Editor’s Note: Published below is an article that appeared earlier this week in the Birmingham Post, written by one of the title’s most established journalists, Enda Mullen. In the piece, Enda looks objectively at the arguments for and against the Rover name making a comeback.
The article is published word-for-word as it appeared in the paper, and is intended to fuel debate, so let’s all remain sensible in the comments section, please.
Thanks to the Birmingham Post and to Enda himself for his personal permission to reproduce the article.
You can view the original piece here.
Speculation is rife the once-proud Midland brand could return after its collapse ten years ago. The Birmingham Post’s Enda Mullen talks to experts about whether it could ever happen…
Could the historic Rover brand be revived as part of Jaguar Land Rover’s plans to expand its model range?
As the resurgent Midland carmaker goes from strength to strength, it’s a question frequently posed by everyone from enthusiasts to industry analysts, though cynics might say it’s a vain hope rather than a revival with any real prospect of coming to fruition.
While Jaguar Land Rover [JLR] has said nothing to indicate it’s something that’s in the pipeline, it does own the rights to the name, thanks to a shrewd bit of business by Ford when it acquired Land Rover in 2000. So, is talk of a revival anything more than wild speculation?
The debate was fuelled last year by Automotive News’ Engineering and Technology Reporter [and AROnline’s US Editor] Richard Truett when, following a visit to the rapidly expanding Land Rover plant in Solihull, he wrote: “I can see no other way for JLR to increase its volume much higher than around 600,000 units a year without a mass-market upscale brand to challenge Volkswagen, BMW, Alfa, Acura, Infiniti and other mid-level marques. With a line-up of Rover, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover, the company can finally become what was envisioned in the late 1960s.”
Adding a new brand to its range would on one level make sense for Jaguar Land Rover. There is no disputing the carmaker needs to grow if it is to pose a serious challenge to rivals and simply adding a marque would provide a platform. There is also kudos in the Rover name, a once proud and respected automotive marque that produced classics like the P4, P5 and P6, the SD1 and 75. In a country like China, where there is undoubted fondness for British brands, the Rover name might well have some mileage, something evidenced by SAIC, which now owns MG.
With JLR owning the Rover name it simply launched a Chinese brand called Roewe – in a clear attempt to tap into the Rover’s automotive heritage. Birmingham Post columnist David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at Aston Business School, believes Rover could be revived. He said: “There has been speculation for several years that Tata might revive the Rover brand in some way. Tata has consistently denied this, stating that the Tata brand will be used on its small to medium-sized cars worldwide.
“It’s true the Rover brand in the UK itself would prove difficult to revive due to the memory of the collapse ten years ago, but in Europe and around the world – notably in Asia – the brand still has significant recognition and potential. Recall that [SAIC Group] was reported to have offered several million for the Rover brand. It was hoping to badge cars as Rovers in the Chinese and Asian markets. This could have been a success as the Rover brand still has a degree of recognition and even prestige in those markets.
Professor Bailey added: “Such markets know it for its British heritage and the quality cars it produced throughout much of the 20th century. Tata announced last year that it would be seeking to enter the Chinese market, but has no recognisable brand as such. Reviving the Rover brand for its cars there may make sense for its small and medium-sized cars.
“Note as well that JLR and its partner Chery agreed as part of the joint venture to build cars under a completely new brand in China as well as under Jaguar and Land Rover brands – might that be Rover? Probably not as it’s too close to their Land Rover and Range Rover brands. Tata using the brand is more likely if it happens at all. Will it happen? Tata so far has said no. But never say never – the ‘Rover’s return’ may not be such a bad thing for Tata’s hopes of expansion in Asian markets at least.”
Some feel the Rover brand is too tainted and toxic to be revived, conjuring up images of the bad old days of British Leyland, when strikes seemed to be taking place every other week and quality and reliability were serious issues. Automotive author and historian Martyn Nutland, who wrote a biography of Leonard Lord, the man who built Longbridge into an automotive powerhouse in the early 20th century, thinks a Rover revival unlikely.
Mr Nutland said: “I think the ethos, the charisma attached to these old British makes is history and history that’s growing dimmer. I don’t think any customers today would make any connection between the values that Rover once stood for and a modern vehicle and thus respond in some viable economic way. Look what happened to the Austin brand. It was eventually dropped not only because the ‘Austin’ of BMC and BL infamy was a by-word for poor quality and mediocrity but because it had ceased to have any relevance with the public.
“Mention Austin now and not even the Seven strikes a chord – only the original Mini, if you’re very lucky, stirs some recollection. Similarly, I feel with Rover. I don’t think that last 75, that wasn’t a very popular car anyway, stimulated any connection with the ‘proper’ 75 of the P3 and P4 series.”
Mr Nutland’s view is one shared by Ian Donaldson, Chairman of the Midland Group of Motoring Writers, who said: “Trying to revive a automotive name is nearly always a bad idea. People are either too young to remember the cars – and so have no attachment to them – or old enough to recall when they were, like all older cars even in their heyday, much more unreliable and less fun to drive than a good modern car.
“In the case of Rover, it had once been a name associated with comfortable cars for comfortably off middle class owners but long before its demise the badge was stuck on the rump of a deeply undistinguished collection of forgettable machines. Reviving a brand is also a very expensive business. Mercedes is still licking its wounds after the failure of the Maybach name to make a credible return as a rival for the likes of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Rover is best left as an interesting footnote in the motoring history books.”
A more optimistic note was sounded by author Mike Gould, who believes the Rover name might have been damaged but still has life in it. Mr Gould, whose book – The Rover Group: Company and Cars – is due to be published in May, said: “2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of MG Rover. While now surrounded in acrimony, it must be said that the Phoenix Four did keep the company going for five years but did they damage the Rover brand irreparably in the process.
“Jaguar Land Rover is rapidly approaching a crossroads. While undoubtedly a major British success story, the company is still a minor player in world terms. Should it now consolidate its position as a maker of luxury cars and SUVs or strive for more volume? So, it is conceivable that the Rover brand could be revived to sit on a new crop of smaller cars created to boost JLR’s volumes – and hence its worldwide presence – without damaging the premium positioning of the Jaguar and Land Rover nameplates.
“This would improve JLR’s economies of scale in component supply as well as enhancing the cash flow of the dealer network while providing a cushion if the market for prestige vehicles falls off – which could happen given the economic concerns in some of JLR’s major markets. Other manufacturers have done this of course – Mini is but one example as the model was initially seen as a lead-in to the main BMW brand.
“So, if I was a member of JLR’s executive committee, I would be certainly be blowing the dust of a Rover badge and turning it over in my hand. But, a fair proportion of them are German and/or ex-BMW so memories of ‘The English Patient’ of the 1990s might come flooding back. Even so, it would be nice to see cars bearing the Rover ‘Longship’ logo rolling off the Solihull production lines again.”