How we Threw out a Sporting Tradition

Reprinted from MG Motoring

By John Thornley, Former General Manager of MG

I have been in love with MG cars most of my life. I bought my first on my 21st birthday in 1930, two years after the first model rolled off the production line. Then I helped to set up the MG Car Club, of which I am still President, and ran away from a job in the City to work at the MG Works in Abingdon, Ox­fordshire

I still drive an MGB today, and have the MG1 number plate. In Britain and across the world, there are thousands like me, with this extraordinary affec­tion for MGs - not only for the vintage models but also the MGB. The MGB is the last model MG Motors made and was sold for 18 years after its introduction in 1962. We stood for high-quality engineering and service, yet we became a casualty of the general decline in the mass-production side of the industry.

Now Japanese car giant Mazda is making a two-seater sports car which, it openly states, "the world will believe has been designed in Britain". My first reac­tion on reading this was to laugh out loud at the irony that, at the same time as Rover has gone totally Japanese, it is now the Japanese who alone are making British-style sports cars.

I devoted almost my entire working life to MG Motors, joining the company in 1931, in the customer services department and eventually becoming a di­rector and general manager, until I retired in 1969. For all those 38 years and until MG was allowed to fold in 1979, we produced sports cars that were af­fordable, dashing and symbolized the era when the British led the world in car design and manufac­ture. Even today, ten years after the Abingdon plant was closed, MGs still have an immense following. The MG Car Club has 10,000 members.


MG Motors had the ability, the manpower, the opportunity, the demand and the talent - yet this great British tradition was allowed to die. It seems crazy, I know, yet the explanation is simple. Arrogance and indifference from senior management killed us off.

In 1967, when the British car industry was already rocky, Tony Benn, then Minister of Technology, was determined to put as much together under one heading as possible. So British Leyland was formed through merging Standard Triumph with the British Motor Corporation. MG, already part of the ailing BMC, was thus swallowed up. However, BL's first chairman, Donald (now Lord) Stokes only had expe­rience of the Standard Triumph management. So in constructing the BL pyramid, he took the top execu­tives from Triumph and ignored BMC and MG. Indeed he was always biased toward Triumph - 60 million pounds spent on developing the TR7 and it proved to be a disaster for us. We were starved for capital and MG sank, not because of its own failures, but because of Triumph's.

But more than this prejudice against us, what killed us off was indifference. Nothing illustrates how blithely BL treated us than the way MG Motors was canned in 1979. It was so ham-fisted as to be scarcely believable. In 1979 we held a pageant to celebrate 50 years happy association between Abingdon and the MG Car Company. The next week BL announced the closure of the plant. This was in­dicative of the whole form of BL management. The BL board could have had no idea this pageant was taking place. This example of idiotic and amateurish management is precisely the kind of thing you couldn't imagine happening in a Japanese company.


Now, it is the Japanese who not only make British' sports cars, they appreciate them too. "It looks and feels British," says Toshihiko Hirai of the new Mazda he has designed. "It has been my life's dream to emulate the traditional British sports car!"

When I saw the picture of the new Mazda, there was something strangely familiar about it. I went hunting through my old reference books. Turning the pages, I saw a photograph of an MG prototype devel­oped at Abingdon in the late sixties but never produced. This is the greatest irony of all - the Mazda MX5 Miata, designed in Hiroshima as the sports car of the Nineties, could have been made in Britain.

Webmaster's Note: Lieutenant Colonel John W. Thornley, O.B.E., passed on at the age of 85 in 1994. He is missed by the many MG enthusiasts he helped create with his charmingly honest, fun-filled sports cars.

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