In 2003, Rover launched what would turn out to be its last new product; the CityRover.
The CityRover, however, was not a new car.
Once again, Rover had assumed the mantle of borrowing other people’s ideas in order to help pick up their slack. In the 1980’s it was Honda, in the 90’s it was BMW, in the 2000’s Rover’s eye was cast onto TATA Steel of India. Specifically, the car that caught their attention was the TATA Indica; a small supermini built to be the ideal runabout for the busy streets of Mumbai and New Delhi. The car was powered by a Peugeot derived engine and boasted an incredible fuel efficiency, something that had been gaining a large amount of popularity in the face of rising environmental concerns.
Rover were convinced that purchasing this small Indian hatchback as a spiritual replacement for the Metro and Mini would be their salvation, thus they signed a deal in 2003 with TATA to buy up new Indica’s from the Maharashtra factory and have them shipped to Longbridge before fitting them with a slightly more luxurious interior, a revised nose and a Rover badge. The result of this work was the £3,000 TATA Indica being transformed into the £6,000 CityRover; the launch of which was greeted by the entire world collectively slapping their heads with disbelief.
While the TATA Indica was a capable machine, the CityRover was not. For starters it was a Rover, a brand synonymous with strong and sturdy saloons which, while outdated in look and feel, still delivered a minimum level of quality and refinement. The CityRover on the other hand was not a quality machine; it was a dressed-up bargain bin car which was far too expensive for its customer base and far too under equipped to be appealing to anybody else.
Even Rover appeared to be unenthusiastic about its chances, refusing to hand the car over to reviewers for a critical appraisal. It’s truly a bad sign for any product, be it a car, a film or any other form of creative endeavour, when the manufacturer is unwilling to hand it over to critics for fear it’ll get bad reviews. Eventually, Top Gear presenter James May went undercover in 2004 to review the car with a hidden camera while test driving it from a dealership. His conclusions: “that is the worst car I have driven on this programme”.
The penny did finally drop in 2005 when Rover decided to drop the price of the CityRover by £900, confirming that they knew the previous asking price was too high for a car of its size and specification.
However, it was all far too late. The money finally dried up in April 2005 and workers at Longbridge were sent home for the final time. The UK government and businesses alike were once again thrown into turmoil at the prospect of the last mass-production British car maker falling into financial ruin. In its final weeks, MG Rover desperately attempted to merge or negotiate a deal with other car firms and holding companies; all of which came to no avail.
The closest the company came to saving itself was when interest was shown by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) in 2004. SAIC had entered talks with the company, with MG Rover desperately wishing them to take on the firm to keep it afloat. While SAIC did eventually buy the design rights to the Rover 25 and 75, they were unwilling to purchase the company or start a joint-venture, resulting in MG Rover’s eventual demise. Their last hope was gone and the coffers were now dry.
So what became of Rover’s assets after all was said and done?
The remaining assets were bought up by the Nanjing Automobile Group for £53m, including the Longbridge factory and the design rights to many of the company’s products. In late-2005, Nanjing Automobile Group stated its intention to start producing cars again at Longbridge, but only on a small part of the original factory. The main workshops and assembly plant were demolished in 2006 with the land sold off for other development, while continued car production only taking place at the former Technical & Design Centre south of what was once the main site. With the MG and Rover marques now in the hands of the Nanjing Automobile Group, it was their stated intention that the MG brand would be revived alone as the MG Motor UK Limited.
What about the cars?
The Nanjing Automobile Group purchased SAIC in 2005, therefore allowing them the rights to the design of the Rover 25 and 75. The first models to be released post-bankruptcy adopted the MG brand, these being the original MG3 (Rover Streetwise) and the MG TF. This was followed by the MG7 (a reworked MG ZT) and the Roewe 750 (Rover 75). These cars returned to sales in 2007; but were only initially sold in China.
The Rover 45 (a descendant of the 400), however, was legally blocked by Honda in 2005 due to the car’s Honda Civic roots which dated from the company’s alliance with British Leyland.
Production recommenced at Longbridge in phases between 2005 and 2013, starting with the all-new MG3 in September of that year. However, production once again ended at Longbridge on September 23rd, 2016, when MG announced that production would be based solely in China with cars sold in the UK being imported.
Today, the revived MG builds a slew of medium-range cars which are starting to accumulate an audience in the UK, but have found even greater notoriety in the Far East.
In the end, the question still stands for many of whether or not the decline and failure of the UK motor industry could’ve been avoided and what could’ve been done to save one of our most prized industries?
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, early steps could have and should have been taken to make the unified British Leyland a more streamlined company akin to the General Motors it attempted to emulate. Weaker brands and models should’ve been killed off early in order to have a simple hierarchy of cars that would appeal to all aspects of the market. The same could be said for the dozens of individual car factories BL had producing cars that were supplying a demand that didn’t exist, costing the company a fortune that could’ve been better spent on creating innovative and world-beating models that may have even made it big in the much sought after USA.
However, these early problems were not addressed and once the downward spiral had begun the sense of inevitability in the eventual failure of British Leyland and the British mass-production car industry pervaded through the company ranks and the public conscience. When nationalised in 1975, it was apparent that the company was on a slide into oblivion and would remain in a holding pattern for the next three decades, propped up by government bailouts and foreign car builders, before the death knell finally rang. Lessons weren’t learnt, nothing was evolved and by the time Rover did ultimately meet its maker in 2005 the technology behind their cars was so outdated it was like something out of the stone age.
The real tragedy however is the fact that there was such promise. Ideas such as the Rover CCV, the Sterling project in the USA, the original concepts for the Allegro and the Princess and many more unfulfilled possibilities were great ideas that could’ve helped put our nation’s car industry back on the map, but sadly no one could be bothered to put any true investment into the good stuff, and when the good stuff did come about the wretched build quality, archaic and turbulent work ethos and simple lack of logic to any of the decisions made to try and redress the balance only served to ruin these once promising concepts.
The industry could’ve been saved with a bit more effort, but thanks to lackadaisical thinking, a weak and stupid mindset and a failure to evolve it was doomed to its slow, painful and pathetic fate.