If MG Rover was to survive in any way beyond early 2005, it needed a car that could not only compete in the bustling compact medium sector against such talented adversaries as the VW Golf and Ford Focus, but also compete profitably. That meant three key things – 1) it needed to be good, 2) it needed external investment and 3) it needed to be cheap to develop.
The third point was largely addressed by using a truncated version of the FWD Rover 75 platform. When the RDX60 prototype was discovered within Longbridge in 2006, some said its looks were ungainly, though in terms of modern car styling it was ahead of its time in some respects, particularly its intersecting glass area towards the rear.
The top-secret prototype once formed the centrepiece of MG Rover’s plans – it was both a great white hope and a great white elephant.
Based on the 75, which had been in production since 1999, it was co-developed with TWR, the engineering company headed up by the late Tom Walkinshaw. The prototype used a 75 dash and interior, much of which would have been changed for launch – indeed, styling bucks existed showing a more linear, edgy style of dash, not unlike that of the contemporary Vauxhall Astra.
Although the RDX60 was much shorter than the 75, its wheelbase remained identical. This meant MG Rover could keep much of the older car’s floorpan, reducing costs, though it did mean that in styling terms there was a need for a long nose and a wide track.
The suspension was changed, with BMW’s Z-axle dropped in favour of a simple beam axle, while power was to come from uprated versions of the K-Series, or a revised L-Series diesel with Siemens commonrail injection.
Originally, the car was scheduled for launch in 2004. But the money ran out, not just for MG Rover Group, but also for TWR, which went bankrupt.
TWR worked with Longbridge from 2002 and was pushing hard to get the car into production. Many traditional prototype stages were completed in virtual reality, which kept costs down and led to MG Rover boastfully talking about its advanced design technology.
It was enough for MG Rover to confidently tell its suppliers that the new car would be on sale in early 2004, but when TWR went into administration in early 2003, the project data was withheld from MGR for at least six months and the project delays began. This was to become a massive, possibly fatal, setback.
MG Rover desperately needed a partner to help finance the car. It’s alleged that MGR had had discussions with both Proton and Fiat to produce Rover models in the same vein as the Honda partnership as an alternative and, had they not stuck with RDX60, there’s every possibility that Rover’s eventual saviour could have come in the form of the Fiat Stilo – a car that never gained much traction in the UK market.
MGR eventually found a willing partner in the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) in 2004. The parties planned to form a joint venture, with production of the new car and the 75 in Longbridge and China. But the Chinese demanded changes to the RDX60’s styling.
Styling lead Peter Stevens was reportedly quite happy about this. MGR boss Kevin Howe had insisted on many elements of styling early on in the car’s development which Stevens was supposedly nonplussed about, so the Design Team hastily worked up some new styling themes and presented them to SAIC in March 2005. Engineering wise, the car remained unchanged.
But as we all know, it was too little, too late. Contract deadlines were missed, bridging loans ran out and, in the end, SAIC saw they could get much better value by letting MG Rover Group go to the wall and mop up the remains afterwards.
In reality, though, would the newcomer have been enough? Despite its existence, there were no other cars in the pipeline. The 25 was positively ancient, and the 75, albeit an excellent car, was already reaching the end of a usual car’s model cycle. More money, more investment and accelerated design and engineering were needed, or if not a new ‘badge-engineering’ partner, and while the efforts of the Designers and Engineers to keep hope alive at Longbridge were more than honourable, in the cold, hard light of day it’s difficult to think that a one model strategy was ever going to be enough to save the company.
And in my view, SAIC knew that too, which is why those contracts were never signed.
The RDX60, then, may well have made it had TWR not hit financial strife, but when that happened it was likely that the game was already over. Early 2004 might have been enough for Rover to find a willing investor, but they were 12 months too late, leaving the RDX60 as nothing but a tragic footnote in the company’s history…
- Now read the full story of the RDX60’s development, from concept to dealer conference.