MG returns to the Le Mans 24-hour race next year for the first time since 1965 as part of a recovery drive by its British carmaker parent Rover.

The last time the legendary British sports car name took to the famous northern France track, British racing supremo Paddy Hopkirk's MGB took second place in his class with an average 98.2 miles per hour.

"It demonstrates how serious we are in developing the MG brand which has been undeveloped previously," said Nick Stephenson, deputy chairman of Rover Group.

The new management of Britain's Rover Group, paid by Germany's BMW in May to take the loss-making business off its hands, also trumpeted a recovery in sales and a drive for new markets in South Africa, Australia, Norway and Sweden.
The Le Mans MG will be developed by racing specialists Lola Cars International Ltd.

Rover was bought for a nominal 10 pounds by a consortium named Phoenix, which also secured a 500 million pound repayable credit from BMW to spend on restructuring and began life debt-free.
The new managment said UK sales growth in the first seven months of 2000 was 8.3 percent in a market that grew only one percent.
Sales to retail customers (sales excluding company fleets) grew 27 percent, and other European countries' sales grew by between 20 and 78 percent.

Much of this growth is accounted for by a "fire sale" discount period in April, when previous owners BMW offered huge discounts to clear a stock backlog resulting from long-running uncertainty over the future of the business.

"But sales to retail customers are up every month since May since it was bought by the Phoenix consortium," said a Rover spokesman.
"It will take longer in the fleet market... BMW were not that committed to staying in the fleet market, but we are making it clear to the customers that we are".

Rover fleshed out plans for its single Longbridge plant already outlined by its new boss John Towers, a former Rover Chief Executive.
From the end of September this year, the 9,000 workers at the Longbridge plant outside Birmingham will produce Rover 25, 45 and 75 models plus the MGF roadster.

In 2001 the plant aims to be turning around 200,000 cars a year, including a Rover 75 estate model and a range of MG sports saloons taking total models produced at Longbridge to eight.