The NEC Motorshow in 1998 was a vitally important event for Rover and Jaguar. Both companies launched brand new cars – and, in both cases, they were designed the way they were to re-establish traditional marque values.
Both cars were styled to evoke memories of 1950s and ’60s products, but the question remains: which did it better and was ‘retro’ really the correct way to go?
Coventry vs Birmingham
Retro is an old-hat design theme now, but it’s one seized upon by media types, who like to pigeonhole cars into easily identifiable categories. If you were at the 1998 NEC Motor Show in Birmingham, you would have been there to see the launch of two cars upon which their companies’ respective managements pinned their future hopes, but which were both styled very much with one eye on the past. Retro was back…
The Rover 75 was a vitally important car, because it needed to replace both the 600 and 800 ranges and, in a stroke, re-establish all that was quintessentially ‘Rover’ in a model range, which had become increasingly Japanese in its engineering philosophy. It was also the first car to appear, which had been fully engineered in the BMW era – the styling may have been largely settled before BMW came on board, but the way it drove and the way it was built was very much down to Rover under BMW.
The Jaguar S-Type came about because Ford had ambitions to increase the marque’s production levels drastically – and that involved adding extra model lines to the range. It was the first move in that downward direction – and, taking full advantage of the Ford parts bin available to it, the S-Type was based heavily on the platform of the American market Lincoln LS. As far as Ford believed, the key to Jaguar’s very survival was to allow it to grow and offer a range, which parallelled that offered by BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Why Retro, Rover?
The reason Rover went down this road was to re-establish the very core of ‘Roverness’, which had – management felt – been lost during the SD1 and 800 era. This is, perhaps, a design direction that asserted itself quite strongly during the BMW era, when a misty-eyed Bernd Pischetsrieder ensured his edict that Rovers should exude ‘Englishness’ – which he (and many other Germans) seem to have confused with the ‘Trad-Brit’ wood-and-leather cliché.
Many considered Rover’s glory years to be in the golden age of P4, P5 and P6 production, and it was felt Rover’s new car should hark back to this era. Quality was utmost in Designers’ and Managers’ minds, and it seems Rover’s high watermark in this department was during the P4 era.
Rover’s P4 remains a very able car to drive today, and has a timeless look to it. Richard Woolley took many design cues from it when creating his ‘modern classic’ 75
So, Rover’s brief was clear – make the car look as ‘English’ as possible, but keep a modern package in check with enough features from the ‘P-Series’ to allow any potential customer to form a clear link in their own mind between the two eras – perhaps banishing thoughts of post modern, unreliable heaps such as the SD1 and 800. Of course, this would have been a tough brief to answer, and it is clear that Richard Woolley trod a compromise line between his own ‘600-Series update’ and ‘modern P4’.
Luckily, the basic 75 shape is extremely well considered and, if one can view the car without allowing the chrome detailing to dominate their perception of the car, then its essential ‘rightness’ does come shining through, retro brief or not… Freelance Motoring Writer Mike Duff doesn’t pull his punches on this one: ‘To me, the greatest strength of the MG ZT/ZT-T is that it undoes as much of the 75’s retro pastiche as possible.’
The shape and proportions of the 75, therefore, were ultra-modern at the time of its launch, and yet it managed to look traditional, almost stately. A success, then, on all levels?
According to Richard Bremner, this is absolutely the case. His enthusiasm for the 75 is abundantly clear, even if he feels the retro brief is not in the spirit of previous innovative Rovers: ‘It would be a while before I fully appreciated just how well crafted a design this car is. When I first saw it – at Gaydon – I was a little disappointed. It looked too traditional, too much like the replacement for the 600, and not true to the innovative heart of Rover as was (P4, P5, P6, P9, SD1).
‘I still think that now, but what you notice with time is the exquisite sculpting of its flanks, both along the length of the car, and from window line to sills. Only the Alfa 156 is as well done. The chrome strip was terrific too. And with the possible exception of the headlights, there is no aspect of the exterior that looks wrong.’
However, this is not a universal opinion – even though the 75 is so well sculpted, it’s the retro concept, which many people have difficulty coming to terms with. After all, the P4, P5, P6 and SD1 are all considered great Rovers, and yet none of them were retro themselves and all are still lauded today as being daring and contemporary in their day…
Would they be thought of in such terms had they been designed with one eye on their past?
Jaguar loses courage
The parallels between the Rover 75 and the Jaguar S-Type are numerous. The S-Type was designed at a time when management felt the best design direction for Jaguar was to look at its older products and try to emulate them in the modern idiom. It started with the XJ40 (not so successfully), but blossomed unexpectedly well with the X300 and X308. This success lead to a confidence in the ‘Retro’ school of design within Jaguar, and so its new model would be modelled around the successful Mk2 and S-type models of the 1960s.
Whether this was the right direction or not, one thing was for sure, Jaguar would be compromised by the underpinnings of the car it would be based upon.
Unlike the 75, which was a clean-sheet design, beautifully crafted, the S-Type looked too much like a slab-sided modern car with a vintage front and rear grafted on. Richard Bremner certainly feels it is not as successful design as the Rover: ‘I was disappointed – in fact, shocked – from the start. I also saw this car before the show, and just couldn’t get on with it. I thought the grille unbelievably crude – the sort of thing you’d expect from Korea at that time.
‘Though I had less trouble with the rear, unlike many, the car was nothing to the original Mk2. And that swage line… The shape of the cut itself, rather in its actual arc along the body, was totally at odds with the curves in the rest of the car. It was too slab-sided, which the crude bodycolour rubbing strip of the original did nothing to help. But I did like the rear lamps.’
For us, there is a real feeling of déja vu with the S-Type and, if you look at pictures of the Mitsuka Ryóga, you’ll see where we’re coming from.
Retro: good, bad or ugly?
Above: Rover 75 interior has been well designed and, although some may dislike the ovaloid theme running through it, there’s no doubt there’s real strength in depth here. Quality is on a different level to any other Rover produced since the P6 – it’s actually very solid. For most people under 40 years old, it might look a little too old-school for them – with the parchment coloured instruments particular cause for concern…
Below: Light woods and high-quality leather make this a very pleasant place to sit, but there’s something very ordinary about the design of the dashboard and the style of the instruments. Effective, yes. Desirable, no. Unlike the Rover, which has clear links with many of its predecessors, the S-Type’s interior is neither modern, nor ‘Jaguar-like’
The question remains: has retro been good or bad for both companies? In Jaguar’s case, it has certainly been a factor in its recent downfall. Although the S-Type is a great car, its styling is seen as a real turn off to many younger buyers, and as Mercedes-Benz and Audi will tell you, getting the look right is important in maintaining a presence. They must be hoping BMW’s ‘Bangle Jangle’ proves to be an unsuccessful leap into the unknown…
Getting back to retro, it is most definitely more difficult than many people imagine, because to balance the consideration of modern aerodynamics and packaging constraints with a look meant to evoke the style of a bygone era must be very difficult for any designer.
It’s a double-edged sword, in fact, as The Grand Tour and Sniff Petrol‘s Richard Porter explains: ‘As a strategy, retro is never having to think too hard about the future. But to actually design a retro car is, I bet, a right old bugger because you’ve got to keep looking over your shoulder to remember that you’re working under the influence of something else. In that respect, I’d wager it takes longer than being original, like caricaturing a famous person instead of doodling a stick man.
‘Retro is never just a photocopier job – not even the Ford GT – so it’s probably rather harder then we give credit for. Does it work? Well, people fear the new don’t they. Heartbeat gets a far bigger audience than, say, Chris Morris’s Jam because it’s a cosy canter through the past rather than an uncomfortable convention breaker. So the real laziness of retro comes from the buying public not facing up to the future, rather than design process, which I’m sure is a protracted process of endless playing around with suitably nostalgic chrome fillet.’
So, used properly, retro can be an effective way of maintaining customers and, let’s face it – we’re all part of an ageing population. Having said that, the strategy doesn’t move the game on at all, and as a long game, retro is always going to be a no-no, because its like not calling your mother – the longer you leave it, the harder it gets to change your ways…
Motoring journalist Mike Duff’s certainly has no doubts on that score: ‘Both the S-Type and the R75 have had their long-term cases severely damaged by retro styling, which must have seemed like such a good idea at the time. Both the S-Type and the 75 were harking past to an idealised past that never really existed. As Ian Callum (who had nothing to do with the design of the S-Type) has since pointed out, Jaguar was a company with forward-looking design until the early 1980s when the defence mechanism of ‘make it like the old one’ gave us the XJ40.
‘Rover, too, was smart and contemporary in the age of the P6, SD1 and even – if you scrunch up your eyes hard enough – the 800. Both of these cars were profoundly reactionary, something it quickly transpired that punters didn’t want (especially the tens of thousands of Germans that Rover confidently predicted were waiting eagerly for the Olde Worlde charms of the R75 – and who weren’t) and, although they drove well by the standards of the segment they were launched into, the magic faded very quickly.’
Which does it better?
If you treat this as a direct comparison, the 3.0-litre Jaguar S-Type we drove annihilates the 2.0-litre CDT-powered Rover in terms of performance and ride quality. In other areas, the Rover runs it surprisingly close and, in some – notably interior build quality and high speed body control, it actually eclipses the ‘Big Cat’. (Bear in mind this was a pre-facelift S-Type – chassis composure is vastly improved on the current model).
However, this article is about design – and it’s here the Rover and Jaguar are most closely matched.
Whether you rate retro or not, the answer to the question of which is the better retro-car is surprisingly simple. The Rover wins it easily, because it is a much more cohesive design, and one which works whether it is bejewelled with chrome or not. We suspect the Jaguar, bereft of its retro detailing, could pass for just about any car, whereas you can’t mistake the Rover. It oozes class, something the Jaguar sadly lacks…
Thanks to Claire Smith for the loan of her Jaguar S-Type
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.