GAVIN GREEN MOTORING COLUMN
Saturday 07 October 1995
The MGF is the first go-it-alone Rover since the Montego, 11 years ago. Every Rover since, and a few before, were based on Hondas. Different body styling, sometimes; different engines, occasionally; and leather and wood, invariably, to try to transmogrify dull little Japanese cars into stately English ones. But, in every case, from 200 to 400 to 600 to 800, every new Rover has essentially been a tarted-up Honda.
What's doubly pleasing about the MGF is that it is such a good car; a more impressive engineering achievement than any of the Honda-Rovers. The Honda-Rover alliance, let us not forget, was never more than a marriage of convenience. Like most such liaisons, it gave Honda a way into Europe, preparatory to building its own factory and own cars here (in Swindon).
And for Rover, it was an engineering lifeline, thrown when the company was deep in the financial mire. Never mind that Honda refused Rover access to first-grade engineering information, nor that most Rover-Hondas have been based on ageing Hondas rather than new-wave models. Without Honda, Rover may very well have gone belly-up.
BMW's take-over means it won't. And the excellence of the MGF means it doesn't deserve to. The MGF presages an era of new Rover-Rover cars, with a bit of help from BMW. They will be front-drive saloons, use mostly Rover- developed engines and Rover suspensions, and use bespoke Rover-designed bodies. They will not be based on BMWs, let alone Hondas.
Most importantly, they should also bring some brand consistency back to Rover. The Honda-Rovers are competent cars: reliable, easy to drive, handy, uncomplicated. But they stand for nothing: how can they do otherwise, when they are the products of two makers with such contrasting philosophies?
The upshot is that Rover's image, so strong 30 years ago, now stands for little. Rover's management hasn't helped. Changing the name earlier this year of the Metro to the Rover 100, complete with chrome grille, is not consistent with trying to position Rover as an upmarket marque: one that should stand above hoi polloi (meaning Ford and Vauxhall).
All - or nearly all - car makers can make good cars cheaply; that was one of the industrial achievements of the Eighties. But what distinguishes Rover from Honda (or for that matter Kia, Daewoo, Hyundai or any other of the Third World arrivistes) is its tradition. It has a heritage.
BMW is one of the acknowledged masters of brand protection and promotion. If you drive a BMW 3-series, you simply drive a BMW. It is an important difference. If you drive a Rover, who knows what you're driving? What is the commonality between a Rover 100 and an 800? There is none, other than that both cars are outclassed in their respective sectors, and that they have chrome grilles and the same badges.
BMW will help change that. It wants to emphasise the traditional values of Rover. It wants Rovers to be very British again, rather like four-wheeled versions of a Savile Row suit. It wants Rovers thought of as cheaper Jaguars. This is an attractive proposition, and an attainable one.
With the MG, Rover has proved that it can build great cars by itself again. It has also proved, with the Rover 100, that it fundamentally misunderstands the minutiae of marketing and brand protection. BMW can help a little with the former, and a lot with the latter. We may, once again, be on the verge of a great chapter in the history of the nation's car maker.
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