Longbridge could see the rebirth of the Austin brand with the factory playing a key role in the development of the next generation of MG Cars, the company's Chinese owners have insisted.

Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC) has begun work on three new models which it hopes to launch by the end of 2008.

The models, which will include a new small car for China, a medium car for Europe and a medium car for the US market, could be badged as Austins, NAC said.

James Lin, operations director for NAC at Longbridge, said: "Longbridge will be the design and innovation centre for the new models. We have to understand the feeling of European people; it is impossible to just stay in China and design cars.

"We have already got a budget for a vehicle engineering centre, and this will play a very important role.

"There are lots of design companies to share the capability, and there is a lot of knowledge capital at the design houses, universities and places the Technology Innovation Centre.

"It is possible that other companies could come and use the centre as well."

The new cars will support the relaunched TF sports car which will be reintroduced next July.

The first TFs will be built by April 8, NAC said, to coincide with the second anniversary of the MG Rover collapse in 2005.

Work is currently under way to ensure the new TFs, which will have extensive remodelling by body shell producer Stadco, to ensure it passes the Euro 4 emissions standard.

The Vehicle Certification Agency is working with NAC in China and the UK to ensure it passes all the required safety checks in time.

"The set target is still the target. We are confident of reaching it. In the UK we have received all kinds of support from the Government, the City Council, the trades unions and the suppliers," said Mr Lin.

"We are determined to produce the first car in time for April 8. Everyone knows that is the date that MG Rover went into administration.

"We want to bring something back to life for the people here and show them we will still make cars here."

As part of the plan, recruitment will be stepped up in the coming months.

At present around 90 people work at Longbridge, although this figure is expected to increase to around 250 by March.

Meanwhile more suppliers are due to move their operations to Longbridge following the agreement sealed last week between NAC and Stadco.

Around 150 components makers have signed agreements to supply NAC's production lines in both Birmingham and China, while two other firms are in talks to move to Longbridge.

Some of the firms extend beyond components makers with technical services and design engineers like MIRA and Prodrive also involved.

Mr Lin said NAC was also working hard to establish a dealer network in the UK and Europe.

As part of the sales drive, a team from NAC travelled to Silverstone this weekend to speak with the former MG Racing Clubs about supplying them with new cars in the future.

Mr Lin said he was sure there would be a market for the car. He added: "This kind of car stopped production two years ago, but even now it has some technical advantages.

"The idea of a two-seater soft top sports car is still attractive. There is only the Mazda MX-5 out there. The power of the MG brand remains, and this with global sourcing will make us competitive."