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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & 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 & Mulsanne family – no one complained there!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Essays : Selling the brand - 18 November 2023
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- Events : Leyland National 51 gathering, Whitehaven 29-30 April - 5 April 2023