The recent series of excellent I was there stories from those at the coalface of ARG-life has shown us that there was ample opportunity to create the amazing from the available – whether that’s the latent and largely underutilised engineering talent or the huge back catalogue of inventory available from all the marques. Given the empowerment and a couple of quid, it was possible that the already extensive product range could have been made bigger and better and skunkworks projects made official.
While this is a foray into festive fantasy, we know that, when such creations were made (usually under the radar of management), they could lead to a new and profitable product lines. Take the unloved Rover 400 HHR. Nobody ever lusted after this car, but a small team from the Flightshed lead by Wayne Nation took a Rover Vitesse 2.0-litre T-Series engine and dropped it in.
It went hill climbing and then went on to give us the MG ZS against management will. Remember, this car was already engineered to accept the T-Series engine. Cost to engineer? Nowt, as even the front suspension modifications were as simple as swapping over upper wishbones.
Streetwise: years ahead of time
Then there was the Rover Streetwise. A few grey plastic mouldings on an already ancient platform created a whole genre of cars which, even 20 years on, still commands a premium for said ‘life-style’ add-ons and a raised ride height.
This idea was first mooted by BL on the Marina, was taken seriously enough to create the first Freelander (this was actually a Rover Cars concept, but was given to Land Rover to make real). How many manufacturers have copied this idea of roof rails, ride height and injection moulded plastic cladding to wheel arches with black bumpers and ran with it?
We all know the Rover Streetwise itself was a tarted-up 25, which was a facelifted 200 which was a R8 Rover 200 with a Maestro back axle. The MG ZR (Britain’s number 1 hot hatch from day one until death) was a skunkworks Rover 200. Some say the MG3 is just a heavily facelifted 214… certainly the MG6 was a rehashed Rover 75 with a resolved K-Series engine.
Rover 800 improvements
I was discussing with Keith Adams earlier that probably the most surprisingly good Rover model I ever sold was the Rover 825 Diesel. This engine ran the VM diesel which is still around in much modified form these days. The engine turned out so much torque, Rover had to couple it to a Chrysler gearbox.
This was a heavy-duty but sweet box, with a far higher torque rating that the PG1 ‘box. Why then did Rover not go Volvo 850R chasing by giving us a 250bhp Rover Vitesse Sport Special? The Turbo T-Series was more than capable of reliably producing this power and, as Andy Kitson showed us with the 200bhp Vitesse Sport, the old 800 chassis was more than good enough. And if that powertrain went in the 800, then it’d go in the 600.
Did you also know that the tooling was out there to convert the Chapman Struts used on the rear of the Rover 800 into double wishbones in the same vain as the suspension on the Rover 600? Nor did I, but that’s what Honda did after 18 months of building the first Legends alongside the XX. Honda never stopped innovating with their cars. The Concerto was available in Japan with double wishbones up front, fully electric and heated seats and an incredibly advanced four-wheel-drive system – if it went into Concerto, it’d go into R8 200.
More Rover Group surprises
I also only learned the other day that the MG RV8, itself a parts bin special created for £5 million, was tooled-up for LHD but never made. Imagine if Rover had fully exhumed the old MGB line giving us the MGB GT as well, and then produced both bodyshells in LHD and RHD and then slotted in another Land Rover powertrain, the longitudinal Rover T-series with the R380 box.
Certainly, that was currently being used in the Disco and Defender. And if the MG RV8 was successfully reimagined, imagine a recreated TR7/8. It worked for the Jaguar XJ-S.
Meanwhile, Alex Moulton CBE re-engineered the Mini’s rubber cone suspension in the same way he re-engineered the Austin Metro’s Hydragas suspension system to give us the Rover Metro’s chassis. Cost to Rover? Virtually nothing as even the standard factory dampers were used. We could have had a smooth riding, more refined Mini rather than the bouncy box we endured.
Moulton even re-engineered the suspension for those daft enough to specify the ‘Sports Pack’ which was anything but. Kevin Morley never sanctioned a more refined Mini back in 1990 as he couldn’t believe sales would increase if the Mini got better. So, that was that…
Ingenious engineering all the way
Speaking of the Metro, the MGF (itself a parts-bin special with Metro, Montego and R200 bits) introduced a number of chassis changes which could have been transferred to Metro such as more refined Hydragas hardware (hard to comprehend I know) and e-PAS. The VVC mechanism, so advanced in 1995 was an old BMC idea, patented in the 1960s. An Engineer called Phillips was Rover’s Hydragas specialist who stuck Hydragas into the Mini in the 1990s and then used the engine for the interconnected damping in prototype Metros.
Going back further, take a look at the rather sad Austin Maestro and Montego range. Already in production was the S-Series engine, fully engineered with fuel injection for the 216 Vitesse. Remember also the S-Series was a parts-bin special by way of E- and R-series engines. Why, then, was the disastrous auto-choked SU in the Maestro/Montego never replaced by this? Back in the day the way to add value and sex appeal to any car was to add the ‘I’ badge on the boot.
And the one thing this range needed was sex appeal.
Unsung hero: T-Series engine
Two engines which never blotted their copy book were the M and T-Series units. As demonstrated by the MGOC’s Roger Parker, these lumps slotted straight into these the Maestro and Montego with no sheet metal changes. Could you imagine the effortless performance that would have been so readily available with this powertrain?
The Maestro and Montego were also available (along with the Mini and Metro) with Air-Con, so why was this never offered as an option?
There are loads more examples you could conjure-up to diversify and add value. From Rover 75s, already with Freelander engines and ‘boxes which could have taken Freelander 4wd systems. Even the Acclaim could have been made into a Vitesse in 1981 buy slotting in the 1.5 version of the 1.3 Honda engine we got and which the Ballade was already fitted with.
What would you create given the chance?