Now Fiat’s plans for Chrysler have revealed, it’s worth pondering just how remarkably similar Chrysler’s history is to Rover’s.
The American carmaker built its reputation on advanced engineering at an affordable price (as did Rover in the 1960s) but suffered a near-death experience in 1979 before being bailed out by the US government. ? ?It prospered for a while through the compact K-car, MPVs and, in 1990s, innovative styling strong sales at its Jeep SUV division.
Like Rover, Chrysler was also swallowed up – and then spat out – by a German carmaker (Daimler rather than BMW). ? ?But while Rover cars – shorn of its Land Rover division - struggled on as an independent before succumbing, the Chrysler Group gets a chance to live another day as part of the Fiat Group.
What’s most worrying about the Chrysler revival plan is the move towards what’s called the ‘premium mainstream’. This Bermuda Triangle of a niche has been long searched for by mass carmakers.
If only they could convince enough punters to pay extra for a ritzy car that’s based on quality mainstream engineering, they could build a very handy business.
That’s what Rover bosses tried do in the 1980s and 1990s using Honda technology wrapped in the ‘above all it’s a Rover’ skin. BMW tried it with the all-new but retro 75.
Renault also tried to shift upmarket a decade ago with the Vel Satis and bustle-back Megane. Ford is trying it in the US with Lincoln and Fiat has been trying with Fiat-based Lancias for a couple of decades.
Truth is, ‘premium mainstream’ has never busted out of being a very small market. Lancia still sells around 120,000 cars and Rover died on its feet after the 75 failed to set the European market on fire. Most buyers either want a well-priced mass-market car or something from a blue chip premium brand.
I think there are two problems for the new, ritzy, Chrysler. First, very few brands – aside from bargain basement stuff - prosper without some sporting intent (its incredible that Lancia is ignoring its unrivalled sporting heritage).
Secondly, the appeal of chrome slivers is dying as the car buying population increasingly votes for something with a youthful twist. Even old men don’t buy old men’s cars, as jaguar will tell you.
What’s really ironic about the new Chrysler being tied up with Lancia is that Chrysler and Rover came within an ace of being bundled together in the late 1990s.
My understanding is that BMW wanted rid of Rover cars and tried to convince Chrysler to take the brand over, along with the new 75 and Oxford plant. Chrysler was also looking for a European production site for the Voyager.
The two brands looked like a good fit. BMW and Chrysler even did a deal that saw a Chrysler engine fitted to the new Mini.
When BMW executives awoke in May 1998 to find Chrysler had jumped into bed with Daimler – and realized there was no Plan B for Rover. A glitzy retro car which then stuttered onto the market…