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New Longbridge production line

Published: 31 May 2007

Reborn MG opens its doors at Longbridge

Yesterday marked the latest chapter in one of the genuine rollercoaster stories of our times: the rise and fall – and now yet another recovery – of car production at Longbridge, the spiritual home of some of the most famous nameplates in British car manufacturing. This time it’s the rebirth of MG, now in Chinese hands and back from a near-death experience since MG Rover collapsed in April 2005. Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC) is the oldest car maker in China and paid £50 million to snap up the MG brand and manufacturing rights, but can it really stand a chance with its new English project? 

What exactly is NAC planning to build at Longbridge?

The Chinese manufacturer is reviving the MG brand and, in Europe, the first model on sale will be the revised TF roadster on sale around September 2007. The first cars to roll off the Longbridge line were paraded at the factory’s inauguration on 29 May – but Chinese officials are confident that other models will join the two-seat roadster once the sales operation is up and running across Europe. Chief exec Yu Jian Wei confirmed that a coupe version of the TF2 (based on 2004's MG GT Concept above) would be launched and CAR Online found a sleek MG7 coupe version of the 75 hidden in one corner of the Birmingham facility. It is also planning to relaunch the ZT and ZT-T estate, and once this first phase of products is launched, the Chinese will concentrate on proper new launches. Of course, the operation at Longbridge is small fry compared with NAC’s factory in Nanjing, China. It spent £250 million building a modern plant with a capacity of 200,000, plus 250,000 engines and 100,000 gearboxes. Quick work indeed – the factory lines were switched from the West Midlands to the other side of the world in less than 12 months, and the first cars were built there on 27 March.

The TF? Isn’t that a 12-year-old design?

Oh yes. This is the biggest hurdle to be overcome by the new NAC MG company. The TF was successful in its day, topping the UK roadster sales chart for 10 of its 12 years on sale, but by the end of its last production run it felt ancient compared with newcomers like the Mazda MX-5. It wasn’t so much the way the mid-engined roadster drove - we've always been fans of its agile handling and back-to-basics ethos - as its patchy quality, ageing technology and nasty interior. Every NAC official at the factory’s relaunch was at great pains to talk about Longbridge and not the car (its launch is scheduled for this autumn), but the pre-production cars we saw at Longbridge yesterday looked disappointingly unchanged from the last design. In fact, only the front bumpers and headlamps are redesigned, while larger 16-inch black alloys are fitted; thankfully, the interior will be given a makeover, too, although the car we inspected had only a light sprinkling of chrome and minor changes. It’d still qualify for an OAP pass with ease.

There must be some mechanical changes to the TF?

Exact details remain secret, but CAR Online has already revealed that Lotus has been called in to work on the engines and chassis to meet the latest regulations. New diesel engines are in the pipeline, and so is a hybrid petrol-electric TF – which is destined for production according to senior sources we spoke to. The 200 HPD concept car used a supplementary electric motor in the TF's nose; being mid-engined, the 160bhp TF has plenty of space in the front boot for the motor and batteries, which supply an extra 40bhp to the front wheels (hence a total of 200bhp alluded to in the concept's name). A four-wheel drive hybrid sports car will make a fascinating alternative and NAC plans to sell it 'well before the end of the decade', said quality boss Paul Stowe.

So is Longbridge booming again?

The transformation of MG into NAC MG has rekindled only a small corner of the Longbridge facility. Driving to the new Chinese facility involves passing acre upon acre of empty workshops and production areas, standing silent and forlorn. Some parts have been demolished ready for redevelopment, but most of the site remains ghost-like and empty. Arriving at Q gate, it's immediately obvious that the NAC MG site is tiny. This is an assembly operation, putting together kits that arrive from China, where the panels are pressed, engines and gearboxes built and many components made. However, some parts are still produced in Britain and the paintshop is at Longbridge, too. A scant 130 people work at Longbridge today, but NAC promises that will rise to 250 when production starts and is confident that number will swell as new models are added.

How are they going to sell the new MGs?

There are no official figures yet, but Stowe said that MG NAC aimed to have between 50 and 60 dealers in the UK by the end of the year. The company hopes to persuade some of the previous MG Rover dealers back into the fold, and claimed that many businesses were keen to work with the company again. This is undoubtedly one of the most crucial parts of the new business plan. Without a credible dealer network, it will be difficult to persuade buyers cautious about the brand to part with their money. And there could be a legal minefield over the rights to service older MG Rover products; nobody could tell CAR Online who had access to the parts supply and intellectual property to be the official service agents for old MGs and Rovers.

What is NAC’s long-term plan?

Clearly, the Chinese are more ambitious than building just 3000 cars a year (the planned production for Longbridge’s first year). The reborn plant has a capacity of 15,000 a year and NAC will waste no time rebuilding its deceased dealer network, model range and customer confidence. It must do this before raising its sights further. Europe does have a place in NAC’s global strategy, but the Anglo-Chinese relationship is heavily weighted to the east; you can’t help feel that the restart of production in Longbridge is small fry compared with the potentially enormous sales of MG-branded cars in China. That’s what this deal is all about. Nanjing has snared a coveted Western brand for its domestic market where car sales are soaring, but it hopes there are enough enthusiasts out there to make a fist of a European comeback too.

What is NAC’s long-term plan?

Clearly, the Chinese are more ambitious than building just 3000 cars a year (the planned production for Longbridge’s first year). The reborn plant has a capacity of 15,000 a year and NAC will waste no time rebuilding its deceased dealer network, model range and customer confidence. It must do this before raising its sights further. Europe does have a place in NAC’s global strategy, but the Anglo-Chinese relationship is heavily weighted to the east; you can’t help feel that the restart of production in Longbridge is small fry compared with the potentially enormous sales of MG-branded cars in China. That’s what this deal is all about. Nanjing has snared a coveted Western brand for its domestic market where car sales are soaring, but it hopes there are enough enthusiasts out there to make a fist of a European comeback too.

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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