Monday, 21 February 2011

Rover 75 Retrospective;- Requiem for an Industry

 

Anybody with an iota of integrity will admit that the Rover group put out more than its fair share of absolute dross over the years. But it also produced some extremely underrated machinery. 

One car that never really got the recognition it deserved is the Rover 75. OK, it wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but in hindsight the last totally new platform that Rover would ever deliver genuinely was good enough to make you wonder:

What if things had turned out differently?



As badly as Rover Group were treated by BMW, it can only fairly be said that the German Giant was at least a good influence. The abiding memory I have is that BMW bought Rover piecemeal, stripped the bits out of it that they wanted, created the 75 as a consolatory boobie prize and spat the rest out. For BMW, it worked rather well. I don’t have to point out to you that MINI has been an unbridled success worldwide, no matter how their mere existence might grate on you. BMWs X range of SUVs also got a head start thanks to Land Rover impetus.

Land Rover itself, though, won rather more from the deal, and Ford, their later parent company, did rather well out of events too. The previous P38 Land Rover still used the thirsty, unrefined and old-fashioned Buick derived pushrod V8, but as the design process for the replacement car began on BMWs watch, the first cars would use the far more powerful and advanced 4.4-litre M62 V8. But that’s a whole 'nother story. I want to talk about the 75 some more.


When it was finally launched in ’99, BBC Top Gear magazine shouted the damning headline “Sorry Rover, your new 75 just isn’t up to scratch”. The great white hope that could have been the salvation of our UK motor industry seemed to be lying in the gutter in tatters and shreds. Top Gear, it seems, had killed the dream, and oh how I hope it hurts them to think about it today.

For a start, they were comparing the 75 to the E39 BMW 5-Series, Alfa 166, Saab 9-5 and Volvo S70. It strikes me that either Top Gear were testing it against entirely the wrong class of car, or Rover had made some horrible mistakes with its product planning.

Look at the engine choices that the 75 gave you. You could choose from a 1.8, 2.0 or 2.5 V6s or a 2.0 Diesel engine of BMW heritage. Compare that to the cars listed above and it seems that the 75 belonged to the 3-Series class, rather than the 5-Series. Think of it against that, the Saab 9-3, Alfa 156 and Volvo S40 and it all starts to make rather more sense.


The review went on to complain that the 75 felt very staid, even old-fashioned; miles from the razor-edge precision that had become the industry zeitgeist. The car received many negative reviews based on this one point, which ironically proved to matter not one jot. You see, in retrospect, the Rover 75 was actually so well-suited to the British population that it should have been issued under prescription.

For every high-blood-pressure sales rep in a hurry to get to their next regional copier toner sales conference there was at least another teacher, optician or retired engineer who simply wanted to waft around in comfort and silence. With the 75 Rover and BMW had created a haven from all that was competitive and thrusting about its rivals. This was shrewd - Munich really didn't want to sponsor anything that would compete internally with their existing range of sporting saloons.

For better or for worse, the 75 was unlike anything else on the market at the time. The traditional Rover grille looked a lot more at ease on the bonnet of this than it ever did on the 800. The car was fairly bulky, quite upright compared to the far lower Honda based 600 and 800, and was clearly styled to evoke something of the Britishness that had gone missing from our indigenous cars recently. It was judged very well, with a chrome coachline bisecting the doorhandles and continuing to a rounded transom with more than a hint of P5, or even old Jag about it. It all looked very British, and quite classy.

The car in these pictures is a 75 Touring, and it's one of the most elegantly conceived estate cars to hit the market in recent years. The proportions are still there and you could argue that the shape is better resolved as a wagon, it does seem to lose some of the bulkiness that the saloon suffers from. It looks a little less old-mannish, more like a sporting lifestyle vehicle. You can imagine a country gent in a Barbour jacket removing his under-and-over shotgun from the split tailgate and letting the clay pigeons have it.


The news was even better inside. Unlike its German rivals, sportiness as a concept was strictly verboten in this plush, restrained inner sanctum. The chairs were fairly high set and felt like lounge furniture compared to the figure-hugging buckets of the competition. The dials had faces that seemed modelled on Victorian carriage clocks, illuminating with a warm orange glow when headlamps were lit. There was acres of what feels like genuine wood veneer, quite a lot more tastefully applied than the very obviously petrochemical derived stuff you saw in so many executive cars of the era.

Interestingly, the interior has much in common with the design of the first generation BMW MINI. The shape where the dashboard meets the door is exactly the same,but on a different scale. Some of the switches are the same, as is the stereo. It's a real shame that more attention wasn't paid to these points by the motoring press eleven years ago, because the detailing is really very nice indeed. To this day it remains a very nice place to while away the long, boring motorway hours.


And I did. I've driven these many, many times and always enjoy the experience, although I can never really quite establish why. At no point do you ever really feel involved in the process, at no point do you ever cite that you'll remember this journey for the rest of your life. You do, though, feel totally relaxed and at one with the world. There's a good chance that everybody's overtaking you, and you really don't care.

It seems almost churlish to entertain the notion, but the 75 actually handles very well indeed, helped no doubt by its use of a version of BMWs Z-axle, that first saw the light of day in the Z1, at the back. The car tracks very precisely and gives you no undesirable mid-corner histrionics. The bias is towards understeer, of course, but no more dramatically than, say, a mid-range Audi. So calm down a bit, stay within its limits and the 75 will demolish your favourite A-road in short order. It really is a very accomplished car indeed.

The smoothest 75s use the ill-starred KV6 six-cylinder engine, but the car I have here uses the ex-BMW 2.0CDTi diesel, which admittedly feels a bit dated by todays standards. That said, it's certainly willing enough, all the more since this particular example has been fitted with the X-Power 135 upgrade that frees up 19bhp or so over the standard outpt. Not big figures, then, and a fair amount of vibration and noise. But it gels very well with the automatic gearbox, you never really need to kick down when overtaking, there's plenty of torque available and 45mpg is achievable by even the most hurried folk.


You can feel that there's embryonic talent existing latently under that subtle bodywork, and indeed the MG chassis technicians later waved their magic wands over it to create the absurdly capable MG ZT variants, including the Ford Modular V8 powered ZT260, the same engine later being made available in the descriptively named 75 V8. But even this ordinary version feels like there's magic lurking in there somewhere, it gives the whole car a depth of character that feels three-dimensional. It's a car you can easily become smitten by.

It's a fruitless exercise to ask what might have been had the Phoenix group not tried to be so ambitious. Had they pruned back the range and not tried to be a volume player, I expect they could have survived far longer with just the 75 and MG ZT to offer. A luxury offering in the 3-Series / Mondeo arena, complemented by a sporty one. Certainly there are still enough driving around to show that the demand must have been there. Personally, I think the 75 did a much better job of appealing to middle-English sensibilities than the Jaguar X-Type, a car always tainted by its Ford associations, non-special cabin and slightly gawky styling.

Today a 75 makes quite a shrewd purchase. The smooth and charismatic V6s have their own appeal, but the economical and relaxing diesel is the sensible choice. But then again, maybe being sensible was the 75's biggest downfall in the first place? Make mine a long wheelbase 75 V8.



6 comments:

  1. Great article Chris. I think many people dismissed the 75 for it's olde-worlde looks. Which is why it wasn't successful as Rover hoped it would be. But that doesn't make it a bad car - far from it. It's one of those cars (in my humble opinion) that is very underrated.

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  2. Cheers MackMac, I agree. It's a shame the theme of the 75 wasn't expanded upon. The same styling cues applied to a five-metre class car would look very appealling indeed. Ridiculously, the 75 was probably about a decade ahead of its time.

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    1. Just stumbled across this article and what an honest piece. Even now in 2013 there is a growing following on car that was seen as an old mans car. They are well built, have some cracking extras and can be bought very cheaply and the spares are very plentiful. I drive an MG ZT 190 (its my 3rd!) and what sums the car up nicely is when your lock her and walk away even after all the years Ive had one I always take a last look!
      Try building a modern car that will still charm you many years on!

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  3. Then...... Which contemporary cars were compared with Rover 75? I think that 75 could have successed if Rover marketed 75 with advantages from 75's size(between BMW 3 and BMW 5 series).......

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  4. Great review - just came across this article.. Have recently bought a Rover 75 2.0 CTDi Tourer, in fantastic condition, and feeling very relaxed when driving it around - rather like 'Morse'. Agree with Dongwoo Kang in that it bridges the gap between the 3 and 5 series. We previously had an old Jaguar XJ6 (old style) and this is a natural progression from that. At the time we felt the Rover 75 looked more like a Jag than the Jag did! I think it could have been very successful given the proper marketing. What a foolish nation we are, allowing our only remaining Car Manufacture to go like we did. Every other prospering country has a car industry and the government at the time should have rescued this, nationalised it, taken the best bits, put in some proper management and secured jobs for generations.

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  5. Great review. I will be collecting my 75 Contemporary CDTI auto saloon on Friday, and can't wait. Wasn't sure about having an auto but after the test drive i was hooked. The car has done 82,000 miles and drives so smoothly. Very comfortable and so many toys for the money. I have joined an owners club which i know can be very helpful. I'll write again to let you know how i get on.

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