Automotive History: The MG Sporting Saloons, Part Two

(first posted 8/7/2012)     In MG Sporting Saloons Part One we saw the more traditional interpretations on the sporty family saloon. This time we’ll watch MG try to spice things up with front-wheel drive, hatchbacks and turbos. They even attempted to go high-tech in the early 1980s with digital dashes and voice control. Despite this, bespoke saloon designs were no more, as every car was based heavily on the offerings of the current parent company. A somewhat predictable trend, but who could have guessed the most quintessential British brand would end up in China?

First up is the MG 1100, which along with its many badge-engineered siblings, is also known as the ADO16. These really deserve an article all to themselves (ED: Coming soon, as I’ve found one). Essentially, they’re a big brother to the popular Mini, with front-wheel drive, a transversely mounted A-series engine and Hydrolastic suspension. There were two- and four-door versions available; the two-doors proved to be more popular with the buying public. The 1100 brought MG a bit of racing success in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally, with a fourth-in-class finish. A 1275cc version of the A-series came along later, as the 1300 model.

An optional four-speed automatic transmission became available but proved to be less than durable; unlike the manual gearbox, the automatic wasn’t happy sharing oil with the engine. The 1100 / 1300 cars turned out to be very popular, and they remain much loved in the UK. The 1100 was discontinued in 1969; the 1300, in 1973.

It would be almost another ten years before the next MG for the family man came along in the form of the 1980 Austin Metro, which launched to great success in its home market. The MG version that debuted in 1982 was pitched as sportier, with an uprated 1275cc, 72-hp version of the now-dated 60-hp A-series engine in the Austin. While they weren’t as well-built as some of the foreign competition, the Austin version in particular sold very well in the UK, riding atop a wave of national pride.

The MG versions sported a full complement of MG badges, a sportier steering wheel and lots of red accents to complete the transformation. New to the range was a turbo model with a stiffer suspension and 93 hp on tap.

In addition to their Austin Metro variant,  MG offered a version of the Austin Maestro hatchback. Launched in 1983 (with a rather troublesome 1.6-liter engine) the MG received an improved and fuel-injected 2.0-liter engine the following year. Unlike the Metro, with its transmission-under-engine and Hydragas suspension system, the Maestro was a rather conventional front-wheel drive car with an on-end gearbox, a MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam suspension in back. The Maestro was very much in the Volkswagen Golf mode; in fact, the MG version was pitched as being somewhat equivalent to the GTi. A turbo variant, which MG offered from 1989 until 1991, actually reverted to using a carburetor! Its performance was impressive–0-60 in 6.7 seconds–but only 505 were sold.

The Austin Montego four-door sedan also spawned an MG version.  Once again, the MG was pitched as being slightly sportier than its Austin half-brother. It featured some pretty high-tech kit for the times, including hidden wipers, voice reminders and controls, and digital gauges. Unfortunately, build quality was uneven, especially with the earlier cars. In 1985, MG introduced a 150-hp turbocharged Montego; it was the fastest production MG to date.

After the 1994 demise of MG’s Montego came another lengthy absence of MG saloons; it finally ended in 2001, when Rover-MG launched its Z-Series. The Zs were based on Rover saloons and hatchbacks, cars widely perceived as being somewhat stodgy and geriatric–British Buicks, perhaps. The MG ZR, based on the Rover 25 hatchback, featured body cladding along with a palette of bright exterior colors. Engines, all with four cylinders, ranged from 1.4-liters to 2.0-liters in size. As a sign of the times, one could even get a diesel engine in their MG ZR!

The MG ZS, a mid-size sedan based on the Rover 45, came along after BMW sold off its interest in Rover. The ZR’s recipe of bright colors and a body kit was once again used to dress things up. The ZS featured sharper suspension tuning and offered an optional 175-hp, 2.5-liter V6 for fitting performance. A range of four-cylinder engines were also available. The ZS proved to be a reasonably successful effort at a sports saloon, largely thanks to the Honda DNA it shared with the donor Rover 45.

The last of the modern British MG saloons is the ZT; once again, it’s based on a Rover design, this time the big 75. Aimed at the sporting executive market (think BMW, Audi, etc.) the MG offered much sportier styling than the Rover’s. Engine choices comprised a 1.8-liter K-series four-cylinder, a BMW 2.0-liter diesel, and a range-topping 2.5-liter V6. For those with such a hankering, an MG station wagon, the MG ZT-T, was available for the first time. In 2003 came the 260 version of the ZT–with rear-wheel drive and a Ford 4.6-liter V8 engine, it was MG’s mightiest production saloon ever.

In 2005, MG Rover went bankrupt, once again putting a halt to MG production. The company was purchased by Nanjing Automobile of China. Although MG’s Honda-based designs were off limits, Nanjing put the ZT back into production, for China, as the MG 7. They also produced the MG 3 as a re-badged Rover Streetwise hatchback prior to its 2011 redesign. There are plans for MG to re-enter the UK market, but the official timeline always seems to have a target date of “soon”.

So in conclusion: If someone at the local pub claims that MG made only sports cars, now you can confidently tell them, “bollocks!” Often did MG cater to the family man–at least in its home market, and now China.