MGR@10 Month : Would the RDX60 have ever been enough to save MG Rover Group?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

Great white hope, or white elephant?
Great white hope, or white elephant?

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.

Rear three-quarter view shows proposed rear window line - a theme prevalent on many cars of today
Rear three-quarter view shows proposed rear window line – a theme prevalent on many cars of today

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.

TWR boss Tom Walkinshaw, who died in 2010
TWR boss Tom Walkinshaw, who died in 2010

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.

The Fiat Stilo - would it have been a better replacement for the ageing Rover 45?
The Fiat Stilo – would it have been a better replacement for the ageing Rover 45?

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.

Former MGR styling boss Peter Stevens
Former MGR styling boss Peter Stevens

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…

Scaled-down Vauxhall Signum, anyone? (Image: David Knowles)
Scaled-down Vauxhall Signum, anyone? (Image: David Knowles)

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

43 Comments

  1. RDX60 with SAIC backing, and investment in the design, was probably viable. The 75 showed that Rover could design a competent car and I guess this would have been too, although compromised with the 75’s floorplan and the lower tech rear axle. I wonder how they’d have pitched it: direct competitor to the Golf and Focus, or more upmarket? The latter would have generated more profit, but it would have needed to be good. It’s hard to imagine it would have been a better car than the Focus, so would people have paid more?

    In any event, there would need to have been replacements for the 25 and 75, at least, and it’s hard to imagine there being the money to finance this, so the on-going need would have been to sell the company. SAIC knew this and decided, on balance, not to take the risk. And so, after a few more twists, we now end up with MG-badged cars designed and part-assembled at Longbridge.

  2. I’m sure I’ve seen these photos on here before; the top one, especially, reminds me of a BMW 1 Series, but much better looking.

  3. I have to agree with the conclusion of the article. Despite all the effort made with the RDX60, MGR knew that it would be impossible to save the company without new investors, and that’s because there were three major issues:

    1) Industrial issues – Longbridge was a huge and inefficient factory, still stuck in the 1980s. The modernisation plan started by BMW should have been finished.

    2) Lack of competitive engines – Despite the great K-Series engines, the truth is that the Diesel engines were noisy, slow and expensive. And the K-Series had bad reputation because of the hgf.

    3) Ageing range – The 25 and 45 were great cars when were launched, but even the restyling was not able to hide their age.

    If Rover had been able to keep the R30 project, probably the outcome would have been different…

    • I understand from various published articles that the R30 project was offered to Phoenix Venture Holdings for £500 million. However, with their dowry of £427 million being needed to keep the company afloat and over 6,000 employees in gainful employment, they certainly could not have afforded it. A shame, as from the artist’s impressions of what it might have looked like, it would have given the company some much needed breathing space as it evaluated how to replace the smaller Rover 25 and also re-enter the affordable end of the supermini market sector with a replacement for the much-missed (and popular) Rover 100 Series.

      • Yes, that’s true. But if the Phoenix Four were really committed to saving Rover, I’m almost sure that they would’ve been able to keep the R30 project.

        And that’s a shame, since Rover R30 would certainly be a winner, which would attract more investment in order to solve the problems I’ve listed before.

  4. Sadly, RDX60 would not have been enough to have saved MG Rover Group as it needed more than just one model range to meet sales forecasts in order to survive. The more you look at the transition of RDX60 based on input from different personnel within MG Rover Group, different potential partners and specialist support companies (and all at different stages of its gestation period), the more contrived and ungainly it became.

    In my eyes, the project progressed from being something fresh and engaging to brutal and butchered, almost as if it had been designed by a committee who could not agree on anything. The exterior looks like a coalition of different (and heavily obvious) design cues from other car companies – the only thing I like is the curved shoulder-line running the full length of the car. Looking at the images I have seen of the interior, it is not conveying a sense of well-being or finesse, more budget-quality.

    Subject to SAIC having come on board with MG Rover Group, the best thing that could have happened is for the design team to have been given the opportunity to create something from afresh using the core body engineering base and which would have successfully served the needs for Rover, MG and SAIC for their home market. A core engineering design that could have been successfully translated into at least four other bodystyles and presented stronger modular frontal and rear-end design opportunities, in order to create greater visual brand differentiation beyond just spoiler and colour-coded secondary trim treatments. This approach would have also benefited SAIC should they have wanted a different frontal and rear-end treatment based on relatively inexpensive changes to primary trim such as bumper mouldings and tailgate/bootlid outer skin panels.

    Sorry to be harsh, but despite the incredible efforts of MG Rover Group, the final rendition of RDX60 does nothing for me and certainly does not convey the incredible talent and passion of those who worked for the company. In this form it would have likely required regular and costly updates in order to sustain sales.

  5. Interestingly, I only yesterday posted a comment about RDX60 and the chances of the company surviving.

    Even if RDX60 had made it to market, it is difficult to see how MG Rover could have survived into the longer term. Assuming RDX60 was a success, the 25 would still have been in urgent need of replacement. CityRover could only have covered a more budget market. The 75 would then have needed attention. An investor, a long-term partner was needed to achieve this. Could the Honda years have been repeated?

    However, on the other hand, if RDX60 had reached the point of sale MG Rover could, perhaps, have survived a bit longer and possibly been with us today, at least in some form. A reasonable start to sales of RDX60 in mid-2004 would have made MGR a much more attractive prospect for investors, partners. When TWR went I think it was then too late, however, and this chance was lost.

    The style must have been adversely affected by all the changes in potential partners etc. but there is something I like about the above prototype.

  6. The mass-market sector is horrendously competitive, with vast volumes needed to pay back development costs, and rivals like VW able to produce all sorts of different variants off the one basic platform. To compete against such global giants with an awkwardly styled R75 derivative with inferior suspension was very optimistic.

    I’ve always thought the 1990s Mondeo and Focus were massively damaging to Rover, as whereas with the rubbish 1990 Escort, Rover could point to the R8 as being a much better and classier car, and hence charge a premium, the Focus was clearly a better car than the R3 and HH-R, similarly the Golf IV.
    MGR, with no profitable Land Rover division, and without Gaydon, was nothing like as attractive to a foreign partner as BL had been 25 years earlier, too…

    • “I’ve always thought the 1990s Mondeo and Focus were massively damaging to Rover, as whereas with the rubbish 1990 Escort, Rover could point to the R8 as being a much better and classier car, and hence charge a premium, the Focus was clearly a better car than the R3 and HH-R, similarly the Golf IV.”

      Good point…

      • ” MGR, with no profitable Land Rover division, and without Gaydon, was nothing like as attractive to a foreign partner as BL had been 25 years earlier, too… ”

        Another good point!

  7. Like KC says, I think the RDX60 looks like a BMW 1 Series too. Although far removed from the R45 HHR car it was supposed to replace, it may have looked not quite right in 2004 but perhaps by 2010 (if it had been built!) we would have warmed to it.

  8. I’m sure David 3500 will agree when I say it’s amazing what MGR managed to achieve in 5 difficult years. That RDX60 in its above form existed at all is an amazing achievement. Even more amazing that it could have been on the market by 2004 had TWR not ‘gone under’. Fated with bad luck…

    • @ Dave Dawson:

      I definitely do agree with you there. What MG Rover Group managed to achieve given limited resources and time was truly inspiring – something we should all remember. Even if TWR had not entered into administration and RDX60 had ultimately arrived in showrooms later than originally forecast, say in the latter half of 2005, it would have still been a fantastic achievement.

  9. RDX60 was a dog of a car, not only did Rover not have the cash or know how to get it to market, if it had, it didn’t have the cash or the nouse to finish the development properly or to market it.

    The car is a spitting image of a Vauxhall Sigma styling wise, had chocolate K series engines.. For which Rover never took responsability..

    Amazing really how handsome this car makes its successor the Roewee 550/MG6 look, now if that car had been launched in 2004 we may have a different story.

    New models can kill a car company as much as save it, you only have to look at SAAB

  10. I think the 75/ZT had more life in it than is generally thought. If they’d thrown more resources into doing the Streetwise and City Rover properly, also taken more notice of why the earlier TCV concept was panned, that might have bought a couple more years.

  11. May be if they had got lucky, created a car like the Peugeot 205 or the (BMW) MINI that redefined the market then they may have kept MG Rover alive long enough and a reason to be saved by a major investor.

    However looking at it, it is hard to imagine many people thinking that the RDX60 was the car they would pay a premium to put in their lives.

    Fiat took a similar route, simply reskinning the Stilo into the Brava, doing much of the work in the virtual world to keep costs down, whilst the end result was worthy enough and certainly better looking than the RDX60, it simply was not good enough to take market share away from the rivals in what is the most competitive sector in the European market and it’s hard to imagine the RDX60 being any better received.

  12. Not a hope in hell of saving the company, at leqast not in that Vuaxhall look alike form. There was no point at all in a small company like MGR trying to compete head on with the likes of Ford and VW. A Rover had to be different from the mainstream, to offer nicer fittings and furnishings, a higher standard of finish and better engineering than the Joe Public cars. And if that meant selling at a higher price, fine. People will always pay for quality. The Project Drive 25s and 45s, with their appaling de-contented specs, really were most unappealing cars and must have put a lot of people off Rovers. A continuation of such policies, even in a new model, would hardly have sent people rushing to the shworooms.

  13. I fear RDX60 would have ended up like the LDV Maxus – a superficially attractive product, let down by poor detail engineering, and glitches in production due to engineers being undermanned and overworked. The selection of TWR as a development partner was flawed, as they had taken on Ford and lost (by pushing up the prices of Volvo C70 convertibles produced at AutoNova). Friends who worked on RDX60 said the platform was too expensive for that size of car, and that the project was doomed as a result.

  14. Looks like a cross between a Vauxhall Signum and a 1 series.

    Would it have sold?

    I don’t think so. The German biased media would have picked up on the ‘old’ 75 floorpan in the same way as they mauled the X type (Mondeo, when only a minority of floorpan was shared) and 9-3 (Vectra). Despite BMW platform sharing that is rarely seen as negative – the original Compact, precursor of the 1 series, used a rear floorpan that originated in the 1980s, and it lived on into the early 2000s E46 era.

    The Fiat Stilo was a slow seller, Roverisation may have helped in the UK, as well as the Croma, though a Domani-to-45 style tidyup of the styling may have helped.

    Could’ve ended up in the Fiat-Chrysler group, with the 300 as the new P5.

    As it is, Chrysler sales are ending in the UK due to low demand.

  15. From the side it looks like a Focus in the middle, with a Vauxhall front and a Volkswagen Golf rear. All a bit incoherent stylistically and not really in keeping with the Rover/BL design heritage. The MG6 is a better effort, IMHO.

  16. RDX60 was too big, too heavy and too ugly for its market. In that respect a latter day Maxi. If launched early enough Rovers demise would probably occurred in 2002/2003 instead. The re skinned Stilo sounds more like it. Not a particularly attractive car as a Fiat, but a properly engineered c segment hatch rather than a Frankenstein adaptation of a 75. Clad with rover specific body it stood a far better chance. Or what about the fully completed car that BMW took with it? Offered to Rover it would have made far better use of the BMW £1bn dowry than the Pheonix 4 pension plans and provided a state of the art fully competitive car

    • I think half of the dowry was unsold cars. What they had in cash was less than the £500m asking price for the R30 (but could they have found a partner to help buy in that design?).

      The £30m? pension fund is a red herring though, as in automotive engineering terms it is a small sum. It’s also a tiny sum compared to the amounts taken out of several well known brands (some of which have failed recently) by their owners in the form of additional debt or dividends. Had this money, or most of it been put back into the business, would the outcome be any different? Of course it could have been shared with the staff who were made redundant, but that is another story.

      Anyway, if the Phoenix consortium hadn’t come in, the company would have closed, or have been ‘rationalised’ by Alchemy Partners. That may ultimately have been a similar, or worse fate? They should get more credit for having tried, where others looked away.

      • Some good points here. Also, MG Rover Group was owed money, too, which the administrators are still battling away to try and recoup.

      • Presumably they got some money for selling those unsold cars? If the money had been invested in products people actually wanted to buy it would have at least been an attempt to create a sustainable business, or one with sufficient credibility to attract a proper automotive partner.

  17. I’ve been told by a very reliable source that the demise of TWR had massive consequences for this project as much of the engineering data was ONLY on their CAD system which was rapidly repossessed, wiped and re-distributed when they went into receivership. Ooops.

  18. Even if MGR had survived in 2005, I doubt that it would have survived the 2008 crash. It was really a question of *when* they would fail, rather than *if* when you look back at it now.

    MGR sorely needed a strategic partner. Like Honda. Or it could have prospered as part of something like the VW Group.

    • I have to agree with you about the 2008 crash as it had a huge impact on many fitter companies. An alliance with Volkswagen would have addressed many issues, some of which went back to the early 1990s when Rover Group was increasingly reliant on licensing agreements. What a shame Volkswagen’s interest in Rover Group was not taken more seriously by British Aerospace, as the outcome may have been completely different…

      Then again, may be some of the opportunities they did seize on and run with might not have ultimately been delivered if such an association have taken place due to potential marketplace conflicts with other Volkswagen Audi Group brands. As we know, some of VAG’s technology is restricted to specific brands and this same approach may well have extended to the Rover Group with the Rover, MG and Land Rover brands in the event of an association between the two companies.

      • How interested was VAG in the early 1990s? considering they had just taken over Skoda at the time, & I’ve heard it might have not bought up SEAT if they knew they were going to buy Skoda a few years later.

    • Jaguar Land Rover survived it, even being off loaded by Ford to an Indian investor not known for manufacturing premium vehicles. Look how that has thrived since

  19. The money from BMW was the cost to BMW of a total closedown and paying off workers redundancy etc. they gave this to Phoenix and apparently 40,000 cars in stock. Plus the Phoenix Group sold land etc, lined their own peension pots. They were blamed in reports and rightly so. There was never enough money to keep Rover going but taking out tens of millions and eventually the shut down cost well over 1 billion.

  20. The 75 drew on heritage in the same way the BMW Mini does (albeit with arguably better ongoing suscess).

    I wonder if way out jvs with the likes of Daimler Chrysler e.g. a P5 saloon/ coupe/ shooting brake inspired design based on a 300C platform with the 3 litre diesel could have at least put them on the world stage? Bit like Jaguar rolling out the S type on a ford mondeo etc.

    Or a new austin atlantic, not sure what to base it on but a decent convertible, probably 75 under pinnings with some style, not just a run of the mill car based hack in the mire of the astra golf old R200 etc. Not mass markets but may draw appeal to the brand?

  21. Would it have saved Rover? No, not a chance on its own, regardless of how good it would have been. To my eyes it looks remarkably like a Mk3 Golf from certain angles. Now, if it had been a direct Golf competitor with a high quality interior and a decent performance version (GTI/GTE competitor) then it might have made a positive impact.

  22. Was “parum sero” the motto of the BMC/BLMC/AR/MGR design school? I get that the crest was a phoenix rampant on a field of rust.

    • Was there a smaller car designed or planned to replace the 25 thing. One good car could have replaced the entire volume of the 25-45-75. The 500m price tag for a new car is a lot more than the quoted price for the first New Mini, possibly not including the factory. Sometimes you read the ‘new Golf is an investment of say 1.5 billion and the papers lap it up and print it. Who knows what these figures include, possibly includes some of the materials for the car, the advertising and the value of the factory used. Jaguars owners are saying they are investing over 2 billion in Jaguar and they make what 120.000 cars a year. The big XJ sells in tiny numbers, possibly profitable but you wonder at the figures they quote for investment. In the 1980s the Experts said you had to make at least 250,000 of a volume model to break even. Must be dozens of new cars that dont sell those volumes.

  23. Sorry to raise this point again, but this article is titled MGRover@10 month. Shouldn’t it be MGRover@10Years? That is, 10 years since their demise…

  24. Think Mg Rover had it s day after the launch of the city rover. I remember sitting in one in the showroom just after launch and thinking the quality was appalling. Dont think any new car would have saved them by this point, unfortunately. Mg did well to survive the 5 years under Phoenix and produced cars that were lacking in quality towards the end. I still end up with a beaming smile on my face after driving my mg zr 160 and mg zt 190 though, great cars with a Huge fun factor.

  25. As mentioned above, there was a dowry of £427 million offered to MG Rover, why could they not have used at least some of that to buy the R30 project ( on sale for £500million)

    It seems to me all Rover did over the 5 years was swallow up the money and apart from the MG rebadging all that came out of Longbridge was….er not a lot. the Citi Rover was Indian I think????

    • I agree. Phoenix always struck me as a bit of a sham, milking existing products for 4 years is not rocket science, the Meriden Workers cooperative did it back in the 70s.
      Rover needed a high net work individual who had a couple of hundred million of their own money to invest in putting R30 into production. As others have suggested you could put the R30 styling on a Stilo platform and bought in competitive Fiat diesels as part of the deal.

      Jim McColl of Clyde Group? Jim Radcliffe (planning to launch his own SUV company as we speak)? John Bloor? Net wealth 1billion, could have been interested in reuniting Triumph cars and motorcycles.

  26. The 2008/9 sub prime meltdown pushed the car industry to the brink, if Rover had not folded in 2005, it could not have weathered the next storm.

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