This is a car whose career was cut short by talk. Talk that not only sabotaged one of the best cars that Rover ever made, but brought down the company, too.
But a few hours before that poisonous outburst, things were looking quite good for Rover. It had just unveiled the 75 at the Birmingham Motor Show where Jaguar had just revealed its S-Type, and it was gradually dawning on the attending press that one of these cars was rather more convincing than the other. And it wasn’t the Jaguar.
The S-Type’s retro references to the 1960s S-Type look forced to the point of awkwardness, and its cabin was almost bereft of the kind of beautiful detailing, and quality, that makes a Jag cabin so appealing.
While the 75 was also a car with a wheel or two in the past, it was vastly better proportioned than the Jag, and had a strikingly original wood and leather interior of decidedly superior finish, although that would not be properly obvious until people started spending time with these cars.
Such was Rover’s battered reputation and long history of launching interesting cars that ultimately disappointed, no-one was getting too excited yet. That was despite the fact that this was the first Rover developed under BMW ownership, the German company buying the British one four years earlier in 1994.
Especially as the 75 looked like an obvious descendent of the Rover 600 that had come before it. This Honda Accord-based car was handsome enough, and reliable too, but it would be a while before the positive difference between BMW quality and Honda quality, as harnessed by Rover, shone through.
The Brits take over Birmingham 1998
Both Rover and Jaguar were unveiled on the morning of October 20th, 1998. This was press day at the Birmingham motor show, and the first time that either car had been seen finished and undisguised.
Late on the same afternoon Rover held a press conference expected to provide wider detail about the car. It was scheduled to start at 4.00pm in a room away from the motor show floor itself, and because the car itself had been revealed hours earlier, many journalists did not attend.
They missed a drama far more significant than the unveiling of a new car.
The conference started late, kicking off just before 4.30pm, the delay caused by the late rewriting of BMW Group boss Bernd Pischetreider’s speech.
Pischetsreider wanted to use the opportunity to petition the UK government. First, because the pound’s rise against the euro was crippling the business. In 1997, Rover’s losses had been cut to £91m. In 1998, the year of the 75’s launch, they were rapidly heading towards a stinging and near-unviable £600m.
BMW wanted the government to take action over the currency – Rover was easily the UK’s biggest exporter at the time – and it also wanted the government to contribute £200m towards the huge investment that the German company was about to make at Longbridge for the new Mini and for the smaller Rover R30 project.
Exchange rate issue ‘hugely serious’
BMW, which usually likes to conduct such business in private, was having trouble getting over to the government that the exchange rate issue was hugely serious, and that it needed help to update a plant that had seen no serious investment since 1980, 18 years earlier.
As it was, BMW was now planning to cut jobs and introduce more flexible working practices in an effort to save £150m a year for the next three years. But if it did not get the support, then Longbridge – one of the biggest industrial complexes in the UK, outdated or not – would be wound down.
And that is what Pischetsreider outlined during one of the most bombshell-laden post-conference question-and-answer sessions the UK car industry has ever seen. Criticism of Rover’s productivity, the possibility of Longbridge closing and an apparent admission from BMW that its commitment to the revival of Rover might be wavering, did a fine job of sabotaging the 75’s launch.
Enter The English Patient
It wasn’t so much a shadow as a total eclipse swamping the car’s birth, the following day’s papers full of the threat to its maker’s future. The stories also confirmed what many people within the car industry had known for months – that there was significant conflict between BMW and Rover management, and that there was a sizeable and fast-growing faction within BMW that wanted rid of Rover. ‘The English Patient,’ they disparagingly called it, after the film.
Yet the car itself did not look like the product of an ailing business. Granted a decent development budget, improving facilities at the Gaydon development centre, access to BMW’s considerable engineering resources and a parts bin studded with high-quality, up-to-the minute kit, the R40 development team produced a car to match the quality of Rovers produced in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The 75 had a particularly stiff bodyshell – essential for refinement, suspension effectiveness and crash performance – as well as BMW’s admired multi-link ‘Z’ rear axle and a sophisticated MacPherson strut layout. It was a layout intended to produce the world’s best front-wheel drive chassis.
The engine’s were Rover’s own four and six-cylinder ‘K’ Series – at this point, the issue of the four’s cylinder head gasket design had yet to boil up – and a strong BMW turbodiesel.
But the 75 impressed most with its styling. At first, the chrome grille and the body’s curvily understated sculpting looked unexceptional. But the more you looked, the better it got. The way the wings flared over the wheels, the clean-cut flanks, the tasteful deployment of chrome and the unfussy detailing still look good today, and won the 75 awards for its styling at the time.
Inside, it got a little radical. There was the expected wood and leather, but the sculpture of the dashboard, the cream instrument faces, the unusual door trims and the sumptuously upholstered seats produced a particularly inviting cabin, and one of genuinely high quality. The dashboard’s wood was real, and expensive, soft-feel plastics were used almost everywhere that wood, leather, cloth or carpet were not.
Better still, the 75 drove very well, impressive in particular for its ride, comfort and civility. Though its road manners were soft, it handled impressively when pressed. By the end of its first year it had attracted plenty of positive reviews, and 15 international awards. But it had not attracted remotely enough customers.
Sales targets: missed
The effect of Pischetsreider’s tirade was to severely limit 75 sales, the question of Rover’s survival once again in doubt and intensified by an increasingly regular flow of negative stories. BMW and Rover had originally planned to sell 140,000 75s annually – actually an optimistic ambition even taking account of plans to export more cars.
This forecast eventually fell to 100,000 by the time the car was launched six months late – for quality reasons – in June 1999. One year into its career, even that figure looked a distant dream, just under 60,000 cars coming from a Cowley factory that had the capacity for 140,000. Not only did it demand fail to push output to anywhere near that level, but it was not long before the Oxford stopped making 75s altogether.
In spring 2000 BMW announced that was to sell Rover, initially to the private equity business Alchemy, who envisaged a much-reduced business that would concentrate on MG, but ultimately to the Phoenix Consortium, lead by former Rover boss John Towers.
Phoenix euphoria ‘naive’
The Phoenix plan aimed to produce 200,000 cars annually, retained more jobs and was increasingly seen as a better future of BMW’s cast-off than Alchemy’s seemingly brutal plans. Phoenix won the day, amid euphoria that would soon be seen as naively misplaced.
MG Rover, as Phoenix renamed the business lasted a little less than five years. It went bankrupt in April 2005, having failed to find a partner of any significance that might enable it to invest in the much-talked about and ultimately mythical new medium car. In the meantime, the 75 was by far the strongest model in MG Rover’s range, being newer and more completely developed than the smaller 25 and 45.
MG Rover was not without its successes, the creation of three MG ranges out of the three Rover models unexpectedly successful, the conversion of Rover 75 to MG ZT producing an engaging and mature sports saloon. But none of this was enough, and nor were efforts to squeeze costs out of the business, a programme called Project Drive stripping components and quality out of the cars.
By the end of its life, the 75 had become seriously cheapened, and more like the penny-pinched cars that MG Rover’s predecessors had peddled for decades.
Production of the 75 never exceeded the 53,600-odd built in the first year, sitting in the low 30,000s for the next three years before dipping to 24,000 in 2004. In 2005, when MG Rover went bust, under 5,500 were produced.
But, the 75 has had a strange and surprisingly long afterlife in China, where it was produced as the MG7 and in facelifted form as the Roewe 750, this version still available today some 17 years after the original 75 first appeared.
There’s irony in its achievement of so long a life, given that the 75 was a commercial failure for its creators and a partial cause of Rover’s downfall.
Though not as much of one as Bernd Pischetsreider, whose bold acquisition strategy enabled Rover to build one of its best-ever cars, and ultimately killed the brand.