The Shanghai-enriched Rover 75-based Roewe 750 had rather a lot of British input into it. That’s because it was developed by a number of ex-MG Rover Engineers in the UK.
However, it was also based on an ill-fated plan to facelift the Rover 75 in 2006 – it’s a shame we never had a chance to buy it in Britain…
Roewe 750: Not-so faux Rover
Throughout 2003 and 2004, MG Rover appeared to be going through its own private hell – with a falling market share, much negative publicity surrounding the ‘Phoenix Four’ and a model range perceived as ageing by the motoring press. However, despite what appeared to be an impending doomsday scenario to outsiders, MG Rover executives continued to work furiously towards the company’s objective of finding a Chinese OEM partner.
Although talks with Chinese car producer, China Brilliance (CBIH), had amounted to nothing – despite being active between April 2001 and December 2002 – it was a business plan that had legs. After all, MG Rover concluded, Chinese producers were looking for distribution in their export markets, needed more up to date hardware, were cash-rich and could provide inexpensive labour. If the British could tap into this – as well as form its own bridge-head into what could be the world’s largest car market in years to come, then it would be at a major advantage compared with its competitors.
As a strategy, the Anglo-Chinese deal had every possibility of working – joint models and engine deals were the way forward, as were combined research and development and a common component supplier base.
A Chinese future for the Rover 75
MG Rover’s deal with CBIH would have created a joint venture to develop future models and both partners would have jointly owned the company with equity being split 50-50. The alliance would have enabled MG Rover cars to be produced in China, with British development being undertaken on Brilliance models. The deal would have resulted in jointly-developed Rover 25 and 45 replacements, after the introduction of a Chinese-built facelifted 75.
So, with the collapse of these talks at the beginning of 2003 (and a useful upfront payment from CBIH estimated to have been around £50m), it wasn’t entirely back to the drawing board, as MGR’s executives now had a ready-made business plan with which it could woo other potential suitors from within China.
A replacement for CBIH was found quickly – in the form of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) and, late in 2003, talks commenced between the two companies, with the plan being to create a Joint Venture Company that would see MGs and Rovers produced in China as well as Longbridge.
The potential deal, which was made public in June 2004, was to have secured massive inward investment into the Longbridge factory, with the then MGR Communications Director, Daniel Ward, announcing that SAIC would own 70 per cent and MGR 30 per cent of the Joint Venture and that the aim was to produce one million cars per year. He stated: ‘It is not a takeover, it’s a partnership’.
Rover engineering under scrutiny
In terms of product, the Rover 75 was of most interest to the Chinese, followed by the RDX60 project, which at the time, had been effectively frozen since 2003. There were aspects of the design of the current car that left the Chinese unhappy, but overall, they were impressed by the engineering integrity of the car, and could see its potential on SAIC’s home turf. Although a lightly-facelifted version of the car had been announced in early 2004, a more thorough re-working was in the pipeline for the 2006/07 model year.
This included the introduction of new door pressings, a more thoroughly revised interior and the introduction of the engine (to replace BMW’s expensive M47 unit) and EUIV diesel K-Series petrol units. Further revisions to the styling were also planned although, once talks with SAIC became more serious, the extent of these changes was broadened to include a bulkier rear end (SAIC was said to be unhappy with the original ‘drooping’ tail line) and a 100mm stretch of the wheelbase – again a nod to Chinese tastes.
Talks continued apace throughout 2004 and, as MG Rover’s finances became more precarious, the British side of the negotiating team became increasingly desperate to ink the deal and move into the next stage – constituting the Joint Venture Company (JVC).
Selling the rights to China
Even before the JVC had been formed, MG Rover had found itself putting all of its eggs into this basket – although it looked like it was selling the family silver to the Chinese for a knock-down price. SAIC was to be the dominant partner in the arrangement and had already started work on the SAC528, so it seemed sensible to start the process of transferring the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of the hardware that would be produced by the JVC – although, had MG Rover’s finances not been not so precarious by this time, that would have undoubtedly happened after the deal was closed…
At the close of 2004, the scale of this sale was revealed – MG Rover sold the IPRs for the 25- and 75-series cars (including the SAC528) along with the those of the innovative K-Series engine for £67m. This was the first of what were said to be a number of slices of investment from the Chinese company, and would be followed up by a further £133m to get the RDX60 into production. However, it was quite a way short of the £1bn plus that John Towers had been talking about to the press in late 2004.
Despite the fact that the JVC deal had not been signed by early 2005, plans to ship out the company’s assets to China were well underway. In November and December of 2004, MGR’s finance people were asked to compile asset registers for the 25- and 75-series cars. These would detail all the usual production information in addition to more unusual variables – such as how big and heavy the tooling was and what kind of containers they could be shipped in. Suppliers were also told that the 25 and K-Series engine would definitely be shipped out to Shanghai, with the initial export work to commence during Easter of that year.
As it was, the Chinese walked away from the deal in March 2005, leaving MG Rover to fend for itself – after having picked up the rights to build the Rover 75. Administration soon followed, and SAIC announced that it would go it alone in its plans to build a new Rover range, having legally obtained the rights to do so…
MG Rover, it seemed had been comprehensively out-flanked, while it ran out of time.
Ricardo sets the development pace
Following MG Rover’s fall into administration, and the undignified sale of its assets to rival bidder, Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC) for £53m, SAIC was left with the unenviable task of continuing its plans to productionise its version of the Rover 75, while building a brand new production site in China.
Several MG Rover employees had been based in China before the meltdown and were tasked with repatriating the company’s engineering and purchasing team members in a controlled fashion. Concurrently, SAIC began building an operation from the ground floor up, calling in as much help as it could from the UK component supply industry.
A deal was brokered between the UK development consultants, Ricardo, and SAIC – and, in May 2005, a new company called Ricardo (2010) Limited was incorporated with offices in China and the UK. A recruitment campaign was instigated by the new organisation and, within months, 150 ex-MG Rover and Powertrain Engineers were employed to continue work on the SAC528 – (so called because it was conceived on 28 May 2004) with a view to developing it into a production reality.
Project SAC528 progresses at pace
Work on the project had actually commenced in 2004 and, according to one Engineer who worked on the project, MG Rover’s fall into administration did nothing to stop SAC528’s progress. ‘The week before NAC bought MGR, SAIC issued a ‘Request for Quotations’ to all R75 suppliers previously under MGR control. It was obvious from the paperwork they had all the information needed to recommence production,’ he said.
A thorough testing programme ensued – with ex-Rover Engineers finding themselves as far and wide as the Gobi desert, Australia and the Arctic Circle in order to prove the new cars could be a viable proposition for sale worldwide. However, by the summer of 2006, the secret could no longer be contained, with sightings of the newly-revised cars taking place in the most unusual of places – without doubt, SAIC and Ricardo (2010) had done a phenomenal job to progress the SAC528 programme as quickly as it had…
One Engineer involved with the project highlighted one problem: ‘it would be largely unapparent to the ‘customer’ but caused a huge amount of additional work to the engineering group – is the fact that at the eleventh hour it was decided to change the supplier of the automatic transmission from JATCO (as used by MG Rover for the 75) to Aisin Warner.
‘The resulting packaging, mounting design, selector system design, electrical update and new calibration, plus the associated development and validation was a huge amount of work to take on in such a short timescale but, such is the capability of the Technical Centre, we achieved a pretty good result and the resulting installation is, in my humble opinion, probably a better overall solution than the original.’
Skids on the Rover plan
The news that BMW sold the rights to use the Rover name to Ford (in October 2006) must have come as a blow to SAIC’s executives. There was a huge desire within the Chinese company to use the Rover marque name for its upcoming range of cars – because it would deliver suitably British heritage to tempt Chinese buyers to part with their cash.
This was especially pertinent, as Nanjing’s MG-badged alternative would be hitting the marketplace mere months after the Roewe 750. However, these name traumas didn’t slow down the introduction one bit – with the company chosing to invent a new marque, adding a slice of British history to accompany it in the process.
The new brand name, Roewe, ended up not being vastly different to the Rover moniker – drawing the unusual title from the German word loewe (lion), pronounced loh-vuh. The English pronunciation should be transcribed roo-eevey or roo-ee, although the Chinese way of pronouncing it is, ‘rong wei‘. It might have loosely translated as ‘glorious power’, but it simply doesn’t work in English…
The official launch of the car followed days after the announcement of its clumsy sounding marque name – and, although scoop pictures had circulated of this car, the first proper sight of it had impressed most onlookers. Especially considering the timescales – MG Rover had fallen into administration less than 18 months previously.
Roewe 750: on to launch…
SAIC’s Roewe 750 may have sported a very familiar look when it was launched in October 2006 but, under the skin, the new car had received a number of important changes. Featuring a 103mm longer wheelbase, the 750 range was announced with a range of ex-K Series engines. Available with the turbocharged 1.8-litre K-Series engine, now known as the 18K4G, and the 2.5-litre KV6, which had been renamed as the 25K4F.
Two frontal treatments were offered – the standard 750 and the 750E, pictured with a full-depth ‘Premium’ grille that echoed the former Rover 75 V8 first shown at the Geneva Motor Show back in 2004. The revised frontal styling and a rejigged rear end made a vast difference to the look of the car, and a heavily revised interior brought the car into the 21st century…
Towards the hybrid future
However, SAIC had serious ambitions for the Roewe brand and, at the first public showing of the 750 at the 2007 Beijing Motor Show, it also unveiled a Hybrid version. The company was serious about its introduction, suggesting it could enter the marketplace in time to coincide with the mooted European introduction of the car in 2009, which never happened.
The show car married a four-cylinder petrol engine to an electric motor – similar in concept to the Toyota Prius – and SAIC claimed that it could run on battery power alone around town. Initial road test reports were lukewarm about the car, with the Auto China website dismissing it with the throwaway line, ‘Perhaps the best way to defeat the opposition is simply by undercutting them.’
Auto China did, though, praise the Roewe 750’s design, ergonomics and dynamics while summing up the driving experience thus: ‘The softer ride (compared to European models), along with the lengthened wheelbase has made a significant contribution to comfort in the rear. However, this chassis adjustment means some wallowing. Driving enthusiasts keen on the Rover 75 will begin to worry whether these changes will dilute that car’s character. In fact, there is no need to worry, because although your driving style will need to adjust to compensate, you can still have a lot of fun in this car.’
What might have been
Although to Rover fans, the Roewe 750 looks closely based on the 2004 facelift model, in many ways, this is the new car that would have appeared in your local MGR showrooms in 2007 – and it raises an interesting question about the continued appeal of the 75/ZT range. For sure the interior looks a better place to sit, and the styling has more of an air of modernity about it, but would this update have been enough to keep the car fresh in the minds of buyers until 2010-2011?
Perhaps this didn’t matter at all – especially if the early reactions from potential Chinese buyers were anything to go by, as they were largely positive – and, in the spirit of Anglo-Chinese relations, perhaps this was all that really mattered. Either way, the Roewe 750 is a sad monument to what might have been for MG Rover – and a pointer to what could have been achieved by the joint venture had the climate been more favourable.