Trying to compare the motoring demands of the USA to the UK would be impossible, but I’d like to discuss how two vastly different luxury brands on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Cadillac and Rover, independently faced the same question of ‘how to recapture premium sales from the imports’ but didn’t quite copy each other’s homework.
The Rover SD3 story has already been told here at CC in an excellent article by Roger Carr back in 2015. Roger’s article discusses in detail the connection between Honda and Austin-Rover and how the Rover SD3 (or 200 series as it was better known) became the second joint venture project between Austin-Rover and Honda. I shall try not to reproduce this but concentrate on the exam question in hand.
Market forces of the 1970’s swayed the choices of car buyers in the early 80’s to a point that downsizing was inevitable, even in Britain. The British motor industry had produced small cars since the earliest days of motoring. Successful throughout Europe and the Commonwealth, it appeared to be what the industry did best. However, producing anything but large luxury saloons was considered beneath the Rover Company.
To emphasise my point, after the Second World War, material rationing and a major export drive from the British Government led the Rover Company to design and produce the Land Rover. The Land Rover was an immediate unmitigated success for the Rover Company. Despite such success, Rover intended to discontinue Land Rover production as soon as saloon car production had properly resumed. Over the years, Land Rover was starved of development funds. Their profits were consistently channeled into less profitable saloon car development. I have never understood why a business would snub its most profitable product line to concentrate on something else, but my reasoning is the old British class system. Ultimately it merged with Leyland in the late 60’s, but Rover’s position remained first and foremost a maker of luxury saloons.
Rover spent millions pioneering the use of gas turbine engines in cars and made cars the Queen chose to drive. The USA was big, bold and brash with chrome laden Cadillacs but the British preferred the reserved distinction of a navy blue Rover. By the 1970’s Jaguars were for bank robbers and Rolls-Royces for rock stars.
Cadillac and Rover were two vehicle manufacturers that comfortably resided at the height of domestic desirability. By the 1980’s though, the scenery was different and both companies were losing sales. Crucially, it was no longer considered that a luxury vehicle needed to be big. For the USA, Cadillac saw their ageing buyers looking at smaller imports. Austin Rover saw their Rover buyers doing exactly the same. In the UK, outsiders like the Volkswagen Jetta and BMW 3 series had eroded Rover’s market share.
Cadillac struck back with the J body derived Cimarron whilst Rover offered the smaller Rover SD3/200 series. Both the Cimarron and Rover 200 series were compact, 4 door badge-engineered cars, both derived from cars of perceived lower quality. Contemporary reviews suggest that ‘Roverisation’ of the Honda Ballade based 200 did indeed achieve that ‘Rover’ feel, whereas reviews of the Cimarron were less complimentary.
Both cars tried to capture that almost impossible task of luxury brand essence in a small package. In the case of the Rover, quality was assured in the Honda engineering, but that all important ‘britishness’ added up to something that created premium feel, albeit at a mass market level. The Cimarron arguably had a much harder job to convince people when trying to imitate ‘Cadillac’ in an 80’s plastic pint sized pot, expectations would have been much higher. It takes little delving into Cimarron history to find evidence of uncertainty in the strategy and half-hearted execution whereas Rover really did believe in their strategy.
Whilst Rover suggested its competitor came in the shape of the Ford Orion, it really aimed higher. Perhaps to target the BMW 3 series as did Cadillac with the Cimarron? It seems GM nor Rover could keep up with that moving target despite both improving dramatically during their lives. The Rover 200 did achieve a noticeable level of class above the Ford Orion or Vauxhall Belmont. Where the Ford and Vauxhall were effectively lower quality products with high specification options, the 200 was perceived as a high-quality product that could be ordered with lower specification options. The Cimarron was far closer in that connection to a high specification Orion/Belmont which, with the benefit of hindsight was the wrong result.
In the UK in 1986, a Rover 216 Vanden Plas EFI would cost you £8330, a Ford Orion 1.6i Ghia was £8390 and a BMW 320i was £10,695. The Cimarron was around $13,000 which in 1986 was around £8500.
Whilst the Cimarron eventually received the V6 it always longed for, the Rover comfortably accepted 4 cylinder engines. Contemporary road tests suggest early Cimarron 4 cylinder engines were simply not up to the job whilst the motoring press could not have been more complementary about the 12 valve Honda 1.3 in the Rover. A V6 Cimarron would have been needed to keep pace with a 216 Vitesse but neither achieved anything like the driving experience of a rear wheel drive BMW, regardless of engine type.
The Cimarron and 200 both suffered from being launched with issues that prevented them affecting BMW sales, but frustratingly ended their lives as something reasonably close to their original design brief 8 or 9 years previously. The Cimarron was clearly never going to be a Cadillac but ultimately it gained the V6 engine and styling enhancements it needed from the start, some might say those later Cimarrons were attractive cars. Maybe if GM had developed it just a little more before thrusting it on the public, it could have been launched as a fundamentally different product…… A Cadillac, maybe?
Likewise, Rover launched its car with issues. Road testers at the time of launch complained of poor handling characteristics. This was later resolved to create a neutral, safe driving experience similar perhaps to the Cimarron. A tale of safe mediocrity was never going to hurt BMW.
The same year the Cimarron got the V6, the 200 got the 1.6 Rover engine which has mixed reviews depending on what perspective you have. On paper it provided a greater turn of speed over the 1.3 which allowed it to compete with the 1.6 Ford Orion and being notably quicker than a BMW 316. On the other hand, it was not that much faster than the 1.3, harsher and caused more maintenance issues.
What is almost unfathomable is that the Rover 200 sold over 400,000 units, surprising Austin-Rover when it surpassed their self-declared volume sellers the Maestro and Montego. According to Wikipedia, the Cimarron sold just over 130,000 over a similar life cycle. What is crucial is that despite the initial public reluctance to accept a Japanese Rover, it did not take long for the positive reliability reviews to sway public opinion in favor of the car.
In 1988, one of the major UK motoring magazines ran a ‘warts and all’ real world reliability survey. The Rover 200 series really stands out as a high quality vehicle. Dealers and fleet managers were highly complementary of the car although, the standard comment was that the 1.3 Honda engine was smoother, better on fuel and no slower than the 1.6 Rover engine. The 1.6 was also notably poor for oil leaks. The truth is that the 200 never did anything brilliantly but did everything well enough and that pleased people greatly.
The SD3/200 story is a rarely told one. Most books on Rover (in all its company guises) glaze over SD3 development. The relationship between Rover and Honda was clearly very amiable and productive. A mutual respect between the two companies existed which naturally suited both the Japanese and British cultures. Whilst cars like the Maestro, Montego and Allegro have achieved classic status in the UK, the 200 is mostly forgotten. History has been similarly unkind to the Cimarron, which when looking at the late model versions feels unjustified. Roger Carr makes reference to the UK Scrappage Scheme that sent many cars of this age to the crusher in 2008. In 2015 approximately 100 of the 400,000+ built were on UK roads, that figure is closer to 50 now.
I believe the Cimarron and 200 series were valuable ‘lessons learned’ exercises for not just GM and Rover but perhaps the entire industry. These vehicles allowed the manufacturers to explore where they could take the brands. GM/Cadillac thankfully realised its own value and left this part of the market for good and for Rover, the 200 halted Rover’s decline and repositioned it for a place at the high end of the volume car segment for the next decade with the Rover R8 (next generation 200 series).
In my mind it begs the question: What if? The Rover 200 was a fair success, it added luxury and improved driver dynamics to a simple Japanese product and achieved its target. GM failed. What if GM had tried the same as Rover? What if GM had taken a quality Japanese product and reworked it to Cadillac standards? Would it have been a success?