People : Richard Woolley on why the Rover 75 wasn’t retro

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

Rover 75 launch image

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.

Rover 75 design sketch

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.’

Rover 75 clay model in red

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.’

Richard Woolley

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!’

Rover 75 launch image

Keith Adams

29 Comments

  1. Having now owned a number of 75s and still do, I understand where the retro styling comments come from, however… After a while you realise it is more than just that. The 75 carried on what was “Rover” and what made everything great about a rover and the 75 presented this but with modern comforts and driver aids and reliability etc.
    I’ve wanted a P6 for a long time but as marriage and kids have come along, a 75 is a much better,safer reliable alternative, and yet don’t feel it is an alternative that leaves me looking at the 75 and regretting the purchase.

    A fantastic car, that today stands as an appreciating modern classic that can still holds its own in the car park and still has class without shouting about it
    Subtle and classy! Can’t see us owning anything else for a long time. I just wish Rover was around today..

    Thank you!

  2. I never saw the outside as retro, but a progression from the 600/800 with some nods to the P5 with the rear number plate surround. However, it was when you got inside you felt that it was very retro, especially with the beige instrumentation. The problem for Rover was BMW, from the terrible fish fingers statement at the launch, to thinking the market for sporty 75s would take 3 series sales. The MG versions launched by Phoenix showed that there was a market for a younger “focused” car, in a market where fast mondeos, accords and vectras sold well.

  3. From the very beginning there’s always been one small styling feature which irritates me and looked like an oversight/cop-out by the designers. It’s the point where the front wing meets the side of the headlights; there’s a Z-shaped join….which just looks wrong and weird. The panel fit is never quite right, and it always looks as though the car’s been in a minor shunt.

      • Same here – to me it looked like they were going to put the indicators alongside the headlights and then changed their mind at the last minute.

        If the 75 wasn’t retro maybe it was early steampunk…

        • I agree, I think the indicators were intended for there like on the Rover 45, but BMW put them at the lowest possible level – so sportier, lowered cars – which competed with BMWs couldn’t be built – yes the ZT was lowered later, but the bumper redesigned to have higher indicators.

  4. The Rover 75 was one of Rover’s best efforts, it looked nice, felt nice inside, was good to drive, and was more than a “gentleman’s club on wheels in wood and leather with dials you could warm your hands on with the orange glow (pardon the pun!)”, it was safe with its impressive 4 star EURONCAP crash safety rating, practical and ideal family transport, especially in Tourer estate form, with the economical strong willed diesel engine, and the exceptional lounging rear space of the 75 Tourer Estate Limousine.

  5. I still own the MG ZT variant and even though it is the base model the car still feels a bit special even at the ripe old age of 19 years! My grandson says its like a Rolls Royce which of course it isn’t but she does still have ‘presence’ and gets the odd admiring comments too.

  6. He can protest all he wants but it was retro in the eyes of just about everyone – especially its target audience, thrusting 3 series/A4 drivers who certainly didnt want a car that looked like that. Real shame that Rover delved so far back in its back catalogue for inspiration looking past the P6 and SD1, both styles that would have resonated far better with the market.

  7. Yes I agree that the P6 would have been a better inspiration; preferably following the lines of the later 2200-style ‘eggcrate’ grille… And a quad of proper circular headlamps – P6 style – in place of the wierd squashed-by-the-leading-edge-of-the-bonnet headlamps they went for (which always reminded me of the ‘bad boy’ style bonnets fitted to cheaply customised boy-racer cars).

    The dashboard – using a modernised version of the classic circular black-background Smiths dials with white text/pointers rather than the beige oval ugliness.

    Rather than chrome and wood [which looked to me like a 1970s video-recorder or the similar-era G-plan drinks cabinet your parents had] the trim should have been either high-gloss black or matt-finish aluminium/stainless-steel. Carbon-fibre in place of the black for the MG variants.

    It’s interesting to see how quickly the 75 faded from circulation once MGR went bust; by about 2011 even the last ones produced were bargain-basement run-it-until-it-breaks-and-then-scrap-it bangers. My local painter and decorator had a Tourer – bought at 3 years old, used as his works-vehicle [roofrack with ladders, paint stains all over the tailgate] and when after a couple of years in his ownership something went wrong with the electrics the likely cost to investigate the fault plus the unavailability of spares [the local MGR dealers having switched to Kia/Hyundai] meant he got rid of it for £2000 in one of the scrappage schemes.

    The journey from expensive-car to scrap was similarly short for SAABs once they’d gone bust. If you depend on a car for essential transport you can’t afford to have it off the road for half a working-week while the garage tries to source parts that are no longer available because the dealer/support network has vanished.

    • Oddly I still see a fair few 25s, 45, & 75s around, mostly one careful owner examples.

      Occasionally see later Saabs in a similar position, with older ones being at least collectable if not classic.

    • Absolutely, P6 styling would have been an excellent base for a late 90s executive car, it even had something of the Bauhaus style of Audis of that era.

  8. We have to remember that when the Rover 75 came out it was not some clever reskinned Honda design or further warming up of an old recipe like the R17 Rover 800 Series was. Admittedly, for me, the Rover 75 came across as a bit of a shock when I saw it unveiled as it felt like a clean sheet design without any obvious lineage to joint venture partners, owners or old models. This felt like an alien concept for a Rover fan like me, which I initially struggled to get my head around! Nor was there that familiar game to play – spot the parts bin influences.

    When compared against the 800 Series, the Rover 75 made it look angular and clunky from some elevations because of the need to carryover parts from the first generation model, such as the chunky headlamps and door handles. Dare I say it, but the Rover 75 made it look rather dated, in my eyes. Against the 600 Series it seemed to have a more natural design association, especially in the area of the glasshouse with its slim ‘A’ pillars and more muscular rear pillars.

    Yes, you could see where a lot of the ‘heritage’ influence for its design came from, namely the gorgeous P5B, the sleeker P6, the upright door characteristics of the P4 and of course the clean muscular side profile of the Rover 600 Series. But nothing was a near facsimile of one particular design. The body engineering for those full length chrome waist strips showed that there was no compromising in the design. Even the lovely sweeping join line running from the leading edge of the bonnet line, taking in the leading edge of the front wings and top of the front bumper, looked so stylistically freehand – I loved it.

    I’m not sure what the true definition of “retro” is, but the fact the Rover 75 had an obvious progressive profile from the 600 Series and made references to design features on more than one previous generation of Rover saloon, would question whether this term truly applies to the Rover 75. Then again, look at the original Audi TT – launched at the same motor show – which did not pay homage to any previous Audi design, but could have almost taken inspiration from classic cars produced by Porsche and the Volkswagen Beetle. I believe it might have been Peter Stevens who once described it as “future retro”, whatever that is.

  9. I was in vehicle leasing with one of the major fleet providers when the 75 was launched and to say it missed the mark with its target audience would be an massive understatement. There was no way these user-choosers were going to give up their Omegas, Scorpios, BMW 3 & 5 series for a Rover 75. Rover’s target customers didn’t want quiet suspension and subtle retro styling, they wanted sporty modern looking cars with an image that showed they were on the way up rather than already over the hill.

    • @cliffr, the Ford Scorpio must be one of the worst cars of the nineties and bombed in the sales charts and was withdrawn after 4 years. While the Mark 3 Granada wasn’t perfect and lacked the presence of the Mark 2, at least it was a reasonably good looking car and sold in large numbers. The Scorpio was pig ugly, looked like two different cars welded together and had a reputation for being unreliable. Also the Omega was bland compared with the Carlton and Senator it replaced and never sold in the same numbers,
      No, for me, the Rover 75 was head and shoulders above its rivals from Ford and Vauxhall and was on a par with the German premium marques. In terms of comfort, performance and refinement, the 75 could match a BMW 5 series easily, and totally outshone the BMW for its interior fittings. People might find a car adorned with wood, chrome and leather old fashioned now, but in the nineties this was always a sign of an upmarket British car. As for not being sporty, this issue was answered in 2001 with the launch of the MG ZT, which sold well and gave the 75 a more sporting edge with firmer suspension and better performance.

      • Unfortunately Glen, the typical user-chooser and fleet manager didn’t see it that way. The previous Rover 800 at least had some sporty and luxury versions to act as halo models as well as modern looking interiors and exteriors across the range. The 800 was quite popular on many of the fleets we leased into or managed. The 75 on the other hand just fell flat and was going nowhere – we even struggled to hand out the demos we had from Rover whereas no one refused to take an Omega or Scorpio. As they say, you can’t buck the market.

        • I have to disagree, the Scorpio was a total dog and had gone out of production when the 75 was launched, and the Omega was nothing great either. I don’t think the 75 really was aimed at the fleet market, more the better off private buyer who wanted a car that looked British inside and out and would look after one better than some rep doing 20k a year. Maybe this is why most never ended up as company cars, although maybe some directors would have liked the top of the range 75s.

          • The Scorpio ended up like a decent looking scaled down mid 1990s American car with an Austin Healey Sprite style “Happy Frog” front end grafted on, though even with better looks it would have struggled as this market sector became more competitive with the German brands getting a bigger slice of the cake.

            My Dad had 2 Omegas after having 2 Carltons as company cars, which my Dad considered the best cars he owned for a long time.

            The first Omega was a let down, with a stingy spec lacking many features, a boot that let rain & snow fall inside when it was opened, often blew bulbs & started rusting after the paint was scraped on a gate post.

            The second one was a bit better, with a decent spec and smartened up looks.

            When we hired a Chevrolet Impala on an American holiday in 2008 my Dad wondered if GM had ever considered making a version for the European market.

          • Glenn, I’d agree with you that the 75 wasn’t aimed at the fleet market, but that was Rover’s mistake because fleet sales were essential to achieve the volumes they needed to sell. Rover made exactly the same mistake when they replaced the 200/400 R8 series HH-R series. The R8 was a great success in the fleets but the HH-R fell flat due to frumpy styling, inadequate size and silly pricing. I was highly privileged throughout the ’80s and 90s and into the noughties to drive just about every mainstream car (plus some exotics) that was available and there were some real surprises out there. The 75 was very much OK but there was no compelling reason to choose one, especially if you were a middle manager or senior sales person in your 30s or 40s looking for a car that said you were going places.

  10. It defines retro. I bought a nearly new one in 1999 when I was 24 and have only recently parted with a V8 ZT, I do love them but in reality, it was completely the wrong style of car as others have said. To think, they had the world at their feet with the R8 just a few years prior. Such a shame. Lovely car but in truth, it is a symbol of failure.

  11. There was no conscious retro approach

    One look of the gauges, clock, and their typeface lays bare that statement to be disingenuous at best. I think the 75 as a whole is a looker, to be sure, but modern is not a descriptor one could easily apply to any of the stylistic elements on the 75, much less avant-garde.

  12. I think it looks great – always have. And I buy into what Rover / BMW were trying to do – create an alternative to the Audis and BMWs, with it’s own appeal, aiming to take the market in a new direction. Drawing on Rover’s heritage was the obvious way of doing it. Who knows how well it would have sold, worldwide, but for the mess-up on launch day and the debacle of the BMW sale to the Phoenix Four? I had a V6 Connoisseur a few years ago – the ony British car I’ve owned, and I’m so pleased I had it.

  13. The R75 still looks good to me all these years down the line, sadly don’t see as many now. I’m not an SUV or crossover fan.

  14. No one’s mentioned the two Richard Wooley gorgeous design concept sketches (in blue, dated 1994), shown towards the end of Keith’s interesting and excellent article.

    No production model is ever identical to the initial design concept, but to my mind the 75 drifted far-too-far away from that initial concept. Imagine if that hadn’t happened and that the 75 had gone into production with more of that same stylishly sleek and sporty look which the blue concept images have – no-one would’ve criticized them for appealing only to the pipe-and-slippers brigade then. They would’ve been much more directly appealing to a younger (and more numerous) target audience, who might otherwise have been considering stylish executive sports saloons such as the A4, the 3-Series or the Alfa 156.

    Yes, those two blue sketches certainly still have retro inspiration, but it’s a much more modern, sportier-looking and youthful version of retro (which could also be said of the very different looking new MINIs, which might explain their relatively runaway success compared to the 75 from the same company?).

    Satisfying as it would be to blame the BMW-ownership period for the change from those initial design sketches to the much more upright and far less stylish production 75s, from what I can make out that can’t be justifiably done. Reading elsewhere on this site, I’m fairly sure seeing a reference to the same red pre-production image shown in the article as pre-dating the sale of the company to BMW, and it’s almost identical to the 75 which went to production; so if anyone is able to confirm that, it means that Rover managed to successfully move the 75 away from directly competing with the 3-Series all on their own (which is ever so sad).

    If only they’d not done that, they could have truly had the world-beater which the 75 deserved to have been . . . .

    (Which poses the obvious question, of course, of whether BMW would’ve been prepared to fund a more direct 3-Series rival such as that – and to be truly competitive it would’ve needed the sportier ride qualities of the later MG ZT, too. Hmmm. All easily achieved, but it might never’ve been allowed.)

  15. The design absolutely missed the target market – which is middle management user-choosers. They/we are the main buyers of this type of car. Too retro, too floaty, overhangs too long and not particularly spacious inside. No-one was giving up their 3 series or A4 for a 75.

    Rover should have done R30 first and carved out a niche as the Golf / FWD sub brand to BMW. Longbridge would likely still be in business

  16. The MG ZT addressed some of the issues with the 75 not being sporty enough and developed a following among people who wanted a large British saloon, but didn’t want the Rover or a Jaguar X Type. It was good in the early noughties that buyers who wanted a British executive car now had three choices, rather than just the Rover 800 of a few years earlier.
    Also I don’t care whether or not a car is youthful or not. In my early twenties, I used to loath the Escort XR3i as a coarse buzzbox with a fancy bodykit and always preferred cars like the Jaguar XJ6 with its wood and leather, and the sort of car you could take on a 300 mile drive and still feel refeshed afterwards.

  17. Did anybody at Rover ever stop and think why the P6 had been such a success? In my opinion it was because it looked so modern, with cutting-edge styling inside and out, well balanced with clean lines and proportions. The interior was not like a gentlemen’s club, it was clean and futuristic. The 75 was a step back to the days of the empire.

  18. Sorry, but the 75 was retro. Whereas the 600 looked up to date and modern, while still classy, the 75 brought back styling elements not used for decades.

    It’s very much a niche product where those who like the styling LOVE it, but an awful lot of the target audience were underwhelmed.

    Has a retro styled saloon ever succeeded? Retro small cars work – the MINI, 500, Honda E and upcoming Renault 5 – ditto with sports cars like the Mustang and to an extent the XK8 and F-Type which were much more related to earlier Jaguars than the XJS.

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