Rival bidders for Rover hoped for more time to prepare their proposals after BMW last night denied setting Friday as the sale deadline. A spokesman at the German company's Munich headquarters said talk of a final decision in two days was "press speculation" and negotiations could last until "early May" as originally envisaged.
That means the Phoenix consortium headed by the former Rover executive John Towers and favoured by unions, could have a degree of breathing space to set up its bid.
After talks with Stephen Byers, the Trade Secretary, BMW agreed to meet Mr Towers today to discuss the Phoenix plans for Longbridge. Mr Byers told Professor Werner Samann, BMW board member and head of the Rover Group, that the German company should honour its commitment to give detailed consideration to Mr Towers' proposals.
Employees' representatives say the Phoenix plan to keep mass-producing cars at Rover's Longbridge plant would mean only 1,000 to 2,000 redundancies. Unions believe a rival bid by the City financiers Alchemy Partners, which had been given exclusive negotiating rights, would lead to the loss of up to 5,000 jobs.
But Mr Byers said Alchemy had revised its figures after talks with BMW and now believed its plan to build MG- badged cars at Longbridge would cost only 3,000 job losses. An Alchemy spokesman said there was nothing "magical" about Friday, but the deal could be finalised at the weekend. Jon Moulton, head of Alchemy, said last night: "It's very nearly a done deal." He hoped it would be signed on Friday or Saturday. His phone conversation with Mr Byers was "very friendly and amiable" and the minister said he had never expressed a preference for the Tower plan.
The Alchemy boss hopes to enter negotiations with unions about redundancies "within days" of the deal being signed with BMW. But a rally will be held in Longbridge today in support of the Towers bid and union officials are expected to go to Munich tomorrow to lobby the BMW management board.
Phoenix had said the Friday deadline would not allow their auditors sufficient time to scrutinise Rover's books. John Hemming, a member of the Towers team, said the situation at Rover was not as bad as presented by BMW, and his consortium believed it could get the company into profit by 2002.
He estimated the group's losses last year were closer to £170m, rather than the £700m to £800m suggested by BMW. The claim was dismissed as "a piece of nonsense" by Alchemy.
Motor industry pundits say Alchemy's plan to re-brand existing Rover models as MGs by adding badges but little else could devalue the famous marque. It would be a "difficult balancing act" to make the new range sufficiently sporting and distinct to merit the MG name while being able to produce them very soon, they said.
Snatched pictures purporting to show Alchemy's first prototype model, a Rover 25 model with seemingly few alterations save the famous MG octagon on the front and rear.