My 800, as much as I adore every square centimetre of its lustrous silver body, is a bit of an embarrassment to the once proud Rover name.
On Monday Hooniverse Asks broached the thorny question of whether the American auto industry was losing its identity. This made me laugh a little, and ponder the interesting state of affairs this side of the pond. You see, for the last couple of decades, Britain has tried, and often failed, to stay on the balance beam between having a positive, marketable identity, and being consumed by the inertia of tradition. What happens when your identity actually becomes toxic, a millstone around the neck, dragging you further and further from the success you yearn for?
Rover’s descent into obscurity was one of the saddest phenomenons ever to strike the world of cars. But it’s a story we can all learn from.
In 1963, when the Rover P6 was introduced, Rover were, against all odds, hurtling towards an advanced and admirable future. The P6 frame had been used as a test-bed for gas-turbine technology, for one thing. The rear suspension was of very advanced design and the whole car was praised by one Ralph Nader, who wasn’t a man to throw praise around willy-nilly.
The follow-up to the P6 was technologically retrograde, but aesthetically was a brave step into the unknown. Its styling may have been shamelessly cribbed from another, far more exotic machine, but there was no denying that the SD1 was more visually arresting than any of its forebears. The starkly minimalist interior appointments marked a break from the wood and leather norm which had pleased traditionalist owners beforehand. This was Rover making progress.
They later relented and allowed walnut back inside, but in general the brand was, for once, thinking about the future. In truth, they had to do that to survive. A company cannot excel by resting on its laurels, and sharing technology with Honda would soon show to be a wisely chosen path, ensuring a ready customer base for fresh new products from both parties.
In the beginning, the 800 series looked like it might continue the good work. There were a few little misjudgements, with shaky early quality and a 2.5 litre Honda V6 that wasn’t really quite suited to the task it was given, but as a replacement for the it soon settled to become a good, “home grown” alternative in the European Executive class.
But then, about three years in, Rover suddenly forgot about going forwards. The first clue was the change in the way the cars were badged. Previously, a sleek, spacey elongated sans serif typeface was used, but around 1990 this was replaced by an upright, Roman font. This soon permeated its way through all of Rover Group’s stationary, advertising and promotional material. Seen in print, the word ROVER immediately looked more like something your Grandfather would be interested in rather than your Dad.
And it got worse. Faced with criticism that the sharp-edged, forward thinking, late-80s contemporary styling of the 800 was too bland (which was probably true, if we’re honest), it seemed inevitable that remedial action was necessary. However, in stark contrast to Honda who gave the legend a complete ground-up rethink, Rover chose instead to perform skin-deep surgery to the 800, grafting on a chrome grille that looked like a leftover from the ’50s and making merry with the wool and walnut.
The effect was actually applauded by the motoring press and the “new” car did receive some reasonable reviews. But, intellectually, it was all a bit disappointing. In view of the great pains Rover had taken in the past, having miraculously leapt into a reality of being a builder of interesting cars, and then, as late as the 80s, selling a version of the Honda that was generally regarded in the British magazines as being better than the Legend itself, that they should suddenly surrender to their past came as a bit of a let down.
Sadly, this was to become the new, and final identity for Rover. The 800 received precious little development from then on, and by the time my beloved 1997 model creaked off the production line, it was looking rather jaded from frequent group-test drubbings. It received a spangly new V6 engine in 1995, but in hindsight a 2.5 litre, 175hp unit probably wasn’t quite enough of a leap ahead of the less complicated 2.0 litre, 140hp four-cylinder lump to be worthwhile.
Most tragically, it was this image of living in the past that was jumped on during the development of the Rover 75, whose numerical name badge looked like brass house numbers that had fallen from somebody’s front door. Despite developing a totally new car, Rover missed a fantastic opportunity for rebirth- for a total change in direction. Instead after their takeover BMW were only too happy to nurse the Rover 75 into life as a staid, traditionally “British” car for the unadventurous, to placate a market at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from the 3 series that was theoretically competing directly with it. Fortunately, they wouldn’t have to worry about it for very long. In the year 2000, after stripping Rovers carcass for anything juicy, the remainder was sold off and entered its final death throes with the Phoenix Consortium.
Today’s kids, as well as today’s car companies, could benefit from learning from these contributory reasons for Rover’s demise.
Have confidence. Follow your instincts. Choose a path and stick to it, and whatever you do, don’t stop and gaze back at the past. What’s the point in emulating history? What has been before is safe, reliable, familiar. You can respect it, even honour it, but to recreate it without moving forwards is to let everybody overtake you.
Right now, Jaguar Land Rover are holding the past at arms length rather than clinging to it like a security blanket, and it seems to be paying off. Almost half a million cars produced last year for an appreciative worldwide market, thanks to confident branding and imaginative design.
Sometimes losing your identity isn’t a negative thing. Sometimes you should just throw the damn thing away.
(Lede photo from Alamy Stock, Rover 800 badge images by a nice chap called Brad on Rover800.info. Lead image by me. Opinions all entirely my own)