Motoring: Gavin Green's Column
Saturday 01 August 1998
Rover may be going through difficulties but the extraordinary fact is that it has taken German owners to embolden the company to design and engineer truly British cars again
BLAME THE Germans! Blame the pound! Blame poor productivity! Blame the Brummies! And, for all I know, El Nino may have been cited as the cause of the recent troubles at poor old Rover. (After all, it is being blamed for just about everything else.)
Only two months ago, the company seemed on the verge of transformation. After years of low investment and dreadful cars, BMW's deutschmarks and managers were clearly making a difference to Rover, one-time dog of the European car industry. As proof, it announced that 1,000 new jobs would be created to build a crucial new luxury model, the 75, which makes its debut at this October's Birmingham Show. That NEC extravaganza was to be the final confirmation of Rover's triumphant return to the big time.
But now, after last week's volte-face - 1,500 jobs are to go, as well as the 1,000 new jobs that were planned - Rover looks to be barking mad again, a company with about as much long-term strategic thinking as a stray dog searching for scraps.
No doubt the pound is overvalued and that has hurt Rover. No doubt the company's productivity is poor, albeit improving. And no doubt BMW has had a much harder job of trying to sort out the British motor industry's biggest basket case than it originally thought, when it sailed in, on a wave of expansionary nostalgic (Bring back Austin-Healey! Bring back Riley! Rule Britannia!) incited by its Anglophile chief Bernd Pischetsrieder, who is, after all the nephew of the inventor of the Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis.
After four years of faltering progress, reality has finally hit BMW.
But there is little doubt that BMW has done a good job. Apart from massive investment in new technical facilities, it has given the company priceless managerial support - not least from Rover's BMW-installed chairman, Walter Hasselkus, vilified by The Sun but in fact the best boss Rover has had for decades.
Just as important, BMW is funding a crucially important range of new models, to replace the tinselled but tardy old-school Hondas which currently masquerade as a model range for an allegedly "prestige" manufacturer. More than anywhere else, that is where the blame should be laid for Rover's current woes. It's the cars wot dun it. Rover has the worst cars of any major European manufacturer.
Land Rover and MG are doing OK (in fact, the Freelander and the MGF are both seriously good things). It is the Rover saloons - all based on old Hondas - that are causing the grief. They are pretentious, overpriced, and about as authentically British as a sumo wrestler with a Union Flag painted on his belly. BMW of course knows this. It is just that, until recently, Rover did not have the resources to replace them.
Now, thanks to BMW, it has. The new 75, to be shown at the Birmingham Show before sales begin next March, replaces both the 600 and the 800. It is a "clean-sheet" car, designed and engineered in Britain. Its greatest quality appears to be its overt Britishness. It is easily the most British Rover since the ministerial Rovers of the Sixties. In fact, it takes some of its styling cues from the old P4 and P5 models, cars which were curvaceous, quite upright, genteel in their manners, and roomy and beautifully finished inside. Prices start from about pounds 18,000 and there is a choice of four- cylinder and V6 engines, all British made. Extraordinary that it has taken German owners to embolden Rover to design and engineer truly British cars again.
I haven't driven the still-secret 75 yet (an old model name, incidentally, which dates back to 1948). But it is very likely to be the best Rover saloon in generations. What a shame that it is still a couple of months away from view. It would instantly make people feel better about Rover again. Until the plaudits start in October, the usual suspects will just have to keep taking the blame.
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