Since last October, life has not been kind to Nick Stephenson. As Rover’s director of design and engineering he’s responsible for the team that developed the first new Rover for 20 years, the car that is supposed to re-establish the Rover brand. And he sees the launch overshadowed by the controversy over the future of Rover’s Longbridge factory, BMW boardroom battles and the ousting of parent company chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder. He is a frustrated man.
‘I’d be a liar if I didn’t agree with that,’ he admits ruefully. ‘A new car is the result of an enormous amount of work and when you come to the critical phase of its launch, you’d like that to go as smoothly as the product programme.’
Some consolation is that the new Rover 75 has recently won What Car’s Car of the Year award, demonstrating that ‘it is seen as truly world class’, says Stephenson.
Meanwhile, hope was rising this week that with a reported £200m government aid package on offer, Longbridge’s future, building a replacement for the medium-sized 200/400 range, would be secured at a BMW board meeting, held yesterday.
There is much irritation at Rover over the way Longbridge’s troubles have been reported, with a perceived declaration of open season on the firm by some parts of the media. Certain stories have suggested nothing has changed since the dark 1970s days of industrial unrest and uncompetitive products. In fact, where BMW has invested in cars or plant the 75 or the new Freelander line at Solihull, for example it is fair to say Rover has come up with the goods.
Stephenson points out that since BMW took over Rover it has introduced numerous new cars, including the MGF, Land Rover Freelander and new Discovery, all of which have won acclaim. ‘I’m very proud of all our recent products,’ he says.
‘We admit that in certain instances we have specialised in bringing cars to market very economically. The 75, the first fruit of the post-BMW era, reflects a freedom of approach because it’s no longer the product of joint activity with Honda, and is a result of not being quite so financially constrained. And I think the product speaks for itself.’
The bleakness of Rover’s situation has been exaggerated, he adds. ‘There’s been a tremendous performance from Land Rover and MG, and an excellent response to the 75. The new Mini programme is going well, and I guarantee that it will be a huge success. The threat is in a single area: medium-sized cars.’
Stephenson has been waiting impatiently for the go-ahead for a replacement for the medium-sized 200/400 range. ‘I need to get on with engineering the car,’ he says. Rover has ‘a lot of work under its belt’ on a replacement, but it will take three years to get the car to market.
The immediate challenge is to sustain sales of the 400. Last week, new Rover chairman Werner Samann promised re-engineered versions of the range later this year.
Stephenson believes Rover assemblers have been maligned: ‘I’m not suggesting that we do not have significant productivity challenges. But some of the media have wrongly singled out Rover’s workforce, and the Longbridge workforce in particular, and questioned their commitment. That simply is not true.
‘If you create a bad press for yourself and that creates a decline in the volume of the product, then the manufacturing line’s productivity is influenced, which is not the fault of the individuals on the track.’
He identifies three prerequisites for productivity: investment; a workforce with the right attitude; and a successful product. ‘If you put in a manufacturing facility for 250,000 units annually and only sell 100,000, then the best workforce in the world are not going to be able to demonstrate their productivity.
‘Therein we have had a problem, particularly with the Rover 400. We need to give the workforce successful products to work with and that’s certainly my intention.’
There have been suggestions that a 200/400 replacement could be brought to the market more quickly by stretching the platform of the new Mini, due next year. Stephenson says: ‘We’ve always been clear that the Mini was something really special. As a mechanical package, its platform is more suited to Mini derivatives. So it is more likely we will need a new platform for a new medium car.’