The Rover Takeover: Vintage revival may be a financial Triumph

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN may have lost its last volume car maker but if BMW's chairman has his way we may see the reappearance of marques that most thought dead and buried. Bernd Pischetstrieder said yesterday that he would like to see the dust blown off some of the old names Rover owns: we could yet be able to buy a new Riley, Wolseley, Triumph, Austin or Morris.

This is one of the few clues BMW has given about its plans for Rover - and it is one that has met with scepticism. 'I wonder whether Riley means anything to young people these days,' said Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School.

Overall, though, Professor Rhys is optimistic about the merger. He believes the combined group will have the pricing advantage of a specialist maker together with the cost advantage of a volume producer. 'If it works, you will have the largest specialist maker in the world,' he said.

BMW will get most immediate benefit from Land Rover, which has done extraordinarily well from the boom for four-wheel drive vehicles. 'With one fell swoop it has outflanked Daimler-Benz by buying the only serious off-road manufacturer in Europe,' Professor Rhys said.

Rover is likely to keep responsibility for designing offroaders and small cars, he believes. BMW will not have to develop its own small model as Mercedes has had to.

BMW said yesterday there would be replacements for the Mini and/or the Metro, and it seems likely they will be both designed in Britain and badged as Rovers. If Germans want to buy a small BMW, they will probably be offered a Rover. So will Americans or Japanese.

The area of uncertainty arises over Rover's larger models. The successful 200/400 series, which was designed jointly with Honda, is a Rover version of the Honda Domani. The Japanese company has made it clear it is unhappy about yesterday's deal. The question is what would happen if Honda pulls out. Rover relies heavily on Honda's skills with this size of car and needs to share the development costs.

Professor Rhys believes the best solution would be for Honda to swallow its pride and work alongside BMW. The three-firm combination would be a formidable repository of skills and money.

The future of the larger 600 and 800 series is even less certain. When Sir Graham Day invented the concept of 'roverisation' in the mid-Eighties, he meant to push the range up-market - away from Vauxhall and Ford, towards BMW. That has had most effect on the bigger cars, and it will be interesting to see whether BMW wants to keep producing vehicles that compete with each other.

Richard Bremner, associate editor of Car magazine, believes it should. 'Rover and BMW still have different images,' he said. 'Rover buyers tend to be less aggressive, more staid.' It would make sense, he says, for the next generation of large Rovers to be rebadged BMW Three and Five Series.

Professor Rhys agrees, adding that this would mean BMW-badged cars could if necessary be produced in British factories, in the same way that during the German boom, Opels were produced by General Motors' Vauxhall factory at Luton.

Whether or not Rileys and Wolseleys reappear, it seems likely that the development of the MG marque will continue. Rover has been working with Mayflower to produce a new model, and Professor Rhys believes this will continue. 'BMW has not been all that successful with sports cars,' he said.

One of the cars planned for production at its new South Carolina factory is a roadster: maybe it could be badged as an MG to appeal to nostalgic Americans?