It’s always good to revisit old friends – either to remind you of great times gone by, or to maintain and renew an important relationship. So, when Mike Humble offered me a chance to drive his Rover 75, it felt like I was about to take a trip down memory lane and, in a way, I wasn’t looking forward to it. More than anything else, the 75 and I have something of a love-hate relationship – it reminds me strongly of the death of its maker in May 2005, and that will always taint the good times I had in mine between 2004-’06.
There’s something else that troubles me about the 75. Sometimes I look at one, and feel that it’s a carriage clock relic of times gone by, with cynically retro styling and powered by a range of engines that simply weren’t good enough. I then recall the humiliation of Project Drive, and the process of unsubtle cheapening that went on during its troubled (first) lifetime. And then there are other times, when I see a beautifully timeless looking car, with the most amazingly sculpted flanks and delicious detailing, and wonder at where it all went wrong.
Mike’s car is well known in the enthusiast community. It was bought as a runner from eBay and, although it looked down at heel, underneath the grime, there was a low-mileage and straight example in need of liberating. And over the following months, he made it oil and coolant-tight, serviced and maintained it to within an inch of its life and, most importantly, re-contented this car with all the expensive parts MG Rover omitted during Project Drive. It’s a 1.8SE, so had everything you need, without the irritation of the now-dated original satnav system, the added mechanical complexity of a CDT or KV6 power unit under the bonnet. Yes, really – here’s a 21st century car that’s easily DIYable.
It’s also interesting to note that the major technical modification from standard is the fitment of 18in MG ZT wheels and run-flat tyres. On contemporary-sized wheels, the 75’s stance and proportions are improved markedly and, far from looking like a badly-executed aftermarket mod, in this case, here’s a car that’s visually transformed into something approaching its stylist, Richard Woolley’s, original vision for it. And it looks great glinting in the moody glow of our LED streetlighting.
Jumping in, it’s easy to get comfortable, thanks to ample seat adjustment and, although the fat window pillars are an annoyance, the view out over the high scuttle, is actually quite agreeable. The restful glow of the orange oval instruments, is appealing, as is the switch feel as I turn on the lights and signal my exit. The K-Series hums away inoffensively as ever, and the laborious clutch action and slightly remote-feeling gearchange are just as I remember them.
As is the slow steering, which is exacerbated by the over-large wheel. Now we’re rolling and heading for the sweeping bends, I’m still unconvinced by the 75. The ride is as good as I remember it, and still good today in absolute terms, even if 10 per cent of the pliancy has probably been robbed by the fitment of those wheels. The engine’s as flaccid as I remember it at low revs, although it’s still reasonably refined. First impressions are just how solid and rattle-free it all feels, and how Mike’s example seems to fit me like a well-loved glove. And that’s interesting.
Finding a rare pocket of empty space in the traffic, I head for some of my benchmark corners and feed the 75 through at a fair old lick. And here’s where it all comes to life for me – here we are, sitting in a 13-year-old car, designed in the 1990s, lambasted by far too many people over the years, and yet it handles these bends at speed remarkably well. It feels flat, planted, stable and downright capable. Body movement is remarkably controlled, and there’s a lovely neutrality that I wasn’t quite expecting.
Shaken by the experience, I turned round and did it again, just to be sure. Make no mistake, the 75 – on these wheels and tyres – and in such fine mechanical fettle, really is a car of rare excellence. And that’s something I was not expecting to find, especially as earlier in the day I’d been driving the Citroen Xantia Activa on the same roads, and would have expected the Rover to feel rubbish in comparison. That it didn’t is high praise indeed.
Interestingly, once on the motorway, the 75’s natural, more restful gait seems to be exactly 70mph. Given it’s a British car, designed for Britain, and this is our laughably low speed limit, that’s no problem at at all. Drive an equivalent European car, and you’ll need to be breaking the law at 85mph for it all to settle down. The damping on the undulating stretch we’re on is superb – something very evident as we coolly pass an Audi A4 bucking and shuddering in the lane alongside – and the engine’s drone is minimised at its harmonic happy zone, 3200rpm.
Within miles, I’m happy and contented, and back in the Ovaltine world that is so appealing, and lacking in many of today’s cars. Limp performance aside, I’d really see myself back in a Rover 75. There are certain times that no other car would do.
In conclusion, if you can find a good example – and that’s getting harder, as the best ones are commanding a premium now, and changing hands between friends – and can continue to treasure it, the 75 is still a car of rare excellence that stacks up surprisingly well on today’s roads. Don’t buy a bad one, though, as it’ll break your heart (I know, I’ve been there). Consider it pretty much the ultimate modern classic, and you’ll not go far wrong.