From the formation of British Leyland in 1968 onwards, at almost every car launch we were told that the product was either central, critical, or crucial to the future of the company. From the mid 1970s onwards, these warnings got stronger. By the time the Rover 75 was first shown in 1998, even BMW had to admit it was the last chance saloon.
From 1988, BL had been owned by British Aerospace (or BAe, now BAE Systems), in a rather surprising and not entirely obvious tie up. In fact, the suspicion that BAe saw something in Rover’s cash flow and property assets together with a decision to work supportively with the Thatcher government has never been convincingly disproved.
These years were marked by a low level of product investment, with the new models being either already in the Rover pipeline – the Rover 200/400 and 600 series (in partnership with Honda), the Rover Metro based on the 1980 Austin miniMetro, and the MGF sports car, for which Rover’s marketing wouldn’t let the engineers say how much had been spent, because it was so little. Two projects in the mid market – the 1995 Rover 200, based on the Honda Civic, but with Rover engines and an Austin Maestro rear suspension, and the Rover 400 series, based on the Honda Domani – made it to market, shortly after the BMW takeover. But there was still a clear issue at the top the range.
The Rover 800 shared had been reskinned in 1991, but was still based on the 1985 Honda Legend and had been left behind by its Honda twin. The smaller 1993 Rover 600 was merely a reskinned fifth generation Honda Accord – all very nicely done and arguably better looking than the Honda – but it came with hefty royalty obligations and a limited model range.
Rover were building a case for BAe approval for a replacement for the Rover 800, and by the end of 1993, Rover had an outline for a product that would replace both the 800 and the relatively new 600 around an ambition to not build it on a Honda platform. All that was needed was the investment, and under BAe that was going to be the challenge.
But, in February 1994, to the astonishment of Britain, never mind Germany or anywhere else, BMW bought the Rover Group – Rover, MG, Land Rover and Range Rover, in full and for cash. Shock and awe doesn’t come close.
Perhaps even more surprising was the degree of freedom BMW subsequently gave Rover, allowing them to continue development with the 75, then known as Project R40, in terms of the type of car, its style, its marketing emphasis and pricing. Rather than basing the car on the platform of the then outgoing BMW 5 series (the 1986 E34) as was suggested and even expected by many, or on a major re-engineering of the 800, BMW gave Rover the investment funds and confidence to go ahead with a new platform for the R40, backing this up with access to some BMW technology such as the multi link rear suspension and class leading diesel engines.
The car also featured the Rover K series engine, originally seen on the 1989 Rover 200 in 1.4 litre four cylinder twin cam guise, but now offered in 1.8 litre four cylinder and as a V6 of 2.0 and 2.5 litres, again with twin cams. From BMW came a lot of contemporary electronics, such as sat nav and TV monitor, even reversing sensors and various control systems, all of which were at least a generation ahead of anything on the Rover 800.
BMW’s standards drove a closer attention to detail in the engineering of the car than Rover had been accustomed to, and it showed on the finished product. Details like a sunroof aperture without a visible seam, the standard of the door seals and the feel of the door closing were all examples of this. With these standards came increased thoroughness in testing processes as well, which also showed its benefit.
Rover developed a very traditionally styled comfort oriented car, complete with the only dashboard in the business that appeared to use wood structurally, and a whole of sequence of historic British and Rover styling cues.
The styling was full of references to previous Rovers – the grille from the P4 and P5, the curvature of the sides from the P5, the four light saloon format from every Rover from the 1930s to the 1963 P6, the rear profile was P4 with bigger lights, the dash was suggestive of the P5, the seats were even shaped to look like the P6, the door trims were from the P5, the list goes on.
In a nerdy sort of way, it was quite interesting, but to anyone who wasn’t a rather sad student of car styling, the subtlety of it all passed by and it became an arguably dated and maybe even contrived looking car.
The interior was almost like the 1950s with seat belts and a digital clock – the instruments looked like they were from the set of Poirot. Factor in the high technology features BMW were able to provide and it ended up as the automotive equivalent of putting a colour TV in a walnut cabinet with folding doors in case the neighbours saw it.
Stylist Richard Woolley told of the impression the Rover P4 had made on him in the 1950s, and it showed.
This is quite a startling transformation in just two generations and twenty years since the SD1 had been the “modern” car in the sector, as had been the original P6 before it. For over twenty years, Rovers had been modern with a sporting performance emphasis if luxurious, and were now offering a car seemingly named after the average age of the target customer.
Also noteworthy is that Rover hailed the styling of the 75, taking a name for a P4 variant, as being the “new direction” for Rover. But, squint a little, ignore the chrome detailing and put on rectangular, instead of the four round, headlamps and you get something very close to a larger Rover 400 series saloon, and a clear evolution from the 600.
The front wing cutout for a HH-R 400 or 600 style headlamp and indicator assembly is clearly visible.
There is another view of the origins of the styling though. The link to the Honda based 400 was plausible, but remember the styling of that was effectively dictated by the car’s Honda Domani origins. In 1993, Aston Martin presented the Lagonda Vignale, styled by Moray Callum at Ghia, as a luxury saloon concept to sit at the top of the Ford owned Aston Martin range.
It never made it to production, but I suggest you can see the influence. Reduce the size and temper the dramatic rear deck, add some Rover cues and you’re pretty close.
There is no evidence that there was any instruction from BMW to Rover on the style of the car. Indeed, this model (below) is dated 1993, prior to the BMW takeover.
Whilst it is unlikely Rover would have tried to blatantly complete with BMW 3 Series or 5 Series for various reasons, the choice of the classic British grille, wood and leather style was all Rover’s. There was no restriction from BMW that prevented Rover offering a car in the manner of the SD1 or the 1963 Rover 2000 P6 which could have competed more directly on with Audi and Volvo on a stylish, modern basis but which would not have been a direct competitor to the sport oriented rear wheel drive BMW 3 series.
As has been noted in CC many times, Rover (and the British industry in general) had spent a long time trying to define British in a way that worked at home and aboard, and almost always opted for the (seemingly default) position of prominent grille, wood and leather interiors and a strong emphasis on a style a returnee from the 1950s would recognise, as if modern Britain is something that has been imposed on us and that we must accept in public if not in private. This from the country that gave the world the Mini, the Range Rover, the new cathedral in Coventry, Concorde, the Intercity HST125 and the Dyson vacuum cleaner. The Rover 75 was the apogee of this fashion, and personally I concur with (a younger) James May about it.
To some, undoubtedly the retro theme was attractive; to some others not and to many others it was confusing. Who was the car aimed at? Older conservative buyers? Patriots? Was the British vibe expected to be attractive in the way the German sports car saloon vibe was? Was it supposed to be a comfort offer, and never mind the consequences on handling?
There was also the matter of its size – the car was too small to be a convincing BMW 5-Series or Audi A6 class rival, but too big to be considered alongside the 3-Series. To be fair, it was designed to replace two model ranges; but in the minds of executive car buyers, the Rover 75 simply did not seem to fit in easily to any single pigeonhole.
Its closest competitors, if you accept it had a premium badge, were probably the Volvo S60, SAAB 9-3 and 9-5, Audi A4 and the (slightly smaller) Alfa Romeo 156. The Volvo was another difficult to pigeonhole car, on size and passenger space, whilst the SAABs were handicapped by the stigma of its Opel/Vauxhall Vectra origins. The Alfa and the Audi a distinct image of modernity and style. The Alfa was an Alfa – the stylish Italian who might arrive late, but light up any party.
In reality, in the UK market its main competitors were the Ford Mondeo, VW Passat and Honda Accord, not the BMW and Audi.
There was also the matter of the handling set-up – selling a car so obviously set-up for comfort above handling was always going to be a harder sell, if only because the motoring press would not rank it highly purely based on comfort biased road manners. The market, in the UK at least, fairly quickly labelled it as a car for the older buyer.
One of the facts of life in the car market (among others) is that an older buyer will buy a car with a younger image, but not the other way round. For a compact executive car, that was always going to be a problem, as that market has long favoured more sports oriented set-ups. Some may have considered the Rover 75 as a good, maybe the best, front wheel drive executive car, but many passed it by on the basis of its handling set-up and the image it may confer on the driver. And that’s before you get to the image issues the Rover name had in its own right.
The Rover 75 then, it seems, was set to be good car, well and thoroughly engineered, equipped to meet the competition, and built by a company that was feeling more confident, but with some serious questions over the execution in terms of market positioning.
It was, however, BMW that directed the failure of the launch. For obvious reasons, BMW were keen to show some new Rover product as early as practicable and used the British Motor Show in October 1998 rather than at Geneva in March 1999 as originally planned, and also to match the launch of the Jaguar S type (another “retro” styled car that did not go as well as hoped).
The first issue was the simple one that the car was not ready, but had never been expected to have been. It went on to the UK market in June 1999, as originally planned. However, this was never explained properly and rumours took hold that the car was suffering from unspecified “quality issues”. Such rumours still took hold in the public conscience easily concerning Rover, and repudiating such rumours is not easy.
The second reason is almost the definition of “shooting yourself in the foot”. Bernd Pischetsrieder hosted a press conference to announce the new model and addressed the assembled journalists, mostly motoring not business specialists, and announced that Rover was in the midst of a deep cash crisis and that action was required, from the British government to secure the future of the group and specifically the Longbridge factory in Birmingham.
All true, but not the right time to say it! You can only imagine what the papers led on the next day.
The 75 went into production at Cowley in Oxford in the spring of 1999 and was properly launched into the UK in late spring 1999 and into Europe later that year. It did get favourable reviews, focussing on quietness, comfort and general refinement, not handling or excitement. It never went to North America, which had become a pipe dream for Rover unless BMW were to share their distribution network and the buyer uncertainty never went away. The highest annual production of the 75 was 53,500, in 1999. In 1994, Rover built 74,000 600 and 800 models, which did not have “engineered by BMW” stamped on them.
A year after the car went on sale, BMW effectively broke up the Rover Group. Land Rover and Range Rover were sold to Ford, re-joining Jaguar. BMW kept the MINI project and the Cowley factory, while the Rover and MG brands and the Longbridge factory were sold, with a substantial dowry, to a management buy-in team led by John Towers, a former Rover Chief Executive, under the name MG-Rover Group.
One consequence of this sale was that production of the 75 had to be moved, just a year after it had started, from Oxford to Birmingham, as Cowley was retained by BMW to assemble the MINI.
That is by no means as simple as it sounds, as each factory had production line equipment specific to not just to the product, but also the supplier network, the source of the body shells and other pressings, the paint shop processes and the internal processes. It meant, for example, an 11 week break in production of the Rover 75, at a time when MG-Rover would otherwise, naturally enough, have wanted to be building up production of their newest model as the company’s future was settled. So stocks had to be built up, not just of finished cars, but bare bodyshells as the press tool transfer would not be complete until early 2001.
In 2001, the new owners proudly showed Rover’s first estate car, known as the Tourer. This had always been in the BMW plan and was credible competitor in the style-over-capacity premium estate market, although it was subject to the same observations about comfort as the saloon.
MG-Rover had bigger plans for the car, though, which utilised the MG name. Announced in 2001, but not on sale until 2002, the MG ZT and ZT-T Tourer were fairly typical comfort to sports conversions, with firmer suspension bushes, stiffer dampers, lower profile tyres, thicker anti-roll bars (sway bars) together with cosmetic changes, featuring bright colours, spoilers, wide wheels and a version of the classic MGB grille. MG-Rover offered similar makeovers of the smaller 25 and 45 at the same time. The engine range was much the same, so you could now have a diesel engined MG estate car if you wished.
Think Grand Marquis to Marauder, or Caprice to Impala SS.
There was one other variation to come – a rear drive V8 version the MG ZT and later the Rover 75. MG-Rover through its BL ancestry had form in this. Back in 1968, Rover had put a 3.5 litre Buick V8 into the P6 and three years later Triumph had converted the front drive 1300 to the rear drive Toledo and 1500. This conversion was in some ways a blend of both, as the transverse four and six cylinder engines would be replaced by a longitudinally mounted Ford Mustang V8, with around 260 bhp.
MG-Rover had little in-house development capability, so the conversion was managed by rally car experts Prodrive. Although announced in early 2002, the process seems not to have been a particularly happy one, and it was late 2003 before the cars were on sale. They got a warm reception, with the caveat that they were very definitely niche products, with a very small market.
Indeed, after 18 months of production, to April 2005, the chassis number of the last MG ZT V8 was 883. It was a project which prompted many to ask why, and question the priorities of MGR.
There was a Rover version of the V8 as well, shown at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2004, which must have appealed to an even smaller market. Given they were powered by a low revving, straight forward American V8 engines, MG-Rover were undeniably optimistic is seeking comparison with cars the Audi S6, AMG Mercedes or a BMW 530 or 540. Such cars might have been the target but their engineering was a significantly different.
There was a plan for 385bhp version, which in the event never made it to the market, as the relationship with Prodrive turned sour, the project went over budget and was terminated, with the work incomplete. The MG Owners’ Club now owns the only completed car.
There was one facelift for the Rover 75 and MG ZT in 2004, with new bumper profiles and revised headlights and grilles. There was also a process of cost reduction with items like anti-roll bars being removed from low powered cars, wood replaced by simulated veneer and unseen items like sound deadening being removed or placed with cheaper materials.
MG-Rover had an on-going programme to develop a new range of mid size cars off the platform of the 75, similar to the process Alfa Romeo followed to get the 147 from the 156 (or AMC used many times), though this never came to market. Various prototypes and concepts have been seen, but there is little evidence that anything was even approaching ready for production by 2005. (One day CC will have the full story, I promise.)
In April 2005, MG-Rover entered its final death throes. Supplies of bumpers for the 75 were withheld, production was suspended and three days the later the company filed for administration. The Last Chance Saloon had closed.
Sales of the car continued from stocks and cars completed after the administration, and the red car above was registered in September 2005 and the black MG below in June 2006.
Indeed, some cars were registered as late at 2008. It is also an example of many of the 75s still on the roads – it is a ten year old car but the standard of presentation is fairly typical of many which have either stayed in the same (caring and mature) ownership for several years or been adopted by an MG or Rover enthusiast.
The Chinese groups SIAC and Nanjing each acquired part of MG-Rover’s assets in the sell-off – SIAC got the 75 and the engines, Nanjing got the ZT and the MG badge.
We’ll no doubt cover the full Chinese story another day, but suffice to say SIAC and Nanjing are now one, and the Roewe 750, with a longer wheelbase and revised rear styling, and MG7 are both available on the Chinese market, and some have been exported within Asia.
The platform has been used a basis for the MG5 and 6 hatchback and saloon, and these are nominally available in the UK, though sales have been in the hundreds only. SIAC do have a technical centre in the UK, and UK input into the design of these cars is substantial.
Rover built around 210,000 75s and ZTS, and there are still over 60,000 on Britain’s roads. Looking for something with a difference, but able to hold its own objectively, you could do a lot worse than select a nicely cared for 75 or ZT, and the MG in particular is entering the classic car community with respect.
This is the last Rover 75, and the last Rover, at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon, south of Coventry. Truly, the Last Chance Saloon.