic brand up to date."
Nanjing is looking for foreign investment to help it develop the MG brand and Xin said last week/ "We have been in talks with several potential partners, including funds, in North America and Europe, and could sell as much as 50%." It is not yet clear what Nanjing’s plans are when it comes to new model development. But it seems unlikely that the MG brand will be able to survive another failure.