Put MG at the top of the list of car brands that could make a successful return to the United States with the right products, says Michael Dale, the retired Jaguar executive who was British Leyland's vice president of sales and marketing during MG's best years.
British Leyland was MG's parent company for most of the brand's time in the United States. More than 500,000 MGs of all types were sold in the United States from 1947 to 1980.
Dale says MG could be the next British brand to stage a successful U.S. comeback, following Land Rover in the 1990s and, more recently, the Mini Cooper.
Dale went on to run Jaguar's North American operations after British Leyland dropped the MG, Triumph and Rover brands in the United States in the early 1980s. He retired as president of Jaguar North America in 2000 after 43 years with the automaker.
Can it deliver?
For the TF two-seater to successfully re-establish the MG brand in the United States, Dale says, the car must have an emotional appeal and deliver the same fun driving experience as classic MGs.
"It hangs around one central point: If you want to tap into the core of a brand, and it doesn't matter what brand, you will have to fulfill that brand's promise," says Dale. "MG promised certain things in terms of price, styling and simplicity."
But Dale says he is not sure the car headed for the United States, the TF coupe, is the right car. He says it looks a little too much like a Toyota or a Honda.
"When you look at pictures of MGs, from the TA to the MGB, does the new car deliver the MG promise?" Dale says. "If you think the answer is no, then in my opinion, it ain't going to make it. Look at what BMW did with the Mini. There isn't any doubt at all looking at the Mini. You know where it came from."
Mike Cook, another former British Leyland executive who ran the company's public relations from 1968 to 1991, views Nanjing Automobile Group's plans for MG as a long shot. "You can put as many O's and N's in 'long' as you want," he says.
Value in the name
Dale and Cook say MG still has a valuable brand name and strong recognition in the United States.
Says Cook: "It was the first sports car of any real note in the country after World War II. Despite the fact that later it had lots of competition, it still had the most recognition. It became a symbol."
But even if MG returns to the United States with a high-quality car with the features American buyers want, Cook says, it will be tough for Nanjing to make money.
Against such competition as the $20,000 Pontiac Solstice and Mazda Miata, the road ahead for MG is "very, very tough" Cook says.
He also notes that the car Nanjing plans to sell in the United States -- a coupe -- does not fit the image most people associate with the MG brand, best known for sporty roadsters. MG had little success selling coupes and hardtops in the United States.
MG's U.S. sales peaked in the early 1970s at around 30,000 units per year of the MGB and tiny Midget, both two-seat convertibles. The Midget was dropped in 1979, and the MGB followed in 1980 when British Leyland closed MG's factory in Abingdon, England.
The MG name was resurrected in 1984 for use on sporty versions of the Austin Metro, a car not sold in the United States.
Dale said Nanjing's plans to assemble the MG TF in Oklahoma from kits produced in the United Kingdom could work if the quality of the finished product is high.
A former winner
Before MG Rover skidded into bankruptcy in 2005, the $21,000 TF was one of Europe's top-selling convertible sports.
The car -- styled by Gerry McGovern, now executive director of advanced design for Land Rover -- was launched in 1995 and was the first new MG since the MGB in 1962. It was available in three models and used technology such as a continuously variable transmission and variable valve timing. The car was a given a face-lift and a new suspension system in 2000 and renamed MG TF.
The car's quality was middle of the pack. The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder K-series Rover engine has a reputation for blowing head gaskets if the coolant is allowed to run low. But the car doesn't suffer from any of the traditional British sports car maladies, such as electrical problems and leaky roofs, according to an online buyer's guide devoted to the car.
Dealers are interested
Collier Jaguar in Orlando, Fla., sold the MG brand from the early 1960s to 1980 and then serviced the cars until the early 1990s. The dealership has some interest in selling the new MG, says Mike Collier, owner of the store.
"As a dealer, you look at anything that comes across your desk," Collier says. "I am a Jaguar dealer and that's what I love doing. But we'll look at MG. It doesn't really compete with Jaguar."
Collier also says the new MG may have a tough time in the market competing against such sports cars as the Solstice and Miata at around $20,000 and the Honda S2000 and Nissan 300Z at around $30,000.
"A car like that appeals to guys who like sports cars," Collier says. "But they are not practical. Nowadays people are buying Corollas and Civics and turning them into pocket rockets."
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]