Essays : Short-selling the Syncro
Steven Ward, ever the critical second-rate Salesman, lays bare some of the 600’s faults and failures.
I’m annoyed, very annoyed – and have been for quite a while now – by this subject. It could be argued that Volkswagen’s recent ‘trendiness’ and profitable trading is down to two factors: the success of the Mk5 Volkswagen Passat (MY96) and the high-speed direct injection diesel. However, its successful recipe is nothing new and was indeed laid-down by our very own Rover Group in 1993 to critical acclaim.
Sadly, our own home-brewed Honda hybrid mid-ranger was sunk before it was even launched with arguably devastating results for the volume, passenger car side of Rover Group. As much as I love the Rover 600, let me relay some thoughts and stories relating to what could well be Rover’s ‘cockroach’ car. The car that the Passat could have been or vice-versa – a swoopy saloon with a performance direct injection diesel sold at a premium? You decide.
Launched in 1993, this car was the follow-up to the astonishingly good and successful Rover 200 (R8) of 1989 and was supposed to replace the failed and all-but-dead Montego –BL’s last hurrah. Sadly, for the dealer network, the paying public and the Fleet Gods, the car arrived over-priced and under detailed. Many of the delightful design intricacies featured in the R8s inherent ‘rightness’ were missing from Syncro.
Not necessarily the end of the world but, when the car arrived priced at least £2k too expensive, it was inexcusable. Right from the off, the car never captured anyone’s imagination. Indeed, we were the talk of the dealer network as we sold our pre-registered demo – that was absolutely unheard of in Dealer Council Meetings. This was thanks to our extensive, valued and trusted list of company car choosers; otherwise our Nightfire Red example wouldn’t have turned a wheel with a paying member of the public behind the steering-wheel.
Forced to register a 620Si on the K-plate, we paid over £14k for the privilege. If we’d bought that car at a closed Rover auction – notorious for inflated prices – we’d have paid under £10k, including the ‘out’. Prices were that inflated from the outset and the equipment list was too sparse. Added to which, competition for Syncro was very stiff – less than a mile away, Ford were plying their dealer with buy now, pay later Mondeos, all fully loaded with options and, indeed, offered on the flexible Options finance package. Air-Con?
Cough-up and fit it yourself, that was Rover line, and there’d be a blank switch otherwise. Air-bags, alloys, even decent size ‘steelies’ and colour-coding were all for the taking, but only on the Optional (at considerable) Extra (cost) list. Ford, with its world beating, JYS-promoted Mondeo just shrugged off the threat and marched on. Quietly, we were concerned that the 600 just didn’t cosset as well as the already compromised 800.
It need not have been this way. The 600 was exceptionally good looking and thoroughly engineered in the mechanically proven sense. It won awards in Italy for its suave style and the critical CAR Magazine rated it ahead of the pack, 3-Series, Xantia, Mondeo, et al. Let us not even mention the crude Cavalier with its struts and compound rear axle where Syncro strode with double wishbones all round.
However, Honda charged dearly for the use of its hardware, something which Rover found hard to bear, but should have fully utilised to its benefit. It was said that the most basic Honda 2.0 lump, sans counter balancers, cost Rover over one thousand pounds more than a T-Series to fit and supply. You could, though, bet your Granny that the resultant powertrain was good for ten trips around the globe without issue. Why then Rover didn’t bank the risk and offer a class leading 3 year warranty on guaranteed-good-for-a-decade components is anyone’s risk assessment. Sad then we only got to see the worse aspects of the powertrain; expensive parts, lengthy (recommended) servicing times and higher than average fuel consumption.
It was this blind ignorance of the first and most critical purchaser of the 600 that Rover so badly ignored. The fact that in three years and 60,000 miles hence it is just about run-in is no good to the penny-pinching Fleet market. Rover should have specified a standard airbag to rid the car of the truly awful steering wheel and place it on a level pegging with Cavalier and Mondeo. Likewise coarse black bumpers, mirrors and handles gave the elegant car the grace of a carthorse when all of its rivals had cottoned-on to colour coding.
Even R8 cleverly concealed its grey bumpers and plastics under the euphemism of the Home Service two-tone scheming, while soon-to-be parent company and inspirational BMW pretended such meanness was in the name of environmentalism.
With all of this in mind, it is no surprise then that the 600 never really took off with regard to sales figures. It’s irrelevant that Rover irrationally mumbled something about never producing more that 1000 per working week from its Cowley factory. Even in Rover’s wildest dreams, the car was never going to take off. Sad, because this was probably the best all round car ever to leave Cowley since the Minor. It looked terrific in its more upmarket guises and went with great gusto, especially in 2.3-litre format. It really was worthy competition to it rivals, but let us just recap what its rivals all offered, usually for a lot less in purchase price, in depreciation and in the competitive cost-per-mile comparisons.
Citroen gave a truly inspiration ride and Italian styling, BMW give you a thrusting, ruthlessly efficient aggression, Cavalier gave eye-opening safety and a trifling c-p-m, Ford gave you world class dynamics and fleet management; Honda gave you Japanese reliability and, now, British build.
Rover? Well there was the large dealer network and this promise of never passing another 600. A theme which was translated into the rather nice advert pitched on a dubious bridge in Tuscany. Odd and somewhat prophetic that a car was marketed on the assumption you’d never see another…
With sales figures not reaching expectations and falling, Rover was keen to keep the faith with its new parent company and so embarked on an ambitious plan to clear the stocks and gain new orders. Rover, sensing a last throw of the dice, ambitiously believed its residual hype and offered the car on most favourable monthly terms to business customers. Fever pitch was inflicted on the ambitious within the dealer network to those who could place 600 among the high-flying. I clearly remember working in a dealership, where the Business Manager flogged, in every sense, the 600 up and down the length of the A19 to anyone that qualified for the scheme. It was a qualified success as I’ll come to later…
The revised 600 was a much needed improvement, it boasted Rover’s theoretically good 1-2-1 damping which conceded control for comfort, better (Rover designed) seats, useable door pockets, more colours and, indeed, colour coding, airbags and a general sense of well being as standard. It gave the car additional Rover qualities over the traditional and long-standing Honda slickness. It was now the car it should have been. Then, Rover waded in with its own home-grown engines.
There was the fire-breathing yet utterly docile turbocharged T-Series with unique TorSen Diff. A beast of a car that won praise from every quarter. A pity, then, early examples chewed gearboxes and lunched pistons while leaking oil everywhere. However, the big news for those who knew came in the form of the direct injection, turbo intercooled diesel. Possibly the best engine ever to come from anything under the BL umbrella – ever. Here was an engine at the cutting edge of technology that delivered all it promised: economy, refinement, performance, minimal servicing costs, reliability and a general ease of usability.
The L-Series, as it was known, was pilot-built in Longbridge for this application before being transferred to Solihull for mass Rover application. Like the Turbo T-series, its lineage could be traced via M-Series, to O-Series and therefore to BMC B-Series. Heritage in action if you like; and one that worked and earned cash money from all quarters. Indeed, it was so good Honda used it for Civic and Accord while Land Rover used it in Freelander. It never gave anyone a moment’s worth of trouble and could rattle up 200k without effort or serious strip-down. If only current Honda diesels were nearly as good…
However, for the run-of-the-mill cars, Rover was contractually obliged to buy from Honda. Previously expensive at the outset, but worth it long term was the view of Honda Powertrains, but things had suddenly and unexpectedly changed. When Rover launched the 618, we all expected to see the new K-Series under the bonnet, not a cheapened Honda unit. Honda had skilfully and rightfully renegotiated its supply contract now that BMW, as opposed to BAe, was its customer. The 600 was now was costing fortunes to produce for a shrinking crowd and congesting airbases where unordered cars were being stacked for potential delivery. In hindsight, we were very lucky it didn’t feature the disastrous and ruinous ‘damp’ stretched K-Series.
Rover were daft and short-sighted in my opinion. Alloys, leather and air-con returned more in residuals than it cost Rover to specify them in my buying experience. It was because of this meanness and slavish following of BMW’s example that Rover Group as we knew it became seriously and terminally unstuck.
Rover had leased many thousands of 600s to Business Users for cheap Long Term Contracts in the belief that its projected residuals were honest and accurate and likely to hold-up long term. These cars started returning by which time any romance with the 600 had long since left in a haze of failed Britishness and ruthless Germaness. You see, 600 residuals were at rock bottom, but Rover couldn’t ignore this with the returning leased cars and their guaranteed residuals which had been even extended to private users. Or could they?
Yes, they could. Rover cleverly hired an airbase and some netting and promptly hid the returned 600s in a field while the accountants cooked the books to pretended that these used, unwanted cars were valuable assets to BMW’s cruelly termed English Patient. All was well. Until some German accountants were parachuted-in to balance the books the Munich way. Then the balloon, so to speak, went up.
The hidden 600s were found and placed onto the open market for the best offer. However, by now, the 75 was supposed to be around the corner… BMW was aghast at this discovery and the resultant loss on Rover’s balance sheet proved to be the straw that broke the Camel’s back with regard to Rover. It was at this point BMW decided enough was enough and the rest is industrial history. I was told this story whilst sipping tea in Cowley a few years ago and found it unbelievable but, when one examines the evidence leading up to and following the split, it fits.
Sadly for owners and prospective owners, such bad feeling towards 600 was to prove fatal for the cars in many instances. Parts become NLA (no longer available) long before the statutory legal limit of 10 years, resulting in write-offs. I know of one salesman, fond of 600s, who bought one with some damage on its rear wing and lost his job over the debacle that followed as the part was NLA and the labour costs to recondition the car wiped out any potential sales profit.
Anyway, if you can find a bodily sound 600, then the chances are you’ll drive a classic which will outlast virtually any Rover out there. Certainly, the 75 and the K-Series cars will imminently be on the endangered list unless carefully cared for. That’s the 600 then: the ultimate bounty for those who appreciated Honda’s engineering diligence allied to Rover’s design flair and British build.
It looked superb, drove great and was (largely) utterly reliable. The 75, which replaced it, never really did that in my book for various reasons. I will never forget the Friday afternoon I got my hands on a pre-production 2-litre 75 KV6 manual and feeling that Rover had lost their design direction. 75 was claustrophobic, heavy in detail and stodgy to drive compared to the 600.
The 75 was nice but never special in the way the 600 was.