Rover Special Products was one busy department during the early 1990s, and proof positive is Project Tarka, a Montego Lifestyle SUV from the MGA design consultancy.
Keith Adams shares previously unpublished photographs of this SUV conversion of the Montego estate from 1990 – considering this was towards the end of the car’s life, this was a brave concept.
Project Tarka: decades ahead of time
By the late-1980s, Rover was doing comparatively well, and wanted to pursue a marketing strategy that maximised all of its existing model lines – which meant developing new variations to plug as many new market niches as possible. Rover Special Products (RSP) had been created to do this on 28 March 1990, and it came under the responsibility of Kevin Morley’s Sales and Marketing Department.
Rover Special Products fell under the joint management of Steve Schlemmer, Richard Hamblin, David Wiseman and John Stephenson, and was inspired by the Swift Team, which created the Land Rover Discovery so effectively in the mid-1980s. For a few short years, RSP was a hot-house within the Rover Group, tasked with bringing additional profit and glamour to the company’s model range without huge financial investment.
It was a fruitful little operation, too, with a number of highly successful (both commercially and dynamically) models, such as the Mini Cooper, MGF, MG RV8, Rover 800 Turbo 16V, and Rover R8 derivatives, such as the Tomcat, Tex and Tracer…
Outsourcing the talent
However, RSP had limited resources and personnel, and it was only with the help of outside design contractors such as Mike Gibbs Associates (MGA), ADC and Roy Axe’s Design Research Associates (DRA) that these vehicles were able to come into production on time and budget. Despite an ageing non-Honda-based core model range, that didn’t stop Rover from attempting to eke more life out of the Metro, Maestro and Montego.
In 1990, RSP contacted MGA to come up with some themes. It was looking to produce ‘lifestyle’ versions of the Maestro, Montego and 800 under the project name Tarka.
Stephen Harper was the Senior Project Designer at RSP under Peter Horbury, and he would be responsible for executing these designs. His experience with the company when he worked there during the 1970s and ’80s, made him the perfect man to work on them.
Modelling the Montego
Possibly the most intriguing of designs was that based on the Montego, which would join the range alongside a Maestro-based SUV (which, arguably, in a convoluted way became the Land Rover Freelander).
With a raised ride height, roof-mounted storage and tailgate mounted spare, Project Tarka had a whiff of soft-roader about it, even if that market really lay dormant (and had done so since the demise of the Matra Rancho). It has parallels with the ADC Scout Metro-based SUV, which was being developed concurrently by ADC in Dunstable.
Given Stephen Harper had been involved in the design process of the original LM11 estate almost a decade earlier, this was a refreshing revisiting of the only good-looking Montego derivative. He’d submitted one styling scheme, although it was John Ashford’s design that was chosen to be taken into production.
Close but no cigar
According to Harper, the Montego Lifestyle SUV went directly from sketch to clay, and was completed in July 1990, when it was handed over to RSP for evaluation. Some work went into trying to productionise it.
Former Rover Engineer, Ian Langrish added: ‘I was thrown on to the Montego Lifestyle Estate, but the sketch I saw was a lifted Estate with the rear glass of the Land Rover Discovery. There were only two of us assigned to it, and I think it only lasted about four weeks. We were assigned to somehow figure out how to wrap that glass into a higher roof which didn’t exist.’
Stephen Harper concluded: ‘That period in early 1990 was incredibly creative, as it was very apparent that RSP was eager to explore how to get as much out of the cars it had as possible. From a Designer’s point of view, it allowed me to work on vehicles I knew intimately, but add some wild twists of fantasy, which ultimately led to us at MGA being given the MG PR3 project.’
In the end, this concept never progressed beyond the clay model stage – but it shows just exactly where Stephen Harper was thinking back in 1990, and just how clever the RSP team was for coming up with ideas such as this. And how, several years later, Harper got the idea to fly at Volvo, with the XC70 (below).
It seems that Britain’s loss was Sweden’s gain.
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