Essays : Selling the brand

MG Rover

Was it really so bad selling Rovers?

Ever since I was old enough to remember, I have always been passionate about anything that moves in the air or on road and rail under its own propulsion, you name it, cars, trains, planes – I love ’em all. My first exposure to working in the motor trade came in 1987 when I did the dreaded work experience.

I took Motor Vehicle Studies in my GCSEs so my work experience was at a very large Vauxhall and Bedford truck dealer in Darlington called Sherwoods which is still in business and owned by Drive Motor Retail Limited. Everyone did their experience in the workshop but, because I knew the Managing Director and most of the sales staff, I managed to arrange my work experience in the Sales Department.

Back in the halcyon days of the mid to late 1980s, the motor trade was booming and it wasn’t unknown for good salesmen to earn more money than the garage owners – one salesman I personally knew well had a villa in Spain and a huge detached house. They really did used to earn a massive amount even on a basic salary that is a fraction of what today’s salesmen earn.

Childhood passion becomes a profession

I was interested in all areas of the trade and, upon leaving school, I spent a while working in the service bays of a huge Ford dealer before having a dabble in parts, warranty administration and even working on buses and coaches before moving into sales. Anyway, for reasons I have never really been able to work out, my spiritual home has always been in the showroom.

Over the years I have worked with Renault, Land Rover and Vauxhall but my happiest times were working with Rover cars – not because I have eternally been passionate about the brand but, quite simply, because they were the best of times in my 20 plus years of automotive experience. In recent years I have often been asked by friends and colleagues ‘was it really that bad with Rovers’. In all honesty it wasn’t but, towards the end, it became very hard.

With Ford or Vauxhall the customer base is much more varied and, because they are viewed as being big hitters, the public perception has always been pretty constant. Ford have made some truly dreadful cars in the past – look, for example, at the Escort and Orion – but never had any problem selling them. Fords were easy to own easy to repair but bereft of any soul or character with the exception of the RS or now defunct Cosworth sub-brands. However, Rover had an image of warmth, tradition and cosseting luxury that appealed to the sensible customer and the pipe and slipper man.

At the time, that was a good thing as the mature customer or the older buyer tended to be no-nonsense customers who would come back for another provided you treated them right. I knew of one elderly gentleman who owned a Montego Vanden Plas which cost him a packet in bills and repairs and, when it finally dropped to pieces, he came in and bought a top of the range bubble shape 216 that he initially didn’t even want to test drive.

Rover 100

Old-fashioned brand loyalty

Repeat business was massive and there was an impressive amount of brand loyalty to the Rover marque. Later models such as the 200/400, the Rover 600 and R17 shape 800 series were very popular cars with private owners and, to be fair, we could sell every 100 series we could get our hands on. Say what you want about the 100 Rover, they just drove so well, especially the 1.4 and the plush models which had air of class about them.

For months after that model was deleted, we were still being asked if any were in stock elsewhere in the county. Don’t laugh when you read this but, in the late 1990s, people would still ask for a secondhand Montego Countryman Diesel Estates.

The BMW era of ownership was a mixed blessing: on one hand the showrooms had a huge investment and modernisation programme and the stock ordering system became easier but many smaller family dealers that had sold cars under the brands of Austin – Morris – Triumph – Wolseley – MG and other old BMC names for generations lost their franchises in Rover/BMW’s policy of ridding the network of small independent Dealers that couldn’t sell high numbers or sustain massive capital investment. Dealers such as Robinsons of Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire and P.J Green of Flore in Northamptonshire had enviable reputations of customer care and service dropped the Rover brand after 50 plus years of trading.

Rover 600
The Rover 600: One of the motor trade’s best kept secrets

Rover garage

One thing that was noticeable was the lack of any real improvement in quality especially with engines. After the BMW takeover, we all expected to see vast improvements and fewer problems with K-Series powered vehicles but nothing seemed to filter through of any significance. All the efforts from the factories seemed to revolve around making the cars more cost-effective and cheaper to produce – saving a bit here and pinching a bit there seemed very petty when all that needed sorting was the eternal head gasket problem.

Indeed, in my honest opinion, the quality of the cars dropped after the BMW takeover and issues of bad paintwork, inferior corrosion protection and cheaper interior fabrics were obvious to the eye. The more mature customer could see this and would often comment on how the car felt and even smelt inferior to his previous model. People notice these small changes and that meant the dealers had to put even more emphasis on service and attention to detail rather than the manufacturer itself.

Quality breeds confidence

The buying public are not stupid and they will pay for a good product as you get nothing for free. The 200 and 400 were the biggest selling cars in the range but these were the cars that represented the biggest problems in terms of warranty and complaints. The bigger, but smaller-selling 800, especially in 2.0 guise, was actually a decent car with very few serious problems inside its warranty period, but BMW paid little attention to the bigger picture of nailing the problems of the models that sold the most – it was the Service Departments’ problem, or so it seemed.

The real star of the range at that time was the 600 – a car that never really got the praise and sales it deserved. The 600 had everything going for it, Japanese engineering with English style, a car that rarely gave problems and looked so damn good in later form but which was quietly dropped because the Germans were scared of it.

Rover 75
The Rover 75: MGR deserved success, but its launch was blundered by BMW

The svelte 600 and ageing, but worthy 800 Series were replaced by the wonderful Rover 75. As dealers, we had been in on the car for considerable time before launch as several training courses and seminars were held at both Cowley and Longbridge. On a personal level, I was bowled over by the retro styling and sumptuous interior that the 75 had. It certainly looked like no other car in its sector and full factory support and superlative build quality were promised. During a visit to the “Elephant House” at Longbridge, the full line up of 75s were there for inspection – panel fit and finish along with depth of paint were a galaxy away from the 800.

Everything about the car felt so right, the damped action of the switchgear and the sheer quality of the interior plastics were like nothing ever seen on a Rover before. Finally, at long last, here was a product worth shouting about – or so it seemed at the time. All the stops were pulled out to prospect customers of 600 and 800 models, both fleet and retail. The initial response was phenomenal and our database was groaning with potential interested customers – if orders were to come from the truly massive interest, there would soon be a long waiting list.

Under German control

Then disaster struck: during the world launch of this exciting new car, the CEO of BMW publicly went on record as saying all hopes and the fate of Rover hung in the balance with the Rover 75 – in a nutshell, it better do well or we’ll close the company down. Quite frankly, you could have done less damage to your sales by punching every customer who walked through the door. The media made a great fuss of all this and soon headlines such as ‘Last chance saloon” were being banded about the place. Rover was, once again, viewed by the media and the public as a lame dog begging to be put down.

You can imagine the number of red hot potential customers dropping off and who could blame them? Managers in both the Dealers and Rover Group went berserk trying to cool the fire this massive public relations gaffe had caused. At our dealership’s open evening event for the 75, most of the questions from the members of the public who attended related to the current state of the company with a passing ‘nice car by the way”. We still managed to shift a good few cars at that event but, without doubt, this state of affairs did serious damage to customer confidence and sales – it was all so bitterly disappointing.

Hot on the heels of the Rover 75 came the 25 and 45 series cars. The media saw them as being nothing more than reworked 200 and 400s but they were much more than that. Although developed with no input from BMW and on an extremely tight budget, these new cars, especially the cute 25, oozed what can best be described as a quintessentially British quality with dashes of chrome and burr walnut in all the right places. Engine installation was carefully looked at and gone was the busy feeling at speed, replaced with a relaxing refined feel of a car costing much more.

The overall build quality was first rate thanks to a strong body with tougher box sections and sills. Many of the irritations of the previous 200 and 400 ranges were ironed out and considerable attention was given to the handling, ride and overall driving experience. Very soon these new cars pretty much flew from the showroom, owing to the fact that they were priced slightly less than the models they replaced and that none of their respective copmetitors had the combination of quality, style and feel good factor – the latter being so important to the traditional Rover buyer.

Rover 25
The Rover 25: Proving that a little can indeed go a long way

Top brass Rover management and the soon-to-be departing Board of BMW had long realised that chasing the volume competition such as Ford and GM was a pointless exercise. The key to success for Rover was to concentrate more on the brand values rather than chasing high volumes and, in the case of the standalone MGF, the company was still selling everyone of the pretty little two seater sports convertibles it could produce. I found the 25 and 45 fairly easy cars to sell – there was just no way the other cars in their sectors could compete with the way they felt and drove.

The Rover 25, 45 and 75 along with the MGF were a fairly decent range of cars that looked okay with a strong family resemblance; under the showroom lights they had style and some pretty nice paint and trim options. The 45 saloon in top of the range Connoisseur form became available with the whisper quiet 2.0 KV6 engine – it really was a miniature 75 and they even shared the same front seats.

Unfortunately, Rover also started making some strange and often pointless decisions with regards to the range line up. The V6-powered 45 Saloon was never offered with a manual gearbox which, in my view, was sheer lunacy as the silky deliverance of the power was crying out for manual transmission and I can recall more than one occasion when sales were lost because of this.

BMW seemed obsessed with their view of what the British public wanted in a car. We were viewed as old fashioned, eccentric people and the Marketing Department seemed forever in turmoil as to which class of buyer to look for. Rod Ramsay and John Towers knew exactly where the market was and who the buyers of Rover cars were while, from our point of view as salesmen, Rovers were seen as safe, solid, traditional old-fashioned in value but high in technology cars – if the customer was traditional and mature, then cater for that market, but the top brass NEVER listened to our comments.

From a sales point of view, we made good money and stock availability was pretty good. We never set the world on fire in terms of massive volumes but business was very good and customer loyalty remained high. The problems of gasket issues were still there with 1800cc Rover 75s seemingly to be the biggest culprit of all now. Dealer support had told us that production line improvements prior to the launch would see big improvements but how wrong they were. We rode these problems well; the customer will often forgive a problem if you are seen to do everything in your power to put things right but, once again, policies from upon high were to cause even more concern.

Auf weidersehen BMW, hello independence

Regardless of the fact that Rover had some issues with reliability especially with K-Series engined cars, the company had always stood by its warranty wherever possible. Even where a car was just outside its warranty period, the maker would offer a genuine goodwill contribution when issues arose. Rover’s Customer Charter and the Warranty Department were among the best in the business as was the company’s parts back up but, in a bid to make money savings, Rover started taking a hard line towards its Dealers where warranty claims were concerned.

Customers who had a long and happy relationship with the Dealer were now finding the maker no where near as approachable as was once the case. In a bid to retain confidence with the customer, Dealers were now becoming financially responsible for these out of warranty goodwill gestures and slowly but surely repeat business suffered as a consequence.

Disaster struck in 2000 when the BMW Board seemed to loose patience and decided to dispose of the Rover car divison. The German maker never seemed to grasp the nettle and work at the reliability issue. They seemed to make some serious blunders where management was concerned. Say what you will about John Towers, for example, but he knew the company, its workforce and customers like no one else and his departure from the Board prior to BMW walking away did irreversible damage to morale within the company.

All Rover ever needed was guidance from the top – the cars were okay, some stunning new models were in prototype stage, there was a good Dealer Network too, but it seemed as if BMW only ever drip fed enough cash to allow Rover just to get by. The events of 2000 are now legend but you can hardly imagine the catastrophic chaos and strife the Dealer Network suffered during this time. Rumours of a total shutdown spread like wildfire and the car market went into meltdown as Rover owners traded in their cars for rival brands. Some Dealers dropped the brand like a stone and the chaos continued until the surprise news that the company had been purchased by the Phoenix Consortium.

For once things looked bright, but for how long?

Once this news had been announced, things went into a complete reverse as far as the Dealers were concerned. It was like D-day all over again – everybody was out buying new Rovers in some form of patriotic euphoria. Retail sales through its Dealer Network increased by 35 per cent compared to 1999 levels.

Everything was selling like wildfire and this continued for a good 18 months. In the real world, the newly formed MG Rover Group had to make some real financial savings if it stood any chance of survival. Another uplift for morale was the launch of the Rover 75 Tourer, not a true estate like a Volvo V70 for instance, but a very sleek and handsome shooting-brake.

We as a sales team were stunned by the lines of this new model which, in my opinion, looked even more handsome than the saloon. No other car manufacturer this side of Mercedes Benz or BMW offered a car of this size and class. Ford had the Mondeo while Vauxhall had the cavernous Vectra estate, but none had the kudos, style or wow factor this new Rover had. Rival Dealers even visited our premises to view the car and most were wooed by the shape and tasteful interior.

We quickly gained a manual KV6-engined Connoisseur Tourer in Moonstone with the optional half timber steering wheel and placed it dead centre of the showroom. I personally went out and purchased some high powered bulbs for the showroom spot lights and the car couldn’t have looked better if it had been at the Geneva Motor Show.

Rover 75 Tourer
The Rover 75 Tourer: No V70 rival but no competition at the price either!

Sales of this new car were pretty good: within its first month I placed orders for 5 cars and made it a personal mission to make certain the Valeting Department pulled out all the stops with regards to making the cars look their best at the point of handover. Rover had, until now, lost out on the leisure estate market since the deletion of the HH-R 400 shape – another handsome looking vehicle in my own opinion – and a few customers had remarked that a 45 estate would be a nice looking car to own, but the pennies had to be spent wisely and this 75 estate was a better idea – bigger cars equals bigger profit. All the owners of 400 Tourers on the database were prospected and contacted regards the new addition to the 75 range and our dealership sold saloon and estate 75s in equal numbers.

The arrival of the Z Cars

To say that, to some customers, the brand perception could be a little quaint and aimed at the mature person is a mild understatement. We knew that some sporty-orientated models were in the pipeline, but Longbridge kept fairly quiet about what was being developed. On one of the many trips to Birmingham, we were shown the latest models in the range, the MG Z range. Performance models of the 25, 45 and 75 known as the ZR, ZS and ZT burst onto the market in 2001 to general acclaim and the slow selling and uninspiring 25 GTi died a quiet death.

However, the changes to the cars were more than skin deep with clever modifications to the suspension, gearchange and steering systems so these new perky models were utterly fun cars to drive and looked good to with vivid colours, zestful interior trim, chunky alloy wheels and their own unique keys in the shape of the MG octagon.

Engines were from 1.4 through to 2.5 and even included diesels too. At the same time the two seater MGF underwent some simplifications in manufacture, namely the fitting of coil springs opposed to the smooth riding but horrendously expensive Hydragas system. Some styling tweaks were applied and the car was re-named the MG TF, a name harking back some 50 years.

The MG ZS 180: Pound for pound, an unbeatable drive

Even though these cars were developed on the tightest of budgets, they all drove superbly – the basic 105 bhp ZR felt nimble, fun and capable and, allied to its low insurance group, the ZR 1.4 soon became popular with the younger driver. The ZS based on the 45 handled like a dream while still managing to have an agreeable ride quality.

Having a true Honda-developed suspension and steering system, the Rover 45 could be driven in a spirited manner without causing alarm, but the design modifications by MG Rover’s suspension crew transformed the chassis into a bona fide track car when so driven in such a fashion. The range topping MG ZS 180 with the KV6 2.5 litre unit coupled to a close ratio PG1 gearbox with sports shift selector linkages put many a smile on many a motoring journalists face, including a certain Jeremy Clarkson.

Even the Rover 75 was given the treatment in the form of the MG ZT and ZT-T, the latter being based on the Tourer. Always a risk with a flagship car, the ZT range also had favourable handling and ride. The lowered suspension gave the 75-based ZT an almost menacing stance especially in estate form and was the perfect antidote to the quiet, restrained image of the Rover 75. Only the oversized steering wheel spoiled the interior, but the MG ZT was to get a massive ego boost a bit later.

All efforts were made to make the public aware that MG was back and, as a knock on from the success of the new MG Sport & Racing team, sales of the new cars were positive and did much good to the credibility of MG Rover Group let alone boosting morale and getting the younger customer to consider MG Rover.

Some people have commented over the years about badge-engineering, I say that’s no bad thing. The Metro, Maestro and Montego all gained a lifesaving shot in the arm with the MG variants. Rolls-Royce and Bentley played with badge-engineering for years in the shape of the Silver Spirit, Eight and Mulsanne family – no one complained there!

MG XPower
X Power Racing: Changed public brand perception and boosted morale

Some commented that is was all a waste of money and that resources could have been better spent elsewhere within the company – that’s true to a degree, but it was all about raising the profile of the brand and, if the company was to survive in the longer term, this could only be good for the image of the company.

Public awareness is key to success and the guys on shows such as Top Gear and other so-called motoring journalists, including Mike Rutherford, constantly sniped and made fun of the company wherever they could and did no good whatsoever to the already somewhat confused image of the company. Back in 2000, when MG Rover became solely UK-owned and run once again, good vibes rang through the organisation but, within the year, the same names were back to constantly criticising the company, its bosses and cars. Every aspect of public awareness was used and I welcomed this.

Very soon, MG Rover Group and its Dealers seemed to have gained two very different customers: one the one hand, your traditional Rover customer and, on the other, the younger MG type of customer  – some clever marketing and design on the part of the company which didn’t cost the earth to put into practice either. Some careful attention was given to the level of equipment in the Z range of cars – some models were in fact very basic indeed, not even having electric windows in some cases – but, in a nutshell, the ZR, ZS and ZT were very cheap to produce thus making us some fairly decent profit.

However, in the case of the MG TF, which was an expensive car to make and had a slim profit margin, customers who would initially be looking for a two-seater were steered towards the other MG cars namely the ZR. Besides, the results of ‘Project Drive” had made some negative impact on the overall quality of the fixtures and fittings in the TF and they were also notorious for high warranty costs.

The beginning of the end

Quite possibly the most tragic and unforgivable errors that MG Rover managers made came in the forms of the MG SV and the truly dismal CityRover – both cars being reworked imports from Italy and India. The stunning MG SV was a bold attempt at making an MG supercar but, as Volkswagen learnt with the Phaeton, the prestige of the brand could only be stretched so far.

People were puzzled and reluctant to part with the money that was being asked for these great looking cars and, besides that, the Dealers were petrified of them and few were confident in handling even routine servicing or warranty work. Even driving them onto workshop ramps was, in some cases, virtually impossible.

The CityRover: Such a bitter disappointment in almost every way
MG XPower SV-R
The MG SVR: Some said it was a pointless exercise but it was a superb showcase

I remember seeing the CityRover for the first time and being shocked by the total wrongness of its design. The shape itself wasn’t too bad at all and, inside, the car was quite roomy too but the most important aspects fell so short of the mark and the interior quality was worse than some of the stuff BL had made in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The car we had for demonstration was a prime example of this – the painted door mirrors had a finish that was amongst the worst I have ever seen, an orange peel was as smooth as silk in comparison. As for the bolted on sporty alloy-effect pedals, these were so ludicrous and nasty looking that they would have been more at home in a badly customised Fiesta MK2, not something befitting the Rover brand.

Everything about the interior trim was either bad or, at the least, very average. One of the most important items in the car, namely the gear knob also felt nasty, made of cheap bone-hard plastic and the vinyl gaiter that surrounded it was equally nasty. Our Workshop Foreman took one look at the interior of the car, noticed the alarming gap in the instrument binnacle cluster and quipped: ‘I reckon I could change a bulb in that dash without removing anything!” He was right, some of the gaps and fit and finish were really that bad. We didn’t realise it at the time, but this new car really did mark the beginning of the end!

CityRover interior: no real style or quality, it just felt so horribly sub-standard

Out on the road, the CityRover wasn’t too bad – the performance was actually quite good considering its engine was, in fact, an obsolete Peugeot unit. Its handling and ride had been tweaked by Longbridge and was up to class standards. To the relief of the mechanics, its transmission was very similar to units fitted on certain Rover 100s and the 25/45 ranges.

However, in another prime example of cost cutting, the selector linkage was a cheaper type with no counterweight fitted so the car did not have the same slick shifting qualities of other Rover cars. The audio unit was of the same quality as an aftermarket system with fiddly buttons that the older buyer struggled to use – this is neatly illustrated in the picture above.

From a marketing point of view, MGR did very little to advertise the car and, as a consequence, we sold them in penny numbers with many owners of the 25 looking to downsize deciding to keep them or trade in for another one or, in many cases, buy elsewhere. At this time, we gained a new Dealer Principal who treated the older customers with contempt and, on one occasion, asked me why a mature couple had bought a rival maker’s car in preference to the CityRover. I told him it was because they felt the car was cheap and not befitting the Rover badge only for him to respond: ‘Why should they care when the car will still be in warranty after they are buried?” Amazing, but true… Needless to say he didn’t last long at our dealership.

The CityRover was a disappointment but, at least, the new MG ZT 260 was a pleasing addition to the range with its muscular engine note and breaking from current Rover tradition, rear-wheel drive. Shoehorned under the bonnet was a Ford-sourced 4.2 litre V8 which was barely breaking into a sweat with 260bhp. Despite the high asking price, the ZT260 seemed to strike a chord with drivers and some BMW 3 and 5 Series drivers were coaxed into the MG thanks to its raw driver appeal. Aftermarket kits were available to radically boost engine power and information from MGR suggested that there would be supercharging on later models but that, sadly, never had the chance to see the light of day.

The new 75-based ZT 260 showed the true spirit of the development guys at Longbridge as the car was developed for very little cost – the cost of buying in the engine, gearbox and unique rear differential did, though, contribute to the car’s relatively high asking price. MGR also offered the car in ZT-T and traditional 75 form too, using the V8 heritage to some effect as the last Rover V8-powered car was in 1986 in the form of the legendary SD1.

The handling of these cars was superb considering the cottage industry development unit in Birmingham where they were conceived – all credit to the guys there for being able to produce a lot with so very little. It’s the British way of mend and make do that the Germans found so hard to understand back in the days of BMW ownership – they would clock off at 5.00pm while the British design and development team would be hammering on burning the midnight oil.

Coming to an end

The MGR story really all started to end as the parts network was sold off to Caterpillar Logistics to raise capital. At first, the parts system went into meltdown as the new owner of the parts network battled to cope with the 100s of thousands of items from brands including Triumph, Riley, Austin, Rover et al.

Even routine service items including filters, brake parts and consumables were often impossible to get hold of  with local motor factors having to keep the workshops afloat on many occasions. I recall one customer who ran a Rover 45 diesel which had a broken engine mounting: a mechanic was sent to a nearby breakers yard to source a suitable replacement armed with some petty cash – I kid you not.

Being a salesman, you are the ambassador (no pun intended) of the company and some relationships were strained to the point of no return as the workshop backed up with warranty work with parts being unavailable to hand. Another disgruntled customer threatened to remove a headlamp from a 25 in the showroom in order to get his own car up and running – it was all very poor indeed. Once the pain barrier was through, the parts network settled down but was never as good as it had been in the Unipart or Rover parts days.

The Rover Streetwise: Mocked at when launched but other makers copied the formula

Launched for the 2004 model year were the facelifted cars sporting a new nose and revised interior in a desperate bid to breathe some life in to an ageing range. Sales of the 25 remained fairly reasonable but the 45 was dying on its knees and the facelift at least gave us a reason to hit the phones and spread the word.

Project Drive had resulted in some truly horrible cost cutting especially on the 25 which now looked cheap and nasty inside, but at least these cars had a totally new centre console and heater display – the original was based on cars from as far back as 1989. Varying shades and colours of imitation wood returned following cries from hardcore Rover owners, but it was all too easy to see that the smaller Rovers were very much living on borrowed time.

Rover TCV
The Rover TCV: Pretty, well-proportioned and came so close to fruition.

Peter Stevens had designed the Rover TCV, a replacement for the aged 45 and a crossover car long before the current players. A brief glimmer of hope came in the form of the China Brilliance company which, at one point, looked likely to invest heavily in MGR in exchange for technical knowledge and a foothold into the lucrative European market.

The likes of the TCV and the awesome 75 Coupe come would have made the showrooms if that deal had been struck. The boffins at HQ had the prototypes and the ideas, they just needed the money and sadly that never happened. In the cold light of day, MG Rover was as poor as a church mouse. After much negotiation, nothing ever came of the proposed China Brilliance Alliance.

Rover Coupe
The Rover 75/MG ZTC: Looked the part but sadly never had the chance to shine

What had been obvious for all to see from day one of the Phoenix takeover was that MG Rover had little or next to no long-term future without some form of technical collaboration or partnership – some of Rover’s best times had been as a result of the long alliance with Honda. Those days were sadly long gone  – Rover had asked Honda to increase its stake but the request was ever so graciously declined.

All four corners of the world had been searched for a partner with very little success – the search never ended – but, as a Dealer, we simply soldiered on. We needed to concentrate more on our used car sales, but our premises were restricted in size and we had very limited space to add more cars.

Demand for new cars started to slow down though we were often overwhelmed with demand for decent used Rover stock as customers realised the earlier models were better trimmed and equipped. Memos from up on high dictated that every effort must be made to shift new metal from the showroom and I honestly thought the facelifted models would do reasonably well. Sadly, I was to be proved otherwise.

Rover 25
The facelifted Rover 25: A valiant effort in order to extend its shelf life

The main issue with the facelifted 25/ZR and 45/ZS models was the rear end styling: to simplify assembly and lower cost, the tailgate/boot area had no separate chrome number plate surround and, as a consequence, the number plate was moved into the rear bumper which left a vast plain metal area which looked odd. In the case of the four-door 45, they looked rather like the old Daewoo Nexia from the mid 1990s.

Oddly enough, Rover was now being seen to be in the same class as some of the cheaper Korean cars. Showroom customers would often complain about having to pay for items such as a spare wheel or a cigar lighter in certain cars. Another customer I recall had to fight for his money back as he realised his Rover 25 had no spare wheel a week after taking delivery and gaining a puncture.

With items such as spare tyres and such being omitted from the cars, we were ordered not to mention anything unless we were specifically asked about it. This I found to be misleading and grossly unfair but, on the other hand, I needed to sell and earn money.

Rover 45
The revised Rover 45 Saloon: Customers disliked the heavy looking rear styling

As the rot slowly set in, one or two of my colleagues resigned as they lost all faith in the MG Rover Group and they were never replaced. I saw this as another opportunity to gain sales by picking up the footfall and databases from the void that had been left.

Towards the end of my time selling MGR products I made some good sales including a fleet of 6 long wheelbase Rover 75 diesels to a nearby taxi/chauffeur company. I also came so very close in taking an order for an MG SV with a Monogram paint finish but the guy bought a Lotus instead as he was offered immediate delivery.

Rover 25
By 2004 was MG Rover just a one trick pony or a dying breed?

The affair with the NAC/SAIC companies went clean over my head as all my best efforts were focussed on making deals and, looking back, it was obvious that it was going to go wrong. When Headquarters forever tell you everything is going to be okay, you know it’s not. Tell tale signs like, for example, third party parts taking forever to arrive or cars ordered with optional extras being delayed for weeks at a time along with constant press articles and rumours suggested that something was indeed very wrong.

We still kept getting memos telling us all of the exciting new partnership which would give us hope and a real fighting chance for long term survival. We never cared who owned us – whether it was the Chinese or the Japanese – so long as the UK’s largest car maker had a chance to breathe the xenophobia and patriotic views would have to be forgotten.

History shows that BL came so close to extinction in the 1970s but, by the mid 2000s, MG Rover was less than a fraction of what the once mighty British Leyland empire had been. We needed this one chance, this one final opportunity to show the world we were viable and able to produce a first class product. The Rover 75 was still a credible car but the rest of the range was dying slowly along with the company itself.

The range of CityRover through to the 75 were selling at an all time low by late 2004 as the public, existing customers and, to a certain degree, the Dealers Network simply lost confidence in the company and product. Some massive groups such as Dutton Forshaw, Reg Vardy, Marshalls and Evans Halshaw either closed some premises or added other franchises to their portfolio and they were right to do so as the market share just wasn’t there anymore.

My showroom saw Saturday traffic end up like Sunday and, in hindsight, we were all putting on a brave face. Pricing became very competitive and models became available with leather trim as standard in a bid to address some Eastern competition but it all just felt so wrong.

Rover was once a brand that had its own class and distinction – a poor man’s Jaguar was often the banded phrase which was no bad thing – but later the brand and everything it stood for became so diluted and disillusioned it was now seen as an alternative buy to cars from Hyundai-Kia and Daewoo/Chevrolet and, in many eyes, seen as a laughing stock.

We were told everything would be okay, a deal with the Chinese was literally weeks away, but everything was shot to pieces a short while before the official collapse and, looking back in hindsight, the tell tale signs were there. Parts supply once again became sporadic with certain items being hard to obtain, especially items that were non-stock or slow moving i.e.: certain trim items.

Other Dealer Group-owned or independent dealers were encouraged to by more stock direct from the factory, obviously to show prospective buyers that more units were being shipped from the factory and look promising on the books. Special order cars with bespoke paint or options were coming through at record speed – great for the salesperson whose commission only pays out on delivery but so obvious that the bosses up in the Midlands knew the hourglass was quickly running out. Very soon, I realised I was only kidding myself and left my job. MG Rover entered into administration exactly three weeks later.

In summary

Well, they were the best of times, they were the worst of times. In hindsight, what happened to MGR was terrible and, although we never witnessed the continuation of the high sales figures of 2000, right to the very end MGR employed some seriously talented men and women both in the plant and on the showroom floor. Towards the end, selling the cars was indeed a massive and often difficult task owing to the dilution of the brand.

The marque which had once made legendary cars such as the P5B and Range Rover became, with the exception of the Rover 75, builders of aged designs based heavily upon long superceded and expensive Honda technology and imported Indian superminis which had the build quality of a tick tack box and the charisma of a wet weekend in Morecambe.

On reflection, and in my own opinion, the brave development of cars such as the ZT 260 and MG SV were not a waste of resources, but should be seen as MG Rover management trying to create a showcase for prospective owners or collaborators.

Many a thing has been said about the ‘Phoenix Four” but many forget the efforts put in by Directors like John Towers who courted some of the world’s lesser known but cash-rich car makers, many of which were from Asia. Countless meetings and discussions that went through to the small hours when all the workers, buying public and critics were tucked up in bed many thousands of miles away, all for the cause of keeping the company and its employees viable.

In the end, after considerable effort from senior management and with no help from a dithering UK Government, MG Rover called in the Administrators after failing to make enough progress with the Chinese – it really did come so very close to a very different ending.

‘It’s so strange when you’re down and lying on the floor
How you rise, shake your head, get up and ask for more
Clear-headed and open-eyed
With nothing left untried
Standing calmly at the crossroads, no desire to run
There’s no hurry any more when all is said and done”

Words: Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus

Mike Humble


  1. What a great piece! Heartfelt and well thought out… It also backs up what others have said about the drop in quality of Rover after the BMW purchase. I had first-hand experience with a drop in the quality of Land Rover. It’s a real shame Rover was allowed to be destroyed in the way it was.

  2. An excellent, yet very sad article. I’d say this looks like a very accurate account. Well done Mike! Alex.

  3. This article’s a fantastic read. Kudos!

    I was surprised, though, by the interior pictures which show what look like cheap aftermarket CD players in official photos! Even the likes of Peugeot/Citroen had integrated audio systems in their base-mid range cars (206, ZX etc…) by the mid ’90s!

  4. I take it the “EXITING” new partnership (second paragraph under last picture) is a Freudian slip!

    My 1994 218SLDT was a lower quality car then my 1990 216GSi – I assumed that this was due to regular cost-down pressures. Maybe I was a bit naive there…

  5. When Rover was on the brink, we tried to buy a Streetwise. I worked out that it had to be £7,500 to make financial sense for the car in question but the Dealer refused to budge below £8,200 and we walked away. Two months later the same car was being advertised for £6,500 and we had an A-Class.

    Similarly, when I wanted an MG F, the Dealer wouldn’t give me the time of day; when I looked at an MG TF, I found the suspension harsh and unpleasant by comparison.

  6. I had six new Rovers (200s, 400, 45s and a 75) in a row between 1995 and earlier this year… I loved them all and would have had another 75 if still available.

    This is a fascinating piece, well written and expressed. What a shame!

  7. I visited my local MGR Dealer about a week before the company went under. The dealership had moved to a smaller premises (tucked out of the way down a side street) the year before and I was after some parts for my 214. It was dead, not a single prospective buyer even looked at the cars outside when I was there.

    I took a seat in the dealership’s Rover 75 V8, looked over a new ZS 180 saloon (which I noticed had terrible paint runs along the N/S door bottoms…) and took some brochures.

    I spoke to the only member of staff in the showroom and he asked me jokingly if I was interested in the 75 V8. He was a young lad and was on work experience duties while the other salesmen were out getting lunch, such was their confidence in making any sales!

  8. Thinking about it, the then Rover Dealer in Whiteabbey on my route to school stopped dealing in Rover around the early 2000s.

    Their colour scheme and signage is still Rover burgundy though and I am sure I saw some faded Austin-Rover/Unipart signage still present round the side recently.

    Here’s a link to S S Logan and Son Ltd’s website.

  9. Thank you for this – the insider’s view! I thought the rear ends of the ’04 facelift models were a new design language, but it turns out they were a cost-saving exercise.

    I looked at a ZT-T 1.8 Turbo at the Darlington dealer a week after the collapse and was offered £8,000 off the list price – almost 50%! I would have gone for the car if it had only had a passenger airbag that could be switched off (to enable a child seat in the front).

  10. I remember so much of this so well and was in a similiar situation – I worked in the workshop as a Technician.

    All of Mike’s observations are so very true. I have said many times that MG had to go racing to raise the brand’s profile or it WOULD NEVER have sold the Z cars in the numbers it did – as you say MG was a old brand which, to many, had died with the M cars of the ’80s.

    I also agree with the parts issues. It was worst in 2001 when the change from Unipart to X-Part first happened and then again in 2003 with the sell off. Both were massive mistakes. I never had issues with Unipart but the deal was done with X-Part under BMW ownership and I suppose the P4 just had to go through with it.

    We never struggled to sell the cars ourselves, even the CityRover walked out but the early ones were shocking. We never sold the SV as it was SNR sites only and we weren’t one but it always looked like a good car.

    Shame it all went so wrong… I learnt my trade at Rover and have never worked with cars since it all shunted to an end in 2005.

    Mike got another thing right, too: the 800 was an underrated car with very few issues on warranty claims and so many were repeat buys year on year.

  11. An excellent article which was so interesting to read.

    I believe that one of the problems with Rover (the brand rather than the convenient title of the company) is that very little was done to deliver the sort of ‘halo’ cars that would appeal to new buyers to the brand. This was something I put to MG Rover Group’s management in early 2001 but their response was that such models would only wear the MG badge because no-one wanted a sporting or ‘halo’ Rover.

    The 25 GTi was actually a very nice car (nicer to drive than the harsh ZR160), but it suffered from non-existent marketing. The 45 V6 with manual gearbox was another idea I put to senior management in early 2001, but again there wasn’t a positive response.

    I now drive two MGs (one a very late build ZR) but it was the Rover name that I really wanted to see more done with. I recall looking at the then newly-launched MG ZS against a Rover 45 in 2001 and there was no contest – the Rover looked and felt the more expensive and aspirational car.

    It’s a real shame that the supposed masters of quality (BMW) could not recognise the need to maintain and further enhance the quality attributes of their ‘English Patient’. They even got it wrong with the Land Rover Freelander which they invested so heavily in.

    You make nice (and accurate) comment about the efforts of Mr Towers and all who worked for the Rover Group and MG Rover Group.

    Even now, with the possible exception of a Land Rover product, I can’t see anything I want to drive beyond a Rover or Rover-based MG saloon. Twelve years on, the Rover 75 is still an appealing proposition that I will go for one day.

    • Interesting point about the lack of a ‘halo’ car in the Rover range. I think there was one in the end – the Rover V8. That certainly did overturn the image of the marque as the respectable chap’s choice, but it came right at the last gasp of the company and never really had its chance.

  12. Well done Mike… this is a very enlightening and entertaining read.

    I agree with your impressions of the long drawn out MG Rover saga. I agree with you about the quality issues too. My MG ZS didn’t have as good sound-proofing or plastic protective trim on the rear wheelarches as my previous R45 had.

    The Rover 75/MG-ZT remains one of my favourite Rovers of all time.

  13. A great essay – there’s a big part of the story still to be told from the Dealers’ point of view – and good to see comments above from former Dealer staff.

    The termination of so many smaller Dealers with good customer service and a loyal following in 1994 was a huge mistake: many of their customers and the repeat purchasers Mike mentions left Rover with them. Mind you, for some Dealers it might have been a blessing to have the opportunity to pick up a more lucrative franchise.

    How, though, did some village Dealers survive the cull and remain in the network until 2005? The excellent A.E. Wilcox in Wickwar, Glos and W.H. Brand in Whaplode Drove, Lincs are two which spring to mind.

  14. What a fascinating story – enough to make you weep when you remember how huge the company once was. If only new models planned for the Chinese JV had seen the light of day. If only…

  15. An excellent and slightly depressing article.

    My one quibble (looking at the sales numbers on this site) is the suggestion that the facelift of the 200 and 400 to produce the 25 and 45 made them fly out of the showroom.

    The figures indicate that, in reality, there was a steep drop after 1998 and a slow decline after the launch of the 25 and 45 which was not helped by the quality of the opposition (such as the Focus and Golf IV).

  16. WOW! I really didn’t think that my ramble would be met with such a positive response!

    I’m pleased and, to a degree, touched by your comments on the above essay. I was in two minds about writing the piece but, in hindsight, I’m glad I did.

    I might now scribble something down about one or two of the many “eccentric” customers with whom I had dealings some time ago!

    Once again – many thanks!

    • Mike, thanks for your honest thoughts and experiences of your time with Rover. I worked on Rovers/MGs in an independent garage during the late 70s to mid 80s. I left the trade as the 800 was launched, but never forgot how the style and prestige of the new car ‘blew me away’ as a young mechanic. Consequently four years ago I bought an 820si which I absolutely love. This year I bought a 75, and am kicking myself it took so long to find out what a fantastic car it is (and I own plenty of other cars for comparison) I love everything about the car, the build quality is right up there with the best of them as far as I’m concerned. I’ve just bought the DVD from John Clancy, and can’t wait for it to arrive.
      Finally, keep on doing what your doing here, we all truly appreciate your efforts and enjoy your writings.

  17. Thank you for writing this heartfelt piece, which told me what I suspected was happening in the run up to the closure.

    Let it be said that I was always treated with respect when I went into my local Rover Dealer for parts and wanted to sit in the various 75s on display. They were, at that time, well out of my reach as new vehicles, but I promised myself that, one day, I would buy one.

    I got into Rovers in 1998 with the purchase of a 1993 214 SLi wedge (the Concerto-based model) with white over grey paint, which served me well until my daughter’s arrival warranted a larger car. It was a great car that served me well and looked the business when compared with the then opposition (Escort anyone?).

    Move on to May 2005 (the month after the shutdown) and we bravely took the plunge with a Rover 75 Tourer. Five and a half years later, we still have the car and have added a 75 V6 Saloon to the fleet – frankly, there is still nothing out there to beat them for the money. The last hurrah of Rover so to speak…

    Sadly, both of our 75s are getting on in years and we still don’t know what to buy next. Had the company survived, we would have bought another without hesitation.

  18. A very interesting piece… I spent my early working years in the ’70s and ’80s in BL/ARG Dealerships then moved into fleet management and vehicle leasing until Y2K so I can relate to much of what Mike says. By the late ’90s the Rover product was been left behind but still had a fairly loyal folowing.

    Once I’d left the motor industry for other things I didn’t think much about the Rover product until I had a chance to opt-out of my then company car scheme. After lookiing around for something towards the hard-core end of ‘sporty’, I had two cars shortlisted to buy with my allowance – a Leon Cupra R or a Subaru Impreza WRX – both around the £19k mark after discounts. However, one Saturday afternoon, I went past an MG Rover Dealer and was intrigued by the new MG ZS 180 in the showroom. One 20 mile test drive later, taking in my favourite biking road, and I was sold. Not only did I end up with a real hooligan car that drove better than either of the two I’d shortlisted, I saved around £5k on my expected my purchase costs. I had that car for nearly 3 years and 60k miles with no major problems. The only repairs were a weak boot lid spring and two clutch slave cylinders which were all fixed under warranty.

    Very few people realised it was a Rover 45 underneath. Many thought it was a BMW – perhaps the understated quality appearance of the Anthracite paintwork helped with that impression.

  19. Love this article… as a lad, I would always love going to the old BL/MGR Dealers in Colwyn Bay, Braids then Meredith & Kirkham… However, back in the Summer of ’94 on my first lads’ holiday to Ibiza I came accross a cool view…. (and there are plenty on Ibiza!): a Rover Dealer on the Grand Avenue de Madrid (I think) leading into Ibiza town.

    I remember looking proudly at the shiny new Rover 200s and MGF in the showroom and wondering who’d buy them, much to the riddicule of my mates…. The Dealer was there for my return Summer visits of ’95, ’96, ’97 and ’99 and each time I would pass the dealership, look in and feel proud a little bit of GB was on this Spanish island!!!

    However, then something happened – I cannot quite remember when (too much of the Ibizan sun) – but, in 2001 or so, the Rover Dealer was no more… This British outpost had gone forever and been turned into a laundrette which it still is today ten years later.

    I last visited Ibiza in 2009 and ran into a TR6 and a Spitfire which were both owned by locals who said they’d never sell them and who could blame them…

  20. An excellent article…

    What happened was sad but I had wondered what had been going on during the last year of MG Rover.

    I reckon that, if other people (who used to work for Rover in one way or another) could share their stories as well, then that would be really interesting.

    It would be great to hear about what was going on in the last year from the guys at Powertrain. Could we have some articles on Powertrain ?

  21. The observations about the problems with CAT Logistics and parts availability are interesting. This is where all the real profit is made.

    Unipart certainly didn’t take losing the then current cars’ spares contract lying down but still lost out despite having a superb warehouse and a successful logistics partnership with Land Rover, when its then in-house parts division was becoming Best-in-Class.

    CAT still apparently has problems nowadays with badly designed IT systems, some key staff functions working from cheaper overseas call centres and high UK staff turnover possibly partly due to poor salary levels and limited product knowledge.

    Nevertheless, without the XPart initiative, most MG Rover owners would be in trouble given how long it took Nanjing/SAIC Motor to get their act together.

  22. I found this article to be a fascinating read. What happened to Rover and, indeed, MG is a huge shame.

    I recall as a small child of about 4 or 5 frequently visiting Epsom Rover with my Grandad. He had a 214 SLi that he’d bought brand new from them and, when it went in for servicing or he wanted anything for it, we would pop down there. The staff there all knew him by name and my Mum’s best friend, Tasha, worked there, so my Grandad and I were always looked after well when we visited. Tasha would take me off and let me sit in the 800s, which remain one of my all time favourite cars.

    My parents had a couple and I intend to get one if and when my 420 gives up the ghost or whenever I can afford it. They were happy times for me, a small child obsessed with all things automotive, and, particularly at that time, the MK1 800 Series.

    A number of years later, when I was about 13 or 14, my Dad had acquired a mint 216SLi auto which needed a radio code and a new key fob. We went to Guava Rover in Guildford and, again, I remember the dealership’s staff being more than happy to help us out with what we needed while I went and sat in a top of the range 75 and all the MG Z cars. The salesman wandered over to me while my Dad was at the desk and was more than happy to talk to me about the car despite knowing there was not even a glimmer of a potential sale.

    That all pretty much sums up my memories of Rover Dealers – great places, very pleasant to be in and with very friendly staff. Such a shame, as these wonderful people were soon to be out of a job. That said, Epsom Rover still exists as EMG, which is a Chrysler Dealer and Rover Specialist, complete with the old burgundy-liveried Rover-branded workshops and signs out the front, which is nice to see.

  23. I often wonder about BMW and their direction – the way Bernd Pischetsrieder wanted to act, the BMW Stockholders and Board and the way Wolfgang wanted to do things all had quite some effect on Rover. It does seem that BMW put the money in, but the hands off approach seemed to not help. I think BMW’s desire to turn Rover into a volume luxury car maker was ambitious.

    I think you are right to say that the Germans assumed that their way of working would work here and that they did not understand the way the British teams would work.

    It must have been heart-breaking to work for Rover and watch the Viking flagship list and sink. I think the comment about the company becoming a laughing stock still holds true. Many people I talk to of my own age (19) say the usual stuff: “An old man’s car,” “Cheap,” “What about Head Gaskets?” “Cr*p” etc.` which is a real shame.

    I do have a nightmare of a time trying to explain to the missus that cars like the CityRover are not what Rover is about. I cannot help but think that certain media outlets are responsible for uninformed second-hand views.

    The comment about the Government seems very true indeed – from what I see, they watched closely but, when asked for support by BMW, they slashed the promised amount and they did little to alter the strong pound we apparently had in the late ’90s…

    This was a very informative and touching read! Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  24. Well written and very recognisable. I have the same feelings here in the Netherlands – I worked for the brands for nearly forty years and am still proud of that.

  25. An excellent writeup. The enthusiasts interest in cars so often starts and finishes with engineering and it’s good to see a different perspective. A tragic story watching what was the third biggest car maker in the world c.50 years ago go down the pan.

  26. An interesting article… I’m on my third 620Ti – it’s a fantastic car and everyone at work laughs about it until they drive it and then wonder why they pay five times what I paid for it for a souless 1.6 hatchback.

    I have to ask, as a Scandinavian, where did you hear of Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus?

  27. I saw a 54 plate Rover 45 saloon in Metallic Grey with steel wheels near to where I live a couple of days ago. It looked to be in great condition and better than many six year old cars – so MG Rover’s products couldn’t have been all that bad in the company’s final days.

  28. @MG Ben
    W.H. Brand were, and still are, a very respected business which kept the franchise owing to the Dealer Network gap in that area.

    However, in the case of the Dealers I mentioned ie: P.J. Green and Robinsons of Kimbolton, they had main dealers not that far away – Henly’s in Northampton and Marshalls which had a strong presence in both Cambridge and Peterborough with smaller, satellite Rover agents in Huntingdon and St. Neots.

  29. @Hilton Davis
    The Rover 45 which you saw was probably a well-cared for car. It was and is common knowledge that quality suffered in later cars. Everything from the carpets to the fabric on the seats were vastly inferior to pre-2003 cars.

    Some lovely paint colours were offered towards the end along with nice looking alloys but, sadly, the alloys pitted and scratched badly and some paint finishes were so bad in some areas that expensive rectification work would have to be carried out.

    It all went very, very wrong in the last 6 months!

  30. Tim Vistisen :Interesting article, I’m on my third 620Ti, fantastic car, everyone at work laughs about it, then they drive it and wonder why they pay 5 times what I paid for it, for a 1.6 souless hatchback. I have to as as a Scandinavian, where did you hear of Benny Anderson & Björn Ulvaeus?

    I believe they were part of a popular beat/pop combo or so I’m lead to understand 🙂

  31. I found the comment about BMW having their own ideas about what customers wanted very interesting.

    The company which made me redundant this year has a CEO who keeps coming out with statements about the customers wanting this and that – they just never seemed to be the customers we spoke to each and every day!

    Needless to say the company concerned is still not in the best of health. Sometimes market research can work!

  32. A quite brilliant article, Mike – one which will go down as one of the best summaries on this website.

    I had the pleasure of owning one great Rover and one dog which I will now tell you about. The first car was a Rover 216GSI Auto – Honda engineering with Rover class, the car did over 150,000 miles with no issues. However, the second Rover was a 1995 214SEI which, sadly, had the damned awful K-Series engine and which stopped with head gasket trouble after 50,000 miles.

    I worked for Rover as a Mechanic from 1989 to 1995 and was horrified by how many warranty claims we had on the K-Series engine. Owners who thought that they had a saved a few quid by not going for the Honda unit were quick to change when the time came. We averaged 9 engine issues a month on the K-Series.

    The cars which we sold with Honda mechanics were the ones to have and that leads me to my final point: Rover’s demise should not be attributed to BMW as everyone suggests but more to the fact that “the jewel in the crown” partnership with Honda was allowed to slip into history.

  33. My Dad bought a 1993 Rover 414 SLi a year after it was built. This was when Rover was enjoying its successful period in the early to mid Nineties. I remember that car well – it was simply excellent, showing great quality and promising strong performance, even though it only had a 1.4 under the bonnet. It was streets ahead of the Ford Orion it replaced.

    The 52 plate Rover 45 saloon that replaced it came, frankly, as a disappointment. There was always a flap of carpet in the driver’s footwell that would come loose and fall onto your shins as you were driving – very distracting.

    It was a nice-looking car though, similar to the 75 in some ways. A rare case of the booted spin-off of a Golf-sized hatch actually looking better than the 5-Door car it was based on.

  34. @Chris8
    Pulling the plug – I don’t know… Here, in Germany, a bigger change happened earlier in the BMW days, when many smaller or even some larger Dealers had their contracts cancelled/not renewed. The investment in showrooms etc. wanted by the new owners was part of it.

    Many a BMW dealership got Rover and LR ‘forced’ onto them then but here, at least, many of them jumped the sinking ship as quickly as they could.

  35. Mike Humble :
    @MG Ben
    W.H. Brand were, and still are, a very respected business which kept the franchise owing to the Dealer Network gap in that area.
    However, in the case of the Dealers I mentioned ie: P.J. Green and Robinsons of Kimbolton, they had main dealers not that far away – Henly’s in Northampton and Marshalls which had a strong presence in both Cambridge and Peterborough with smaller, satellite Rover agents in Huntingdon and St. Neots.

    Don’t forget that Souls of Olney was another well-respected small dealership which was not far away.

  36. @Darren
    Yes, Souls were another dealer with a solid reputation.

    The Managing Director, David Soul (I kid you not), and his Aftersales Director Pete Bebbington, along with Charles and Colin Robinson in Kimbolton (as mentioned above) were all people who really knew their stuff. Oddly enough, both ran coach operations as well.

    Souls also managed to negotiate an LDV van service agency and were well-known in the trade for their quality of workmanship. They often used to put their Technicians in for Rover’s once famous “Technician Of The Year” award and regularly won – the Service Department wall was covered in certificates proving this.

    In the case of Souls, they enjoyed some brief expansion when both BMG in Kingston, Milton Keynes and Kingsbury Rover in Wellingborough ceased trading. Souls gained the whole of Milton Keynes by becoming Main Dealers giving them a much better profit margin than when they were Retail Dealers. I understand that Souls Motor Group sell Mitsubishi and MG nowadays.

    Another longstanding, family-run Rover Dealer, Townsend Garages on the A6 in Rushden, rode the storm well by taking on a Hyundai franchise alongside MG Rover and made a good job of it too.

    The best Rover Dealers were, as I’ve already said, the smaller family-run village operations.

  37. @Mike Humble
    You sold my Mum and Dad a red Rover 75 and took me for a drive in your MGF. Do you remember?

    Dad is restoring a Metro GTa for me as I recently passed my test. I love this site.

  38. Thank you for this article, a touching and somewhat saddening read.

    Back in 2004, I learned to drive in a Rover 75 which belonged to my Mum. I had been saving my back end off since I was 12 to get my own car when I passed. I walked into my local MGR Dealer in February, 2005 and ordered myself a Rover 25 1.4 in metallic black. Less than 2 months later, the company went into administration.

    The Dealer was superb and friendly, let me take my time and treated me and my family with the utmost respect since we had all been going there since Mum and Dad’s love affair with Rover had begun in the 1980s.

    I think that level of service is what I’m going to miss most – when Mum bought a Volvo last year, the Dealer treated us like a bunch of idiots. However, when you went to your MGR Dealer, you were treated as a equal.

  39. At the end of 2004, I was given a budget by my company to replace my Rover 400 with a new vehicle. I took the option to view a number of brands, but found most dealerships were particularly lazy when it came to putting any effort into selling me one of their cars. However, on returning to Rover (Time Tees in Basildon) I was greeted by a salesman who was not only keen to approach me, but provided me with plenty of information and vehicle options.

    The new metal in the showroom was all part of the revised/updated model ranges and, although the interiors had been improved, the exteriors had suffered from the process. The bonnet/bumper shut line and new foil badging seemed to cheapen the appearance of the facelifted 75, with the result that the car did not appear on my shopping list. I still wonder how many other customers were put off by that revised styling…

    Instead, I went for an original shape pre-registered 75. Rover had plenty to choose from – my luck but maybe a sign of the company’s problems at the time. I also went diesel as the head gasket headlines had filtered through and put me off the 1.8 petrol – again, how many other customers were put off the K-Series by the press?

    I’ve been very happy running the 75 and still am although the car is now privately owned. The Basildon dealership is no longer trading but, during its existence, I did use a couple of loan cars: a 25 and a CityRover. The 25 was a very much a Project Drive version of the 200 and, as for the CityRover, well, you could tell a company was in trouble if it could release such a retrograde vehicle. I believe it did more damage than good to the company’s reputation even if it did generate some cash for Rover.

    My only problem now is what to do when the time comes to replace the 75 – there is nothing presently on the market which ticks all the boxes like the first generation 75 did.

  40. @Philip Reed
    I believe that quite a lot of potential buyers were put off by the revised styling of the Rovers (although the Contemporary trim-level was a good idea). I remember that, when I first saw the photos of the revised 75, I actually wanted to “confront” Peter Stevens for turning such an elegant looking car into something that looked distinctly cost-led. I really was that angry!

    Interestingly, I remember driving one of the Press Demo 75 V8s and comparing the Rover longship badge on the key fob with that on the radiator grille. Both had a different version of the updated badge: the one on the car did nothing to raise the premium appeal of the Rover name but the one on the keyfob, with its more pleasing maroon sails (rather than garish red) and silver sail vanes (rather than metallic red), appeared to have more class. Such a small detail change, but one that made all the difference.

    Small wonder, then, that some owners of the facelifted 75 choose to fit the earlier badge to the radiator grille.

    • Project Drive and the City Rover were a desperate attempt to save a sinking company. I really would have preferred it in 2000 that the 25 and 45 were axed and resources devoted to the 75 and MGs, which deserved to live and could have been regularly updated from the money saved by ditching the 25 and 45.

      • Quote: “I really would have preferred it in 2000 that the 25 and 45 were axed and resources devoted to the 75 and MGs, which deserved to live and could have been regularly updated from the money saved by ditching the 25 and 45.”

        Why? According to figures I have from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) the Rover 25 and 45 consistently outsold their MG counterparts in the years 2002, 2003 and first half of 2004. 2002 was of course the first ‘full’ on-sales year for the MG Z models. Only in the last six months of MG Rover Group’s trading did the MG ZR suddenly become the company’s best seller. In addition, the Rover 25 and 45 outsold the Rover 75 by a noticeable margin up until 2004.

        Without the Rover 25 and 45 the company’s chances of survival were even less likely as the MG variants did not have universal appeal over the Rovers (as SMMT figures confirm), while the Rovers also served to be useful sellers in export markets where the MG variants did not attract the same level of sales success.

        The cost of updating both Rover and MG versions was minimal as they both shared many components. The savings to be made from not having the Rovers to update would be like a ‘penny dropped into a pond’ and never have been sufficient to save the company.

        • Do you have the sales figures for 200/25 from the mid-90s to the end please? If not where could I find them?

  41. I think the Rover brand was massively mis-managed. I just wish they hadnt gone down that pipe and slippers route. I mean we had the Tomcat which was stunning and was regarded as “cool” but then it was all cosy, relaxed old-fashioned. Bonkers. As good as a 75 was (I had one) it was too pensioner retro. The Mini is retro in a cool way- and sold.

  42. Rover was probably at its best in the early nineties, when the brand was projecting a sporting image with hot hatch versions of the Metro and the 200, and the 600 soon developed an excellent reputation as a motorway car, and also spawned a 150 mph turbo version. Far better than the dross Ford was churning out at the time, with the Escort about as desirable as a Lada and the ugly bug Scorpio turning away buyers in droves.

  43. A really well written and interesting article. However, I feel it very unfair to say ‘BMW drip fed the company’. 8 am no fan of BMW, but their investment was enormous and greater than the sums of the governments over much longer periods.

    • I agree entirely they were pouring cash into the company, not just to cover the losses, but as was seen with the state of the art production line for the Freelander that before BMW would have had its bodyshells built in Finland, along with the Rover 75 which raised the whole quality level of Rover products, there was serious investment.

      Much of what is blamed on BMW in this article, was in reality good old traditional “British Leyland” failure. BMW were a relatively small company, they did not have the people to put into Rover’s management the result was that for the first three years the company was effectively still under its BAe management, who BMW gave a massive amounts of money to in that time, with little achieved. The quality issues in this time were because they simply could not produce their Honda derived products at a price that made the profitable, so they were trying to stem the losses while they waited for new product to come and save them.

  44. The demise of Rover is sad, but Land Rover is booming and selling cars people want to buy all over the world. Also BMW creating a Mini for the 21st century and expanding the range to include crossovers saved thousands of jobs in Oxford and again has been a huge success. Like it or not, superminis, crossovers and SUVs are what the market want and the market for C and D segment cars, unless they’re German, is a fraction of what it was in the nineties.

  45. A great read, thank you. About a month or so after MGR collapsed, I was driving to work behind a newish 45, with the separate R O V E R letters on the boot lid. The first R had fallen off, I always thought how apt that was.

  46. It’s a shame, but with Rover divested of Land Rover and the growing market for SUVs after 2000, they were just a small company producing cars that fewer buyers wanted. Yet the marques that got away – Mini, Land Rover and Jaguar – are doing very well under different owners. Also while really a badge on a range of Chinese crossovers and SUVs, you could say MG has made a big comeback. Now, is there any truth in the rumour they might be considering building a proper assembly plant in the UK?

  47. My first summer job was cleaning cars in a BLMC dealer, Lookers of Macclesfield (now demolished, I believe) in 1975. There was a Marina TC coupe automatic in the showroom with rust at the back of the roof gutters; I also remember cleaning a 1.3 saloon with paint runs all the way along the LH sill.
    The following year I worked in a VW dealer. The designs were way ahead of Allegros and Marinas, but their quality was not perfect. You couldn’t push the bonnets down, or you would dent them with your wrists; they had to be dropped from about six inches. Also, I was cleaning a Passat and rubbed a rectangular switch to degrease it. It promptly fell out of the dash!
    Eh well – we know who won.

    • Volkswagen had produced the Beetle for so long, the assembly workers probably knew the car inside out, but when Wolfsburg switched to producing the all new Golf and Passat, there were bound to be teething troubles with the cars. The early Golf had a lot of exposed wiring that could come adrift and the cars weren’t particularly well built or protected against rust. However, the generally good drive, strong drivetrains and good designs meant sales built up and the quality improved as time went on. By the eighties, the Golf was regarded as the best car in its class and the Passat Mark 2 was a favourite with middle class buyers who appreciated its quality.

  48. It makes me really sad that MG-Rover was gone before I had the chance to buy my first new car. An modern MG ZR would have suited my personality far more than my 2014 Fiesta Zetec I bought

  49. A very interesting article, however seeing the business from the manufacturing end as a consultant in the latter BMW years, it does give unfair impression as to their involvement.

    BMW was a lean company when it bought Rover Group from BAe, it simply did not have the managers to parachute into Rover, so the UK management were effectively left to get on with it. One of the challenges that this management team was grappling with at the time, was that they could not build their products at a price that the market would bear. This was the issue that not only pulled quality down, but also drove the increasing losses at a time when BMW was also investing heavily in the future of Rover, not only in product but also modernization of its production facilities. It was this situation that set the alarm bells ringing back in Munich and finally when the Government spurned a request for £20 million to address some legacy site contamination issues as part of its £1.7 billion modernization of Longbridge to build the Mini and Rover 55, BMW decided to dispose of the business.

  50. BMW is a family owned company in Germany that remains fiercely independent and, apart from their five year takeover of Rover, have never formed an alliance with another manufacturer or would allow themselves to be taken over. I’m sure the success of BMW must have had companies like General Motors eyeing them up as a partner and had dreams of taking them over if the Quandt family put BMW up for sale, but it’s very unlikely to happen.
    BMW does well with outside interference because their cars have a reputation for quality engineering and driving abilities, even if there have been reports newer BMWs aren’t as reliable as their predecessors. For a family owned company, BMW are a very big player with factories in Germany, England, America, South Africa and China and cater to every part of the market from Mini to large SUVs. I doubt, unless something goes tragically wrong, BMW would ever go out of business like Rover.

  51. I find it hard to understand why Rover management believed that their customer base didn’t want ‘sporty’ Rovers when the 3500 Vitesse, 800 Vitesse, 216 Vitesse, 216Gti, 220Gti, Coupe etc, were very popular in user-chooser fleets during the 1980s and 90s. Perhaps nobody told them most cars by this time were bought by companies and not the private buyer spending his own money.

    Perhaps the dealer network itself needs take some blame for this as very few were geared up for fleet sales and I can name some of the ‘good’ dealers mentioned in the comments above who were almost overtly “anti-fleet”, refusing to sell outside their area, or commit to PDI turn-around times, or make fleet drivers feel welcome when it came to service and repair bookings, and felt it their right to charge labour rates on a par with Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW dealers when it came to routine servicing.

    On the other hand there were some fantastic dealers who would give their Ford and Vauxhall counterparts a real run for their money when it came to catering to the volume fleets. These were typically the larger groups who recognised where the Rover product really stood in the minds of the fleet manager or user-chooser. These dealers recognised the need for competitive labour rates, prompt service turn-arounds, supplying courtesy cars when justified and didn’t mess around when it came to submitting warranty claims or getting the manufacturer involved if there were some sticky technical issues.

    It’s such a shame that Rover / MG Rover disappeared in the way that it did when there was so much good-will towards the company and towards the products when they were getting it right a lot of the time.

  52. I think the problem with Rover and fleet sales was they’d culled a large part of the dealer network in the seventies and eighties, while Ford and Vauxhall had kept a similar sized network and Vauxhall after the Cavalier was launched aggressively chased the fleet market. There were big Leyland/ Rover chains like Kenning and Appleyard that could sell in bulk to fleets, but others were family dealers who mostly relied on private buyers and didn’t have space to store large numbers of fleet cars or be able to offer discounts.

    • Glenn, you’re absolutely correct and the problem appears to be that Rover’s decision makers were listening to these smaller family run dealers about what a Rover customer wanted rather than to the groups who were making real in-roads into fleets. The fleets I managed had a good percentage of Rover R8 200s/400s and 800s. These were popular with drivers, especially the sporty versions, but the rot set in quickly following their replacements and even the fleet sales reps employed by Rover appeared to give up and throw in the towel.

      • Even in the early days of British Leyland a lot of smaller dealers were let go where there was a bigger showroom close by, but many ironically started selling imports, especially as it was at the time the Japanese manufacturers were getting established.

      • @cliffr, Rover began to court the fleet market again in the early nineties when their products became far more desirable and memories of their old products began to fade, although a rejuvenated Maestro and Montego with diesel engines became popular with fleets wanting a car that could do huge mileages with great economy. The 200 and 400, once it was established these were a safe bet and as reliable as their rivals, won over considerable amounts of fleet sales and were far nicer cars than the Mark 5 Escort and Mark 3 Astra.
        As you say, the goodwill was blown with the second generation 200 and 400, which straddled market sectors and word got out the K series could suffer from head gasket problems. Rover seemed to retreat into its safe zone of repeat purchases from ageing buyers and even when the MG brand was relaunched, there was no great attempt to get fleet buyers interest.

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