Concepts and Prototypes : Project Tarka (1990)

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Keith Adams shares previously unpublished photographs of this SUV conversion of the Montego estate from 1990 – considering this was towards the end of the car’s life, this was a brave concept.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

Montego Lifestyle estate
Project Tarka: Montego Lifestyle estate

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 RV8Rover 800 Turbo 16V, and Rover R8 derivatives, such as the Tomcat, Tex and Tracer…

Outsourcing the talent

Montego Lifestyle estate
Montego Lifestyle estate

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.

Montego Lifestyle estate

Montego Lifestyle estate

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.


Keith Adams


  1. Why oh why didnt they make this. Its a great idea. Permanantly fitted (perfectly aerodynamic) roof box, spare wheel that doesnt require the whole car to be unloaded and isnt covered in road crud & soaking wet.

    But the worst part? imagine a 4×4 version of this with the Diesel engine that they put in the Countryman estates. Or a 4×4 with that nice 2.O litre Turbo from the Tickford models…

    Some of the missed opportunities almost make you cry, its even worse when you consider that they managed so much with the R8.

  2. Personally I think this is an answer in search of a question- it smacks of desperation and begs comparison to the epically dreadful Matra Rancho, which at least had bespoke rear bodywork (albeit based apparently on the Simca 1100-based pickup).

    I don’t think that roof box is very aerodynamic either. This would be another bad joke like the Rover Streetwise.

  3. Also, looks like the spare wheel folds downwards, meaning that it is going to get in your way when loading the boot. And why put tiny little loading hatches into the roofbox- what possible use is that in the real world for carrying luggage- the only items you can carry in there are sized so that they can be posted through the openings- and they are going to rattle round in there and make a terrible din.

  4. Ford (or rather their Ghia styling studio) came up with a similar idea in 1990, based upon the new Escort estate. They actually built it too, and I have to say that I think it’s a far better thought out vehicle than the Montego above. It even had a built in awning!

    Pictures below (if I load them properly…)

  5. Is it true the Freelander was actually based on the Maestro platform? It’s something I’ve investigated for a good while now but haven’t been able to find a definitive answer on.

    • I think the suspension was based on the Maestro/Montego design as it was cheaper and more space efficient than the Honda-based designs used elsewhere (they did the same with the R3 200-Series) but I have never heard of it being the same chassis, I am sure Land Rover would have kept quiet if it was the case though given the image of Austin models at the time.

  6. @6 Jeff,

    The development mule for the Freelander was based on the Maestro van, but that may have been a decoy.

    I’ve never been taken by the styling of the first Freelander- too much bumper and too little style- ironically the current Ewok is ‘over-bumpered’ but somehow gets away with it. Poodle-permed Freelander designer Gerry McGovern made play of the exposed screw heads in the rear lights being somehow emblematic- as if genuine offroaders enjoyed scraping mud out of their rear light fixing screws- not good to draw attention to cost saving aspects of one’s design, unless gifted with an extraordinary winning pitch.

    • No Decoy. At the time Chassis Development based at Longbridge carried out work for both Cars and 4×4 products. We had Maestro vans running as mules for the Odin project (Freelander). It may be of interest that MGF mules were Metro Vans initially.

      • Happy days then Pete!
        I actually recall sitting around and promoting the idea of a Montego lifestyle vehicle after seeing all the weekend warrior ways the Management estate cars were being used to pursue sports and hobbies.

    • not this no, but a Chinese company called Yema which owned the Maestro tooling made a reskinned Forester-esque SUV up until 2017. it shows how far the Chinese industry has gone in a short space of time that a reskinned Maestro was still acceptable not that long ago and now they’re moving ahead of the rest of world in some respects

  7. @8

    I was never a fan of the original Freelander either; it always seemed overstyled to me – Land Rover logo moulded into the rear brake light, exposed screw heads on the rear lights, body colour fake sump guard that didn’t even reach to the bottom of the engine – come on! Plus it had a horrid interior with green switches. Not to mention the 1.8 K series, where head gasket replacement was needed as frequently as oil changes in some cases. Hill Descent Control was a clever addition though, although nothing that an experienced off road driver couldn’t emulate themselves with cadence braking.

    I much preferred the contemporary CR-V. Okay, I’m biased as I’ve got one of the very last 2002 mark 1 models, but it just works so well. There’s useful features like a boot floor that becomes a picnic table (been used loads of time at barbeques etc), cup holders and interior tables galore well before they were fashionable, a 150bhp 2.0 engine that’ll return 29mpg all day long and runs forever, and a clever rear split tailgate arrangement meaning that you can open the top section even if you’re hard up against a wall – and as it’s a tailgate there’s nothing to fail. Plus, the most important thing is that nothing goes wrong with them. All they ask is regular servicing and they’ll run forever.

    Contrast that to the head gasket woes of the Freelander, along with the massive list of problems they had at the start of production (rear viscous couplings failing, interiors misting up due to carpets being fitted over the vents, electrical problems, the drop down rear window staying down etc.) Not that any of this mattered one iota, as they sold by the bucketload when compared to the CR-V. Image counts for a lot. However, you now see far more CR-Vs about than Freelanders. Funny that.

    The real leap forward Land Rover in my opinion was the Discovery. It also had its faults, but people kept returning to them and it’s easy to see why – nothing really has that same classless image where the driver could be a farm hand or the lord of the manor. Plus it was in no way a clean sheet design, loads of bits were dictated by it using the Range Rover as a base, yet its styling was just so right, especially when facelifted in 1995. Even though I know that getting one will mean needing to upgrade my breakdown cover and probable financial ruin, my heart still wants a Discovery, when my head tells me that a Shogun would be the right car to buy!

  8. It’s ugly and of doubtful appeal to buyers.

    Somewhere in my attic is a Car magazine from the early 90’s with a front cover feature on proposed new Rover models. This includes a four wheel drive estate car code named Pathfinder. I think this was supposed to be based on the 600 and not Montego. I must get the steps out.

  9. Given the Montego Estate had appeal long beyond that of the saloon and Maestro this could have been a great success.

    A four wheel drive version would most likely have been a no, no on financial grounds. However, raised ride height, tailgate spare, roof storage etc could have been a low cost , profitable niche model. Whatever you think of the above sketch, I’m sure a production version would have been really attractive.

  10. I disagree with some of the comments about the Freelander.

    Yes, Mk1 had poor reliability, but for a Rover group product to be the best seller in its class in Europe is something, as what it had was desirability…

    I don’t know why Freelander was built at Solihull, surely such a volume product should have been built at a ‘car’ factory such as Longbridge, even if was badged and developed as a Land Rover. Ford got it right by building its replacement at Halewood.

  11. @ Simon Hodgetts:

    You are correct, Pathfinder did form the basis of what later transended into CB40, the Freelander, which was based on an all-new platform.

    There are some interesting comments on here about this Montego-based concept although for me there was an bigger loss than the non-progression of this model – the eventual demise of Rover Special Projects (RSP)itself. Sadly this operation ceased shortly after BMW acquired the Rover Group. A real shame as it could have led to some very interesting projects based on R3 200 and possibly the HHR 400 Series and MGF, with showroom potential. The appeal of RSP was almost certainly needed during the MG Rover Group era, particularly for the Rover marque.

    Then again, as my own personal experience found in this latter era, there was no interest by senior management to create low volume, specialist derivatives or variants to enrich the Rover brand.

    A very sad loss, RIP RSP.

  12. @13 There’s no doubt that the Monty estate was the more desirable and better resolved of the M models (Metro excepted). It won a Design Council award in ’85/’86, and was partly engineered by IAD. It was still a desirable car in the mid 90s.

  13. Someone I used work with had a Monetgo estate diesel & was impressed with how well it performed, even though it was bigger than any other had owned at the time.

  14. I agree with @9, the Chinese Forester clone using the Maestro base is something of a spiritual rendering of this.

    Extra plastic cladding on the bootlid may have hid the rust (as they used on the mk1 Corsa and Ka…).

    In a way it pre-dates the current SUV/”crossover” craze.

    That Escort btw, as much as I detested running a mk5 Escort based Orion, that grille looks so much better than the 92 oval grille facelift, looks almost new-edge. (I was half tempted to put a Cossie-style grille on the Orion to give it some character, but then decided against it on the grounds of looking tacky/boy racerish).

  15. Like many design sketches from Rover, this looks like another nice “might have been” vehicle. I dont care too much for the spare wheel on tailgate mounting but I can see it may have appealed in a niche market.

    I do like the full color coding and white coated alloys.

  16. @ David 3500

    Somewhere around Pathfinder/ before CB40 (Freelander 1) there was Oden – I vaguely remember seeing an internal clinic prototype which looked like a tall MPV (not dissimilar to the Nissan Serena) with hints of Astra Estate side windows and a curious nose reminiscent of a Morris Minor.

    Some of the body engineering for CB40 came out of Cowley but logically it became a Solihull project.

    I suspect RSP was a victim of BMW politics – mainstream people playing power politics and wanting a bit of the action but not knowing how to handle it efficiently. RSP was a sister of LRSV – doing things quickly with its own supplier base/flexible processes and possibly annoying jealous mainstream people hidebound by their own cumbersome policies and procedures who couldn’t stand seeing a skunk works having fun producing good niche vehicles. They could have become the equivalent of BMW’s M division. (At one stage they were also doing some radical design concepts based on classic Minis.)

  17. @ Keith Adams & Chris C:

    Thanks for reminding of this, I had forgotten about Oden.

    Thanks also for your comments about RSP, Chris. As you imply it was certainly a division that with continued support (and funds) could have gone on to produce a few more additional niche market vehicles, to give its rivals some food for thought.

  18. whats really interesting about the Monty concept is what I assume to be some sort of plastic addition that makes the scallop into a bulge. Takes quite a bit of staring to work out whats different…… but check out the detail when scallop /bulge meets front wheel arch.


  19. @Chris Baglin
    Don’t slate the Talbot Rancho- crude and only 2WD, with a tappety Simca engine, but they filled a gap in the market, sold well and made some desperately needed profit for a beleaguered PSA.
    Rover would have done very well exploiting a new and novel area of growth in the ’80s, especially in Europe (the Americans had been producing crossover vehicles for ever) Rover already had the Land/Rangerover image and was attempting to move up market with its road cars. Volvo 145 express comes to mind, improving on an already exceptional and timeless car- if only Rover had done it!

    • Rather like the Sunbeam Lotus, the Rancho did something rare for a Talbot 40 years ago, it made the brand desirable and made some much needed money. Yes we all know it was a Simca 1100 on steroids and used the 1442cc Alpine engine, but the Rancho looked seriously cool and when fitted with spotlights looked like a real off roader.

  20. I think Steve would confirm that he wasn’t the designer of the production Montego Estate, I was.

  21. Stephen Harper was right to bide his time. I doubt what worked so well on a Volvo V70 in 1997 would have worked as well on a Montego in 1990.

  22. Further to my previous response re. Montego Estate. Steve Harper and myself did a proposal each. Steve’s was more of a fastback and mine had the more vertical back which became the preferred option for production.

    I wanted to distance the estate from the Maestro hatch to give more capacity and make it obviously different. Although it looks larger than the Montego saloon, it is actually the same length.

    I was keen to provide a level floor into the boot area to make an easy load platform and, from my point of view as a keen walker, possible to sit there comfortably, with the tailgate raised, to change from boots to shoes without muddying the interior. This requirement dictated the central drop line of the rear bumper.

  23. Back when I was in Rover , Cowley , 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 2 of us assigned to it and I think it only lasted about 4 weeks. We were assigned to somehow figure out how to wrap that glass into a higher roof which didn’t exist. Wish i has a copy of that picture . . .

      • I remember when I was working in PAD department at cowley service hq, we had to test and evaluate a montego with a k series 1.6 engine fitted. It drove superbly and we all agreed it should be fitted on future models. Sadly it never made it….

      • Sorry , just seen this article again. When we were given the sketches for this vehicle , as I had said before , the roof was to be raised and in that roof were to be sky lights , like the Land Rover Discovery. I never saw a sketch with roof boxes as such. That’s news to me.

        It’s been a long time , but seem to collect CB40 was also worked on at Cowley where I worked too.
        That Engineering building has long been demolished…

        Was fun working at Cowley. We all had to drive to Hawtal Whiting in Leamington Spa for the MG-F project as Rover decided that didn’t want contractors on site as the project was split between Rover and Hawtal’s. They were originally driving to us , but oh , well. We got travel expenses and fuel allowance … fun times. That lasted 6 months.

        Then got shoved up to Land Rover for P38A. Again Fuel and Overtime expenses were great !

  24. We all maybe overuse the term “missed opportunity” but with this one I think it’s real. Absolute tragedy this wasn’t built. An updated version of this IMHO could have been the car that saved Rover as late as 2003.

    I’m thinking Rover 75 estate based answer to the XC70, for minimal investment. Volvo sells 70,000 of them a year in Europe!

  25. The Montego Lifestyle SUV would have been interesting and a fascinating development had it gone past concept and into true production but at the same time given Rover’s quality control and haphazard workmanship i.e. the dashboards that warped in hot sunshine fitted to the 800 series, would have been a partial disaster. I wouldn’t produce this unless quality was very good, something the Japanese Rover-Honda models or Ronda’s as I affectionately like to call them, improved in interior and exterior design which they didn’t manage. Better this stayed a concept than a failed flop that trashed Rover’s reputations.

  26. The Montego estate was much better looking than the saloon, but by 1990 it was getting on a bit and was hardly desirable in the way that the likes of the V70 and Audi A6 were when they got their “lifestyle” versions. Both of those were 4WD as well.

    • The Montego estate in BRG looked quite stylish and the quality issues had been beaten by 1990. Also the car now had a turbodiesel option and sales of the estate were rising, proving there was some life left in the Montego. Yet I don’t think a lifestyle version would have sold in big enough numbers to justify the cost, and standard estate was a good enough load carrier.

  27. I think I’ve seen the the green and yellow/gold colour scheme somewhere before…

    Freelander 1 bodykit promo pics, perhaps?

  28. If it had been launched in 1985 alongside the original Monty, it might have had a chance. But the Montego name got tainted with the whole BL/ARG reliability–and–quality thing, so who would have bought it when there was the likes of the 2.9 Sierra XR4x4 Estate available?

    [they were the go-to transport for vets, valuers, land-agents, agronomists and pony-club types back then; likewise the Police used a bunch of them as Motorway-patrol cars along the South-Western M5 and M6 across Lancashire where you’d regularly encounter snow/ice on higher ground]

    I could see a 2.0i Montego ‘lifestyle’ version being a successor for the Matra Ranchero: cheap and cheerful, with rural-family-hoseable-clean plastic trim – but spare us the bunch-of-skeletons-screwing-in-a-dustbin rattler of the Diesel! The only people who’d have bought that would have been running it on heating-oil or red-diesel as a tax-dodge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.