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Rover - the Rise and Fall of a Car Manufacturer

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When the MG Rover Group, the last remaining wholly British-owned car manufacturer, went into administration in April 2005, it was a very sad end to one of Britain's most famous automotive brands. Rover had a long history, and for many years was the epitome of Britishness; and despite the desperate situation it was in, few believed that this one-time giant would fail as it did.

Early Beginnings

John Starley and William Sutton laid the foundations for the Rover company when they set up a bicycle manufacturing business in Coventry in 1877, initially manufacturing penny farthings and tricycles. The Rover name was first used on one of their bicycles in 1884. As the business went from strength to strength, the company diversified into motorbikes, and their first car, a single-cylinder 8hp model, was produced in 1904. The company formally became the Rover Company Ltd in 1906, and continued to produce cars, motorbikes and bicycles until the First World War.

The distinctive Viking longship logo arose from the association of Vikings as rovers around the world - several different versions of the logo appeared on their cars over the years, but the most iconic ones featured the longboat in a shield-like shape in metallic colour (either silver or gold) plus the red sail and the Rover name.

During the First World War, Rover concentrated on work for the Government; it supplied motorbikes to both the British and Russian armies, and built trucks and cars under licence to government orders. However after the War ended, Rover returned to making civilian cars once again.

Rover won a number of awards and accolades during the 1920s and 1930s as it began to move its products upmarket, away from the rival mass-produced Austin and Morris brands.

During the 1930s, Rover came into the ownership of brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks. Spencer was the managing director, while Maurice was in charge of engineering and design. They moulded Rover into one of Britain's finest car companies, giving it a discreet and understated image, synonymous with quality, that would become typically British and middle-class. During this time the Rover naming system involving the letter P (for 'Project') came into being with the launch in 1937 of the successful Rover Ten, Twelve, Fourteen and Sixteen - collectively covered by the P1 label. Rover car production soared between 1933 and 1939, increasing from 5,000 to 11,000 cars per year.

As military tensions grew throughout Europe during the 1930s, Rover worked closely with the Government on the 'Shadow Factories' project; manufacturing plants were built, ostensibly for the war effort, at Acocks Green in Birmingham and at Lode Lane in Solihull.

World War II Onwards

During World War II, Rover stopped car production and began producing aeroplane engines, tank engines and aeroplane wings for Arbermarles, Bristols and Lancasters. The company was also highly involved with Sir Frank Whittle and the initial development of the jet engine1.

Once war ended, the company returned to its automotive roots, moving vehicle production from its old site in Coventry, which had suffered extensive bombing damage, to the Solihull site on Lode Lane. Rover restarted vehicle development and production, initially producing the P2 cars, which were revised versions of the P1, until the all-new P3 range came out in 1948.

Both of the Wilks brothers were instrumental in the development of the Land Rover, which was launched in 1948. Rover was very careful to keep Land Rover and its image separate from the Rover products. Land Rover was aimed at farmers and those who needed a practical, working vehicle with no frills; the opposite end of the market to where its luxury saloons were aimed.

In 1950, the company launched the range of cars that were to define it during the 1950s and 1960s; the P4 range of four- and six-cylinder cars. Initially these vehicles were affectionately known as the 'Cyclops' Rovers, due to the single front foglight which was mounted in the centre of the radiator grille during the first few years of production. These cars defined Rover's image, and were extremely well-loved as the 'Auntie' Rover; they continued selling well until production stopped in 1964, by which time over 130,000 of them had been built.

Rover launched the P5, an upmarket saloon which built on the P4's reputation, in 1958. It was the first Rover to have a monocoque body2, and it rapidly became the vehicle of choice for all kinds of dignitaries from the Prime Minister to HM The Queen. Later developments of the P5 were the Coupe, or P5B, with a lowered roof line, and the addition of the engine which for some in the UK will be forever associated with the Rover brand; the 3.5 litre V8.

The 'Rover V8'

This aluminium engine has a long history, and underwent many revisions during its association with Rover. It has long had a reputation as a robust, flexible, and easy to tune unit, suitable for use in all kinds of vehicles and for both the road and the racetrack. Originally this engine was used by Buick, and the rights were bought cheaply by Rover from General Motors when aluminium fell out of favour as an engine material in the US. It began life as a 3.5 litre carburettor unit, and in various incarnations became fuel-injected (known as EFI3), bored out to 3.9 litres, 4.2 litres and finally 4.6 litres. As well as the Rovers detailed below, this engine has been used in Westfields, TVRs, Caterhams, Range Rovers and Land Rovers. The engine was last used in mass production in 4.6 litre form in the Series II Discovery. A tuning industry has sprung up around this engine; specialist companies produce a wide range of modifications for the racetrack and for the road.

In addition to the petrol developments, it was long rumoured that Rover intended to produce a diesel engine and use the V8 as its basis. However, development was apparently stopped as the block was prone to cracking under the higher pressures inherent in diesel engines4.

Research and Development – The Golden Years

Although Rover was thought of as a conservative company even then, it conducted research into cutting-edge areas of technology; it was the first vehicle manufacturer to consider alternative propulsion methods, long before this became fashionable or necessary. Building on its work with Sir Frank Whittle, Rover worked hard on developing a gas turbine engine for use in road vehicles; this culminated in the Rover JET1 vehicle in 1951, which was clocked at a top speed of 152mph during a test in Belgium. Development on gas turbine vehicles continued throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s, when Rover displayed their last ever gas turbine powered car, the T4.

The T4 was part of the basis for the P6 range, which was designed by David Bache. The P6 had a number of design compromises to its engine bay and front suspension to allow the somewhat bulky gas turbine engine to be fitted, but this innovation never made it into production and the P6 was instead powered by a normal petrol powertrain.

The 3500 model was powered by the 3.5 litre V8, giving it a real high-performance edge. It was a compact and sporting saloon, and can rightly be called the first ever 'executive car' – a sector we take for granted these days. Its innovation was recognised, as it won the European Car of The Year Award in 1963 - the very first year this accolade was awarded.

The British Leyland Years: 1967 - 1982

Britain’s motor industry underwent a period of massive change during the 1960s, as mergers and acquisitions changed the scale of the industry and meant former rivals were now partners, fighting for a share of the global car market.

In 1967, Rover merged with the Leyland Motor Corporation, which in turn merged with British Motor Holdings in 1968 to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation. This massive industrial behemoth incorporated many famous British marques; the idea was that working together would increase the strength of the British car industry to allow it to compete more effectively with the strengthening American and European industries. Unfortunately the practice didn't work as well as the theory.

The P5 was discontinued in 1973 without a replacement – a prototype P8 had been mooted, but cancelled as it was decided that it would be competing against its British Leyland stablemate, the Jaguar XJ6. Rover development was practically amalgamated with Triumph5, and they were envisaged as the 'premium' part of the British Leyland empire, along with Jaguar.

By the time P6 production was stopped in 1977, over 325,000 had been built, making it the best-selling Rover model. The P6 replacement, the SD1, was launched in 1977 to international acclaim; it won the European Car of The Year award, much like its predecessor. Unfortunately, its launch coincided with a toolmakers strike, one of many industrial actions that colour this period of Rover/British Leyland history, and effectively meant that although customers were rushing into dealers to buy them, the dealers had no cars to sell.

Despite this, the SD1, especially when powered by the 3.5 litre V8 in Vitesse form, was an extremely fast car and was well-regarded. It became a successful racing car, particularly in the British Touring Car Championship, and was soon the vehicle of choice for police motorway patrols.

Design and development was perhaps best described as stunted during the British Leyland years, as the conglomerate battled against plummeting sales, and the costs of all that industrial action6. As British Leyland struggled against rising costs and the ever-increasing scrutiny by the Government, new Rover vehicle programmes were scrapped in favour of other brands within the British Leyland group, intended to keep the mainstream parts of British Leyland alive to compete against Ford and Vauxhall.

In 1975, when the government effectively nationalised British Leyland, a turbulent period of reorganisation and rationalisation followed, bringing plant closures and job losses to a large part of the British Leyland empire in an attempt to make it profitable. Rover escaped all this relatively unscathed, and under the new Chief Executive, Sir Michael Edwardes, it began to forge a partnership with Honda in 1979.

Into the 1980s - Alliance with Honda

The relationship with Honda continued throughout the 1980s, and seemed to bear fruit for both parties. British Leyland had undergone a transformation into Austin Rover, and while Solihull was still used as a manufacturing site, Rover production also began at Austin's former site at Longbridge in Birmingham.

Under the joint venture, Rover diversified and renewed its product range, all in partnership with Honda. It entered into the small-medium vehicle market for the first time since the 1930s P1 series with the front-wheel drive 200 series in 1984 - the first ever front wheel drive Rover. The ageing SD1 was replaced in 1986 by the Rover 800, which was produced in both hatchback and saloon form - including an impressively fast Vitesse version using a Honda V6 engine.

The collaboration continued - the replacement 200 in 1989 was also a Honda joint venture, along with the Rover 400, a four-door saloon version of the 200, introduced in 1990. These vehicles saw the introduction of the 1.4 K-Series engine, which won the Dewar Trophy for the third time for Rover, and became the basis for the engines used in Rovers up until the end of the company.

The chairman of Austin Rover at this time, Graham Day, embarked upon a strategic rebranding exercise. All the sporting products were to be badged as MG; the rest were to be re-branded as Rover and to again become the byword for British luxury that they had once been.

Graham Day had been ordered by the government to complete the re-privatisation of British Leyland, and this was completed when what was now named the Rover Group was sold to British Aerospace in 1989. Rover now gained the Mini and Metro small cars, and the Maestro and Montego medium cars; all built at Longbridge in Birmingham with the exception of the Mini, which was built at the former Morris site at Cowley in Oxford.

Despite this sale, the partnership with Honda continued, producing the Rover 600, a medium executive car which won many fans when launched in 1993. Production of this vehicle was based at Cowley, and 800 production was moved to Cowley, while the 200 and 400 were manufactured at Longbridge.

When Rover Met BMW

In 1994, German car manufacturer BMW bought the Rover Group from British Aerospace. Initially, this appeared to be a good move for Rover, despite the differences in culture that were obvious between the two companies; the BBC documentary 'When Rover Met BMW' charted the culture clashes and differences encountered in the early days of the merger.

Honda's legacy to Rover was still clear to see with the launch in 1994 of the new 4007 and the new 200, which was much smaller than its predecessor. Although Rover's sales position more-or-less stabilised, it never regained its once luxurious brand image. The 200 and 400 were priced to compete against cars which were larger and offered more for the same money, and as such never really fulfilled expectations. Production of the now slow-selling and ageing 600 and 800 was stopped in 1999 as production began of the all-new 75 executive car.

Inspiration for the 75 was taken from Rover's heyday during the 1960s; the name harked back to one of the derivatives of the P4, and it took interior and exterior styling cues from the P5 and P6. BMW had invested in a whole new paint shop and production line at Longbridge, and looked to be ready to invest more in Cowley as work progressed on the new Mini.

The new 25 and 45 were also on show, which were the 200 and 400 updated to match the 75. Much had been invested into the Longbridge, Solihull and Cowley sites to bring them up to date and to BMW's standards, with new assembly lines and paint shops. A new design, engineering and development centre was built at Gaydon in Warwickshire specifically for Rover.

Despite this, trouble was brewing. BMW had lost a massive £730 million in the previous financial year, mostly as a result of pumping £3 billion into Rover, which had continued to lose vast amounts of money. Bernd Pischetsrieder, then the Chief Executive of BMW, was under pressure from shareholders to take action to prevent BMW weakening itself irreparably by propping up what was dubbed the 'English Patient'.

The BMW Group announced what it called fundamental re-organisation plans on 16 March, 2000. Land Rover, along with the Solihull and Gaydon sites, was sold to Ford. BMW would keep the new Mini and the Cowley site, where the Mini was to be made. Rover and Longbridge was put up for sale, much to the dismay of unions and workers.

In the immediate aftermath, there was much uproar in the UK press about BMW abandoning Rover; trade unions were similarly scathing, and the then Trade and Industry Secretary, Stephen Byers, was involved in the battle to find Rover a buyer. However, there was hope; the Alchemy consortium of venture capitalists were the forerunners in the battle to buy Rover.

Alchemy's intention was to rebrand the company MG Cars and reduce the production volumes to create a sustainable business, and in time link up with Lotus to create a new sports car. The trade unions were having none of this; they knew that this would mean immediate job cuts, and protested vigorously against the consortium. While Alchemy's talks with BMW broke down, another bid was gathering momentum in the wings, and eventually on 10 May, 2000, the Phoenix Group were named as the buyers of Rover.

The 'Phoenix Four'

Phoenix Venture Holdings Ltd, popularly called the Phoenix Four, were former Rover executives John Towers, Nick Stephenson, Peter Beale and John Edwards, and they bought Rover and the Longbridge plant from BMW for the nominal sum of £10. They promised not to cut any jobs at Longbridge, immediately winning them influential trade union backing and a support package from the Government. In addition BMW gave them £1 billion of cash and assets, which helped BMW to be rid of them and to attempt to deflect criticism for dumping Rover.

The newly renamed MG Rover Group immediately revived the MG brand, bringing out sportier versions of the 25, 45 and 75 – badged the ZR, ZS and ZT respectively. The MGF was refreshed and relaunched as the MG TF. Production began of the 75 and MG ZT estates, which had been developed alongside the saloon.

Despite BMW's dowry, MG Rover was left with ageing products in the 25 and 45, and no money to spare for investment in future models. Developing an all-new vehicle would take billions of pounds that the company did not have, so a tie-up with another manufacturer was the only real option left.

Many attempts to form working relationships with other car manufacturers were made; however the only ones realistically interested were those who wished to gain a foothold in the UK market. Tata, an Indian car manufacturer, provided the first collaboration in 2002 when they worked with MG Rover to produce the CityRover, also known in India as a Tata Indica. MG Rover had very high hopes that it would be a success; however the build quality and materials used simply were not up to European standards for the price asked, and the hoped-for sales didn't materialise.

MG Rover began involving itself in motorsport again. An MG X-Power team, using the ZS saloon, raced in the British Touring Car Championship, and Welsh driver Gywndaf Evans used the ZR in the British Rally Championship. A vehicle was also built to compete at Le Mans; Mark Blundell drove it, but it didn’t finish. A lot of time and money was spent developing the SV, a high-performance low-volume sports car designed by stylist Peter Stevens. Again, this was not the success that had been hoped for, and it gained a reputation for being poorly built and unreliable.

A V8-engined, rear-wheel drive version of the front wheel drive 75/ZT was developed and launched in 2003, at enormous expense. It never sold as many as had been hoped, and perhaps wasn't used for publicity as well as it could have been; an estate version broke the land speed record for estate cars on the Bonneville salt flats in the USA, yet this was barely publicised.

Despite this, the landmark of 5 million Rovers produced was hit in July 2003 with a 75 saloon. The Earl of Wessex, Prince Edward, visited Longbridge to see the 5 millionth car roll off the production line.

Although MG Rover managed to reduce its losses, it was still in financial dire straits and continued to look for a foreign investor, seemingly finding an interested party in the Shanghai Automotive International Corporation, otherwise known as SAIC. Negotiations had been going on for over a year, and had got down to the details of the sale of various assets and intellectual properties, until eventually the true picture of MG Rover's financial health emerged. SAIC pulled out. MG Rover had been clinging onto this deal like a lifeline, and when that went, the results were dramatic.

Parts suppliers hadn't been paid for some time, and the news that SAIC were pulling out of the deal prompted them to take the drastic step of stopping shipments of components to Longbridge on 7 April, 2005, which shut the production lines down, effectively for good.

Finally, the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, announced that evening that MG Rover had gone into administration. While the 6,000-strong workforce at Longbridge were immediately affected, it has been estimated that another 3,000 jobs were lost throughout the West Midlands at firms who had supplied parts to MG Rover.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the collapse, the Longbridge site and plant was sold to Nanjing Automobiles, SAIC’s competitor, and they were tied in to a 10-year lease. Before they were able to put firm plans for restarting production in place, Nanjing were themselves taken over by SAIC.

Nanjing had revealed the Chinese-built versions of the MG TF and MG ZT, now rebadged as MG 7. SAIC, on the other hand, acquired the intellectual property rights for the 258 and 75 for £67 million in late 2004, and launched the Roewe9 750. Subtly restyled to cater for Chinese tastes, the Roewe 750 was based on the unlaunched long-wheelbase version of the 75 and 90% of its components were made in China, despite SAIC marketing its Britishness.

Ford, owners of Land Rover, bought the Rover name from BMW in September 2006, for an undisclosed sum; although there were no plans to revive car manufacturing under the Rover name, this action was taken to safeguard Land Rover's branding despite SAIC's apparent pledge not to make any 4x4s. The Longbridge site was redeveloped, and car manufacturing still takes place on a small part of the site, alongside a technology park, college, retail units and housing.

Many ex-Rover workers blamed the Phoenix Four, saying their mismanagement of the company led to its collapse in such a dramatic fashion. The Department of Trade and Industry ordered an investigation into the whole affair, which took three years and £16 million10 to be completed. The report was finally published on 11 September, 2010. The investigation found considerable irregularities in the Phoenix Group's handling of the Rover assets and accounting. As a result, one of the four members of the group was disqualified from company management for three years, two were disqualified for five years, and the fourth for six years.

Regardless of this sad end, Rover has a rightful place in the history books that will remain for many years yet.

1After the war, this work was given to Rolls Royce.2Otherwise known as unibody, where the chassis is an integral part of the bodywork and not separate as was previously the case.3Electronic Fuel Injection, where an electronic control unit controls the fuel injectors.4Diesel uses compression ignition at pressures of circa 20:1. Petrol uses spark ignition at pressures of circa 9:1.5The car manufacturer, entirely separate to the motorcycle manufacturer.6In 1977, it was calculated that production of 250,000 cars was lost by BL due to industrial action.7The Honda Civic was very similar in appearance to its Rover twin.8Honda retain the rights for the 45, as it was originally developed in conjunction with them.9Apparently pronounced 'rong-wei'.10Not including the £90 million Government support package from 2000 or money loaned by the Department of Trade and Industry to the administrators in 2005 in a last ditch attempt to save jobs.

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