A success story for Rover

When the Rover Company introduced its 2000 model in October 1963, it took a gamble. Simultaneously it opted for a new image, new construction techniques, higher break-even production, all from a new factory. The gamble has paid off handsomely. Four and a half years later the car (with adaptations) had become the company´s most successful ever. Considerably more than 100.000 have been sold and to cope with demand a night shift – Rover´s first – was introduced last year, pushing production to over 800 a week. And now twin caburettor, automatic and V8 engine have been introduced.

Even at this high rate for the luxury market, demand runs ahead of supply, and customers still have to wait at least two months for their car. In the meantime it has outsold all its immediate competitors and began to overtake models at the top end of the “popular” manufacturers´ range.

The Rover Company had its origins in 1877 and since that time has increasingly specialized in quality cars. Broadly speaking, over the postwar period its cars became more specialized, larger and more expensive, culminating in 1958 with the 3 litre Coupé which now has a retail selling price of over ₤2000.

The Land Rover, introduced in 1948, rapidly became as important to the company as its cars and, as a specialized light commercial vehicle, was a logical development in the commercial field of the company´s philosophy of automotive specialization. This philosophy is that the company should aim at sectors of the market that are not large enough to interest the mass producers of cars but which, nevertheless, have a wider appeal than the products of, say, Rolls Royce or Aston Martin.

The necessity of using relatively costly tooling to give high standards of finish at reasonable cost has meant in the postwar period that the production life of Rover cars has had to be relatively long – about 10 years. This, in turn, has required very advanced engineering design and dateless styling. The horizon of Rover´s design and planning staff has, therefore, been a long way off.

In 1956, preliminary thought was being given to a replacement for the P4 models which had been introduced eight years earlier and which were to be only partly replaced by the larger 3 litre Saloon, to be announced two years later. The familiar 60, 75, 90 and 100, or P4 models, has had a very good run; indeed over 130.000 were produced from 1948 to 1963 when the line was discontinued – an exceptionally high volume for cars retailing, at today´s prices, at about ₤1500.

The 3 litre or P5 model, to be introduced in 1958, was intended to replace the P4 range in its higher priced forms. In fact, P5 rapidly established leadership in its class, but at a production  volume of well under 200 units per week. It had clearly been right to anticipate that the growth of the company´s car business required a less expensive car to satisfy the existing market for the less expensive versions of the P4 range. Until the new car was ready, these were to continue to be sold alongside P5.

Out of this need grew the concept of P6, as the “2000” was code-named, but it was a concept that far transcended the need that gave it stimulus. This concept emerged as that of a light, compact, four seater, semi-sports saloon with outstanding economy, revoluttionary aesthetic appeal and unique safety features at a retail price of less than ₤1250.

It required a production volume of over 500 units a week, far greater than anything the Rover Company had previously considered in its passenger car business.

It would be agreeable to be able to write that the concept arouse out of a marketing research study in depth, but it did not. In fact, Rover´s amrket research department, although present at and involved in the birth of the Rover 2000, did not exist, as such, when the idea was first conceived.

The concept of the Rover 2000 was the fruit of the work of a small team of young engineers in their thirties and fourties who had noticed that a gap in the market had emerged under the P4 price bracket – between ₤1000 and ₤1500. This position had, before the war, been filled by cars like the Wolseley, Riley and MG saloons that used to compete with Rover. They had disappeared, at least in their individual forms, as a result of the amalgamations and rationalization of the post-war period. Rover cars had, in fact, tended to get larger and more elderly in their appeal while other manufacturers had dropped out of the market.

Latr market research, which was begun when work on final prototypes was nearing completion, confirmed that the ideal car that these young men had in mind corresponded to an emerging market requirement as well as to a sector of neglect by other manufacturers. The research also confirmed that Rover was, at that time, in the unsound position of having a diminishing share of a contracting market. Rising incomes and changes in income distribution, as well as traffic congestion, changes in social tastes and the Government´s taxation policies, were all working towards the development of a potential market for the new car.

The enormous appeal of the first prototype dispelled the doubts that remained about the project and, after a viability study, the board took the decision to invest in the new model. It was a major decision, involving an investment in tooling, new factory layouts and new plant equal to about 80 per cent of the company´s capital employed at the time.

The decision was made especially difficult by the fact that its magnitude necessarily involved deferring further investment in the Land Rover business which, at that time, was expanding faster than production capacity. One of the factors in favour of the decision was a desire to maintain a balance between the company´s relative dependence on car and commercial vehicle sales.

The revolutionary character of the car at that time when it was first conceived in 1956-57 cannot be over-emphasized. Every single part was new and it made no use whatsoever of existing production and tooling facilities.

It adopted a four cylinder engine instead of a six, abandoned both chassis and monocoque construction in favour of a best unit design, embraced safety as a major design factor and even discarded the traditional walnut fascia de rigeur in British cars costing over ₤1000 at that time.

There were numerous technical innovations; it was the first car in the world to be designed around fabric radial ply tyres and to incorporate a combination chamber in the pistons instead of in the cylinder head. It reintroduced the de Dion rear axle and had relatively high gear ratios, hitherto characteristic only of certain Continental cars.

Not the least of its innovation in a saloon car, it eschewed a rear bench seat for two individual seats. Eight-and-a-half inches lower than the P4 model it was also to be the first post-war Rover in which the average owner would not be able to wear a hat in the driving seat!

From the outset, the new car was presented as an exciting and fresh approach to motoring. A conscious attempt was made to modify the Rover image of a producer of large quality cars for professional persons and to widen this image, to make it more youthful, more cosmopolitan.

Safety, which had never been, and is still probably not, a major sales feature was actively promoted as something that Rover´s sophisticated and thoughtful clientele ought to want. In some instances the company´s publicity erred on the side of brashness in an attempt to modify its respectful but somewhat staid early post-war image.

At the same time the social appeal of a Rover with its associations of success, respectability and good taste were fully exploited. This was an exercise in active marketing. The results of the exercise were very gratifying. The Rover 2000 story does provide a massive justification for the marketing approach.

That is for the ruthless rejection of the past in favour of the needs of the future, for the deepest analysis and anticipation of market needs and for the value of combining a response to chaning market conditions with a bold attempt to influence these changes in a particular direction.

UK 1968