Why the MG? - A Study of Consumer Motivations
A paper by Bill Auger and Thomas Walker
MKT 845 - Professor George M. Zinkhan - August 5, 1998
Why the MG?
Why do people purchase Little British Cars (LBCs)? More specifically, of the many vehicles consumers have to choose from, why would anyone purchase an old, unreliable, slow LBC, namely a MG? Is there a logical explanation for owning an automobile that last landed on American soil from the British manufacturer in 1980? Our research set out to identify and understand what the motivations are for owning a MG.
We performed literary and Internet searches to make inferences about why people purchase MGs. We found several British and MG web sites with articles written by MG enthusiasts and used them to gain insights toward the motivations for owning a MG. These articles assisted us in the formulation of our hypotheses.
We also read several theoretical articles (Fournier 1998; Holbrook 1993; Holt 1995, 1997; Shouten and Alexander 1995) that explored the consumption behaviors of consumers and propose some of their research findings to be possible explanations for owning a MG. Our hypotheses contend that consumers purchase MGs for one or more of the following reasons:
- Economic Viability
- Feeling of Liberation
- Unreliability and Maintenance
- Vicarious Learning
Note: The excerpts included in the following sections were extracted from literature and Internet articles. They are not from interviews or survey responses.
We believe nostalgia, in large part, explains a consumer's decision to purchase a MG. Nostalgia is defined by Holbrook (1993) as "a longing for the past, a yearning for yesterday, or a fondness for possessions and activities associated with days of yore." Davis (1979) views "simple nostalgia" as "a positively toned evocation of a lived past" involving a negative feeling toward the present or future as manifested by a "belief that things were better . . . then than now". Holbrook and Schindler (1991) define nostalgia as "a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect) toward objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood, or even before birth)."
Our literature research indicates that the MG gained its popularity between 1955 and 1980 (the era that the MGA and MGB models were produced). Thus, consumers might purchase this automobile because they grew up during this era. For those who did not grow up in the MG era, it is possible that a parent, relative, or friend passed on their affection for this automobile. The notion of nostalgia as it relates to MGs is described in the following passage (MG World, 1998):
It seems that many American enthusiasts caught the eye of a MG when they were still in production. Either someone close to us had one and we vowed one day to own ourselves, or we were wooed with the thought of an attractive foreign sports car at an affordable price and promptly bought one new. 
Ron Barrett, president of the Stones River Region of the Antique Automobile Club, asserts (Nashville Business Journal, June 1995):
Everybody remembers that one car they wanted in high school. The one all the cool guys had; the one that got the girls. That's why guys collect cars. It's pure nostalgia. Heck, my cars get better housing than I do. Everybody here will tell you that. These cars are like their babies, their childhood, their dreams. (p. 3A)
Ron Barrett is speaking specifically of the nostalgic aspect of owning a classic automobile. Considering the era of the MG's popularity, and the age group of most MG owners, we believe Ron's comments are a reasonable explanation for purchasing a MG.
MGs are not very expensive with selling prices from as little as $350 to as much as $22,000.
The average selling price for a MG between the years of 1955 to 1980 is $3000 (MG Classifieds). Cars that have changed hands the least over time and that are in excellent condition carry the higher price tags.
The most expensive MG is still inexpensive when compared to other foreign sportscars produced in the same year. For example, the most expensive 1962 MG Roadsters we found through classifieds, said to be in excellent condition, was priced to sell for $9,000/or best offer. The MG is significantly less expensive when compared to a different LBC. We found a comparable ad for a 1962 Jaguar Roadster that was priced in the Mid $30,000's.
Alexandre Humberset (Internet) recalls his first automobile purchase:
A few years ago, like every 18 year old, I began to seriously think about what type of car would be suitable as a first motor. After a few wanderings I firmly set sights on a classic British sportscar. What more could a youngster want? Cheap to buy, ideal to pull birds.
Alexandre wanted his first automobile to be a British sportscar; however, he did not specify any particular vehicle preference. We believe that Alexandre was motivated to purchase a MG because it was "cheap to buy".
Feeling of Liberation
Shouten and McAlexander (1995) explored the ideology of personal freedom prevalent in the Harley Davidson subculture. We suspect this characteristic can also be found within the MG subculture. We believe MG car owners like the sense of being free. The low-riding convertible attributes of most MG's produce sensory data that evoke both historic and fantasy imagery. Paul Hunt describes this feeling of liberation in the following narrative (Internet):
Sunday morning, 9:30. Sun burning the autumn mist off nicely. Definitely a day for getting the Sunday papers in the roadster. Through the lanes and villages of Warwickshire, the suns rays streaming through the trees and clearly visible in the remaining mist. Hedges, power and telephone cables, and most of all the fields, covered in what looks like the finest jewelled lace, but is the morning dew on sheets of spiders gossamer in the low angle of the sun. As the car twists and turns, over clear rises and into sheltered hollows, running sweetly in the cool morning air, the screen mists and clears again, sometimes inside sometimes out, sometimes both together. Forty miles and an hour and a half later return home. Wonderful. The paper? Bought it where I always do of course, at the local shop just down the road.
From the above passage, we inferred that Paul felt a sense of liberation by taking his Sunday morning drive. Basically, he was lost in the pleasures of the automobile and his surroundings and felt free to drive as long as he desired. The emotional pleasures that Paul experienced while driving his MG turned a five-minute round trip drive into an hour and a half journey. Our suspicion is that other MG owners feel liberated in the same manner as Paul.
Geoff Wheatley stated, "Owning this car and enduring the love-hate relationship is akin to living with a leeching relative." Our hypothesis is that this type of relationship intrigues some MG owners.
MG's have a history of breaking down. MG owners understand there is a certain degree of unreliability inherited with ownership. In our opinion, the unreliability of these cars adds adventure and excitement to the owner's relationship with the automobile. The following passage from an article written by Thomas Pokrefke demonstrates this idea (Internet):
On my solitary adventure in the MG, with the top down and the weather
wonderful, I took the indirect route to the Gulf Coast. I traveled on the
backroads, and was equally focused on both the road ahead as well as my car.
That is the way it should be. The MGB is an imperfect car, but it lets you
know when something goes wrong.
After many miles of sun and gentle wind, I felt a slight change in the engine. There was a real subtle miss to it. I pulled underneath a barn and lifted the hood. The heater valve leaks antifreeze, mainly because I am too cheap to buy a new one. When the antifreeze leaks, it drops straight down, onto the distributor. When the antifreeze gets inside the distributor, bad things happen.
I took the distributor cap off, sprayed it with WD-40, and crimped the heater valve assembly really tight with my Vise-Grips. I explored the old barn while waiting for the cap to dry out. I found a spider web in the corner of the barn that was 4' in diameter. Luckily, there was no spider and I was soon on my way again.
Sometime later, I noticed the temp gauge was starting to climb. Even though it was halfway between 'N'ormal and 'H'ot, I knew something was amiss. My car solidly runs at exactly the 'N'ormal position. This time I pulled into the driveway of an abandoned house. I brushed the dead bugs and grass seed from the radiator and checked the coolant level. I postulated that the grass seeds had come from my off-road journey to the barn, and the bugs were just a hazard of travel. Soon, my temp gauge showed acceptable levels.
The high level of maintenance associated with owning a MG gives many LBC owners an opportunity to perform their own maintenance and escape the everyday rigors of life. Jay Leno (Life, November 1993) says, "There's something therapeutic to it, working on these cars. And it keeps me out of trouble". One MG enthusiast stated, "I learned how to do battle with Lucas, and how to pray that the car would start in the morning. I learned how to listen to the engine and hear when things were going amiss."
Solomon (1996) explains that observational learning occurs when people watch the actions of others and note the reinforcements they receive for their behavior (p. 95). We believe that consumers are often motivated to purchase MGs after they have been exposed to them through a parent, relative or friend that owns a MG. As an example (Internet):
One day, after a very boring physics lesson, a schoolmate asked me for a
lift home. "No problem", I said. Once in the car, I slowly put my leather
driving gloves on, discreetly inserted a "The Avengers" soundtrack tape in
the cassette player, and headed for my favorite country road. Needless to
say I drove like mad, concealing my poor driving skills behind a heavy dose
of the MG's characteristic roarty engine noise. He was hooked.
My pal, who wasn't the least bit interested in cars, now had to have an MGB. He rapidly took his driving test and bought a green '71 GT. Then it was Alan's turn to get his BGT, which he rapidly traded for his beautiful CGT. Then another friend of ours bought a roadster from Florida.
The above passage illustrates the theory of observational learning. Two friends that were exposed to MGs through a friend were motivated to purchase their own. Observational learning can have a domino effect and can explain why certain consumers decide to purchase a MG.
The Research Team
Two researchers carried out the research project. While both researchers became involved as "participant observers", they did so at different levels. One author became more of a MG "owner" during the study. This author drove the automobile regularly during the course of the study to establish "ownership" of the car in the small community in which he resides. The second author was also a participant observer in that he:
- Drove the car occasionally,
- performed mechanical functions on a MGB GT, and
- became a member of the MG e-mail community.
Data Collection and Data Analysis
The initial stage of our study could be characterized by a search for background information. We attempted to immerse ourselves in the British car experience by performing a literature and Internet search covering the MG automobile and automobile collecting in general. We also subscribed to the MG e-mail list. Once we felt as though we had a solid foundation of background information to stand on, we developed a short list of general interview questions based on what we were attempting to learn from the study. Then, the leader of a local informal British car group was interviewed to extend our understanding of British car ownership (Interview 1).
This particular interview was more an extension of our background search in that it was an attempt to get his general knowledge of the MG community, and what he believed to be the motivations behind British car ownership.
Following stage one of the research process, we revised our initial interview question set to include any further information uncovered by our expert. We decided to take an interpretive approach to the remainder of our study. That is, we intended to "generate a 'thick description' of the experiences of one or a few people" (Solomon, 1996, p. 35). To be more specific, we attempted to take a form of the hermeneutic approach to marketing research (Thompson, 1997). The hermeneutic process is one in which the researcher uses a wealth of background information to help interpret consumption narratives expressed by the consumer.
Our approach to the interpretive study was traditional in one sense, yet modified to fit our constraints in another. One of the major problems with our study had to do with incidence. The number of British car owners in Athens, Georgia is quite small. While we did have the names of over ten interviewees, we were only able to conduct interviews with a total of five people. Due to both time and money constraints, it was not feasible for the research team to call or travel to distant cities for additional interviews.
Since we had seen an overwhelming willingness by the e-mail group to share their personal experiences from owning a LBC, we decided to e-mail a questionnaire to the entire mailing list and obtain stories from our mailing list "friends." Counting a combination of questionnaire respondents and storytellers, we have received over thirty e-mails relevant to our study. While we were waiting for e-mail responses, we spent time transcribing tape recordings and telephone interview notes from the five personal interviews. Once responses had ceased, both researchers independently coded data based on our initial hypotheses.
The next step in our research process, the ethnographic stage, began during the latter stages of the study. While this type of research usually does involve participant observation in which the researcher becomes immersed in the host culture (Solomon, 1996), our participant observation was slightly different. Throughout our research we found that the British car experience is much more personal than it is a community event. That is, most British car owners enjoy driving their automobile alone or with someone very close to them. With this in mind, we borrowed a 1974 MGB Roadster for our research.
While one of the authors did drive the car occasionally during the research, the second author became a MG "owner." The second author had recently moved to a new apartment community and thought it would be interesting to see the community's reaction to the MG. The author became an owner in the sense that the car was parked in front of the apartment everyday and night. In combination with this fact, a conscience effort was made to drive the automobile at all times of the day so he would be seen and associated with the car by the community around him. The author recorded responses from others while driving the MG versus responses while driving an everyday automobile, along with his own feelings and experiences from actually driving the automobile itself.
An extension of the participant observation process came in the form of a front shock conversion on a 1974 MGB GT. The head of the local British car community felt that our involvement in the repair process would help us better understand the delicacy of British automobiles. He also felt that if we could understand the car, we could better understand why it lends itself to owner repairs as opposed to contracted repairs. Thompson (1997) emphasizes that background information is needed to interpret narratives when employing a hermeneutic process. The research team felt that understanding repairs as well as the experience of driving the automobile would be an important addition to the wealth of background information needed.
We set out on this project in search of a broad group of MG car owners. We thought it was important to contact older owners who grew up during the MG era, as well as younger owners that did not grow up while these automobiles were at their peak of popularity. We soon found that the incidence rate would make it very difficult to rely solely on MG owners for our in-depth interviews. As a result, we expanded our criteria to include the more general subject of British cars during the MG era. Additionally, we were forced to abandon the younger generation of MG owners. While we did get some second hand information about younger British car owners, one was not available for us to interview. The one local person targeted had recently moved to Colorado and was no longer accessible.
Although we believe this constraint makes it more difficult to project our hypotheses onto this group of owners, we do not feel it compromised the research project. We were able to locate some British car owners who did not recall seeing these cars as children, so our goal of attempting to eliminate the nostalgia factor was accomplished.
As noted previously, the five interviews we conducted were not isolated to MG owners but were directed toward LBC owners in general. We used our interview responses to modify our questions for the e-mail survey to send exclusively to the MG mailing list. We focused our data analysis efforts primarily on confirming our hypotheses and looking for new insights from the respondents' stories that we had not considered.
Nostalgia was the overwhelming reason for owning a MG. Of the 24 respondents, 19 commented that their ownership was because of their childhood experiences. For example, one respondent said, "They were around when I was a kid, so I grew up seeing them, and loved them." (Appendix: E5). Another person noted:
While working in the pit crew of a Formula Junior, as a high school senior, I was struck by the owners of English cars who would drive to the race, put on a number and go out and compete. Our FJ driver owned a MGA and he let me drive it one day. I was hooked. (Appendix: E24)
The following table lists our hypotheses and the frequency of occurrence. Each hypothesis was confirmed and several respondents revealed they owned their MG for one or more of our suspected reasons. Please refer to the Appendix for a more detailed table of respondents' answers along with the interviews and e-mail responses.
|Feeling of Liberation
The insights we learned tie closely with our recommendations for further study. We did not realize just how personal the ownership of a MG could be to a consumer. The Feeling of Liberation does not accurately categorize the emotional attachments to owning this automobile. Although for the purposes of our study they were classified as such, many of the words used to describe how driving a MG made respondents feel did not fit under the term "liberation". A few example of phrases used to describe the emotional attachment were:
- "Enjoying the performance and torque...." (Appendix: E1)
- "Content" (Appendix: E3)
- "It's the thrill factor...." (Appendix: E5)
- "Wonderful and alive" (Appendix: E8)
- "Satisfied" (Appendix: 13)
- "Special and fortunate" (Appendix: E20)
This leads us to believe that we have barely scratched the surface to identify the motivations behind owning a MG. While liberation is a broad term and encompasses many feelings, we think this could be broken down even more to identify many more motivating factors.
We also discovered that a certain number of MG owners enjoy the club and social aspects available to them with ownership. It is possible that a significant number of MG owners purchase their automobile for acceptance into this subculture. One additional facet of the notion of social acceptance may be associated with the reaction they get from others. Most of the respondents said that they are "noticed" by others when driving their MG.
Another insight from data is that some consumers simply think the MG is a beautiful car and they purchase it for no other reason. One respondent stated, "Always loved the lines...." (Appendix: E1). Our own biases and perceptions prevented us from seeing the physical beauty of a MG. We believe this, too, could explain why a consumer would choose to purchase this automobile.
Implications and Discussion for Further Study
Our research concerning the British car community is merely a scratch on the surface. Time and money constraints were such that in-depth research was essentially impossible. As previously stated, we were forced to abandon the original research project that would have focused entirely on the MG consumer. While many of the attributes of the MG are also prevalent in other British automobiles, such as the Jaguar, everyone who climbs into a MG knows that it is its own car. Many people that choose to buy MGs do so simply because it is a MG. Therefore, there is a need to conduct several in-depth interviews exclusively with MG owners. While we did conduct five in-depth interviews, time constraints, among other things, forced some interviews to fall short of what we would consider to be in-depth and exhaustive.
A further problem with our sample has to do with the range of respondents. As stated, we set out to interview a wide range of MG owners. While our respondents covered a wide demographic range, a complete study would require contact with the younger generation of MG owners. We feel as though we did succeed in ruling out the nostalgia factor in our study, but further study would require looking at this particular group much more closely.
Next, we began to explore the reactions from a general community toward the MG, but this portion of the study is by no means complete. More specifically, one of the authors attempted to "become" a MG owner during this particular study, but it is not possible for others to associate ownership of an automobile in less than two weeks. The reactions the author did notice were indeed sincere, but at the same time the gamut of reactions were by no means all encompassing. The author, having recently moved to a new community, may have "become" a MG owner more than otherwise possible in a two-week period, but again two weeks is not nearly enough time to truly explore this facet of MG ownership. While very few MG owners had much to say about reactions from the general public, some did express enjoyment and even a laugh out loud when recalling a particular situation with a non-British car owner (Appendix: Interviews). These types of reactions would suggest that if further research were to explore this area in greater detail, a correlation with ownership could possibly be uncovered.
The authors also feel that there is a lack of comparison in this study. To find out exactly which aspects of the automobile purchase are unique to MG owners, the research process should include the general purchase of small convertible automobiles. For example, a study that includes the motivations behind a Mazda Miata purchase could help differentiate between small convertible purchases and MG purchases. We believe the motivations behind the two purchases is quite different, and a subject worthy of examination.
Finally, we suggest further exploration into the club aspect of the MG community. Our intention was to study not only the MG consumer individually, but to also understand the MG owner as a part of a community of MG owners. Although an exact date for the organization of the first motor club is difficult to pinpoint, articles for the Auto Club of Southern California were filed as early as December 13, 1900 (Mathison, 1967). However, due to the scarcity of information available on early automobile owners, club records were sparse until 1903 (Mathison, 1967). Another auto club, the Automobile Mutual Association, was organized in Britain during April of 1905 (Keir & Morgan, 1955). Within one month of organization, the club decided to change its name to be The Automobile Association (AA) (Keir & Morgan, 1955).
The two clubs started merely as a reaction to the development of the automobile, but it is clearly documented that the AA did not gain considerable steam until the police began to set speed traps (Cooke, 1932; Keir & Morgan, 1955). The Association began by hiring scouts to watch for police traps and warn drivers to slow down (Cooke, 1932; Keir & Morgan, 1955). Soon the club realized that it had to find a way to warn only those who had paid dues, so all members received a car badge to identify it as a member's automobile (Cooke, 1932; Keir & Morgan, 1955). The club even began to enlist repair shops with the promise that members would patronize (Cooke, 1932; Keir & Morgan, 1955). The network became so strong that wives could call businesses to hang out a signal for their husbands if a message needed to be sent (Cooke, 1932; Keir & Morgan, 1955). As Keir & Morgan point out, "Almost without realizing it the Association was becoming a social service: and it was perhaps for this very reason that is suddenly began to expand" (p. 33). In fact, from June of 1906 to December 1906, membership jumped from 900 to 3,000 (Keir & Morgan, 1955).
While the MG experience does appear to be largely an individual experience, we feel as though the club and or MG email community could be an important part of MG ownership and warrants continued exploration. In fact, we found that several of the e-mail respondents either actively belong to a club, or simply belong for the free literature. On the other hand, there are informal groups such as the one in Athens, Georgia that seem to foster the social aspect of being a British car owner. A social aspect that may indeed be important to MG ownership just as it was for the AA. As was stated by both interviewees 1, 4, and 5 (Appendix 1), the informal club is a group of people that share interests and maybe go out for a beer once in a while. As one attempted to describe the club, "A lot of them will go out and have beers together, you know. They're just kind of, um, have you ever had a friend that you don't see very much but you just know they're there? And if you need to call them you can? That's basically how British car people are" (Appendix: Interview 1).
To reiterate, we feel as though our study does have limitations; on the other hand, we also feel as though our answer of using e-mail as a means of collecting data was the most appropriate resolution. While we were not able to personally conduct in-depth interviews with these particular respondents, we did receive the stories and narratives for which we were in search. Another benefit of using e-mail as a data collection process was the number of specifically MG owners with which we were able to come into contact. The time and money constraints of this particular study would have made it virtually impossible to reach as many MG owners using an alternate format.
Table of e-mail responses Email Number N EV FL U OL E1 X X X X E2 X X X E3 X X X X E4 X X X X X E5 X X X X E6 X X X X E7 X X X E8 X E9 X X X E10 X X X X E11 E12 X X X X E13 X X E14 X X X E15 X X X X X E16 X X X X E17 X E18 X X X X E19 X X X X E20 X X X X E21 X X X X E22 X X X X E23 X X X X E24 X X X
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