The MG F, which passed the 25th anniversary of its Geneva Show announcement on 7 March 7th 2020, was a remarkable car.
Developed to capitalise on a long and formidably successful heritage defined by its world famous and subtly reworked octagon badge, it has left a fitting and indelible mark on British motoring history.
It’s story began in the 1980’s, after production of the MG B and Midget ended, when Austin Rover’s best endeavours to keep the marque on sale gave the world the distinctly hard-top MG Metro, Montego and Maestro.
The first public hint that MG might still have a genuine sports car future came when the radically styled “EX-E” concept car appeared at several major motor shows, beginning at Frankfurt in September 1985. It was never destined for production.
Nor was the next MG concept front engined, front drive open top mock-up “MGF 16.” Styled Gerry McGovern – then recently of Peugeot, and previously Chrysler, its chance progression as an MG B successor stalled when Austin Rover was sold to British Aerospace in 1988.
Though we’ll probably never know for sure, it seems likely that the 1989 arrival of the all-new Mazda MX 5 then kick-started MG F development. Quite conventionally engineered, the Mazda personified past MG sports car attractions, and its immediate public welcome surely spoke volumes to the marque’s new owners. Within a year Rover’s new Special products group – formed to cost effectively deliver smaller scale projects – was considering the first new convertible production MG in ten years.
In 1991 three running prototypes were commissioned from separate trusted consultancies to evaluate front engine, front wheel drive, front engine, rear wheel drive, and rear or mid engine, rear wheel drive chassis configurations.
Boldly, given no previous production MG had used it, the mid-engined alternative designated “PR3” was chosen. It went to Rover’s Canley studios, where the original deliberately anonymous appearance was transformed through extensive styling and character development by Gerry McGovern and Gordon Sked.
The result was a smoothly modernistic style, with familiar design cues clearly defining it as an MG.
Evolution of mass-market designs on tight budgets underpinned the limited amount of genuinely new product development Rover was then undertaking, so its appropriate that the MG marque emerged from similar founding principles seventy years earlier. The MGFacknowledged its legacy through innovative design, re-using in-house hardware and technology where possible.
The shoestring magic employed by Rover Special products to evolve niche models ranging from the Metro Cabriolet to the Rover 800 Turbo worked by enlisting trusted suppliers to undertake key component design and sub-assembly development.
The MG F continued this approach, including the masterstroke of reducing bodyshell production costs through a collaborative “body design, manufacture and build” agreement with the then Coventry-based Mayflower Motor Panels operation.
Lateral thinking was evident everywhere: the front subframe from the K-series engined Metro was adapted for mid-mounting, while the 5 speed manual gearbox came from Rover’s larger cars.
A more unlikely Metro carry-over was Alex Moulton’s front-to-rear interconnected hydragas suspension, specifically tuned by him for this application. Power came from Rover’s K-series engine, launched in August 1989, when the top performing 1.4 litre version delivered 95PS and 124 Nm torque.
A novel method of enlarging cylinder bores developed in 1991 raised capacity to 1.6 litres, but its 109PS was still deemed inadequate for the MG F, so a 1.8 litre version was quickly evolved, providing 120PS and 165Nm. High series variants benefited from an advanced variable valve control (VVC) cylinder head, delivering 145PS with 174Nm maximum torque.
The top news story on 1 February 1994 was British Aerospace’s sale of Rover to BMW, allowing the MG F a special place in history – as the sole MG-badged product to be signed off, and launched, under BMW ownership. First customer cars were in UK showrooms in October 1995, equipped to typical 1990’s levels – which meant ABS and passenger airbags were both optional. The 1.8i model had a list price of £15,995, without the electric power steering of the £17,995 1.8 VVC version.
The MG F received a generally warm press welcome. Though its easy, vice-free driveability attracted much praise, and it was comfortable, controllable and good-looking, some drivers wanted more power, and the feel-less steering response and dull handling when pressed were criticised.- overall the non power-assisted cars were rated better for keen drivers. The public loved it: 77,269 examples were built, with 42,099 finding British homes and 1998 was the best year for both production and UK sales.
After MG Rover’s 2000 acquisition of Rover’s remnants, a more powerful 160hp VVC engine was introduced and in February 2002 the range relaunched as the MGTF with a styling update, revised engines, a CVT auto variant, coil springs replaced hydragas and chassis adjustments tightened handling.
These changes revitalised the car: 39,880 TF’s were built between 2001 and 10.22am on 7 April 2005, when the last “official build” TF left the production line as MG Rover collapsed.
This was not before Rover Group had also worked with the Motor Industry Research Association in 2003 and produced a concept 200hp hybrid with a 39bhp electric motor driving the front wheels which also meant it became a four wheel drive sports car. After a two year hiatus it seemed the MG TF might live on despite MG Rover’s demise.
Nanjing Automotive, which had gained the MG marque rights and TF production tooling, unveiled a Chinese built example with minimal changes at the 2007 Shanghai Motor Show. Production restarted in Chinese hands – largely from imported CKD kits – at Longbridge in 2008, with completed vehicles incorporating only minor changes.
By then the car was ageing fast, the time gap was long – and new marketing minimal. The earlier impetus and enthusiasm built up for the MG TF had evaporated and under 1000 CKD examples had reportedly been built when production ceased forever in spring 2011.
It was a sad and ignominious final curtain for a worthy car and an 89 year old story of British motor industry endeavour, the like of which the world will never see again.
© Dave Moss
Rover Group original MGFPress kit, and subsequent releases from 1995/1996
MG Rover MGTFpress kit, 2002
MG Rover sales brochures/price lists, 2004
SMMT new car sales figures, 1995 – 2005
Austin Rover K series engine launch press information, 1989
Relevant Austin Rover, BMW and MG Rover Shareholder reports, 1995-2004
Official report into the collapse of MG Rover
Glass’s Guide to car values, various editions 1995-2005
Original MGFPress launch write-ups, presentation notes and launch guest interview recordings.
Nanjing press information.
A selection of rare but definitely arcane MG F and TF data is available here:
Wikipedia has a pic of a Nanjing Chinese built TF here:
Fascintating future technology concept with 200hp MG TF Hybrid Performance Drive
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…