Curbside Classic: 1999 Rover 216 – The Beginning Of The End

(first posted 11/19/2017)       Back in 2014, I noted in a CC of the Morris Marina that Carlos Ghosn, head of Renault-Nissan, has been quoted as saying that there are no issues in the motor industry could not be resolved by investment in the product. The Rover 216 is a prime example of what he was talking about: an unresolved “issue”. BMC, BLMC and the Rover Group continually suffered from a lack of available investment funds, and it inevitably came home to roost, not just with the Marina, but with several other products over a period of perhaps 40 years.  This was the last one, in more ways than one.

200 was a series name used by Rover on three generations of cars, from 1982 to 1999. The first was a pure Honda rebadge, with Honda engines for the more popular 1.3 litre 213 version and undisguised Honda styling and interior.

The second version, known as the R8, was a joint venture with Honda, with predominantly Rover engines and a much greater Rover input, including the K series engine and the Rover only saloon version. This was perhaps the last car that met the ambitions and perhaps even exceeded the expectations for BMC/BLMC/Rover. Production was still rising when it was replaced in 1995, by a pincer movement of two new models.

The larger of these was the Rover 400 (above), known as the HH-R – derived from the Japanese market Honda Domani and using predominantly Rover engines. This was a commercial disappointment, partly due to its complex heritage, partly the styling and disappointing interior, and partly the marketing and pricing.

The other car in the pincer movement was the third generation Rover 200, known as the R3, launched at the London Motor Show in October 1995. The company was then owned by BMW, who had bought out British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) in February 1994. These cars were therefore launched by BMW but were determined and financed by BAe.

This car was not intended to replace the R8 Rover 200; rather Rover had intended that this car replace the Austin Metro (later Rover 100, above), as a car that could be sold at a higher price than, say, a Ford Fiesta, and which offered some of the indefinable qualities and exclusivity Rover craved, rather than chase Ford for volume. At that time, the HH-R 400 was expected to replace the 200/400 R8 directly in the market place and, although BAe’s investment limits were not big and did not stretch to developing a direct Metro replacement, Rover would have been able to develop a coherent set of reasonably competitive models.

Again, as had happened with the Morris Marina, Austin Maestro, Austin/Morris 1800 (Landcrab) and the later Princess, Rover had a car sized between competing models. Rover got ambitious, and rather than replace the Rover Metro, tried to replace the R8 hatchback 200 with the R3 and the saloon R8 with the HH-R 400 Rover, thereby marketing and pricing this car as a direct replacement for the R8 200 series, which was then priced to compete with the Ford Escort, VW Golf and Vauxhall/Opel Astra, with a (semi-) premium twist.

The engineering behind the car was straightforward enough – it was cut down version of the previous 200 (above), with two inches taken from the 100-inch wheelbase and a short rear end to give a vehicle some eight inches shorter than the older car. The reduction was all in the rear passenger and luggage area, giving a more confined passenger cabin and smaller boot than the older car. The rear suspension bore a remarkable similarity to the Austin Maestro, after an initial intention to use the R8’s rear suspension layout. This choice was either because the Maestro suspension was considered better, or to reduce the royalty obligations to Honda. Production was at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham, alongside the HH-R, Mini and Rover 100 ranges.

Rover designed an attractive and fashionable style for the car – arguably one the best styles Rover had had for many years and one that was judged to have considerable appeal to younger owners, even if the Rover badge didn’t. The styling of this car sat a lot more happily with itself and with the larger Rover 600 than did the HH-R 400.

The interior was also considerably more attractive than the 400, as although the car was based on the R8 and was originally planned to have the (Honda style) dash and interior of the R8, it was found that retooling and modifying the R8 dash for a passenger airbag would have cost just as much as a new dash. Engine wise, it was the familiar line up of the K series, in 1.4 and 1.6 litre four cylinder versions and the 1.8 litre variable valve timing unit from the MGF in the top of range sporting vi model (it was to be called vvc until Rover spotted what it said in the font chosen for the badges) to take on the VW Golf GTi.

Yes, Golf GTi, for Rover priced this car, barely bigger than a Ford Fiesta or a VW Polo, to compete with the Golf, Peugeot 306 and Ford Escort. Rover was relying on good modern engines, quite sharp styling and those exclusive Rover qualities (or perceived exclusive Rover qualities) to attract the buyers, rather than a value for money offer. John Towers, Rover Group Managing Director, said that he didn’t mind losing UK volume, as that released capacity for export sales. Sounds reasonable enough, until you factor in the rise in value of sterling making exported British car more expensive and imports cheaper.

The R3, despite all this, did sell reasonably well in the UK, outselling the larger 400, a fact which also perhaps shows that the 400 was considered overpriced by returning R8 customers, but from 1999, as the pound rose against the Euro, new competitors came into the market and media commentary about the future of Rover increased, sales dropped off markedly. In 1999, it was face lifted, to become the 25, in a similar style to the 45 (nee 400), with twin headlamps and a bit more chrome for added showroom appeal. Little was changed mechanically, and of course, it got no bigger inside.

There was one other R3 variant from this period that needs to be highlighted. The Rover 200 BRM. Do you remember BRM? Graham Hill winning the world championship in 1962? Jackie Stewart’s first Grand Prix victory? Their final Grand Prix in 1977?  Or would you have to ask politely “What does BRM stands for?” Quite.

BRM (British Racing Motors) was a Formula 1 Grand Prix team established in 1945, and which competed in Grands Prix from 1950 to 1977. The team won the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships in 1962.

Rover’s link with BRM came as a joint effort to build a gas turbine racing car for entry a Le Mans in 1963, using the Solihull company’s experience at adapting gas turbine engines for road use, allied with BRM’s experience in motor racing chassis engineering and development. The Rover-BRM completed the gruelling Le Mans 24-hour race and again in 1965, but was regarded by traditionalists as a fad with no future.

Rover’s marketing efforts were often, until they tried to (actually, had to) sell old cars as exclusive and cheap, quite competent, but this was not one of the greater moments; it was interesting to enthusiasts, but also had an air of catch up, desperation, almost embarrassment and contrivance.

The concept of the car itself was valid and perfectly sound – a quite significantly lowered, sharpened Rover 200vi with racing green paint, an orange air intake, just like a BRM F1 car from 1962. Inside we got quilted red leather and a nicely trimmed up sports interior. But this car was not aimed at people who could remember BRM and Graham Hill, but at people who were more likely to be following 1990s Formula 1, and personalities like Graham Hill’s son, Damon, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

The target market was clear, and definitely present – the lead opposition to this car was the Renault Clio Williams, a significantly lowered, sharpened Renault Clio with a highly tuned 2 litre engine, badged with links to the (Renault powered) Williams F1 team, then winning championships with Mansell, Prost, Hill and Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve. So, logically enough, Rover followed suit, with raw material that was probably as equal to the task as the Renault Clio. And spent a lot of time telling people about Rover’s link to BRM. After they had explained what BRM was. Explanations that probably started with “when you were at primary school…”

The car itself was based on the 200vi, with the 1.8 litre variable valve timing engine. Added to this was a close ratio gearbox, lowered suspension and a limited slip differential – a pretty typical hot to very hot hatchback modification. But the Rover name (and image) and the unfamiliar BRM link held it back, however much people liked it once they drove it. It was introduced in 1997 at the Frankfurt Motor Show and went on sale in early 1998.  795 were sold, but the impact on the image of the basic car that the Clio got from the Clio Williams got was completely missing.

You can’t help thinking that if Rover had called it the 200 Rally or RS or vi Sport or something, perhaps MG, it could have achieved what was hoped for it. As it was, it remained a limited edition special with a low profile and limited long term impact, albeit it showed some unexpected qualities in the raw material (chassis and engine) within the R3.

From 1997, as the Rover 100 was finally retired with little fanfare or attention, a 1.1 litre version of the 200 was offered, with just 60bhp.

In 2000, BMW broke up Rover Group, and divested Land Rover to Ford and the volume cars business based at Longbridge to a management buy in team, with a substantial dowry valued at around £500m. MINI was retained at Cowley in Oxford, along with some of the pressed steel manufacturing capabilities, and plans to build a new engine plant in Birmingham.

The new company, known as MG-Rover, immediately tried to increase volume. Prices were cut, and in 2001 there were MG versions of all the Rover products. The 25 was the basis for the MG ZR, sold as a hot hatchback with a young driver focus and a hot hatch profile. 

Technically, the range matched the Rover closely, with 3 and 5 door versions, petrol or diesel options, and a wide range of bright colours and personalisation options.

Rover developed one other variant, that to some was seen as innovative and by others as tinkering at the edges. The Streetwise, with a now typical soft roader, or faux off-road, bodykit, roof rails, chunky alloy wheels and skid plates came in the late summer of 2003. Rumour had it that Peter Stevens, then leading Rover’s design efforts, found that none of his team drove Rovers, so asked them to design one they would.

As time passed, the company tried further options to gain elusive volume. There were panel van (sedan delivery) versions of both the Rover and MG – the Rover Commerce and MG Express, which sold less than 1000  copies.

And, in 2004 new bumpers, grilles, headlights and rear hatch profiles, as well as a revised and cheaper interior.

The 25 was caught up in MG-Rover’s attempt to forge a partnership with SIAC, and production tooling was being planned for transfer to Shanghai in early 2005, with production of the car and the K series being slated for Shanghai as an early action of the partnership.

As we know, none of these attempts worked, and April 2005 MG-Rover filed for administration and Longbridge’s production line stopped. Production subsequently started in China of a variant named the MG 3SW, which was close to the Rover Streetwise configuration. This ran from 2008, three years after the tooling was moved from the UK, to 2010, and it was sold only in China.

In summary of these cars, the first thing to state is that these were not bad, technically uncompetitive cars, in the way that the Austin 3 litre, Austin Allegro or Morris Marina were, and were arguably better than some of the contemporary but legacy products from some of the Korean brands. The R3 was strong on style, had a good chassis and engines, but was cramped inside and the showroom appeal faded with time. Rover and MG-Rover sold almost 800,000 in total, including some 80,000 MGs. There are perhaps 60,000 still on the raods of Britain, including 400 of the 795 BRM 200 variants. At the end of the Rover story, the MG ZR was Rover’s best selling car.

Still, several things come to mind, as being issues with these cars – the first is the pricing, which was beyond market expectations and beyond what the market would support in the volumes Rover had achieved with the R8 and Metro R6. This led to discounting, which affected residuals, immediately.

Looking at the sales figures, you can see that after a sharp increase as the new Rover 200 and 400 came onto the market, Rover’s final sales decline started in 1998, as HH-R prices peaked. In only two years did the combined production of the R3 and HH-R range match the volume achieved by just the R8 range and by 1999 total volume for the 200, 400 and 600, then the 75, only matched that achieved by the R8 alone in 1994. After 6 years, the R8 was selling at 60% of its peak volume; the R3 and HH-R was selling at 48%, in year 8, it was 36%, and falling fast. Factor in the decline, and phase out, of the Metro/Rover 100, which the R3 was originally intended to replace, and you get an even worse picture.

Why were these cars still on the market after ten years? Put simply, BAe had sold the business with little forward model planning or committed investment beyond the R3 and HH-R and BMW had no access, or desire, to use Honda’s engineering resources or existing intellectual property. BMW prioritised the larger Rover 75 and MINI, and did little work on the smaller cars that were left in Longbridge when BMW retreated. MG-Rover lacked the funds, capability and cash flow to establish any successors. Carlos Ghosn’s words ring true, again.

This was Rover’s last car, aside from the BMW financed Rover 75, and it was a blend that was less than the sum of its dated parts. The final outcome should not have surprised anyone.