A feel-bad parable

Television - Andrew Billen discovers what sells cars in a documentary of Rover's decline

Channel 4's Rover: the last chance saloon on 16 April was a feel-bad parable of British industrial decline that actually made me feel a lot better about my next set of wheels. Even before the big black funereal advertisements appeared in the press, I had decided that I would replace my 12-year-old Peugeot with a Rover, simply because, with each published obituary, I felt the prices falling. The more columnists kicked the corpse, calling Rover the maker of unstylish cars for middle-managers, the better the deal. What I had not gathered, until Sunday's programme, was that the car, as opposed to the company, was no joke.

One by one the old models flashed by: the jet-engine "Whizzer"; the Land Rover, roving the British empire long after the empire ceased to be; the Rover 2000, low and zippy; the swinging Mini; right up to the Rover 75, about the interior of which I can say only that I've seen less well-appointed mansions. The problem, it turned out, has always been making enough of them at high enough standards. You can have the best-designed gearstick in the world, but if it takes a year's waiting-list before the gearstick feels the weight of your greasy palm, and it then comes off in your hands . . .

Mind you, speaking as a zero-interest driver, it has always been a mystery to me what sells a car. Back in the Fifties, judging by the newsreel shown here, it was dead cow. "Three whole cowhides tanned to the softness of kid glove," purred the voice-over artiste, as serious-looking men in brown overalls covered car seats with calf. The seats were the visual link in this beautifully illustrated documentary. Its interviewees were filmed sitting in a pair of leather seats that materialised, in a Back to the Future way, in empty warehouses or formal gardens - a surreal touch that assured you this sorry tale was going to be a smooth ride for viewers. Indeed, as rain fell into puddles large enough to inspire Frank McCourt, as Minis (on the skids) careered round deserted sheds or a Leyland Marina failed to catch up with a rival Ford Cortina, there was a distinct and inappropriate smell of Schadenfreude in the air - and there's an apt German word for you.

What was touching was that everybody - even a baddie like the Daily Mail's favourite factory-convenor, Derek Robinson - was an enthusiast for the cars. Red Robbo said his second-hand Rover 2000 was the best car he had ever bought, and he piled 110,000 miles on to its clock. "The whole things is utterly despicable," a passionately elegiac dealer concluded of BMW, Rover's last, cut-and-run owner, which is departing with the secrets of the new R-30. "As we'd say in England, they have not observed Queensberry Rules."

For all that, the diminutive former whiz-kid Michael Edwardes was still plying the story of strategically placed communists working in Longbridge to bring down the heights of the economy, although the story was actually one of managerial error. When the moment came to introduce production lines, the wrong ones were bought, some of them better equipped for the manufacture of washing machines. The new paint finish was excellent, except that it didn't adhere to the bodywork. In a moment of collective hallucination, the workers were allowed to believe that the efficiencies that automation brought were designed to bulk out their wage packets rather than increase productivity. Then, when Britain's small car manufacturers were united under British Leyland, they continued behaving like small businesses (at least, this was a verdict of the back-seat professor Kumar Bhattacharyya of Warwick University, who slumped in his beaten leather like Les Patterson recumbent). By the summer of 1973, dealers had run out of cars to sell. A year later, given the hike in oil prices, they could not flog them anyway.

The Seventies looked, as they always do on archive film, even more desperate. You would have thought nationalisation in 1975 would have been a yellow card to all concerned. Instead, workers did not know whether they would be required to clock in or to mass in the car park for a union meeting. A haunting image of the period was of an unruly mob outside the factory gates demanding to be allowed to work. Yet when Edwardes went with his begging bowl to No 10, it was Lord Young and Norman Tebbit who let him to walk away "with more money than any of us ever thought possible". Somehow, it was hard by the end to blame BMW for giving up the ghost. Before it arrived, it should have performed an exorcism.

This was a programme that gloried in the pleasures of narrative - newsreel footage and interviewees with 20/20 hindsight. I look forward to the rest of the British Empires, of which it was originally meant to be part. Yet it remains unclear how Rover could be reduced to the doubtful magic of a company called Alchemy, from whose philosopher's stone will be magicked a couple of dozen sportscars a year and a collector's calendar? The seats of my Rover 25, incidentally, are made, not of leather, but of "ash wiggle" cloth.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?