road test: 2001 MGF

mgfWhen the new MG F was launched in summer 1995, Car magazine called it, “a brave and bizarre prelude to something a lot more serious”. They were right – because the F single-handedly repatriated the brand from being a tacky adornment to eighties Metros to the fully-fledged sportscar marque it once was. The car was dynamite in the showrooms, creating waiting lists lasting many months, and also gave Rover Cars the feel good factor which it had lacked for so long. It seemed the ‘F could do no wrong – every journalist that touched it came back praising it…

Undeniably pretty, technologically interesting (thanks to its Hydragas suspension and mid-engine design) and very capable on the road, it made its main Mazda MX5 rival suddenly feel dated and crude. Lest we forget, just a few years earlier, this oriental Lotus Elan clone had practically been touted as the saviour of sportscar motoring – so this was no small feat.

The plan was a cunning one: the mid-engined layout was inspired by the long-deceased ADO21, a one-time replacement for the B, and the later Austin Rover MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car, which proved so successful in the eighties. Cynics would suggest that the F was little more than a reskin – after all, take a front engine, front wheel drive Metro and turn it back to front and you’ve got a rear wheel drive car with the motor at the back. Then give it the same Metro subframes and Hydragas suspension, a pretty body and what have you got!

Conspiracy theories abound – just look at the people involved: Along with Gerry McGovern, the man behind the F’s sleek lines was Rover design chief Gordon Sked, who’d also worked on the Metro. Even the MG F engineer Brian Griffin was the son of Austin-Morris’s ex-engineering chief Charles… In truth though, the F was more than a Metro back to front. Although an amalgam of everything Rover had to hand – from the award winning K-Series motors and Alex Moulton’s clever Hydragas suspension to clunky Honda Ballade switchgear and Rover 200 instruments – it was more than the sum of its parts.

By the standards of 1995, the new MG was great to drive, had a relatively capacious interior and boot, and looked a million guineas. So clearly superior to the likes of Fiat’s Barchetta and Mazda’s MX5 was it that the car practically sold itself. All was not what it seemed, however. Despite the universal praise from the ‘new car press’ – whose experience of any given new vehicle rarely extends beyond a weekend driving it around a swanky European ski-resort – within months the F was beginning to acquire a poor reputation in the trade. Once again, it was the age-old ‘BMC-British Leyland-Leyland Cars-Austin-Rover’ curse of poor quality. Despite constant assurances though the eighties that ‘BL’ build problems were a thing of the past, even a mid-nineties ‘Rover’ began to give cause for concern.

In the great British tradition, buyers went back to their dealers with complaints of questionable panel fit, variable shutlines and leaky hoods. Paint finish wasn’t good either, with some colours tending to chip all too easily. And as the cars aged, more problems emerged. When installed in the back of an F, the normally reliable K-series proved more delicate. The cooling system has to be monitored with zeal – if it isn’t properly topped up and kept free of air bubbles then head gaskets can too readily fail. Another worry is the front bracing bar – the welds on many early cars have failed, compromising chassis rigidity and causing a worrying ‘cracking’ sound when going over bumps from under the dashboard. Tracking and wheel alignment problems abound, giving terrible tyre wear rates, and even the much proven Hydragas suspension can collapse, seriously compromising handling.

Once again then, it was a case of ‘so near but so far’ for MG Rover. The company responded with a series of mods through the years, with the 2000 model year cars being better sorted, but an F of any vintage cannot be considered robust. Unlike its Toyota, Honda or Mazda rivals, it has to be handled with care, properly serviced and not thrashed – even relatively late plate, low mileage examples can feel very tired for their age. The TF replacement was re-engineered with conventional suspension and better aerodynamics to cure the earlier car’s high speed lift problems, but lost the suppleness of its gas-sprung predecessor. Now it’s gone, we can look back at the MG F as yet another one of Rover’s flawed diamonds – another beautiful bolide that’s fussy and finnicky to get and keep right.


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