People : Richard Woolley

Richard Woolley is a successful stylist, with credits that include the Rover 600 and much-lauded Rover 75.

His unstinting enthusiasm for the marque comes across in the email correspondence we have shared, and the fact that he is responsible for the shape of Rover’s two best looking cars in recent years, means that whatever he has to say is of great interest to fans of the marque. Woolley works today as a lead designer on the Range Rover…

The Rover 600 was without doubt, a design success on two levels: 1) It was successfully styled to look very different from the Honda that sired it and 2) It looked classy in its own right, and moved forward the Rover design philosophy into a more "organic" era - curves replaced straight lines.
The Rover 600 was without doubt, a design success on two levels: 1) It was successfully styled to look very different from the Honda that sired it and 2) It looked classy in its own right, and moved forward the Rover design philosophy into a more “organic” era – curves replaced straight lines.

e-mail correspondence, August-September 2002

I asked Richard Woolley to explain the processes involved in the development of the Rover 600, and how a different look from Honda’s would be achieved:

Rover 600 (nee Synchro, SK2) was my second encounter with Honda after having early involvement on the R8 project. On 600 however, I had the opportunity to go to Japan to work directly with the Honda design team who were going to be creating the Accord.

I had produced a ‘theme’ design for 600 at Canley in the months preceding my departure for Japan in October ’89. Based on some early information on mechanical package and proportion, this theme prepared me for some intense work schedules at Honda. We did not ship the model out to Japan, but ‘captured’ the surface data and I had a full suite of photographs to take along. The theme was the first time that the Rover Grille had been re-incorporated into a front end style. Although the face-lifted 800 made it to production before 600, the late application of the grille on that car was as a result of the very positive feedback we got for 600 in research.

When I arrived in Japan, Honda were also at the theme stage, and we began to have discussions on the levels of commonality between the two cars. It was obvious that both Honda’s designer and myself were after two very different feelings for the cars. Honda were at the time doing some nice stuff, having just launched the 89 Civic, and other domestic market cars that were nicely handled from a design standpoint. Their car followed on from these in flavour, and felt in some ways like a bigger, more elegant Civic, with the look (though not the tailgate) of a hatchback.

I was after something more akin to the classically proportioned sporty four door saloon look, which I’d always felt was at the heart of Rover. Some of the discussions were quite comical, with language, culture, custom and company philosophies all conspiring to make the job more difficult! Meetings often went on until late at night, and on one occasion I saw a quite senior Honda spokesman fall off his chair asleep, in front of about 30 people.

As style work on both cars progressed in the studio at Tochigi, quite a number of Honda people would tell me in confidence that they preferred the Rover. This I found quite strange from a nation renowned for its inscrutability! Yes, I am proud of the car, and although the engineering was all Honda, Rover significantly influenced the approach that was taken to the project as a whole. I have the utmost respect for the way Honda go about their business, and I know that very many of them were extremely sad at the news of the BMW takeover, knowing that it meant an end to the two companies’ working relationship.

I asked Woolley how he felt the design process on the 400 differed from that of the 600, and whether he considered it to be a success… This account points out the difficulties encountered at Rover, and how most of these were surmounted.

You asked if I had any involvement in HHR. In fact, it was the same as with 600, though the outcome from my point of view was very different! In 1991, after 600 was signed off and ready to go into production a year later, I started work on another theme, this time for the replacement R8.

I was still on a high from the 600 project, and had great hopes for this next one. Theta, the theme I produced was very much like a young brother to 600, with a proportion that suggested a four-door even though the car was to be a hatchback. It has been compared to the new Audi A4 in some aspects of its style, though of course, that car wasn’t around at the time! So I left for Japan again in November 1991, confident that I could again get a strong product for Rover.

What a disappointment though, when I walked in to the same Tochigi studio! To find that Honda had pretty much finalised their design, that it was based on the very lacklustre Domani, and that we were to be held to much higher levels of commonality than 600/Accord.

Over the following weeks, no design work was progressed, in its place some quite acrimonious discussions, and it became clear that Honda would not budge from their position.

For them, this project was to be their ‘bread and butter’ car for Europe; one that would not, in any circumstance, jeopardise the quality levels of their new plant in Swindon by not being based on a tried and trusted platform. These were admirable aims, but in no way did they take account of what was needed by Rover. We were replacing our most important vehicle, one that had been a top seller on many occasions in its life, the blood in the veins of Longbridge. Our new car needed to follow on from the 600 in driving home the message of new and exciting products from Rover.

By December 1991, we were at stalemate, and had actually packed our bags to return home for Xmas with no intention of returning! Some last minute high level negotiations took place that saw an agreement between Honda and Rover to recommence discussions in the new year, and that Honda would do their best to address criticisms of their car.

On my return in January ’92, very little had changed. I was looking for a fundamental change of direction, Honda were talking a few millimetres here and there. This is not to say that we had been tricked in any way, rather it’s an example of the Honda (and perhaps Japanese) way. I.e. A nod of the head does not mean ‘I agree’, but instead ‘I hear what you are telling me’.

We were then faced with the prospect of going it alone as a company, and replacing R8 with a completely home-grown product. Of course, this had ramifications way over the simple styling debate. With long-standing agreements and undertakings for components supply in place, both companies decided to try and make it work. Although I felt in my heart that this was not going to be best route for Rover, work started in earnest in Feb ’92 to try and pull something out of the hat. It was an altogether fraught time, with my counterpart from Honda remarking that this was the most difficult project he had ever worked on! We continued to debate changes with Honda that I felt were essential to at least get to a competitive design, and it’s true that some were incorporated. However, Honda’s approach did not fundamentally change, and the HH-H and HH-R went on to design completion 12 months later.

It was a missed opportunity for both companies I think. Rover was coming from a position of strength with R8, and could have followed through with another great product to sit alongside 600. Honda seemed at the time to be going through something of a design crisis, with even their Design supremo of the time (Zaima san) remarking in one heated discussion that ‘Design doesn’t matter’ (!).

The two Rover 400 derivatives together, and it is plain to see that the saloon version is the more successful of the two stylistically. Rover were keen to launch the saloon first, but market pressures meant that the 400 needed to hit the marketplace as soon as possible, and as a result, the saloon had to wait. Curiously, at the launch of the hatch, Rover stated to the press that the true launch would come later, with the saloon."
The two Rover 400 derivatives together, and it is plain to see that the saloon version is the more successful of the two stylistically. Rover were keen to launch the saloon first, but market pressures meant that the 400 needed to hit the marketplace as soon as possible, and as a result, the saloon had to wait. Curiously, at the launch of the hatch, Rover stated to the press that the true launch would come later, with the saloon.”

With the 5-door work complete, I returned from Japan in July ’93 to start work on the Rover-only HH-R 4-door saloon. I guess we pinned our hopes on this derivative a little, even though it was itself constrained by its Domani heritage. Rover Marketing even went as far as to say at the time of the 5 door launch that the ‘real’ new Rover 400 would come when the saloon was launched.

The 600 and 400 programmes could not have been more different for me. Speculation at the time suggested that Honda were still smarting from the relative successes of the Synchro cars, and that this caused them to take the course of action that they did on HH-R. I personally believe that they are too professional an outfit to let something like that cloud their thinking. They just had a different agenda at the time and, unfortunately, it did not align with that of Rover.

Time to turn the attention to cars that never saw the light of day: Did Woolley have any involvement in any cars that did make it during the late 1980s?

I was involved in the initial work on R8, including theme design, up to the point where the project moved to Japan. Both Honda and Rover Design teams had worked initially in Canley. I had not long joined the company, and it was my first major project. I remained in the UK, and did the 3-door, and Cabriolet versions of the car, together with a still-born 4-door derivative, R9. This was canned when it was learned that Honda were going to do a 4-door version too, and it was decided to ‘Roverise’ that instead. R9 though was quite different, in that it had all-new sheet metal (except front door skins) and a longer wheelbase. It would have probably served the upper-medium market rather better than did the 4-door R8.

R9 was somewhere between R8 and 600. It had a ‘beefier’ look than R8, but with the common door skins, the changes possible were limited a little. It was a four-light design, with a rear pillar similar to 600/HH-R 4 door. The project progressed as far as prototype tooling before it was canned. I haven’t seen any photos for many years now, and all our archive material (if indeed it survived) went either to Heritage, or MG Rover.

Keith Adams


  1. Have any photos of R9 ever emerged, as by the sound of things it would have been a better Montego replacement than the 400 and 600 saloons which topped and tailed it.

  2. As above, why so few comments?

    Would love to know more about 800 Coupe and 75. I believe Richard did 800 coupe.

  3. I think its a big debate whether he’s a genius.
    With the mid 90s replacements Rover needed to be forward thinking and radical with a new design language. All Wooley did was stick a grille on a Honda Accord and design a Rover that was related to the excellent BMW 3 series of the time but style it in such a way that it mainly appealed to the grey hair and glasses brigade. Ford made the same mistake with the X Type. Both cars were actually decent cars but designed completely wrong for the target customer and hence failed to sell. Although peculiarly X Types are still frequently seen on the roads in 2021.
    Had Gerry McGovern gone on to create a design language based on a modernised version of his 200 Coupe we would have seen a very different story. A Rover of the golden times, a Bache inspired moderness with flair and difference.

    Rover should have been Rover instead of trying to copy Jaguar who found out too late that retro didn’t sell units.

  4. Have to disagree with Barry. I have bought my 620 in 1997 at the age of 31, as my first brand new car (No gray hair at that time). All of my colleages of different ages admired the look and presence of this car, although most of them could not imagine to own a Rover car themselve instead of their usual german suspects. It was rare here in Germany and rather been seen in line with a BMW 5 series in terms of prestige . I got a lot of always positive comments for the car.
    It was a lot more than just sticking a grill to a rather plain looking Honda Accord. Different backside, different hood, all done with natural elegance.
    I can give some credit to Barry regarding customers of Rover 800’s here at that time, they tended to be a little on the older side.
    The 75 really was a “class of it’s own”, but deeply satisfied with my 620 I never did the swap.
    Imho, 3 famous exciting cars (800, 600, 75) should be enough to place Richard Woolley into “designers hall of fame”

  5. As stated in previous posts, I had a 1996 company Accord 2.0 for over a year and loved it. Having said that I still think the R600 version from Richard Woolley was a better looking car and had loads of executive appeal. His magic worked on the R75 too.

  6. The original Rover 600 project was referred to as ‘Synchro’ initially, but this was named SK1 to recognise the planned close cooperation of the 2 companies – S representing the Rover Group Chairman, Geoge Simpson, and K, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, Honda’s CEO.

    SK1 was Synchro with Honda engines with SK2, Syncho with Rover T- and L-series engines, following along a little later.

    SK3 was a smaller car, engineered by Honda for exclusive Rover build. This became the R3, as detailed in the book “The Real R3 Story – told by those who were there”

    SK4 became Theta and then the HH/H UK-built Civic and HH/R, the Rover 400.

    SK5 was to be a joint large car project but that was not to be…

  7. I never understood the “Rover grille” front-end that was applied to these cars; it harkened back to the dumpy P4 era and cars that your great-grandad might have been seen driving in old faded black-and-white photos.

    To me a prestigious ‘”Rover Grille”‘ would have been something derived from the P6, with quad-round-headlights and either the first-generation slat-grille or the later eggcrate version. To people buying cars in the 80s and 90s such grilles would have had much more impact [having watched episodes of The Sweeney in their youth, where there always seemed to be a Police P6 3500S involved in the chase] than the old Rover grille.

  8. Could Honda’s styling at the time have benefited from the involvement of Richard Woolley due to the preference some in Honda expressed for what he achieved?

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