DETROIT - The SAE World Congress offered further indication that the MG, the first British sports car to be loved by millions of Americans, may be headed back to the U.S. market.
A sleek silver MGF roadster was buried deep inside a display of British goods at the SAE World Congress. Anyone who stopped to look at the mid-engine roadster with the familiar octagon logos was asked to fill out a survey. MG-Rover will use those surveys to help determine the market potential for the brand in the United States.
'We are taking a look at America, for sure,' spokesman Kevin Jones said at MG-Rover headquarters in England. Displaying the MGF is what Jones called 'a first step' in sizing up a potential return to the United States.
Rover doesn't have a U.S. dealer network and hasn't sold a car in the United States since the ill-fated Sterling 825/827 of 1987-91.
But relaunching the MG brand in the United States has long been on the minds of MG-Rover executives. The company showed the MG EX-E along with the Sterling on the auto show circuit in 1990. Reaction was favorable, but Rover didn't follow through.
The failure of the Sterling kept the current MGF out of the United States because Rover's U.S. dealer network quickly folded after the Sterling was discontinued.
MG dominated the U.S. sports car market from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. But no MGs have been sold in the United States since the MGB went out of production in October 1980.
More than 550,000 MGBs were built from 1962 to 1980. The MG marque enjoys a strong following among classic sports car fans.
'We know there is a great amount of interest for the MG brand in America, but as a company, we have not been there since 1991,' Jones said. He also said lessons learned from the Sterling debacle would influence any return of MG to the United States.
First, Jones said, MG-Rover executives believe that to achieve long-term success in the United States, the company needs a range of cars, not just an MG sports car. Jones said MG-Rover believes part of the reason Sterling failed was because it was available in one model with just two body styles, sedan and hatchback.
Second, MG-Rover would need to establish a strong, uniform dealer network, probably by linking up with another brand. Sterling was sold through a patchwork of independent dealerships. It was available at Cadillac dealerships in some cities and at import dealerships in others.
Engineered for U.S.
Jones said the MGF, in production since 1995, was engineered to meet U.S. safety and emissions requirements but was not offered because MG-Rover can manufacture only 15,000 units per year and has had no trouble selling out its total build in Europe, Asia and in a few other markets. Though the MGF will remain in production for a few more years, it likely will never come to the United States. Neither will the Rover 75 luxury sedan, though MG-Rover officials believe both cars would sell well in the United States, Jones said. MG-Rover says the U.S. market is not in its current five-year business plan, which extends to 2005. A new MG roadster is being developed, but there is no timetable for launch, Jones said.
Looking for partners
MG-Rover this fall will launch a series of sporty MG-badged hatchbacks and sedans based on the Rover 25, 45 and 75. But Jones said that it likely will be the successors to those cars that come to the United States - if MG-Rover returns. Or if it survives.
MG-Rover is looking for a partner to develop replacements for its current lineup.
Some analysts say a joint venture is essential for MG-Rover, which is on shaky financial ground. BMW cut loose MG-Rover last year to the Phoenix Consortium for a symbolic $16. BMW lost billions during its six years of ownership.
MG-Rover sold 205,000 cars last year and expects to sell 200,000 cars per year for the next five years. Jones said the company is profitable at that volume.