Carshow Classic: 1989 Rover 216 EFi Vanden Plas Automatic – Taking A Step Upmarket

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(first posted 9/12/2015)     One of the hangovers BL had from its heritage of being a combination of numerous brands was an obligation (as the company seemed to see it anyway) to offer not a just a wide range of cars, but also a range with depth, offering smaller, premium (or semi premium or aspirant premium) models to complement the larger mass market offer. BL were not content just to offer the complementary Austin Allegro and Morris Marina, for example.

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Cars like the Triumph Dolomite were offered alongside the larger Austin-Morris 1800 Landcrab and Princes; even in the 1950s BMC offered the earlier Riley One-Point-Five (yes that was the name) and its Wolseley 1500 twin against the more spacious Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford, as well as the badge engineered Riley, Wolseley and MG versions of the Cambridge-Oxford twins. Confusion reigned. A modern parallel might be a VW-Audi dealership, with the choice of a VW Passat or an Audi A3 for example. There was a benefit to this full range of brands though.

1981 Trimph Acclaim CD-1

One of the last of these semi-premium alternatives was the Triumph Acclaim saloon (above), which was incidentally also the last Triumph. And the last one, though no one realised it at the time, was the 1984 Rover 213 and 216, also known as the 200 series. This is was car that gave BL, or Austin-Rover as it renamed itself in 1983, a chance to position itself credibly away the Austin – Ford – Vauxhall – Talbot spot of the market.

The Acclaim was essentially the first-generation Honda Ballade, a Japanese market four door sedan version of the second generation Civic, and lasted only three years in production, to 1984, as BL had joined the project relatively late in the development. But they were in at the beginning of the next one and were able to make a larger contribution. It even gained a BL project number, SD3, following the iconic SD1 and stillborn SD2, although all other contemporary projects had Austin-Rover “AR” codes.

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Essentially, the Rover 200 (as this family of cars was called) was the second generation of the Honda Ballade (Civic variant), except for the BL engine in the 1.6 litre version, but unlike the Acclaim, the 1984 version of the Ballade was more suitably sized for the European market. It was based on the third generation Honda Civic, but with a somewhat longer wheelbase of 96.5 inches, 5.5 inches longer than the Acclaim. As such, it matched a contemporary Ford Escort, and gave the 200 considerably more interior room than the cramped Acclaim. The revisions to the interior undertaken by BL certainly succeeded in giving the new car a more upmarket ambiance. This quality was played upon with relish by Austin-Rover, who focused on this aspect of the car above all others in marketing it.

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Rover’s wood and leather interior in the 200 was not as traditional as in previous cars of the marque, as the interior layout was pure Honda, with Austin-Rover only being able to add trim pieces and select materials. But it was done well, with leather and wood available in most versions and standard on many. Not everyone likes the effect, but Rover did such interiors better than any other mass market brand, and used it in advertising the cars to add the feel of exclusivity and prestige associated with the Rover name. The positive showroom impact of this style of interior can be easily measured by the number of imitators.

Dolomite sprint

The engines used were a Honda 70 bhp 1.3 litre and the BL S series 1.6 litre from the Austin Maestro and Montego. All models were fitted with a five speed Honda gearbox or automatic, driving the front wheels in what was the first front wheel drive Rover. The 1.6 litre engine was also offered with fuel injection, as the Rover 216 Vitesse, and later the 216 Vanden Plas EFi as well, which was pitched as a latter day Triumph Dolomite Sprint (above) and feeding off the name and image of the Rover Vitesse V8, albeit with just 102 bhp.

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The 213 and 216 were available in a range of trim levels, from S, SE, Vitesse and Vanden Plas, as well some special versions. The feature car is 1.6 litre 216 Vanden Plas EFi Automatic, which was fully recorded on the boot lid for all to see. From 1983-4, Austin-Rover were using the Vanden Plas badge in the same way Ford used the Ghia moniker, but with leather rather than velour, and real wood, albeit in thin veneers. This car has everything Austin-Rover had to put on it, from electric mirrors to a sunroof.

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Austin-Rover were able also make some further changes to Honda’s suspension settings. The Civic/Ballade used MacPherson struts at the front and a semi-independent beam axle at the back. Austin-Rover felt the need to fine-tune the suspension for a more European feel, suitable for what was being sold as a small but premium brand car. Whilst the relatively short wheelbase and limited wheel travel were always going to limit the ride comfort, Austin-Rover managed to get an acceptable, if not great, compromise. Ride and handling were class average, and Austin-Rover’s modifications were accepted by Honda for the European market Ballade as well. A further side effect of the new rear suspension was increased rear seat and boot space, compared with rear struts used in the Acclaim, .

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This Ballade was the first Honda badged car built in the UK, by Austin-Rover at Longbridge, Birmingham, alongside the Rover. The Acclaim had been built at Cowley in Oxford, but this was now to be dedicated to Austin Maestro and Montego production, so the SD3 went to Longbridge with the Mini and Austin Metro.

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The 1.6 litre version, with the Austin-Rover engine, came on stream in 1985, and production went to 65,000 in the year, ahead of anything the Acclaim or Dolomite range had ever achieved. In fact, this car was one of the few for which sales increased as time went by – it was launched in 1984, just two months after the Montego (a fact which alone makes you realise how much BL were at the mercy of others and events) and its best sales performance was in 1988, when 95,000 were built, dropping only in 1989 when the new Rover Rover 214 and 216 came on stream, co-developed with rather than simply borrowed from Honda. From 1986, it outsold the Austin Maestro and in 1988 it outsold the Austin Montego as well. In five years, around 425,000 were built, and it was outselling all Austin-Rover cars except the Metro.

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There was one mid-life freshening, when Austin-Rover added a full depth boot lid and revised tail lamps, and added some more Austin-Rover switchgear (such as the electric window switches ahead of the gear selector in the feature car) but it is probably fair to say that Austin-Rover achieved the growing sales through the reputation of the Honda-based product and effective marketing. This car was extensively marketed, as a premium car compared with an Escort or an Astra. Austin-Rover clearly wanted to gain a reputation and image for the car as being something equivalent to a VW Golf or Jetta, then as now the European mid-market datum point for a better than ordinary car. The Japanese link, with the well-founded perception of reliability, was a strong help here.

This car is rare now on the roads f Britian – the notorious tin worm saw to that, along with the 2008 scrappages scheme, under which the Government offered £2000 for anything that was still road-legal if you purchased a new car. Tales abounded of Morris Minors and 1950 Hillman Minxs being turned in for Hyundai i10s and Kia Picantos, as well as many 1970s and 1980s ordinary fare.

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Indeed, this generation of Rover 200 was so successful that at one point Rover planned to reskin the car to update it, as a complement to an Austin-badged hatchback, which actually appeared as the Rover 214 in 1989.

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In 1988, the UK Government sold what was by then known as the Rover Group to British Aerospace (BAe, now BAE Systems) and, apart from the Austin Metro and Mini, Rover production exceeded that for Austin for the first time, as the Maestro and Montego disappointed and faded, while the Rover 200 and 800 reached their respective peaks. Within three years, the Rover 214 and 216, together with the 400 series saloon version derivative, would be outselling the Austins by four to one, and the idea of deep and wide range of cars, with mass market and premium brands from the same corporation, was truly put into a box.

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When BMW bought Rover in 1994, the company was selling 270,000 Rovers and just 76,000 Austin Metros a year, along with fewer than 20,000 Maestros and Montegos. BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder did not know that the company was still building the Austin Maestro and Montego – that’s how complete the transformation from the a business dominated by the mass market Austin brand to semi-premium Rover brand was, a process which was effectively started with this car.

Related reading:

CC 1981 Triumph Acclaim

CC 1993 Rover 220 GSi Coupe