(Some driving and some sightseeing)
It was winter in Madrid and as we walked towards the supermarket she took me to look at the car, a Rover 200 handed down by her younger sister. Her plan was for this vehicle to take us to Andalusia for sightseeing around Granada and Cordoba, with great interest in the Alhambra on the former. With the Rover, I was to experience a car that had just fallen into my hands for the second time in a scant few years, no money exchanged. At least from my pockets, as my Spanish girlfriend had just spent a good 600 euros in suspension work. No wonder vintage iron was rare in Spain!
Such a disappointment. Occasionally an old Beetle, Fiat or Seat would pass by; but rather uncommon in general. Steady salaries and high maintenance costs made me realize, much to my dismay, that Spain was not the best location for antique cars. Much unlike South America, where struggling finances force to treat older vehicles as family members. Mechanical knowledge, even rudimentary, is put to place in endless effort to keep any terminal ailment protracted through miracle fixes and satanic worship rituals.
My Spanish girlfriend’s plan was to drive her recently ‘acquired’ car in a 4 day trip around Andalusia’s ancient Moorish remnants; the Alhambra, and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. And we would be driving a Rover? By the early 2000’s the brand had been absent in the US for decades and its mention didn’t bring anything to my mind, except some distant image of turbine cars. Rover? Still exists? As we approached the car, I could see its dated-but-slim 80’s lines covered in light snow. “Looks like a Honda… or a shrunk Sterling” I thought.
It was cold and me, Mr. Tropical boy, didn’t feel like doing an extended check on the car. At quick glance the car looked sound enough, a long way from the typical basket cases that had been my norm. The car’s shape made me feel pretty sure a Honda lurked underneath, and with that in mind, didn’t worry too much about breakdowns. Then again, could the brits find a way to mess with Japanese reliability?
We left for Andalusia mid-week, speeding away on the Autovía. Roads and infrastructure are very modern and efficient in Spain; urban planning is taken very seriously. Spain’s city sprawl is an excellent example of modern rational architecture. A myriad of cleanly delineated housing blocks passed by, one after the other, all with ample roads and easy ramp access to the Autovía. Modern Spain had a clean, orderly, rather homogenous look. Probably what some hedonistic Americans would refer to as ‘communism’: “How does one personalize a housing block, honey?”
That said, I still had to get used to Spanish driving. While in the Americas l lived by the mantra of every driver is a maniac, Spanish drivers were generally law abiding. Only a small percentage went about like maniacs, which proved hard for me to gauge. A general feeling of order had me constantly lowering my guard, only to be suddenly shaken as some nut sped by recklessly.
Our destination was a 4 hour away drive, the city of Granada, where the Alhambra fortress had served as the Moors last bastion against Spanish forces back in 1491. The Moors had capitulated after a months-long siege by the Spaniards, and with that their presence in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end.
Talking about last bastions, what about the Rover 200 series? What was it like to drive this close-to-last defender of BL fortunes?
Odd. As miles accrued my feel for the car was ambiguous, as it embodied a concept of luxury alien to me. I had grown around Japanese and American cars where ‘luxury’ meant tons of inconsequential frosting: bordello interiors, seasick inducing mushy suspensions, vinyl tops, Cartier clocks, thermometers; the brougham manual. Instead the Rover was actually really supple, with no nauseous results. The interior was comfortable and spacious, especially for a compact. The hatchback and the cargo area made loading and travelling easy. The wood accents looked convincing, although such details on an economy car had always left me cold; the whole Rolls Royce for Accord prices had never been my thing. Regardless, there’s a market for such clients and the Rover 200 series sold rather well. And in this case, cheap-luxury wasn’t only cynical frosting. Some real engineering was at play.
Chassis dynamics were good, a mix of Honda and Rover efforts, with the car feeling planted on the road. Again, an odd feeling, with my brain suffering cognitive dissonance; such responsive chassis didn’t seem to belong in a car as soft as the Rover (or so my American trained mind told me). My main gripe though, the over boosted steering. For the first time ever -in a small car- I had to steer by ‘memory’, as I had no feel whatsoever as to what the wheels were doing. Familiarity with the vehicle would eventually help on this matter.
Rovers came both with BL and Honda engines. My girlfriend (and her sister) not being into ‘car stuff’ had no clue as to what lurked underneath. So, I owe you that. It revved and sped well enough, as the rev counter indicated. Meanwhile, the interior was rather silent with hardly any intrusion from said engine; another positive checkmark on the ‘luxury’ brief. On the other hand, working against said ‘luxury’ intentions: the exterior. It looked good enough, but Rover’s tendency to sway between ultra-modern (the SD1) to overtly traditional British styling must have made sense within European confines. Abroad, one could never figure out which of the two the carmaker wished to be (the Sterling was a flop in Puerto Rico). Modern or lux? Or are you just being the quintessential British eccentric?
At launch in 1989 the 200 series was aimed at young professionals, an always coveted market segment. After driving it I could tell Rover had succeeded in providing a different driving experience for that segment. The Golf, with which it competed, offered a more ‘spirited’ experience. Fiat, Open, Renault and Peugeot offered their own takes as well. In a very competitive segment, the Rover brought an interesting alternative, this at a time when driving feel was still a brand identity issue.
We arrived to Granada in comfort and with nary a worry. As we approached our hostel near the Alhambra, I got SERIOUSLY lost around the narrow streets of the historic enclave. This being before Google Maps, and not being able to find a way out of the jam I had gotten myself into, I ended up making a VERY illegal U-turn, finding the hostel’s street soon after. Luckily no Spanish cop was around to revoke my international driver’s license. As always, reaching the hostel had proven to be a chore, as parking is always difficult around sites built before carriages were the norm.
After dropping our luggage we went out for Spanish tapas. I won’t belabor around tapas, as they’re too varied to get into detail. In short, they’re snacks and appetizers found in just about every Spanish street pub, varying from region to region. Tapas bars being everywhere, it is a matter of choosing which has the ambiance one prefers to spend the rest of the evening at. Most are cozy affairs, with thick tobacco smoke filling the interiors. As the evening progressed, Spaniards didn’t disappoint in their well-regarded fame for socializing. Youths, couples, and families hanged at the pubs until late while eating tapas and drinking wine. None of this was performed in a self-indulgent manner, instead, all was done with a casual life-is-thus air.
Early next morning we took to the Alhambra. We walked towards the entrance only to come across a gypsy lady selling roses. Not buying any, she immediately placed a curse on us as we walked away. Me, being a newcomer found the whole thing amusing, while my Spanish companion seemed rather annoyed, probably having endured the same ritual in a few unpleasant occasions.
The winter visit meant we had the Alhambra almost to ourselves, as visitors were at a minimum. Entry was by the Albacete, the oldest area of the compound, looking pretty much like the unadorned fortress it originally served as. The Alhambra, originally a military fortress, had evolved during the 13th century to a palace, as it became the last holdout of the Moors against the advancing armies of the Spanish Kingdoms. The Albacete was a remnant of those early stages of the compound, before the Moorish rulers were forced to settle inside the fortress’ quarters.
Moving forward we finally entered the palace; which was elaborate, lithe and dreamy, like much of Islamic architecture. The Moorish style is built around a different sensibility of ostentatious, with intricate mathematical patterns spreading over surfaces, and clean open areas providing visual relief. The palace’s architecture offered a delightful tension between openness and ornate detailing. As one advanced slowly through the building’s chambers, architectural detailing would vary depending on the period of construction. Probably the palace’s better known site, the lion garden, provided a feeling of serenity in the quiet of that cold morning. As we advanced further, the living quarters of Washington Irving came across.
To most Americans their relationship with the Alhambra is courtesy of Mr. Washington Irving, sent as diplomatic attaché to Spain back in 1829. Arriving at the Alhambra after crossing the unruly Spanish countryside, the American asked to stay in the abandoned site, of which he had taken a fancy. By then basically a ruin inhabited by a few squatters, locals advised against his whims, to no avail. Still, good thing he stayed. His book, inspired by the site, was one factor in making the Alhambra internationally famous.
By early afternoon we exited the palace and took towards the surrounding hills. After a short while we reached the Boabdil hill, where the Alhambra can be viewed fully from the distance. According to legend, the last Moorish king, Boabdil, took one last look at his palace from this hill. His kingdom finished, he wept away as he abandoned Andalusia never to set foot again on its soil.
BL could relate to Boabdil’s crumbling empire, with multiple products failing with the public and market share perilously dropping by the mid 70’s. Unexpected reinforcements were found in none other than usually-go-alone Honda. With the 200 series, Honda’s alliance finally gave BL a product that clicked with the public. The 200 helped BL in restoring its tarnished image, while Honda gained insights into the European market. With the 200 selling in good numbers, BL could stand up to the siege for a few more years.
Sunset was setting in and Boabdil’s hill was getting busy. A few onlookers started to sing and clap, in flamenco style, as Andalusians are rather musical people. People bursting into singing out of nowhere was a novelty to my senses, although not as odd in the real as one would think. My girlfriend pointed towards the ‘gypsy caves,’ ancient dwellings by the hillside where according to travel guides, pubs and music shows provided the ‘real’ Andalusian experience. Too tired and cold to endure more gypsyness, I pressed to go back to the hostel. On the way I got myself a copy of Mr. Irving’s Tales of Alhambra and read the night away.
Granada and the Alhambra done, next morning we rode again on the supple Honda, err, reliable Rover, towards Cordoba. The 2 hour drive was uneventful, and the car took us there with the same efficient-low-cost-luxury as it had before. Arriving close to noon, I was struck as large swaths of window washers came out of nowhere during our first traffic stop. Groups of 7-15 gypsies would swarm to cars, splitting in teams of 3-4. Nothing life threatening, but still, impressive in its own right. While Andalusia looks just as affluent, clean, and inviting as the rest of Spain, unemployment is rampant. In some cities, like Seville, the out of work can reach numbers as high as 30-40%.
Once again, parking was a chore. We drove around the narrow streets of Cordoba’s historic quarters in search of our hotel, and was thankful for the 200’s compact size. The ancient roads served to remind me why Cadillacs never made it big in the old continent. Heck, not even a lowly Valiant could have pulled it off.
After dropping our bags I was ready for lunch. Regrettably the rest of Spain wasn’t. By this point of the trip Spanish times were affecting my American body clock, as their daily routines differed greatly. The obligatory siesta time from 12 to 3 pm, with lunch following soon after, meant nothing was open to eat. Unlike the Americas were businesses are generally open during daytime, Spain’s hours vary widely depending on trade. It takes quite a while to get used to their varying schedules.
We walked aimlessly around the city’s promenade, sustaining ourselves with some snacks. Cordoba’s’ historic quarters were impressive, as the legacy of the various peoples’ in its past were evident: from the Visigoths, to the Moors, and finally, the Spanish Crown. Back in the 10th century, Cordoba became the center of the Moors conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Riding high on their success, the Caliphate of Cordoba was created. It didn’t last long though, as the Moors were affected by a less than perfect coalition, with petty squabbles festering between conflicting factions.
BL was riding high in 1968 too, as just about every single carmaker in the UK came under its umbrella. However, much like Boabdil’s shaky alliances, BL became mired in never ending efforts to put order in the many chiefdoms under its wings. Instead of a unified effort, short term interests, poor market assessments, and past simmering resentments (and a litany of other woes) played a role in floundering the whole effort.
After a mellow evening, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was the main attraction next morning. As with most Islamic architecture, the exterior was discreet enough. Stepping inside, its wonders were revealed. Built in 988, the site’s state of conservation after more than a millennia was remarkable, impressive in every sense. Once again, the structure’s interior played with mathematics and patterns, with the ceiling seeming to multiply to infinity. An allegory to eternity, undoubtedly. A strong scarlet shade patterned the columns, giving a rich and striking look to the interior. Once inside, orientation becomes difficult as one gets immersed in the ever repeating columns. Was I getting closer to the entrance? Or heading further inside? And was that Jesus?
Yes, indeed. It was Jesus! As one moved about the mosque’s interior, incongruously, a Catholic church appeared, naves and all, inserted into the ancient building. Built exactly in the Mosque’s center to function as Cathedral, the two styles clashed stupendously, incongruous as could be (Spaniards had no qualms in showing who was top dog after la Reconquista). Questionable? Yes. But also unique.
Unique, that’s how I could resume the little Rover. The low-cost-luxury-ride-provider, with good driving dynamics, comfortable interior, practical packaging and reliability. The most successful example of the incongruous gene mixing of Rover and Honda. So, what’s the legacy of the 200 series? Rover’s last day in the sun? A moment for British engineers to show that –in collaboration- their expertise was a valuable one? And what about Honda, who were in search of insights to better tackle the European market? Did the unlikely alliance paid off?
Much as it had occurred to Boabdil at the Alhambra, after the 200, Honda was done with BL and refused to provide any further reinforcements. Honda would embark on its own -not too successful- path in Europe, leaving BL out on a limb. Vultures were circling, capitulation was near.
The next day we took back to Madrid, another stress free comfortable journey. In the next few weeks the Rover took us on a few more weekend outings, while for daily affairs we stuck to the subway. The Rover was sold some time after my leaving, at poor value, as the low-cost-luxury vehicle lacked interest in the used car market due to its maker’s fading image.
The Caliphate and the Moors left an indelible historical legacy. I don’t quite think the 200 series can make such a claim. Can it? I suppose Rover could. At least in the case of the 200, the model is becoming a forgotten good in spite of once being a brisk seller. In Tales of the Alhambra, Mr. Irving tells how in local lore it was believed Boabdil’s army was dormant in an underground cave, in wait for the right moment to rebuild the Caliphate. I would like such a fate for Rover. That said, Andalusia has been 700 years in waiting for Boabdil’s army. I’m not holding my breath.
More on the Rover and Honda (all by Roger Carr – could it be otherwise?):