Invasion of the body snatchers: Rover in the hands of foreigners? The idea simply isn't British, says Jonathan Glancey

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The Independent Online
BLIMEY, chaps] The Nips have already taken control of one fifth of Rover; now the Hun's on the way with the crack BMW squad from Munich copping the rest. All we need now is those spaghetti-eaters Fiat to come toadying up to the goons for the odd crumb and the Axis will have got the British motor industry in the bag]

For the private buyer few purchases are as emotional as that of a new car. It remains, after the house, the second most expensive purchase most people make in their lives and, though the British motor industry is heading inexorably down the long road to extinction, we still get worked up about the shapes, names and nationalities of cars.

The idea of Rover, the last bastion of the British motor industry, being bought by Honda (20 per cent in 1980) and BMW (which bought the remaining 80 per cent for a bargain pounds 800m) is enough to make blue blood boil. It was bad enough when the Yanks at Ford snapped up Jaguar. But while Jaguar can still evoke a rakish cad at the wheel of a curvaceous car too fast for its - and his - own good, Rover meant and, somehow still means, blimpishness, a mock-Tudor pile in Virginia Water, pipe and slippers, jackets from Dunns, twinset and pearls, stand- offishness and freemasonry.

Will British buyers want a Rover owned by BMW-Honda? The cars will still be made in Britain - for the foreseeable future. But even this cannot be taken for granted. What BMW likes about Rover is that it makes quality cars cheaply. British labour is the stuff of bargain basements. While a car as good as the Rover 600-series can be built as cheaply as it is, it will stay in production in this country. If labour threatens to become as expensive as it is in Germany, BMW may try to shift production to the hard-working and long-suffering countries of the Pacific Rim.

But if it did, it could upset private British buyers, who are choosing top line Rovers over BMWs not simply because the cars are now well made and offer good value, but also because they are made in Britain and are seen to represent certain broguish British virtues. They buy for emotional reasons.

When Jaguar hinted that it would build its new compact saloon (the long-awaited successor to the legendary Mk2 of the Sixties) in the United States or possibly elsewhere abroad, it ignited the wrath of Jaguar buyers. Jaguars are built at Brown's Lane, Coventry, home of Le Mans-winning sports cars as well as the great E-Type and every one of those svelte wood and leather cocoons that steer company directors to calorific lunches and Californian women to shopping malls. Brown's Lane is to Jaguar what Baker Street is to Sherlock Holmes.

BMW might do well to note the case of Jaguar if it is to avoid its Rover takeover backfiring. It's not so bad, perhaps, buying a Rover tweaked by the Japanese, but why buy a Rover owned by the Germans? You might as well have done with it and buy a BMW.

Of course, British car makers have long been owned by foreign interests. Vauxhall of Luton, for example, was taken over by General Motors longer ago than almost anyone can remember. But for a long while, Rover really did seem the last outpost of the mass-produced British car. Today, the only pedigree Brits left are tiny (if prospering) craft-based outfits such as Morgan, TVR, Bristol and, of course, Rolls-Royce (which BMW is also rather keen on).

Does Britishness matter any more? It does if you are buying an upmarket car. Most major manufacturers have adopted the wood-and- leather, club-on-wheels look that the UK motor industry refused to abandon when everyone else thought that plastic, polyester, Dralon and nylon would do. Rover temporarily abandoned cow hides and timber in the Eighties, but has returned to them with gusto. The British look, no matter how thin the veneer, sells.

Rover always pioneered its engineering and design changes on the quiet. The Rover 2000, which appeared at the 1962 Motor Show, was way ahead in terms of comfort, speed and engineering compared with the very old-fashioned cars BMW was making at the time. It seems odd now, but 30 years ago, BMWs were decidedly fogeyish. Times change. While Rover became lost in the stew of the British Motor Corporation and then the slough of British Leyland, BMW plugged on, perfecting its manufacturing techniques, honing its design skills and playing wisely for time. By the Eighties, it was the driver's saloon, a car that no contemporary Rover could possibly match in terms of quality, refinement or reliability.

Rover, for all its crusty lineage, did design fascinating cars - the Range Rover and the shark-nosed SDI saloon - but, after the Leyland mess, the British could no longer make a decent production- line car. When Rover began to build well again, it returned to traditional values, but for its engineering it turned to Japan.

The Rover 600, a Honda Accord dressed in Savile Row by Gordon Sked, Rover's head of styling, and his team, again evoked an age in which the values of Brief Encounter held sway, motorists wore hats and gloves and the pound in your pocket was worth just that.

Of course, it is really a mobile theme park, a Union Jack wrapped in the Rising Sun, a car as likely to appeal to Japanese businessmen who come to Scotland to drink real whisky and play golf as to old-style Rover buyers - professionals who turned to BMWs during the Eighties. The car has also been selling well in Germany, which is partly why BMW was keen to buy Rover.

In five years' time Japanese manufacturers will account for every second car built in Britain. The rest will be made by German-owned companies and the imports will come increasingly from the Pacific Rim and eastern Europe.

BMW must tread gently with Rover, as Ford is with Jaguar and Aston-Martin. And if it does that, we will say 'good luck, Johnny Hun; we'll get used to you building the cars - as long as they look and smell British'. In terms of manufacturing, Britain lost the war years ago. We'll carry on theming and, who knows, perhaps lead the world towards that distant day when car manufacturing ends altogether.

(Photograph omitted)

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