By 22 February 2014 11 Comments Read More →

Essay : Rover 75 revisited

What would Rover produced during the 1990s without Honda or BMW to influence the situation?

Inspired by Roy Axe’s AR18 prototype photos, AROnline‘s very own engineering genius Robert Leitch cooks up an enticing recipe for Rover’s 1990s’ growth…

Words: Robert Leitch

Doing it Rover’s way…

THE APPEARANCE of those previously unseen Rover 700 pictures made me think, not for the first time, what sort of car Rover might have made to succeed the 600 and 800 without the intercession of BMW, or the legacy of Honda. Briefly, our scenario is that, in 1994, Rover have said their last sayonara to former partner Honda. Either British Aerospace, or a new non-carmaker master is funding a replacement for the 600 and 800, which will share the same platform and major components and free the company of expensively licensed Honda heritage.

Even without a very limited project budget this is possibly the hardest challenge the firm’s designers face as they are entering a fiercely fought sector with some excellent competitors.

How big?

Wheelbase Front track Rear track Length Width Height Weight (kg) Model
Rover 75 2745 1505 1505 4745 1778 1427 1425 2.0KV6
Rover 620 2727 1475 1480 4645 1715 1380 1255 620Si
Rover 820 R17 2770 1483 1450 4880 1730 1397 1408 820Si
BMW 3-Series (E46) 2725 1481 1493 4471 1739 1415 1360 318i
BMW 5-Series (E39) 2830 1516 1530 4775 1800 1435 1496 520i
Mondeo MkII 2754 1522 1537 4731 1812 1429 1301 2.0LX
Mondeo MkI 2704 1503 1487 4556 1745 1372 1322 2.0LX

The table above shows the dimensions of the ‘BMW’ 75 compared with its predecessors and competitors. In a decade the ‘footprint’ of the mid-size class has grown so large that the 1986 Rover 800 is now scarcely larger than a Mondeo. The closeness of the principal dimensions of the ‘BMW’ Rover 75 to the 800 bears out the notion that an R17-based predecessor set the dimensions of the design which reached production.

What is notable is how little separates them – around 45mm in track and around 66mm in wheelbase, excepting the ‘one class up’ BMW 5-Series. That car is included as it points to how a larger Rover 900 could be derived from the same platform.

The dimensions our notional cars would be:

Wheelbase Front track Rear track Length Width Height Weight (kg) Model
Rover 700 2750 1525 1525 4650 1750 1430 1400 733 Vitesse
Rover 900 2900 1525 1525 4800 1800 1450 1490 932 V6

The ‘dual identity’ of the two cars dictates a width in the upper range, otherwise the dimensions would not deviate beyond the Mondeo territory for the 700. Market placement demands a piece of legerdemain, to build down to Mondeo/Vectra prices while having distinctive enough character and engineering to compete with the Audi A4 and A6 and BMW 3- and 5-Series on their own terms.


The foremost weakness of the Rover 75 was the engine line up – four engines which, each in their own way, fell short of what was expected of them.

1.8 K-Series. Struggled to haul around a car 250kg heavier than Rover’s next heaviest passenger car application, the HH-R 400. The sluggishness might have been bearable in the light of the car’s ‘relaxed’ ethos, but premature engine failures were not. The MGR-era turbocharged version addressed the former weakness and hastened the latter.

2.0 and 2.5 KV6. An answer to a question nobody asked. The 2.5 is almost big enough to make its case, but 2.0 litre buyers saw ‘turbine-like smoothness’ as no compensation for a fragile, thirsty, expensive to maintain engine.

BMW M47 diesel. Considered the best choice at the time, but unloved by those who make their living tending to the needs of middle-aged and elderly BMWs

Ford V8. Enormously appealing but ultimately irrelevant. The heart may yearn, the head will go for a BMW 330d.

My answer to this is a new home-grown engine line which covers most of the above territory. I’d call it the U, or Universal series, not just in compliance with alphabetical sequence, but also to demonstrate its versatility. The new engine would use the T-Series and L-Series cylinder heads, combined with a new block emancipated at last from the dictates of the ADO17 gearbox. Using the existing heads would set the cylinder centres closer than an ideal size, but would save on tooling – the budget for the exercise would be around £250 million.

The new block would have a longer crank than the T-Series and eliminate the offset con-rods which had been a family characteristic since the O-Series. Wider bearings would therefore be possible. The new cast-iron bottom end would be dimensioned to accommodate a 100mm stroke to allow a maximum capacity of 2250cc and would incorporate contra-rotating balance shafts for the larger capacity versions.

A variable valve timing system would be introduced for the upper-level versions, a simple cam-phasing arrangement rather than the complex variable duration K-Series VVC system. The intention would not be to create an 8000rpm screamer, but to optimise breathing across the normal rev range giving smooth running and torque delivery at low engine speeds without the compromise of the engine being starved of air flow at high revolutions, thereby robbing the driver of the full benefit of the engine’s cylinder capacity and valve area. As well as increasing power, the system would reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

The U-Series range could encompass everything from a basic but competitive 16V entry level 1.8 litre to a turbocharged 2.2 with an output close to the Ford V8 in the ZT 260.

U-4 1.8 16v – 125bhp
U-4 2.0 16V – 140bhp
U-4 2.0 VVT 16V – 160 bhp
U-4 2.2 VVT 16V – 175bhp
U-4 2.0 16V Turbo – 190bhp
U-4 2.2 16V VVT Turbo – 230bhp

U-4 1.8 Diesel – 85 / 100bhp
U-4 2.0 Diesel – 95 / 110bhp
U-4 2.2 Diesel – 110 / 125bhp

Although these cover about 90% of the market’s needs, there would still be a place for a larger, multi-cylinder option. Imagining for a moment that the men from Kia had not turned up one day on Rover’s doorstep with several suitcases full of Won and the KV6 was consigned to the roster of ‘engines that might have been’, a bought-in V6 would be the logical option. GM, Ford, Alfa Romeo, VW, or Peugeot could well have been delighted to sell a few more petrol V6s – even in the mid-1990s they were not a popular option.

Another possibility would be a home-grown U-5, which could also serve in place of the Land Rover TD-5. This would favour the wide track approach, but was perfectly feasible technically and in market acceptability, as Volvo were already demonstrating with the well-regarded and successful 850.

The question of which end should be driven is, at first glance, wide open. A move to rear wheel drive has strong appeal, allowing a wider range of engines to be accommodated, and affirming an aspiration to BMW and Mercedes Benz territory. However, the need to share parts with the smaller Rovers and the time required to develop a new RWD chassis, with nothing in the range as a starting point, would dictate front wheel drive as the cost and time effective choice. The key to the project is evolution – build on what had been produced previously rather than starting anew.

Transmissions are an easy enough matter. Breaking the ‘no-Honda parts’ rule just for once, I’d go for the PG1 gearbox for the lower-powered versions, with the Chrysler gearbox used in the 825D for the most powerful diesels. By the mid-1990s the choice of suitable proprietary automatics was considerable. Choose with care from the offerings of Aisin, Jatco or ZF.


Here, there is but one way to go – a full Hydragas set up updated for the 21st century, retaining the classic double wishbones and trailing arms, but also enhanced by self levelling and active damping control, to give a ride and handling experience only Citröen could come close to matching.

That’s the dream. Regrettably the new car was entering a world almost as cynical as the one we now inhabit, where suspension does not sell cars – NCAP ratings, ECE fuel consumption figures, CO2 tax breaks and litanies of largely unnecessary equipment and technology do. Therefore we shall go to the opposite extreme, and opt for a scaled up version of the R3 200’s MacPherson strut/torsion beam set-up. Remember this is happening a few years before the Focus’s control blade rear suspension challenged the torsion beam orthodoxy. Rover had been saddled with complicated Honda suspensions which promised far more than they delivered and a return to LC10-era simplicity would stand a chance of delivering acceptable results at low cost.

Body Engineering

Once more we face the dichotomy of the idealistic and acceptable realism. It would be wonderful to bring the ideas embodied in Spen King and Gordon Bashford’s ECV3 to production reality and produce something far lighter and more efficient than the competition. Again constraints of time, money and a far less adventurous and individualistic customer base would dictate a conventional steel monocoque, possibly taking the ‘soft presses’ idea used successfully for the R8 derivatives forward in concert with aluminium and plastic panels to allow variants and facelifts to be achieved at low cost.

Building in a greater than normal degree of adaptability into the body design and tooling would be high on the wish list. It is notable that around the same time as the ‘BMW’ 75 appeared, Fiat were making much of the ‘spaceframe’ construction of their new Multipla, which allowed substantially different body variants to be engineered at a fraction of the cost of a traditional monocoque. Little has been heard of the idea since…

The long wheelbase flagship car could provide the better opportunity for adventures in aluminium, anticipating the road on which Jaguar were about to embark.

Body variations would be the lifeblood of the new car – by the end of the 20th century it was unthinkable to offer one body style. A four/five-seat saloon would be a given, but why not pair it with a close coupled four-seat, four-door fastback? The obvious second bodystyle would be an estate car – the ‘BMW’ 75 wagon nearly never happened, but was one of the rare success stories of the MGR era. Rather than the obvious coupe or convertible, there could be more profit in seizing the Zeitgeist with a high-riding, Volvo XC-style estate, or even a luxury seven seat MPV – imagine a better looking Subaru Tribeca.

Rover would remain the core brand but, with no in house competition from BMW or Honda, there would be a strong case for reviving the Triumph identity, or producing MG versions. My own pet idea, never attempted even in the MGR era, would be an honest-to-goodness Morris Oxford, in saloon and estate car versions, as a sort of proto-Skoda Superb.

Finding a style

Imagine yourself as a technologically aware 35-year old, in possession of a modest fortune, and approaching the peak of your career. The truth universally acknowledged is that you will be in the market for one of the aspirational mid-liners which are our new Rover’s rivals. Do you see yourself surrounded by sitting on over stuffed chairs, facing swathes of veneer and instruments evoking 1930s radio set designs in an evocation of a gentleman’s club ambience rendered absurd by a television screen at its centre and a buttock-sized airbag in the steering wheel boss?

No, of course, you don’t. You’re looking for a cool, minimalist, ergonomic driving environment, of exactly the sort which the 1963 Rover P6 introduced to a startled world and initiated a design progression which continued through to the SD1 and XX.

For once it’s surprisingly easy to pinpoint where it did all go wrong – the sequence of events which led to the ‘BMW’ 75 started with the airbrushing of the P6 and SD1 from Rover’s history in favour of the 1959 P5 Three Litre. That car was overweight, underpowered, grew too big and heavy to replace the P4 as was intended and failed to match its predecessor’s legendary refinement and quality and certainly not the audacious radicalism of its design. The P5’s afterlife status as a signifier of a certain type of British identity has more to do with its association with royalty and the top tier of government than its engineering or general competence.

The P5’s exterior and interior styling is rightly admired as a snapshot of a bygone age, but doomed it to be a marginal product in an era when the market wanted drivers cars, like the Jaguar Mk2, rather than gentleman’s carriages. By the early-1960s a strengthening economy and wider availability of tertiary education saw Britain’s professional and managerial class growing in number and becoming ever younger and more ambitious – these were not people prepared to wait to step into dead mens’ shoes.

Thankfully, by the time the P5 went on sale, the Rover Company had released the safety catches on their own young guns and showed they knew exactly what was wanted with the P6. The parallel with the 1998 75 is clear. Until the R17, the Honda-era Rover design vocabulary had a clear lineage back to the SD1 and P6 – with the wedge/fastback interplay, proudly grille-less noses, floating roofs and flush glazing. The XX interior is more like an evolution of the P6 than the SD1’s was. Like the P6 and SD1, the aesthetic of the XX, R8, and the doomed AR6 was rational, minimal and forward looking.

Move forward to the early 1990s and the signs were that the customers rather liked the new style which arrived with the R17 – witness the eventual adoption of the chrome grille across the R8 range. In retrospect it’s a pity that Rover fell into that particularly narrow trough of design identity, from which only the MGR-era MG offerings represented any sort of escape. What was desperately needed for the new range-topper was an ‘XF moment’ a convincing break from a referential aesthetic which had no place left to go but up its own fundament. Other manufacturers were unhealthily bound to their past – Jaguar and Saab spring to mind – but, elsewhere, there was positive design progression particularly at Volvo and, to a lesser extent, in the Alfa Romeo 156 and 147. Jaguar have – fingers crossed – set themselves free in two bounds. The jury is out on Saab.

I have looked at the possibilities and tempered them with reality. The budget for any new medium/large Rover would inevitably be a fraction of that of a new Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series and there is a huge risk that these constraints would result in a product offering no obvious advantage over its mass market rivals. Notwithstanding this, I think it would have been a job worth doing – one of the industry’s toughest challenges. With bulletproof mechanicals, a ‘bespoke’ approach to range options and development and exterior and interior design with wide appeal, we could even have seen a true British Rover once more.

Posted in: 75/MG ZT, AR16/17, Essays
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

11 Comments on "Essay : Rover 75 revisited"

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  1. David Dawson says:

    Hmm…. Not at all sure about the styling. It’s best from the front. The rear looks out of proportion and those separate lights are more facelift than original design.

  2. stewart says:

    You need a 6.. or 8 4pot only is a tad low rent, no matter how much power it makes!

  3. Christopher Storey says:

    It has a distinct look from the rear of a scaled down Bentley Continental R

  4. JagBoy says:

    I am glad this never made it to the production lines, the rear doors look ghastly, the front would need some major tweaking, but for me the rear is the best part of this concept.

  5. LOL says:

    Interesting article.

    These two paragraphs below hit the nail on the head. Audi and BMW have catered for this customer for the last 20 years, since the introduction of the E36 3-series and the B5 Audi A4.

    “Imagine yourself as a technologically aware 35-year old, in possession of a modest fortune, and approaching the peak of your career. The truth universally acknowledged is that you will be in the market for one of the aspirational mid liners which are our new Rover’s rivals. Do you see yourself surrounded by sitting on over stuffed chairs, facing swathes of veneer and instruments evoking 1930s radio set designs, in an evocation of a gentleman’s club ambience rendered absurd by a television screen at its centre, and a buttock-sized airbag in the steering wheel boss?

    Of course you don’t. You’re looking for a cool, minimalist, ergonomic driving environment, of exactly the sort which the 1963 Rover P6 introduced to a startled world and initiated a design progression which continued through to the SD1 and XX.”

  6. Will M says:

    Begrudingly admittedly, the Germans do cater for this mid-life management-career corporate fleet PCP market very well, with products that people are told through marketing, advertising and the media that they want.

    Rover needed a partner to help with the platforms, engines etc. – thats why it needed Honda and BMW.

    I’d like to think more could’ve been made of the Honda connection. Even if EU market cars weren’t suitable, they have plenty of models/platforms that they could’ve jointly developed with US/Japanese Hondas. Similar to VAG platform sharing. The Legend may have fared better as a jointly developed Rover, with UK centric engines, as might the on-the-noose Accord. The US Accord coupe would’ve replaced the 800 coupe. The Odyssey and FRV would’ve been jointly developed with Rover to give MPVs, CRV a crossover.

    At the other end, a Jazz-based small car instead of the CityRover.

    S2000 / Prelude / Integra / CRX / CRZ could’ve spawned MGs.

  7. Nate says:

    Remaining with Honda could have worked out for Rover though would fare better if they jointly-developed RWD platforms for the upper premium segments (Accord / Legend +) and produce more unique engines / platforms / etc, since some of Honda’s cars were pretty lacklustre.

    In such a scenario, Rover could be merged with Acura (or have Honda dump the latter for the former) as the premium/luxury brand of Honda, while a revived Austin could play a similar role to Skoda albeit more experimental due to producing Austin featuring Hybrid models.

    MG meanwhile could eventually feature a range of sportscars derived from the Honda Beat, Honda Integra (coupe / convertible), Honda S2000 and Honda NSX.

  8. Graham says:

    The reality was that BAe could never have underwritten such a development at the time they were bleeding cash from their Civil Aircraft division after the market for regional aircraft had been swamped by various state funded projects around the world.

    So if we consider a future without a big player like BMW, Honda etc then we should imagine that it would have been some Private Equity buyout of Rover group from BAe.

    If that had happened then you would face the reality of the BAe years being that the balance sheet had been well and truly raided with key assets of land sold off, with the exception of the increasingly empty Longbridge site.

    On the product front things are a little better, the new Rover 200 & 400, MGF, face lifted Discovery, re-skinned Range Rover and the Freelander are all in the pipeline. But whatever way you cut it the Land Rover product is based on a 25 year old platform and the Rover product lightly re-skinned Honda’s or a lash up of what they found in the parts bin.

    Powertrain is even more sorry state, the K Series a worthy design is having been stretched beyond its limits earning a reputation for poor reliability, taking Honda’s guidance on engine technology has left them without a modern diesel engine along with the T Series and Rover V8 withering on the vine.

    With sales insufficient to support more than a single platform two options are open to the new owners.

    Option 1 – Single Platform for Land Rover and Rover cars

    The up and coming Rover 200 and 400 will be warmed up and marketed as MG’s following the MGR V8 and MGF into the market. Rover 600 and 800 product will be moved to the Land Rover dealer network. A buyer would be sought for the Mini / MG brands to fund future Rover developments.

    A new platform will be developed offering fully independent suspension with the option of rear and all-wheel drive. Unashamedly similar in concept to BMW 5 and X5 series, and in reality follows the routes BMW took with the Range Rover by developing on their work for an X7 to sit above the X5.

    Of this platform we will pull two and a half basic body shells, Saloon, Estate and SUV and from these body shells will provide a cooking version and a premium version with key panels changed in the way Porsche and VW share the same SUV body shell and also how the outgoing 600 differentiated itself from the Accord.

    Because of the shared platform opportunities exist to cross share interiors, so the cooking Saloon / Estate (Rover 700) could share a family friendly fascia with the Discovery and the premium Saloon / Estate (Rover 900) with the Range Rover.

    The products would be launched using a 4&5 Cylinder development of the T Series and its sister TDi engines as well as an upgraded Rover V8. These engines would be replaced at the midlife update with a new Engine. Gearboxes will be sourced from a suitable partner such as ZF.

    The new engine will be all aluminium (Super K Series) providing a 2 Litre 4, 2.5 Litre 5, 4 Litre 90degree V8 with low stress block for petrol and light pressure turbo and high stress block for high pressure turbo and turbo diesel applications.

    Option 2 Single Platform for MG / Mini Cars

    The up and coming Rover 200 and 400 will be warmed up and marketed as MG’s following the MGR V8 and MGF into the market. Rover 600 and 800 product will be moved to the Land Rover dealer network. A buyer would be sought for the Land Rover / Rover brands to fund future MG developments.

    A new FWD platform developed use the knowledge gained from the Hydragas integrated engine mounts work done with the Metro mule at Gaydon. The platform will sized in width as a Golf and available in two wheel base’s which we will code name Polo (Short) Golf (Long).

    Four plus two half cars will be pulled from this platform and launched in this order

    MG7 saloon and estate (Golf with long overhangs) – Target 4 cylinder 3 series / Alfa 156
    MG5 5 door hatch (Golf with short overhangs) – Target premium Golf and Focus
    MG3 3/5 door hatch (Polo with short overhangs) – Target premium super mini

    With assistance of 3 party body shell manufacturer

    Mini 3 door hatch / T Bar convertible (Polo with “Mini” look) – Target Beetle / 206 CC

    Product to be launched with K Series and Peugeot or Fiat diesels with existing gearboxes

    New engine building on K Series experience 1.6 4 cylinder and 2.0 5 cylinder available with low stress block for petrol and light turbo applications and high stress block for Turbo and Turbo Diesel applications with a new gearboxes sourced from a 3rd party such as ZF.

    New engine launched with a new mid-engine sports car (MGD) made by double fronting the platform (as with the Metro based MGF) and using a 3rd party body shell manufacturer. Engine then rolled out across the rest of the range during the midlife updates.


    Of the two, I think the first was safer building on the Land Rover brand which despite all the neglect was the jewel in BAe Rovers increasingly tarnished crown. However I think the MG / Mini route would have produced some very exciting and attractive product to the market.

    Of course if you were a certain car company from Bavaria you could do both and utilize the proposed X7 platform along the way and do far better than building a 50’s retro FWD large saloon that was not but might just have well have been based on a FWD version of the 3 series.

  9. Paul says:

    Rover would have needed the sort of commitment Tata are now showing to JLR to do anything like this. Given how distasteful the thought of investment in Thatcher/Majors Britain of the 90s was and how any asset not nailed down was for sale for peanuts there was absolutely no chance of finding a svengali able to support this. And to think we complain about how things are now! How I long for the days of 5m unemployed, 15% interest rates and an indigenous car industry that had to beg for for funds to create a new Chrome Grill to bolt onto a Japanese transplant.

  10. Stef says:

    Looks a bit like an Alfa Romeo 164. I have a ‘shed’ Rover 75, 2001 fully loaded Connossieur SE, paid £500 for it and money aside it’s one of the most pleasurable cars I’ve owned, my other car is a Supercharged VXR8, just shy of 600BHP but to be honest the Rover gets most use, it’s such a great all rounder.

  11. Steve says:

    I could never get away with how thirsty the KV6s were, I have both a Cowley built 2.0 and a later MG ZT190. Neither, no matter how carefully I drove them, would deliver more than 25mpg and never felt quick, or even brisk for that matter, horrible engines…(PS the VIS valve were fine on them before anyone mentions them!)

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