Forgive the long title of this opinion piece, and also radio silence over the past few weeks. AROnline had to take a bit of a back seat in deference to my day job, and one or two ‘interesting’ challenges it posed. The good news is that I’m back, and it’s time to share another missed opportunity story on the back of some recent correspondence I had about CityRovers.
Oh yes, I still have mine, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t having buyer’s remorse. A month or so after collecting my incredibly low-mileage example, I’m now wondering what on earth I’ve done buying a car that I didn’t need, have no real use for and can’t really see me wanting to go anywhere in. Blame it on my new Austin 1300, I guess, which has all the charm, charisma and all of the ability you’d ever want in a car that’s 50 years old.
I think my buying the CityRover is a great example of me wanting to fight the corner of the losing team, while enjoying a great backstory. And, boy, does the CityRover have a brilliant one of those, as it really was a last-gasp missed opportunity for the Phoenix-led MG Rover, which had a bit of a golden goose on its hands. Instead, they chopped off the goose’s head, and didn’t even bother eating the spoils. Fools…
The line on AROnline is that the CityRover was a competent, low-cost car which ended up wearing the wrong badge and price ticket, but it’s worth spelling out what we mean by that – as I’m well aware that this is all becoming ancient history. However, when the deal was done with Tata and MG Rover, the idea was that a Europeanised-version of the Indica would be sold here at a bargain-basement price, possibly as the cheapest new car in the UK.
One executive (who I still shouldn’t name) involved with the product planning for this car (codenamed RD10 in Rover-speak) told me that all planning was based on a £4995 list price. We were still eight years away from a UK launch for Dacia, so that would have positioned the RD10 right at the bottom of the market, taking over from the then recently-departed Perodua Nippa – given that was a much smaller car from a manufacturer no one had heard of, MG Rover could well have cleaned up.
The Tata Indica donor car was a different proposition. Unlike the Nippa, which was a Malaysian reheat of the Daihatsu Mira kei-car, the Indica was a classically-sized, European-style hatchback designed to compete with the Suzuki Swift – or Maruti Swift in its home market. The IDEA-styled hatch hit the market in 1998 and was a game changer for the Indian car industry, as it was the country’s first all-new car.
Tata’s plans to sell in Europe
Ratan Tata was so proud of his car that he wanted to sell it in Europe and, in a roundabout way, that’s how the collaboration with MG Rover kicked off. Although the deal ended up being that MG Rover would sell rebadged Pune-built Indicas with CityRover branding and very little engineering input, there was the opportunity for the two companies to work together to improve the product for both parties.
That’s where long-time Automotive Engineer, Charles Tennant comes into our story. He recalls: ‘I was Chief Engineer for the Discovery 3 concept stage when in 1999 BMW were starting to move their own senior engineers into Land Rover. Around that time, Ratan Tata asked Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) whether he could help sort out the Indica’s teething troubles in India. I’d just finished my Doctorate at WMG so Kumar offered me the job.’
While the work on the Indica, which would eventually see the light as the much-improved Indica V2, continued, a plan was hatched which had the potential to bring Rover and Tata closer together. Charles continues: ‘Work on the Indica V2 was ongoing, and as part of that I commissioned Frank Swanson at Janspeed Engineering to retune the Indica.’ It needed it – because, although the old 1.4-litre engine was okay in its basic form, it was not up to the standards of the opposition in terms of power, refinement or efficiency.
A K-Series CityRover?
Soon it became clear nothing less than a new engine would do, and that’s what led WMG to the doors of Longbridge. Charles adds: ‘It was then we got the idea about fitting a K-Series engine, which we did. We then offered it to MG Rover, and the collaboration with between Longbridge and Tata began.’
The rest, as they say, is history – the deal initially became a badge-engineering exercise, and Kevin Howe famously upped the prices weeks before launch, putting the poor little Indica up against some proper opposition, with disastrous results. In the background, though, MG Rover Engineers had been stationed in Pune and were working closely with Tata on an improved CityRover that ended up being imported into the UK after MG Rover went into administration. If you wanted to buy one of these improved CityRovers new, you’d end up having to go to Motorpoint.
Charles recalls that MG Rover’s management didn’t cover itself in glory back in India. ‘Tata were not impressed with the Phoenix top management, but went ahead with the deal anyway. When the top MG Rover team went to Pune to sign the CityRover deal, they left Tata with a £1k-plus bar bill at the Blue Diamond hotel. They were patronising towards the Tata senior management, who could have run rings round them anyway.’ Fools…
Glorious opportunities missed
And there you have it – a fabulous backstory, and like so many in the history of the firm, a massive missed opportunity. Say what you like about the CityRover we ended up with, it would have been an interesting ‘cheapest car in the UK’, and branded sympathetically, it could have maintained footfall in MG Rover’s darkest hour. But more than that, it could have kickstarted a Joint Venture that might well have secured a much brighter future for MG Rover. One only has to see how far Tata and Jaguar Land Rover have come in the past decade to see just what MG Rover missed out on.
Where does that leave my CityRover? Well, I am having a serious case of buyer’s regret, and am now sizing up its future in my hands. It’s not actually a bad car, and probably a damned sight better than a Perodua Nippa (I really must arrange a twin test), but the clangy doors, cheap and tacky interior, and no-fun dynamics are playing very hard against my softer side. The gearchange is stodgy, the steering slow, and the air-con has packed up. Also, that engine might be reasonably quiet at idle, but it’s coarse and unwilling to rev, and no way is it developing the 85bhp MG Rover claimed for it. Adding insult to final injury, the early signs are the fuel consumption is pretty dreadful.
Still, the good news is that we ended up with a new story, and more possibilities. With a willing K-Series and tighter build quality, along with the V2 engineering changes, the CityRover could well have been a success, and that’s something to think about. But MG Rover was dying, and ended up botching perhaps its last really great opportunity: to form a genuinely-fruitful Tata joint venture. Fools…