Prototypes : BMC, BL and Rover’s most tragic missed opportunities
The site’s USP is, without doubt, its fine collection of stories, galleries and recollections by those who were there of the unborn heroes – the cars that never saw the light of day, but should have. And the history pages on this site are absolutely crammed with such cars.
And, with that in mind, Keith Adams chooses 10 of the best – 10 cars that should have, would have, transformed the fortunes of their makers. Sit back and try not to cry too many bitter tears of regret.
The boulevard of broken dreams
Choosing a Top 10 from such a huge selection of inglorious non-starters is actually quite difficult. That’s because, although there’s a lot to choose from, when you consider the impact of the various cars not being produced, the story becomes a lot less clear. With that in mind, we’ve not gone with the most intriguing or innovative non-starters (although you’ll see that many are), but the ones we reckon that would have enjoyed the greatest commercial success had they been built.
As you go through the list, you’ll soon see an emerging pattern. Small cars were something of a specialty for the BMC, BL and Rover, but thanks to the immortality of the Mini, and Metro, so many great designs remained as concepts within the Elephant House at Longbridge. We also know we’ve missed a few – so make sure you have your say at the end of the article.
Enjoy our trip down history’s parallel memory lane.
10: Rover 55
Developed in the mid-to-late 1990s, anticipated launch date c.2003
At first glance, the Rover 55, which was originally designed to appear on the market, looks like a quirky and mis-proportioned thing. A bit of a Marmite car, in fact. The long nose, rearward-biased cabin and huge wheels hint at a RWD platform. But BMW-owned Rover Group was thinking differently – and this FWD challenger had a longitudinally-mounted K-Series under the bonnet (or it would have done had it been built) and great weight distribution. Sadly, the design came to nothing, a victim of BMW’s reduced ambitions for Rover.
Would it have sold? Against the 3-Series and A4, it looks to have been another sector-spanning car that would have struggled to find a ready market. Instead, the Rover 45 soldiered on in its place.
9: The Pininfarina Aerodynamica 1100/1800
Styled in 1967, never considered for production by BLMC
Of all the car’s we’ve included, what makes the Pininfarina Aerodynamica so interesting is that it was a series of designs (yes, there was an 1800 and 1100 – and even a little-known Mini version) that weren’t commissioned by the British company, but which caused huge interest at the time they were revealed in 1967 and ’68. The five-door hatchbacks pre-dated the stampede towards two-box designs these designs in the 1970s and, had BL been brave enough to put them into production, it would have had those cutting edge cars that Donald Stokes and George Turnbull often referred to (but never really delivered).
Of course, they would have been mightily expensive to develop, and production versions would have looked a whole lot simpler but in light of the Allegro and Princess, it doesn’t stop one wondering today. Chances are they’d have sold no better – one only needs to see the Citroen CX and GS’s sales in the UK to see that.
8: Triumph Broadside
Developed in 1978-’80, slated for production in 1982-’83
The Triumph TR7 is another of those BL cars, which had considerable development potential, but missed reaching its full potential because of circumstances way beyond its control. So many cars could have been spun from its simple, yet clever platform, but other than the addition of the drophead version and the V8 engine, it was pretty much left untouched. And that’s a tragedy because the Designers and Engineers came up with some appealing concepts – and, although it could be argued that the Lynx and Broadside coupes are as visually challenging as the original TR7, the open-topped O-Series-powered car (above) looks absolutely spot-on thanks to its longer wheelbase.
Moreover, considering that selling sports cars was something BL did very well, it’s a real tragedy that this car wasn’t built, received the engines it deserved and sold well into the 1980s. The economics of selling these cars to the Americans was stretched to breaking point in the early-1980s thanks to the strong sterling, but to abandon the market completely (and eventually the marque that delivered the TR7) was short-termist.
7: Austin-Morris ADO22
Developed in the late-1960s, planned for introduction in 1970
The ADO22 could have saved its maker a whole lot of grief. As a replacement for the best-selling ADO16 range, it was perfect, because, unlike the Allegro, it built on the strengths of its predecessor and did so without losing sight of what it was that made that car so appealing. So, it was effectively a Roy Haynes styled re-body of the 1100/1300 with the added value of a hatchback, and improved underbonnet access, and interior packaging. In short, it was the E-Series powered development of the 1100 (alongside the Austin Apache/Authi Victoria and Morris Nomad) which buyers so readily wanted.
Of course, it’s conjecture as to how well the ADO22 would have sold, especially in comparison with what the Allegro finally achieved, but had it gone some way to matching that car – combined with the much lower development costs – then BL might have just had that little bit more left in the pot with which to build its other mid-sized fighter, the ADO77.
6: Austin AR6
Developed from 1983, anticipated launch date 1986-’87
Only number six for the Austin AR6? The trouble was that it was too clever for its own good. The car was originally designed to run with a three-cylinder K-Series engine and use aluminium in its construction – an ECV3 for the road, effectively. However, for a company wrestling with a Government that controlled it and which was not too keen on investing in such an ambitious supermini (estimates between £250-500m have been touted for AR6’s development costs), this was the wrong product at the wrong time, despite how appealing it must have looked to the engineers and designers.
AR6 had other issues too, not least the Metro’s enduring success in its home market, and the arrival of the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 – both of which were brilliant, conventional, and – important this – profitable for their makers. AR6, alas, would have probably not sold in far greater numbers than the Metro in the face of such an onslaught. A great car, but the company wouldn’t have done much better with it in the showrooms.
5: Rover 400 (AR16/17)
Developed in 1984-’85, anticipated introduction 1987-’88
We all know that there was little wrong with the Austin Montego that a new body wouldn’t sort out. Here was a car that handled and rode well, performed admirably and could handle long journeys with ease. But what self-respecting sales rep or middle-manager would want to drive a car so ugly, and so rooted in the 1970s? Of course, they knew this within Austin Rover, and during the mid-1980s, several Montego improvement programmes were undertaken – but this one, AR16/17, seems to have been the most promising. It combined Rover 200-800 series styling with the Montego’s brilliant platform and threw in the 16V M16-Series engine for good measure.
What’s not to like? However, as the funding taps were closed off, the AR16 was canned to make way for the AR9, a lightly-facelifted Montego, with the option of the M16 engine, before being watered down even further to become the 88.5MY models.
4: Issigonis 9X
Developed between 1967 and 1980-something, anticipated launch of first 9X, 1972
Much has been written about the hatchback Issigonis 9X (not least here, so do read this page if you haven’t already). It clearly proves the genius of its creator, because as a Mini replacement, it ticked all the boxes – it was lighter, roomier, more p,owerful and efficient, smaller outside, cheaper to manufacture (allegedly) and could well have changed the future direction of supermini design, sitting as it would have done, right at the vanguard. Of course, it would have cost BLMC an arm and a leg to get into production, and would equally have made far less profit than the all-important new mid-range cars, the Allegro and Marina.
And that’s why, despite its brilliance, it does not take the top spot. For one, the Mini was selling more strongly during the early 1970s than at any other time in its life, so it’s hard to conceive the 9X actually bringing many more sales to BL. Also, despite its packaging mastery, the arrival and subsequent success of the Renault 5, Fiat 127 and Volkswagen Polo, proved that buyers wanted something approaching 12ft in length, not smaller than 10. So perhaps, it wasn’t quite what the market needed after all.
3: Rover P6BS/P9
Developed in the late-1960s, anticipated introduction, 1973
The three-seat, mid-engined ‘super-Rover’ was the brainchild of Spen King, and, as a road-going prototype, the P6BS proved itself to be a very capable tool. The engineering that underpinned the car was typically delightful, with lightness and balance being prioritised. Its Rover V8 sat mid-ship, as a ‘proper’ supercar engine should, but unlike most, there was room for three. At the time of this car’s development, export markets could not get enough of British sports cars, and it’s a near-certainty that the P9 would have possessed considerable appeal at a time when the Jaguar E-type had lost its shine.
But we know what happened. It was a victim of rationalisation, and BL’s belief that its flagship marque – Jaguar – should have no internal rivalries. Would it have sold? Yes. But then it would have been launched at the time of the First Energy Crisis. So maybe the P9’s fate on BL’s cutting-room floor saved it from ignominy of commercial failure.
2: ADO77 Morris Marina successor
Developed in 1973-’75, anticipated launch date 1977-’78
The Morris Marina wasn’t a bad car. Considering it was a stop-gap thrown together by some very clever Engineers, using far too many off-the-shelf components, it did very well indeed. And had the Morris ADO77 been launched when it was supposed to have been, then history would have probably been a lot kinder to it. But it wasn’t, and that’s that. So, why does the ever so conventional ADO77 appear so high on this list? Simply because it was to replace BL’s best-selling and most profitable volume car in the UK, and there’s every reason to believe that it would have been very competitive against the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier.
And instead of fading out of the company car market, with the launch of the desperate Ital, leaving the Montego to try and make up for lost ground in the mid-1980s, the ADO77 should – and would – have been a very competitive force, hopefully helping keep the Morris name alive for many more years to come.
1: Rover R6X Metro replacement
Developed in 1988, anticipated launch date 1990-’91
The Rover R6X Metro was one of those make-do-and-mend ideas that British Leyland and Rover were so superb at. Consider that the company had been seriously developing its replacement for the Metro since 1983 (see AR6), and ended up cancelling this hugely expensive programme when it became clear that the Metro’s platform had years ahead of it with some very minor suspension modifications. But when it became clear that the R6 was going to look use much of the Metro’s body-in-white, Design Director Roy Axe was shocked and appalled.
After all, how could a car that would have been in production a decade still look competitive? And why make the R6 look so similar to its predecessor, when it was so radically improved under the skin? His design team were tasked with producing a new body that took in all of the Metro/R6’s hard points and platform, lessening the financial impact of its development to production. David Saddington penned the above model, which was then build as a full-sized running prototype by Coggiola in Italy for appraisal by Rover’s management.
The idea was turned down, and the 1990 Metro, which looked oh-so familiar, was introduced instead. As missed opportunities go, this has to be Rover’s greatest – because not only was it reasonably cost-effective to develop, but it looked good enough to be considered a brand new car – probably lengthening the life (and sales potential) of the R6 for years to come. As it was, the car (despite its engineering excellence and pleasurable dynamics) was allowed to wither and die of the back of that aged-looking body.