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Remembering the infamous Phoenix Four

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Rover 75s can still be bought second hand, though the brand has shut down

We ponder the vexed legacy of the men who saved and then ruined MG Rover

I’ve always wondered what happened to the framed tenner hanging on the wall of the Rover Group boardroom, inside the Longbridge complex where, in former times, Alec Issigonis perfected the Mini.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of the infamous deal done between Rover’s then-owner BMW and the four British managers who came up with a plan to buy it for £10 and operate it, aka the Phoenix Four, I wonder this even more.

Clearly, that framed tenner wasn’t the actual unit of currency paid for the company. BMW had presumably already received that. This was a symbolic tenner, hung in their new wood-panelled management lair by John Towers, Nick Stephenson, Peter Beales and John Edwards, both to impress stray passers-by like me and as a private reminder of their extraordinary management coup.

Later investigations show that even before the deal with BMW was cemented, the Four were planning ways of relieving the doomed business of millions – some reports claimed it was as much as £75 million – before it actually hit the buffers.

The day I saw the tenner on the wall, I’d come to Longbridge not to meet the Four but to talk to the chief executive and former production boss Kevin Howe about the parlous state of MG Rover’s press relations. Here was a company making some decent products (some freshly redesigned by BMW) which seemed entirely unable to communicate the fact.

How were media groups like ours supposed to bring these decent products to notice if MG Rover’s press relations people (whose job it was to provide a window on the company) were required to work under management orders to open it no more than a chink?

Howe was receptive to my requests, sort of, although not much happened. But what I best remember was Towers (who had lately been afforded a hero’s welcome by employees because of Phoenix Venture Holdings’ perceived rescue) and engineering director Stephenson (who I liked from previous product-oriented interviews) sweeping into the big boardroom and starting to talk in triumphal terms about the ubiquitous £10.

Of course, things soon went horribly wrong. MG Rover went bust in 2005 amid much furore and the key assets were sold to China’s Nanjing Automobile Group. The Phoenix Four (plus Howe) walked away with unspecified (and unearned) millions.

Looking back, it’s difficult to believe it took five years for MG Rover to hit the buffers. It was like watching a slow-motion train crash. After a year or so, we onlookers strongly suspected things would eventually go wrong, but we didn’t have a clue when or how. In the meantime, thousands of employed Midlanders were making half-decent cars: what was the point in sinking the boot in?

Then one day, the business did fail, and it was almost a relief, although not for several thousand dispossessed employees. For them, the fight was just beginning.

READ MORE

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James Ruppert: Rover 75s are tempting but treacherous 

First drive: Rover 75 V8

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