Sad demise of a very British motor car

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The Independent Online

After a marathon, storm-tossed voyage, the Rover longship appears finally to have sunk. For most of its lifetime Rover stood for solidity, quality and integrity. Now, it seems, the brand is worthless.

After a marathon, storm-tossed voyage, the Rover longship appears finally to have sunk. For most of its lifetime Rover stood for solidity, quality and integrity. Now, it seems, the brand is worthless.

The Longbridge factory where cars were being built until production was suspended yesterday was not always the home of Rover. Like so many great and long-gone British marques, such as Humber and Triumph, the Rover company had its roots in the cycle and motorcycle trade. Rover built the first true safety bicycle in 1888 and only ventured into motor cars in 1904, at works in Coventry.

The earliest models, eight horsepower, were small by Edwardian standards, but quite advanced, using a good deal of aluminium in their construction. Before long Rover was making grander vehicles and by the 1920s and 1930s had established a reputation for providing the middle classes with their wheels of choice. There was a hiccough - a hare-brained scheme to make an aircooled rear engined small car in the early 1930s which almost bust the company - but the idea was quickly abandoned.The landmark P4 design of 1949, the so-called "Auntie" Rover, cemented the make's position in the market; doctors, bank managers and vets were the typical clientele, and no wonder the BBC gave Tristan Farnham one in its adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small . By then Rovers were made at Solihull. The P4 was followed in 1958 by the P5, a favourite of the Queen and the transport usually provided for prime ministers from Wilson to Thatcher.

But in the 1960s and 1970s Rover abandoned its traditional "wood and leather" values to embrace modernity in the Rover 2000 and the later SD1, both very daring designs aimed squarely at the burgeoning executive saloon market, long before BMW cornered it. But Rover fell into the maw of the disastrous British Leyland combine in 1968 and quality and reliability suffered. The only bright spot was the continuing success of Land Rover and the brilliant Range Rover, brands now owned by Ford. From the 1980s, Rover designs were made at Longbridge, (previously associated with Austin), and increasingly based on contemporary Hondas, sometimes with very little other than a change of badge, a chrome grille and extra wood and leather trim to distinguish them and offer a bit of snob appeal. (This was the type characteristically driven by Hyacinth Bouquet in Keeping Up Appearances ). They were reliable, but not really proper Rovers. When BMW came on the scene in 1994 it set about designing a whole new range of Rovers, but only the 75 actually made it into production before BMW pulled out in 2000.

A handsome car, it fell foul of its "pipe and slippers" image, itself born of its traditional appeal and a previous marketing campaign based on the slogan "Relax - it's a Rover".

The Phoenix Consortium re-engineered Rovers and offered racier MG versions, but by then the die was cast.

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