According to Yu Jian Wei, CEO of Nanjing Automobile Corporation, the emergence of a few pre-production MG TFs down a tunnel created by curtains shielding a silent assembly line should be regarded as the “start of production” at the former MG Rover car assembly plant at Longbridge.

Mazda, maker of the competing MX-5 roadster, and the other automakers fielding similar convertibles can rest easy for a few more months, then.

So when, the Chinese executive was asked at the press conference on Tuesday, does volume production begin? The initial answer, through an interpreter, was something like. “It depends how you define volume. Volume is the combination of output in China and at Longbridge.” And so it went, for 45 excruciating minutes as even the simplest question was evaded.

Eventually, worn down by almost every journalist present asking essentially the same questions, a little detail of NAC’s planned Longbridge operations finally emerged. The answer “later this year” to “when?” was finally more tightly defined as “September or October”.

Longbridge TF assembly will be a little bit more substantial than CKD pack assembly, although major mechanical components like the engine and gearbox will come from China, to which much of the former Powertrain manufacturing equipment was ‘lifted and shifted’ by the Chinese after they bought the contents of the former MG Rover plant from the administrators.

While NAC has shown considerable skill installing the car and engine lines in a new building in China in about 12 months, their former UK homes are mostly toast. The Powertrain buildings, once known as the East Works, on the south-east fringe of the Longbridge site, have now been flattened, as have the old West Works (body making), the old North Works (abandoned during BMW ownership and now home to a technology park) and a significant chunk of the South Works. The south central part of the site, though, has been let to Nanjing on a long lease.

As far as just-auto could establish, NAC now occupies the former Car Assembly Building 1 (CAB 1 opened originally in 1951), Paint Shop 2 (the newest on site, opened in 1995) and a metal press and weld shop where Stadco builds the TF bodies. The combined facility, currently employing 130, will eventually, with a headcount of 250, churn out 15,000 cars a year in a first phase. Just how many of those will be TFs, NAC wasn’t saying. The automaker did confirm the (Rover 75-based) MG ZT models would return to Longbridge, but gave no timing.

UK TF production will consist of body panel stamping and welding, painting and final trimming and assembly. Local components account for 50-60%, according to the company, and executives were quick to stress that the Chinese-made engines include a proportion of UK and European-made parts.

Some, but not all, the research, development and testing will be done in the UK. Nanjing’s site lease apparently includes a building known as the Flight Shed in Rover days, where R&D was consolidated in the final MG Rover years. The building gets its nickname from its past as a wartime aircraft facility and the aforementioned, now-demolished, East Works was a World War Two plane factory, too.

When they eventually begin to roll off the UK line, the latest TFs will be little changed from the last of the MG Rover products apart from new front bumpers and headlights and some badge changes. Nanjing acknowledges the need for new products but executives said they wanted to re-establish the brand first.

They also noted that, though it may appear old to British and European eyes, the TF is a new car for Chinese buyers and consequently is likely to live on for a while yet with the convertible joined by the hardtop designed by MG Rover but never put into production.

Nanjing is recruiting a UK dealer network and reports interest from both former MG Rover dealers and outlets new to the brand. Sales outside the UK will be handled by independent importers rather than the factory-owned national distributors used by MG Rover in major markets.

Yu Jian Wei acknowledged the popularity of diesel engines in the UK and Europe. Nanjing’s MG Rover purchase included the rights to the Rover-developed L-series turbodiesel but this only met Euro III emission standards. He indicated it would be updated to meet recent, more stringent standards and would be offered in future MG models sold in Europe.

Graeme Roberts