What do you think of when you see a Rover 75? Flat cap, maybe? Or perhaps you see slow progress on roads near old people’s homes? Rover spent millions developing that image, unintentionally of course, but is it deserved?
Like many car enthusiasts I had dismissed the slightly bulbous retro styled granny wagon as being too dull and unreliable, but after a fellow writer waxed lyrical about the 75’s virtues I started looking into it in a bit more detail and found that there was a lot more going for it than I had realised.
The 75 was the first new product of Rover’s BMW era. The new German owners were naturally keen to address the image of terrible quality and installed class leading quality control and manufacturing facilities at the Cowley plant in Oxfordshire. Production began in 1999, but all too soon was moved to Longbridge when BMW sold Rover and the Cowley plant was required for the MINI. The Cowley cars were arguably better as moving heavy tooling always has a quality implication. Indeed, when Phoenix took over production they instigated a number of cost reduction initiatives. Cheaper is rarely better.
The car has a very strong shell, a relatively large centre tunnel was used to ensure rigidity which also benefits refinement. The size of the tunnel sparked a number of rumours that it was designed for rear wheel drive, but there was no evidence to support this. The last hurrah of the 75 did of course include a rear wheel drive 4.6 V8 model, but that had a significantly different floor pan with an even bigger tunnel.
Much of the suspension has more than a passing similarity to BMW units. The rear axle is almost, but not quite identical, to a BMW 5 series Z axle with the diff missing, whilst the front struts are located at the lower end by a big L shaped wishbone, similar but not the same as most of the contemporary BMWs. The fact that the lower wishbone was located so far back meant that a very soft bush could be used for refinement yet still keep the wheel under very good control. It was things like this that gave the car a surprisingly smooth ride whilst still having very good handling.
Engines were the venerable 1.8 K series in naturally aspirated or turbocharged form, the lacklustre KV6 or the BMW M47 2.0 diesel which is the one I went for.
When the diesel engine was tuned for the Rover it was endowed with a modest 116bhp, whereas BMW’s own models produced over 136bhp. This may have been partly due to the parent company’s need to prevent its various brands fighting for the same customer, but it does mean that it is fairly simple to upgrade the Rover to BMW performance levels. Indeed the factory started doing their own performance upgrades under the X-Power brand.
So what do you get for the money? Well I went looking for a sound mile muncher and found a saloon 2.0 diesel with the X-Power 136bhp upgrade and the manual Getrag 263 gearbox for just £1,300. It also had working air con and a fuel fired heater for getting warm quickly on frozen winter mornings.
The test drive revealed a luxuriously smooth ride that’s better than many Mercedes or top of the range Audis I have driven. The seats are soooo comfy it’s like driving a sofa and helps to make a long journey a very pleasant experience. The diesel is quiet and pulls reasonably well although initial response when accelerating from low revs was disappointing and may point towards a dirty MAF sensor. On a run I am getting about 50mpg and even when thrashing it mercilessly round the lanes it still manages 40mpg, so it’s reasonably economical, no matter how it’s driven.
Road holding is very good. There is noticeable body roll but it is very controlled and the car can be thrown round the back lanes with some speed and enthusiasm. The car’s tendency to understeer can be combated by strong acceleration and I may try a tad more toe-in later to sharpen up the turn in, but straight out of the box it is quite acceptable and a surprisingly fun car. I was finding that my 75 was pulling heavily to the left and upon further investigation I realised that this was caused by uneven tyre wear due to a perished left hand lower wishbone bush. Again this is a common problem and takes a good afternoon in the workshop to replace, although the parts are readily available and reasonably priced.
Another common problem is the in-tank fuel pump failing. The 75 has an odd arrangement, with a conventional pump on the bulkhead feeding the high pressure injection pump on the engine. The bulkhead pump draws fuel from the left hand side of the saddle shaped fuel tank, but to get fuel from the right hand side there is another pump immersed in the right hand side which feeds the take off on the left. Sound complicated? Well in reality it is! On my car there are five pipes on the outside of the tank and a further six on the inside. When the tank level gets very low the right hand side will empty first and the pump can run dry which reduces its life dramatically. But when it fails the engine still runs fine off the left side until the level gets below the height of the central hump in the tank, then the left side empties leaving the fuel in the right side at quarter height.
Following so far?!
Cunningly the fuel level sensor is in the right side only, so if this happens the gauge reads quarter full but the engine runs out of fuel and stops – usually somewhere inconvenient and expensive! There is one clue however, because the low fuel level warning light is triggered by a sensor on the left side, so although the gauge reads a quarter, the low level light comes on. This happens to a great many 75 owners which often leads to otherwise good car being sold off cheap for spares or repairs. If one pump has failed the other will not be far behind, and depending on which fault has occurred it may stall, be difficult to start or have limited power.
These common faults are fairly easy to fix and should not put you off as long as you are not afraid of getting your hands dirty, because for a budget car the poor reputation means prices are low. But as a car it is actually very good.
I love the retro styling which works so much better than on some other cars like the Jaguar S-Type, although I am not entirely convinced about the styling of the rear lights. Furthermore, the visibility over the high rear bulkhead is a pain when parking.
There are some interesting visual tricks going on too. It looks like it is quite high off the ground as there seems to be a lot of space between the top of the wheel and the arch and the sills appear to be well spaced from the road, but this is a trick to make the car look less slab sided. In reality the floor pan is only a few inches off the road and the sump guard hits speed bumps a little too easily.
The car is a joy to drive whether fast or slow and is a very practical motor. I tend to drive my cars very hard which puts high stresses on suspension, brakes and transmission and after about 20,000 miles, (on top of its 115,000 when I bought it), it is starting to complain a little but nothing that couldn’t be sorted during routine servicing. Generally it seems to be a fairly tough and reliable car.
My only regret is that I didn’t get the estate version, but maybe that’s something for next year…