Keith Adams tells the story of the Rover 55 or R60 – the 75’s smaller brother, and part of a two-pronged attack on the premium car market for the mid-2000s.
And to show how serious Rover was, we’ve unearthed an image of the long-nosed Rover 200 engineering mules used to test its longitudinal engine layout…
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 (possibly codenamed R60) 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’ power packs would have been longitudinally-mounted, rather like front-wheel-drive 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/A5s are – and, as well as front-wheel drive, it was planned to offer the Rover 55 and 75 in four-wheel drive form, too.
There’s been a lot of chatter over the years about the engineering mules that Rover built to house the longitudinal drivetrains, but the image above is the first solid proof that the engineering package which would have underpinned the Rover 55 actually left the drawing board. Reader Richard Rose recalls driving this very car: ‘I was a student on my engineering placement year at BTR Antivibration in Peterborough. We had made the engine and gearbox mounts for the longitudinal engined prototype in assorted different stiffnesses and I went to Gaydon with our senior engineer to deliver the mounts and have an engineering meeting.
‘After the meeting the Rover engineer offered to show us the long nosed car and he took us out for a short spin in it at the test track. He was benchmarking it against a Honda Rafaga (five-cylinder longitudinal engine) that they had imported specially for the job. He let us both drive the long-nose, very briefly, to get a feel for the level of movement of the engine as you came on and off the throttle. I was totally naive and had no idea if it was any good or not, but it did seem better than the Rover 820 I’d driven to Gaydon in!’
But it’s the styling of the Rover 55, which excites the most. These exclusive images of the full-sized mock-up, 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 car had an unusual proportion, so I guess the different views are difficult to read for some folks. The model rode on 19in wheels, (us designers love big wheels!) compared to the 17in wheels of the 75, and again, added to its proportional novelty. Another example, the chrome rear number plate surround had a pronounced ‘duck tail’ for aero, and again that detail is difficult to read in the shots.
‘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. The 75 in the background was our styling model (not an actual running car) and we shipped both that and the Rover 55 model over to Ragley Hall to have the secret photo shoot.
‘When BMW sold Rover, one of the contractual agreements was that all Rover-related models, images documentation, were to be passed over to the new owners. This was duly done, but Geoff Upex made the decision to hang on to the Rover 55 model (he was very fond of it!) and it remained in our stores here at Gaydon for a very long time. I think it eventually went for disposal around 2005, but certainly before I went off to the US in 2006 for my stint at Ford.’
What became of the project? 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.