Intended to signpost the crucial 800 saloon, Rover’s CCV concept could be said to have eclipsed it entirely.
Why Austin Rover chose to display CCV at the Turin motor show a matter of weeks before the launch of their highly anticipated Rover 800 saloon seems a curious one in retrospect. For although it gained them a good deal of column inches and the approbation of the design community, it also ramped up anticipation for the new saloon model – which was dashed slightly when the 800 was revealed later that year. Because although the Rover saloon’s lines were crisp and sharply tailored, it appeared slightly slab-sided and clumsy next to the far better proportioned coupé concept.
When Roy Axe assumed the role of styling director for Austin Rover vacated by previous incumbent, David Bache, there were many problems to overcome, but one of the biggest he faced was that of credibility. Despite a series of forward looking designs through the 1970’s, Austin Rover had become better known for wild inconsistency and more latterly, dull looking cars. This perception would not be abetted by the advent of the Maestro/Montego twins in 1983/84, both of which were completed well before Axe’s appointment. With Austin Rover’s design credibility in tatters, Axe embarked upon a total reorganisation of the design team, its facilities and most crucially its output.
The XX programme was Axe’s first major assignment – to replace the tarnished Rover SD1. It’s likely a coupé always figured in the product plan for the 800 programme, AR’s Harold Musgrove seeing it as a necessary adjunct to a return to the US market. Buoyed by the reception given their studio’s MG EXE concept the previous year, CCV built upon its styling themes and despite a number of showcar features, was viewed as broadly production feasible – although the glazed canopy was clearly never likely to get past the bean counters. Axe told Car magazine in 1986; “we do a lot of cars like this in a year… this one is unashamedly an exercise in style… but it is definitely the kind of car we could produce.”
Axe’s team retained the saloon’s wheelbase which aided the car’s appearance, saying: “We expected a few headaches about keeping the long wheelbase… in coupés it’s usually a source of trouble. But it works in this car because it’s got an extremely good stance.” CCV featured a smaller frontal area and superior drag coefficient to that of the 800 saloon. Austin Rover’s interior designer, Richard Hamblin imbued the car’s interior with a similar ambience to the production car – showcar flourishes like the plush seating and prominent compact disk player aside.
Nevertheless, despite being well received by show goers, the motoring public and fellow designers alike, CCV translated into a bit of an own goal for Rover and Musgrove, who was highly criticised for fumbling the launch of the 800 – a poor start the car arguably never quite recovered from. A further source of disappointment occurred five years later when the restyled R17 series saw the long awaited 800 coupé’s introduction. By then all but the most tenuous resemblance with CCV was lost and with Rover having withdrawn from the US market in ignominy, the business case for the car probably went with it. Why it went on sale at all remains something of a mystery as European sales of the elegant 2-door were minuscule.
It wouldn’t really be a disservice to describe the 800 series as a sort of British Lancia Thema in that it succeeded a more characterful model, selling in far greater numbers, with over 300,000 made from 1986 to 1998. The CCV concept was retained by the Heritage Collection at Gaydon, but unlike its MG EXE sibling, which is prominently displayed within the museum, CCV currently languishes at the collection centre in need of some TLC with a rather incongruous black plastic sheet deputising for its polycarbonate roof panel. That aside, it’s still a handsome design and arguably something of a missed opportunity for a more attractive saloon style.