It’s been 15 years since MG Rover went into administration. And it’s been 45 years since the Ryder Report recommended the part-nationalisation of the ailing British Leyland Motor Corporation. For 30 years in between - from 1975 to 2005 - the wheezing conglomerate went from being by far the UK’s largest car manufacturer to a shameful punchline, its best bits ejected and the remnants swallowed up whole by Nanjing Automobile.
Three decades of severe mismanagement, poor oversight, internal strife and repeated missed opportunities are well documented, as are the more misfortunate cars which sprung from its various arrangements. However, as is typical with a large British firm working in adverse conditions, it also managed to produce some genuinely memorable automotive moments throughout its decline. There were just too many talented people on hand for it not to.
How best to pay tribute? With a misty-eyed trawl through the classifieds, obviously. And there is much to choose from because the passage from British Leyland to Rover Group plc to MG Rover means accessing a great many merged companies and brands - not least Jaguar until it was floated in 1984 and Land Rover before it was sold off to Ford in 2000. And much of it is bracingly cheap - hence the £12k budget. Question is, what is worth buying? We attempt to separate the noteworthy wheat from the scrappage chaff…
There’s some Rover history in my family, and none of it good. My dad had a 600 diesel when I was a lad - its suspension failed. My nan drove a 100 Knightsbridge - it seemed naff, even at seven years old. I owned a K Series 25 as my first car - and learned the hard way what a Cat D write-off was. Yet despite all that, a weird family fondness for the brand has ensured Rover a place in my heart: I’d love an SD1 of any kind, and still regard the 75 as great bit of saloon design - same goes for the P5, in fact.
Then there’s this, an 800 Vitesse Coupe. Manual, too, and what I think is Nightfire Red. I’ve been keeping my eye on it for a while, staggered it hasn’t sold given the condition and the rarity. This feels like a safe place to admit it - I think the 800 looks brilliant. This is the original 180hp car, not the later Sport that incorporated extra power and the diff - consider that a Tomcat for grown-ups - but to find any kind of Vitesse in this condition 25 years later seems almost unbelievable. As a cut-price version of what Britain does best - the suave, comfy, louche GT - I can envisage a lot of happy miles in the big Rover.
My history and knowledge of the ZT-T comes down to two experiences. Firstly, I had the 190+ (rather than the V8 Prodrive breathed-on version), and it did me proud, with plenty of boot space and the functionality of a split screen entry pinched straight from BMW. While it was thirsty, it remained pretty cheap to maintain. After I sorted the fabled orange clip issue, anyway.
The car here is the bigger brother, admittedly built on a different platform. To me, it’s the true definition of a Q-car; pipe and slippers after too many ED tablets! Its interior looks immaculate and whiile the pearlescent paint will divide opinions, it is the facelift model meaning you get the upgraded grille and some MG-X cost savings. Plus, I know for certain that it’s capable of defying those old-man-on-the-way-to-tip looks from my second experience, when a friend attempted to drift round his MG around a roundabout. Obviously, the thing lost traction, did a donut and left us in a cloud of tyre smoke. I was sold.
I’d love to pick up a 190 again, but looking through the classifieds there are practically none for sale. The V8s are also lurking in their ones and twos. Which is surprising, as about a 1,000 ZT-Ts are supposedly still registered and 60 of them are V8s. Still, BL heritage was done proud at the end with this car – even if it took a leg-up from the Germans.
I know, I know - madness. Madness to include the Metro here. Famous for being British Leyland’s botched attempt to replace the God-like Mini, and even more famous for being rejected at length by Alan Partridge. Under various guises the Metro was built for 18 years, and was thrilling in precisely none of them. So why point to it? Because it was supremely big-selling, that’s why. Because, despite its myriad shortcomings and inherent conservatism, it was sensibly packaged and (to begin with at least) hugely popular, and was deliberately promoted as a British-built alternative to European-made rivals. It exceeded Ford Fiesta sales until 1984; by the end of the decade, British Leyland had shifted more than one million examples. My nan had one as her last car. My best mate had one as his first.
Had its maker been better run and properly financed, such ubiquitousness might have made it the ideal foundation for an enduring small car dynasty. Instead, thanks to supreme outdatedness long before the end, it became the butt of a joke. So it’s here to remind everyone what a volume British car manufacturer actually looked like. And if you really, really want, you can still buy a very well-kept example of the now collectable MG version to see what all the fuss was about.
It’s not exactly an inside-only joke that British Leyland cars were built a little on the loose side. God forbid you’d bought yourself a Friday afternoon Triumph or Rover from the seventies or eighties. Or, indeed, a P38 Range Rover. Because while the big Land Rover was from the Rover Group years and was big and plush, its build quality was, erm, somewhat patchy. Apparently, when BMW took control of LR in 1994, boss Wolfgang Reitzle almost pulled a car to pieces during a "touch test" at Gaydon. Even more laughable was the fuel economy.
But the P38 was still a Range Rover. It was a status machine; butch, blocky-faced and frequently in the foreground of hip-hop videos. I wanted a V8 one as a child, when my infant mind wasn’t able to grasp the financial ruin associated with a potentially temperamental machine that offered a real-world economy of 14 miles per gallon. The P38’s life was rightfully short-lived, having been canned when Ford took over in 2000, so these days they’re comparatively rare. In fact, there were just two P38s to choose from at the time of writing, both from that final year of production, with one being a diesel and the other a 4.0-litre V8. A no brainer, then.
I’ve always had a hankering for a classic Mini; if I’m ever going to pull the trigger and buy one it feels like it’s now or never – prices are only going one way. Sure, an example like this may have only been a grand or two a decade ago, but £6,500 for a relatively low mileage rolling restoration looks like pretty good value to me. That wide arch kit is right up my street, and a slipping clutch is enough to whet my appetite for the first job on what’ll inevitably turn into a huge project.
I’m a big advocate of British-built motors, having owned a Caterham, a Lotus and, in my dreams at least, a lottery win McLaren, so it makes absolute sense to pick up one of the most iconic cars ever produced by this country. Just need to get that garage sorted first…
After gifting my original choice to Pete (being the authority on the ZT-T) I went back off to search and landed on the Jaguar XJS. Sorry Nic, but I had to go over budget because, well, look at the thing. A 303hp (or 299bhp, as the ad states) 5.3-litre V12 Jag in gleaming red with the rare factory TWR body kit fitted. It easily justified bending the rules a little.
My wife has been forcing me to watch the new series of The Crown of late so perhaps Diana's lovely convertible XJS has influenced my choice a little. I've always admired the look of the XJS in any format, although it's a rare sight on the roads now and asking prices are on the up - albeit not anywhere near the eyewatering sums commanded by its famous predecessor. Dare I say it, this looks like the thinking man's purchase. One in as good nick as this example should be a safe investment, too, albeit with 5.3 litres of engine wafting you back and forth between petrol stations.
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