Blog : Happiness is Rover SD3 shaped

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Rover 216 Vitesse

As the relative hoopla surrounding the quarter century racked up by the Rover R8 (200/400) this week dies down, I feel that it’s down to me to restore a little balance to proceedings. As you can see, it’s going to be a little ditty to the original Rover 200 series (which was nicknamed the SD3 within the company), introduced in 1984 – and therefore hitting its 30th anniversary.

Thanks to rapidly diminishing numbers, and a sense of apathy, in the wider world, this fine little car seems to have been left in the lay-by of history, which I think is a bit disappointing. Yes, when it was rolled out in June 1984, to replace the Triumph Acclaim, the Rover 200 came as a bit of a shock, not least because this was the first ‘small’ Rover to hit the blocks since the ill-fated Rover M1 prototype of 1945.

The decision to drop Triumph in favour of Rover for this thinly-disguised Honda Ballade raised a few eyebrows, but in the crazy world of Austin-Rover of the early-1980s, this decision made sense. After all, marketing Rover and Austin was challenging enough – adding Triumph into the mix – despite the Acclaim’s success – would have been a tough call. Even if the Rover 200 was more of a replacement for the Triumph Dolomite than the Acclaim ever was.

The first year of Rover 200 production was reserved for the 213. This version was powered by Honda’s sweet 1342cc 12-valve power unit, which delivered excellent performance and refinement – as well as a memorable near-silent idle. The earliest cars were offered in ARG-generic colour palettes, and in S, SE and Vanden Plas forms – and despite being pitched as a niche model, sales straight out of the blocks were strong.

Then, in May 1985, the range was included to include the 216. The new variation was powered by ARG’s new S-Series engine, which had debuted in the Montego just a month earlier (and also making it into the Maestro weeks later). It was based on the old R-Series power unit, which in turn was really a tweaked E-Series, but thanks to careful development by BL Powertrain, it produced excellent power and fuel consumption figures. And today, it should be viewed as one of the unsung heroes of the whole story.

In addition to the usual ‘cooking’ 200s, a new range-topping variant was unveiled at the S-Series launch – the 216 Vitesse. Trading on the excellent Indian Summer reputation of the go faster SD1, ARG hoped that a similarly tweaked 200 would add glamour to the range. To ensure it lived up to the name, the 216 Vitesse received a Lucas fuel-injected version of the S-Series, boosting power outut from 86 to 105bhp – enough to match the Ford Orion 1.6i Ghia. Subtle front and rear spoilers were added, as were houndstooth patterned seats and natty cross-spoke alloys. Combined with the better colours in the SD1  line-up, the once frumpy Anglo-Japanese saloon suddenly looked rather appealing.

And as we know, sales picked up markedly from this point – so much so, that following the Roverisation facelift of 1987, which brought in a wider-opening boot, centre console, and improved interior, it sealed the future of the company. The 200 ended up eclipsing the underachieving Montego in the sales charts and redefined ARG’s Rover-only future direction, sidelining the runt of the old Austin car parc.

Thirty years on, if you see a 200 on the road, you’re going to be very lucky indeed. They’ve not really been a survivor, thanks to rampant rust and other fragilities, and keeping one MoT worthy is a much harder job than it is with the more solid (and widely-supported) Maestro or Montego. So I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to borrow this wonderfully-preserved 1985 216 Vitesse from car-collecting friend John Corbett. The car in question is rather special, too – having notched up a mere 34,000 miles, and showing BL Powertrain boss, and archetect of the K- and M-Series engines, Rolant Bertodo, on the original invoice and receipts.

It’s incredibly original, with very little sign of corrosion, and other than the later, non-standard, stereo, it’s pretty much as it was when it left Longbridge. Driving it today is a fascinating experience – first impressions are dominated by its tininess on the road and light, slim-pillared interior. The low scuttle line results in terrific forward visibility, and the clear instrumentation. When I fire it up, the S-Series unit sounds honest, a little lumpy, and sucks a pleasingly bassy induction note. I like it. The PG1 gearbox is also smooth shifting, and feels as it should.

I should say at this moment that I have incredibly nostalgic feelings for the 200. It’s the car I learned to drive in, and then pass my test first time, and then I spent many happy afternooon bombing around in my mate’s (mum’s) Vitesse during the summer of ’87 while I studied my A-levels at Bispham Tech in Blackpool. Good times. And as I head for the A1 in this one, those memories of times long gone, come flooding back. Perhaps I need a trip back to Blackpool in this one – don’t count against it.

Accelerating to motorway speeds, the engine’s strong mid-range torque delivers surprisingly punchy acceleration. Up to 70mph, it’s quick and, although slightly busy once up to speed, such is its urge and shortish gearing, heading into licence endorsing territory is a little too easy. Would I want to use this on a daily basis, driving up and down the country? You bet! It’s not perfect, though. The suspension is choppy, with far too little travel for your average rough British B-road, and the dampers struggle to keep it under tight control. In this department, especially, a Montego would leave this car for dead.

But I have to say that overall, I really do like this car – and completely understand why so many 1980s buyers bought these instead of Maestros and Montegos. The interior was tight, the chassis settings average at best, but it was a classy package, wearing a badge with plenty of executive kudos, and that’s why it set such solid foundations for the R8 that followed.

I hope that, as the years pass, the SD3’s place in history will be more readily recounted – but, right now, I’m enjoying driving a great example of one car that really means quite a lot to me. If you see me around, give me a wave!

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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28 Comments

  1. It’s time the original Rover 200 was given more respect. This was a vastly better car than the M models and was the company’s second biggest seller during its six year life. Also it trailed the way for Rover’s boom years in the early nineties.

  2. Yes, the Vitesse and then the 1987 facelift really did transform the image of the SD3. It went from a fraction frumpy to desirable, compact executive. The Vitesse chin spoiler, revised rear and interior tweaks of ’87 were simple but very effective.
    I’d love to see this one, Keith!

  3. I always had a large soft spot for the 216 Vitesse EFi although have not seen one on the road for at least ten years now. The SD1 Vitesse-inspired front chin air dam, Speedline-manufactured alloy wheels and the subtle black rubber boot spoiler, together with the subtle ‘Vitesse’ graphics featured on the rear doors up until September 1986, really transformed its appeal.

    The update in September 1986, for the 1987 Model Year, really did help to raise the SD£’s aspirational appeal and sense of wellbeing to a higher level.

    My father looked at a Targa Red example at the nearest Austin Rover dealership (in Sidmouth, East Devon) back in April 1985. I loved it but he rightly concluded that the MG Montego EFi would offer better rear seat accommodation space for carrying adults. In the end he went for the MG Montego EFi as his company car.

    From a purely styling perspective, the 216 Vitesse also provided the trim inspiration for the special edition 216 Sprint announced in May 1988, but featuring steel wheels and the carburettor-fed S Series engine. Offered in just three colours – Black, White Diamond and Targa Red – it featured the Vitesse’s front and rear spoiler treatment. Do any 216 Sprints still survive?

  4. Always liked the SD3 since seeing it at the press launch in 1984 (with Rover badges disguised). A friend had a 1987 216 Vitesse as his company car. i think the 216SE, VDP and Vitesse were the best on offer. No wondor potential Montego customers were more attracted to the SD3 Rover’s.

  5. Interesting that you mention its ‘tininess’ because I remember seeing one in the car park across the road from my second floor office window and being surprised at how big it seemed compared to the P6 standing next to it. (The next surprise like that was seeing how much taller the Bini was than my R8.)

  6. I have a really soft spot for these cars as I had a Silver 216 Vitesse Efi (pre face lift version) I part exchanged a Chevette Saloon in for it (second hand though)at Kennings in Lichfield. They were chalk and cheese! Unfortunately – some low life stole the car from a car park in Birmingham and that was it as it was burnt out. Loved the car though as it was my first “real” car that I had from a main dealer. Incidentally – anyone know what happened to the one that Gaydon sold a few years ago? I seem to remember that it was a Red one and the last of line?

    • I have heard nothing more about it, so can only assume it is either in a private vehicle collection in this country or was bought by someone living abroad. I recall it was unregistered and finished in British Racing Green metallic.

  7. Loved these. They were on “run out” when I joined the trade. Seem to remember there was an issue with Unleaded fuel on the EFI cars. I sold a VDP EFI in March 1990 and the client had to acknowledge in writing that he knew the car was not unleaded compatible. Got a big deal on it though….

  8. Dad had a metallic grey facelift E plate 213S from new. He was very happy with it and it was an nice place to be as a passenger, with chrome door pulls and chunky door arm rests.

    Car magazine always thought it a bit fuddy duddy though, with their GBH summary ‘Eastbourne Express’ in the late 1980s.

  9. Dear Ian,

    I have noticed that car magazines are not very good at writing good English. Motoring journalists seem to want to sound like Jeremy Clarkson, so they use poorly thought out similes, cliches and other lazy methods to try to sound clever or funny. Calling something an Eastbourne Express is a lazy way of putting across some sort of point. The journalist who wrote this needs to think more about helping out the reader to understand what s/he means. M.

  10. @ Paul Edmunds, you must have been unlucky as for all some 200s could rust, it usually occured after four years.
    Mind you for rusting this was tame compared with an owner of a V reg Fiat Strada I knew, where rust was starting after three months and started to take hold after nine months. No surprises it was ditched quite quickly for a Volkswagen Golf.

    • @Glen Aylett, my dad has a similar story. Bought a brand new Fiat Strada 75CL – CUB248Y, within 3 months it had a new door and a tailgate plus other bits of paint repair. It was truly atrocious, every time he washed it, he found more rot. He lost a huge amount of money when he swapped it for one of the first mk2 Golfs in the country during the summer of 1984. He is now on Golf number six and I highly doubt that he’ll buy anything else.

  11. I’ve a soft spot for these- although the styling was conservative, Honda in the 1980s were generally attracive- and some were quite stunning, such as the original Aerodeck and the CRX Coupe.

    Always thought these were so much classier than an Escort/Orion or the equivalent Astra/Belmont. OK, fairly low hanging fruit, but a very pleasant car, and far easier on the eye than the dreadful Maestro/Montego.

  12. I always liked these baby Rovers. I worked at a local Rover/Isusu dealer during my holidays while at university and I remember driving a BRG Vitesse ‘pool car’ from the dealer in Berkshire to Abergavenny and back to help deliver a new Isusu Trooper. I gave a lift back to the sales Exec (yes they were even called execs in the early 90s!) who dropped off the Trooper. It was Jason Dawe, who is now a motoring journo and did appear in the first series of the ‘new’ top gear. He won’t remember that trip, cause he was asleep…

  13. I found my dad’s 216EX a little cramped inside – having said that, we managed to fit a small fridge into the back seat once.
    The R8 was roomier, and fitted me well.
    My dad’s left hand front door was slower to rust than the others, as it had to be replaced after a sleepy neighbour backed into it one morning. I was alarmed, as I was getting into the car, and he only just avoided breaking my leg. I asked him if he had looked in his rear view mirror.
    “I was watching the lamppost”, he replied.
    “Did it move?”

  14. Welcome home Mr Adams!

    Never thought of the SD3 as frumpy (unlike the Maxi, Ital and Ambassador, the latter of which ruined the gorgeous 18-22).

    As a child of the 80s I appreciated the straight line Honda styling.

    The 1 series of its era?

    TV appearances gave it late fame too – the social climber in Keeping Up Appearances, and the classy yet not budget-breaking raffle car (with incorrect 96 plates) in Father Ted.

    Only recently has the Acclaim been forgiven (by some) for being perceived to have ran the Triumph car brand into the ground, SD3’s time will be soon when it will be recognised as being 20 years ahead of itself in downward expansion of premium car marques.
    (Still a surprising amount of R8s being used as daily runners too!)

  15. Memories….my uncle bought a 216 Vitesse brand new in Sept 1988, replacing his 1984 Ford Capri 1.6LS. I was 15 at the time so didn’t get to drive it for a few years, but remember being impressed by the build quality, equipment, handling and general driveability. Much later on in 2005 I got to own it as my uncle had passed on and my aunt had stopped driving. It had done 29k by then and the engine was still tight! I had it for three years until the rust got a grip along with some other niggles. Gutted to see it go. Haven’t seen another for years.

  16. Had a f reg Henley Blue 216se efi.

    Heavy steering, rust after a few years, engine rebored after 34k then swapped at 60k, some interior trim fell off all in all a very poor car.

    The ford Orion i had before it was a much better car.

  17. Always had a soft spot for the SD3. My mum’s friend has a C reg 216 Vanden Plas, my sister later bought an E reg Vanden Plas (my parents almost bought it from her). In 1997 the 213 was on my shortlist but impatiently I ended up with a drab Escort.

  18. I loved my 1987 Vitesse. Moving from an old Dolomite to a car with central locking, electric windows and a nice smooth fuel injected engine was a revelation……

    Dave

  19. Nice article Keith.

    My parents had a 213SE in the mid-eighties as a spare car, at the time I had a Dolomite 1500HL! It seems to me the Rover was the spiritual successor to the Dolly, with its lovely Honda-ry zest and fun handling. Whenever I borrowed it I drove it at 90MPH on Dual Carriageways and Motorways, and it didn’t mind one bit.

    My friend had a 216 and we both liked the 213 much more; lighter engine, better balanced, smoother, more revvy, and I remember our 213 almost never dropping below 40MPG despite getting a damn good thrashing from me.

    A lovely car, not forgotten.

  20. @ Richard S, the Strada was a strange car with its golf ball styling that made it stand out. I seem to remember the interior squeaking constantly and annoying things like trim coming adrift and the rear window demister element coming off, but even then you didn’t expect to see rust taking hold on a nine month old car. Had the Strada been better made and rust protected, then this could have been quite a good car as the engine had a fair amount of power, the car was well equipped for the money( featuring a rarity then, a radio with VHF),and the radical styling did appeal to some.
    Interesting fact, the car was called Ritmo everywhere else but Britain and America, where Fiat thought Strada would sound better, but in America Ritmo, which is Italian for rhythm, was ditched when the company realised this was also the name of a certain type of lady product.

  21. It is a shame the Rover M1 / M-Type prototype was conceived more as a 700cc 2-door 2-seater Fiat Topolino rival made largely of aluminum rather than a more upmarket 1000-1600cc 4-door.

    Understand why Rover were not in a position to produce such a car, especially with the success of the original Land Rover tying up production though the Rover M1 / M-Type does strangely resemble a shorten Morris Minor of sorts.

  22. I remember driving a 216 Vitesse as a pool car at work!

    Was there thought given to using the drivetrain elsewhere in the ARG range, as no other model used the injected S series engine?

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