The Rover 75 is often described as being a retro design, harking back to the P4 and P6 inside and out.
However, its lead Designer, Richard Woolley, reckons it is a whole lot more complicated than that.
Rover 75: Evolution of the brand was at its heart
Few people at the 1998 Birmingham Motor Show will forget the unveiling of the Rover 75. Tasked with the tough job of replacing the popular Honda-based 600 and 800, it was a gorgeous-looking, chrome-detailed statement of intent – the traditional Rover was back, and under BMW’s leadership, the company knew exactly where it was heading.
And although the Product Planners knew it would end up going toe-to-toe with the equally new Jaguar S-Type, what they could not have guessed is how much more successful the Rover’s looks would be. Equally, though, it was this launch more than anything else that sealed the 75’s fate.
Yes, BMW’s CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder had called into question Longbridge’s future at the unveiling spoiling what should have been an amazing day, but being launched alongside the new Jaguar did seal the 75’s fate as a ‘retro’ design.
One design concept right from the start
When the Rover 75 was originally conceived in 1993, it was as a straight replacement for the 600, with a larger model also planned to take over from the 800. Its lead Designer, Richard Woolley, was truly clear in his vision for how the car would look from the outset, and creating a retro car was not on the agenda. ‘There was only one design theme and, apart from some minor changes, it became the production 75,’ he said.
However, he clearly wanted it to reference Rover’s former greatest hits. ‘I’d always admired the work of David Bache, particularly the P6, and also the P5B,’ he recalled. ‘Rover had an amazing heritage of design and innovation, and I wanted to bring a sense of pride of ownership back with the 75.
‘There was no conscious retro approach, more a reinterpretation of some of those designs. I wanted the interior too, led early on by the late John Gregory and then Wyn Thomas to follow the same principles.’
Inspiration from the progressive Rovers of old
With such strong designs to lean on for inspiration, the 75’s development to production was straightforward, even when it was positioned in a more upmarket role following the cancellation of the 800’s flagship replacement. ‘I remember the clinic results were incredibly positive. Respondents attributed much higher pricing to the car than was the Marketing intent. We had particularly enthusiastic results from Europe. When our final design model was shown at the annual BMW Senior Leadership meeting, it got a standing ovation,’ said Richard.
Getting the new car into production is not always about design – the Engineers often need to advise Designers to tone down their new models – and this can lead to conflict. For instance, the new MINI, which was also being developed at the time, came in for a huge amount of scrutiny over its one-piece clamshell front end and flush glazing, which led to Frank Stephenson and the Rover Engineers butting heads on several occasions. But this simply was not the case with the 75.
‘Our then Design Director Geoff Upex was a crucial advocate and support,’ says Richard. ‘There will always be some tension in a new vehicle program, but I had a fantastic experience working with Peter Morgan’s Vehicle Engineering Team. It does not mean there weren’t some feasibility challenges, and each discipline needed to achieve their targets, but working closely together, we delivered the design intent. I recently met up with Peter again and we both have fond memories of the great collaboration.’
A rapturous response
Following its unveiling in Birmingham, the Rover 75 received great reviews – not just for how it looked, but how it fared on the road, too. Autocar concluded, ‘Rover can be proud of the manner in which it managed to create a distinctive and clear-cut identity for the 75 without it feeling contrived or overdone.’
Noted journalist Steve Cropley went further: ‘It is also a car whose suspension is so quiet and smooth it beats most cars in our “Best Car in The World” luxury comparison. The truthful assertion that the 75 is quieter than a Rolls will impress buyers.’
Richard remains hugely proud of what he achieved with the 75 to this day. And considering his work includes the current Range Rover, that is quite a statement. But he is not enamoured with the retro label being applied to his car. ‘Rover had lost some of its continuity during the 1970s and ’80s. The SD1 was an amazing piece of work, but it was beset with quality problems, and the brand no longer had a strong identity.
‘Look at successive generations of the VW Golf. Would you call each one a retro interpretation of the previous one? No, and the 75 tried to imagine what Rover would have become had there been that same brand continuity. Very few, if any, designed objects are devoid of some reference to what has gone before. My recent work on the Range Rover is a case in point. I have never heard anyone describe that as retro!’
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023
- Opinion : So, maybe the Montego was the best they could do… - 8 November 2023
- The cars : Austin Montego (LM11) development story - 7 November 2023