It’s long been fashionable to undermine British Leyland and recycle the same old comments about them producing rubbish cars. So embedded has this attitude become, that it’s accepted as unthinking fact applicable to all corners of the once sprawling BL empire. The company underwent a major reorganisation in the early 1980s and transitioned into Austin Rover Group. However, whilst the BL era still excites strong opinions, the cars of Austin Rover weren’t bad enough to attract the same ire. Their fate is arguably worse; that of being overlooked completely.
Whilst British Leyland was a strike-ridden basket case and execution was sometimes woeful, many of the designs were, on paper, world class. The prime example must be the Rover SD1 which was a superb concept sabotaged by poor build quality. Consider the principles of the ADO71 range, most commonly known as the Austin 1800 Princess. Put your 1975 head on and look at the wedged body styled by Harris Mann, the transverse engine maximising room in the passenger compartment, smooth riding Hydragas suspension and front wheel drive for secure roadholding. It should have been a winner but internal politics and brand positioning tripped it up. To protect sales of the Austin Maxi it was forbidden to have a hatchback, and it was lumbered with the outdated B-Series rather than benefitting from better engines from Rover or Triumph. Couple those decisions with confrontational employee relations and it was yet another British Leyland car which was hobbled from the start.
Following nationalisation of British Leyland in 1975, the government appointed well known industry troubleshooter Sir Michael Edwardes to turn things around. He sliced and diced his way through the broken empire, removing undesirable elements and closing unproductive plants. The bottom line was the only consideration and there was no room for sentimentalism; MG at Abingdon could attest to that. In the clearest statement of intent, 1980 saw an engineering agreement signed with Honda which set the path for future product development. Many of the old marques were put to sleep and the streamlined Austin Rover Group emerged in 1982, providing a home for Austin, Rover, Land Rover, Jaguar and Leyland Truck and Bus. MG did not survive in their own right but the badge was glued onto sporty Austin hatchbacks. Traditionalists across the land spluttered into their ale and shuffled off mumbling to themselves.
Edwardes was intent on starting the 1980s with the cleanest sheet possible, and if that meant upsetting a few people, so be it. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough anymore, and the unions wouldn’t be allowed to derail his plans. The Japanese were coming. Honda had their eyes on their own UK manufacturing plant and Nissan were soon to open their Sunderland factory. The shambles of British Leyland just wouldn’t have survived in the new market. The previous sales proposition was greatly simplified. The Austin name was used for mass market models, the Rover badge reserved for the upmarket products and the MG marque was applied to sports versions of the mass market cars. Some models would be variously badged as all three before the decade was out. Brand simplification solved the problem of divisional politics preventing good engineering. There was an end to the organisation competing against itself and more attention was paid to customer focus. My assertion that ARG’s cars of the 1980s shouldn’t be overlooked comes from the step change that was necessary to steer to company out of trouble. Austin Rover actually started to get their act together.
The Triumph Acclaim was the first of the models produced in collaboration with Honda, but it also marked the end of the Triumph nameplate on passenger cars. The Acclaim was really a bit of a stop gap to kill time before its successor could be launched; the SD3 generation Rover 200. The new 200 was essentially a variant of the Honda Ballade and jointly developed between the two companies. Sprung on the public in 1984, it was intended to retain former Acclaim and Dolomite customers, filling the niche role of small upmarket saloon. With a choice of the Honda 12 valve engine or the brand new Rover S-Series, some being equipped with electronic fuel injection, the SD3 was streets ahead of its predecessors in terms of styling and comfort. It was credible competition for the VW Jetta, Vauxhall Belmont and Ford Orion. Ride and handling were a little underwhelming and whilst I won’t go over the top with praise, it was everything the generally conservative target punter could reasonably desire. Most importantly, it had showroom appeal and wasn’t positioned to steal sales from Austin Montegos or Maestros. ARG already had a greatly simplified brand profile compared to a few years before, but further synergy was just around the corner.
The Rover Group parent company was established in 1986 under the leadership of Graham Day and the processes of Roverisation commenced. In 1987, Austin Mini, Metro, Maestro and Montego lines became Rovers and as much as the occasional purist might have choked with rage at the dilution of traditional Rover values, the truth is the company had changed for the better. A year later the British Government sold the firm back into private hands with British Aerospace bidding £150m, of which Honda put up 20%. Key new products such as the Land Rover Discovery and heavily revised Rover 100 (Metro) were close to their big reveal and momentum was building towards a raft of new cars. The product range of 1989/1990 tells the story of transition from legacy models to the new generation cars. The Mini had already been hopelessly outdated for about 20 years, but was on the cusp of a surprise revival with the relaunch of the Cooper. The slightly average Maestro and Montego were on borrowed time but justifying themselves in facelifted forms, and the MG variants were still worthy of some praise. The brand-new K-Series powered 200/400 range was the big news and positively reviewed in the press. The top of the line Rover 800 executive saloon was also a credible player and was about to be significantly improved in a forthcoming refresh which would go under the skin to address general quality issues. Rover Group was moving in the right direction.
I can’t help but find some of these cars quite appealing in a limited sort of way. They have a bit of optimism about them; coming from a company that was finally starting to reap the rewards of a difficult climb out of the mire. Rover Group had become pretty good at giving the impression of affordable prestige. With a dash of two-tone paint, half leather interiors and some reasonably convincing wood trim on the dash and doors, they conveyed a more upmarket image than the mainstream competition could muster. But for the first time in ages it was more than just surface dressing. Taking the new R8 generation Rover 200 as an example, the chassis and engine meant it was a significantly more satisfying proposition than the contemporary Astra or Escort. The K-Series gained a reputation for head gasket weakness and cost Rover dearly in warranty claims, but it was a strong performer at heart. The decision to cheap out on the cylinder head dowel was a mistake, but with a suitably upgraded gasket kit the K-Series proved itself time and again in performance applications. Don’t forget Lotus chose it to power the Elise – proof of the engineering talent employed at Rover. If you took a snapshot of this era and noted the promise of a new dawn, you’d wonder what could possibly have gone so wrong.
When you see where the company should have been heading as they entered the 1990s, it makes Rover’s fate all the more of an industry tragedy. On the eve of 1995, British Aerospace cashed in handsomely by selling out to BMW for £800m. Honda cut ties a month later and terminated their engineering agreement as they were surplus to requirements. BMW thought they’d bought heritage and market share in one easy move. They ploughed 15 billion Marks into the venture but it all went wrong. Five years later they had run out of funds and were left counting the cost. The Bavarians blamed both the exchange rate and a lack of support from the British government, but it’s closer to the truth to state they miscalculated where to invest and never committed to the Rover development strategy. The Phoenix Consortium bought the remains for a nominal £10 in May 2000 but BMW retained the desirable new MINI (now capitalised, note) leaving Phoenix with a range of products in urgent need of replacement. Phoenix subsequently lost a bucket load of cash and finally went bang in 2005, but that is another story for another day.
So, what conclusion should I draw when pondering the wreckage? I’m not about to run out and acquire a collection of Rover Group motors, but I still think they are worthy of recognition. Think of them as good cars caught in a bad situation and consider what might have been. It was the last grab at glory for a company that was once the British car industry, and I’ll raise a glass to their efforts. It’s just a shame that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory once again.