An old Rover plant comes back — and someday, maybe, the brand

The aluminum body of a Range Rover Sport in inspected as it moves along the assembly line at Jaguar Land Rover's plant in Solihull, United Kingdom, in July 2013. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

“Everything dies baby that's a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

-- “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982

SOLIHULL, ENGLAND -- The transformation of the old Rover plant here in the British Midlands, scene of so much labor strife, turmoil and heartbreak in the 1970s and ’80s, is breathtaking.

No other factory on the planet makes more aluminum-bodied vehicles. That record will hold until next year when Land Rover’s former owner, Ford Motor Co., is cranking out aluminum F-150 pickups in its Dearborn, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo., plants.

A visitor on the walkway above the aluminum body shop here can look down at the 370 robots that glue and rivet the panels on Range Rover bodies and get an impressive glimpse of what could be the future of automaking.

It is an automated mechanical ballet that raises car building to a high art.

Not many years ago, few who follow the auto industry intimately could have imagined that Solihull, a plant built in 1940 to help Britain’s war effort, could undergo such a transformation.

But a succession of owners, including Ford and BMW, and lately India’s Tata Motors, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing the plant.

The payoff isn’t just the highest quality, most fuel-efficient Range Rovers and Range Rover Sports ever built or the six-month waiting list in some parts of the world that is keeping the plant humming on three shifts, five days a week.

The bigger payoff is what the future holds: Britain may finally be on its way to having its own BMW after a 40-year delay.

In the early 1970s, Rover and Triumph, the healthy part of British Leyland, were quickly evolving into Britain’s BMW with a lineup of fast, stylish and technically interesting vehicles that properly developed would have been the envy of the world.

From sturdy farm implement to luxury utility, Land Rover and Range Rover had the off-road market covered. Upscale, sporty Rover cars were competing with Alfas and Mercedes and BMWs.

The plant's aluminum body shop is an automated mechanical ballet that raises car building to a high art. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

From Triumph came the exciting 150-hp fuel-injected TR6 sports car; the Dolomite Sprint compact four-door, the car that is widely credited as being the template for the modern small luxury sports sedan; and several other popular cars, such as the Spitfire and Triumph 2000 sedan.

Then it all fell apart. Poor build quality, strikes, unreliable cars and myriad other problems dogged the company. The last Rover car, the futuristic SD1 five-door hatchback — the iconic British police car of the 1980s — was built at the Solihull site in 1981. From then on, the plant built Land Rovers and Range Rovers. SD1 production moved to another plant; Triumph died in 1984.

Somehow Jaguar and Land Rover survived all the financial upheavals and corporate owners and are now one integrated, prosperous company. Late next year, car production returns to Solihull when the new aluminum-bodied Jaguar XE compact sports sedan goes into production. The building and assembly lines are being constructed now.

But even after the XE is launched, Solihull, which started making Rover cars in 1946 and later Triumph sports cars, will not be quite whole.

Jaguar Land Rover retained the rights to the Rover car brand when Ford sold the companies to Tata.

This is strictly conjecture on my part — I learned nothing about JLR’s future product plans during my visit to Solihull — but I think Rover cars will, as Springsteen might sing, someday come back.

I can see no other way for JLR to increase its volume much higher than around 600,000 units a year without a mass-market upscale brand to challenge Volkswagen, BMW, Alfa, Acura, Infiniti and other midlevel marques.

With a lineup of Rover, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover, the company can finally become what was envisioned in the late 1960s.

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