It’s 20 years since BMW bought Rover, an anniversary that encourages discussion about whether the deal, usually seen as a failure, was a catastrophe or boon for Britain.
It certainly cost BMW prestige and big money back in 2000 when it withdrew from Rover, but you could hardly say it has since held the company back.
My own view is that though BMW’s withdrawal led to the Phoenix Four’s well-publicised shenanigans, the Germans’ purchase was a large stroke of luck.
BMW may not ultimately have been able to convert Rover into its UK outpost (a peculiarly hands-off early management style seems to have been one cause) but it left behind important industrial values and procedures that have been beneficial ever since.
It certainly made a better custodian than Honda — at the time a 20 per cent shareholder — would have done, always assuming the Japanese had been willing to take the helm, which they weren’t.
BMW backed, promoted and ultimately modernised the Land Rover Freelander, a model that pioneered an enormously important new global market sector and helped Land Rover begin the expansion it still enjoys.
It built the Rover 75, the last and best-ever Rover. It built the Hams Hall engine plant, now vital in the BMW firmament. And it had the foresight and creativity to dream up the New Mini project, whose potential many of us (me included) failed to recognise at its outset.
It is deeply ironic today, as UK annual car production forges past 1.5 million, that The Independent’s headline on the day of the BMW purchase read: “Car making tradition dies with the BMW deal”.
It didn’t, of course. Back in 1994, Rover sold 360,000 cars around the world, a steep decline on the previous year’s performance, and lost money on every single one. Industry-watchers knew in their bones the company was finished.
Next year, Mini will sell 300,000 profitable cars, the vast bulk of which will be built at Plant Oxford. Or Cowley, as we used to know it. Hard to imagine life without it.