The failure of MG Rover earlier this year was another sorry chapter in the long decline of the indigenous volume car making industry in Britain. But the history associated with brands like Austin and Rover as well as the turbulent industrial times at British Leyland continues to provoke discussion. In his regular column for just-auto, Karl Ludvigsen offers some observations and reflections on a company that, at times and in various incarnations, represented the best and the worst of the British motor industry.
You're probably fed up with hearing about the on-off saga of Rover and the Chinese. I sure am. But the news that the last Rover built at Longbridge has gone on display at Gaydon struck a chord. There's an inescapable air of finality about that. The last all-British Rover in a museum — that's the end of one road at least. But it started me thinking about Rovers. I reached the conclusion that Rover represented the best and the worst of the British motor industry.
Rover cut an amazing swathe after the war with its gas-turbine car, the world's first, and then the original Land Rover which, more or less, is still in production. The launch of its 2000 in 1963 brought Rover its first Car of the Year award, recognising its ingenious de Dion rear suspension and Heron-head engine. My friends Bruce and Jimmie McWilliams did a great job of positioning both Rover and Land Rover in the US market, including a memorable ad for the latter that exploited its role in the Great Train Robbery.
Rover's next Car of the Year, in 1977, was the SD1. With rakish styling by David Bache it gave up the 2000's exotic chassis features in favour of a more rational and less costly base vehicle. Conceptually the SD1 had lots going for it, including its Ferrari Daytona nose, which all too often was ahead of my Ford Capris on the track. However it never seemed to have just the right engine and suffered from lackadaisical manufacturing quality. An ill-judged effort to market the 3500 in America produced more lawsuits from irate dealers than sales successes.
Nevertheless the early 1980s saw Austin Rover on the way back to a decent market presence. At Ford we were even quite worried that the Morris Ital, with its hint of Italian glamour, might be a big threat in the UK market! In the mid-1980s, however, the car division was in the hands of manufacturing man Harold Musgrove, whose attitude to the press and public was, 'These are damn good cars and you're an idiot if you don't buy them.' In harness with him was product planner Mark Snowdon, who filled various executive roles with overweening self-confidence out of proportion to his talents.
Of course Morris wasn't long for this world and, as it turned out, neither was Austin. I felt then and still feel that the decision to delete the Austin name from Maestros and Montegos in 1989-90 was misguided. The rationale for dropping the great 'Austin' name was that it was seen as having been degraded over the years to the degree that it was holding back sales of the cars to which it was attached. The solution to that should of course have been the building of better cars under the badge, which still had wide acceptance and indeed inspired considerable affection. Most importantly, Austin possessed what the company most needed: a widespread dealer network. Without the Austin brand, this was vulnerable to the predatory Japanese.
We gained an insight into Austin Rover's problems when we carried out in-depth interviews with dealers in the 1980s to find out what Lancia would have to offer them if the Italian marque were to return to the UK market. We discovered that Austin Rover dealers were profoundly frustrated by the company's failure to back its products in the field. They had more product problems than other dealers and worse factory support, in parts and warranty, than their contemporaries. This was a formula for future disaster.
Speaking of dealers, Rover's effort to return to the USA's market with the Sterling in 1986 was a fiasco of the first magnitude. I had an interest in the matter because I was trying to persuade them to sell their cars through Malcolm Bricklin's private network, but they chose instead to ally themselves with Florida dealer Norm Braman in one of the most bizarre and unworkable joint ventures ever conceived. Mortifyingly the Rover name wasn't used because doing so would open Austin Rover to attacks from dealers still smarting from the SD1 episode. There was also the risk of confusion with Land Rover, which had its own sales network in the USA.
In 1987 I was given an early look at the company's post-Austin outlook by product planner John Stephenson. Using market research from ad agency Dorlands, the Austin Rover Group was dead set on 'Roverisation'. For smaller cars, it found, buyer priorities were cost of use, styling, practicality and manoeuvrability, while in the executive class buyers wanted a sound purchase, robustness, driving comfort and styling again. To the extent that Rover had any distinctive attributes they were found to be 'Britishness' or 'Englishness' and the quality of the driving ambiance. Their aim was to develop themes like 'Driving a Rover says something about you' and 'Rovers are excellent cars to drive'.
Looking back, it's easy to see that as a marketing meal this was pretty thin gruel. Rover seemed inclined to make what it could of existing perceptions instead of crafting a new persona that would match and better the efforts of the opposition. Any such efforts were further diluted by the alliance with Honda, which anchored Rover to banal if worthy basic platforms that frustrated new chief Graham Day's plan to 'transform Rover Group in the medium term from a volume producer to a specialist producer offering a limited range of upper-market models containing higher value added and profit margins.'
I had something to do with one of the thrusts Rover made in this direction. Struggling to keep a grip on the MG brand, in 1992 it introduced the MG RV8, based on the new body shells that were being produced by the company's parts people for the MGB. This led to the idea of setting up a Special Vehicles operation to develop high-value short-run products based on mainstream products. For guidance my consultancy looked at how other companies did this, such as Mercedes-Benz and AMG, Fiat and Abarth. They did set up a company to produce such special vehicles as the Spen King Range Rover, but it didn't last long.
Ironically, just when Rover was trying to move upmarket its engineers made good use of a government grant, one they'd fought hard for, to create the all-aluminium K-Series engine. Here like the earlier 2000 was an example of the best of British engineering, an ingenious sandwich structure for a four-cylinder engine that adapted it ideally to die casting. But it was hardly the answer for a company that had set its aim as duking it out with Jaguar to create a British rivalry like that between BMW and Mercedes in Germany.
In 1992-93, emboldened by our success in recruiting dealers for Nissan in the UK, we undertook to do the same for Rover in Germany. So confident were we that we made our compensation chiefly contingent on signing dealers. Needless to say, we found Rover a much less saleable proposition in Germany, where dealers were excruciatingly slow to consider a new marque, especially one from Britain. We did achieve one signing and had a number more in the pipeline when we had to shut down Euromotor Franchising lest it drag down the rest of our business. It was an unhappy outcome for both consultancy and client.
When the dust settled — and after one of Rover's frequent management changes — we had another crack at them, carrying out a study of the Car of the Year competition to see how it worked and how the company might increase its chances of winning the accolade. This was undoubtedly with the new 75 in view, but it lacked the credentials to take the prize.
My correspondence with Rover shows that by 1997 it was faltering in its upmarket drive, now conflicting with the needs and desires of BMW, and looking to forge a more mainstream profile after all. With such fluctuations of purpose over a decade it's easy to see how Rover fatally blurred the perceptions of dealers and the public regarding its products and objectives.
So in Rover we had the best of British: intriguing and often advanced engineering, professional interior and exterior styling — combined with the worst of British: frequent changes of management and objectives, inadequate quality and cavalier disregard of the needs of dealers and distributors. In the end the latter far outweighed the former.
- Karl Ludvigsen
Karl Ludvigsen is an award-winning author, historian and consultant who has worked in senior positions for GM, Fiat and Ford. In the 1980s and 1990s he ran the London-based motor-industry management consultancy, Ludvigsen Associates. He is currently an independent consultant and the author of more than three dozen books about cars and the motor industry, including Creating the Customer-Driven Car Company.