David Morgan raises a glass to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Rover 75, a car that felt like it was in a ‘class of its own.’
You can’t help but feel a touch of empathy for the Rover 75. Under BMW’s ownership it was hailed as the first all-new Rover to signal a brighter, more confident future for the Rover brand. Then, with BMW bailing out in 2000 and the Phoenix Consortium stepping in to save the Rover Cars business, it had the more pressing role of helping to keep the renamed MG Rover Group alive long enough for a collaborative partner to be found. Sadly, it ended so humiliatingly for both the Rover brand and the Rover 75.
Which is a shame because the Rover 75 is one of the most alluring cars to wear the Viking longship badge. In fact, in many ways, it was the best post-war Rover ever produced and ironically the last one too. In ‘A Class of Its Own’ even, to coin the adage.
And yet, few cars have endured such an eventful production life as the 75 did. Intrigue, plenty of twists and turns and even untimely death thrown in. Yes, the Rover 75’s life story could almost have read like a script from a sinister drama (or an episode of Midsomer Murders with John Nettles at the helm).
I’ll admit it – I still can’t resist stopping to admire a well-polished example of Richard Woolley’s masterpiece. In my eyes most new car designs look increasingly like an automotive equivalent of a ready meal where there is a sprinkling of superficial bling to distinguish them from the ingredients of deep-seated homogeneity. So, for me, the sight of an ‘old’ Rover 75 oozing tasteful presence and elegance is a welcome antidote.
Rover 75: clean sheet design
The first time I set eyes on the Rover 75 was on Tuesday, 20 October 1998 – Press Day at the British International Motor Show held on Rover’s home turf, better known as the National Exhibition Centre (NEC). Working as a motoring writer for a regional newspaper group, I had already received lots of gushing vibes about this replacement for the 600 and 800 Series.
For the first time in well over a decade Rover’s Design Engineers would no longer be constrained by generic-looking switchgear or required to use Honda’s rather lacklustre dashboard architecture because of budgetary or licensing constraints. Instead, as the 10-page launch press booklet proudly exclaimed, ‘It [the Rover 75] is the first Rover to be designed wholly ‘in-house’ for over two decades and [is] the first to emerge as a result of BMW’s ownership of Rover Group.’ The Rover 75 therefore had plenty of promise and I was keen to see it.
For Rover Cars it also had to help change the tide of cynicism being aired by the motoring press towards its wrong-market-sector, over-priced strategy for the 200 and 400 Series, not to mention the restless relationship between it and its German parent. The new Rover 75 therefore had to deliver something pretty spectacular to instil confidence. What could go wrong?
Making a dramatic entrance
Tanked up on an Expresso or two courtesy of Suzuki’s hospitality, I made my way over to Stand 204 in Hall 2 for the morning unveiling. Taking centre stage for the reveal was a right-hand-drive example finished in Wedgewood Blue metallic. What I didn’t know was that later on that day BMW would hold a separate group conference at the NEC. Here, its Chairman, Bernd Pischetsreider, delivered a scathing speech stating the high value of the pound was crippling Rover Group’s export profitability and also exposing its home market share to the cheaper price of imports. In addition, the Longbridge assembly plant – ironically not the planned home for Rover 75 production – was economically unviable and so there was a need to make drastic cost savings.
This announcement would make headline news for Rover Cars and it undoubtedly overshadowed the 75’s launch. Many journalists were left scratching their heads not knowing what to make of this launch and saw it as a PR own-goal. Meanwhile, others such as myself were more interested in studying the new car.
There were three examples of the Rover 75 on display – two in Wedgewood Blue and one finished in Atlantic Blue which sat on a raised plinth. All three examples exuded the familiar abundance of wood and leather although it was the attention to detail that really commanded interest. Read that as lovely-to-look-at-and-touch chrome door pull handles resembling the handles on vintage fridges and Art Deco-style instrumentation gauges which glowed a welcoming shade of orange, rather like a smouldering coal fire in a windswept castle.
On the outside you could see more than a hint of the Rover P5’s influence in the side profile and rear elevation. But for me it was the deep serious frown of the bonnet’s leading edge and the elegant, authoritative-looking twin headlamps that was more impressive. As I climbed inside a left-hand-drive example trimmed in Neptune Blue leather for the P6 inspired seats, it was clear this was a car that sat above its mainstream rivals.
I remember asking Rover Cars’ representative, a Mr Towers (no, not that one, who had left the company two years previously), two questions. Firstly, when will it go on sale and, secondly, can we expect to see a high performance derivative, possibly as a Vitesse? Mr Towers promptly said “Sometime next year” for the first question, before saying in a rather emotionless voice “Wait and see” to the second question. Somehow the response to these questions, and others from fellow journalists crowded round the car, came across as austere and frugal, not engaging and affable in the usual Rover PR way.
Impressing the motoring press (including JC)
I must admit to having initial reservations about the Rover 75’s styling. After all, it represented a massive change in direction over the elderly 800 Series and more recent 600 Series (examples of which were both on display on the Rover Cars stand). The word ‘retro’ sprang to mind and I wondered whether it would strike the right cord with buyers for a brand that needed to be seen as forward thinking. When comparing it to the new Jaguar S-Type, which had also been unveiled at the British International Motor Show, but was on a plinth suspended from the ceiling, the S-Type seemed like a more natural fit with Jaguar’s design language and therefore not such a dramatic shift.
However, those reservations soon proved to be unfounded when eight months later I saw a Rover 75 demonstrator car from the local dealer out on the roads in East Devon. It certainly commanded more presence than either of its forebears and even the S-Type. I was hooked. Even Jeremy Clarkson was convinced when he first saw it at the NEC. He summed it up by saying ‘the Rover 75 is a fabulous car for two very good reasons – first of all it means they [Rover Cars] are no longer making the simply dreadful 800, and two, I think it looks fabulous. For me this is the star of the [British International Motor] show.’ Praise indeed!
What we didn’t know at the time of its launch was that the original intention had been to launch the Rover 75 at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show some four and a half months later. However, at the insistence of Bernd Pischetsreider, the launch had been brought forward. This created a lot of late night candle burning as build schedules for motor show display and even press demo cars for the forthcoming press drive event had to be changed. Meeting those very tight targets was a huge credit to the efforts of Rover Cars’ employees.
The motoring press soon got their hands on the Rover 75 at the official press launch held in Seville three months later and the response was generally very encouraging. While road-testers were not unanimous in their verdict that Rover Cars had made “the best front-wheel-drive car in the world”, as senior Rover Group managers had been stating to suppliers as far back as October 1995, it was nevertheless a promising car.
What Car? magazine named it their Car Of The Year 1999 in February 1999 beating fifteen other category winners to the title. Steve Fowler of What Car? magazine said: ‘What we look for is a car that makes new benchmarks, and the Rover 75 certainly does that, particularly in terms of ride comfort, interior ambience and styling details. It really is a truly sensational car.’
The national sales launch of the Rover 75 took place on 17 June 1999 at Tower Bridge, London, where seventy five examples were displayed on a specially constructed stage. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed live, a piece of music specially written and composed for the car’s launch by former Eurythmics member Dave Stewart. The supporting television advert featured a montage of vignettes conveying messages of character strength and emotion to reflect the core values of the car, along with a new corporate strapline – ‘Extraordinary Drive’.
Perhaps the only fly in the ointment was when an ITN news story featured an interview with an elderly gentleman at a dealer sales launch event, which didn’t help to convey the 75’s keen driving attributes to a younger buyer.
Rover 75 concept: sporting promise?
Production of the new model would reach 1,660 examples a week operating on two shifts, to be increased to 2,800 vehicles a week by the end of 1999. An extra 800 employees would be switched to Cowley from other Rover assembly plants to produce the 75, taking the Oxford assembly plant’s workforce to 2,700.
By the time the 1999 London Motor Show opened its doors, the 75’s full engine line-up and trim level choice, including SE versions, were now available. In addition, the ‘new face of Rover’ had now extended to revamped and renamed versions of the 200 and 400 Series.
The next big milestone for the Rover 75 was the announcement of the Design Theme design concept at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show. Conveying a more assertive, sporting personality, the Design Theme had been conceived by Richard Woolley, Studio Director, Rover Design, who himself drove an early production Rover 75 sporting some of its design features.
Sporting the Longbridge colour of Anthracite metallic which extended to the radiator grille surround, sills and bumper valances, silver woven mesh grilles and a new 18-inch alloy wheel design, the Design Theme looked every bit the sporting Rover. Some publications even described it as a ‘baby Bentley’. Meanwhile, the issue of Autocar dated 1 March 2000 tied its announcement in with a speculative story that BMW might be considering ditching the Rover name in favour of Triumph because its plans for the brand weren’t working out.
Despite the press release suggesting the Design Theme would ‘expand an existing comprehensive range of trim specifications for the Rover 75’, it would ultimately remain a stillborn design concept. However, not before it attended a few other motor shows such as Leipzig over the next couple of months.
I must admit to falling for the Design Theme in a big way and I genuinely mourned its passing as a potential production model. It certainly would have given the 75 a more contemporary appeal without diluting its fundamental values.
Unfortunately, its unveiling was also overshadowed by the growing speculation, particularly in the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, that BMW Group was not confirming its long-term commitment to the Rover Group and therefore might be considering other options for the Rover Cars business – in reality, BMW was doing exactly that…
Goodbye BMW, hello Phoenix…
Just over two weeks after the Design Theme’s unveiling, came that corroborating announcement from BMW Group about its plans to sell off the Rover Cars business. A deal to sell it to the Phoenix Consortium for a nominal £10 was eventually considered after the withdrawal of interest from Alchemy Partners and then signed on 9 May 2000.
One of the first challenges was to focus on the need to transfer production of the Rover 75 and its assembly facilities from Cowley to its new home of Longbridge without disrupting production during the change-over process. This was a massively complex task by any manufacturer’s standards with the transfer of the assembly facilities actually taking just eight weeks rather than twelve as first envisaged. It proved to be a major civil engineering achievement.
While this was going on, Rover Cars unveiled a pre-production version of the planned estate bodystyle – known as the Tourer – which had been photographed outside the Birmingham Symphony Hall for the official press photos. With a planned on-sale date in the first half of 2001 the Tourer was an appealing car, offering enhanced load-lugging practicality in a stylish body.
The first Longbridge built 75, a 2.5 Connoisseur finished in Copperleaf Red, left the assembly line on 4 October – the same day as when the last Classic Mini was completed at Longbridge after a 41-year production run.
With the Design Theme having received some encouraging coverage in the motoring press, it came as no surprise to find the now independent and renamed MG Rover Group taking the idea forward. However, it wouldn’t form the basis of new derivatives to be sold under the Rover moniker but MG instead.
Indeed, the actual Design Theme display car was used as the basis for the initial X10 ‘teaser’ car announced to the press in November 2000. Under the direction of Peter Stevens, MG Rover Group’s new Design Director, this became an even more aggressive looking proposition and further biased towards driving dynamics than what had been proposed with the Design Theme.
On sale from 23 July 2001, the range of MG-branded saloons derived from the Rover line-up added some much needed sales support at a time when MG Rover Group was having to find new National Sales Companies in some export territories because their previous contracts had been linked in with those for either Land Rover or BMW. In addition, the public was wary of the company’s chances of long-term survival and therefore not as decisive in placing new car orders with them.
The MG ZT was a car I had mixed feelings about. Make no mistake, it still maintained many of the established Rover strengths and also reinforced the dynamic opportunities available from the 75’s platform. But the ZT package seemed overdone and lacking the sense of occasion and understated good taste of the Rover 75.
Having spent a week with one of the early press demo ZT 190s, its ride felt hard and unforgiving to the point of becoming fatiguing on the 130 mile round trip to the office in Plymouth (it was improved for the 2003 Model Year). At a personal level, there was a degree of disappointment that it was taking the place of a sporting ‘halo’ variant sold under the Rover brand, which the brand definitely needed at that time.
The Rover 75 Vanden Plas which had a wheelbase stretched by 200mm was one extension of the Rover 75 which did find appeal, even though it was only the rear seats occupants who got to enjoy the benefits.
If looks could kill…
By 2004, the Rover 75 would undergo its first major update in over four years. Improving such an elegant design was going to be difficult and any changes would inevitably look to not only give it a more youthful presence but also serve to help reduce the cost of components being used.
Even so, nothing could prepare me for the shock of the press release and images received in the third week in January 2004. Suddenly, Peter Stevens, MG Rover Group’s Design Director, had become a pantomime villain overnight in my eyes for the 75’s upmarket and elegant styling had been diluted for something which looked distinctly cost-led and slightly ungainly. The update certainly divided opinions with enthusiasts although it wasn’t all bad. For starters there was a new, fresher-looking exterior colour range and the introduction of a new trim level called Contemporary which borrowed some trim-related ideas from the MG ZT.
This would be followed by the 75 V8 featuring a full depth premium front grille design and rear-wheel drive. This new front bumper design gave the 75 more dramatic authority and it would become available as a £1,250 extra cost option on the four and six cylinder versions too.
A legend returns
Unveiled at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show, the 75 V8 finally gave the Rover brand a standalone ‘halo’ model. It unashamedly used the strapline ‘Return of a Legend’ to pay homage to previous V8-powered Rovers. Yet its launch coincided with yet another unfortunate twist. This time in the form of The Guardian newspaper running an extensive article about the Directors of MG Rover Group dividing parts of the business into separate companies, plans to turn the listed Studley Castle into a hotel and the Directors’ remuneration packages being awarded. None of this was new of course or a surprise to those with an understanding of the diverse make-up of the MG Rover Group business activities. But its timing wouldn’t have helped instil confidence in the company or product.
I got my first chance to sample the Rover 75 V8 in January 2005 when I was loaned one of the four demo cars from MG Rover Group’s press fleet. It felt more serious, yet also flawed with an auto box that was actually three speeds with overdrive against the industry’s expectation of five speeds. Gently prod the loud pedal and it responded in an obliging way which made you forget about melting Polar ice caps and the social irresponsibility of having eight cylinders upfront. No, this felt more like a fun history lesson to enable you to appreciate what it would have been like to sample a Rover P5 or P6 with a V8 engine for the first time back in the late 1960s. In the case of the 75, it came courtesy of an ageing Ford unit rather than a Buick design.
The accompanying press pack certainly didn’t make any reference to enthusiastic driving for fear of treading on the toes of the MG ZT 260. Nor did it mention the lovely burble emanating from the four exhausts on start-up. The 75 V8 was a characterful and rewarding car to drive despite its foibles and one I didn’t want to hand the keys back for. And, yes, I liked the premium front grille design too!
Whether it might have gone on to adopt the forthcoming supercharged V8 earmarked for the impending MG ZT 385 is anyone’s guess. However, in regular form, it was an interesting proposition to help extend sales of the questionable rear-wheel-drive platform programme instigated by MG Rover Group. In the end, just 166 Rover 75 V8s were built in less than twelve months.
Back to the future, coupe style
The final chapter for the UK-built Rover 75 was the stunning two-door Coupe unveiled in November 2004 to commemorate 100 years of Rover car production. The 75 Coupe also showcased what the company could turn its hand to developing in a remarkably short gestation period (nine weeks), to help ‘whet-the-appetite’ of potential investors such as the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.
Yet, despite what some enthusiasts maintain to this day, it is doubtful whether a Coupe version would have generated sufficient sales to justify investing in new tooling for at least fifty percent of its body – especially with the 75 already approaching its sixth year. Also, the previous attempt to build a luxury 2-door Coupe based on the second generation 800 Series made up just five percent of overall production, so it is questionable whether a 75 Coupe would have significantly improved on this.
Sadly, it was all in vain anyhow as, in early April 2005, both money and time had run out for MG Rover Group. Three months later and from the corporate ashes emerged the final Rover car to be built, a 75 Connoisseur saloon fitted with BMW’s 2-litre M47R turbo-diesel engine. Finished in Firefrost Red, this milestone car was purchased by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust.
The Rover 75 will be remembered as a car where the level of expectation placed on it was higher than for any other model to emerge from Rover Cars in the 1990s. However, no-one could envisage the reputational damage it would have to absorb from launch. This wasn’t based on flaws with the car itself, but by the greater and well-publicised corporate challenges faced by BMW and then MG Rover Group. Small wonder then it never reached its intended sales potential, let alone kick-started the true revival in the Rover brand’s fortunes.
All of which is a great shame because the Rover 75 certainly left a lasting impression on me. The more I keep looking at well-cared for examples, the more I am thinking that perhaps one day I will end up buying one. There might be more dynamically engaging alternatives out there wearing a less tainted badge on the grille, but they don’t have the charm or emotional presence of the Rover 75.
So make mine a pre-facelift 2.5 Connoisseur please, finished in Royal Blue with a Sandstone interior and a set of those easy-to-clean Meteor alloys. Stick on Classic FM and show me a nice long journey and I might just find motoring utopia.
In the meantime, here’s a glass raised to 20 years of the Rover 75.