What trashed the British car industry? Part 7: A sign of the times


In 1998, Rover Group, now under the control of German car builder BMW, launched what was intended to be its magnum opus; the Rover 75.

The Rover 75 was a beautiful machine, equipped with all the comforts of home and all the luxuries one would come to expect of a high-end executive saloon, but at only the price of a middling Ford Mondeo. The car’s stylish look, its wonderful interior appointment, its satisfactory driving performance and comparatively low price made it incredibly appealing, with contemporary motor critics praising the car as the best Rover product in years.

The Rover 75; Rover Group’s great white hope in the face of rising losses.

The 75 allowed for the replacement of the 12 year old Rover 800 and the 5 year old Rover 600, becoming the company’s flagship model. With polished wood veneer and leather upholstery, a speedometer that gently glowed like a warm log fire, chrome vents, springy seats and fluffy carpets, one could almost feel like they were sat inside a cosy cottage in rural Buckinghamshire on a lovely summer’s eve.

And that was precisely the problem.

With its praise also came its revilement, mainly due to the fact that the car once again maintained an age-old feel; like it was something out of the 1950’s rather than the 1990’s. Motoring critics and the public alike saw the Rover 75 not as a comfortable and affordable executive car, but as a pathetic and fatuous hankering for the past; a machine that attempted to harp back to the days of Grand Old England and the height of the British Empire.

A common stereotype that has bred great resentment within British modern society is that we don’t like to be thought of as old fashioned; a consideration that splits the population straight down the middle. Half want to be thought of as modern and trendy like the Americans and Europeans, while others revel in the heritage of our island nation; going on weekend trips to old castles and country estates. While this division is a point that continues to be argued to this day, in the case of the Rover 75 the modern way of thinking won out in the end. People saw the Rover 75 as Germany attempting to stereotype the British as being lovers of antiquity, not a modern nation that would prefer carbon fibre over wood veneer. As such, this expensive programme which had cost both Rover and BMW millions was tarnished with utterly abysmal sales.

The Rover 75 was lavishly appointed, but its old world charm incurred the wrath of the car-buying public.

People did buy the Rover 75, but this came down to a small group of parties; pensioners and middle aged businessmen (once again), car rental agencies, company car firms, and those who wanted a cheap but well-equipped saloon car but weren’t too fussed about the wood, leather or geriatric image. Otherwise, the car took forever to get itself off the forecourt. Rover Group were building thousands of cars no one wanted, these surplus vehicles piling up in their hundreds on the runways of Britain’s abandoned airfields. There simply wasn’t enough space to store the cars, with many taking up to a year to leave the showroom.

After 6 years of fervent investment and fighting tooth and nail to get Rover Group back into profit, the Rover 75 was the last nail in the company’s coffin, at least for BMW. It is estimated that the German parent company spent up to 15 billion Deutsche Marks (€7.6 billion) trying to get Rover back into the black, but it appeared to be all for nought once the 75 failed to win over the market. The result was BMW’s announcement in March 2000 that Rover Group would be broken up. In a similar fashion to the dissolution of British Leyland in the mid-1980’s, more profitable factions were retained while others were sold off.

The last ever Rover Metro to roll off the production line, now retired to the life of a museum piece.

To try and reduce losses, the Rover 100 (Metro) finally met its end in 1999; the car being notorious in its later years for having terrible safety ratings and survived solely on fuel efficiency. The mighty Mini would follow suit one year later, ending 41 years of continuous production.

However, the Mini would get a reprieve in the form of the New Mini, a standalone brand launched in 2000 by BMW to provide a more modern interpretation of the legendary car. Today, the Mini brand continues to operate under BMW, selling in massive numbers and providing a huge range of cars. With the Mini brand also went the former Morris factory in Cowley, leaving Rover Group production to just the former Austin plant in Longbridge.

In the same year, Land Rover was sold to Ford, reuniting it for the first time since 1984 with Jaguar to create the Jaguar-Land Rover brand. These two companies now operate under the auspices of TATA Steel of India and continue to sell handsomely (in spite of ever-present reliability issues).

Don’t let its looks deceive you, the Rover Streetwise was not a 4×4.

But what of Rover itself?

Well, once BMW had stripped the company of all its most profitable assets, Rover Group was eventually sold to the British-based holding company Phoenix Venture Holdings (PVH) for the derisory sum of just £10. The sale to PVH was not done to guarantee the company’s future as it simply didn’t have one. Without the income of Land Rover or the Mini to help keep the company afloat, Rover now began its long, slow and incredibly painful slide towards oblivion.

Building cars at a complete loss, MG Rover, as it was now known, had little to no money for the development of new models that would help reverse the company’s fortunes. The extent of their automotive innovation went only as far as creating a slew of facelifts and new models with only minor tweaks.

One example of this was the Rover Streetwise, a Rover 25 (200) which had been given a little extra ride-height, fitted with moulded plastic bumpers to make it look like a genuine off-road vehicle, and some lairy styling. This attempt to appeal to the youthful, off-roading spirit of British teenagers went about as well as you would expect; the car failing to win over anybody and thus resulting in a sales disaster. Needless to say, the car wasn’t a genuine off-road vehicle, and would’ve likely gone down in the first muddy puddle it encountered.

The MG XPower SV was certainly something different for the ailing company.

The only ‘new’ car that was actually launched under MG Rover was the MG XPower SV, a 175mph sports car which was based on the underpinnings of the Italian Qvale Mangusta. The car, while an incredible divergence from MG’s usual slew of humble roadsters, as well as harping back to the MG EX-E concept of the 1980’s, was sadly not a sales success and today barely anyone knows it exists.

However, while the likes of the Rover Streetwise were done out of cash-strapped desperation, the final new product from MG Rover proved to be outright insanity!

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