In-house designs : Rover 35 (R30)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams lays out what we know about the ill-fated Rover 35, codenamed R30. It was a mid-sized hatchback developed in tandem with the Rover 75 and MINI, and would have taken the fight to the Volkswagen Golf.

Sadly, it was canned in 2000, when BMW sold the Rover Group to a consortium led by John Towers for £10.

Is this all we have left of the Rover 35 (R30)? A factory CAD rendering that was leaked to the press in 1999

BMW knew that, in order to create a successful Rover for the 21st century following its acquisition of the company in 1994, there needed to be a re-think of the entire model range. A slimming down of model lines was needed – in the guise it inherited, there were too many platforms, and not enough economies of scale.

After much consideration about how to develop Rover, it was decided to continue down the road that was leading the company toward producing premium and very ‘British’ cars, basing it on what was effectively three platforms.

How the three-platform model would work

The first true product of this three-platform thinking to see the light of day was the Rover 75 (R40), launched in 1998. It was an amalgamation of traditional Rover ideals and up-to-the-minute technology, featuring a brand-new platform, BMW’s Z-Axle rear suspension layout and carry-over K-Series engines in lieu of the ‘NG’ (for New Generation) four-cylinder range, due for roll-out in 2002.

The second phase of the plan was the MINI (R50), which we all know about. It also carried the BMW Z-Axle, but eschewed the K-Series engine in favour of a Tritec unit built in conjunction with the once-potential partner for Rover, Chrysler, and sat on a bespoke platform.

The third car in the triumvirate was to be the Rover 35 hatchback and Rover 55 saloon, a pairing, which was codenamed R30. This was the least-developed – and arguably most important – platform of them all, and was subject to much change during its troubled existence.

R30: Two years behind, and playing catch up

The image shown above (which were published in Autocar in 1998) were early "themes" produced at Gaydon on their "Alias" imaging system - they were not representitive of how the car would end up looking, but they did demonstrate that Gaydon was thinking in terms of a "retro" feel (note the heavy use of chrome, and the "Auntie" grille).
The image shown above (which were published in Autocar in 1998) were early themes produced at Gaydon on its ‘Alias’ imaging system. They were not representative of how the car would end up looking, but they did demonstrate that Gaydon was thinking in terms of a retro feel (note the heavy use of chrome, and the Auntie grille)

Work on the R30 was started in 1996, and the plan was to produce a single model to replace the Rover 200 and 400 ranges, and which would not share any componentry with the HHR or R3. Most importantly, as far as BMW was concerned, it would not share any parts with Honda – and therefore rack up royalty payments like the existing cars.

Styling proposals weren’t limited to the Rover studio in Gaydon. Several third-party design houses were asked to submit ideas (including OMNI Design, below), as well as BMW’s studios in Germany and the USA.

The overall design team was headed up by Richard Woolley in the UK, though. Although the early styling and engineering phases of the car were run in Gaydon, it would subsequently move to Germany. This occurred when the R30 became more advanced, in a move following the see-saw development programme of the R50 MINI.

As the programme played out, the politics within the company – both in the UK and Germany – interrupted its development, and it soon became the focus of a political game of football which involved Bernd Pischetsrieder and the British Government. Ultimately, the programme was frozen in the summer of 1998 as a consequence of this.

Once concept produced for the R30 programme, as designed by the Solihull design consultants run by ex-AR Design Director, Richard Hamblin, OMNI Design. Neat, contemporary, and ever so wedgy, it's a far cry from some of the more traditional offerings that passed through the Product Planners' hands...
Once concept produced for the R30 programme, as designed by the Solihull design consultants run by ex-AR Design Director, Richard Hamblin, OMNI Design. Neat, contemporary and ever-so wedgy, it’s a far cry from some of the more traditional offerings that passed through the Product Planners’ hands…

A new car and a vastly revamped factory

The R30 could be produced in Longbridge alongside the MINI, but in order to get it into production, Longbridge would need serious investment. BMW costed the R30 project at approximately £2 billion, and asked the British Government for a £200m subsidy… The Government procrastinated but, in the end, it agreed to £152 million loan, phased over five years.

Following this, the subsidy became known as the ‘R30 Subsidy’, and the car became well known in the wider media – something Rover had not experienced in some years. This level of scrutiny, and the agony BMW was facing at home from the financial markets placed the car in a difficult position, even if the project was back on again.

Company Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder wanted the R30 to launch in March 2002, and on 5 February 1999, presented a proposal to the BMW board that he thought was strong enough to see the car – and the company – survive. The R30 and R40 families would be built in various guises in the UK alongside the MINI, with an overall cost to BMW of £1.4bn.

Proposed Rover model range 2003

  • MINI hatchback, coupe and convertible
  • Rover 35 three- and five-door hatchback
  • Rover 55 saloon and coupe
  • Rover MPV
  • Rover 75 saloon and estate

This was too costly a plan and, in an extraordinary move, Rover’s biggest ally on the BMW board – Pischetsrieder – resigned, leaving the fate of the R30 and its maker hanging in the balance. In reality, the R30 died on that day, although the plan continued even as BMW negotiated its exit from Rover.

What was the Rover 35 like under the skin?

Like the MINI, the R30 was engineered not to use the K-Series engine. According to product plans that have come into our possession, as of September 1999, the car was to be powered by a mix of low-power BMW M47 diesels, the Tritec engine shared with the MINI, and – in the larger-engined models – the all-new NG four-cylinder engines, to be built at the new factory at Hams Hall in Birmingham.

As well as the three- and five-door hatchback model, the Rover 35 range would have also included a mid-sized MPV. All the R30 family, including the lovely Rover 55, would sit on platform UKL1 (the 75 sat on UKL2).

The R30 was also to have a Z-Axle at the rear, just like the 75 and MINI, and a meaty central structure. These elements, as well, were allied with, intriguingly, a crash structure designed for an in-line engine. This inline engine idea facilitated structural economies with BMW’s RWD range.

The R30 eventually emerged as a good-looking design, which would have continued the engineering lead that the Rover 75 had established. However, it was not to be – at the time of the sell-off in 2000, the R30 was nearing the final stages of development, getting towards production readiness, although only one running prototype was produced.

What became of the R30?

The above image, published in Autocar at the time of the sell-off, "closely resembled the final design", according to a senior designer involved with the project. That being the case, it is a shame that the events that unfolded meant that the car never reached production. According to the same designer, it was a "cracking car"... so it is time that we lobby BMW to release details of the car, if only to preserve a part of the history of the British car industry!
The above image, published in Autocar at the time of the sell-off, ‘closely resembled the final design,’ according to a senior designer involved with the project. That’s because it was created using the engineering drawing at the top of the page. According to the same designer, it was a ‘cracking car’

There have been many subsequent rumours about the fate of the R30 project. Confined to the vaults in the BMW four-cylinder headquarters in Munich, the sole remaining prototype was production ready, and BMW is believed to have tried to sell the project – first to MG Rover in 2001, for an alleged £300m and then to a number of Chinese manufacturers looking for a ‘turn-key’ entrant into the medium sector.

Beyond that, there have been persistent rumours that the RWD BMW 1-Series is closely based upon the R30; certainly from the A-post back. The idea of a small BMW isn’t a new one and, even before the Rover take-over in 1994, BMW engineers had been dreaming up baby cars wearing the propellor badge. However, the Rover ownership complicated matters and the idea was shelved as the company ploughed its resources into Rover.

However, BMW realised the marque was strong enough to head downmarket, and its management concluded that the Rover experiment failed. The emphasis thereafter shifted back towards a baby BMW, as it washed its hands of the UK division. If rumour is to be believed, the 1-Series project used the R30’s body engineering and that it’s exactly the same from the A-post back.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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29 Comments

  1. We all think that the Phoenix 4 Rifled Rover as they sorted their Pensions, then ran it into the ground due to unable to find a Business Partner daft enough to throw money at them (or is this just my take on them?).

    However Trawling through these pages “Phoenix” had some serious plans on the go….like the MG Rexton etc, perhaps I was being a bit harsh? Not sure if many of the projects were just a continuation of what BMW left behind, or Phoenix kick started these themselves …..? Just a shame they had no penny’s to launch any, otherwise they could of had this partly finished item, though is £300 mil cheap for a half finished yet to be finalised car?

    I remember the original Ford Mondeo held the record for most expensive Design ($6 Billion according to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Mondeo ) although am sure it also included a new Factory? Though saying that the Metro wasn’t cheap nor was the transition from Marina to Ital came in at a scary amount.

    The Development costs does ask the question’s could Phoenix not buy a stihl saw and cut up the 75 to make 45 and 25 replacements… Well if only it was that easy? Imagine a full new range if it were so !

    However those pictures above…
    1 Looks like it has Nissan Almera overtones, especially around the rear flanks!

    2 To me anyway has some old shape Nissan Micra overtones if you squint or had a few sherry’s! and 3, Not sure about the front but quite like the Mad look of this one! Rather different as they say.

    4 Autocar picture Looks similar to the previous Honda Civic.

    5 Photoshoped BMW 1 series nee Rover, Love the rendering and as mentioned in this write up offered for sale in 2001, Then took BMW three years to cut down a 3 series and offer it for sale !

    Another splendid hidden gems from the archives!

  2. 2) Mike Wren

    Somehow that R30 model looks like it is based on the BMW Mini, which would make sense as a replacement for the Rover 25 though I’d find it difficult to believe BMW ever contemplating such an idea.

  3. It is shameful that the UK Governament in 1999 didn’t hand over £200 million to BMW considering that in 1976 the previous Labour administration had given Chrysler Europe £160 million & their Ryton plant was still producing successful cars 27 years later.

    Granted Peugeot shut down Ryton in about 2006. However a) The Labour government in 1999 wouldn’t have known that was going to happen & b) BMW would have been a lot less likely to have shut up in the UK when Ryton did as sufficient overseas production capability just wouldn’t have been there.

    Since the above didn’t come about, The Phoenix Four would have been better off purchasing R30 for £300 million rather than siphoning funds into their own pockets & producing “side shows” such as the V8 75 & the XPower SV.

  4. @4

    In fairness, I think the V8 and SV were intended as halo models, in the same way as Audi use R8s and S4s to get the punters in buying diesel repmobiles.

  5. halo models are all well and good, but you cannot do them at the expense of the bread and butter models you’re trying to get people to actually buy. Nonsensical I think.

  6. I wonder if JLR would let Richard Woolley tell us more?
    I’d forgotten about the Chrysler JV engine – given that FCA is up for grabs at the moment I wonder if BMW might be wanting to do another Goggomobil/Rover takeover….

    • Jeep is the crown jewel there, it wouldn’t be like BMW to take a group, use the technology and strip the assets now, would it?

      Great Wall were rumoured to be interested.

      In this day and age of the SUV craze, Jeep are underperforming, need a few more pretend-SUVs.

  7. Both the previous and current model 1series are based on shortened 3 series platforms and body engineering. Hard to imagine the FWD R30 has much in common with it apart from some styling similarities. But that’s just how small/medium hatches looked around 2004. Just look at that years Opel/Vauxhall Astra.

    • A real shame MG/Rover didn’t have BMW’s hand off for this £300m for a fully engineered, production ready car was a steal. The royalties saved on Honda bits, the money thrown away on 75 V8’s, SVR and City Rover along with a bit of pension money from each of the Pheonix 4 would have probably covered most of that without needing to dip into the £1bn dowry left behind by BMW.

      • They did not have 300 million, and R30 was never fully engineered, more importantly they did not have another 600 to 800 million to get it into production. The company had no cash, no assets. The “dowry” left by BMW was new car stock and I believe this was sold to a finance company to get some cash.
        It was the style theme that was re-used on the 1 series.

    • Agreed, it would be a very complicated way to produce a 1 series, rather than just rehashing the existing 3 series platform.

  8. It always seemed a bit odd to me to produce 3 separate (albeit related) platforms for the MINI, R30 and R75, with the minimal production Rover had when compared to its volume rivals. The numbers just don’t add up

    The BMW MINI may have been a sales success, but even that hasn’t made BMW much money, hence the expansion into larger models and smaller BMWs sharing the same FWD platform to get more volume for the platform.

    • Indeed. Never understood why BWM didn’t develop MINI en R30 from one common FWD platform and the 75 on a (possibly recycled, more tuned for comfort) 5-series RWD platform.

      • Or perhaps even all three of them from just one modular FWD platform such as Volkswagen’s later MQB. One would expext BMW’s technical might to be able to pul off such a feat earlier.

      • Was under the impression the MINI platform was to also spawn a Rover variant at one point, possibly as a replacement for both the 100 and R3 when BMW’s problems with Rover (including the bad publicity surrounding the 100’s crash test results) prompted them to abandon that proposal.

          • One apparent problem is that the MINI platform allegedly could not be lengthened to spawn a 5-door hatchback variant (Rover or not), yet unsure whether that is indeed the case.

            Otherwise both the MINI along with the MINI-based Rover variant would have been sold as 3-door hatchbacks.

  9. That final picture of the R30 does look quite acceptable and the BMW 1 series is so close that I believe it must have been fine tuned from the R30. What a pity the R30 never made it as a Rover product, it’s exactly the sort of car that could have been a success for them as the Bimmer 1 series has .

  10. The 2 cars do look close, but then so does a Hyundai i30.
    By the point it was launched, all mid size hatchbacks were looking similar, a 2 box shape with a near vertical estate-style rear door, the sillouette of which I liken to a tortoise, pioneered in part by the Ford Focus. (Though the likes of the Fiat Tipo showed that a near vertical rear offered more interior space)
    The only example of an old school small-mid size “fastback” hatch I can think of is the Skoda Rapid, and even it is available in 2 box Sportback variant. The predecessor to the 1 series was the 3 series “compact” fastback, a truncated version of the coupe.

    I do believe that BMW may have taken something from Rover, if not a physical mid size car. Just as Honda got from Rover how to build interior ambience and comfort, so BMW must’ve gotten how to successfully build a small car – something that proved them well for the MINI range too.

    • I can assure you that the style theme of R30 was re-used on 1 series.
      BMW did not need to learn much from Rover. However, at the time of the Rover acquisition BMW had very few published engineering standards. Rover had well established standards and procedures and BMW soon developed theirs….
      When Honda first started to work with Austin Rover they had little or no computer aided design.(cad) all the drawings were manual with notes all over them! ARG on the other hand , were world leaders in all aspects of CAD. When Honda quickly started to introduce cad they just used it to copy the manual drawings. They had teams working in the same way that tracers worked in the past.
      It may not be clear to people outside the industry, but whilst the company was in a terrible state – engineering operations were competent, forward thinking and we’ll respected.

        • That is easy to say. But just not true.

          The same engineers got work all over the world.
          The old PSF body and tooling office at Cowley was recognised worldwide within the industry. We should be proud of what the achieved. ( But not Rover 800 !!)
          In many design studios round the world you will still find ex Rover engineers doing feasibility on future cars. This obviously will not continue as they will eventually all have retired.

          “The resulting products” are very much a function of the whole company efforts. In Rover’s sorry case you can include politicians in the mix too….

          • May I suggest reading Mike Carver e.a. (“British Leyland, story from inside” and “When Rover met Honda”), who paint a rather different picture? They claim (rather convincingly imo) that the main cause of BL failure was the lack of a true spirit of engineering excellence within the company. Very sorry to all those who tried their bests, their (expert) opinion, not mine.

      • “BMW did not need to learn much from Rover.”

        “Rover had well established standards and procedures and BMW soon developed theirs….”

        Then they learnt something from Rover?

        The main thing being how to build small hatchbacks, which has served them well.

        • I have read it, and I did know Anne Youngson and Mike Carver. They were / are not experts at judging engineering competence. They wrote a book about their specific experience at the time, this focuses on the BL / Honda relationship. They were both enthusiasts for this relationship.
          I think this relationship was very destructive to BL.
          The turn-key bounty project was sensible as an emergency market share holder. Honda made licencing money , sold most of the parts to BL from Japan, manufactured and sold all the BIW press and manufacturing tooling. Honda did OK. BL just kept a bit of market share – no chance of income.
          At this time politicians did play a big part in running the company.
          Following “joint ventures” went the same way, XX was a slightly different case with Honda AR politics playing their part. Honda specified an under torque poor engine and would not change it. At the last minute they changed it and the AR BIW was now incorrect! Late mods ruined that body. if senior people in ARG had been stronger / better/ less tied up in politics disasters like this would not have happened.
          At an engineering level the Honda / ARG relationship was good.
          Senior managers like Anne and Mike were quite happy to point the finger at engineers.
          Following projects made less and less money for Rover and lots of money for Honda, as I have said elsewhere in these blogs. This was not sustainable and could never fund future products.
          I think the senior managers negotiating these deals with Honda were naive and did not have a future plan for the company. Even a best seller like R8 could not make sustainable profit – is pay the investment, interest, overhead, and still give funds for future products.
          None of this was the engineers fault – they were competent and professional.
          I could go on and on with lots more engineering and political examples from the time……
          The company had no cash, was selling assets when they could, no real perception of how to progress as a real business, political help on a regular basis. The answer was to cull the overheads and rebuild. Much like BMW did with Mini at Cowley. Politics would not let them do this.

  11. Interesting comments.
    I’m not sure that negotiations with Honda were naive – it was difficult to have a clear long term perspective and dealing with Japanese businesses requires a completely different set of techniques and knowledge. It didn’t help that volume predictions and market positioning was often hopelessly wrong. That’s not to say that Rover could not have done a better job with 600 and HHR.
    There’s also a Land Rover dimension to all this – it wasn’t just Rover cars and Honda.

    • Naive was a bit extreme. They were not in a good negotiating position.
      The Rover leaders were always hoping for a runaway success in the market place.
      When this happened with R8 there was still not enough margin to sustain the business.
      The Rover 600 was a financial disgrace BMW could not believe it in due-diligence and put a stop to it as soon as they could.
      As I have said before in these blogs I have a lot of respect for the Rover senior managers, the people mentioned were product planners and finance, often when they refer to the engineering they mean the full product delivery process.
      When you have no cash you often cut corners by not fixing the things that you should- for example K series head gaskets…….

      • Interesting comment about the K series. I could never believe that powertrain did not had the ability or knowledge to sort out the weak points of the K early on. What happened, just did not made sense.

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