Hugley disappointing sales of the Rover 75 - the flagship sedan counted on to reverse Rover's fortunes - sealed BMW's decision last month to sell the British carmaker.
So what went wrong?
Dealers and automotive journalists generaly agreed the 75 was a very good car. It won 15 international awards and benefited from BMW's vaunted engineering support and quality control.
But it has not lived up to BMW's hopes of selling about 100,000 cars a year. The factory in Oxford, England, has capacity for about 140,000.
Were British consumers at fault - as BMW executives now say - or were BMW/Rover's misguided marketing and lousy timing to blame?
Indeed, the Rover 75 seemed doomed from the beginning. Even BMW's decision to sell Rover came during the middle of a long-awaited worldwide product offensive. Displays and billboards promoting the car were going up in many countries just as the sale to Alchemy Partners, a British equity fund, was being announced last month.
The launch itself was delayed for six months, until June 1999, while BMW struggled to fix quality problems. By the end of the year, about 25,000 cars had sold worldwide, half the original goal.
Through February of this year, about 7,000 had sold. That was still a long way from the pace Rover needed to reach its goal of selling 80,000-100,000 75s this year. The car was to have been the flagship car in a fleet BMW hoped would reach about 1 million vehicles a year, including Rover, Land Rover, Mini and MG.
Rover product spokesman Kevin Jones said full 75 production at the Oxford plant would not have been reached until 2001. By that time a Rover 75 station wagon would have joined the sedan in production. Rover suspended plans to produce the wagon until the brand transfers to its new owner. The two companies hope the deal will be complete by the end of May.
The 75's run of bad luck began when former BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder upstaged the car's world introduction at the October 1998 Birmingham auto show. Just hours after the unveiling, he shocked even his own BMW colleagues by launching into an unscripted press conference tirade about Rover's poor productivity. The next day newspapers focused on the cloud over Rover's future, not the splendid new car.
'He did inestimable damage with that press conference,' said Geoff Yeowart, owner of Tanswell of Towcester, a UK Rover dealership. Yeowart found it 'unbelievable' the BMW chief would make such comments the same day the company launched the 'best car Rover ever made.'
'We recognize Rover 75 has had an uphill struggle,' said Jones. 'It has never been easy for that product. As soon as the car was announced you had this cloud over Birmingham. There was speculation of the decline of the brand, a perceived lack of embrace by BMW. Also you had the issue of price harmonization. A lot of features did their best to thwart the business.'
Another problem: the Rover 75 was really replacing two cars: the Honda-derived Rover 600 and 800.
'The product was straddling two product ranges,' said Philip Wade, director of HWB International of Warwick, England. It was too small for the executive car segment and too large for the upper medium segment, making it harder for the fleet market to swallow, he said.
When BMW bought Rover in 1994, the Rover 600 had only recently been introduced. That meant BMW had to wait five years for the 75 to 'really start to hammer home where Rover was in the marketplace,' said Nigel Griffiths, a researcher for the London office of Standard & Poor's DRI. 'You can't build a brand on just that one model overnight.'
The brand clarity problem was compounded by BMW managers' lack of savvy about in managing any brand other than their own, which is very pure and rooted in German engineering.
'There were these interminable meetings about 'here's what a BMW stands for and here's what a Rover stands for',' said Andrew Cracknell, former chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas, the ad agency that produced the 75's launch ads in 1999. He is now executive director of the Bates UK advertising agency. 'They might as well be comparing Rover to Swissair. There's no comparison between BMW and Rover. The BMW brand is so simple. They were probably completely bewildered by Rover, which had such a colorful and peripatetic history.
'If you look at the advertising, it gave no clues as to who the car was being aimed at,' said Cracknell. 'It was an opportunity lost. My view at the time was there should have been a hint of the best of German engineering with the best of British design.'
Cracknell said he wrote a script that emphasized those elements in a subtle way by blending the precision of German engineering, represented by a computer, with the soul of British design.
'I still find that a compelling proposition,' said Cracknell. 'I was really pissed off that they didn't see it.'
BMW is pushing an aggressive April advertising campaign that includes an offer of £2000 off the 75 sticker price in Rover's home UK market. The ads seek to reassure customers they are covered by a three-year warranty.
Those who have bought the car generally seem to like it. Said UK dealer Yeowart: 'One customer described it to me as like a mini Rolls-Royce.'