MG Motor's decision to end production in the UK shows just how tough it's been for Chinese owners SAIC to revive the storied British brand in Europe.
Last week MG said it would no longer carry out final assembly of cars it sells in the UK, its only European market, in the historic Longbridge plant in Birmingham, central England. In future all cars would come from China.
MG restarted production in Longbridge 2011 for two reasons. First to reassure buyers that MG was still at heart a UK brand after being revived by its Chinese owners. And second as a long-range hedge in case it needed a full European production base if the brand became successful.
"We do it for a brand point of view because this way the car is built in the UK, it rolls off a production line here," Guy Jones, who was then MG sales and marketing director, told me in 2011.
The battle between SAIC and its rival Nanjing Automobile (which SAIC later took over) to buy ailing MG Rover before and after it went bankrupt in 2005 had soured British buyers and restarting local production was one way to make amends.
The all-new MG6 midsize model launched in 2011 was marketed as being "designed, engineered and built in the UK." It didn't work. Brand sales remained stubbornly low and rose to just 3,152 last year after MG added the MG3 subcompact.
Also, it wasn’t really true to say the MG6 was built in the UK. Around 80 percent of the production took place in SAIC's huge new Lingang plant near Shanghai. In Longbridge, a skeleton crew of around 40 production workers married the engine with the rest of the car, and only 10 percent of parts were sourced in the UK or Europe.
The handful of workers rattled around the 105-acre site, which included a mothballed paint shop with capacity for 100,000 cars a year. Before it went bankrupt, MG Rover had employed 6,500 there.
MG's plan was to turn kit-building into full-scale production, Garel Rhys, emeritus professor of motor industry economics at the Cardiff Business School in Wales said. The UK's famed productivity could have overcome the estimated 15 percent increase in production costs compared to China. "But sales were showing that was never really going to happen," Rhys said.
MG says it will still design and develop cars in the UK in Longbridge, where it employs 300 staff. The automaker has just launched a new compact SUV with a new subcompact SUV due next year, and sales are on the rise.
But the dream of putting the brand back at the heart of UK automotive production has died, if it ever really existed.