MG SV-R | The Brave Pill

Some cars are brave for being risky - for catching fire or for the sort of handling imbalances that earn comparison to the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Some are brave for being hugely expensive to run, or for being known for the sort of mechanical maladies capable of turning even the sturdiest wallet into a molten puddle. But some are brave because of their sheer scarcity, the near-impossibility of finding parts or spares to keep them running. In the last of these categories an ultra low-volume British sportscar with carbon fibre bodywork must come right at the top of the list.

We all know how the story of the MG SV ended: in failure and lawsuits after just a few dozen cars had been built, as the rest of MG Rover crashed around it. But tracing exactly where it began is considerably harder given what could well be the most tortuous gestation of any sportscar ever.

There isn't enough room here to do justice to the full story, and which Netflix could probably run over at least two seasons. So, a condensed version: by the early 1990s Italian almost-supercar maker De Tomaso was down on its luck and decided to launch a new model. Inspiration came, somewhat improbably, from the TVR Griffith, with the idea being to offer a similar combination of handsome looks and V8 brawn. A concept of what was then called the De Tomaso Bigua appeared at the 1996 Geneva show and caused a modest splash, with De Tomaso approaching a Norwegian-American with the unimprovably Norwegian name of Kjell Qvale to help fund development. Qvale had made a fortune importing sportscars to the 'States, starting off with MGs and later broadening his portfolio to include Lamborghini, Maserati and De Tomaso; he had also paid to develop the Jenson Healey.

Using Qvale's cash the Bigua was readied for production, its name being changed to Mangusta in the process. It was a roadster featuring a Ford V8 engine, a steel chassis and glass-fibre bodywork which had been styled - with sketches possibly sent over a fuzzy fax line - by Marcello Gandini. Sales began in 1999 but Qvale and De Tomaso soon fell out, the car then rebranded to become the Qvale Mangusta. Around 300 were sold, which was a poor return on Qvale's $30m investment, but which would look like a huge success compared to what happened next.

In the summer of 2000 the newly independent MG Rover was looking to add some much-needed sizzle to its range. Plans to firm-up and MG-ify the Rover 25, 45 and 75 were advancing, and would ultimately lead to some half-decent performance derivatives. But the company felt it also needed a range-topping halo car and when Qvale contacted Nick Stephenson - one of the "gang of four" who had taken control of the company from BMW - the discussion soon escalated from mooted plans for MGR to take on European distribution of the Mangusta, to an outright purchase of the whole car and production facilities.

MG Rover didn't want to just put its badge on the visually challenging Mangusta, but an all-new car. A plan was formed to keep the chassis and powertrain - and therefore the company believed also the Federal safety case that would allow for U.S. sales - but to replace bodywork with an all-new carbon fibre exterior. The first X80 concept was pretty dull - sort of Mustang at the back and MG TF at the front, but MGR's design boss Peter Stevens turned things up to at least 11 for the production version, with cartoonish muscularity, colossal inlets and outlets and a rear wing that Max Power magazine might have reckoned was a bit much. It was pretty much dripping testosterone.

The design won plenty of fans, and the standard of the carbon bodywork was good enough to win a couple of industry awards. But the SV had bigger problems than recognition. The first was price, with even the entry level car - with a Roush-tuned naturally aspirated V8 putting out 320hp - costing a very serious Β£75,000, which was more than enough to buy some brawnier and better polished alternatives at the time. In addition to the (since well documented desire) of MG Rover's directors to fill suitcases with cash, this was due in large part to the ridiculously complicated production process.

Carbon fibre bodywork was produced by SP Systems on the Isle of Wight, then shipped to Italy. Panels got laminated, bonded and assembled in Turin and then taken to Modena to be united with the (separately constructed) steel chassis. Cars were then painted and received engines and transmissions before being shipped back to the UK for trim and final assembly in what was grandly billed as the new MG Sport and Racing facility in Longbridge, but which was really just a small unit in the shadow of the doomed factory.

To be fair, MG Rover was the first to fall into a trap that would go on to claim several other carmakers: spending so much on a carbon fibre structure that the rest of the car had to be done on a shoestring. The SV's interior was closer to kit car than supercar, with a terrible driving position and lots of Christmas cracker componentry. I went to Longbridge to see one just ahead of the car's launch and having nearly drawn blood on some of the prototype's interior trim asked MG Rover's PR director how they were going to improve the production version. "This is the production version," he said, with a deflated expression. Sorry, Kevin.

Sales were minimal, and even the arrival of the brawnier 400hp R version did little to improve things. Beyond a very agricultural change via the Tremec five-speed gearbox the driving experience was actually pretty decent. It had a benign handling balance with lots of grip plus impressively good manners at cruising speeds. But the rest of the ownership proposition never got anywhere close to justifying the price tag, nor the fact it was carrying what was quickly becoming a tarnished brand. By the time MG Rover collapsed in 2005 fewer than 80 had been produced, with a few more subsequently built from leftover parts.

Our Pill is a later SV-R and is claimed to have only covered 10,000 miles, all under the charge of a single owner. It is one of the ultra-rare automatic versions - the vendor reckoning that makes it one of just seven produced. We haven't been able to look at the MOT history this week, but on the limited evidence offered by the pictures it looks like a good one. And while your first instinct might well be to regard Β£49,995 as looking keen given the lack of affection the car engendered in period, it really is a case of "find another." Well, beyond the blue 6,000-mile manual at the same dealer, that is.

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Comments (78) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Billy_Whizzzz 16 Nov 2019

    It would be fun for an hour to have a go but for £50k I’d have a 5 litre mustang thanks.

  • 595Heaven 16 Nov 2019

    I remember having a passenger ride in an early development car. It was not great.

    It went well enough, but there was really weird hollow, booming road noise all the time, I think this was down to the CF body. Would have been really wearing on a long journey, and drowned out the sound of the V8.

    Incredibly stiffly sprung, and very cramped inside, with some shocking build quality to boot. The A pillar / roof rail was very close to your head, and I remember hitting my head really hard on this whilst we went round a bumpy corner. As it was naked carbon, it was very solid, and I felt pretty dazed.

    It’s an interesting bit of the sad story of MG Rover’s demise, but far from being a great car. It’s looks from the front were quite good, and the Punto headlights really suited it. The massive side vents were a bit overdone, and the back end looked very amateurish. Fiat lights again, but from the Coupe this time.

    I’m sure I remember that Bad Obsession Motorsport (Project Binky) have one as another project.

    Edited by 595Heaven on Saturday 16th November 07:22

  • Don Roque 16 Nov 2019

    There may be a case for the manual as a fun and brawny sports car. There is no case for the automatic, for if there was ever a way to suck the fun from a driving experience it is surely to have an old slusher managing the changes.

  • scottygib553 16 Nov 2019

    I still can’t believe it was ever built

  • Equus 16 Nov 2019

    I was almost run over by Rowan Atkinson driving one of these down Measham high street - only time I ever saw one.

    It looked like a Barried Rover 75.

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