By Tom Bawden and Christine Buckley
DAVID JAMES, the corporate troubleshooter, is understood to be in advanced talks to buy the MG Rover brand from Nanjing, the Chinese carmaker, in a move that could sound the death knell for the Longbridge plant.
The brand would be used to badge Smart Roadster cars, until now made by Mercedes, manufactured at a factory in Coventry. Mr James is believed to have agreed to buy the design, technology and equipment of Mercedes’ Smart Roadster car for about €20 million (£13.7 million) and the now-defunct Dunlop tyre factory in Coventry for about €10 million.
He plans to buy the MG brand from Nanjing — for less than half the £53 million the Chinese company paid for the Rover group — so that he can make MG- branded Smart Roadsters. A deal could be agreed as soon as today.
Mr James lost out to Nanjing in the auction to buy the group last year but has remained interested in the business.
He is being backed by Access Capital, a private equity firm set up by Grant Gazdig, a former colleague of Robin Saunders at WestLB. He is thought to have backing from a mystery wealthy individual, as well as European American Securities, a private equity firm with about £600 million under management.
Last night the Conservative Party threw their weight behind the latest attempt by Mr James to buy MG and pressed the Department of Trade and Industry to help to facilitate the talks and to provide grants to help restart production.
Alan Duncan, Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, said: “This is the only game in town and I am urging the DTI to help the serious prospect of reviving MG production in the West Midlands. I would like them to facilitate talks and take the move by Mr James seriously. I want to see car production restart in Britain.”
A DTI spokeswoman said that she was aware of the talks but had not received a request for help from Mr James.
Richard Burden, the Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, which includes the Longbridge site, said: “A move away from Longbridge would be very disappointing considering Nanjing’s public statements about its commitment to this area.”
He also accused Mr Duncan of exploiting the uncertainty over the future of Longbridge for political ends. Since Nanjing has already transported most of Rover’s equipment to China, the manufacture of its flagship MG brand in Coventry would effectively sign the death knell for the Longbridge plant.
Project Kimber, the acquisition vehicle headed by Mr James, has a team of about 30 engineers ready to make the MG. The team is led by Barrie Wills, who set up a motor consultancy in 1983 and planned and managed the production launch of the Lotus Elan sports car.
Nanjing’s takeover of Rover has been the subject of speculation since it was agreed last July.