Oops, I did it again… A belated defence of the Rover 75.
My first contribution to Driven to Write, in the spring of 2018, was to recount the tale of my replacing a V6 Rover 75, following a brief period of ownership, with a new twin cylinder Fiat Panda (as different a car as one could imagine). It was a tale of disillusionment and naivety; of an enthusiast who had not driven regularly for many years aspiring to a car he had admired when new, which turned out to be not entirely suited to his present circumstances.
After a kind reception by the readers of this site, I wrote a follow-up article in which I reviewed my tuned twin-air turbo Panda in more detail; a car that delighted me daily for two and a half years, so much so that I could forgive its inaccurate claim one (very inconvenient) morning that it had mislaid its engine oil and the terrible dealer service that seems to come as standard with any Fiat group product. So why, given the above, is the Fiat now gone and have I bought another Rover 75?
The answer could, of course, simply be that I am highly consistent in my idiocy but I would like to propose a counter-argument and, in doing so, put in a good word for the 75; an unfairly maligned car whose undeserved reputation I fear my earlier article may have partially confirmed.
This alternative argument concerns the issue of context and its importance in enjoying cars (hence why I think it might be of some interest to readers of this site). That different cars work in different contexts is obvious to all of us I think: The 1950s Lancia Aurelia B20 GT may have consistently occupied pole position in my dream garage for several decades now, but it’s obvious it wouldn’t work in the context of a daily runabout for a city dweller like me. It’s a car for high days and holidays, to be kept in a secure garage, not left out on the street.
My mistake with the first Rover several years ago was to ignore my own context as a driver: That I had become unused to driving regularly, that I had no experience with big-engined automatics, that I lived in a 17th century city centre with tiny lanes, tight corners and parking bays shorter than the length of the Rover… and most importantly, that a car like the 75 was simply not the right place to start my car owning career.
The little turbocharged twin-air Panda worked brilliantly for me because it alleviated all the concerns I had with the Rover. It was small and had great visibility, so perfect for where I lived. It had the familiarity of a manual gearbox and came with the reassurance of a manufacturer’s warranty for daily use (not that the Rover was ever unreliable, I hasten to add). Most importantly, especially once tuned, it was a genuinely enjoyable driver’s car: I loved it all the time I had it and stand by my glowing review of the car in these pages. It fitted the required context perfectly and allowed me to experience the ‘hot hatch’ phase of a driver’s career.
Nonetheless, after two and a half years of ownership, my own circumstances had changed considerably: I was once again used to driving frequently and a move out of the city centre meant that the roads around my home were now considerably less cramped. That move, combined with worsening motorway traffic, meant that public transport had become a more attractive option for the daily office commute and by the end of 2019 I wasn’t using the little Fiat much more than once a week.
At this point I decided to sell the Panda rather than let it stand on the street depreciating and ‘replaced’ it with a car sharing service: A shared VW Up, parked at the end of the road, became my occasional steed and positively surprised me with its chassis balance.
Of course, a car enthusiast without a car is by definition a restless soul and, in the midst of the Corona crisis, I found myself pondering the idea of owning a car primarily for enjoyment. My employer had already made it clear that going to the office every day of the week was a thing of the past, even once the crisis is over, so it seemed unlikely I would ever have to subject such a machine to a daily slog in traffic.
I thought about potential (reasonably practical and attainable) fun cars. Things like Alfas, Minis, Peugeot Coupés and classic Mercedes’ were added to the list, researched and (in several cases) scratched out again but, oddly, the car that kept returning to the forefront of my mind was the 2.5 litre Rover 75; the very car I had owned and rejected. The subconscious prompt for this was probably the local presence of an immaculate early 75 in Old English White that I could not help but cast jealous glances towards on my way to the supermarket.
I started to check out the online classifieds and found that the supply of good 75s was becoming scarce and their values inching up: In a few months of looking on and off I only found three high-spec 2.5 litre models with low mileage for their age. One of these was in an unappealing colour combination, one was priced very optimistically indeed and one looked just superb.
I told myself that returning to a car that hadn’t suited me would be absurd but by this point I was already at the ‘it can’t do any harm to take a look’ stage and still honestly expected a test drive to reconfirm that this wasn’t the car for me. An appointment was arranged and the little Up took me on the two hour journey to meet the Rover, confirming on the way that the smallest VW is thoroughly enjoyable to drive and has poor seats (they have no lower back support).
The 75 in question appeared to have emerged from a timewarp: Registered in early 2002 and having had two owners, it could have passed for a couple of years of years old; easily the best example I have ever seen. The car was that unfashionably light metallic blue that Rover launched with and, though not a colour I would ever have imagined choosing, it suited the car perfectly.
The immaculate interior was resplendent in contrasting dark blue ‘personal line’ leather upholstery and, crucially (thanks to a late 2001 build date just prior to the real bite of MG Rover’s ‘Project Drive’ cost cutting), complete with that huge slab of real walnut in the dash. A full service history was present and correct and the V6 had had its cambelts replaced on time. Would sir care for a test drive?
By now unsurprisingly, the car drove as well as it looked and its poise confirmed a long-held suspicion that the suspension on my previous 75 had been quite tired. So this was how the 75 was supposed to handle: The contemporary ‘best front-drive chassis in the world’ claims started to make sense. The 2.5 litre KV6 engine was its familiar smooth and woofly self, hiding its power behind a long and damped throttle pedal travel but ready to do the kickdown roar up a motorway entry ramp any time I chose, and the interior cosseted. The car felt utterly solid.
In a remarkable feat of self-control, I refrained from buying the 75 on the spot and instead made an appointment for the Rover specialist in Amsterdam to interrogate the dealer about its history and state but, barring unexpected horror stories, my mind was already made up. The horror stories failed to transpire and a short time later the car was mine, complete with a new service and APK (the Dutch equivalent of an MOT).
On the two hour drive back home, the 75 continued to impress and a little road trip two days later confirmed the positive impression yet again. Of course, during the first days, the odd little age-related imperfection surfaced that would require the Rover specialist’s ministrations, but given that said age was getting on for two decades these were very slight indeed. At no point did the feeling of fundamental solidity and reliability fade and so I started to feel that this was, after all, the right car for me.
So what has happened here: Is my ‘new’ 75 so much better than the old one that this can account for the radically different experience of driving and owning it? Of course not. The thing that has really changed is the context: I am no longer an inexperienced, nervous, born-again driver. I no longer live in such cramped inner city surroundings. I no longer need to sit in traffic every day for my commute.
Just as the little Panda turbo was perfect for the time I spent with it, the Rover, after all, may be perfect for me now. By judging the 75 by my previous, skewed, criteria, I did it an injustice for (even a couple of decades on from its youth) it really is a superb car that deserves to become a classic, a process I suspect has now begun. Though far too early to think of such things, I cannot help but nourish a hope that I might one day return to these virtual pages with a report akin to Sean Patrick’s superb long-term test of the Citroën SM, detailing my first decade with my second Rover.
The Rover 75’s essential qualities were entirely overshadowed by the PR disaster surrounding its launch, the trauma of BMW’s disengagement with the brand, the questionable decisions and cheapening of the product range by MG Rover’s management and the final tragedy of the company folding. Too few people noticed that Rover actually went out with a bang; the 75 was a thoroughly engineered, exceptionally refined, comfortable and enjoyable car.
The retro look may have been an acquired taste but with the distance of more than 20 years from launch (and the painful context of contemporary car design) it’s easier to look past details that some at the time considered twee and see the fundamental strength of the design. I challenge anyone to compare this to the contemporary S- and X-Type Jaguars and tell me the Rover isn’t in another league entirely: One of these cars is ageing very well indeed; the others aren’t.
So, I’m back to set the record straight and correct my earlier short-sighted assessment of the 75: Mea culpa, Rover.