MG Rover's prototype of a car to rival the Golf has been discovered deep within Longbridge, reports Keith Adams

s the former MG Rover Group factory at Longbridge prepares to return to small-scale production of the MG TF sports car, now that the site and the MG name are the property of Nanjing Motors, a fascinating glimpse of what might have been has emerged.

Much of the once-mighty factory lies dormant - a freeze-frame of the day a car company died. The sprawling complex of buildings and offices are a treasure-trove of priceless artefacts, but one that really fires the imagination is an abandoned prototype, gathering dust, which shows that MG Rover engineers were working hard until the day they received their P45s. It was the Rover that never was, the RDX60.

The car was the much needed new medium-sized model charged with saving MG Rover. Recently uncovered deep within the Longbridge site, the prototype is an early model of the five-seat hatchback designed to replace the Rover 45, and compete against the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.

Languishing in Longbridge's flight shed where much of MG Rover's secret pre-production work was undertaken, the top-secret aero test model once formed the centrepiece of the Birmingham company's plans - and with it, the prosperity of the ailing carmaker.

Based on the thoroughly engineered Rover 75, which had been in production since 1999, the Golf-rivalling hatchback was co-developed with engineering consultant TWR. Underneath the ungainly three- and five-door bodyshell, beats the heart of the big Rover, right down to its clubby and welcoming interior, which would have been changed for production. MG Rover planned to launch it early in 2004. However, delays and a lack of cash meant RDX60 was stillborn.

It's clear the styling of the RDX60 was somewhat unresolved, and it is probably for the best that it never saw the light of day in this form. With its chiselled flanks and bulky front it was far from good looking.

Rover sources claim that MG Rover boss Kevin Howe over-ruled design chief Peter Stevens, urging him to develop this theme. "Howe chose the final design over much more stylish options," said an RDX60 engineer. The brutish look of this car was thought fitting for Rover; the misguided belief was that this was a "British" baby Bentley look that would readily translate into overseas sales.

Although the RDX60 was more compact than the Rover 75, its wheelbase remained the same. This enabled the retention of much of the older car's floorpan, keeping the creation of the new car relatively simple and cheap.

The suspension was changed, with BMW's expensive and patented Z-axle set-up dropped from in favour of a beam axle. The RDX60 was to be powered by uprated versions of the K-Series engines used in the Rover 75/ZT.

The diesel engine was a promising, heavily revised version of the L-Series power unit, developed with Siemens.

In 2002, TWR became intimately involved with the Longbridge Product Development Centre, and was soon working hard to push the car into production. TWR used some of the most advanced virtual prototyping systems, shaving time from the programme. Many traditional prototype stages were completed on computer, and that led to bullishness within the company.

It was enough for MG Rover to confidently tell its suppliers that the new car would be on sale in early 2004, in a range that encompassed three-, four- and five-door MGs and Rovers. However, when TWR went into administration in early 2003, the project data was withheld from MGR for at least six months, a massive setback.

MG Rover now desperately needed a partner to share the cost of getting the RDX60 into production. A deal with Fiat to introduce a Roverised version of the Stilo was passed over because of the RDX60 - and after the failure of TWR, it's clear that management lived to regret that decision.

MGR found a willing partner in the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) in 2004. The parties planned to form a joint venture, with production of the new car and the 75 in Longbridge and China. But the Chinese demanded changes to the RDX60's styling.

Peter Stevens wasn't too unhappy, as he was reportedly less than delighted with the Kevin Howe-favoured look. He presented sleek new design proposals to the Chinese in Easter 2005. Despite being frozen since 2003, the RDX60 still looked like it would go ahead, based on the engineering data accumulated.

However, it wasn't to be. Deadlines to sign the joint venture came and went, as did facelift proposals for the challenging Golf rival. In the end, SAIC wouldn't commit to the British programme, terrified of MG R's heavy losses and fearing it might be liable to its many creditors if Longbridge sank.

When MG Rover went into administration in April 2005, the RDX60's coffin was nailed shut - a small footnote in Rover's long, turbulent history. It seems hardly a fitting end for a project that represented the toil of so many talented engineers within Longbridge.

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