… an illusion?

“As a car enthusiast I would dearly like to build the MG EX-E. As a businessman — well that could be a different matter.” That was Harold Musgrove’s statement at the opening of the Frankfurt Show, where Austin Rover’s staff were bubbling with excitement over the company’s first-ever concept car. Based on the Metro 6R4 rally car’s running gear, the ugly duckling was transformed into a beautiful swan by stylist Roy Axe and a close-knit team of engineers, who have worked on the EX-E since the beginning of the year in total secrecy.

The glass-topped silver bullet, a Concorde among Dakotas, is “practical, capable of being put into limited production,” according to Gordon Shed, responsible for exterior design. While doubting that all the features could be incorporated into one production vehicle, Shed pointed out that there was “no blue sky” in the concept car, an allegorical reference to the practicality of the various facets of design.

The aluminium chassis is adhesively bonded, to give excellent torsional stiffness, light weight and good crash resistance. EX-E is built on a modular principle in three sections, comprising the centre cabin section, a space-frame engine / transmission suspension carrier at the rear, and a front suspension / steering gear carrier at the front. It’s clothed with self-coloured, unstressed plastic panels in injection moulded polypropylene, with none of the constraints that face designers when their dreams have to be turned into metal.

The roof section, with a detachable Targa panel, is made of heat reflective polychromatic plastic sandwich glass which is dark above, and gradually lightens towards the waistline. The body has a remarkable Cd figure of 0.24, with zero front and rear lift, and incorporates tilting front and rear spoilers which are “tuned” by the driver, though it’s envisaged that these, like the suspension, will become computer operated to an ideal angle for prevailing conditions.

The power unit is the rare 3-litre V64V being built now, in prototype form, for the 200 Metro rally cars under construction. With four overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, the MG uses the “Clubman’s” version producing 250 bhp — normally aspirated, of course. The maximum speed is estimated to be around 170 mph, with standstill to 62 mph acceleration in under five seconds… and should ARG become interested in the highest realms of performance, the installation of the 410 bhp Group B engine could give the experimental car quite phenomenal acceleration.

No secret is made of the fact that competitions capability, specifically in Group C endurance racing, was allowed to be a factor in the MG’s design. Quite possibly this was a carrot which will remain at the end of a stick for a long while to come, but the concept was unimaginable ten years ago, even five years ago, and clearly the winds of change have worked powerfully at Austin Rover.

Based on the rally car, the EX-E has, of course, four-wheel-drive based on the Ferguson system. Despite the inevitable demands on space in the front of the car, the designers are proud of the fact that they’ve managed to keep the radiator at the front (thus avoiding large, ugly intakes at the sides) and even found room for a full-size spare wheel, which has a nominal 17 in diameter. There is space, too, for variable rate power steering, providing maximum assistance at low speed/high load, and maximum “feel” at high speed/low load.

There are many more interesting features on the MG. It has, for instance, active ride computer-controlled suspension, which lowers and stiffens the car progressively by monitoring and adjusting the hydraulic pressure on the suspension struts; there is even the driver-controlled capability of raising the front or rear suspensions independently, to cope with kerbs and ramps.

A form of radar is included, the rear beam helping the driver to park, the front radar capable of sensing fog on the road ahead. The digital instrumentation is the LCD type, but at over 50 mph there is a “head up” display projecting speed, and other vital information at the base of the windscreen.

Locking and unlocking the car is performed by an infra-red beam, but door opening is performed by a personal “credit card” which stores a mass of information. The seats and mirrors will adjust automatically for the owner, or his wife, or anyone else holding a personal card for the car as soon as the door is opened, and the card can also carry service data for the car. Naturally, the ignition is controlled by the same card, making it impossible for anyone to steal the car, unless the thief has first stolen the card! Then, too, the EX-E has a simple navigation system, displaying “turn left, turn right” symbols when the destination has been entered on the computer. Windscreen wiping is automatic, triggered by a water reactive sensor, while other sensors look after mirror dipping, even the operation of the lights. Yet another feature is a “no hands” cellular telephone system, incorporating a microphone in the wrap-round headrest, while the incoming voice is routed through the radio’s speaker system.

While the MG was just one of a number of concept cars at Frankfurt — Mazda, Nissan, Saab and Ford all displayed their ideas on cars of the 21st century — the British product was certainly the most imaginative. It is all-British, that’s to say that Honda played no part in it, and was the product of ARG’s design department at Canley, Coventry. Roy Axe’s team included Dr. Stan Manton (engineering), Richard Hamblin (interior design) and Gordon Shed (exterior design), and the fruit of their labour was shown to the ARG board only a week before the show opened.

The decision to make a show car resulted from pressure from the German ARG distributor, and from the styling department, and having gone this far down the road ARG is doubtless wondering about the next step. The fact that “E” is incorporated in the title may be significant, as it denotes a succession to earlier successful designs, and everyone from Mr Musgrove downward was inordinately proud of the result. Mark Snowdon, sales director, told us guardedly that “if there was another MG sports car, it would be this sort of concept. The days of low-tech, inexpensive sports cars are over for volume manufacturers.”

Certainly, if the reaction of the German and European journalists was anything to go by, ARG should be encouraged to make a series of EX-E type of cars bearing the MG badge. After all, if they can find 200 customers for the price-sensitive Metro 6R4, there should be no difficulty in selling 200 MGs virtually irrespective of the price tag!  MLC.