Ten years ago this spring, Britain’s MG-Rover Group went in administration, and a large element of the British Leyland story reached its final chapter. Whilst this is not directly attributable to the CityRover, this car helps tell a key part of the last days.
In 2000, BMW effectively broke up Britain’s Rover Group, which was essentially the last remnant of British Leyland. BMW had bought Rover from British Aerospace in 1994, but by then Jaguar had been floated off separately, and subsequently bought out by Ford, the truck businesses had been sold to DAF of Holland and later absorbed by PACCAR, and the many various (often not true motor industry) offshoots had been sold away too. Rover Group was the cars, the Land-Rover and the Range-Rover.
BMW kept Mini (sorry, MINI) and the Cowley, Oxford facility and associated supply facilities; Ford bought Land-Rover and the UK development facility and design studios, and started to build up the Jaguar Land-Rover group. That left the large and underutilised Longbridge, Birmingham factory and the ageing range of cars, the Rover 25, 45 and new BMW developed 75 it was producing, or was about to produce actually, as production was transferred from Cowley as part of the separation. (All are coming to CC, soon.)
With the alternative of closure in the same month as important local elections, some national and regional government brokerage and BMW support enabled a management consortium, known as the Phoenix Four and led by John Towers, CEO of Rover back in the 1990s, to take control of Longbridge under the business name of MG Rover, or MGR.
I won’t go into the full story of the struggle, decline and final failure of MG-Rover today, but alongside the ever present battle to produce a replacement for the 25 and 45, both Honda Civic based, by the way, using a cut down 75, was the need to maintain volume for the dealer chain across Britain and what remained of the export markets.
MGR had to reach out to acquire something to build up this volume. There was no time, or more importantly budget or even many valid building blocks in the MGR stock room to work with, so a collaboration was the only choice. Many candidates were assessed, all except one outside Europe. The European candidate was Fiat but the product offered was the Stilo, Fiat’s Golf and Focus competitor.
MGR had to look east, to China, Malaysia and India. China was actually more interested in a partnership that took Rover’s technology (some of it Honda influenced, some it of BMW influenced) to China. Malaysia offered access to the Proton range, notably the supermini sized Savvy and compact Gen-2.
But India proved to be the chosen one, due to a combination of the automotive ambitions of the Tata Group, and to the product being offered.
The Tata Group is one of India’s largest industrial businesses, with interests in iron and steel, locomotive and railway rolling stock, and heavy commercial vehicles among other things. The company had a range of pick-up trucks and fairly basic but sturdy SUVs as well, some with traces of Mercedes-Benz from partnerships, originally established in 1954.
During this time, India’s car market had been opened up; and the international players had all been keen to move into this most promising of new markets. The quaint idea (mainly held in Europe) that the Indians built and drove nothing but old British cast-offs like Hindustan Ambassador (a licence built 1955 Morris Oxford), the Hindustan Contessa (1972 Vauxhall Victor) or even the Standard 2000 (a Rover SD1 derivative) is an outdated one, thanks to the wave of new (and non-Indian) cars entering the market on the sub-continent.
Tata billed the Indica as India’s first indigenous car (India-car, get it?), although there was significant input from outside India. The engine came from Peugeot, under a licence agreement and the styling was by Idea of Italy, who also styled the Fiat Tipo hatchback. But, otherwise, the engineering was all Tata.
The first cars were on the Indian market in 1998, and gained an initial reputation for unreliability and for poor quality. Tata addressed these with the V2 cars launched in 2001, and the car was successful in India. Tata still had some available production capacity though.
In 2002, Tata and Rover reached a very simple agreement. Tata would build, in Pune north of Mumbai, a variant of the Indica, badged as a Rover and sold to MGR in a completed form. Production started in September 2003.
MGR had little time or budget to make many changes. There were new bumpers and a Rover-esque grille, a gently revised suspension to suit the better quality European roads and revisions to the 85bhp Peugeot 1.4 litre engine to meet European emissions regulations.
Naming the car was either inspired or blatant plagiarism. CityRover may have defined the car’s place in the Rover range and the market, but the common format to the stronger image of the Land-Rover and Range-Rover is also obvious. Let’s just say that Jaguar Land-Rover, after MGR failed, acquired the rights to the Rover name, and have no plans to use it. Incidentally, MGR were not allowed to produce a 4×4 of any sort under a Rover badge, as part of the agreement with BMW.
On the road, the car got a reasonable score. It was pretty roomy for its size – the height of the car helping accommodate people. It was a good cruiser, and had a reasonable ride/handling compromise. The quality, or more fairly the perceived quality, though was not high. The plastic mouldings inside the car, for example, were cheap and flimsy to the touch, the equipment list pretty short and there were many rough edges inside and out that counted against it, the gear shift being perhaps the worst of these. The Indian link (unfairly, of course) did not add to the image.
MGR’s dealers in the UK had been calling out for such a car since the Rover 100 (nee Austin Metro) had been discontinued in 1997. Dealer volumes had dropped significantly, and a volume car at a blatant good value price was exactly what they wanted. So, when they heard from MGR that the car would be offered to the retail market at £4995, the dealers’ ears pricked up. But in reality the car was priced at £6500 to nearly £9000 in the UK market. Cars like the then new Fiat Panda, (a Fiat 500 in working clothes), Skoda Fabia, Hyundai Getz, Daewoo Matiz and Ford Ka (a compact Fiesta derivative) were all available at similar prices, and the competition was clearly going to the tough. The CityRover was not a truly bad car, by any means, but it was not good enough to sell at an equal price against this competition.
Rover compounded this with an almost total lack of advertising and promotion. Indeed, it got more promotion from the Trades Unions objecting to the captive import process than in any other way. In 18 months, MGR sold around 6000 cars, a far cry from the 30-40,000 a year predicted at one time. The saloon and estate versions of the Indica and already in production in India, never made it to the UK. Indeed, in early 2005, MGR had a series of modifications to fix some of the issues, but these cars only ever made it to the UK after MGR’s demise and were sold at on at complete fire sale prices by the administrators. This car is one of those, first registered a year after MGR collapsed.
Clearly, this car was a missed opportunity for MGR, with ambitious pricing, perceived poor quality and a lack of marketing effort against more modern and strong competition. Fundamentally it was not a bad car, and maybe a true bargain price would have saved it.
But it would never have saved Longbridge or the British industry as we knew it.