Thursday, 26 November 2009

The way forward for the Rover brand.

Written for AROnline

As regular readers of this site will know, I'm a BL lover. I really should join BL-coholics Anonymous, but that's beside the point. The car that first sparked my love of old motors was a Rover SD1 V8 my father owned from my birth until when I was 5. This is, I'm sure, the car that also helped focus my love of cars mainly upon BL.

Back when the SD1 was current, Rover were seen as a premium brand still. Since the P4, Rover had been innovative, unusual, and forward thinking. However, from 1991 (The launch of the R17 800) the company decided to focus upon a slightly tweedy and British image, reinforced by lots of cow, tree, and chromery. And it is in this guise - a car for the elderly - that Rover ended it's existence in 2005. The Rover brand was the British BMW of it's day until the year of my birth, and following that it sought to carve a different path for itself. I would partially blame BMW themselves for this - the custodians of Rover for much of the Nineties were hardly likely to develop in-house competitors. This is evident with the 75 - where the 3 and 5 Series BMWs were sporting saloons, the 75 was a waft-mobile. The customers of one company were not thought to have been in the market for the other.

But politics have put those days behind us; ending the existence of the Rover brand in 2005 with the closure of MG Rover and the company's purchase by NAC and SAIC of China. Amid much to-ing and fro-ing, these companies have now readied a new car for the UK, to be built in Longbridge. However, that's not the focus of my article. What is, is the fact that MG-Rover did not own the Rover name. This was owned by BMW and licenced to MG-Rover, as part of the contract made with Ford when the Jaguar and Land-Rover brands were sold to the American giant. The Rover nameplate also was sold to them outright a couple of years ago, and thus moved to TATA with their purchase of JLR. This set me thinking.

Jaguar will not be replacing the X-Type when it is discontinued in the next year or so. They blame lack of sales for this, but I think the reason is that a small saloon simply doe not fit into Jaguar's new advanced and upmarket range. However, there is no denying that they would be sacrificing a huge sector of the market in not providing a 3-Series rival. And so my thoughts started to form into an idea...

Tata have the Rover nameplate, which was a leading premium brand during it's heyday. The company pioneered the idea of a large executive hatchback; a genre which is finding favour once again after a ten year hiatus. They need a car to take on the 3-Series and A4/A5. They have the accomplished X-Type and XF chassis. So why not create a new Rover to fill the gap? Looking at it, it isn't such a silly idea as it might seem at first glance. It's entirely possible to create a car which fits stylistically with the Jags, yet retains a Rover identity. The heritage of the SD1 can be used to bolster it in it's first stages of production. It's a more fitting use of the name than letting it die.

How can we do this? My idea is to do something retro yet modern - combining something unmistakably classic Rover with something modern and chic. So I've created a couple of quick mock ups, which show this in it's best light. The exterior is an unmistakably Ian Callum-esque take on the SD1 theme, with the interior being a modernised interpretation. So we replace the walnut of the SD1 VP with aluminium, we have an LCD dashboard, we retain the two spoke wheel but incorporate the airbag. The idea would be to use a modified XF floorpan, with 2.5 and 3.0 V6s, the 3.5 V8 used only in the X350 XJ, and the 5.0 supercharged V8 in a hairy one. If you like tractor engines, some sort of diseasal would also be available. Tata/JLR, I hope you're taking note of this idea.

So, would this work? There's only one way to answer that, and it's put it to a public vote. Who, having read this and seen the images, would buy one of these over a 3 Series, C Class, or Audi A4/5? And who thinks I'm a sentimental nitwit pining for the past? Over to you.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

International Classic Car Motor Show, 2009.

On Sunday 15th November I made the pilgrimage to Birmingham for the International Classic Car Motors Show. The show is special in my eyes for the variety of cars on show, and for the opportunities to experience them not only as static displays, but from the passenger seat also courtesy of the Sporting Bears Motor Club.

Exhibits this year ranged from a faintly ridiculous stretch VW to a sublime pair of Gordon Keebles, filling the first four halls of the NEC. The usual extras were in attendance too, ranging from classic car publications to a stall selling expensive but exquisite driving gloves. As usual, a good third of Hall 1 was taken up by dealerships - upon whose stands I found several cosmetically and aromatically appealing Daimlers and Jaguars. Smell is something Mercedes, despite mastering baroque style, never quite got right.

I shan't pretend I saw it all: too much to see and too little time. But a number of cars caught my eye and captured my heart.

First to tempt me was a sure-fire future classic: The Jaguar XFR. Comfortable, quick, and much more of a quality product than I'd expected given my experiences of recent Jags, that is a car which will grow old gracefully.

Footman James had a pair of 420s on their stand: one of which was a truly pristine Jaguar. But the smashed and stricken Daimler next to it was the one which wooed me - it's fall from grace was disheartening but it seemed beautifully original, and bar the misshapen rear in a usable rather than concours condition.

I was also really rather impressed with the Rolls Royce Phantom. I can't say that exclusivity comes as standard - there were 4 there and I saw two within 5 days of the show - but it's a high class product.

Car, and club, of the show for me go to the Gordon-Keeble Owners' Club. Not only did they display two of the 99 built, but the people on the stand were informative and pleasant to boot. I must thank them for allowing me to sit in a G-K: a once-in-a-lifetime and wholly magical experience.

But the cherry on the cake was the SD1. My very earliest memories are of my father's V8 VP which was sold when I was 5, and I am convinced that car is responsible for my love of old tin. One kind chap from the SD1 club let me sit in his S1 3500 - a misty eyed moment upon which to end the day.

As is, I understand, traditional, the horn of every car was sounded at 5.30pm to signal the end of the three day event. The symphony provided was aural heaven.

Thanks to Dan Pyke and Lindsey Smith for the lift down from Sheffield, and to both Richard Clements and Jonathan Sellars for putting up with me for the day. Thanks also to the many owners and enthusiasts willing to spend time chatting to me, and for making the day memorable. I can only apologise to those I meant to meet, but lacked the time to. There will be some other time.

Triumph's Herald hatchback prototype, fresh from restoration. The Coupe next to it is a faithful replica of the Brabham Herald prototype, sprting a private number plate just 2 digits from that of the original.

Plenty of XJ-S Jaguars on show, although none as nice as this car, updated using later XJS bumpers and wheels.

Another XJ-S; this time the rare and powerful Lister Le-Mans.

Our man Skelton with Jonathan Sellars and a Jaguar XFR.

The Rover SD1 Club put on a good show - and were cracking people to boot.

With thanks to Jonathan Sellars for the photos of the Lister Le Mans and Rover SD1.