When To Lose Your Identity Is To Gain Momentum

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.
New Bitmap Image (2)
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)

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  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    I agree on the 75. My uncle had one, a six cylindre, but its fake “oldtimes” interior was really awful – to my mind. He liked it, and after being mistreated at Mercedes, Maserati and Jaguar (he is a head of a department at a German clinic that enjoys a certain homeless look), the Rover guys were very happy to sell him the 75. After 100000km in it, he bought a Mazda 6 though – a swooping, modern, brand-renewing beauty on its own.
    Much the same as above can be said about pre-Tata Jaguars. I drove behind an S-Type the other day, and even though I mostly consider it too busy and incoherent, in darker tunnels, the rear really has something going for it. It all hangs together. A shame it took me a decade and some bad lightning to see that.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      To me, the rear view is the only flattering angle on the S-Type. The rest is a mess of incongruous lines and retro styling cues.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        James May referred to the S-Type as what Americans think a Jaguar is supposed to look like. Ouch.

        1. Alff Avatar

          I would remind Mr. May that Geoff Lawson is not American.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            He did like American cars though, and owned and drove an early C3 Corvette right up to the time of his death in June ’99.
            The real problem with the S-Type was that it squeezed and draped that styling over the hardpoints of the Lincoln LS platform.

        2. BigRedCaveTroll Avatar

          I can’t help but think “Ford Taurus” when I see one.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      While not quite as of social status as a German MD I do indeed share the looks (well, no stethoscope), and I can only say that my treatment at P-dealers throughout Europe was always flawless, while several F-dealers (as in Ford) will not see me ever again for the purchase of nether parts, let alone complete vehicles. (TL;DR: it’s often a dealer thing, not a brand issue.)
      I used to think that a 75 could be a bargain, given the Vanden Plas-at-its-worst tack-on wooden beautifications (“acquired taste”) and the fact that the brand is dead (drop in second hand trust value). I could need a reality check on that, though.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        So what’s your discipline? The 75 was dirt cheap in Norway, too, last time I checked. But it is very rare, of course, and I have never seen one for sale without one or another major fault.

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    As the proud owner of an Austin Maestro Vanden Plas, a motorcar that combines genuine wood-capped door trim with a talking digital dashboard, a vehicle manufactured by the predecessor of Rover Group, which is to say Austin Rover Group, but with a data plate left over from the days of BL Cars Ltd (née Leyland Cars, née British Leyland, née British Leyland Motor Corporation, née…), I, for one, well, I, for one…
    …have completely forgotten what I was going to say. But I assure you it was to be heartfelt.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      A rousing speech, Sir.

      1. tonyola Avatar

        It brought a tear to my eye.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      Here, once upon a time I actually tried to figure out the (wkipedia) facts…
      Edit: I didn’t dare to try a post BL chart.

      View post on imgur.com

      1. David Buckley Avatar
        David Buckley

        While discussing Morris Minors long ago, my dad said to me in a broad Nottingham accent:
        “I’ll have you know, Lord Nuffield made Spitfires”.

      2. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        I don’t mean to pick, but where’s Dawson?, Lanchester?, Coventry-Climax?, Crossley?, Maudslay?, Guy?, or AEC? Or Fial, Wolsit, Gurney Nutting or Carbodies?
        In Britain it’s all more complicated than you ever expected.

        1. nanoop Avatar

          How can I send you the source file?

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            I suspect I already know it.
            I did a very comprehensive description of what happened to British Leyland marques in a Hooniverse readers reply a year or two ago in reply to Sjalabais. Now lost with Intense Debate.

          2. nanoop Avatar

            Oh, my intention was to have you adding all the brands you’ve mentioned to the timeline, that’s all – and to give the work some more room to live, since it’s a) redundant with exisiting content and b) not of major interest to me anymore, since eventually, I didn’t buy that Landcrab as my entrance card to the world of British vintage motoring. Instead, I know a lot about VW part numbers now…

          3. mdharrell Avatar

            There’s still time. Only after owning two Beetles did I purchase my first British car. Then my second. Then my third….

    3. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      It would appear that some of the vacillating Englishness of your Maestro has possessed you?

  3. NapoleonSolo Avatar

    “When to lose your identity…”
    I hate to sound like a dinosaur, but the things that give a soulless thing like a car company character and identity are the individuals who invest every iconic design of that marque with their spirit and ingenuity. Yes, Chevrolet is still Chevrolet and Ford is still Ford, but Rover was only Rover up through the P6 model line except for the SD1 which was a last gasp of that spirit produced under tight corporate restrictions, brilliant for what was produced from the meager resources they were given and the anti-competitive pressures they endured (i.e. we won’t let you build a car that might rival our Jaguar).
    Rover’s identity was the spirit of people like Spencer Wilks, Maurice Wilks, Spen King, and David Bache.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      And they were dispersed after the merger and the P8/9 cancellation. When I spoke to David Bache, he said that there had been an enormous amount of work over years by hundreds of people that was lost. He said that he never imagined that so much of his work wouldn’t see production, specially with the amount of money that Rover contributed to Leyland.

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I’d have to say that “Rover’s identity was the spirit of people like Spencer Wilks, Maurice Wilks, Spen King, and David Bache” is the, wholly correct, intellectual answer.
      Unfortunately, the customer base wasn’t quite as geed up on design history as you’d wish. They identified Rover as being old-fashioned and passée.
      Doom came quickly.

  4. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    Missing out in this history is the series of product development disasters that befell Rover after the BMH/ Leyland merger which brought Rover into the same company as Jaguar. So short a time after the merger with Triumph, William Lyons used his influence to kill the Rover P8 and P9 which continued the engineering ethos and advanced thinking of the P6. The big Land Rover based luxury station wagon, the Range Rover was allowed to continue and in the end has turned into a bigger brand, with Land Rover, than Jaguar now is, (and ironically the two marques are combined under Tata).
    It was a controversial decision at the time, 1971, to cut the P8 as production tooling had been completed and installed and the whole exercise cost Rover what would have been in todays money £40- 80 million and dealt the company a blow from which it never recovered, all the while Range Rover and Land Rover profits were poured into the mess of Leyland.
    The SD1 might not have happened as it did and Rover might really have been the company that BMW now is and there would have been no Honda based car ?. Or not? Who knows?
    And Rover could be being remembered for the P8 7-series sized saloon and P9 mid engined V8 sportscar appearing alongside the Mk1 Range Rover.
    The treatment of the remaining prototype at British Motor Heritage is disgusting.
    The way that the remaining P8 prototype stored stored at BMH has been disgusting

    1. NapoleonSolo Avatar

      Disgusting is right! Is the P8 at British Motor Heritage Limited (BMH)? Why isn’t this car at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon? I can’t believe those pictures.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        Sorry, I got the name wrong
        It is at Gaydon.
        Perhaps because it’s not a Jaguar it got treated like that. I am informed that, while being moved, it fell off a truck. But I can’t understand how all the glass could be broken, and the tail-lights, and with that damage, then be stored in the rainy outside.
        See also http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/concepts/rover-concepts/p8p9/news-rover-p8-breaks-cover-at-hmc/
        As can be seen on the numbered prototypes being crashtested, more than just a few prototypes were made, Rover put a lot into a car to beat the XJ6 and big Mercedes of the time, to have Lyons kill it. The irony was that Jaguar couldn’t make enough XJs to meet demand for years and years, due to capacity constraints at Browns Lane, so it wouldn’t have made any difference to their sales.
        Britain could have had two prestige big saloon cars, instead of just one.
        And the whole mess really affected morale at Rover, which found itself forced downmarket with the (live rear axle, rear drum braked) SD1 brought in as a follow up.
        David Bache was more than a little bitter about it till the day he died.
        And then there is the misinformation about the crashtest ‘failure’ of the P8 prototypes (as reported in AR online)Those pictures above were of a 50mph test.The XJ6 below has just been crashed at 30mph which, of course makes much less stress on the car

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I was rather worried that I was well into TL;DR territory already. The full discussion would be a three hour epic with a mandatory ice-cream break in the middle.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        Yes, and…?

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          You might never have got the chance to buy an example of the last car that David Bache designed, the Maestro.( It was him that vetoed the use of an Allegro Vanden Plas type grille on the VdP Maestro) David would have carried on designing Rovers, and never Austins. 🙂

  5. Simon Storey Avatar
    Simon Storey

    As a British car lover, I’m a professional ‘what might have been’ daydreamer.
    In an ideal world, Leyland would have flat-out refused to merge with the bloated, bankrupt BMH. They could have remained a relatively small, dynamic and profitable organisation. After BMH went under, they could then pick through the wreckage pulling out anything of value (OG Mini and Issigonis, MG and Jaguar) and the rest could be left to the British government to conduct their little social experiment.
    At this stage you have the perfect mix of best-of-British. Rover with their P6, P8 (although I hear Spen King really didn’t like it) and the P6BS. Triumph with their small and large saloon series, TR5/6, Spitfire/GT6 and Stag. MG would have access to the excellent Rover V8 engine and could put it straight into the B GT and market it as a mini-muscle car for people stepping down from their big-blocks during the oil crisis (what MG should have done anyway). The OG Mini could be incorporated into the MG division to give them a bread and butter car, build alongside the Midget. Jaguar could go on being Jaguar, but as they were purchased rather than merged the worst excesses of Sir William Lyons’ Jaguar-preferentialism would be curtailed.
    Then, once this had been set up, run it like GM. Each division is separate, and free to compete with one another. However, central dictats mandate the use of as much shared componentry as possible to give some degree of economy of scale.
    You could do what BL tried and rationalise the engine range as you’d have two 1000-1500cc engines, four 1500-2000cc engines, three 2000-2800cc engines and three 3000cc+ engines which is far too many. Keep the A-series as it’s the only engine that’ll fit in the Mini. Scrap the B-series, Rover OHC and Triumph OHV 4, replace with an improved version of the Triumph Slant 4 (no dodgy head studs, a better cooling system and a proper duplex timing chain). Based on the Slant 4 you could produce a 1500-2000cc I4, a 2500-3000cc I6 and a 3000-3500cc V8 with the same tooling. Keep the Rover V8 and Jaguar XK as defining features of their respective marques.
    Might have worked, might have failed catastrophically but I’d bet it would have resulted in less strife, and more manufacturing jobs staying in Britain than what happened with BL.
    Bit of a pointless discussion, but it’s fun to daydream 🙂