We recently explored the matter of how long it takes to align two ranges of cars when one company takes over another or there is an administrative merger. In the cases of Ford and GM, covered earlier, the process seems to take under a decade. Are there counter examples?
Today I will take a look at the case of Rover, which marque came under the control of BMW in 1994. Rover (when under BL) had already been part of a co-operative venture with Honda. That process began under the Triumph brand when BL decided to use a slightly modified version of the Ballade as the basis of the Acclaim. The cooperation changed tracks slightly when Triumph was shuttered and Rover began to work collaboratively with Honda, resulting in cars such as the 200/400 (1984) and 800 (1986).
When BMW took over Rover it acquired a brand already in the process of transformation: from BL products to Hondas to more or less Roverised vehicles. In 1994 the Rover range consisted of the 200 (1994, Mk111), the 400 (1990), 600 (1993) and the facelifted 800 (1991) and 800 coupe (1991). Under the Austin brand (and then none) the Maestro and Montego lingered until 1994 and 1995 respectively. They also had the evergreen but wilting Mini and MGF, launched a year after the deal, in 1995. I will deal with the Rover range here.
BMW’s difficulties in handling the English patient need no further elaboration. BMW approached the management of Rover by trying to remain hands-off and to allow Rover’s engineers to proceed with building up Rover’s identity after the Honda-era and insisting Rover remained a maker of front-drive cars focused on comfort.
Thus Rover did not only pursue a price-differentiation strategy but also one of character: Rovers were to be the best front-drive cars on the market, a kind of qualified competence in the eyes of many. This decision ensured that there would be no merging of the models since the architecture of front-and rear wheel drive cars (seem to) require a fundamental difference to the physical appearance of the cars along with an actual difference to the structure and assembly process.
At the same time as BMW sought to constrain Rover as a cheaper brand, they sold the 3-series compact which sold at a price well within the range of Rover products but it was an entirely different car, with no commonality.
In retrospect it is clear that with the maintenance of a FWD/RWD distinction, a proper merger of model lines would not take place. With that there could not be same economies of scale.
So, four years after BMW’s take-over, the Rover 800 ceased production in 1998. The 200 became the 25 in 1999 and stayed in production to 2005. The Rover 400 stayed in production (after a name change in 1999) to 2005. The 600 stayed in production to 1999. Nothing happened to the MGF other than a refresh in 1999.
BMW’s Rover brought one new model to production: the 75 of 1998, presumably the result of a lurch in design at the time of the take-over in 1994: a four-year gestation where rumour has it (unfounded) Rover’s engineers had to convert 5-series architecture to front-drive configuration. Either way, the 75 had a hurried gestation.
In March 2000, BMW sold Rover to the Phoenix consortium, at least one or two years before it might have begun to replace the 200 and 400 models with properly conceived cars. Phoenix obviously cancelled development programmes and instead roughly facelifted the 25, 45 and 75 as MG variants.
If we take seven years as the typical life-cycle of cars and the normal time-frame of a wholesale model change, then BMW bailed just as that regeneration could have begun to be seen. More importantly, by insisting on Rovers being front-drive they prevented the process of brand synchronization and made life more expensive for the group.
A look at the replacement dates of BMW’s range would show what a more rational brand merger would have looked like, with Rover equivalents of the 3-compact, 3 and 5. I doubt an MG version of the 3 would have made sense and nor would a 95 based on the 7 series. That alternative model line-up does suggest that Roverised RWD Beemers would have been an odd proposition. How would the models have differed: in styling (artificial Britishness) and what might be called inferior handling characteristics?
The more one thinks about it, the less and less sense BMW’s take-over made sense. It took six years for Munich to realise what a disaster they had brought upon themselves. Ironically, 23 years later, BMW is producing front-wheel drive cars under its own name as it has realized that the BMW name can be extended down-market without apparent problems.