The cars : Rover 75/MG ZT development history
The 75 was the first Rover for a generation to be produced without tight budgetary constraints – and it showed with almost previously unheard of engineering quality.
However, BMW’s Chairman decided to torpedo the car – and the company that produced it – at its launch in 1998, casting a long shadow over over Rover’s bright new star which took years to extinguish.
Killed before its time…
AFTER years of under-investment in the bosom of British Aerospace, life as the UK division of BMW became something of a culture shock for the managers, designers and production-line workers of Rover. Far from a cost-cutting, German shroud being lowered over Longbridge, Cowley and Canley, the company was suddenly placed in a position where budgetary constraints were a thing of the past, and managers did not spend their whole time financially scrutinising every request from the creative departments. BMW CEO, Bernd Pischetsrieder, made it very clear to the press from the beginning of BMW’s tenure of Rover that BMW had complete trust in the UK company’s ability to produce exciting and desirable cars without any German interference.
In the wider world this view was met with a degree of scepticism, but Pischetsrieder was true to his word – and from February 1994, BMW’s only tangible involvement with Rover was to provide a much-increased amount of investment.
A policy of evolution
Rover’s new model plans at the time of the BMW takeover were to a degree rather dependent on Honda – and this was most obvious in the make-up of the two mainstream “portfolio” models, the HHR and the R3. The MGF was refreshingly British, but it was also a fringe model, which was developed as much by the UK’s specialist producers as it was by Rover Special Products.
With the small/medium ranges (200, 400) due for launch in 1995, there would be no immediate rush to embark on their replacement – the main focus would be on the replacement of the aged 800 and the comparatively fresh 600. Both models relied to varying degrees on Honda licensing agreements, and although the Rover 600 was a young and good-looking car, it cost BMW dear to produce because of ongoing royalty payments to the Japanese company. As far as BMW’s management was concerned – and Bernd Pischetsrieder in particular – it was clear that a large car should be the first Rover product of the financially re-invigorated company.
From late 1993, Richard Woolley had already been working on three models to replace the 800 and 600. The first, called ‘Flagship’ (and nicknamed ‘Flashpig’) would replace the 800, the second, called ‘Eric’ was a replacement for the 800 Coupe, and the third, called ‘Core’, would replace the 600. Basically, these new cars were conceived to evolve the look pioneered in the 600 – but move in a direction more suited to Rover’s tradtional styling cues.
However, it soon became clear that a policy of developing two cars to replace the 600/800 was a luxury Rover could not afford – Flagship and Eric were dropped, and Core was renamed ‘Isis’, and became the car to replace both models…
There was also a degree of logic in this: the Rover 800 and 600 models were actually rather similar in size, and the only real distinction between the two in the 800’s favour was the fact that it offered a V6 version. Given that Rover’s KV6 engine was moving towards completion, it made sense that this range of engines should form the mainstay of the new car – allowing further cutting of Honda’s apron strings.
When BMW entered the fray, therefore, preliminary development of the 800 and 600’s replacements had already commenced – and had been heading in a traditional direction. Of course, given the position of the new management in relation to Honda, the desirable situation for them was to quickly drop the Rover 600, because apart from anything else, if Rover were to return to the US market, they would be unable to do so with their best large car in years – a legacy of Honda’s restrictive licensing agreement. That being the case, the focus continued to be on replacing the 600 first, with the 800 to follow later.
Isis was shown to BMW management – and it was very enthusiastic. The project proceeded – and from a styling sketch known as Isis, it became known as Project RD1.
Entirely new platform
Development was given the go-ahead by BMW top brass in the closing months of 1994 (surprisingly, once the Mini replacement was underway) and Rover engineers were soon working on the engineering for the new car. Because Rover were given a free hand in the earlier stages of the design programme, it comes as no surprise that Richard Woolley’s Rover 600 replacement design was adopted almost entirely without modification.
As Woolley himself stated at the time of the car’s launch in 1998, “There was only ever one design, one clay model and one glassfibre model. The production car is completely faithful to the finished clay. Everyone in the design studio wanted to see the first ‘reveal’. The reaction was instant and unequivocal – the spontaneous applause of the studio staff told us all we needed to know. Their entire work is concerned with the way things look, and experience proves that we can trust their collective judgement.” In the times of design-by-committee, this made a most refreshing change.
The early clay model of the RD1 also so impressed Rover and BMW’s upper management when presented to them that there was no need to tinker with what was essentially a superb styling effort.
Unlike the exterior, which was a clear and focused design effort from day one, the interior – more precisely, the dashboard – was the subject of some soul searching. Two schools of thought emerged from the design process: the first being what was essentially, an updating of the classic design, which graced Rovers up to the P6 in 1963 (and would have proved somewhat akin to the design that graced the later Jaguar XK8) – and the second, something more radical, which was based on the idea that modern design could meet traditional materials and construction methods. The two designs progressed on their parallel ways in at the Rover styling studios – and the separate themes developed right up to the point of their unveiling to Rover and BMW’s upper management. It was certainly a “heart versus head” situation and Chief Interior Designer, Wyn Thomas described the situation thus, “…after agonising right up to the day of the presentation, the heart won, and so did the more radical theme. It is thoroughly modern, yet also thoroughly Rover in its friendly and comfortable ambience. Although we were making a bold new design statement, we were also determined to make this an interior that was really good to live with in the long term.”
With the radical design proposal – that was rapidly approved by management – came radical thinking on how the structure of the dash could incorporate high-quality, traditional materials. It was formed from a single-piece moulding that unlike many rivals, was covered by soft-feel plastics all over – Wyn Thomas stated that he was less than happy with the opposition, which in all cases, used quality plastics only at the top of the dash, where they were most obvious. The dashboard’s wood was used in a rather ingenious way, as Wyn Thomas explained: “We wanted to return to the idea of wood being an integral part of the dashboard structure, rather than applied decoration. That is why we have three large sections of the main dashboard, carrying items such as the clock and the air vents, crafted in the finest burr walnut veneer with high gloss lacquer. We did consider alternative treatments, including metallic finishes, or straight grain and matt finished wood veneers, but nothing approached the richness and warmth of the chosen wood. We also considered it essential that it should be standard on every Rover 75 model – it would not have been right to have a visually cost-reduced version.”
Although the official company line was that the dashboard design was ‘radical’, it was clear that upper management wanted to pursue a policy of ‘retro’. Many observers have claimed that this was due to BMW’s insistance that Rover should move in this direction, but accompanying Richard Woolley’s move in this direction for the exterior, was a real desire to do something similar with the instrumentation. One engineer who worked on the project from its early days in Canley said: “Clearly the cockpit/instruments styling package is a cause for debate. I can still hear Nick Stephenson, back in our Canley days, stating that a retro image (i.e., the Sixties) was something that we should aim for when formulating the R40. This idea of retro was a key element in the strategy of appealing to the type of buyer who has made plenty of money, and would like to spend their money on a car with a ‘classic’ image. Although, the designers, thought P6, when they formulated the R40’s instruments, I always felt their style/colours went back to the Thirties.”
He added: “I remember a team meeting at Canley in the early days of BMW’s ownership of Rover. Wolfgang Reitzle asked a Team of managers to work on finding a solution to the problem of re-establishing Rover’s identity. Our boss said that the initial source of inspiration should be the Spitfire. Unsurprisingly that idea was quickly discarded…”
Once the design of the new car was all-but frozen, and the minutiae of the engineering solutions were being developed, the project was given a new codename: R40. As one insider, privy to many of the engineering programmes within the company stated, “project codes tended to change too frequently – it is important never to read too much into these re-titling exercises”.
The ambition: to build the world’s best FWD car
In terms of engineering, now that there were no budgetary constraints, Rover pulled out all the stops when it came to body-in-white design. The single most important aspect of its design was to achieve the highest level of structural rigidity possible. The reasoning behind this was quite simple: crash performance and passive safety could be extremely tightly controlled, but more importantly from the driver’s perspective, with a stiffer hull, the handling of the car would be more accurate because there would be less of the negative effects of body flex to add to the equation. It was a policy that had served BMW extremely well in the past and would prove to have the same benefits for Rover – especially given the fact that the Rover 75 emerged even stiffer than its in-house rival. Of course, BMC in the past had produced the phenomenally stiff ADO17, but in later years, these ideals had become watered down by subsequent cost-cutting measures and changes in priority (Honda never considered body rigidity to be that important).
The requirement for body stiffness would be the reason for the large transmission tunnel and structural cross-member under the bonnet. Many members of the motoring press concluded the “transmission tunnel” belied the fact that the R40’s floorpan was an adapted version of BMW’s 5-Series. According to one insider, this was never more than an unfounded rumour. The cost of adapting the rear-wheel drive BMW’s floorpan for a front-wheel drive Rover would have been prohibitive, if not somewhat pointless. However, the large transmission tunnel would allow relatively easy conversion to rear wheel drive (barring the lack of space for a rear differential).
Richard Woolley responded to this rumour: “The story originated from the fact that very early on during BMW ownership, we did look at ‘re-cycling’ the then outgoing 5 -Series platform for Flagship. BMW were about to launch the new (current) car, and all the tooling for the old model’s underpinnings were theoretically available, sourced from the South African BMW plant. It was an idea that BMW suggested we investigate.”
Suspension design also followed the carte blanche principle which had been applied to the interior, exterior and structural design. Up front, where previous “Ro-ndas” had increasingly come to rely upon wishbone set-ups imposed upon them by Rover’s Japanese partners, there was no question that the R40 would employ anything but a McPherson strut layout. The engine/gearbox/suspension package would also benefit from the inclusion of a perimeter-type front subframe – lessons learned in the past concluded that the benefits afforded by a subframe (insulation from road and powertrain noise) outweighed the extra weight of such a set-up.
Where BMW and Rover were at variance was in what constituted the ideal rear suspension set-up. During the early stages of R40 development, BMW had been strictly a “hands-off” master to Rover, but over time, the Germans became increasingly influential in moving the programme along. In PR-speak terms, this change of policy resulted in “considerable research and debate”, but what it actually meant was that the once-harmonious R40 programme began to suffer delays. It could be said that the tradional culture at Rover had been one of crisis management and budget-watching – now freed from such constraints, it was almost as if the engineers did not know what to do. Certainly, Rover investigated many rear suspension set-ups before BMW stepped in and imposed their Z-axle arrangement, first seen in the BMW Z1 roadster but popularised in their then-current 3-series model.
Much development work ensued, adapting the arrangement to work on a front-wheel drive car, and the British engineers honed the system to such an extent that it worked beautifully when married to the soft suspension settings chosen for the production version. When BMW began to exert its influence on the R40 programme, it became clear that they possessed clear ideas as to how the car would ride and handle.
The BMW range of cars had established themselves as being the “ultimate driving machines” – steering sweetly, cornering crisply, and above all possessing those quasi-sporting qualities that keen drivers so love – and that the motoring press sometimes go overboard on. This reputation, earned over two decades of sustained success, was a formidable one – and something that would be difficult to emulate in their British offshoot. However, Rover did need a definitive set of brand values – and BMW was keen to accelerate that process as quickly as possible.
BMW needed to ensure that Rover began to move rapidly towards possessing its own strong brand values, whilst not competing directly with their own products – not an easy feat considering the fact that up to the point of the takeover, Rover aspired to meeting BMW head-on in the marketplace. So, BMW developed a new direction for Rover – playing on an ideal that was already present in Rover’s products in an embryonic form: that of the “olde worlde” gentleman’s car. What this ultimately meant for Rover was that, like it or not, they were to become a manufacturer of cosseting cars – vehicles that possessed a uniquely “English” character (even though no-one could easily define what that actually meant) – and as such, they were to have a warm interior ambience and soft, yielding suspension.
As in all strategy decisions, the first tangible results would be seen in promotional campaigns – and the rather questionable, “Relax – it’s a Rover” slogan was soon attached to the company’s adverts.
BMW and Rover’s differing ideas…
What this meant for the R40 programme was that the chassis settings were tuned (rather like the 400’s had been before it, but obviously more successfully) to major on comfort. David Linley, Rover’s chief chassis engineer at the time of the launch of the 75, was quoted as saying: “The Rover 75 can travel as quickly on demanding roads as an overtly sporting saloon, but does so in a thoroughly refined and relaxed way”. The question as to whether this emphasis on a relaxing drive was the correct direction for Rover to take would be answered soon after the launch of the 75.
Increased tensions between Rover and BMW would affect the latter stages of the R40’s development: the problem came with the fact that Rover tended to develop a car one way, whereas BMW favoured another – and because BMW were in charge, they would end up imposing their will on the British company. The fact that BMW were now operating as project masters meant that the final stages of the R40’s test and development programme would be scrutinized.
An example of this variance in philosophy was BMW’s insistence late in the programme that Rover should redesign the sunroof aperture of the R40, as there was a visible seam. In terms of development resources, the extra time and finance to effect this change (several months and over £1 million, not to mention an entirely new roof panel) were seen by Rover as being wasted – but BMW were insistent about this seemingly insignificant detail. The whys and wherefores of whether BMW or Rover was correct on this issue are less than clear-cut, however: on the one hand, Rover justifiably felt happy about allowing the design to make production with this compromise, whereas on the other, BMW with their obsessive attention to detail felt that this was not right at all – perceived quality could be affected and that was an absolutely fundamental part of the BMW marque’s core values.
In reality, neither party was entirely wrong or right – Rover were keen on cost engineering, BMW had no such constraints.
The end result: delays and further mutual suspicion between Rover and BMW. However, one happy benefit of the increased development budget was the fact that the R40 was a remarkably well-tested car prior to its launch. Many prototypes were built and test drivers clocked up millions of development miles in places as diverse as the USA and Germany’s ex-GP circuit, the fearsome Nurburgring.
A troubled launch
This did not stop BMW meddling with the introduction of the new car: the plan had always been for the R40 to make its world debut at the Geneva Motor Show in the spring of 1999, but with very little notice, BMW forced the unveiling of the car to take place at the British Motor Show at Birmingham in the autumn of 1998. BMW were keen to show their new model to the world, and the idea of a UK launch was a very appealing one. However, this moving forward of the launch date had the rather negative effect of creating a delay of several months between the unveiling and the general release to the public. What made things worse was that the press were soon reporting that the Rover 75 had been delayed due to a raft of quality problems. The truth of the situation was of course, that there were no delays, and the company was suffering from a case of premature launch syndrome – something from which the MINI had also suffered, following its presentation at Geneva in 1997.
If bringing the launch of the Rover 75 forward had proved to be a questionable decision, it paled into insignificance compared with the monumental faux pas committed by Bernd Pischetsrieder himself!
The 1998 Birmingham motor show had marked the arrival of two very significant British cars: the Rover 75 and the Jaguar S-Type; and although, strictly speaking, these cars were not rivals, they were viewed alongside each other in a comparative light, and were certainly vying for the limelight. In that context, the Rover 75 had come off very well indeed. Whereas, there had been a mild sense of disappointment at what was seen as the Jaguar’s contrived styling, the Rover had been greeted with almost unanimous praise. Richard Woolley’s handling of the new car’s styling was considered masterful, combining retro detailing with a progressive yet advanced body shape. The mechanical make-up of the car had also been deemed extremely promising – the 1.8-litre K-series engine was considered a suitable entry level power unit, but understandably most media attention was fixed on the KV6 engine, now available in 2.0 as well as 2.5-litre versions – and now a full-time production power unit, as opposed to the almost hand-built version found in the Rover 800. So, the Motor Show launch of the Rover 75 had passed off exceptionally well – Rover executives throughout the NEC were bullish in outlook and basking in the praise coming their way.
However, Pischetsrieder, was in no mood to woo the world’s press at the launch of the Rover 75 – he was still smarting from the effects of the Pound’s strength in relation to the Deutschmark, and the Government’s procrastination over the state subsidy that BMW had asked for to assist with the renovation of Longbridge. As with all new model launches, a press conference had been planned – to be led by Pischetsrieder – to announce the new model. It was scheduled for 4pm, but this time came and went, while the BMW CEO and Rover’s BMW-appointed chairman Walter Hasselkus sat together in deep discussion. Obviously, this was going to be no ordinary press launch by the proud boss!
At 4:30, Pischetsrieder finally stood up and addressed the assembled journalists. He pulled no punches – essentially Rover was in the midst of a deep crisis and drastic action would be needed in order to safeguard production at Longbridge. “Short-term actions are required for the long-term future of the Rover Group”, he stated. “Talks are taking place with the British Government about the whole problem.”
It was a stark announcement to make – and if nothing else, it completely undermined all the good work achieved by the engineers, designers and craftsmen in the Midlands, by overshadowing the launch of the car and highlighting the troubles of Rover. Autocar’s Steve Cropley summed up the feelings of the assembled press perfectly: “…we were all a bit stunned, both by the content and timing of what Bernd Pischetsrieder said. We had all been feeling pretty enthusiastic about the 75 and the unveiling had gone well. Huge crowds, lots of applause. And the car did, quite genuinely, look very pretty and right for the job. Unlike some BL/BLMC/AR creations of the past, it had absolutely nothing to apologise for. So it seemed bizarre, even grotesque, that the company’s top man should choose to undermine the moment so thoroughly. He deflected the media from praising the car the way they would naturally have done, deflated the workforce who must have been on a high, and introduced a degree of buyer uncertainty that could have been avoided.”
An insider put it in more stark terms when recounting the effects it had on the morale of the Rover staff at the time: “The reaction inside the company was simple, gobsmacked amazement, followed rapidly by panic. Some clay modellers from the Gaydon design studios left that week (convinced that shutdown was days away); as there is always a European shortage of their skill, they can more or less move wherever they like. That Pischetsrieder press conference was possibly the most ill-advised and expensive in history.”
Using the launch of a vital new product to publicly question the viability of a factory (and one that the new model was not even planned to built in!) was unprecedented within the industry – and essentially a huge error of judgement to make. So the newspapers and magazines of the following few days carried stories of “Rover in crisis” rather than “Rover’s brilliant new executive car”. OK, so Pischetsrieder was frustrated by the entire situation, but if anything, he had done more damage to Rover by this one ill-considered speech than he could have possibly imagined in his worse nightmares.
Thumbs up from the muttering rotters
PR-blunder aside, the press warmly received the Rover 75 when they finally did get their hands on it in the following weeks – without doubt, it was a huge leap over the 800 in just about every area. The sense of relief in the press was almost a tangible thing – once again, Rover had managed to get it right. Autocar magazine summed up the achievement made by the chassis engineers as follows: “In some areas, the 75 is quite brilliant. The ride quality, for example, is truly astounding, particularly at low speeds. Interior noise insulation has also reached a new level with this car. Rover can therefore justifiably claim to have created the most refined car in the class. It can also be proud of the manner in which it managed to create a distinctive and clear cut identity for the 75 without it feeling contrived or overdone.” Steve Cropley went further, however: “It is also a car whose suspension is so quiet and smooth it beats most cars in our ‘Best Car In The World’ luxury comparison. The truthful assertion that the 75 is quieter than a Rolls will impress buyers”.
If there were a fly in the ointment for the Rover 75, it would be the confused messages it put out to prospective buyers. To some buyers, the retro theme was a good thing, to others, it was not: there was also the matter of its size – slightly too small to be a convincing BMW 5-Series class rival, too big to be considered alongside the 3-Series. To be fair, this was pretty much what BMW had intended when they laid out the specfications for the R40, and it was after all 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. There was also the matter of the handling set-up – selling a car so obviously set-up for comfort above handling, as it had been, was always going to be a risk for Rover, and there was a heartfelt belief in the press and among certain buyers that as much as they wanted the Rover 75, it was perhaps aimed towards older buyers.
As a junior executive car, that was always going to be a problem, as that “breed” of buyer was known to favour more sportily set-up cars. Autocar again: “The 75 is not a bad-handling car, but neither is it an inspiring one. For the majority of 75 buyers this will not matter. It remains to be seen how Rover will market the car, but the whole ethos of the design seems to be targeted towards the more mature user-chooser, rather than younger, more enthusiastic drivers. For the former group, the 75 may well be the best front-wheel-drive car in the world. The rest may be inclined to look elsewhere.”
However, the company as a whole was also suffering greatly from the strong Pound, and so, as the summer turned to autumn, Rover’s domestic sales took a nosedive (caused in no part by the company boss himself and his ill-advised speech!) – and soon, the ever-fickle media were publishing pictures of unsold Rovers occupying green-field sites around the country. Confidence in Rover continued to fall and as a result, and the Rover 75 soon fell victim of this, delivering disappointing sales. Rover continued to put a brave face on things and for the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, they showed the 75 Sport model – a prototype which strongly hinted that the company wanted to develop a more driver-orientated version of the 75. However, time was running out for Rover, and BMW had lost patience waiting for their “investments” to mature.
BMW pulls out, Phoenix takes the reins
By May 2000, it was over, and BMW had sold out to Phoenix. As part of the deal, the Rover 75 would remain in production, but its production line would need to be moved, lock, stock and barrel, from Cowley to Longbridge. The Birmingham factory would now be responsible for the production of all of the newly-named MG Rover Group’s cars – and as a result, within a year of going into full-scale production, the Rover 75 was on the move!
The task of moving an entire production line was nothing if not gargantuan – essentially, the decision on whether, how and when to move it lay with the logistics staff at Longbridge. Devising a plan would take months – these men did not have the luxury of time: they were given 48 hours to ascertain that this task was not impossible – and once this decision was taken, it was down to them to decide how best to go about it. My abiding impression of the whole episode is stark admiration for the engineers, planners and managers who orchestrated the whole move – far from being deflated by the events that were unfolding around them, they got their heads down and embarked on the challenge with a huge amount of determination. Once committed, deliveries of bodyshells from Cowley to Longbridge commenced within the week – and in order to accommodate the hiatus in production that would result from the changeover, production was ramped up at Cowley in order to build up a stockpile.
In anticipation of MINI production at Longbridge, the CAB2 assembly building had been prepared – and an easy solution would have been to transfer Rover 75 production into the newly vacated area, but there were arguments against this. Firstly, CAB2 would form the basis of a future high-volume model strategy, and to place the Rover 75 line in there would have compromised the company; secondly, CAB2 provided a convenient (and covered) area in which to store the pre-built Rover 75 shells that were by now, arriving in large numbers from Cowley (now known as BMW Oxford). In CAB1, production of the Rover 25 and 45 was completed on individual tracks, whilst the Mini and MGF shared theirs. As the Mini was due to be phased out in October 2000, the MGF would end up with its own line, so in order to accommodate the 75, the 25 and 45 lines would be integrated into one track (itself a huge task) and the new car’s line would be placed where the 45’s once was.
The majority of the work took place during the summer break, which was extended to three weeks – and part of this time was taken by the Longbridge team disassembling then transporting the entire 75 production facility from BMW Oxford to Longbridge. In MG Rover’s press release concerning the entire event, it states that “An excellent working relationship was maintained with the BMW Oxford plant in co-ordinating the wholesale ‘swap’ of production facilities” – and there is no reason to believe this was not the case, because although BMW Oxford “lost” the Rover 75, it gained the MINI, which guaranteed large production volumes for the foreseeable future.
By early October 2000, and within the deadline set by BMW, the Rover 75 was in production at Longbridge and because the move had been well-planned and the production engineers had done their homework (some visited the Jaguar S-Type production line at Castle Bromwich in order to study build processes there), the quality of the Longbridge Rover 75 matched that of those produced in Oxford – in fact, over time, the quality of the Longbridge-produced 75s exceeded the standards set at Oxford. Much of this was down to intelligent design – “design for production”, as an insider called it – something that Honda had brought to Rover during the Eighties, as well as the production methods that BMW had set out for the car in the latter stages of the R40 design process.
The first major model-making decision taken by the new management was to give the go-ahead for the estate version of the 75 – a model that had been fully developed alongside the saloon, but had never been given the green light for production by BMW. Events had overtaken the car and in the furore that had surrounded the months leading up to the sell-off of Rover BMW had held off giving the car the go-ahead. Needless to say, Phoenix Consortium’s management saw no barriers to the car’s success and no reason to prevent it from going into production. Within weeks, they showed the car – called the 75 Tourer – to the press, a long time before its due launch date, something that would become a trademark for the new company.
The second decision was to develop a sportier model, somewhat akin to the Rover 75 Sport recently shown at Geneva – although unlike this model, the new car, codenamed the X10 (and X11 for the Tourer) would proudly wear the MG badge. Unlike the Rover 45, which was always considered the weakest link in the MG Rover line-up, the 75 was already undoubtedly a star, allowing MG Rover’s engineers a much better starting point to base the performance saloon upon. In the way that its smaller brothers, the 25 and 45, had been re-engineered in order to become fully-fledged MG saloon models, the X10/X11 was also given the same treatment: Peter Stevens re-jigged the styling, while Rob Oldaker headed the chassis team which made substantial changes, re-focusing the car significantly. In a nutshell, the technical changes made to the chassis were legion: the subframes which carry the suspension were attached to the monocoque by aluminium rather than rubber mounts. The springs were uprated by a full 70 per cent, and were complemented by uprated dampers and anti-roll bars. The cosmetic additions (new bumpers, dechroming and boot spoiler) were heightened by pretty new 18-inch wheels shod with Z-rated tyres. The X10 and X11, like the X20 and X30, were shown to the press in January 2001, some months before they were ready for sale – much interim development work had yet to be completed, as well as the selection of a name.
When the definitive launch came in the summer of that year, the name followed a historical theme: ZT for the saloon and ZT-T for the Tourer. Unimaginative perhaps, but it was a knowing and respectful nod to the company’s history, and for that, at least, MG Rover should be applauded.
Newly independent and shorn of their German paymasters, MG Rover came across all confident with the MG ZT, and the press and public alike have greeted the car warmly. Autocar magazine were very impressed with it, naming it one of their top ten cars of 2001 and summing-up thus in their road test of the ZT 190: “The ZT makes MG Rover a formidable contender in this competitive market. It can offer buyers a choice of limousine-like refinement in the 75 or genuine sporting appeal in the ZT. It is a tribute to Rover’s engineering that it produced such convincing yet different cars from such similar underpinnings.” But it did not stop with the re-branding of the current car: the fascinating announcement was also made that there would be a pair of V8 powered MG ZTs to top the MG Rover range. Where the existing ZTs and Rover 75s were front wheel driven, the V8 models would be rear wheel drive (that hefty transmission tunnel proved useful to MG Rover) and powered by a Ford-sourced V8 engine displacing 4.6-litres. These models were devised to fight BMW in the performance saloon market (who would have thought Rover would play this game pre-2000?) and become a breed of latter-day Rover Vitesses. It was not until September 2003 that the 260bhp ZT V8 was officially launched.
Under the scalpel
2004 saw a revised version of the 75 and ZT hit the marketplace. Gone was the quad-headlamp arrangement, to be replaced by a more Euro-bland set-up (existing lamp units housed under a single pane of glass). New bumpers and a re-jigging of equipment levels topped the facelift. The results were viewed as a mixed blessing; significantly, overseas fans of the marque felt that the 75 lost a great deal of its “Britishness”, whereas as home, sales did seem to be buoyed by the newer look. Interestingly, the 75’s look was split into two camps: the standard models and the V8/limousine, which sported a full-depth grille.
No-one doubted the facelift made the car look more modern, and with a complete range of cars, spanning a range four-, six- and V8-cylindered models, it seemed as though there was little on the horizon to stop the 75 and ZT retain their loyal and enthusiastic following…
Still, circustances conspired to stop the car enjoying its Indian summer. The Rover 75 and MG ZT were perhaps BMW’s most lasting legacy of its ownership – and the newly independent company seemed to be making the most of the opportunity, tweaking the range, and maximising its appeal in order to chase as many buyers as possible. Respect among the motoring press, as well as buyers, remained high – and even when the smaller ranges started to buckle under the stress of their increasing age, the newer car’s stock remained high.
Meanwhile in an attempt to seal the Anglo-Chinese deal, MG Rover pressed ahead with a 75-based concept, which once unveiled, managed to set Rover enthusiasts’ pulses racing upon first sight. A coupe version of the car had been on the drawing boards during the BMW era (where it wore a Riley badge), but the scheme never made the transition to full-size. More than five years later, the concept was revisited thanks to Peter Stevens’ design team, and in a very short time, a glassfibre prototype was knocked out by one of the company’s outside contractors.
When unveiled, the press were bowled over by the car, and people were soon clamouring for its release. Sadly, it was nothing more than a show of talent by MG Rover designers, asked to produce a car to impress Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) executives into signing a long anticipated joint venture deal. Either way, it clearly demonstrated the beautiful Richard Woolley design had the potential for further development…
Sadly in the background, Longbridge production engineers were doing all they could to de-content the 75 range. This was little more than a cost-cutting measure, which ran under the name, ‘Project Drive’. Although much of the cheapening of the 75 was not so evident to owners, the tell tale signs were there if you looked hard enough. The lavish wood dashboards of the early cars were replaced by plastic imitations, the door mirrors were replaced by those used in the 25 and 45 ranges, but most shocking of all was the deletion of the rear anti-roll bars from 1.8-litre and CDT versions to the detriment of the car’s handling. Evidence of penny pinching could be found in every wheel arch and under every carpet… None of this took anything away from the underlying excellence of the range, but one couldn’t help but feel that MG Rover was beginning to squander its opportunity with the 75, as Project Drive really began to bite.
Tragically, in April 2005, the 75’s production line fell silent. Phoenix called in the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), to sort out the financial mess, and soon after they moved in, it became apparent that the Rover 75 had found itself in the middle of an Anglo-Chinese tug of love…
After extensive talks, an uncredited Phoenix executive prematurely ‘leaked’ MG Rover and SAIC’s plans to form the Joint Venture Company so dearly needed to allow MGR to remain in business. The new company was to produce 75s and 25s, both in China and Longbridge. It seemed the talks had been going well – so well, in fact, that Phoenix decided to sell the Intellectual Property Rights for these cars (alongside the K-Series engine) to the Chinese for £67m. At the time, it must have seemed a prudent move for management keen to shift its eggs into Shanghai’s plentiful basket, as well as release much needed capital. However, the final implications became clear the following April, when once free of MG Rover, SAIC announced to the world it would be building its own 75s – and it would be employing British consultancy firm Ricardo to assist with the car’s move to China.
However, SAIC’s announcement also proved to be premature, as the small Chinese company Nanjing swooped in to buy the rest of MGR’s assets from PwC for a reputed £60m… In the days that followed the surprise announcement, Nanjing staked a claim on the 75. It seemed as one door closed on what many perceive to be Rover’s finest ever car, another would shortly be opening…
It is true to say that the excellence of the R40 has been down to two factors: Rover’s ability to develop a world-beating front-driven executive car, and BMW’s money with which to finance the programme. Without either one of these, the car would not have emerged as the excellent car that it is: and as the cliché goes – the Rover 75 was a car that absolutely no-one needed to apologise for.
The car suffered from slow take-up (Rover and BMW planned for annual volumes of 100,000-150,000 cars per years and never got close to achieving this), but no-one was to blame for that but BMW’s boss Bernd Pischetsrieder: had he not torpedoed the company at the car’s launch and so undermined its value and the employees’ morale in the process, the Rover 75 would surely have sold better in those early and most vital months. As it was, after those first faltering steps, the car earned respect on the marketplace, and soon picked up a loyal band of enthusiasts.
MG Rover’s own confidence in the car was clearly demonstrated by its willingness to adopt the platform to form the basis of the ill-fated RDX60.
In late 2006, and after just over a year-and-a-half out of production, the Rover 75 made a re-appearance. Out of the two Chinese companies that had competed for what was left of MG Rover, it was SAIC that managed to introduce its own version of the Rover 75. Because Ford decided to take its option on the Rover name, and buy it from BMW for an estimated £11m, SAIC created a new marque, Roewe, under which to sell its new cars.
Co-developed with the automotive consultants Ricardo 2010, the Roewe 750 featured a slightly lengthened wheelbase (by 100mm), tweaked styling (especially at the rear) and a freshened up exterior. The engines were derivatives of the tried and tested K-Series engines – which SAIC had bought the rights for in 2004 as part of its IPR purchase from MG Rover worth £67m.
Nanjing Automotive, which owns the rights to the MG nameplate and the production tooling, and worked hard to introduce its own version of the car, called the MG 7Z. The Chinese have ‘lift and shifted’ the car’s production line from Longbridge, and prototypes were up and running by October 2006. Launched in April 2007, the date which the company celebrated its 60th birthday, the Nanjing car combined elements of the MG and Rover versions to create a car that all 75/ZT enthusiasts would be more than comfortable with.
Perhaps the 75 will gain the recognition it always deserved, even if is on the other side of the world. A car as good as the Rover 75 deserves some good luck in life…
Gallery – Rover 75, MG ZT, MG7 and MG 750
With thanks to Richard Porter, Steve Cropley, Greg Allport, Ian Elliott, Kevin Davis, Kevin Jones, David Newsham and Mike McCabe for their contributions to this story.
Proofed by Declan Berridge