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The popularity of the MG marque is still very strong in North America. Among baby boomers, the name MG is synonymous with "sports car" and the mere sight of an MG of any vintage will send the boomer into starry eyed recollections of pleasant moments spent in and around MGs they either owned or rode in. Alas, among the younger set the marque has almost no recognition. Consider for a moment that it has been 18 years since the last MG was imported into the States. Most Americans under the age of 25 have no recollection of having seen a new MG. But that doesn't seem to stop them from admiring them on the road.
What would I advise MG's new owner, BMW, regarding securing a future in America? I would suggest they plan MG's future by beginning with the past. What lessons could they learn? MG's roots are humble, but unlike Porsche, they stayed humble right up to the end. Drawing most of their parts from ordinary mass produced mainstream models, MG could benefit from economies of scale and the large development budgets of their bigger brothers. The MaGic was in combining these mundane parts with a handsome body, and developing the chassis to inspire confidence and safety. The MG's forte has been delivering driving pleasure at a modest cost. There is no better country on earth than Britain for developing truly world class suspensions. Just ask any Formula One or Indy Car team where they have their chassis designed.
It wasn't until the forced sharing of parts with other mainstream cars that MG really started to make it in the big leagues. Imports to the States started in 1935 and after World War II the TC led the British invasion. It was really the MGA that burst the dam and flooded these shores with large numbers of MGs. There were more MGAs sold in 6 years of production than all the MGs manufactured in the previous 30 years! MG will need to sell a respectable volume of cars to keep their prices within reason.
My suggestion to BMW would be to develop an MG based on mainstream parts, integrated into a distinctive body style priced between the Miata and the BMW Z3 (in my mind the ugliest car sold in America!) in the $25-30K range. Turn the British engineers loose on the thing they do best, build character into the car. Make it handle. Make it communicate with the driver. Make it fun to drive. Make it safe. Why this price range? I believe that to establish the marque the profit margin needs to be considerable to make it a commercial success with dealers. I firmly believe that MG can initially trade on its past reputation and the nostalgia factor to get started. Selling in selected BMW dealers may be the way to go. After the MG is well established, then bring out an "MG Midget" priced below the Miata in the $15-20 K range. Keep it simple, maybe even front wheel drive to keep costs down. The key here is to make it available to the masses and give them a pleasurable driving experience that will bring them back for more. This will also bring younger buyers to the MG marque, especially those who don't have any memory of MGs, such as today's high school and college students. By selling to these younger buyers and offering them a more expensive move up model, MG can ensure its future.
MGs traditionally demanded involvement by their owners, due in large measure to the...ahem...considerable maintenance required, scheduled and otherwise. In today's market this just isn't good enough. To stand any chance of success, MG will have to be dead reliable right out of the box. If not they will soon be relegated to the dust bin of history. Today's consumer will settle for nothing less than excellence and nostalgia will not compensate for heaters that don't heat, tops that leak and bodies that squeak! However, user friendly design and an owner's handbook that encourages owner maintenance and repair will increase owner involvement in a pleasant and positive way, especially among the younger less financially well off owners.
When MG produced an overwhelming variety of small volume models with cutting edge sophistication in the early '30s they won a lot of races, but nearly went bankrupt in the process. However, their competition successes developed a reputation that lasted for another 50 years. A robust, enlightened, sponsorship program in SCCA racing along the lines of the Neon would restore the enthusiasm that competition spawns with a minimum of cost. Having a competition minded parent organization like BMW won't hurt either! Encouraging the aftermarket accessory industry would also build owner involvement. Doing this through the MG dealer network would also generate cash for them. And speaking of enthusiasm and camaraderie, what better way to generate this than by supporting the MG car clubs in the U.S.?
Modest prices, owner involvement, competition sponsorship and club backing are the basic ingredients to MG's future. Back to the future indeed!
Bob Vitrikas is the Historian for the North American MGA Register, author of the definitive book on MGAs- MGA - A History and Restoration Guide, President of the MG Car Club - Washington D.C. Centre, and a longtime member and supporter of NAMGBR.
North American MGB Register