Selling your classic car? It's FREE to list your car on Honest John Classics | No thanks

MG MGF (1995 - 2002)

Last updated 27 November 2018

 
4

Model Timeline

April 1985
Austin Rover design office begins work on a new sporting MG

Gerry McGovern's MG F-16 was the first MG project to follow hard on the heels of the EX-E. This delicious convertible looked reasonably similar to the eventual MGF but it was actually front engined and front wheel drive. The body formed the basis of the later PR1, PR2 and PR3 prototypes - and therefore, can be considered the point at which the 'F was born...

The MG F-16 looked reasonably similar to the eventual MGF but it was actually front engined and front wheel drive. The body formed the basis of the later PR1, PR2 and PR3 prototypes - and therefore, can be considered the point at which the 'F was born...

Between 1985 and 1989, work on a neat little front-engined two-seater convertible, called the MG F-16 showed that many within Austin Rover were keen on re-entering the sports car market. The reasoning behind the car was simple: MG as a marque was ripe to be exploited, and what better way to do it than to develop a new sports car; something to finally replace the MGB? Although, the F-16 was never much more than a rolling design study, fashioned in the sidelines, it certainly softened management’s attitude to the idea of a new MG-badged sports car. All the designers were extremely keen to follow through the concept; especially their director – Roy Axe.

The background to why the development of this car never really gained momentum throughout the last half of the decade can be put down to uncertainty over the company’s finances, the failure of the mid-range saloons on the market – and the government’s keenness to farm out Rover to private sector. The new MG convertible was not regarded a priority in Rover’s forward planning and although the F16 was advanced enough to have been mocked-up as a full-size prototype, management approval was not forthcoming.

However, the idea never went away and given the right climate, a two-seater MG convertible would make a return. After the sale of the Rover Group to British Aerospace in 1988, the climate began to look more favourable, and many within the design team did believe that the F-16 concept could make the leap to production reality. in 1989, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel and thanks to the improved financial position of Rover, the MG idea began to gain momentum right the way through the company. The pivotal moment in the gestation of the MGF came later in 1989, when the Japanese launched their modern interpretation of the Lotus Elan.

Upon seeing the Mazda MX-5 for the first time, Gordon Sked knew that the designers had been right all along in pushing for a new MG convertible. It was obviously a bitter-sweet moment for him, and he has been quoted as saying that the MX-5′s announcement made him feel like crying. There was an obvious reason for this – work on the F-16 had been underway at Canley since 1985 – and had the company given the project its blessing, they could have had the car (or a derivative of it) on the market before the Mazda ever saw the light of day. Thanks to the MX-5, the world had now changed – for the better – but it meant that any manufacturer who launched a mass-market 2-seater convertible subsequently would undoubtedly be accused of jumping on the MX-5 bandwagon.

However, the MX-5 had appeared and following the critical acclaim it received in the press, Rover management had no doubt that they needed to produce an MG to compete in the same market. The Mazda’s sales success in the months that followed backed that up… The MG was on.

September 1989
From concept to reality

The final piece of the MGF jigsaw was the formation of Rover Special Products. The raison d’etre of this division was simply to take on Rover Group projects that were considered too marginal for the mainstream design teams to consider working on. RSP was manna from heaven for the new MG, simply because it allowed for much in the way of flexibility during the design process without actually taking too many resources away from the mainstream design team, who were busy working on upcoming Rover saloons and hatchbacks.

As a result, the project was given some direction, and a commitment to production looked much more likely. An overall designation of, ‘Phoenix Revival’ (or ‘Phoenix Route’) was assigned, and in an exercise to work out what was the best route to follow in devising the new car, three subsequent MG convertible prototypes would be given PR designations.

January 1990
Work begins on chosing the engineering layout of the PR3

Under the direction of Rover Special Projects division, the PR3 project was designed and developed by Steve Harper, during the first months of 1991. The design theme, inspired by the TWR XJR15, was first sketched in the January of 1991, and then developed over the next month, in which time, the distinct shape of the MGF was soon established. Full size clay modelling began in March, and the ‘red car’ was first shown to Rover management that same month.

PR1 This was a continuation of the F16 project, being front engined, front wheel drive. Motor Panels built the running prototype and based it upon Maestro running gear, but using the 2-litre M16 engine.
PR2 PR2 was built by Reliant on a Scimitar SS1 chassis. Layout was classical – front engine, rear wheel drive and the power was provided by a 3.9-litre version of the venerable Rover V8 engine.
PR3 PR3 was produced by the Luton-based automotive consultants ADC and was a mid/rear design, echoing the layout of the Fiat X1/9 and Toyota MR2.

The PR1/2/3 exercise was an extremely astute one: outside contractors were used in order to keep costs down, and each of the three parties were given an F-16 body to work with and a mechanical configuration to adhere to.

Within the space of a few months, RSP had received the finished prototypes from Reliant, ADC and Motor Panels, and serious evaluation of the road behaviour of each one ensued. Each car had its fans within the company, but it was decided that the best way to settle the issue would be to undertake and management drive exercise, in which the three cars would be seriously tested back-to-back.

One attendee was John Towers, who was there in his role as Director of Product Development. The exercise was most interesting, for all those that attended, and although the build quality of the prortypes was a little rough and ready in places, a good impression of each car could be reached. Although technically very interesting, PR1 was the first to be ruled out, because of its front wheel drive layout. It was felt that although it offered an extremely competent compromise in the handling department, its reliance on the Maestro floorpan meant that it would be running on soon-to-be-obsolete componentry.

The choice was, therefore, between the hairy 3.9-litre rear wheel drive car, and the more sophisticated mid-engined layout. Both layouts had their adherents, but in the end, the more forward looking of the two was chosen…

After much deliberation, RSP settled on the mid-engined layout for the new car, dubbed the PR3, because of the superior road behaviour offered by the layout – this was in the days before the Lotus Elan proved once and for all that front wheel drive cars could be made to handle as well as their rear wheel drive counterparts. Previous MG Midget and F16 prototypes may have been front engine/front wheel drive, but that was because of the ease of employing existing running gear. Although the front engine/rear wheel drive option had its fans inside Special Products, it was ruled out on cost grounds: a mid-engined car could use an existing engine/gearbox package without major modification, whereas a rear driven car would require an entirely new platform and running gear.

January 1991
Mid-engined PR3 chosen for production

MGA Development’s styling mock-up for the PR3, dating back to 1991 shows that the MGF package was already pretty much defined: the mid-engined layout, body shape survived through to the final model.

MGA Development’s styling mock-up for the PR3, dating back to 1991 shows that the MGF package was already pretty much defined: the mid-engined layout, body shape survived through to the final model.

Out of the three companies. MGA Development’s version was deemed the most suitable by management, and it was from this proposal that the final MGF shape was created. The design brief given by Rover was open – there needed to be a conceptual relationship with the MG EX-E, as well as more contemporary rival convertibles. It also needed to be unmistakably an MG, with an overall feeling of Britishness. Rover’s management reviewed MGA’s PR3 proposal and liked what they saw: Steve Harper, a member of the team that worked on the PR3 for MGA recalled their reaction, ‘The feedback we got was very positive. The high rear deck went down well, as did the bodyside surfacing and the car’s squat stance, but the front end treatment drew some criticism – too anonymous, not MG.’

May 1991
MG F comes in-house

By May 1991, MGA signed off their PR3 proposal and passed it over to Canley for final productionsation by EX-E stylist, Gerry McGovern and Gordon Sked. Many subtle changes were made at this stage of the process – the windscreen became lower, flanks were lowered and the overhangs shortened. Significantly, major changes were made to the front of the car, where fuller, rounder headlights were incorporated and a traditional MG grille arrangement that aped the post-1976 MGB. Happily, the Gerry McGovern arrangement was considerably more stylish than the rather heavy-handed original.

So the styling was an amalgam of new-age thinking and traditional MG design cues, the engineering and concept owed nothing at all to any previous production cars by the marque. The MG ADO21 and EX-E may have shared its mid-engined layout, but neither was anywhere near being a production reality.

Gerry McGovern sketch shows clearly that the MGA PR3 was a suitable starting point, but major changes to the overall appearance of the car would result from his alterations. Clearly evident from this rendering is the striking similarity to his EX-E of 1985 – especially to the rear of the hard top version.

Gerry McGovern sketch shows clearly that the MGA PR3 was a suitable starting point, but major changes to the overall appearance of the car would result from his alterations. Clearly evident from this rendering is the striking similarity to the EX-E of 1985 – especially to the rear of the hard top version.

So thanks to Rover’s insistence that the PR3 was to be as British as bangers and mash, it was heart warming to see that the Rover parts bin was raided – and no Honda at all crept into the design, a temptation for any Rover engineer during the early 1990s. There was only one choice for the power unit: the K-series engine, but surprising for observers, the suspension used was Dr Alex Moulton’s Hydragas – hardly an obvious choice, given the cars in which it was previously used.

But Hydragas worked especially well with the mid-engined MG because it could be tuned specifically to provide accurate response during direction changes, without being too nervy. As Alex Moulton related in Autocar magazine at the launch of the MGF, “it de-fidgets the car” because of its best property – the front/rear connection. Being short of wheelbase, the car was potentially very susceptible to becoming unsettled on rough surfaces – but the interconnected MG suffered far less than its rivals.

Hood up or down, the profile of the MGF looked good – the low profile hood was engineered by Pininfarina, the only part of this roadster that could be construed as not being British.

Hood up or down, the profile of the MGF looked good – the low profile hood was engineered by Pininfarina, the only part of this roadster that could be construed as not being British.

The 1.8-litre version of the K-series engine is an engine that was never originally designed for. As has been relayed elsewhere in this book, the K-series engine was an optimised package for installation in small and medium sized hatchbacks – and as a result, it was an extremely compact power unit. However, Rover Group Powertrain were faced with the pressing need to replace the bought-in Honda 1.6-litre engines – and as a result of this need, the big block K-series was born. Some very ingenious engineering solutions were employed to squeeze extra capacity from the K-series engine, chief of these were new cylinder liners, called damp liners, which allowed an increased cylinder size by fitting bigger bores into the same block size. The result was four cylinders squeezed into the same size block – a longer throw crankshaft effected the enlargement from 1.6 to 1.8-litres. Continuing Rover’s loaves and fishes reputation, the entire budget for the engine programme was, ‘less than £200 million’.

For the faster version of the MGF various methods of boosting engine power were investigated. Alex Stephenson, Rover Group Powertrain’s managing director stated, ‘we looked at everything, including turbos and superchargers, but VVC offered the best package…’ Basically, Variable Valve Control (VVC) was a concept that Rover had been working on since the launch of the K-series engine in 1989. Under the codename Hawk, the intention was to boost power by continuously varying the inlet cam period – and this was finally achieved in their first development engine, run in 1993.

The secret to the VVC system was a clever mechanical link between the inlet camshaft and its drive – the engine management system altered the relationship between the camshaft and crankshaft. The result was that at high revs, the valves were held open to boost power, but at low revs, the valves remained closed longer, thus increasing torque. The step-over point was at 4000rpm, it all meant that VVC enabled versions of the K-series exhibited the likeable quality of being nicely torquey and driveable at low revs, but when you wanted to press-on, the power would come in gradually above 4000rpm. The effect was somewhat akin that that of the Honda VTEC engine, but with the advantage of having better low-down torque characteristics.

March 1995
MGF launched

When the MGF was launched on 8 March 1995, the impact it made on the press and public was significant. Following over a decade of Rover’s Anglo-Japanese products, RV8 aside, here was the first all-British car produced by Rover since the Austin Montego. And as Car magazine related at the time, ‘even more heart-warming is that some of the people involved with it are figures from some of the happier chapters of BL’s troubled past. Dr Alex Moulton, engineer Brian Griffin is the son of Charles Griffin, once the engineering chief of Austin-Morris. Peter Parker, who worked on MG’s variable-valve-control system, cut his teeth on Austin’s experimental gas-turbine cars.’

The press loved the car – and the MGF was soon making friends in the showrooms, too. The MG was welcomed back into the realms of mainstream sports cars – sales were brisk and the car enjoyed a very positive image. Following the launch of the Rover 200 and 400, the MGF soon became a member of the Rover “Niche” line-up, which included the 200 Cabriolet, Coupe and Tourer – and it began to win new custom for the company. Certainly, the MGF compared with the then current crop of opposition, which included the FIAT Barchetta and Mazda MX-5. Where the MGF scored heavily against both cars was because of its mid-engined layout and cuddly, but sexy looks.

Autocar were impressed with the new car and it showed in their road test verdict of the 1.8i version: “It would have been so easy for Rover to stick an MG badge on the nose of a mediocre car and once more rely on the marque’s image to do the selling. This has not happened. Rover has instead created what is, in all probability, the world’s most complete and affordable open two-seater. From traditional MG fans to those wanting something more stylish than the chopped-about hatchbacks that pass for convertibles these days, the MGF should prove a blessing. It is an all-British car of which we can be unusually proud.”

The interior may not have been quite as avant-garde as the exterior, but it was certainly a successful effort. The “twin cabin” theme managed to look both interesting and cohesive – the cream dials also added visual interest to the fascia.

The interior may not have been quite as avant-garde as the exterior, but it was certainly a successful effort. The “twin cabin” theme managed to look both interesting and cohesive – the cream dials also added visual interest to the fascia.

Handling and ride were marked as being exemplary – and although as a mid-engined car with its low polar movement of inertia, it should have been more ragged at its limits and it was not. Rover’s engineers had engineered a massive safety margin into the chassis, and ensured that the MGF was all-but impossible to oversteer, let alone spin. However, the Hydragas sprung chassis did exactly what Moulton promised – it “de-fidgeted” the car. The downside was that along with the electric power steering, it managed to desensitise the car a little too much. OK, the limits of adhesion were way beyond cars such as the Mazda MX-5, but that all-important feel was a little bit muddied. This may have been disappointing to the road testers, but as ex-Formula One driver Mark Blundell put it when speaking about the MGF, ‘I feel, for the average driver, that this is much safer because you can back off the throttle and bring in the front end, as opposed to trying to use a lot of ability to catch it.’

Russell Bulgin put it in these terms when comparing the MGF to its arch-rival, the Mazda MX-5: ‘The MGF is for chaps, the MX-5 is a bloke’s car. Chaps like to reminisce about the MGB, talk about their purchase down at the pub. All a bloke craves is a quiet road with some invigorating bends and the odd off-camber surprise. So why have Rover been clever with the MGF? Because there’s a strong argument for saying that, to the everyday user, the MX-5 is too much sports car. The MGF feels amiable for commuting and would be a great motorway companion, too. Roomy inside, with a decent boot and a civility, which is more than skin-deep, this is a sports car for the driver who isn’t too sure about sports cars. Is satisfying that person such a terrible mistake for Rover to make?’

Of course, the answer was no – and sales of the MGF backed this opinion.

Unfortunately, plans for exporting it to the USA were put on ice by BMW, who felt that it would threaten their own newly launched Z3 model. The company cited homologation costs as a reason, but engineering the MGF to be as user-friendly as it was points to a development programme aimed squarely at the US market – and BMW did not want their British division to spoil the party.

MGF Trophy 160 signalled the company’s new found sporting intent.

MGF Trophy 160 signalled the company’s new found sporting intent.

March 1997
New options added

Air conditioning became a very expensive but desirable option in early 1997 and other options offered from launch included CD multiplay, fog lamps and passenger airbag as well as a factory produced hardtop with glass rear window and heating element. The following should help the buyer get the correct specification car. All models are fitted with alloy wheels.

VVCs differ from the 1.8Mpi as follows:

° Five spoke alloy wheels (1995–2000)
° Electric Power steering (EPAS) optional on 1.8Mpi
° Boot mounted additional brake lamp, standard on both from 1998
° Half leather seats
° VVC stamped on plenum chamber visible through boot grille
° Eighth digit of VIN should read T for VVC and G for Mpi version
° Rev counter red lined at 7250rpm, and 6750rpm on 1.8Mpi

September 1999
MGF facelifted

Facelifted for the 2000MY in late 1999, the exterior has body coloured windscreen surround in place of black and the side and front indicators are clear smoked with orange bulbs instead of orange lenses.The interior has revised switchgear, optional lighter interior trim colours and the speedometer and rev counter are silvered with italicised numerals. The mileometer and odometer are digital.

March 2000
Steptronic transmission added

In 2000 a Belgian built CVT transmission was offered, mated to the 118bhp engine. It offered fully automatic mode or steering wheel mounted F1 paddle shift that makes the gearbox operate as a six speed sequential gearbox.

May 2001
Range extended

In 2001, two further models were launched to compliment the 1.8Mpi, Steptronic and VVC. These being the Trophy160 SE and the 1.6 Mpi base model.

The Trophy has a reworked VVC engine producing 158bhp and is distinguishable by 16-inch alloy wheels, front bib splitter and boot spoiler. The suspension has been lowered and is stiffer: AP racing ‘MG’ branded red coloured four-pot brake callipers working with much larger front brake discs. Body colours include solar red, anthracite and trophy yellow and trophy blue. The interior is colour coded to match the chosen exterior colour. Steel spare wheel optional on this model.

The 1.6 was launched as an entry level base model which is fitted with a short stroke version of the 1.8 engine, and equipped with more basic interior trim, It is nevertheless an affordable entry into sports car motoring and will be enough to satisfy many.

December 2001
MGF production ended - replaced by steel-sprung MG TF

Additionally, there were several special editions available throughout the production life of car including the Abingdon, 75th Anniversary and Freestyle.Plans were already afoot to thoroughly update the MGF, though – and in January 2002, the results were launched: the MG TF.

Back: IntroductionNext: Driving
 

Ask Honest John