It's Tuesday 30 January, and on this preview evening of the 48th Rétromobile show, with the doors having been open since 6pm, the crowds are starting to gather in Pavilion 1. This is where the MG stand is located, and the enthusiasm seems quite logical given that the British manufacturer, bought out in 2007 by the Chinese giant SAIC, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

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The impressive EX 181 remained camouflaged for over an hour.

To mark the occasion, the veil will be lifted on one of the brand's most emblematic models in front of around a hundred people. However, the suspense was far from palpable, as the car in question had been spotted on all the posters at the show. After a ten-minute wait, the evening really got underway when the MG EX 181 was unveiled to the crowd, which included Romain Grabowski, Show Director, Stephen Laing from the British Motor Museum, Clément Lefèvre from MG Motor and Philippe Boucher, the marque's resident historian. Lefèvre was the first to make a speech in honour of the manufacturer:

"It's crazy, it's been 100 years already, but we always try to keep a youthful spirit. MG has often produced cars that are fun to drive and always affordable, and we're trying to keep that going with the electric powertrain. Clearly, there was no better place in the world to celebrate this anniversary. Here, you can see the brand's superb collection of cars, from record-breakers to competition models, as well as the roadsters that MG knows how to make. In fact, the Cyberster, which goes on sale at the end of the year, is on show in France for the first time.

But before we talk about the brand's latest arrival, it's time to take a look back at a time when MG was exclusively a combustion engine manufacturer, and when its objective was not to talk about batteries or range, but rather to smash records!

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It all started with this Old Number One, which won several races in England.

Aiming for 100 mph

Founded in 1924, the MG brand (which is a tribute to Morris Garages, a car dealership in Oxford) was quickly attracted by performance. Cecil Kimber, who took over from William Morris (the original creator), quickly improved the Morris cars at his disposal and produced a car called Old Number One (see above).

This car went on to win a number of prestigious prizes in competition, enabling the manufacturer to set its sights even higher, as Philippe Boucher explains:

"In the early 1920s, MG wanted to tackle speed records, but for purely promotional purposes. The car you see here is a replica of a vehicle that raced at Le Mans. It is special because its chassis and engine were used by the MG EX120, which had to be capable of breaking the 160 km/h barrier."

At MG, EX stands for 'Experimental' and refers to all development models, but it doesn't necessarily mean a complete car, as it also refers to parts and engines. Be that as it may, this hunt for 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) wasn't done in a day:

"The first to attempt this record was George Eyston, who went to Brookland five times. The first time was in December 1930, but he didn't make it. When the team returned in February 1931, the attempt was again a failure because the carburettors froze due to the cold and the weather was miserable anyway. Nevertheless, they managed to modify the front of the car to enable it to withstand these conditions and this finally enabled MG to break the 100 km/h barrier at Montlhéry, with its small 750cc supercharged engine."

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The EX 135 is the successor to the EX 127 speed prototype, which set eleven international records at Montlhéry.

In the 1930s, the world of motoring began to improve and aerodynamics became increasingly important, particularly at MG. This led to the creation of a radically different model in terms of aesthetics: the EX 135. However, according to Philippe Boucher, the heart of the car was not so innovative:

"This car's 1100cc 6-cylinder engine and chassis weren't that different from the production models. It was MG's policy to take existing parts that anyone could buy and then perfect them. The most important difference was, of course, the overall look of the car. The car was lowered as much as possible and the driver was practically lying in it."

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A little break, Mr Moss?

If German motorways are a purist's paradise these days (off the track), they were just as much so in those days. It was on the Autobahn that MG was going to set new records with this car like no other. Even after the Second World War, in 1951, the MG EX 135 beat the top speeds of G, F and H class vehicles (luxury cars in general) with a record set at 220 km/h (137.40 mph).

This rocket on wheels would go on to reach 250 km/h (155 mph). As soon as a record was broken, the mechanics were instructed to change the engine and the car immediately took off again. In all, this EX 135 had three engines.

The race to the top

But none of these cars reached the heights reached by the flagship model exhibited at Rétromobile: the MG EX 181. It was with this vehicle, in the 1950s, that the manufacturer changed its philosophy, according to Philippe Boucher:

"There were two versions of this car: one with a spoiler and one without. But above all, it was driven by two talented drivers: Stirling Moss and Phil Hill. What made this model so special was that it didn't necessarily benefit from parts from previous cars, as had been the case in the past: the chassis was entirely new."

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This EX 181 is without doubt one of the craziest vehicles ever designed.

What's shocking when you get the chance to see it up close is how ridiculously small it is. The shape is reminiscent of a teardrop, which is no mean feat given that it's the perfect aerodynamic shape, offering the least air resistance.

Inside, however, we find a 'simple' 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine from MGA, which develops just 68 PS under the bonnet of the road cars, but which was boosted by a huge supercharger to reach 290 PS.

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Hard to believe that these moped-like tyres could cope with such high speeds. And yet they were actually modified aircraft tyres!

In 1957, Stirling Moss (often called the uncrowned champion because of his seven consecutive top 3 finishes in the Formula 1 World Championship) reached a top speed of 395.2 km/h (245.5 mph) on the Bonneville Salt Lake in the United States. But two years later, the same MG EX 181, boosted to 300 PS, smashed the 400 km/h (248.5 mph) mark (410.5 km/h / 255.0 mph) with Phil Hill at the wheel. The MG historian recounts that the task was far from easy for the drivers:

"The driving position was even more uncomfortable than before because the driver's feet were literally at the beginning of the engine bonnet. Phil Hill, who I was lucky enough to meet several times, said that at the end of each attempt, it was terribly hot and he nearly fainted more than once.

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The METRO 6R4's V6 engine produced 400bhp at 9000rpm.

What future for MG?

As the years went by, the British manufacturer also made a name for itself in the world of motorsport. Some of these models are on display around EX 181. One of these is the MG Metro 6R4, built in 1985, which won four races in the famous Group B category. Another racing car is the MG Lola EX257, which took part in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2001 and 2002 in the LMP675 category, which was created for prototypes that were certainly less powerful, but lighter and more agile than the LMP900s.

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The EX 257 weighed just 675kg and produced over 500bhp.

In the second year, both machines raced at Le Mans in 'Hot Wheels' livery, but neither car would see the finish despite promising qualifying. At the far end of the MG exhibition is the model that will be responsible for relaunching the brand. This is the Cyberster, a reinterpretation of the manufacturer's old roadster line.

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MG believes it will be able to compete with the Cyberster and other future models, even without the eco-bonus.

Although its 100% electric powertrain is likely to be the subject of debate, one thing is certain: this car looks good. The interior also looks good, and like all recent large EV cars, it promises great performance, with a 0-62 mph time of just three seconds. The Cyberster goes on sale at the end of the year, but you have until Sunday 4 February to preview it.

Gallery: 100 years of MG (Rétromobile)