Keith Adams tells the story of the Rover 55 – the 75’s smaller brother, and part of a two-pronged attack on the premium car market for the mid-2000s.
Rover 55: the new-age midliner
The Rover 45 was one of the longest-lived stop-gap cars produced in a very long time. We all think of the Morris Marina as a car that outlived its usefulness by many, many years (1971-1984, if one considers the Ital a Marina), but the Rover 45 equals that achievement when one considers that the Honda Domani was launched in 1992 and the final 45 rolled out of Longbridge in 2005.
Thanks, of course, to its sophisticated suspension set-up, the 45/ZS was actually a pretty accomplished steer – but, in truth, it wasn’t designed to last much longer than 2000. That’s where the Rover 55 comes in.
Back in the late 1990s, Rover engineers and designers were already hard at work on creating an all-new replacement. The initial plan had been for Rover to become a premium brand, with a two-model attack on the upper-medium segment. That would have meant the introduction of the Rover 55 in 2002, followed by an all-new 75 in 2004/2005.
Rover 55: Underpinned by BMW-engineered plans
Both cars were to be powered by the much talked about BMW NG engines in four- and six-cylinder form. Most intriguingly, the front-wheel-drive cars’ powerpacks would have been longitudinally-mounted, rather like FWD Audis.
Belying their Bernd Pischetsrieder-era conception, the engines in the 55 and 75 would have been mounted rather a long way back in the chassis – just as the current Audi A4/A5’s are – and, as well as FWD, it was planned to offer the Rover 55 and 75 in 4WD form, too.
These exclusive images, supplied by Nigel Garton, clearly show that the 45’s replacement was due to grow. That was also going to be the case for the next Rover 75. This was part of a new two-model strategy that would see Rover producing what one designer referred to as a pairing of BMW 3+ and 5+ Series models.
What its designer thought of the Rover 55
When we showed these images to Richard Woolley, the car’s stylist, he said: ‘Yes, I think it was shaping up well. Considering it went from sketch to clay to model in one shot, I think it still looks pretty good nearly 13 years on. But, of course, I may be a bit biased!’
He added: ‘The car sat on a long wheelbase (c.2800mm), giving maximum rear accommodation, but with an overall length less than R75, the North South installation enabled a much shorter front overhang. The clay model was completed in Gaydon, spring of 1997, and the composite model build was contracted out to Futura in Birmingham with completion that summer.’
What came of this car? Well, in late 1999, the dual model policy was cancelled, with the Rover 35 (R30) programme taking over when BMW decided it was a better idea to take Rover downmarket instead.