MG shows a British pedigree can do wonders for a Chinese brand

LONDON: In the 1960s, roadsters from Britain’s MG offered drivers worldwide an easy way to own a piece of Cool Britannia.

Elvis was so enamored of the MGA 1600 ragtop he piloted in the film Blue Hawaii that he got one of his own. James Dean had a low-slung MG-TD before he upgraded to a more powerful Porsche.

And in 1969, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip gave then-Prince Charles a blue MGC GT hardtop for his 21st birthday.

But after selling more than half a million of its MGB two-seaters in the ’60s and ’70s, the company went into a slow decline, running through various owners and reincarnations before ending up at BMW, which in 2000 sold MG for just £10.

Five years later, the buyers went bust, putting 6,000 British workers out of a job.


These days, MG is thriving again—under Chinese owners, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which in 2007 acquired the brand and a factory in the English city of Longbridge.

MG sold 115,000 cars in Europe in the first half of 2023, more than double the total for the same period last year. Guy Pigounakis, the company’s chief in the UK, says the sales growth proves that European consumers continue to embrace the brand.

“This is as British as any brand under foreign ownership that claims to be British,” Pigounakis says. “It’s about the affection and recognition that MG has.”

Other Chinese automakers have struggled to win over wary European buyers, but MG’s British pedigree gives it an advantage, says Felipe Munoz, an analyst at researcher Jato Dynamics.

Even after SAIC shuttered the limping Longbridge plant in 2016, one of a long line of closures in the troubled UK auto industry, MG has maintained a design team of roughly two dozen in England, letting it claim its cars are designed in Britain.


“It’s fully Chinese, but in the eyes of the consumers it’s still British, or at least Western,” Munoz says.

And buyers love it, with the MG HS—an SUV that also comes as a hybrid—earning the title of Britain’s bestselling car for January this year, beating rivals such as the Nissan Qashqai and the Volkswagen T-Roc.

Longer term, MG aims to become a leader in electric vehicles. Three of its seven models in Europe are EVs, and a fourth is a hybrid. So far this year more than half its European sales have been EVs, the company says.

In a February review of the MG4 electric hatchback, the automotive news site Top Gear said that while more established brands were “busy making electric cars expensive,” MG went in the opposite direction, undercutting rivals by about £10,000 (RM59,000) a car.

“It’s a wake-up call to mainstream manufacturers,” Top Gear wrote.

MG cars waiting to be exported from China. — AFP
MG cars waiting to be exported from China. — AFP

To meet European demand and fend off political pressure to shield the region’s carmakers from outside competition, SAIC says it’s planning a factory in the European Union.

Although that will likely mean higher costs, because EU autoworkers earn far more than their Chinese counterparts, the company will save on the region’s 10% import duties and shipping, as rates have increased dramatically in recent years.

Previous owners never gave MG enough cash, and their “eyes were always somewhere else,” says David Knowles, an historian writing a book about the company. “SAIC has the money.”

And having a factory in the region will give SAIC an edge over Chinese competitors such as BYD, Great Wall and Nio, all of which aim to boost sales in Europe.

Elvis Presley’s MG on display at Graceland in Memphis. — Photo by Alamy via Bloomberg
Elvis Presley’s MG on display at Graceland in Memphis. — Photo by Alamy via Bloomberg

MG is now supercharging its EV lineup with the Cyberster, an all-electric roadster that nods to the brand’s roots.

The low-slung two-seater, which is expected to be priced from £50,000 to £60,000 when it hits UK showrooms next summer, will be launched in China this year.

“We wanted to build a car to attract a generation of people that are quite familiar with MG,” says Carl Gotham, MG’s design director.

“This is about the brand going back to its roots.”

Autos MG Motors