Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you tell us some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. Since starting this series, the Autopian tips line has been filling up with the best or weirdest versions of sometimes normal cars. Considering that our own ‘Holy Grails’ are just rare or strange versions of normal cars, you dear readers are hitting it out of the park with your suggestions. This time, a reader suggested a car that I wasn’t even aware existed, but now that I do, I wish I could import one. Developed out of the ashes of BMW’s sale of Rover Group, the MG ZT was a sporty version of a stately sedan. But the holy grail of this car is the ZT-T 260, a wagon featuring firepower from a 4.6-liter Ford V8, coupled to a manual transmission.
Last week, reader David R made the case for the Chevrolet Cruze Eco and Turbo Diesel. A car that you have almost certainly seen or driven without much thought, it was actually incredibly important for post-bankruptcy New GM. Many versions of the Cruze are just everyday cars, but Chevrolet did something interesting with two variants of the Cruze. The first was the Eco, which was marketed as the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid in America. But the Cruze Eco was more than just the green version, as it was actually the fastest Cruze that America got. The other Cruze that David R advocated for was the Cruze Turbo Diesel. Perhaps even more of a holy grail than the Eco, this diesel version of the Cruze scored better than any Volkswagen TDI on sale at the time. And in its second-generation, an even more efficient diesel could even be had in hatchback form.
In recent entries of Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness and before, Dopest Cars, I’ve found myself absolutely in love with the MGF, a cute roadster that launched in 1995. At the time, it was MG’s first all-new design since 1962. The MGF is in my growing list of cars that I’d love to reel in from Europe. Now, thanks to reader James L, I have another vehicle to add to the list. The MG ZT-T 260 is a restrained British wagon powered by an American 4.6-liter Ford V8 and available with a manual transmission. What’s not to love about that?
The history of Britain’s storied brands is long and winding, but arguably, the relevant part of this story starts in the 1970s. Back then, as news site Shropshire Star writes, automotive conglomerate British Leyland Motor Corporation was aiming to be a dominating giant in the industry. Formed out of a 1968 merger of British Motor Holdings and Leyland Motors, BLMC had marques like Austin, Morris, Rover, Land Rover, Triumph, Jaguar, MG, and many more. And the idea was to become a powerhouse, cranking out a million cars from 40 factories.
Unfortunately, the merger didn’t last long. Product lines competed with each other. And, as Shropshire Star notes, a “perfect storm” tore the company down until collapse:
BLMC was caught in a perfect storm between bickering management, rampant unions, mediocre products and intense competition. In April 1975, little more than seven years after it was formed, the group collapsed after running up debts of £200 million. Harold Wilson and Tony Benn stepped in once more, this time to nationalise the company they had helped create. Humiliated, Stokes departed, surely wondering how things had gone so wrong.
State-run British Leyland rose from the rubble, but as British motoring history site AROnline notes, the revived British Leyland still struggled to find profitability. The company continued to suffer losses and in 1986, was renamed to Rover Group. The UK government even tried selling assets to General Motors and Ford.
Cars developed in a joint venture with Honda like the Rover 200, Rover 800, and Triumph Acclaim were well-received. The same can’t be said for cars like the Austin Maestro and Montego, which didn’t sell as expected. AROnline notes that £2.2 billion had been spent on BL since 1975, and patience for a return on investment had run out. Eventually, in 1988 Rover Group was passed to British Aerospace, where it would later get passed again to BMW in 1994.
As AROnline notes, Rover Group was run under budgetary constraints by British Aerospace. BMW ownership meant that Rover Group could build exciting cars without worrying about where the money was going to come from. Under this new ownership Rover Group produced cars like the aforementioned MGF. Before BMW even took over Rover Group the company worked on replacements for the Rover 600 and 800, cars that were developed with Honda. With BMW at the helm, these news cars would shake off the Honda involvement and get a new platform, the R40.
The Rover 75 launched in 1998 for the 1999 model year, and featured a striking design and an interior with a mix of retro and modern design.
Parts of the dashboard holding the clock and the HVAC vents were made in burr walnut veneer, serving as more than just decoration. Development of the Rover 75 had some controversy, as Rover engineers reportedly wanted to build the best front-wheel-drive car, but BMW saw Rover sticking to making a “gentleman’s car,” one with a warm interior and a cushy suspension.
As AROline explains, the differences continued in how BMW and Rover wanted to build the car. For example, the R40 had a seam in its sunroof. BMW wanted Rover to fix this, as it could impact perceived quality. However, Rover thought that it would be a waste of resources fixing such an issue. BMW even reportedly changed things up with the launch. The R40 was to make its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1999, but instead came out at the British Motor Show in 1998.
You’d think the product launch would be where the car’s troubles ended. Instead, even the car’s launch had some controversy. As UK retro car enthusiast site Retro Motor writes, both Jaguar and Rover arrived at the British Motor Show with new cars. But Rover’s came with a bizarre reveal.
After the reveal was delayed by 30 minutes, BMW Group head Bernd Pischetreider got up on stage and talked about how the rise of the Pound’s value against the Euro was bad for Rover’s business. In 1997, losses were at £91 million, but in 1998, the brand was on track to lose £600 million. BMW apparently wanted the UK government to step in about the exchange rate issue, and to contribute towards the automaker’s efforts on the new Mini and another Rover project. Remember, this was during a major product launch, when you’d think an executive would be saying positive things.
There the Rover 75 was, a huge moment for Rover Group, and the talk about the company’s continued financial struggles reportedly struck journalists as bewildering. Thankfully, this blunder didn’t stop the Rover 75 from impressing the press, from AROline:
Autocar magazine summed up the achievement made by the Chassis Engineers as follows: ‘In some areas, the 75 is quite brilliant. The ride quality, for example, is truly astounding, particularly at low speeds. Interior noise insulation has also reached a new level with this car. Rover can therefore justifiably claim to have created the most refined car in the class.
‘It can also be proud of the manner in which it managed to create a distinctive and clear cut identity for the 75 without it feeling contrived or overdone.’ Steve Cropley went further, however: ‘It is also a car whose suspension is so quiet and smooth it beats most cars in our â€˜Best Car In The World’ luxury comparison. The truthful assertion that the 75 is quieter than a Rolls will impress buyers.’
[Ed note: There is no more fanatical homerism than the British automotive press writing about the British automotive industry. It’s not unusual for a car publication to put their thumb on the scale when it comes to home-built automobiles, but the Brits put their whole damn arm. – MH]
However, the fantastic Rover 75 wasn’t helping the bottom line. As mentioned before, the Pound was strong, but Rover also faced nosediving sales. BMW, like Rover’s past owners, began getting tired of waiting for its investment to pay off. In 2000, disaster struck again, with Land Rover getting acquired by Ford, while Rover and MG were passed to the Phoenix Consortium, becoming MG Rover Group.
As reported by Automotive News Europe at the time, one of the tasks of the new MG Rover Group was taking the Rover 75 platform and making new MGs with it. The plan called for MGs based on Rover’s 25, 45, and 75 models. MG’s new cars based on the Rover 75 would become the MG ZT and the MG ZT-T. The latter is the wagon, and the cars built out of this plan were intended to continue MG’s heritage as a maker of affordable sporty cars.
And these were more than just Rover 75s with a new face, from AROnline:
The technical changes made to the chassis were legion: the subframes which carry the suspension were attached to the monocoque by aluminium rather than rubber mounts. The springs were uprated by a full 70 per cent, and were complemented by uprated dampers and anti-roll bars. The cosmetic additions (new bumpers, dechroming and boot spoiler) were heightened by pretty new 18-inch wheels shod with Z-rated tyres.
Launched in 2001, the MG ZT siblings impressed automotive media like the Rover 75 before them. But MG wasn’t going to stop there. Next would come a version with even higher performance. At first, the most output offered by the MG ZT was 190 HP from a 2.5-liter V6.
But MG Rover Group announced hot versions of its cars. The, Rover 75, MG ZT, and ZT-T would get V8 power from Ford. Reader James L says that this is the one to get:
Here’s another Holy Grail – the MG ZT-T 260 (and the MG ZT 260, and Rover 75 V8).A rear wheels drive Ford 4.6 liter V8 powered station wagon with a manual transmission.
In the early 2000s MG had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of their (first) bankruptcy. They had been combined with Rover. Rover had introduced the Rover 75 saloons and estates in 1999, the badge engineered MG ZT and ZT-T variants followed a year later. All had their front wheels powered by a range of 4 cylinder and V6 engines. The MG naming structure was as follows, ZT (sedan/saloon) and ZT-T (estate/touring) with 3 numbers indicating the horsepower rating.
In 2004 they introduced the top of the line MG ZT 260 and ZT-T 260, along with the Rover 75 V8, basically a 2004 Mustang GT with a saloon or estate body slapped on top. A Rear wheel drive, manual transmission, Ford 4.6 V8 powered station wagon.
The V8 variants required extensive re-engineering, supposedly Roush (of Ford tuning fame) did the engineering and slapped a Mustang GT drivetrain into a British station wagon. Sadly… Rover MG only existed for a short 5 years before bankruptcy again and only 883 MG ZT 260/Rover 75 V8 sedans and ZT-T 260 wagons were built in 2004-2005 before the end.
Side note – the Rover K Series engine which powered most Rover 75 and MG ZTs is super interesting, with 16.5 inch long head bolts that go all the way down through the block to the crankshaft main caps.
Reader – JamesRL.
As our reader explains, these were indeed British sedans and wagons featuring firepower coming from America. And oh yeah, these weren’t saddled with front-wheel-drive, either, instead going to a rear-wheel-drive layout. The Ford 4.6-liter modular V8 was good for 260 HP, which propelled the sedan variants (MG ZT and Rover 75 V8) to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. The wagon was nearly just as fast, hitting 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds. And as a period review from Auto Express notes, these were initially only available with a manual transmission, and you got a limited-slip differential, too.
Fire the car up and it greets you with a lusty rumble reminiscent of the glorious Rover V8s of the past, burbling away happily at idle and barking angrily when the throttle is opened. With 410Nm of torque, the unit delivers a punch right through the rev range. It rewards you with superb acceleration, sprinting from 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds, yet the character and grace of the car on which the ZT-T is based is retained. It’s certainly more laid-back in feel than an M3.
From the driver’s seat, it’s easy to feel its natural chassis balance and immense grip. The cabin itself is as subtle as the rest of the motor. Apart from a roof-mounted DVD player and dashboard Teletext TV options, our car looked like a standard ZT-T. The wider transmission tunnel has little effect on space, although the ashtray has been sacrificed to accommodate a larger gearbox housing and a small V8 badge sits in the centre of the facia.
Unfortunately, even hopped up sedans and wagons couldn’t save MG Rover Group from going down the toilet. In 2005, MG Rover Group went into Administration. The Rover name went to Ford (and later, Tata Motors) with, as BBC reports, China’s Nanjing Automobile Group (which would later merge with SAIC Motor) scooping up the Rover 75 design. The Chinese-built Roewe 750 featured a longer wheelbase than the Rover 75 on which it was based and managed to stay in production until 2016.
Today, the V8 versions of the Rover 75 and MG ZT represent what some might call Rover’s finest car. They are rare, too, with just 883 of these V8 beasts hitting the road in all Rover 75 and MG ZT flavors. And if The MG Owners’ Club’s estimation is correct, just around 100 of them are Rover 75 V8s. Sadly, if you want one here in America, 2028 will be the soonest that you could import one. Until then, keep dreaming of American V8 power in a smooth British package.
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’