It seems hard to believe that it’s coming up to 13 years since the Rover 75’s fateful launch at the 1998 Birmingham Motor Show. Anyone who was at the unveiling will never forget the way that the then head of BMW, Bernd Pischetsrieder, unveiled the car and then torpedoed its launch by questioning the future of Rover in the UK. I can distinctly remember one disgruntled Rover staff member saying to me, ‘if he were in the middle of the road right now, I would not slow down to avoid him.’
Strong words, indeed….
However, you can see the point. Here was a car that the Designers, Engineers and Tester Drivers at Longbridge and Gaydon had been sweating over since 1993 – it was their great white hope; the car to save the company; and the boss himself had parachuted in to tell the world that, unless he had some help from the UK Government, he’d be moving out… and, as we know, events moved rather rapidly.
Despite a warm reaction from the press, the car was delayed into launch and, with each passing week the future of the ‘English Patient’ was looking increasingly shaky. Buyers’ confidence was slipping away and that caused a spiral of despair which led to Rover’s sale within a year of its brightest new car going on sale.
What of the car itself? The Rover 75 was an interesting mixture of exquisite design detailing and slightly clumsy retro. The flanks, for instance, were so beautifully sculpted and the relationship between the wheels and glasshouse was near-perfectly resolved. Indeed, compared with what many fellow Designers considered the sector’s most stylish car, the Alfa Romeo 156, the proportions were spot on, even if there were jarring cock-ups like the ill-fitting grille and bonnet, the questionable wing/bumper interface and the dull back lights.
There was no doubting the car’s engineering, though. It was thoroughly developed and signed off by Wolfgang Reitzle – no mean feat – and although the K-Series powerplants were okay, the NG four- and V6-cylinder engines, to be built in Hams Hall were on the horizon. The 75’s suspension set-up was class leading. Yes, it initially felt soft and stodgy but, stay with it, and you were left with a car with impressive ground covering ability.
Was the Rover 75 was a victim of circumstance? Not entirely… It was a bold design statement and, as we know, these do divide buyers. Unfortunately, the faux-classic saloon, which rode the crest of the retro wave back in 1999 would prove seriously off-message once 21st century new edge design took over. In a nutshell, it was a gamble and one that failed to pay off.
By the time of the BMW sell-off and Phoenix takeover, the car should have been on life support. However, two factors played into its hands. In the opening months of the Phoenix takeover, a mild form of patriotic fervour took over and people started actually buy the 75. All of a sudden, it started earning a positive reputation…
The ZT and ZT-T followed in 2001 and all of that opinion-dividing retro was dumped – leaving people with nothing but a fine big saloon. Again, sales remained healthy and a small but enthusiastic following ensued. In short, the depth of quality which always underpinned the 75 was saving it from a fate worse than death in trying circumstances. In the end, it wasn’t enough – the Phoenix Four wasted their opportunity and the company sunk, leaving the Chinese to carry on building the 75 to this day.
The 75’s biggest issue in the UK is, of course, how well it is going to weather the years ahead. Its fine engineering may have made it a good car – and near brilliant in places – but now, over a decade on, looking after one on a shoestring (as many now are) is proving very difficult indeed. It’s expensive to fix, with many BMW parts, and overly complex in areas that the skint really could do without.
Your clutch started slipping? That’ll be the plate, the master and the slave cylinder please. Don’t do them all at once and you’re going to regret it. Fuel pump packed up? Into the tank you go and more. Pulling it apart? Make sure you collect all of those clips and fittings. All of them… Don’t and it’ll rattle like a pig. Finally, are the tyres wearing out weirdly? You did make sure you tracked it with a full tank. No? Tisk…
That’s before we get to the engine. The K-Series, as we know, does have its problems. It’s a lovely little thing when it’s as it should be. However, put it in the hands of the average £500 car buyer, and it’s on death row. Checking the coolant? Nah. Maybe the oil? Not a bit of it. Then moan when the head gasket goes or the head melts… and off to the scrapyard it goes! Another disgruntled ex-Rover owner is born…
I’m pretty sure that, in ten years’ time, there will only be a handful left – if that. That would be a shame given what a delightful car this is – and an indicator of a paradise lost.
The generation that preceded the 75 weren’t a patch on that car. The 800 was a nice, progressive thing when launched in 1986, but it was finished by the time the R17 came out in 1991. It looked old and brought Rover into its pastiche era in the most undignified way. The 600 was nice but overpriced and dull. Both were developed into decent sports saloons – the 800 Vitesse Sport and 600ti – but the cooking models, forget them.
Ironically, the chances are that the deathly dull 620 will outlive the 75 by sheer dent of its tough Honda mechanicals, which are also a more realistic DIY proposition. I’ve owned three 600s now – two 620s and a ti – and, although the Honda-engined cars are almost coma-inducingly dull, they just work and keep on working. My first, a 620i with 116bhp, had 240,000 miles on the clock and looked like it had been to Helmand and back, but it still drove like a nearly new car – it was still on the original engine, gearbox and drivetrain. The second one was low-mileage and well looked after – it might as well have been a new car.
You can’t buy that kind of dependability – it’s priceless.
That’s why I’ll wager a bet. Look at the How Many Left? websitein 2021 and there will be more 620s than there will be 75 1.8s. Anyone care to bet against me? It’s unfair, of course, but then again, so is life…