Essay : From the jaws of victory

Our man in the trade, Steven Ward, on why now’s the time to buy a CityRover, and why they were onto a good thing.

Even if we didn’t know it at the time…

From the jaws of victory…

NAMASTE, as they say in India…

A few things that The Firm (BL, ARG, Rover, et al) consistently delivered was own goals, missed opportunities and unfollowed foresight. We take these as a given. The CityRover then, is by default, the definitive in this long line of illustrious losses. Unfairly abused, ignored and berated -and that was just by the Phoenix management before launch- the poor little punjab became the butt of every car enthusiast’s joke.

And now, I’m going to tell you why this is so wrong(ish). For not much more effort and precious little extra cost, this car could have been just the tonic the teetering Phoenix group needed. Lets look at the basics that the car had going for it, for it was ‘the biggest of the small cars’. The body design was by IDEA which had a track record of producing very space efficient designs for FIAT and Daihatsu. Because of this connection, the car was also very contemporary styled. Marry a mk1 Punto to a Daewoo Matiz (both from Ital Design incidental…) and this would be the offspring. Actually, that sounds worse than what it should. Whatever, the car looked smart and was more than able to blend into any European street ‘scape.

Now let’s take the body engineering. It was no secret that within Longbridge, they looked upon Indica BIW (that’s body-in-white, the tagged, but untrimmed shell, for you amateur City Slickers) with equal degrees of jealousy and appreciation. It was a good league ahead of anything Longbridge was spot-welding together at that time. Let us not forget, body engineering was something The Firm was historically good at. Shut lines, strength and steel quality were as good as Mercedes’ A-Class at that time in one pertinent report I read. In hindsight, Rover would have done well to contrast their new small car against the A-Class which were very similar in both size and performance, if not in price or image. This would have avoided a direct comparison with the excellent and cheap Panda. The question ‘Is the baby Benz really worth twice as much as Rover’s latest offering?’ would have sounded excellent. The answer may have surprised too if the plan had been followed.

The paint finish too was acceptable and the colours, of which they were eight, were utterly contemporary. The interior, well, it was again, quite familiar to the many millions who’d ever sat in a Punto. The quality wasn’t quite up to Punto standards, but the car was priced to pitch with the Perodua elsewhere. So it looked alright and felt, well not quite nasty. The shoulder room was usefully better than a Panda and so too was rear access. The driving position was full page of Darwin drawings ahead of the dear old Metro too and actually quite commanding.

The Power Train should have been something that the car could boast about too. It came as standard with a full 1400cc of ex-PSA power. That’s right; it had an engine of somewhat bastard dimensions based on a Peugeot unit that nobody has quite pinned down. But it was acceptably refined, economical and shockingly reliable. No K-series light ‘n’ shite nonsense here. This powertrain was closely related to the Metro/115 set-up meaning common specialist tools and knowledge were already in place for most dealers. Adding a diesel to the range would have been very straightforward also.

The gearbox was familiar to all too, again, ex-PSA and therefore closely related to Rover’s old R65 unit (BINI anyone?) Finally, Tata, having employed some talented designers and engineers from the start and had spent the last few years intensively rectifying all known faults on the vehicle to make it sufficiently safe and acceptable use across India. Surprisingly, some 250,000 had been built before Rover dipped their toe into the water. If the Joint Venture car was a success and Tata were exceedingly keen to make it so, there was a full range of models available for Rover to import, including a saloon and estate (called Marina no less). So what went wrong and where needed improvement?

Take the chassis for example. We all know about the talented chaps that played around in Flightshed, turning the staid (800, 200, 400) into the stonking (Vitesse Sport, ZR, ZS). It is said they were given half a days track time to hone and perfect the Indica into CityRover. During that time, they picked a spring rate already created by TaTa for use on European Roads (slightly uprated and 20mm lower over standard) and altered the valves in the front dampers. That was all the time and budget given over to them. They then went back to taming axle tramp on ZT V8s over a cup of tea whilst planning a trip to Europe in a SV. Can you see the criminal waste of design time and talent here? Probably the world’s best chassis magicians denied the chance to hone a critical car for MG Roverover. The cost of honing the chassis is very little, it is all down to time and skill and the results can be staggering.

Another group of highly experienced Longbridge engineers were shooed off the project and placed in Hopwood Services to man a MG Rover stand amongst other wastes of time and talent. One engineer of some 30 years said his team of 8 were ordered to get the Indica safe for Europe. For example, the brake pipe runs were quite rudimentary and needed to be re-routed for safety and longevity. The Indians followed every instruction from Longbridge and there was no additional charge to MG Rover. More needed to be done and could have been easily been implemented; these were men keen to impart their world class knowledge to make a product good. However, the CityRover engineering works was taken care of during the converting of 75s in V8 dinosaurs. You see how the priorities were wrong? Once the V8 BIW changes were completed, these men were scattered to the four winds (including Telford) to perform dolly-bird work, something they weren’t very good at. In fact, they were awful at it. They couldn’t be sacked or made redundant, so they were given the run around by HOWE instead of being put to good use. Here lies the crux of the matter; Kevin Howe was useless and the goodwill was leaving in droves.

Tales of willing men itching to get CityRover worthy of the Rover badge only to be crushed by HOWE are legion. One man was head-hunted by HOWE to fettle TaTa products up to acceptable Western standard cars. This man had promptly escaped the (BMW) occupation and was now set to return. Sadly, his promised return date of 6 weeks become 6 months as HOWE was unable to leave the golf course causing much frustration for our facelift kid. Instead of masterminding the CityRover invasion, he was now found himself on the dole desperately trying to get hold of HOWE. Previously this man’s crack team had taken a dated utilitarian hatchback (Maestro) and converted it into a thrusting executive express (Montego) so his track record in such market-lead turn around was excellent. Once reassembled, this team took over their old fortress in Studley and set about making the Indica interesting.

After a particularly pleasant brain-washing session in Longbridge one snowy afternoon, we bought a lorry load of CityRovers. Surprisingly they sold like hot cakes, each one netting us £1000 gross and an excellent part exchange bonus, reminiscent of early Yugo sales ironically.

Forget your powerpoint presentations and rigorous market research, this was all about flip charts, sound judgement and tea. The Indian executives, engineers and stylists were flown over and were offered input. They greatly appreciated the time spent Roverising their products and eagerly accepted all recommendations in full. They were keen to learn, adopt new ideas and designs and absorbed these Rover (ARG?) sessions with great enthusiasm. A result of this was the facelifted CityRover that sadly docked in Portbury after the collapse. Their attention to detail in these sessions was super critical. I’ve a dossier and of failings –and solutions – prove both Rover and TaTa were keen to make progress together.

Each engineer who flew out to Pune was reportedly mugged, bar one and he was of Indian descent. However, none had a bad word to say about the Indian operation or their stay there. The trouble was created by HOWE messing about with build numbers and dates. It was originally envisaged that the CityRover would be in a slow, steady and limited production run (Alfa build, Press Build and Beta Build). But HOWE came across all bullish and ordered the line to be speeded up and run for a longer period. The quality suffered massively as a result – previously Rover and Tata teams continually improved quality and solved glitches with each build. Longbridge findings being reporting back also as the completed cars journey took three weeks. Tata felt obliged to meet these requests despite openly admitting their inadequacies. With the newly re-recruited British team working even closer with Tata and to mutual designs, this patchy quality and design would be banished for the second generation.

Sadly, what should have been a simple Roverisation process of a car which fundamentally wasn’t a million miles away from the 25, wasn’t. Refinement of Indica flaws should have been straight forward and progressive. Take the poor gear change. Rover had already shown how to give the ‘box a lovely mechanical feel by adding counterweights when they first used the ‘box way back in 1989. Then, in 2001, they showed how to make the linkage taut for a sporty feel. Why then did the linkage that appeared feel grabbed from the Maxi?

So the car flopped and became a joke, something its pricing structure would have ensured virtually regardless of its abilities. In the age of the accomplished and trendy Polish Panda, why did MG Rover decide to pitch this car of mixed ability and origin higher up the price structure? Rover is reputed paid just over £1000 for each example and should have taken full advantage of the globalisation and manufacturing shift to the East. Sadly, they decided to cynically milk it. If they hadn’t they could have beat Nissan by five years with their latest small car offering, the Pixo, that once would have come from Washington.

CityRover pricing should have started at £4995 like the Metro 1.1C did some 13 years earlier. It should have come with three years’ warranty, three years’ Free Servicing and three years’ interest free credit. If push came to shove, throw in a year’s free insurance and free metallic paint or hide. Leather, if bought correctly from the East would have cost pennies over cloth. At the time, residuals of 25s with leather were running at £500 more than their cloth equivalents on the fleet disposal auctions. This would have helped the fleets run CityRover for the daily rental market and bodyshop courtesy car businesses where £99 pm is common.

Rover’s biggest marking ploy was to offer three years’ free fuel in 2002, and this should have been launched again to clear the first batch of cars ready for the real deal that was now underway. MG Rover staff discounts on the car were around the 17% mark, meaning they were in effect VAT free, another marking initiative lost.

Model designations should have gone up in £300 (inc VAT) increments meaning the top model came with hide, air, paint, CD, alloys, electrics – the works. A latter day VDP if you like for just £6195 OTR. It may have been sans picnic tables, but surely a takaway hook could have been designed-in? What’s more, there was still significant goodwill for a small Austin and a huge pent-up demand for a modern day Metro. Sadly, Phoenix squandered this once and for all – only the canny initiative of motor group, MotorPoint, made any profit from this heritage.

After a particularly pleasant brain-washing session in Longbridge one snowy afternoon, we bought a lorry load of CityRovers. We did this to test the market shortly after launch and all from a large fleet linked to MG Rover. Initially cynical, they looked good, felt comfortable and drove well. Surprisingly they sold like hot cakes, each one netting us £1000 gross and an excellent part exchange bonus, reminiscent of early Yugo sales ironically.

Even after The Unpleasantness, we’d stock CityRovers and we sold them with ease. None caused any warranty headaches or had any come back, unlike most things sporting a K-series. Now, things are so bad for this car, I recon that a Monkey will net you a useable example. And thanks to XPart, spares (even whole engines) are still stocked and just a ‘phone call away. Bangernomics never came so new and economical. You might just see me handing back my lease Fiesta for one… well, this is the new austerity.

Keith Adams


  1. Might be worth a punt as a cheap runaround, certainly no worse than many others like a Ford Fester, likely a good few years older for the same money, or a cop magnet youth abused Saxo

  2. Great essay.
    5 years later, the CityRover is as rare as hens teeth (where did they all go? Did they get re-imported back to India Lada Riva-style?).

    And rather than Rover buying cheap cars from Tata, Tata now owns Rover.
    If not Longbridge (as well documented elsewhere on this site…), but the brand, together with Land Rover – a cash cow in the current SUV crazed market – and Jaguar, with 2 important models – the junior exec and luxury crossover SUV having been completed successfully and selling reasonably well.

    Jaguar Land Rover is going from strength to strength under Tata ownership.

    In the meantime, Renault with Dacia has shown how to successfully sell a cheap imported supermini without tarnishing (and, indeed, in many cases upselling to) the main brand.
    MG3, another car from the east which was imported and a British badge stuck to it, has mixed feelings on this site (especially after recent news), however locally it seems that by selling through family run ex-Rover dealers MG franchises, and keen pricing, the model is fairly popular. Though more of an alternative to a Hyundai i20 than an Audi A1.

    Brand fracturing could’ve allowed for the CityRover to sit alongside the V8 75 and MG SV. A Metro subbrand, with the hatchback and estate (by this point the small saloon was no longer marketable in the UK). The name evokes memories of the original supermini, as well as being identifiable as an urban / city verbiage, ideal for a citycar.

    It would’ve had to have been keenly priced. Not ideal for short term profit, but if they had long term vision of pushing the main brand upmarket

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