Keith Adams lays out what we know about the ill-fated Rover 35, codenamed R30. It was a mid-sized hatchback developed in tandem with the Rover 75 and MINI, and would have taken the fight to the Volkswagen Golf.
Sadly, it was canned in 2000, when BMW sold the Rover Group to a consortium led by John Towers for £10.
BMW knew that, in order to create a successful Rover for the 21st century following its acquisition of the company in 1994, there needed to be a re-think of the entire model range. A slimming down of model lines was needed – in the guise it inherited, there were too many platforms, and not enough economies of scale.
After much consideration about how to develop Rover, it was decided to continue down the road that was leading the company toward producing premium and very ‘British’ cars, basing it on what was effectively three platforms.
How the three-platform model would work
The first true product of this three-platform thinking to see the light of day was the Rover 75 (R40), launched in 1998. It was an amalgamation of traditional Rover ideals and up-to-the-minute technology, featuring a brand-new platform, BMW’s Z-Axle rear suspension layout and carry-over K-Series engines in lieu of the ‘NG’ (for New Generation) four-cylinder range, due for roll-out in 2002.
The second phase of the plan was the MINI (R50), which we all know about. It also carried the BMW Z-Axle, but eschewed the K-Series engine in favour of a Tritec unit built in conjunction with the once-potential partner for Rover, Chrysler, and sat on a bespoke platform.
The third car in the triumvirate was to be the Rover 35 hatchback and Rover 55 saloon, a pairing, which was codenamed R30. This was the least-developed – and arguably most important – platform of them all, and was subject to much change during its troubled existence.
R30: Two years behind, and playing catch up
Work on the R30 was started in 1996, and the plan was to produce a single model to replace the Rover 200 and 400 ranges, and which would not share any componentry with the HHR or R3. Most importantly, as far as BMW was concerned, it would not share any parts with Honda – and therefore rack up royalty payments like the existing cars.
Styling proposals weren’t limited to the Rover studio in Gaydon. Several third-party design houses were asked to submit ideas (including OMNI Design, below), as well as BMW’s studios in Germany and the USA.
The overall design team was headed up by Richard Woolley in the UK, though. Although the early styling and engineering phases of the car were run in Gaydon, it would subsequently move to Germany. This occurred when the R30 became more advanced, in a move following the see-saw development programme of the R50 MINI.
As the programme played out, the politics within the company – both in the UK and Germany – interrupted its development, and it soon became the focus of a political game of football which involved Bernd Pischetsrieder and the British Government. Ultimately, the programme was frozen in the summer of 1998 as a consequence of this.
A new car and a vastly revamped factory
The R30 could be produced in Longbridge alongside the MINI, but in order to get it into production, Longbridge would need serious investment. BMW costed the R30 project at approximately £2 billion, and asked the British Government for a £200m subsidy… The Government procrastinated but, in the end, it agreed to £152 million loan, phased over five years.
Following this, the subsidy became known as the ‘R30 Subsidy’, and the car became well known in the wider media – something Rover had not experienced in some years. This level of scrutiny, and the agony BMW was facing at home from the financial markets placed the car in a difficult position, even if the project was back on again.
Company Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder wanted the R30 to launch in March 2002, and on 5 February 1999, presented a proposal to the BMW board that he thought was strong enough to see the car – and the company – survive. The R30 and R40 families would be built in various guises in the UK alongside the MINI, with an overall cost to BMW of £1.4bn.
Proposed Rover model range 2003
- MINI hatchback, coupe and convertible
- Rover 35 three- and five-door hatchback
- Rover 55 saloon and coupe
- Rover MPV
- Rover 75 saloon and estate
This was too costly a plan and, in an extraordinary move, Rover’s biggest ally on the BMW board – Pischetsrieder – resigned, leaving the fate of the R30 and its maker hanging in the balance. In reality, the R30 died on that day, although the plan continued even as BMW negotiated its exit from Rover.
- Read also: BMW and Rover – night of the long knives
What was the Rover 35 like under the skin?
Like the MINI, the R30 was engineered not to use the K-Series engine. According to product plans that have come into our possession, as of September 1999, the car was to be powered by a mix of low-power BMW M47 diesels, the Tritec engine shared with the MINI, and – in the larger-engined models – the all-new NG four-cylinder engines, to be built at the new factory at Hams Hall in Birmingham.
As well as the three- and five-door hatchback model, the Rover 35 range would have also included a mid-sized MPV. All the R30 family, including the lovely Rover 55, would sit on platform UKL1 (the 75 sat on UKL2).
The R30 was also to have a Z-Axle at the rear, just like the 75 and MINI, and a meaty central structure. These elements, as well, were allied with, intriguingly, a crash structure designed for an in-line engine. This inline engine idea facilitated structural economies with BMW’s RWD range.
The R30 eventually emerged as a good-looking design, which would have continued the engineering lead that the Rover 75 had established. However, it was not to be – at the time of the sell-off in 2000, the R30 was nearing the final stages of development, getting towards production readiness, although only one running prototype was produced.
What became of the R30?
There have been many subsequent rumours about the fate of the R30 project. Confined to the vaults in the BMW four-cylinder headquarters in Munich, the sole remaining prototype was production ready, and BMW is believed to have tried to sell the project – first to MG Rover in 2001, for an alleged £300m and then to a number of Chinese manufacturers looking for a ‘turn-key’ entrant into the medium sector.
Beyond that, there have been persistent rumours that the RWD BMW 1-Series is closely based upon the R30; certainly from the A-post back. The idea of a small BMW isn’t a new one and, even before the Rover take-over in 1994, BMW engineers had been dreaming up baby cars wearing the propellor badge. However, the Rover ownership complicated matters and the idea was shelved as the company ploughed its resources into Rover.
However, BMW realised the marque was strong enough to head downmarket, and its management concluded that the Rover experiment failed. The emphasis thereafter shifted back towards a baby BMW, as it washed its hands of the UK division. If rumour is to be believed, the 1-Series project used the R30’s body engineering and that it’s exactly the same from the A-post back.