Keith Adams recalls the ill-fated Rover 75 launch, held 20 years ago this week at the NEC in Birmingham…
Twenty years ago this week, Rover unveiled the Rover 75 to the world’s press at the NEC Motor Show in Birmingham. It was wheeled out months early to show that BMW’s tenureship of the company was about to bear fruit – but, more than that, it was the perfect spoiler for the international unveil of the Jaguar S-Type, which was also retro-styled. But somewhat less successfully.
It should have been a magnificent moment in the company’s history. And in many ways it was. The press loved the way the 75 looked, even Jeremy Clarkson (above). Here, it seemed, was a new car that could replace the 600/800 in a single stroke, and take on the best of the European opposition. Except that BMW’s CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder had other ideas. He wanted to make a statement about the future of Rover in the UK.
He was in no mood to woo the world’s press at the unveiling – he was still smarting from the effects of the Pound’s strength in relation to the Deutschmark, and its affect on the overall profitability of BMW’s investment in the UK. Also, he disliked the UK Government’s procrastination over the state subsidy that BMW had asked for to aid for the renovation of Longbridge.
- Read more: Rover 75/MG ZT development story
Pischetsrieder’s Rover 75-shaped torpedo
As with all new model launches, a press conference had been planned – to be led by Pischetsrieder – to announce the new model. It was scheduled for 4.00pm, but this time came and went, while the BMW CEO and Rover’s BMW-appointed Chairman, Walter Hasselkus, sat together in deep discussion. Obviously, this was going to be no ordinary press launch.
At 4.30pm, Pischetsrieder finally stood up and addressed the assembled journalists. He pulled no punches – essentially, Rover was mired in a deep crisis and drastic action would be needed to safeguard production at Longbridge. ‘Short-term actions are required for the long-term future of the Rover Group,’ he said. ‘Talks are taking place with the British Government about the problem.’
It was a stark announcement to make – and, if nothing else, it completely undermined all the good work achieved by the Engineers, Designers and other workers in the Midlands, by overshadowing the launch of the car and highlighting the troubles of Rover. Autocar’s Steve Cropley summed up the feelings of the assembled press perfectly: ‘…we were all a bit stunned, both by the content and timing of what Bernd Pischetsrieder said.’
What the press thought of Pischetsrieder
He went on: ‘We had all been feeling pretty enthusiastic about the 75 and the unveiling had gone well. Huge crowds, lots of applause. And the car did, quite genuinely, look very pretty and right for the job. Unlike some BL/BLMC/AR creations of the past, it had absolutely nothing to apologise for.
‘So it seemed bizarre, even grotesque, that the company’s top man should choose to undermine the moment so thoroughly. He deflected the media from praising the car the way they would naturally have done, deflated the workforce, who must have been on a high, and introduced a degree of buyer uncertainty that could have been avoided.’
And from that moment on, the future of the 75 – once so bright – was sealed in failure. Why would anyone buy a car from a company that was very likely to close? Why indeed?
Six months on, and London launch puts on a brave face
In June 1999, the production version of the 75 to the press in an expansive and ambitious event at Tower Bridge in London. Eight months on from the NEC disaster, and had the overblown launch event starring scores of the cars, several with tuned horns to play along with a Dave Stewart rock opera played by the London Philharmonic orchestra, and violinist Vanessa Mae. In all, a strange and wonderful launch for a non-conformist retro/modern motor.
The problem was that, in reality, the Rover 75 was already doomed, even if it had been awarded What Car? Car of the Year 1999. For those with shorter memories, compare its arrival on the market with that of the final Saab 9-5 – here was a make or break product, full of hope and potential, but who’s maker was already in the beginnings of its last death throes. The Independent on the day was realistic in its coverage.
It surmised that Rover would struggle to make money on it. ‘Making a success of the 75 will be a tall order. And if Rover does pull it off, then it will have to repeat the trick twice over with the next new models due off the production line – a new Mini due out at the end of next year and the replacement for the Rover 200/400 series, the R35, which is expected in 2002.’
The end comes quickly…
The late Professor Garel Rhys said in the ‘paper: ‘There are plenty of BMW shareholders who wanted to see Rover Cars disposed off and they will become more vociferous if the 75 fails to deliver. In that case, a sale to General Motors or Volkswagen is something that BMW would have to look at very seriously.’
Autocar‘s Hilton Holloway (then at CAR Magazine) was far more realistic – and on the money. ‘Unless there is a sudden leap in sales, I would be very, very worried. And if things don’t start to happen by February or March next year, I think they’re going to be seriously panicking.’ He was right – and, in May 2000, the company was sold to the Phoenix Consortium.
It remains a shame that the 75 was the innocent victim of this collapse of a carmaker. After all, it was blessed with superb ride and handling, and, in V6 form, was a fast, smooth and appealing executive car. The weaker K-Series models were due to replaced by BMW-engineered NG-Series power units, which were due to come online in 2002 (had BMW and Rover not been divorced), and no doubt, it would have lived to about 2006 after a productive life. Ah, well…
Enjoy this video of that day.