Opinion : CityRover – why it was a bigger missed opportunity than even we thought…

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…

Keith Adams

26 Comments

  1. Welcome back Keith. I think this just some up the incompetence of the Phoenix brigade. The updated version launched in India was reportedly a better all round car. If it had been launched with the K series, and priced right it may have given the company a bit more time but I think it would still have failed, as it needed serious investment.

  2. The Perodua Nippa wasn’t that bad at all Daihatsu saw to that,it was what it was light peppy and unlike the CityRover priced to sell. If Perodua had had a decent importer & distribution network it might have been a different story, the cars that the company made were quite good,it’s a pity that both Daihatsu & Perodua have exited the UK market.

  3. Another Kevin Howe cock up then? – I remember in the late 90s, early 2000’s the British corporate world seemed to be full of incompetent, immoral, egotistical psychopathic bullies like him that ran their businesses into the ground and just didnt care – Fred the shred anyone? Thankfully that style of leadership seems to largely be in the past – Unless your in Boris Johnsons cabinet I guess.

    • It is not in the past, private equity is asset stripping the British economy on an industrial scale and our corrupt politicians allow it to happen.

      Given a choice between doing their duty to the country and the chance to get bribe donations, bribe second jobs and bribe retirement jobs. British politicians take the bribes.

      We pride ourselves on being a clean country that is free of corruption. In reality we have simply legalised corruption and the weakage of the British economy is the result.

  4. The car should have been sold as a TATA, maybe through MG Rover dealers in the same way Dacias are sold alongside Renaults, with the price kept to £ 5000, not as a Rover with a much higher price tag and higher expectations. The City Rover/ Indica was a passable budget car and would have appealed to people who bought cars like Suzuki Altos, also made in India. Badging such a cheap car as a Rover and adding £ 2000 to the price tag was probably another reason Rover went under.

  5. Could it have potentially led to an eventual Tata takeover and rehabilitation of MG Rover (as well as a unification of the former with JLR) in the right circumstances?

    It sort of brings to mind a similar theme mentioned in the 2015 “Essay : Is the world ready for the Rover’s return?”

    The K-Series CityRover especially one with V2 engineering changes is an interesting idea, the car would have benefited from more MG Rover input then it did though not sure if it would have been quite enough to turn things around as a direct replacement for the Rover 100. It is interesting to note the latter was withdrawn in the same year the Tata Indica was introduced.

    • Looking at what Tata had going on at the time, perhaps a collaboration with/takeover of MG Rover by Tata would have also allowed the Indica-based 2000 Tata Aria roadster and 2001 Tata Aria coupe concepts to play some role during the later 2003-2005 MG X120 project?

  6. I saw the City Rover as an attempt to increase the MGR product range on the cheap, while the R25 & 45 were ageing designs (despite the success of ZR & ZS). As we associated Rover’s as more upmarket and MG sporty cars, the City Rover didn’t fit that slot but was still overpriced for what it was.

    I do recall seeing a City Rover in a dealer’s – heavily discounted

  7. If you think a City Rover is cheap and nasty, look at an Indica – Rover did improve it with the grille, lowered suspension, etc. It was indeed overpriced; should have been sold as a Rover or Austin Metro.

  8. An interesting article, thanks. It saddens me to think that we could have missed a TATA partnership with MGR, perhaps building towards what we have with JLR. The way that JLR has been overseen by TATA had the potential to strengthen MGR in a way that SAIC couldn’t understand by just slapping MG badges on their designs (excluding the original MGR designed 6).

    I also firmly believe that MGR would have needed to embrace the customer demands of SUVs, electrification etc, but I am convinced the resulting products under TATA would have enjoyed more charisma than that provided by SAIC ownership.

    TATA has shown JLR respect which, for me, is in total contrast to SAIC, no matter how they trump up the MG heritage angle on the MG website.

  9. The Tata Indica itself was a tough, honest small car designed and made in India (with design input from I.DE.A of Italy) from 1998 for the India market – which back then was still heavily populated with Hindustan Ambassadors (read 1950s Morris Oxfords). I remember riding in the ultra-basic Indicab taxi variant when visiting India in 2008, and believe me those cars were made to work hard in arduous conditions. They will have been more than tough enough for UK motoring conditions.
    The CityRover variant is not unattractive, the front end Rover revisions look smart and on paper the spec looked attractive enough as a Metro / Rover 100 replacement. The commercial failure in UK was because Rover wanted too much money for them at launch in 1993 and most of the public saw through that, but the point is probably moot because by that time Rover was already running out of road.

    • @ Rusty Brown Austin, the Suzuki Alto was a perfectly acceptable city car made in India that used a Japanese drivetrain, but was assembled in India to keep the price down. Cheaply made, with some cost cutting like rear windows that opened on a latch rather than wound down and plenty of cheap plastic inside, but the Alto proved to be a competent enough small car for under £ 6000 . Also having to deal with the extreme heat of India, terrible roads and unsympathetic drivers meant the cat had to be reliable.

  10. The story about the bar bill is pretty telling/symptomatic. I have heard stories that Rover management ignored comments from Rover engineers in India about what needed doing, eg gearchange. The ex-Peugeot engine was always a bit of a liability with its mpg, etc, and fitting the K series was obvious. The Mark 2 version was better but the black interior was IMO a backwards step. It should have been sold as an Austin and possibly the range extended to include the estate version. It would be interesting to compare an Indica with a Fiat Palio – the basic design was competitive but the execution/parts quality was not upto scratch..Tata never seems to have much success with its cars (especially the Nano!) and the current range seems uninspired – if Tata had taken the place of Nanjing/SAIC and used Rover’s design and engineering resources more then the situation today could have been a lot different.

  11. It’s hard to see how the CityRover fitted in with MGR’s upmarket aspirations. Maybe it should have been sold at £5,000 as the Morris Minor..?

  12. I will never forget the shambolic press launch of the CityRover – not shambolic because of the work behind the scenes of the hard-working PR team, as ever trying to hold it all together, but because the person supposed to actually launch it (who shall remain nameless) was late to the podium. Whilst all the attended press in the rapt audience were patiently seated, having come from all four points of the compass. After the eventual fine words, I wandered up to look at the cars on the stage and sitting inside couldn’t help noticing the sticky glue residues on the door rubbers and some cheap and nasty trim but also – fixtures notwithstanding – the very good paint finish. An MG Rover person from the production side told me proudly ‘the same factory that paints these used to paint Mercedes in India – it’s that good’… which made me think of the line ‘never mind the contents, look at the tin’…

  13. I remember trekking to the Longbridge showroom to have a look at this when first launched, after reading all the positive things that we going to be done to it before arrival on these shores in Autocar magazine. Oh dear. Even the sales people weren’t interested in tryng to flog it to me, and I could see why. As you say, if they’d priced it cheaply and not called it a Rover (I can hear Maurice Wilks spinning in his grave at the thought) then it would have found more homes.

  14. It is worth remembering that India is still a developing country with much lower levels of income and living standards than we have in UK. Average wage in India is currently around £3,900 per year – a bus driver might earn around £3,000 and a bank manager around £8,000. The modern equivalent of the Tata Indica/CityRover would be something like the Tata Altroz which starts at around £5,800 in India. So new car ownership is definitely still something for higher earners.
    Average wage in UK is currently £29,500 and the cheapest car (Dacia Sandero) starts at £7,200. Many Indian workers still travel to work by foot, bicycle, motorcycle or public transport (a bit like UK workers did in the fifties). The company I deal with there (makes scientific equipment for India and export) has a staff car park but the only cars you see in it belong to the directors or the most senior managers.
    To take the Indica, a car designed in and specifically for India, do a minimal makeover on it and try to sell it in UK at a premium price was always going to be ‘somewhat ambitious’ (I’m being polite here). Perhaps Keith is right and a bigger opportunity was missed but I guess now we’ll never know.

  15. The phoenix lot were a disgrace, too typical of what is happening in this country. Invested f**k all and walked away with a fortune. They should have spent every penny they got from BMW on new models, instead car production was a sticking plaster that was kept going on the cheap. To buy time for the profitable parts of the company to be hived off.

    Summed up by the terrible City Rover, a poorly engineered outdated car that had no place being sold to British customers, let alone at the joke prices that MG Rover tried to charge.

  16. I know there used to be a perception amomgst certain factions of the AR community that a certain damning review on the early reincarnation of Top Gear was the nail in the coffin of the car when an alternative view was that it was a truly dreadful prospect cynically marketed to people whom it was assumed knew no better?

    • Is it correct that AR would not lend a Cityrover to Topgear? So TG had Mr May was miked and wired up and sent to a dealer for a surreptitious undercover test drive of the Cityrover.

  17. This car wasn’t the sort of car to have a Rover badge, which even in Rover’s last days still meant something upmarket, and even the cheapest 25 looked desirable inside and out. The City Rover sadly was a car that looked like a nineties Hyundai, was cheaply made, noisy, not very economical and £ 2000 above what it was worth. Also being made in India counted against it being a true Rover. Badged as a TATA and being sold alongside Rovers at a rock bottom price might have swung over some buyers and possibly, as has been pointed out here, started a relationshio with TATA that could have saved Rover. As Lada proved two decades earlier, there is always a market for people, particularly older buyers, who need a car simply to get from A to B and is new.

  18. Importing budget Indian superminis makes no difference to the problem of MGR’s ancient product lineup, and contributes nothing to covering the overheads of the sprawling Longbridge site.

    And it hardly helps the “buy British” selling point either.

    • @maestrowoff, it was a sign of desperation, same as Project Drive cheapened the range of cars and spoiled one of their selling points, the upmarket interior. It might sound harsh, but I think only the 75 and Cowley were worth saving and the rest of Rover should have gone in 2000.

  19. I think it could have worked if they’d called it an Austin Macro (I think BMW owns the Metro name), priced it from 4k and adopted a self deprecating humour in the advertising. New Austin Macro – it’s as British as Curry.

  20. The exact point at which Fat Kev sealed MGRover’s fate.
    I remember having ones as a courtesy car and realising how overpriced they were and would never sell with that build quality.
    Rover’s reputation for quality, built up over 100 years, straight down the drain.

  21. You’d think at least one the ‘four’ knowing their name is constantly slagged off on this and other sites, would want to fight back wouldn’t you? Or perhaps they weren’t doing their best after all and have got so much money they don’t give a flying fish!
    Oh dear. I don’t know the fellows and I’ve been terribly harsh. Perhaps someone who was actually involved in 2005 could set us right?

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