On January 31st, 1994, British Aerospace (BAe) suddenly announced their intention to sell their 80% share in the ownership of Rover Group to BMW for £800m. With the contractual obligation of no further sale of the car builder for 4 years after 1988 now up, BAe were eager to see off the troublesome company which had been weighing down many of their own efforts in the field of aerospace design. For BAe, the removal of the ailing Rover Group was an elephant off its back, the money earned from its sale being invested in the upcoming Eurofighter Typhoon project.
BMW’s interest in taking on Rover Group was due largely to the highly lucrative Land Rover and Mini marques, both of which were continuing to sell massively both domestically and internationally. BMW itself, at the time, only built a selection of saloon cars and sporty coupes, so being able to tap into the luxury SUV and popular supermini market was too good to pass up. In an interesting twist, the then CEO of BMW, Bernd Pischetsrieder, was actually a relation of Sir Alec Issigonis; the brain behind the legendary Mini and Morris Minor.
Stock markets and, even more so, the House of Commons went into a frenzy at the idea of Britain’s last mass-production car manufacturer being sold to a German rival; national pride was on the line after all.
Honda was by far the most infuriated by the sale of the company to a competing car firm. Within weeks of the sale, Honda removed its 20% share in Rover Group before terminating any further assistance in the design and construction of models. The result sent shock waves through the company as their main supplier of parts and mechanics had now been taken away, making car construction even more troublesome than it already was.
While BMW’s vested interests were primarily in Land Rover and Mini, the company did make some attempts to try and reverse the rest of the group’s fortunes. It would’ve been nonsensical to deliberately leave the remainder of the Rover Group to stagnate with the side effect of increasing losses to both itself and BMW, therefore the German builder carried out a slew of refurbishments to the model line that would help bring this carryover from the early 1980’s into the 1990’s.
The first order of business was to remove the few remaining ties to British Leyland the company had, that being the production of the M-cars of the early 1980’s; the Metro, Maestro and Montego. By this point, it was clear that the Montego and Maestro had long overstayed their welcome, having never had a comprehensive update like the other models on the company’s books. In 1994, the Montego and Maestro were finally put out to pasture, the final two ties to the dark days of British Leyland now being swept under the rug in the face of new investments. The Metro, on the other hand, was given yet another facelift and internal upgrade, while the name Metro was dropped in order for it to become the Rover 100.
The next action was to bring in a round of new models which would help to give the company a more modern face. Some projects carried over from the Honda designs were honoured, with the Rover 400 Tourer being brought to fruition in 1994; the first estate car in Rover’s history. In 1995, after four years of development, the long awaited update to the legendary Range Rover was introduced; the mighty P38. This luxury SUV truly blended off-road technology with internal refinements; appealing to the star-studded customer base the Range Rover brand had become synonymous with.
1995 also brought with it updates to the Rover 200 and 400; the former becoming a compact family hatchback akin to the Volkswagen Golf of the time; while the latter came as both a hatchback and a saloon. These cars had begun development in collaboration with Honda, being based on the latest version of the Honda Civic. However, while the Japanese firm had removed themselves from the equation in 1994, the design efforts were still honoured by BMW and released the following year to warm reviews.
However, the most notable new model to enter the stage for 1995 was the MG F, the first dedicated MG sports car since the end of the MGB in 1980. During this period, the MG badge was only ever found on slightly tuned versions of the Montego, Maestro and Metro, as well as on the limited-production MG RV8. However, the MG F was a dedicated machine for the brand and became a huge domestic success.
However, in spite of all these seemingly good things that were happening to the Rover Group, I’d like to place emphasis on the word ‘domestic’; as this is the only place Rover cars ever sold.
Yep, in spite of all this investment by BMW, Rover Group was still only selling domestically and losing money hand over fist. The reputation of Rover was still sullied and the brand’s demographics in terms of its appeal to the masses was even less prospective. By the mid-1990’s, the Rover brand was a very old one, and with it came a noticeably geriatric feel.
Young, high flying business executives would never be caught dead driving a Rover 800 or a 600, their sights set firmly on high performance and extremely luxurious products of Mercedes-Benz, Audi and even BMW. Any young person who willingly drove a Rover, or at least did it without a hint of irony or were forced to due to cost constraints, were considered pensioners. The only people who truly spent money on Rovers were the middle-aged to elderly demographic. Older businessmen at the peak or in the twilight of their careers went for the company’s executive saloons like the 600 and 800, while pensioners chose the likes of the easy-to-use and cheap to run Metro.
Much of the reason behind the conscious decision to buy and own a Rover, despite the issues of unreliability and archaic image, was almost entirely down to national pride. Rover was the last mass-production car builder of the UK, and to purchase a Rover or MG product was seen as supporting the British economy and keeping Midlands man in work. However, while we in the UK can appreciate such a sentiment, the rest of the world were only interested in a car that had style, performance, comfort, reliability and zhoosh; qualities Rover failed to deliver in spades. With that, the international market stayed away in their droves.
However, the subject of national pride and English heritage would be defining factors behind Rover’s next new car, and one that would prove to be the beginning of the end for the company as a whole.