Niall King discusses what qualities are essential in a Rover, and why some of the current range is missing that ideal.
This is a highly personal perspective and we invite comments from those who have read this piece…
IT IS becoming ever clearer that ever since the Mk1 Rover 200 was introduced Rover’s various owners, managers and marketers have had little or no idea how to build the Rover brand. One can hardly blame them, with all the various changes of management, owner and direction, but badge-engineered Austins, Hondas and Tatas have diluted the brand ever further, dragging it downmarket even as the marketing men have tried to sell the brand as upmarket. This basically stems from the foolish decision to merge almost all of the previous British Leyland company and its ill-perceived product range into a single Rover entity, thus instantly endowing Rover with all the poor reputation of all of the British Leyland behemoth, rather than carrying Rover on as a separate brand as had been done with Land Rover and Jaguar. In terms of market value, Rover has become little more than a Ford equivalent with a bit of walnut and chrome, and a plastichrome grille. Unfortunately for the company that simply is not good enough any more.
Rover is, I am told, almost run by the marketing men, rather than the engineers. It is a common mantra, especially amongst marketers and advertisers, that nothing is more important than the brand. This is, of course, absolute rubbish. The product is far more important. Twenty years of Rover brand mismanagement have shown us that you cannot apply an upmarket brand to an inadequate product without damaging that brand. MG Rover’s marketing people don’t seem to realise this, and are still rebadging budget imported city cars as Rovers and trying to sell them at the same dealers, with the same positioning and strategy as barnstorming V8-powered luxury cars.
Ford realised this was no longer possible, which is why they dropped the Scorpio and bought Jaguar and Volvo. Today’s buyers expect exclusivity as standard with their expensive cars. There is light at the end of the tunnel: the relaunch of MG is inspired. The image is great, the products (even the older ones) have been re-engineered to back up the image, and the sales are rising. Rover needs to become exclusive again if the brand is to survive, but how should this be done? What should a 21st Century Rover be? Starting from a position of almost no brand capital means that Rover must rebuild the brand image from scratch, and be thoroughly focused on a specific type of car, until such time as the brand is strong enough to sell a diverse model range again.
It’s probably easier to start by stating what Rover should not be. A Rover should not be based on an existing car and rebadged. It should not be a base model dressed up with tacked on plastichrome and fake walnut. It should not be slow. It should not be front-wheel-drive. It should not have an engine with fewer than 6 cylinders and a capacity of less than 2 litres. Basically, with the exception of the 75 V8, all the Rovers from the 800, to the CityRover fail one or more of these criteria. But Rover still has some upmarket cachet, especially outside the UK, and the reason is that until the 1980s every new Rover launched was a market-beating success. It makes sense to analyse these products and see what qualities made the cars so good.
What a Rover should be is British made. The fact that it is British is central to the identity of the company and the brand, and should never again be sacrificed on the altar of short-term financial gain. A Rover should be clever and innovative where necessary, but never too clever for its own good. If conventional engineering solutions do a better job they should be used in the pursuit of reliability. The P6 had an innovative base unit construction and a De Dion rear axle, but the SD1 had a stronger, lighter, stiffer and less rust-prone monocoque construction and a live rear axle which though on paper was a less sophisticated solution than the De Dion rear, was in practice so well located that it beat its predecessor on the road.
A Rover should be capable of taking the driver and at least three passengers from Calais to Calabria in superb speed, style, comfort and convenience. This means the ride must be cosseting, the handling surefooted and the chassis superbly capable. A Rover should beat its competition dynamically, and in practice this means a Rover should handle and ride better than a BMW; difficult, but not impossible. Rear-wheel-drive is an absolute must, and the front:rear weight distribution should be as close to 50:50 as possible.
A superlative chassis must be matched by an impressive engine range. A Rover should be fast – from fairly quick to staggeringly fast, and a range of engines should be specified that are refined, smooth powerful and tuneful. Good emissions and economy are things one should expect on any car these days, but true thoroughbred refinement is a rare and splendid thing. No four-cylinder engine is adequate. If BMW doesn’t consider anything less than a six in its upper-segment cars then neither should Rover. Engines from 2-litre sixes to 5-litre V8s are what a Rover needs. These engines should have fat and flat torque curves to make power available from anywhere in the rev range. After all, you should never need to thrash a Rover to make progress! These engines should be coupled to smooth automatic and manual transmissions – fripperies like paddle-shifts and CVTs are not yet adequate for this market.
A Rover should be big outside and in. A small car such as the 25 cannot really offer the kind of refinement a Rover should have, and the combination of parsimonious compact styling with upmarket heavyweight interiors can spill over into the ridiculous far to easily. Small cars are at their best, not to mention most profitable, when they are basic, cheap, unpretentious and simple. The superminis can be Austins and the medium cars can be Triumphs (or at least they could if MGR could buy the brand back from BMW). The current 75 is as small as any Rover should be, and there should be one a sector larger to complement it. The styling should be modern and exciting, without being overly flash.
The lines ought to be very modern and forward looking, but the proportions and overall impression should lean towards the classic rather than the avant garde (which is a French phrase for a very good reason!). Rovers should avoid going too heavily into the retro look – that is Jaguar’s territory, and it puts off as many buyers as it attracts. Making references to older models in the design language is fine, but aping them wholesale is a mistake. The car should look magnificent and imposing, and should send a clear message as you bear down on the outside-lane BMW driver that he had better pull in and get his nasty German heap out of your way. The styling should look as at home driving the Prime Minister to meet the Queen as it does taking a 1-2 finish at Silverstone. Although the car should be capable of great performance we are looking for a Q car, not a Max Power special. Any brightwork should be subtle, not flashy, and should be stainless steel, not chrome or (shudder!) plastichrome.
The interior should invite, cosset and entertain the passengers. It should make them feel very special. Clever details and careful selection of materials, colour and surface texture should combine to give the occupants a tremendous sense of well-being. The driver’s station should be as clean and purposeful as possible, leaving him or her to concentrate on the act of driving rather than be distracted by iDrives and the like. Everything should work in the conventional manner and it should work extremely well. Leather should be real and of high quality.
The design should be elegant but not retro, perhaps taking more inspiration from modern luxury hotels and bars than other motor cars. Wood, if present, should be real and look it. Matt or satin finishes and straight grains can help Rover move away from its pipe-and-slippers image without losing the sense of occasion people enjoy. Wood should be used in such a way that it looks designed in from the start. Leather seats must be just that, not merely leather-faced seats. There are few things more disappointing than supposedly luxurious leather seats with cheap vinyl down the sides and back – especially if they cost extra.
Rover’s management at the moment seem confused by the message that Rover as a brand should convey, harping misguidedly on about value and equipment levels and other such irrelevant rot. MG Rover will be doing its job properly when MG is a byword for a barely-contained high-octane hotrod scaring the sheep and the Subarus, and Rover is a byword for a supremely efficient and luxurious autobahn missile, capable of crossing continents without drama or fuss. I look forward to the day this happens.