Regular readers of this site know that there are only three natural positions for a product in the car market: luxury, sporting and economy. And?
And don’t get pushed too far from them. That’s the no-man’s land of not very sporty, not very cheap and not very luxurious. The unmarked graves of Lincoln (unfilled at the moment), Saab, Oldsmobile and Lancia are all in that bourne from which no car maker returns. Apart from Saab and Borgward.
On with the story.
When BMW bought Rover they quickly repositioned Rover so it was less about sportiness and more about comfort (which is physical luxury). They also determined that Rovers would be less expensive than BMWs. At the same time, Rovers always had to be a cut above. ‘Above all, it’s a Rover – that’s one slogan’. And later we had ‘Relax, it’s a Rover.’
The epitome of the Relax Rovers was the 1999 Rover 75 about which a lot has been written. In brief, it seemed to sell quite well despite the skewed focus of its imagery, design and branding. However, it was in that no-man’s land I mentioned earlier. Time to break for the border.
When MG-Rover gained control of their product destiny the first thing they did was to try to invade the performance sector that BMW had been hogging during their stewardship of Longbridge.
With not a lot of money and not a lot of time, Rover’s three main products were restyled as MGs. This took 14 months. The car journalists were impressed. “Only 14 months after the company was bought, these cars [MG ZT, ZR and ZS] have been designed and developed, not as some motor show what-if, but here in the metal, on the road….”
I think that the author, Paul Horrell who is reliably always well-intentioned but often wide of the mark, over-estimated the effort required for the cosmetic changes wrought to the 75. Essentially the Rover 75 was painted over to hide the chrome which was deemed too middle-aged and middle-England. At the front end the bumper and grille assembly was reduced to one major part, down from five (two lamps, a grille, and two chrome embellishments).
I judge the work to have required under a month of modelling and CAD construction. Much of that was probably importing the various parts into one model and simply filling in the gaps between them to make one item out of five. The upshot of that was a much cheaper component and not the work of miracles as it might at first appear.
The impression you get looking back is of expediency and a few key engineers making a statement about what Rover should have been rather than turning out a well-balanced, though sporty car. The MG’s V6 was loud and the suspension biased too much towards the track. While Car admired the ZT’s character they didn’t actually think it was good enough, once you looked past the Union Flag waving. In April 2003 the ZT estate came third to the Ford Mondeo and Subaru Forester in a test of sporty family cars.
The MG Rover move was not inspired improvisation but rather a distraction.
What else could Rover have done other than to spray paint the 75’s chrome and cost-cut the bumpers? Well, if they had not been hamstrung by the British press’s ingrained hatred of British styling cues, they could have simply offered 75s with a less harsh version of the MG chassis modifications and engine tunes, a harder, sportier 75 minus the crass add-ons. Stupid? No, it works for BMW with their M-range.
Visually there was nothing much wrong with the 75. It looked like a very high quality car and 15 years later still looks rather out-of-time. The paint is astonishingly glossy, the interiors durable. By underlining MG’s sportiness, MG-Rover was in a sense running away from all that was good about the 75. As BMW’s come in a variety of flavours, so could the 75. From cushy to bracing was all possible within the body shell with only a few badges and colour options needed to effect the distinction.
I will turn to the final paragraph of the September 2001 article by Paul Horrell (in Car). It pitted the MG ZT-190 against the BMW 320 SE (with a 2.2 litre straight six). It’s worth reading for its delicious irony: “Something rather odd happens when you line up these cars behind some well-worn national stereotypes. The Savile Row, buttoned-down one with the slightly aloof English reserve? That would be….the BMW, actually.” The mullet-wearing, stein-hoisting extrovert one with the occasionally over-literal sense of humour? More like the MG. The BMW is slightly the better car, as it should be, given the price, but the MG’s character is more immediately engaging, open and warm, and so it makes the BMW feel stand offish.” And now the funny part: “Tough times, then, for the 3-series. Just as the Jaguar X-type begins to gnaw away at the top end Threes, here’s the MG to have a pop at the lower ones. The British motor industry has mounted a two-pronged attack at one of the world’s most iconic cars and blimey, this time you had better take it seriously.”
It would have worked, perhaps, if the British motoring press had been more willing to look at the X-type and 75’s competences rather than focus on the styling. In the end that’s a matter for the public to decide on but too many swallowed the party line that the Rover was too trad and the Jaguar too Mondeo-in-drag.
The underlying discussion is really perhaps about why the British are so uncomfortable with what they do best. When served up at £150,000 in the form of a Bentley Continental or Rolls Royce Silver Seraph the consensus is that Britishness is a wonderful thing. At £22,000 it’s anathema and too redolent of semi-detached houses and Wilton swirly carpets. Which is it?