Friday, September 22, 2017

Rover, the British car that "retro" couldn't save

James May derisively adds a portrait of the queen to the dashboard of a Rover 75
in the BBC documentary "Rover — The Long Goodbye."
"Rover — The Long Goodbye," is a BBC documentary about the demise of Britain's Rover car company. It's full of "walnut veneered memories" of the great days of the British motorcar industry.

It's well worth watching. While there is no mention of motorcycles, the life and death of Rover's car business in Britain strikes me as very instructive for fans of Royal Enfield motorcycles.

It amounts to a cautionary tale about the failure of "retro" to rescue a great old brand name.

One of the reasons we love Royal Enfields, as they are now made in India, is that they are new motorcycles with looks and features that hearken back to the past glories of Britain.

We enjoy riding a motorcycle that inspires people who see it to ask if we have "restored it" ourselves. It always comes as a surprise to them that all we did was buy it, new.

Royal Enfield is in the midst of a sales bonanza in India, where its reputation as a classic carries the motorcycle from one sales record to the next.

But the original Royal Enfield, once based in Redditch, England, never meant to become an object of nostalgia. Naturally, it meant to succeed on its merit and value. "Modern Motorcycling" was one sales motto used.

Many reasons for the general failure of the British motor industry have been put forward. Just see Bert Hopwood's fascinating 1998 book "Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry."

One explanation never posed, as far as I know, is that Britain's products weren't "retro" enough.

Just look at the leather, wood and classic lines of the Jaguars and Rolls Royces we were offered into the 1980s. Those were retro!

Their new owners in Germany and India now make Jags and Rollers (and Land Rovers) that, while distinctive, compete with other modern products to be modern and look modern.

It's fascinating to me that Rover tried to do it the other way 'round. Before it was sold by BMW to private investors (for the paltry sum of 10 pounds), Rover introduced the decidedly retro Rover 75.

Rover had been offering modern looking cars that might have wood and leather and a chrome grille, but were really Hondas underneath.

Under BMW, the Rover 75 brought an end to that. Rover went retro.

In the documentary, James May of "Top Gear" says the cabin of a Rover 75 "is straight from the Olde-Worlde school of interior design."

To the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory" he pulls out a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and sets it on the dashboard of a Rover 75, to complete the effect.

"The Rover 75 seems to confirm something that I've long feared," May tells us.

"That Britain is being turned into a fatuous theme park, obsessed with heritage and cowering behind a barricade of stupid nostalgic nick-knacks. This is Rover! Rover! The company that gave us great cars, like the P6, the SD1 and that experimental turbine car.

"I want something modern, not a Great Day Out in History. This ridiculous hankering for the past just is not British. I can't stand it!"

And, indeed, the Rover 75 failed. Not enough Brits bought it and the car company rolled over, dead, in 2005. The brand name went to Ford and then to Tata Motors, which builds Land Rover vehicles.

Nevertheless, on a visit to London in 2012 I watched for Rover 75s, curious to see a car unavailable in the U.S. that struck me as evocative of a better time.

And, in 2014, a commenter on the YouTube version of "Rover — The Long Goodbye" put it this way:

"I'm sorry, I'm a black American male and I would give anything to be able to purchase a Rover 75. It looks awesome, like a BMW mated with a Jaguar and a love child. To hell with 'bling.'"

Retro "not British?" Perhaps not. But it seems to work to some degree in the U.S.

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