From the late sixties on, BL and Austin-Rover consistently struggled to find any meaningful and lasting success. To be fair to them, they did try. How about the Austin Allegro – technically advanced with modern, styling? The Morris Marina – a no-frills, high-value offer to beat Ford? The Princess – space, comfort and style? Or the Austin Maxi – space, flexibility, but compact? All failed, to one degree or another. Rover’s relationship with Honda was a key turning point, and with the first Rover 200 (SD3), that elusive success finally began to blossom. And with its successor, the R8 Rover 200 series, one can make a plausible case that in 1989 Rover had finally found genuine success. Would it last?
The key challenge for the Rover 200 series (214, 216 and later the 218 and 220) was that it had to replace both the 1983 Austin Maestro and the 1984 Rover 213/216 SD3. It was the second time BL looked to reduce its multiplicity of models in a similar size/price range. Just as the 1984 Austin Montego and Honda based 1981 Triumph Acclaim, had been part of a plan to reduce the BL range from three mid size cars to two, the 200 range, with the very closely related four door 414 and 416 versions which would replace the 1984 Austin Montego, was intended to reduce this to just one, and gain benefits from the increased focus of the volume. BL was finally starting to getting serious about its problems with overlapping models.
But by 1987, BL had to face the fact that the Maestro and Montego were not a success, in sales or profits, and that the Rover 213/216 SD3, based on the 1983 Honda Civic, was outselling them both by 1987. Austin-Rover needed to a mimic the image and pricing strength of the Golf, not the Vauxhall Astra, and achieve higher prices from lower volumes. Austin-Rover’s partnership with Honda was the key ingredient to make this possible.
Austin-Rover had another trump card as well – the long waited K series engine was finally ready. This was a 1.4 litre twin overhead cam four cylinder 16V engine with some innovative features in its construction was initially a 1.4 and soon grew to 1.6, 1.8, and later 2.0, and even a 2.5 litre V6 variant as well . It was quickly and widely recognised as smooth, reasonably quiet, powerful for its size and economical. It later gained a reputation for head gasket failures as well.
The K series enabled Rover to differentiate the car from the Honda, claim more ownership of the engineering, and make more money from it than they would have otherwise. Presumably because of the excellence of the K-Series engine, the British power units would arguably no longer be a weak link in the engine range; the K series was more than capable of standing toe to toe with the Honda engine, except for the head gaskets. Honda would supply the 1.6-litre engine for the 216 and 416 versions.
Visually, the new 200 is an almost perfectly scaled-down Ford Scorpio Mk1 (above) which had appeared four years earlier, from its nose,
to the blacked out pillars and glassed over C and D pillars to give the “floating roof” effect that the Scorpio had pioneered (above), as well as the crease along its flanks and its tail and tail lights. Quite the faithful tribute. Even the black rub strip down the side was just like the Scorpio’s.
The 200 is one of the cars that you could use to nominate Roy Axe as a superb copier or over-rated designer.
Because of the strong engine range and the Honda link, Rover felt that they would be in a position to back up their ambition of producing a “premium” range of medium sized cars.
After the £250 million expenditure on the K-Series engine, Austin Rover had no resources to produce their own gearbox, so following the example of the Maestro and Montego, which used a VW gearbox, the company outsourced a unit; this time from Peugeot. Unlike the installation in the earlier cars, however, Austin-Rover expended much effort in refining the package, producing their own well-engineered linkages and strengthening the casing in order to cope with the extra torque that the K-Series engine produced, compared with the Citroen AX and Peugeot 205.
Although the R8 Rover 200, like its predecessor, was heavily based on the then-current Honda Civic (gen4), the 200 and the Honda Concerto were an off-shoot of that car. The Concerto/200 had a longer wheelbase (100.4″ vs. 98.4″), which allowed them to be positioned a class higher. Also, Rover wanted some specific changes, the biggest one being a different front suspension design. The gen4 Civic introduced a double-wishbone front suspension that was widely praised in the US for its adroit handling if somewhat harsh ride.
Rover wanted a conventional strut front suspension, undoubtedly because it was cheaper, and likely made it easier to give a softer rider, more consistent with the premium image desired for the 200. The European Concerto also had the strut suspension, while the Japanese market Concerto used the Civic’s double wishbone front suspension.
The British Concerto (above) differed from the 200 by using Honda engines exclusively, except for the low volume diesel version, and having the typical visual differentiation you would expect, mainly in the front end, and sides, while the basic greenhouse upper structure was essentially identical. It was, however, assembled for the European market by Austin-Rover at Longbridge.
Although there are some differences (and the obligatory “wood” strip), the interior has a decidedly Civic-esque look. The combination of a modern efficient twin cam engine, good looks, good driving dynamics, modern interior and real (not just assumed) Honda-matching quality produced a car that had appeal to many who would not previously considered a BL or a Rover product, or had moved on from the brands. Was this sense apparent in the advertising?
This was a car that Austin-Rover worked effectively with Honda to produce a car that was arguably best in class. It was launched in October 1989 and was swiftly judged to be a technical success. The contemporary road tests tried very hard to conceal the fact that they hadn’t expected it, and maybe couldn’t believe it. But the verdict was pretty clear – Austin-Rover had a car that deserved to be compared with the best in its class.
It was followed in April 1990 by the four-door 400 series, which shared a very large amount of the engineering; all four doors and everything forward of them. This was not quite the star the 200 was – it seemed to be slightly small for what Rover wanted it to be (it was smaller than the Montego) and less well qualified to take on the larger Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier than the 200 was to take on the Escort, Golf and Astra. Austin-Rover had seemingly done their usual trick of slipping between the competitors’ size templates.
One variant to note is the Rover 416GTi – fitted with the twin cam Honda engine and a full British wood and leather luxury interior; it was the top of the range at the time. It was also a slightly contradictory package, with a high-revving engine and low gearing matched to a luxury, not sports interior, and with a GTi, rather than, say, the previous car’s Vitesse badge, or indeed almost anything else. It was not a true Golf GTi competitor, but more of a brisk Rover in the old-school sense.
The R8 was the first mid-market car for which Austin-Rover did not need to make any excuses – it was class competitive straight out of the box and showed that Austin-Rover could not only still produce a fully competitive mid market car, their first since the ADO16 a quarter of a century earlier, but that they could do so whilst leading market trends – things like the 16v twin cam engine, independent rear suspension, soft feel interior finishes and actually being brave enough to charge a premium over the centre of the market for the badge and sophistication. Any comparison with the lack-lustre 1990 Ford Escort could only go one way. The wood effect trim was influential as well, but we’ll let that pass….
Over the next four years Rover produced a total of six body styles for the R8 – five door and three door hatchbacks, the four door 400 saloon, a small estate badged as the 400 Tourer, a Coupé, known as the Tomcat and which came with unusual removable glass roof panels, and a convertible Cabriolet – a range that few could match. Apart from the 5 door hatch and 4 door saloon, the variants were specific to Rover and not shared with Honda. Some versions used Honda engines, as well as the 2.0 litre Rover M16, from the 1986 Rover 820 and Peugeot diesels. Rover later installed a turbo charged version of the M16 2 litre, to go Golf GTi chasing.
The drive train from the 1.6 and 1.8 litre cars was also used in the mid-engined MGF sports car of 1994, as well, and the K series engine saw service in the Rover Metro from 1990. All in, over a million copies were built at Longbridge (953,000 Rovers and 126,000 Hondas) in 6 years, numbers directly comparable with less closely related Maestro and Montego, and sold at a higher price. Like the SD3, sales were still rising when the car was replaced in 1995.
One noteworthy point about these Rover only variants is that they were produced using “soft” tooling, designed only for limited production runs, but significantly cheaper than regular tooling. It was the first time Rover had tried any such practice and the trend of reducing cost on tooling with a risk sharing partner, would feature strongly in Rover’s later history.
This car showed that Rover, could have a future, as something better to drive, that could be credibly perceived as being more upmarket, and priced commensurably more, than say a Ford, Vauxhall, Peugeot or Toyota, provided there was an additional layer of technical achievement and sophistication to go with the wood trim and Rover badging. Rover followed this up with a full range of body styles based on the same floor pan, before such trends really became commonplace.
There were two gentle freshening ups of the car, first in 1992 with larger front indicators, as seen on the feature car, and in 1994, the famous Rover grille was added to the 200, having been on the 400 since 1992. You may consider this an improvement, if you wish.
This is the last car from BL/Austin-Rover/Rover that can be considered an outright success, and the lack of a truly credible follow on is arguably a direct contributory factor of MG-Rover’s ultimate failure, and on that can be laid at the door of British Aerospace (BAe, now BAE Systems) and Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its success did enable BAe to sell Rover to BMW for a lot more than they paid the Government for it, though.
That is also the first clue to the key point in the next chapter of this tale. BAe did not invest heavily in new products – Austin-Rover’s advanced replacement proposals for the Metro were watered down, the Rover 600 was a licence agreement project, not much more complex than the Triumph Acclaim agreement, the Rover 400 HH-R had much more limited Rover input than its predecessor and the Rover 800 was revised, not replaced like its Honda Legend cousin. And ultimately, the implications of that policy came home to roost.