Since introducing its first bicycle in 1878, Rover has been an intrinsic part of the British landscape and transportation scene. For many years, Rover provided restrained and understated motoring to bank mangers, golfers and WI members, right up until the sorry demise of this very British marque 10 years ago when the cash-starved MG Rover Group finally sank.
A decade on, there are still plenty of Rovers to be seen on our roads, with the elegant 75 models in particular continuing to stand out today in a sea of look-alike Euro-bland premium saloons and estates.
Safe, steady and conservative in both style and spirit, the owner of a Rover would usually be a pleasant sort, with a nicely trimmed front lawn, a National Trust sticker on the windscreen and a tartan travel rug in the boot.
Reassuring and refined, rather than risky, were Rover’s sober watch words, despite ‘daringly modern for their day’ models such as the innovative P6 (2000-3500 series) and SD1 ranges, both of which were awarded the prestigious European Car of the Year awards when launched. We shouldn’t forget Rover’s pioneering post-war jet turbine engine developments either, with the turbine-powered Rover-B.R.M. taking an experimental class victory at the 1965 Le Mans 24 hours with a stellar line-up of contemporary British drivers; Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill!
Arguably Rover’s most inspired and influential contribution to modern motoring though has been its trend-setting but short-lived Streetwise model, introduced in 2003. Cunningly conceived by the talented McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens when Rover was seriously strapped for cash, the clever Streetwise was simply a jacked-up version of the humble front-wheel-drive Rover 25 hatchback. Quick and cheap to develop, the Streetwise looked rugged, toughened-up to resemble an off-road SUV, with a raised ride height, roof bars and beefy plastic extensions to the wheel arches, bumpers and grill to add that authentic ‘jungle explorer’ look. So, an instant trendy new model, created on a minuscule budget in record time.
It may not be obvious, but Rover’s low budget, low rent Streetwise is influential because it spawned a myriad of faux 4×4 SUV copies: regular two-wheel-drive hatchbacks with a purposeful off-road look and raised stance. The Streetwise inspired the two-wheel-drive Citroen C3 XTR, Volkswagen Polo Dune, Skoda Fabia Scout and very popular Dacia Sandero Stepwise, for example, plus overseas-market-only non off-roaders like the Fiat Palio Adventure and the amusingly named Hyundai Getz Cross and VW CrossFox. After Rover went pop in 2005, the Streetwise itself was even reborn, revived in China as the MG3 SW in 2008.
Naturally, the off-road look isn’t just confined to small hatchbacks with added plastic cladding and a raised ride height. In 1977 the Simca 1100-based Matra Rancho introduced mud-plugging style in a car better suited to Kensington High Street than a muddy car park at the Badminton Horse Trials, and this formula continues today with two-wheel-drive ‘soft-roaders’ such as the Nissan Qashqai and entry-level Range Rover Evoque.
For those seeking off-road styling combined with four-wheel-drive versatility, but not wanting the usual box-shaped 4×4 SUV, AMC provided the solution in late 1979 with its pioneering Eagle range of off-road saloon, coupe, hatchback and wagon models. Based around the conventional AMC Concord, the Eagle introduced the regular family car driver to jacked-up suspension and scrub-repelling plastic side mouldings, with the added advantage of proper off-road capabilities.
Subaru went on to popularise this concept with its fast-selling Legacy and (in some markets) Impreza Outback derivatives, and Audi has since exploited the Eagle format fully with its A4 and A6 Allroad models, as its Volkswagen parent is now also doing with its recent Golf and Passat Alltrack variants.
As for the Rover Streetwise, very few examples were built in the 18 months that the model existed, and even fewer survive today, with most of those still extant being unloved and under-appreciated. The Streetwise is unlikely to ever achieve true classic status, but this unrecognised pioneer might just be worth tucking away at the back of a barn for a few years for curiosity value, if little else.