Perhaps it was a Freudian slip. MG Rover Group Ltd. Chairman John Towers was talking about the possibility of entering the British Touring Car Championship when he said: 'We are already talking to Proton about this. ...'
He realized his mistake immediately, smiled and said, 'I don't believe I said that.' He was referring to the British specialist race engineering company Prodrive, but the slip was not allowed to pass without comment around the dinner table.
Towers has said that MG Rover would need a partner, and the latest speculation suggests Malaysian manufacturer Proton. He added: 'I really cannot comment on future partners for obvious reasons: We have confidentiality agreements with interested parties.'
It was a day that had not gone according to plan for Towers. With members of his management team, he had intended to play in a golf match against British automotive journalists. He picked the day but had to pull out in the morning when a problem loomed at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham.
A group of workers assembled outside the factory gates - even though the plant was on its short autumn shutdown for schools' mid-term break. The workers discussed speculation about future management divisions. Towers calmed their fears. He then accepted the resignation of two non-executive directors, Terry Whitmore, managing director of supplier Mayflower; and local businessman Brian Parker - both members of the original Phoenix consortium that bought Rover from BMW AG earlier this year.
The reason for their resignations, he said that night, was not a disagreement over strategy but the pressure from what he described as gossip column business journalists who determined that the new MG Rover car company would fail.
'Quite simply, they (the journalists) have got on our nerves, and Terry Whitmore and Brian Parker could not be doing with it any longer,' Towers said. 'The pressure was too much and was getting in the way of running their own businesses. I find this very sad because they flew the flag for us, and we are still the greatest of friends.'
The day got worse. He discovered that his managers had been soundly beaten by the journalists on the waterlogged Warwickshire Golf Club course, just a few miles from Longbridge. They could have benefited from his golfing prowess - Towers plays off a 10 handicap. He did have a few years to work on the game after his departure from Rover soon after BMW bought the company in 1992. Now he is back at the helm. So, what of the future?
'No matter what the gossip column business journalists are saying, we are on track. There is a minority of them who said Phoenix would not buy Rover, but we did. They said BMW would not work with us, but it has. They said we would we run out of cash, but we haven't.'
Rover already has invested £100 million ($140 million) in new products, Towers noted. The company's Longbridge assembly plant will produce the MGF, Rover 75, 25 and 45, plus other MG derivatives in the future, he said.
There also have been considerable cost savings. Previously, the company had to pay the overheads of the Bickenhill head office, the Gaydon test center, the engine plant in Warwick and the plant at Cowley. Rover has identified savings of $71 million a year on travel and accommodation. The company has become 'more compact and cost effective,' Towers said.
The new company also announced it would not mount exhibits at motor shows to further reduce costs, although Towers said that decision could change. For example, the company will mount a display at the Sydney Motor Show to publicize its launch of the MG Rover brands in Australia. Rover will share the cost with the distributor. The company also may participate at the Geneva auto show, where Rover will introduce a new 75 wagon and possibly a new MG model.
The MG brand needs revitalizing in Europe. Towers intends to start giving models names. For example, Rover may revive the MG Magnet name. 'There is an image job to be done,' he said. 'MG will play an important role in that and will be treated as a separate brand.'
This is why the company is looking at future participation in British Touring Cars. 'The regulations are changing in this series, and cars will once more be identifiable with those you see in the showroom. This is an opportunity for us.'
What about a supercar - an idea for a joint project suggested by fellow consortium member Nick Stephenson, a director of sports car maker Lola?
'This is not a pipe dream,' Towers said. 'We have a plan, and we have capacity at Longbridge. We are looking at something like a $17 million project to make a few cars, which will not break the business but build the credibility.'
Does he have any regrets about breaking Rover's successful partnership with Honda and selling to BMW in 1992? 'No. We had a good relationship with Honda, but at the time I believed the deal with BMW was right for Rover. I was disappointed that I did not stay on to see it through.'
He denied, however, that there was a rift with Wolfgang Rietzle, who ran Rover when he was still at BMW. 'I liked working with Wolfgang and we still talk. Again, the relationship was misrepresented by the media.'
Towers was referring to a television documentary called 'When Rover Met BMW,' which charted the takeover by BMW. 'We had already agreed to the documentary before the takeover,' Towers recalled. 'Of course it took a different direction when BMW moved in. Wolfgang was actually quite nervous about the cameras being around. Whenever they appeared, his personality came across in entirely the wrong way.'
The problems at Rover in the past, present and maybe even in the future, cannot all be laid at the feet of the media. But Towers looks forward to getting revenge on the journalists next year on the golf course.
You can e-mail editor Chris Wright at [email protected]