In 1980 British Leyland decided to end MGB and MG Midget production. The “Hot hatchback” was now the car of choice for keen drivers. The MG name would be used on the MG Metro to appeal to this crowd; to the chagrin of dyed in the wool MG fanatics.
British Leyland (still owned by the UK government) had no funding for niche sports cars and needed mainstream models that would sell in volume. While this was true, unveiling exotic concept cars was a good strategy used to attract a new buyer especially as the Government were keen to sell. By 1982 British Leyland (now named Austin Rover) started on these concept cars, the first was the MG EX-E.
The 1984 MG EX-E was a technological tour-de-force with head up display system and a digital dashboard. It was intended to show what a mid engined sports car of the future could be.
Its mid-engined layout contained the 6R4 V6 engine (from the Metro 6R4) swathed in lightweight plastic bodywork and a bonded aluminium chassis. The car was designed to be extremely aerodynamic and had an incredible drag co-efficient of 0.24. The Austin Rover chairman Harold Musgrove ensured the car was shown at the Frankfurt motor show, in order to show the ambition of the company internationally.
In 1984 work had started on the AR6 Metro project. This was due to replace the Metro and would include MG and Vanden Plas variants. A soft top version was touted as a potential replacement to the MG Midget. This project got scrapped when the majority shareholder (the UK Government) wanted to sell Austin Rover and a decision to go upmarket was seen the best way to aid this.
MG DR2 (Then MG PR5)
Based on a TVR chassis the DR2 used a Rover V8. Deliberately styled for the American market, Rover eventually retired the DR2 because of its less successful business there.
In 1985 a new design study, the MG F16 project was worked on. The first designs were of a front engined, front wheel drive car. In layout and appearance looked similar to the M100 Lotus Elan.
In 1988 Rover Group was sold to British Aerospace and sports car ideas were pitched to management and duly turned down until 1989 when the Mazda MX5 was launched to critical acclaim. The MX5 was a massive sales success and owed its styling and configuration to British sports cars like the Lotus Elan and MG Midget.
In reaction the MG sports car was finally given the green light. This was frustrating because a sports car could conceivably have been produced from one of the concepts way ahead of the Mazda MX-5. The Mazda had sold over 250,000 units at this point.
Getting Production Ready
At this point two concepts were considered. The DR2 and the F16. The DR2 was a luxurious cruiser aimed at the US market where a British car appealed. It could be branded Austin Healey or MG. The DR2 was built on a TVR chassis with the Rover V8 from the SD1, Triumph TR8 and various TVRs.
The F16 was a far more flexible design, and didn’t use external components, so this was selected as the car to develop further. By now the Rover Special Products division had been setup to allow more niche cars to get support without slowing the production of the saloons and hatchbacks that were key to the company finances. This helped the project get the support it needed.
The code name “Phoenix Revival” was chosen, possibly due to the previous projects that had been canned. To get the design done quickly, it was outsourced with the companies given the F16 body and configuration. Designer Gerry McGovern had started things off with initial designs for the F16, it was now down to the contractors to figure out where to go next.
The first prototype from Motor Panels was a front-engined, front wheel drive car based on Maestro chassis. It used the 2 litre engine from the Rover 800.
Reliant built the PR2 prototype around the Scimitar chassis. Like a Scimitar the PR2 had a front engine, rear drive layout using the with 3.9 litre Rover V8 (used in the Rover SD1 and Triumph TR8)
Created by ADC, the PR3 was mid-engined and rear wheel drive. It could use a range of Rover engines and front sub frames, which would simply mount on the rear of the car.
Each was driven by the Rover Special Products team and evaluated for ride, acceleration and handling. The first to be discounted was the PR1 as it used Maestro parts and the Maestro was planned to go out of production. The Rover Special Products team didn’t want to base the car on soon to be defunct components.
The final decision was close between the PR2 and PR3 but the superior handling of the PR3 was deemed best for the new MG. PR3 was straightforward to build for Rover. Despite Rover never building a mid-engined car (Metro 6R4 involvement aside), it was a case of using the Metro’s front subframe and attaching it to the rear of the PR3.
The decision to choose a mid-engined car was genuinely brave. MG made its name with front-engined rear wheel drive cars, so this was a radical departure that needed to appeal to current customers and bring in new ones.
MG had actually been working on the AD021 mid engined concept car for a number of years but this was overlooked when British Leyland decided the Triumph TR7 should be the new company sports car.
No Honda parts were used with the MG F which made things easier when the allegiance with Honda ended. In fact the MG F was the only car Rover produced without input from Honda. The interior was borrowed from the Rover 200 and the high revving K-series engine powered it. It was lightweight, responsive and powerful. It later got variable valve control to further boost it’s flexibility.
Hydragas suspension system (still used on the Metro) was also incorporated into the MG F as traditional spring suspension can unsettle short wheelbase cars. This array of components made for a car that had almost everything built and designed in Britain.
In 1994 BMW bought Rover from British Aerospace. This was great news for the mainstream models, but BMW were cautious about the MGF taking sales from their new Z3, so took the decision to not export it to North America. BMW also prevented any high performance versions from going into production to avoid conflict with the Z3. It was only in 1999 when BMW sold to Phoenix Venture Holdings when they were freed up to do what they wanted.
MG F Launch And Response
Once launched in 1995 the MG F would be the first all new MG since the MGB in 1962. The car received high praise from the motoring publications. It was often a benchmark of handling in its class.
Build quality, mechanical issues and dealer support let down the MG F.
With the mid mounted engine airflow wasn’t great, combined with the thermostat location this ended up causing head gasket issues. These were later fixable with an aftermarket kit. Uneven door shut lines were also an issue.
The MG F was later renamed MG TF but was largely the same car but running conventional coil springs and not Hydragas. Several limited editions were built and, without an interfering parent company some higher performance models were also built like the Trophy 160.
By early 2005 MG Rover Group was in a dire position financially. Year on year, European market share had halved and sales had fallen by 60%. It struggled on hoping to be bought out. The only company that had shown interest had decided against the purchase and MG Rover Group slipped into administration.
Why is the MG TF so cheap?
Rover no longer exists so lack of factory support along with the issue with head gasket failure means the MGF and MG TF are very cheap to purchase. The head gasket issue can be resolved with a kit and generally the MGF and MG TF are great cars. Having owned one for a spell, I found the MGF really fun and as an ownership proposition, really good. It was cheap to buy and run
I'm fortunate enough to drive classic cars and speak with owners, designers and engineers. This has given me both inspiration and stories to share. I write stories that interest me, from the E-Type replacement that formed the basis of the Aston Martin DB7, to the missing Metro Cooper and the truth behind the Rover 220s nickname. In addition to attending car shows, track days and other informal automotive events for the last 20 years, I have planned & driven various road trips. I once drove to the Nurburgring and back in a day, went karting in Montenegro and also drove through the Florida keys in a Mustang GT. The blog is a passion project so any support is appreciated; whether that is by sharing on social media or buying me a coffee!