JONATHAN GLANCEY, THE INDEPENDENT
The Rover 600 is a triumph of foreign know-how and bolt-on nostalgia. Jonathan Glancey welcomes it
THIRTY years ago Rover unveiled its 2000 model, a four-door saloon boasting innovative engineering and uncompromisingly modern looks. Styled by David Blache – the designer who later gave shape to the Range-Rover – this well-built and successful car took solid old Rover into the era of white hot Sixties technology.
This was Solihull’s automotive equivalent of the stunning TSR2 experimental fighter- bomber, British Railway’s pace-setting Deltic diesels and the latest cars from Stuttgart and Turin. It was launched into a world in which, if not the best, British industry and design was still a force to be reckoned with.
The interior of the Rover 2000 was dressed in wood veneer and Connolly hide; otherwise only the sturdiness of its all-British engineering and construction echoed the character of the stately- as-a-galleon aunty Rovers of previous decades. Most daringly, Blache abandoned the traditional Rover radiator grille. Instead of the imperious face of tried and trusted Rovers, the 2000 faced the motorway age with a long, thin metal grin.
This year, the 2000’s successor, the Rover 600, is helping to push the company into a trading profit for the first time in almost 20 years. The most noticeable feature of the new car is the traditional Rover grille, adorned with a Viking longboat, bolted proudly to the front of its curvaceous bodywork. It is a nominally British car which even those uninterested in automotive styling comment on favourably. With the handsome 600, a Rover is a desirable car once more and a real alternative to BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes.
The success of the Rover 600 lies as much in its undoubted quality as in its adornment with bolt-on chrome accessories. These help to evoke an age in which the values of Brief Encounter held sway, motorists wore hats and gloves and the pound in your pocket was worth just that. That nostalgic grille calls to mind images of prime ministers – Wilson, Heath, Callaghan – sweeping in and out of Downing Street in opulent 3.5- litre Rovers.
Gordon Sked, Rover’s head of styling, clearly understands the value of theming, retro-styling and add-on value. Deck a functional Honda floorpan with a voluptuous body, stir in the magic ingredient – nostalgia – and, hey presto, the Honda Accord, on which the 600 is based, turns into a car as British as Dad’s Army.
Unlike in 1963, few of us look forward to the future with unguarded optimism. The world seems a darker and more dangerous place and Britain’s role in it increasingly marginal. Rover remains the country’s sole surviving large-scale car manufacturer, and even then its engineering and production relies heavily on Japanese hardware and know-how. Since 1980, Honda has owned 20 per cent of Rover and its share may yet increase if British Aerospace is tempted to sell the company it bought five years ago.
Without the Japanese, the oh-so-British-looking Rover 600 would not exist. Between the Rover 2000 and the new 600, the company’s fortunes plunged first into the dark age of British Leyland ownership before three successive chairmen – Sir Michael Edwardes, Sir Graham Day and George Simpson – restored its competitiveness. Edwardes opened up the link with Honda in 1980. Since then, the Japanese have set up several car plants in Britain. Their success can be measured by the prediction that in five years’ time Japanese manufacturers will account for every second car built in Britain.
So a new Rover, despite its olde-worlde radiator grille, is not what it appears to be. It is not the spiritual successor of the blimpish Rovers of the Fifties, but a Honda cleverly disguised in symbols, badges and other add-on goodies that evoke Britishness in the mind of car buyers at home and abroad.
The success of wrapping the Rising Sun in the Union Jack is, however, happily reflected in projected sales figures. Next year Rover expects to make 50,000 600s, of which no fewer than half will be sold in Europe. In France, the Rover name has a similar cache to Jaguar and sales to France and Germany are expected to account for a high proportion of export sales. The Rover is keenly pitched against such formidable rivals as BMW’s 3-series and Mercedes-Benz’s latest 190 saloon.
The Rover 600 might be a mobile theme-park (‘See how grandfather drove – with the aid of today’s technology’), but it is also a potent symbol of Britain’s survival as a marginal manufacturing nation at the end of the 20th century.
It is arguable that Britain ever was a great manufacturing nation. The beautiful machines and inventive products we are famous for – the great Clydeside liners, Gresley Pacific steam locomotives, Spitfires, contemporary avant-garde furniture and Formula One racing cars – have all been hand-crafted. Rover’s Solihull plant was hardly a hotbed of the latest manufacturing techniques in the Fifties and Sixties. When British car manufacturers did attempt to go modern in the Seventies, the industry produced some of the nastiest and most badly built cars in the world.
Today, the only blue-blooded British cars are made by small-scale manufacturers – Rolls- Royce and Morgan among them – which survive on the selling power of craftsmanship and nostalgia. Rover has had the good sense to theme a Honda into a Rover that looks like a Rover, feels like a Rover, smells like a Rover and works like a Honda.
Britain today is no longer the workshop of the world, but its theme-park. We spend a small fortune on turning our city centres into parodies of their Victorian predecessors. Our film industry relies on baroque costume dramas evoking a Britain long since vanished – think of the lush Merchant Ivory productions of A Room with a View and Howards End. We employ architects to hide modern office blocks behind clumsy pseudo-Georgian facades. We swamp our countryside with executive housing estates dolled up with a few period frills. We pretend our edge-of-town hypermarkets are medieval barns.
We sell Britain to foreigners as a land of thatched cottages, cream teas and open-top sports cars. Our Prime Minister fondly evokes a world of warm bitter beer, leather on willow and long, summer shadows on village greens. In short, we do not want to live in the present, and certainly not the future. If, however, we are going to survive as a manufacturing nation, we need a helping hand. We provide the nostalgia and the radiator grilles; others the engineering and manufacturing know-how. The Rover 600 is truly a British car.