Blog : S-Series, the missed bargain?
As you may have read in Blogs, three teams from the AROnline family participated in the recent RatRod Rally from Calais to Romania. Two of these teams used ARG based cars, me included. Seven solid days of jousting between a 216GTi and a Montego 1.6LX over terrain which varied wildly – and I have come to a rather unusual conclusion: the Rover 400-series of 1990 should have been offered with the option of an S-Series engine.
Back in October 1989 when the Rover 200 was launched, your choice of powertrains was limited to two small, all-alloy engines of world class ability – one Rover, one Honda. Both were high revving units that punched well above their weight, even if they lacked the low end torque that had traditionally been the calling card of a British car. Rumour had it the M-Series from the 800-series was due to be fitted once someone had done a bout of metal bashing to fit the lump. However, that rumour wasn’t realised until 1991 at the earliest and even then it was GTi only for a while.
Rover couldn’t cope with demand for the Rover 200 when it was launched, and indeed for a few years after launch demand remain incredibly high. The pent-up demand was exaggerated when the old SD3 Rover 200 was discontinued for the 400 series. This was the default model for the more mature and conservative clientèle who were less interested in cars, a distinctly different clientèle to 200 series. Likewise, the fleet market, previously turned off by the dull but worthy Maestro clambered for a Rover 200 or 400. Waiting lists turned from eight to 12 weeks, unheard of since the launch of the Austin Metro. Most people were willing to wait, despite a higher than class average price tag (which wasn’t subject to negotiation either) and a somewhat mean level of standard equipment. Fleets couldn’t always wait however.
Surprisingly, some within Rover [most notably led by company boss George Simpson – Ed] felt the price of the 200/400 wasn’t steep enough and that Rover should have cashed-in when it had the chance. This seems surprising until you consider that the Honda engined cars cost Rover ￡1000 more to assemble that the K-Series equivalent. When Rover went back to Honda and begged for more engines, somebody should have questioned why they weren’t looking at the tried and tested solution sitting on the engineering shelf. An option which was still acceptable to the public, especially in 400-series format.
During development, a number of prototype R8s were fitted with the S-Series engine. In Rover 216 (SD3) format, it was also fuel injected to great effect. Fleets liked it for its punchy performance and low running costs, the older generation liked it for its effortless verve. Here was an engine for the vast majority of the British public – driven best in the meat of its torque curve. There was no 16-valve nonsense to contend with, but it had the delightful manners of a car with fuel injection. It was also a ‘safe engine’ meaning if the rubber timing belt snapped, no engine damage occurred, unlike pretty much everything else on the market.
The S-Series was mated to the VW gearbox for Maestro and Montego, and Honda’s PG1 ‘box (built under licence by Rover) for later Montego and SD3. So there wasn’t even a need to tool-up for a new bell housing unless Rover wanted to mate it to the R65 gearbox (a beefed-up PSA unit built under licence) as per 214. These cost savings could have paved the way for a standard PAS fitment on these cars. This would have appealed to the older clientèle and the fleet user choosers.
You see, the 400 saloon started to struggle very early on in its life. Many considered 1.4 engine to be too small for the size of car. And it felt that way – unless you liked to thrash it to get genuine performance – something which its target audience didn’t care to do. It was also hard work without PAS. So for the R8 400 to be acceptable to the Hyacinth Bucket brigade, you needed to order the 1.6 and you needed to specify PAS – and yet you still got windy windows and flat paint with grey bumpers. Of little concern was the fact you lost a staid solid rear axle for a sexy multi-link affair – the cost to change from SD3 to R8 was still very steep. Too steep for many loyal customers, especially since some of whom, still, would rather buy a British engine over a Japanese one.
The argument about equipment levels, heavy steering and additionally, high fuel consumption figures also applied to the dominant fleet buyers. The 416 could be great on fuel, but frequently wasn’t. An 820 was a much more economical motorway tool. So although the 1.6 Honda D-series was the thinking man’s choice of R8 powertrain throughout its successful production run, it wasn’t without its faults.
Servicing costs were also theoretically high; 6k intervals, expensive Honda filters and tappets that should have been adjusted every 24k were out of kilter with the times. Look at what Ford, Vauxhall and VW were offering to see where I’m going here. The S-series was right with them on costs, servicing and power delivery more than K- or D-Series was. Lets not ignore the Volvo 300 and 400-series which were a major competitor to the 400 in private sales.
What I’m suggesting is that Rover should have launched the 400 series with a fuel-injected S-Series engine for the OAPs and cost conscious Fleet Buyer. Standard PAS, standard electric windows, standard fuel injection. This would have enabled dealers to mop-up additional demand and retain all existing customers instead of casting those with a tight budget and set ideas aside, additionally build rates would have also increased with the availability of extra powertrains.
Not everyone was fussed over 16-valves and featherlight, advanced construction. Whats more the D-series was starting to play-up in service; high oil consumption in random engines was starting to concern Rover, enough for them to start pestering Honda. Who ignored the fault and continued to supply the odd duff engine.
Some may say Rover, the new brand, the new image, was right to have cast aside anything from the old BL days. After all, the S-series was based on a crackers Issigonis ideal from the 1960s. For some, the ’60s and E was a bad trip…
However, Rover cheapened the 214 by dropping 8-valves and fuel injection for a period and fitting 155 tyres to no effect. Surely the S-series wouldn’t have been this desperate a move or cheapened the brand as much? Finally, consider this; a team within Cowley had developed a S-series with 16-valves. Rover had the ability and concept to save ￡1k per car and sell more of cars sitting right on the shelf all along. ￡1000 per car in the early ’90s was not to be sniffed at.
What has drove me to write these thoughts, is the time I recently spent comparing the Rover 216 GTi with the Rover Montego 1.6LX. Really, theres very little in it for the most part. The S-Series is acceptably refined below 5000rpm, its very economical and its nice to drive. Certainly leagues ahead of a CVH equipped Orion which was a big rival at the time.
Also consider this; the twin cam D-Series in the Rover 416 GTi produced 105lb ft at 5700 rpm. The fuel injected S-Series in the old 216 gave 102lb ft at 3500 rpm. This speaks volumes to prove my point – it’s doubtful anyone with any mechanical sympathy would ever rev a S-Series to 5700 rpm, so to replace it with an engine that was getting into its stride when the old unit was calling a halt to proceedings was a bit daft really.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics 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 unfeasable adventures all across Europe.