Summer Reissue : 75 into 190

Reflecting upon the 75’s younger, leerier brother.

MG-ZT. (c) autoevolution

The Rover 75 is one of those cars which will probably form the basis of reflection and examination for decades to come. On paper at least, perhaps the most comprehensively realised Rover Group product of all, yet it proved to be a flawed product, courtesy of its problematic K-Series power units and what transpired to be a somewhat quixotic marketing proposition.

But I have not gathered you together today in order to rehash the Rover’s backstory and subsequent career, but instead to consider – or should I say, reconsider the morphology of the model from its suave 75 persona into its somewhat more dissolute MG-badged derivation.

Rover carried out a very thorough job on the 75’s chassis, a matter both noted and praised by the auto press at launch – Autocar going as far as to suggest it provided a quieter passage than that of a contemporary Rolls Royce. However, as both carbuyers and those charged with assessing their merits pivoted towards more aggressive chassis set ups, the Rover proposition quickly fell victim to prejudice.

But it’s clear that Rover had intended to offer a more driver-focussed version of the 75, showing a ’75 Sport’ prototype at the 2000 Geneva motor show. That same year, BMW jettisoned Rover, selling out to private investors, The Phoenix Consortium, who lost no time in both introducing new models and extracting costs from the car.

The MG-badged ZT models were heavily influenced by Rover’s Sport prototype, the styling changes being carried out by well-regarded UK consultant, Peter Stevens – although it appears the bulk of the conceptual work had already been done.

The really serious changes were chassis related however, as detailed below by AROnline: “…the subframes which carry the suspension were attached to the monocoque by aluminium rather than rubber mounts. The springs were uprated by a full 70 per cent, and were complemented by uprated dampers and anti-roll bars. The cosmetic additions (new bumpers, dechroming and boot spoiler) were heightened by pretty new 18-inch wheels shod with Z-rated tyres”.

The ZT proved a critical success, meeting the approval of the increasingly driver-focused automotive press, but whether it was a commercial one is rather more questionable with only slightly over 27,000 built in both saloon and ZT-T estate form between 2001 and 2005, when MG-Rover fell into liquidation and oblivion.

There’s no question that Rover were right to propose a sportier 75 variant, but questions (as ever) remain upon execution. Today, we revisit a thought-provoking piece by Richard Herriott where he examines Britain’s relationship with tradition and decoration in design through the prism of the 75/ZT – and asks whether we really know what we want.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “Summer Reissue : 75 into 190”

  1. Given how minimal the budget was, the conversion of the Rover range into MGs was remarkably well executed in engineering (if not styling) terms, and probably extended the life of the company by a couple of years. There was clearly engineering talent left at Longbridge following BMW’s hasty departure. The restyling to the 200/25 to make the proto-hot hatch ZR was fine, but the 45 makeover ZS was just embarrassing, given the frumpy Honda starting point. The ZT was okay looking but, as Richard pointed out, the styling changes were cheap and expedient, and looked as much. I could never take to the lumpy plastic front end or the crudely body-coloured side trim that replaced the 75’s chrome.

    Things went downhill from there, with the “Project Drive” initiative to de-content and cheapen the cars, followed by unsatisfactory facelifts that made the 75/ZT in particular look too narrow across the front and rather cross-eyed. The best looking and most authentic of all these models was the original, four-headlamp 75, which has some status as a minor classic, being the last true Rover.

    One cannot help but wonder if Rover’s engineering and design talent and the 75’s development budget wouldn’t have been much more usefully employed by BMW in re-tuning the excellent 3 and 5-Series platforms to provide a more comfort-orientated ride. The 75’s style could have credibly been employed to rebody both platforms. This would have given Rover two new models, which could have been brought to market relatively quickly. The use of RWD rather than FWD architecture would have been inconsequential in these market segments, particularly as the FWD 75 was no paragon of packaging efficiency. The Rovers could even have used the underpinnings of outgoing BMW models, in the way that Mercedes-Benz recycled elements of the W210 E-Class to produce the very successful Chrysler 300, just about the only bright spot in that disastrous alliance.

    A smaller, C-Segment FWD platform, which BMW would ultimately need for the 1 and 2-Series models as well as larger Mini variants, could have been co-developed for both marques to use. Rover would simply have abandoned the B-segment, allowing the Metro/100 to die, as there is insuffient profitability to make a replacement viable.

    A quarter of a century later, Rover and BMW would still be producing complementary ranges of cars and crossovers, with Rover competing with VW in the semi-premium sector, while BMW would be going head-to-head with Audi and Mercedes-Benz in the premium sector.

    If only…

    1. The ZS IMO was the best of the Zeds. It was without doubt the best handing 4 door saloon car you could by, and was by far the most fun to drive. During the 8 years I owned one I also had a 2005 BMW M3 which although was a far faster car, couldn’t hold a candle to the ZS for sure footed road holding , and also surprisingly was very dull to drive in comparison. I found myself taking the ZS over the M3 on many occasions. Another strong point was how robust the entire car was, needing only servicing in 130k miles. The suspension, gear train, engine parts we all original when sold. The restyled for 2004 (which mine was) also looked the part too. Of all the cars I have owned, and boy I have owned a shed load of cars, it was head and shoulders the best car I’ve ever owned.

    2. Good morning Jim. Welcome to DTW and thanks for sharing your experience of the ZS and comparison with the M3.

    3. Hi Jim: Your message would indicate the fundamentals of the chassis were very good. It´s such a pity that Rover ended up forced into playing only the comfort card. I think there´s room for that approach but also it makes sense to sell a car with a more handling-biased set up (undecorated) and then the same thing with more visual clues. To my mind, BMW (and many others) think that the comfort/handling choice can´t exist under one brand. Fiat did this to Lancia and I suppose GM did it with Pontiac and Buick. I don´t really like the Z cars´ exterior modifications compared to the standard car – perhaps other thought the same. What would have been good was a range of choices from trad/comfort to sporting/handling to let customers pick the style and chassis set up that best suited them.

  2. Yet another example of “If only…” in the car world. I have no business sense (some say none at all) but between the collective knowledge of our regular readership, don’t you think we could do better? Ditch our everyday jobs, rock up to (say) BMW and politely take over with a smile, new ideas, direction and a proper attitude. We can work out who does what over tea/coffee and Lindt & Sprungli schocolade….hmm, but then we wouldn’t be able to devote time to comment here at DTW.
    Decisions made are done. We have to live with it. And, by George, does it give us food for thought.

  3. Regardless of styling missteps, I don’t think you can look at the demise of Rover without the central role of the unreliability and early failure record of the K engines – especially the 4 cylinder.

    Rover insisted on designing those engines as the lightest weight in the industry.

    They succeeded, at the cost of destroying the reputation of that company.

    Moderation in all things. Rover went to extremes on light weight engines and paid the price. The owners never noticed that their engines were 30 pounds lighter than the rest. What they did notice was that depreciation destroyed what failing head bolts did not.

    There is no styling in the world that can make up for that sort of problem on a mass market car.

    1. The problem with the K engines was that they were stretched far beyond their design limit. For whatever reason BL once again created a brand new engine that deliberately didn’t offer much potential for enlargement (just like with the ‘E’). In 1.1 and 1.4 form with closed deck design and wet liners held at the top the engine was very reliable. Only when it got converted to an open deck design with wet liners held at the bottom in 1.8 form trouble started with head gaskets becoming consumables on a regular basis.

      The 75 would have needed BMW’s ‘Hams Hall’ engines but these weren’t ready at that time.
      Resurrecting Rover and making the 75 a serious ownership proposition was a task too big even for BMW.
      They didn’t have the money to develop a proper engine and they didn’t have the money to resurrect the brand. On the Continent, particularly in Germany, Rovers were sold through backyard dealers that often also sold Ladas or products of (then) dubious Far Eastern brands. Only a couple of years before MG Metro/Maestro turbos could be bought at large German DIY outlet stores from OBI or Bauhaus (don’t remember which one it was that held the distribution contract).
      Now try selling a product from a brand with such reputation with engines that are too small and seriously short on power but are known for permanent relablitiy troubles at the eye watering prices Rover asked for the 75. Doesn’t sound like a particularly clever sales strategy to me.

    2. “In 1.1 and 1.4 form with closed deck design and wet liners held at the top the engine was very reliable.”

      Rover used an aluminum alloy for the block which was very sensitive to overheating. With a 30 degree overheat, the block strength was potentially compromised and the engine was scrap. Since overheating was a common behavior on the K due to its numerous other design deficiencies, that doesn’t qualify as “very reliable”.

      This is a crap engine, and so was the V6. So these engines were the lightest in the industry. Who cares?

      This is a prime case of engineers designing to impress other engineers instead of designing for the needs of the car buyer.

  4. I’m with Angel on this. The K series promised so much, but was disastrously cost-engineered. Rover were buying in Honda D series engines for £1700 each; the unit cost for a K series was £700.

    Des Hammill’s K series book must be the most depressing in my library – he claims that none of the engines – open deck or closed deck, 75 0r 80mm bore – is likely to reach 100,000 miles without major work.

    I managed 80,000 miles over four years with a very early 1.6 without problems, but with an atypical usage pattern with few journeys less than 40 miles, and many 4-500 mile days. Short journeys seemed to be the killer, with head gasket failure often happening at less than 20,000 miles.

    The 75 and ZT were blighted by a wide range of unsuitable engines. The worst were the weak K4s and the gutless and inefficient 2.0 KV6. The BMW diesel was a generation behind the one being used by the parent company. The 2.5 KV6 was possibly the best – not as epically thirsty as in its LR Freelo application.

    The Ford V8 may have been the most dependable, but for everything around it – the cars were ‘work in progress’ which somehow made it to production.

    1. Robertas, it’s just sad to read.

      What Rover really should have done was something like take the smallest E/O series and put a new 4 valve head on it.

      Then they would have been starting with a known durable bottom end, and could work on new cylinder head and cam drive and make sure it had good power, low fuel consumption, and most important, that it didn’t, break, leak, crack, detonate, drop valves, overheat, vapour lock, break chain tensioners, shear cam drives … etc. etc.

      But they weren’t interested in doing that. The whole engineering mentality in BMC, Rover, Leland and Austin Rover seems to be focussed on the extravagant great engineering leap forward, rather than the unglamorous work of building on and optimizing an existing design, and making properly tested, incremental improvements.

      The second approach is how the Japanese became better than everyone.

  5. BL/ Rover is not unique. The all alloy (XU?) petrol engine in PSA cars in the 80s regularly blew their head-gaskets. I was told this by two separate Peugeot-Talbot dealers in relation to my Talbot Samba which went through two in about 6,000 miles. Frustratingly, on the second occasion, I was told that ‘once they go, they go again and again as the head warps’ … at which point I sold it as soon as I could (in exchange for an AX – the later TU engine seemed immune from the problem).

    1. The casting failure rate on traditional pattern aluminum blocks is high (30 percent of more) so to reduce casting failures, most manufacturers have gone to “open deck” blocks which have no cast-in cavities.

      In a cast iron block, the top deck surface is typically 0.5 inch thick, or more. In an open deck block, you get nothing ! The head gasket forms the top of the block.

      No wonder these things leak !

      And Rover in the K engines, took an inherently fragile construction and tried to make theirs the lightest in the industry.

      Brilliant !

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