Will Tata Takeover Herald the Rover’s Return?
One by-product of Tata’s status as front-runner in the battle to take over British marques Land Rover and Jaguar is the intriguing prospect of a return of the Rover car brand.
Poor old Rover, despite a pedigree stretching back to 1904 and some landmark cars over the years, finally expired in 2005 in the wake of the unseemly Chinese scramble for the remains of the UK’s last British-owned volume manufacturer, the defunct MG Rover.
Whilst Chinese bidders SAIC and Nanjing fought to establish the right to build the company’s 25, 45 and 75 saloons and their sportier MG equivalents, canny Ford snapped up the rights to use the Rover badge in 2006, avoiding an unseemly trademark problem for the Land Rover marque which it had earlier bought from BMW.
This left SAIC with the Rover range but not the name, hence the need for them to invent the slightly ridiculous Roewe brand to use on its version of the last true Rover saloon, designed under BMW ownership, the much-underrated 75.
Nowadays it is easily forgotten that Land Rover in fact started life in 1948 as a stop-gap product of the quintessentially middle class Rover company, best known for its very traditional saloon cars. The utility Land Rover, aimed at farmers and the military, only came about because Rover needed a new way to boost production capacity and exports in the bleak post-war environment for industry in England.
If Tata manages to secure control of Land Rover and Jaguar – which, let’s face it, would be a tremendous coup for the Indian company, then the Rover car name should come as part of the deal. It could be a ready-made way of bridging the tremendous gap between Tata’s cheap-and-cheerful offerings and the upmarket Jaguar line-up, as well as providing a more well-known badge for the company to use in export markets.
Tata and Rover already have a history of joint working, if not a very encouraging one. In the final dark days of MG Rover, the struggling company signed a deal with the Indians for them to supply a much-needed small car to try and address its shrinking share of the European market.
A rebadged and retrimmed version of Tata’s Indica hatchback, cleverly christened City Rover, was launched in 2004 but proved a fairly dismal footnote in Rover history. Marketing in the UK was inept – the car simply wasn’t promoted enough, and the MG Rover management set the price ambitiously high, trading on their view of the imagined prestige of the Rover name. In fact, the car was old and outclassed in comparison with cheaper and more stylish rivals like Fiat’s Panda.
Yet, for all its failings, the City Rover project did have the benefit of taking an odd and unfamiliar product and giving it a reassuring name, and such a move could benefit Tata. It has struggled in the European market, selling the Indica under its own name with only very limited success in small markets like Malta and Portugal.
Tata’s other home grown products, a pick-up truck and the Safari off-roader, have also failed so far to make their mark.
An improved Indica, and derivatives yet to be widely exported, like the Indigo saloon and estate car, might just get away with reviving the Rover badge, tarnished though it is. Whether the English company’s trademark wood and leather interiors would be part of the package remains to be seen – probably their day has passed, and the new reborn Rover could be a value brand to fight the Chinese onslaught.
For Rover fans – and despite the company‘s travails over many years, there remain a few – the prospect of ending up as a badge on the products of an obscure Indian company has irony but few attractions. The company that made such vehicles as the P5 – the car of choice for a clutch of British Prime Ministers – and the trendsetting but fatally flawed Rover SD1 has fallen a very long way.
The ambitions to snap up Land Rover and Jaguar, however, and the international glare of publicity around the unveiling of the company’s new ultra-small Nano microcar shows Tata is a company with great potential which could yet write a new chapter in the history of some traditional British marques.
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