The Best of AROnline : MG Rover RDX60, the full story

Between 2005-2010, Keith Adams managed to piece together the full and unexpurgated story of the ill-fated mid-liner that should have saved MG Rover, had things been different. The car, which was based on the Rover 75, and which went through several design processes before being canned in early 2005, looks better now than it did back then…


The last chance saloon

MG Rover RDX60 prototype

MG Rover – it was a brave new beginning for the remants of The Rover Group, split up and sold off by BMW in May 2000. The consortium responsible for the formation of MG Rover – Phoenix – was led by John Towers, and if anyone knew the machinations of Longbridge better than anyone else, it was he…

Being responsible for The Rover Group at the time it was suffering from the severe financial pressures foisted upon it by parent company, British Aerospace (BAe), gave Towers a unique insight to what the company could deliver on a very small budget. If the Rover 400 (HH-R) was an example of how not to work with a collaborative partner, the 200 (R3) and MGF (PR3) were perfect examples of what Rover engineers could come up with, given a few basic ingredients and some inspiration.

Although Rover’s trio of new cars for 1995 could be considered the products of a car company under severe financial pressure, two of them were innovative and desirable and, had it not been for the questionable pricing policy of a company with designs on becoming a premium class marque (but with a range of products possessing not quite enough strength in depth), they could have gone on to become huge successes in their classes.

As it was, these cars were launched after Rover had become firmly embedded under BMW’s wing and, as a result, they were always going to be seen as stopgaps until the BMW financed range of new Rovers came on stream in 2002 and 2003. As it was, we all know the cruel set of events that befell the 200 and 400 – they became the 25 and 45 in 1999, and ended up living a lot longer than intended, as BMW decided to pull the plug on its British operations.

So, it was ironic that John Towers now found himself in charge of a car company selling that very same range of cars he oversaw the launch of all those years ago.

Project R30: gone, but not forgotten…

Of course, it was a mid-sized car MG Rover would need to produce in order to maintain its survival, and much work had been undertaken on such a project during the BMW era.

Autocar's depiction of how the Rover 35/55 was destined to look, and according to one stylist on the team, it was 'pretty close' to what Gaydon achieved...
Autocar’s depiction of how the Rover 35/55 was destined to look and, according to one stylist on the team, it was ‘pretty close’ to what Gaydon achieved…

The Rover R30 had been designed and developed to replace the 25 and 45 and, had BMW still been in charge of Rover, the car, badged as the Rover  35 and 55 would have gone on sale in 2003. The car is said to have been designed with the same engineering values as the Rover 75, meaning it would have been styled with a nod to the ‘British retro’ that German management so loved about Rover.

Richard Woolley headed the Design Team and, although he has never publicly spoken about the R30, other designers have, and they have all said the design was beautiful in the same way the 75 managed to be, but in a slightly less overtly retro way. The platform was all new and, although K-Series engines were to power the Rover 35/55 until 2005/6, these would be replaced by brand new ‘Valvetronic’ engines manufactured at BMW’s Hams Hall facility, a factory built to meet the huge anticipated demands for in-line four cylinder engines.

The R30 project had progressed to the point of productionization, but by 1999, BMW upper management had decided to question its involvement with Rover and, although the project wasn’t cancelled at this point, its future became ever more precarious. Once Bernd Pischetsrieder was forced to walk away from BMW, the writing was well and truly on the wall – and, even though the UK Government eventually decided to offer BMW state aid to help develop Longbridge (thereby ensuring R30 production there), BMW’s will to continue had melted away. That freeze became something altogether more terminal once the board had decided to wash its hands of Rover…

When BMW walked away from Longbridge, and handed over the business to Phoenix, it took the R30 with it, along with all of its CAD/CAM data, engineering prototypes and anything else relating to the project. According to one BMW executive based at the company’s headquarters in Munich, the completed car languishes in the basement there, to this day – unused and not needed.

Left with no products in development (apart from the 75 Tourer), MG Rover was left in the uneviable position of having to develop a brand new mid-sized range of car to replace a pair that had been in production (albeit having benefited from the 1999 facelifts) since 1995.

Making something from that was going to be a tall order…

Make way for RDX60 – the brave new world…

Peter Stevens' team penned these designs - and as can be seen, the split level floor Tourer idea had been there since the RDX60's birth.
Peter Stevens’ team penned these designs – and, as can be seen, the split-level floor Tourer idea had been there since the RDX60’s birth

MG Rover would have to start with a clean sheet of paper for its new small car and, although a few of the engineers who worked on R30 made the move to Longbridge to work for the new company, they would be unable to call on any aspects of the impressively complete R30. Having seen how it was possible to produce a ‘new’ car by dipping into the corporate parts bin (Rover 200 R3 has been described by several engineers as little more than an R8 with Maestro rear suspension tacked on), the logical decision taken was to try the same course of action yet again – this time using the larger, heavier 75 as a donor car for a new mid-liner.

Given its strengths, and the fact that it had been designed in the ‘money no object’ era of BMW’s ownership, it was the only way forward. Schemes were soon pieced together and drawn up and, under the leadership of John Tweedy (former Project Director on Project Oyster – Rover 45), Project RD60 was born. The project names were split into RD60 (three- and five-door Rover hatchback), X60 (three- and five-door MG hatchback), RD61 (four-door Rover saloon) and RD62 (five-door Rover Tourer).

RD60 was heavily 75 based, and would use the car’s platform with no change of wheelbase, although the expensive BMW-derived Z-Axle rear suspension would go, if the car was to be be price competitive within the market sector it was designed for.

The months following the formation of MG Rover had been busy ones, and RD60 development was hampered by the need to get the 75 Tourer into production, and the introduction of the MG ‘Zed’ range of cars (seen as a vital step in maintaining the sales buoyancy of a rapidly ageing range of body styles). Most importantly, RD60’s development was constrained by MG Rover’s almost complete lack of resources.

It wasn’t just about money. With the former Rover Group broken up in 2000, MG Rover found itself without Gaydon – the facility where all design work had been concentrated since the closure of Canley in the mid-’90s. Gaydon had gone to Ford as part of BMW’s £1.6bn sale of Land Rover, but the loss was deeper than that: the facility went to Ford, but a great number of Rover’s Gaydon-based design and engineering staff also chose to stay there – thus moving into Ford’s employ…

This left MG Rover with a relatively tiny design department, based in Longbridge’s newly-created Product Design Centre (PDC). For a vitally important project like RD60, it was felt by management that the PDC would need extra resources – and, in a time where cash was at a premium, this kind of investment would be almost impossible to achieve.

Despite these set-backs, there was a bullishness about the RD60’s prospects within the company and, by August 2001, the company was courting prospective suppliers with key targets for the RD60 project. The initial supplier cost packs produced by MGR Product Development and Purchasing advised the following projected key dates:

RDX60: Key Anticipated Dates (15 Jan 2002)
Build phaseDateNotesStatus
D02 Build13 May 02 – 7 Jun 02Virtual BuildCompleted
D1 Build25 Nov 02Off-production tools for componentsNever happened
QP1 Build16 Jun 03Off-tool processNever happened
QP2 Build08 Sep 03Off-tool processNever happened
QC Build03 Nov 03Off-tool process at rateNever happened
M Build15 Dec 03Pre-production ramp-upNever happened
SOP126 Jan 04Commence production 5-door MGNever happened
SOP209 Mar 04Commence production 3-door MGNever happened
SOP301 Jul 04Commence production 4-door RoverNever happened
SOP411 Jan 05Commence production Rover TourerNever happened
EOP01 Dec 10End of productionN/A

With such ambitious targets, it became painfully obvious that MG Rover would need considerable assistance.

RDX60: Anticipated Production Volumes (2006)
Model variationAnnual total
5-door MG hatchback (X60)52,395 (31.8%)
3-door MG hatchback (X60)27,260 (16.5%)
4-door Rover saloon (RD61)45,517 (27.6%)
Rover Tourer (RD62)39,828 (24.1%)
Total165,000

These production volumes, which cited Longbridge’s peak RDX60 year (2006), also looked adventurous, but probably reflected the optimistic views of the time. Before these figures had been broken down, and MG Rover was discussing RDX60 as a two-tier model line-up (three- and five-door), it was anticipated that the UK would account for a whopping 43 per cent of all cars built…

Going back to what it knew best, it was decided that what was needed was a third party contractor, and from the rich seam of engineering design consultancies that litter the British car industry, Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) was chosen. Given its previous tie-ups with Volvo, Renault and Jaguar (among others), TWR had an impressive record of delivering niche products for major car manufacturers, it seemed a safe partner for MG Rover to choose. TWR had also recently strengthened its position by the acquisition of Worthing Technical Centre, formerly owned and operated by Daewoo. If only it had known…

Longbridge and TWR progress rapidly

 RDX60 revealed in CAD/CAM: this D1 scheme produced by TWR (see key dates, above) reveals that the car wasn't necessarily going to be as boxy as the Tourer Concept vehicle and the other concepts so far revealed, and that it could have ended up with an elegant SD1-style roofline and Alfa Romeo-like concealed rear door handles. It made it to full-size mock-up stage, too...
RDX60 revealed in CAD/CAM: this D1 scheme produced by TWR (see key dates, above) reveals that the car wasn’t necessarily going to be as boxy as the Tourer Concept vehicle and the other concepts so far revealed, and that it could have ended up with an elegant SD1-style roofline and Alfa Romeo-like concealed rear door handles. It made it to full-size mock-up stage, too…
MG Rover RDX60 prototype
In January 2002, and after a great deal of preliminary work on the RD60 (and its MG brother, the X60, hence the project becoming known as the RDX60) had been completed at the Longbridge PDC, TWR was contracted to help with the development programme

Work on RDX60 progressed at a feverish pace, and the style began to crystallise – with the styling team coming up with a number of proposals, which majored on producing a versatile and spacious package – something harking back to the company’s heritage. Such was the speed and efficiency of the development programme (which saw TWR in Worthing replicate the management structure at the Longbridge PDC – for the sake of efficiency), many suppliers completed virtual builds and had made prototype parts within months of the collaboration being instigated.

One engineer, who worked on the RDX60 programme said: ‘Some press tooling was completed and many suppliers had commenced production tooling for the three- and five-door version of RDX60. TWR was also well advanced with CAD proposals for the four-door and Tourer specific parts.’ Although RDX60 was initially projected as three- and five-door hatchback, with anticipated build being spilt 30 per cent to MG and 70 per cent to Rover, the saloon four-door and Tourer versions were announced in March 2002.

With RDX60 being produced in four separate body styles, the marketing mix proposed at the time was an interesting one: the hatchbacks would wear MG badges, while the saloon and Tourer would be sold as Rovers. Competitor benchmarks chosen at the time, in terms of refinement were the Golf MkIV for the Rover, and Alfa Romeo 147 for MG.

The styling is said to have been settled around this time. One engineer involved on the programme said: ‘I’d been tipped off by an Engineer, who had seen the RDX60 at the TWR Design Centre, that the car looked interesting. Apparently, Kevin Howe had overruled Peter Stevens and chosen the final design over some much more stylish options.’

He added mischeviously: ‘From my experience, I’ve learned that when styling departments present a number of design themes for Directors to choose one for development, they usually already know which one they want, and present a couple of lame ducks as alternative options, thus increasing the chances of their ‘favourite’ being chosen. To me, it sounded that had such a plan been pursued, but had backfired.’

An engineer who saw the first CAD/CAM representation in a presentation was underwhelmed. He said: ‘Myself and the other engineers were predictably very excited about seeing for the first time the new car that would save MG Rover. When the CAD projector was turned on and the engineer manipulated the view around, there was a very quiet, disappointed murmur amongst those getting their first look at the car.’

He continued: ‘It was horrible! We were looking at the MG three-door hatchback, supposedly the ‘sexiest’ looking variant. The blue ‘spy shot’ shown in Autocar was a very good representation of what we saw. It appeared to have a very tapered coupe style rear with the ‘sit-up-and-beg’ front end of a pickup truck, similar to TCV. It was truly awful – clearly the result of ‘design by committee’, with several conflicting requirements. The interior looked quite stylish though, with ‘hidden until lit’ symbols on all the switchgear.’

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
The five-door RD60, which showed just how quickly the company was moving away from the conservative style, as typified by the 75 range. Of course, it wasn’t as pretty as it could have been…

Impressed by TWR’s work, MGR awarded TWR Automotive Engineering (Worthing) with the complete project in January 2002. This meant TWR would not just be responsible for the RDX60 engineering programe, but also purchasing and project management of costs and targets. Cost benefits of CAD/CAM soon became apparent, as there would be no physical prototype trial builds, as many parts could go directly from the CATIA system to off-production tool build. This saw the first protoype (a five-door hatchback) completed in February 2003.

TWR was ostensibly in charge of the project, but working with Longbridge slowed down the process, as decisions were referred back to the Worthing’s counterparts at MGR PDC. It was at this time, that concerns over cost containment began to surface – and TWR Purchasing rarely challenged design changes or cost (something that happened a lot at Gaydon with the R40 and R50 programmes) and this inevitably led to the project going over budget. In fact, it was at this point, that the D1 Build Phase (see above table) was put back to September 2003.

In January 2003, the project was frozen for a three month ‘Cost and Weight Review’, and MGR engineers on the RDX60 were invited to cost/weight reduction workshops together with their counterparts from TWR. However, these never took place thanks to more seizmic events taking part at TWR. During the project freeze period, TWR went into administration.

In the period leading up to the TWR being placed into administation, much work had been completed. Although talks with carmaker, China Brilliance Industrial Holdings (CBIH), on the possibility of a Joint Venture between the two companies, had been progressing nicely, MGR management confirmed that deal did not hold the key to RDX60’s introduction, merely that its formation would be a financial bonus. The fact that no CBIH executives ever became closely involved in the design phase of the RDX60 indicates this state of affairs to be true, although the introduction of the saloon concept was obviously a nod to Chinese tastes…

Disaster strikes

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
The failure of CBIH talks were not the killer blow to the RDX60 (in fact useful extra funds had been extracted from the Chinese in the process), but it was a situation that desperately focused MGR’s minds on the need to find a collaborative partner before the funds dried up for good…

Undoubtedly, TWR’s closure was a massive, and probably fatal blow to the RDX60 programme. MGR was forced to settle a considerable sum of money with TWR’s administrators just to ensure that all CAD data was released to Longbridge, but of course, much of the important modelling work had been lost. Personnel and resources, which had underpinned the RDX60’s transition from paper to reality had also, tragically, been lost for good. As TWR is said to have represented £100m of a total R&D spend of £460m between 2000 and 2004 (as quoted by John Towers in April 2004), its closure had huge implications.

Impetus on the RDX60 programme had been well and truly lost following TWR’s fall into administration. ‘Cost and Weight Reduction’ (C&W) workshops finally commenced in July 2003 under MGR management, but these were never followed-up with suppliers (who were closely involved in the programme up to this point). MGR management soon began to stall third parties, citing problems with TWR as the reason for delays.

By this stage, no prototypes (using production tooling) had been constructed, so the whole cost and weight exercise was performed ‘virtually’ using CATIA CAD models of the car projected on to a large screen, using calculations to figure out how much C&W was being removed and the potential investment required. The C&W programme was judged a success, as one insider related: ‘About a dozen Longbridge Engineers from different disciplines worked on the C&W workshop at the TWR Engineering site in Worthing for a couple of days. Based on our calculations, a considerable amount of excess cost and weight could be removed from the car, meaning its development could potentially continue.’

However, nothing happened on the RDX60 engineering programme after this. ‘The project was never resumed after TWR went into insolvency. Its profitable Vehicle Engineering arm had been dragged down by the moneypit of Tom Walkinshaw’s Arrows Formula 1 team. Later, the word got around Longbridge that TWR’s administrators were preventing MGR from accessing the CAD data and models for the new car.’

The engineers on the project were genuinely upset to lose TWR. One said: ‘It was very sad to end the working relationship with the TWR guys. The engineers were brilliant to work with and it was awful for some who had been made redundant by Daewoo, then re-hired by TWR, then made redundant again. The vast majority of TWR engineers who worked on RD60, based at Downlands Business Park (Worthing) were made redundant in January/February 2003, (although prior to that, a lot of CAD designers were made redundant in November 2002, which we thought was strange as RD60 was in full swing then).’ According to one supplier in Germany: ‘I speak for many exterior suppliers in saying that there were absolutely no official discussions or development meetings since July 2003 regarding the RDX60.’

Frustratingly, by this point in its design programme, the RDX60 was very much a viable project. One insider related its chances: ‘Had the project proceeded at the point the C&W programme had been initiated, a start of production by summer 2004 for the three- and five-door was certainly achievable.’

RDX60 design finally unveiled…

IMG_4896
The car that wowed the dealers in November 2003…

IMG_4900

The Longbridge Conference Centre on the 3 November 2003, saw the RDX60 have its first airing outside of the Longbridge Design Centre. Various conferences were held for dealers, suppliers and key employees. At these events, it was openly advised that MGR was continuing its search for a new Chinese partner (following the collapse of the Brilliance deal).

According to one engineer: ‘A fully-built, undisguised RD60 was driven onto the MGR Conference Centre stage and was described in detail by Peter Stevens. I really do wonder whether this car has survived the MGR meltdown, as it sounded like it had a KV6 engine in it. It definitely wasn’t put together from genuine RDX60 supplier parts, so I guess it was some kind of consultancy product, like the 75 Coupe Concept. But it was recognisably directly related to the TWR concept in terms of door architecture, being more of a tweak from that car, rather than the radical stuff revealed to Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) in 2005.’

On the style of the 2003 conference car, he continued: ‘The best description of the green MG five-door is a distinctive waist feature as per the TCV concept, with side side windows and doors also very much carried over from that car. The front end had been evolved, and it was more like the red car seen in Autocar (pictured below) but with an MG grille, as presented on the 2004 facelift 25/45/75. My memory is a little sketchy about the rear, but I remember it did not look as radical as the TCV. The contour on the boot looked like the Golf Mk3 and the rear lights looked more coventional than the Lexus-style TCV ones. Wheels were taken straight from the TCV, and it had gained Rover 75 facelift-style front indicator lights slashed into the bumper.’

He continued: ‘The interior was very Judge Dredd – aggressive and angular – and looked too wacky for me.’

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
The Judge Dredd interior in all its glory (Picture: David Knowles)

A Rover 45-based engineering ‘mule’ was constructed during the time to test RDX60 systems, and was seen testing regularly at the Gaydon proving grounds (obviously owned by Ford, but available to MGR). John Towers confirmed this car’s existence in April 2005, but confirmed what the suppliers had been led to believe – no fully-engineered prototypes had been produced…

Another engineer backed this up, and reflected upon the inactivity on the project after this point: ‘We saw the RD60 and were assured that the project would re-commence shortly.’ In reality, this never happened and it seemed the only real activity on the RDX60 between July 2003 to and the meltdown of April 2005, was by the Peter Stevens/RDS design studio team – and it was one of these concepts that famously turned up in The Sun, Auto Express and Autocar in February 2005.

The more senior team leaders (i.e. a skeleton structure) were retained at Worthing, when TWR Automotive Engineering was sold on to Menard Engineering in May 2003 and were relocated to a smaller site in Worthing. They stayed there until 2004 when Menard wanted to consolidate to the Leafield site (former TWR HQ) in Oxfordshire. At that point, many of the senior ones decided not to re-locate, and there are definitely some ex-RDX60 people at Leafield.

It is thought that Menard’s Directors, with Tom Walkinshaw’s involvement, had been consulted over the upcoming cabriolet concepts (dubbed ‘Project Viking’ in the national press). Sadly, these schemes never left the drawing board, the project having been officially disbanded in February 2005…

Lee Mitchell, one of the designers working across several MG Rover projects at Longbridge during the RDX60 development programme summed up the design processes succinctly: ‘There were around five or six initial scale models for RDX60, and the first incarnation of that car was the fastback theme. It wasn’t that it was poor, but it needed a lot of work. The basic theme of a sporty fastback-style hatch was in keeping with past Rover-branded hatches, keeping in mind cars like the SD1 in particular. But, what happens when designs are selected from scale to full size is they go through a long, serious process of refinement and feasibility. While the first RDX60 proposal was certainly feasible, it totally lacked any kind of surface refinement and development. The other themes were much more commercial and typically Euro.

‘The main reason for this came from the very, very top. Basically people who had absolutely zero experience of the design process and no formal artistic or design qualifications were making naive design decisions. This was particularly frustrating for the design team because we all knew the car could be a winner, and indeed it had to be. There was no room for failure. For example, just one of the problems with the car was that the front of the vehicle did not have much in the way of plan view, so it looked extremely wide and blocky. The whole appearance was quite brutal and certainly did not reflect the elegant and refined image we wanted for a new Rover.

‘When the TWR thing happened, that basically shut down that particular incarnation of the vehicle. There was also a wagon and a saloon, too. The car was then redesigned to be a much more typically European hatch in the flavour of the Golf. But because we were stuck with the 75’s base of windscreen position, the front looked quite long for a car in this class, and indeed the car would have been the largest vehicle in the class at that time. The story is quite a long and complex one to be honest but I have never before or since worked on a vehicle that singularly had so many redesigns – I think it was redesigned about four or five times off the top of my head, and we were still doing scale models of yet more themes when the company finally dissolved.’

The SAIC era…

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
Lee Micthell’s facelift RDX60 proposal – it was a car that he referred to as being the most modified car pre-launch that he has ever experienced.

After a long search, and to the relief everyone involved with the company, MG Rover had seemingly found a second potential partner in China. On 16 June 2004, Phoenix Venture Holdings (PVH) and SAIC announced the signing of an exclusive strategic relationship. The proposed CBIH Joint Venture, which collapsed in mid-2003, had proven to be an excellent business model and therefore it came as no surprise that, when MGR accounced that talks were well advanced with the company, the idea was to form a similar Joint Venture. As far as MGR was concerned, the Chinese link was now absolutely essential, because funding to see RDX60 into production simply was not in the coffers at Longbridge, even though publicly, the company maintained this was not the case.

The signing of the agreement took place at SAIC headquarters in Shanghai, and Kevin Howe, said: ‘Recently, we have had discussions with several companies in China. We are delighted at the prospect of entering into a relationship with such a successful and respected partner, which will see a significant expansion in volumes of current and future products.’ In the meantime, there had been the fruitless talks with Proton, which it had been hoped would net MGR a short-term replacement for the Rover 25, which the company planned to sell. The stylish new Proton Gen.2 would be the basis for the 25’s replacement and one was brought back to Longbridge for styling evaluation. Peter Stevens’ team is said to have attempted a process of ‘Roverisation’ on this car – something a little more far reaching than the changes made to the TATA Indica (in Project RD110) to become the CityRover.

However, MG Rover and Proton could not agree terms on the production of the Gen.2, so the deal floundered. This led the 25 to soldier on for some time to come, and left SAIC’s Joint Venture as the only remaining game in town…

RDX60 at the RDS Automotive design studios at Southam in Warwickshire: as can be seen, the silver car is a late scheme (Shanghai number plates), but is still very closely related to the earliest TWR-era prototype renderings. (Picture: ITV)
RDX60 at the RDS Automotive design studios at Southam in Warwickshire: as can be seen, the silver car is a late scheme (Shanghai number plates), but is still very closely related to the earliest TWR-era prototype renderings. (Picture: ITV)

Meanwhile, full efforts were put into the MGR/SAIC Joint Venture, and an office, staffed by Brits as well as Chinese was set up in Pudong (near Shanghai). Curiously, it had no sourcing or development involvement in the RDX60 (which by this point had become known as the ‘New Medium Car’ project in marketing terms and ‘Project Nexus’ to a number of suppliers in the UK).

Back in the UK, finances were getting tight. Sales of the facelifted models had not lived up to expectations and were dropping rapidly. Production freezes were becoming increasingly common, and month-on-month drops of 30 per cent began to become the norm rather than the exception. This had horrifying implications for the company’s intended move into profitability and, as a result RDX60 was mothballed, and would remain so until MGR and SAIC had inked the Joint Venture deal.

November 2004 saw several suppliers express concern about the continued viability of MGR and, as a consequence, the company went on the offensive, prematurely announcing the ‘billion dollar’ Joint Venture in order to allay fears within the supply chain that MG Rover was about to go under. Of course, SAIC executives did not initially know how to handle the attention, simply stating that the deal had not been done, and that both parties were working hard towards a satisfactory conclusion.

In the meantime, the design department worked on updating the RDX60 programme, with the intention of producing a definitive scheme with which to move forward into the Joint Venture. In October 2004, SAIC had been presented with the RDX60 and had been left underwhelmed by the whole thing – it was obvious that the design was being left behind, and it needed to be re-appraised. Facelifted proposals were developed by the styling department, and mocked up at RDS Automotive in double quick time. The new designs were prepared and SAIC executives were invited back for a viewing of the updated schemes

Presented to a delegation of SAIC executives visiting Longbridge at Easter 2005, eight to ten new four- and five-door design schemes represented a massive move forwards from the TCV-like these developed in the TWR era. The view from engineering was sanguine – if RDX60 was to be facelifted so comprehensively, it would have put the project even further back. ‘These designs marked a radical departure from the original TWR-developed RD60 design and would therefore have meant further millions of money spent and not utlised from the original TWR period (suppliers having been paid ‘upfront’ design and development payments). Based on these new designs ‘from scratch’ and assuming that they got complete ‘go-ahead’ from MGR/SAIC (which they hadn’t), I estimate that start of production for RD60 would have slipped to at least the end of 2007.’

Given that the plan to produce 60,000 hatchbacks per annum in Longbridge and 220,000 saloons per year in Shanghai involved the creation of a new factory, and the project itself was undergoing fundamental engineering changes, a launch date of late 2007 seemed wildly optimistic. As had always been the case, RDX60 would be based upon the 75’s floorpan, but variance was creeping in. The Longbridge cars would sit on a floorpan shortened by 80mm (originally, RDX60 was supposed to be based on the same wheelbase), with the Shanghai cars sitting on the standard Rover 75 wheelbase.

Another fundamental change in direction was that RDX60 would no longer need to use the 75’s windscreen or bulkhead – a decision bound to delay the car’s introduction.

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
The last throw of the dice for Longbridge, as the final images of the the RDX60 were shown to delegates from Shanghai. They weren’t impressed…

In the end, the Chinese delegation left the Easter discussion at Longbridge following a full and frank exchange of views, having not approved any of the design schemes. According to Steve Cropley of Autocar, there was still a great deal of work to be done: ‘The meeting did not reach any final decisions, but it did refine the proposals and protagonists realised, at least, they had to decide between two main approaches – to make the four- and five-door models considerably different in design, or cut some costs and make them obvious relatives. The former would have the advantage of allowing the Chinese-built four-door to be brought into the UK a few years later as a replacement for the Rover 75.’

He continued: ‘As discussions concluded, the SAIC delegation was moving towards MGR’s contention that the hatch had to be a challenging design to compete in Europe, though there was little unanimity about which proposal to choose. The Longbridge designers, for their part, accepted that China would need a more upmarket car.’ Whether this was because it concluded the styling schemes were not up its street, or because there were deeper, graver concerns about MGR’s viability to remain an ongoing concern has yet to be ascertained.

The End…

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
The pre-Easter 2005 car, sporting the intermediate grille treatment that Lee Mitchell favoured for the mid-sized cars in the Rover range

So, as we have seen, RDX60 set out as very much a serious project, but fell by the wayside thanks to the double whammy of losing TWR and then falling foul of MGR’s deliberate policy to freeze the project in the hope of finding a collaborative partner with which to fund its final development phase. It was a tragic case of a project losing its impetus just at the point it could have been dragged into production had the company been led by a more focused management…

Having said that, TWR may have produced viable prototypes, but the real costs of getting the car into production were yet to be realised and, although MGR had been gifted a considerable financial dowry by BMW, it had little in the way of facilities to turn the RDX60 into reality and there was also the small matter of financing the company’s continuing losses.

Which ever way the story is stacked, the scale of MGR’s task of getting the car into production was probably too much to scale, even if the company had not spent money on the facelifts, the V8 programme and the XPower SV supercar (the latter two of which were seen as ‘shop window’ products for luring potential suitors). One thing is certain, though – there are engineers on the programme who feel that they would have had more of a chance if MGR had been more effectively managed.

One summed up the situation – citing the CityRover debacle as a good example of Director-level arrogance allowing promising plans to be compromised: ‘Many engineers, myself included, who really had a passion for the company and its cars feared the company was like a ship with no captain, bobbing around on a rough sea with no direction or power. We did all we could. For instance, we pointed out the folly in CityRover (RD110) and the insanity of putting the Viking badge on it. We came up with innovative marketing ideas and advertising campaigns, and even long-term company strategies. But it felt like we were shouting at a brick wall, as insane management decisions followed marketing blunders.’

He added: ‘Waste is one word that crops up frequently when discussing the tragic events at Longbridge. This is nowhere more applicable than to the dedicated manufacturers and innovative, talented engineers with whom I worked. BMW may have taken the Golden Eggs of MINI and Land Rover, but the golden goose was very much still at home. It could have been so different if those pig-headed, arrogant, ignorant Directors had listened to their major asset, or even shown a little of the dedication and enthusiasm shown by these wonderful people. Lions led by Donkeys, indeed.’

MG Rover RDX60 prototype
RDX60 favoured design – this design is one presented to the SAIC delegation in Easter 2005. (Picture: Nik Lovell)

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

5 Comments

  1. Easy to say with hindsight, I guess, but what MG Rover should have done, instead of embarking on the RDX60, which was never, realistically, going to come to fruition, was to get Rob Oldaker to work a bit more magic on the ageing 25 and 45 platforms, and get Stevens and his team to design new bodyshells and interiors to drop onto the tweaked platforms.

    Car buyers are generally ignorant as to what’s underneath a car; it’s what it looks like that’s important – as sales of the Mk I Ford Ka proved. Would have kept the company ticking over for a few years and given the impression of a proper, progressive car company – they might have financed their replacements too, or, at least, bought the company time to find a long-term partner.

    That Rover 35/55 Autocar sketch looks nice. Shame BMW took it with them.

    And, not for the first time, like Lee Mitchell’s sketches too. Guess he’s at JLR now? Shame he’s not heading up the design team at MGMUK, to be honest.

  2. A very good point, gavtro. The wider public is generally unaware of aged underpinnings. New bodies and interiors for the 25 and 45 could have been a big hit. Then again, the shift towards MPV, SPV might have meant little improvement in sales of re-bodied 25s, 45s. Also, MGR would argue that the job of boosting 25 & 45 sales was done very well indeed by the Zed cars.

  3. The deal with Brilliance very nearly resulted in a re-engineered and re-bodied 25. The platform was going to form the basis of a high-roofed small car in the style of the Nissan Note/Renault Modus. When the Brilliance deal went south, SAIC weren’t interested in it so it never progressed. A full size mock up did exist though and substantial engineering work was done on paper.

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