Project HHR Update : More testing times

The run out 420 iL has behaved impeccably so far, with many of the initial foibles now banished to history. Here’s the story so far…

Words and Photographs: Mike Humble

My rowdy Rover mid-journey between Nottinghamshire and West Sussex with back up Golf behind

I will be the first to admit that the later HHR-shape 400 was never a car I would have normally considered buying owing to my deep down admiration of the previous R8-shape 200/400 models.

Personally, I found the post-1996 models a backward step for Rover in trying to capture a more youthful owner. Admittedly, though, they had superb ride comfort allied to a build and engineering quality that Ford and Vauxhall could not match plus a brace of 2.0-litre engines – one being a state of the art turbo diesel which added refinement and extra performance.

The R8 had a certain raw appeal when you drove it like you stole it and the car was a gulf apart from the British Leyland-derived metal which came before it. Being lucky enough to have owned three very reliable R8 cars (a brace of SEis and an early SLi), the later HHR for me, just seemed that bit lacking and pedestrian in comparison – an also ran car, close, but no cigar. However, saying that, I have bought one and I like it.

I bought mine was simply for three main reasons: 1) as a plaything  2) the fact that my model, the 420iL, had a stunning interior and one of my favourite and very much forgotten about engines, the 2.0 T series, and 3) because I had never owned one. The history of mine is very much in Rover owner tradition, registered new as a dealer demonstrator then one elderly owner.

I have sat in worse places!

One good thing about Rovers and the more mature owner is that they tend to treat the car almost as if it was a family pet with lots of love and TLC. This certainly seemed the case upon initial inspection, 52,000 miles and everything was there from the handbook wallet through to the spare alarm plipper, radio code and little tag with the key serial number. The last owner had simply traded it in for something smaller and Korean – no doubt something with all the character of a food mixer.

Inside and out, the car looks lovely and the County Green and cream leather with its Sandstone Beige interior is spotless, reminding you of a time when everything was all right with the world. The punchy 2.0-litre 16v plant reminds you what it’s capable of as the tacho needle heads past 12 o’ clock and sings with a voice more like Russell Watson than the Kiri Te Kanawa in comparison to a K-Series lump. The smaller K unit, especially the 1.4-litre, can catch you out when the torque drops off below 2000 rpm particularly when ferrying passengers, but the long stroke iron block 2.0-litre seems to have a low down punch as solid as a left hook from the much missed Sir Henry Cooper.

However, it’s not all been days of wine and roses. The brakes were, as mentioned previously, as vocal yet ineffective as your average backbench MP and, when the anchors were called upon at speed, you would wander around the lane you were travelling in with the stability of a shot giraffe. Well, the new front brakes have now settled down and work as well as you would expect for a car with all round discs, even the parking brake works with an impressive efficiency – owners of various rear disc Rovers will know what I mean.

The rear silencer had a hole that you almost push a small child into, sounded like a percussion instrument when you shook it and dropped pieces of corroded casing and baffle material along the road if you were hasty over speed humps. A new old stock (and very, very cheap) genuine replacement has quietened her down somewhat and now gives a lovely low speed burble.

We found out where our cat had been hiding!

Other issues that have been attended to include the T-Series party trick of oil leaking from the cam covers while a jammed Fleetwood Mac CD in the player necessitated the filleting of  a code-less “BMW Business” head unit bought from a boot sale for £2.00 so I now have what some of the younger folks would call “choons in da house“.

The oil soaked and misfiring plug leads recently sent me a postcard from the West Sussex County landfill site and, after a damn good engine flush and blood transfusion, the car’s previously hesitant and sluggish manner has been transformed into a thoroughly enjoyable drive. The car now performs well, stops well and has reasonable fuel consumption – if driven with consideration.

Sealed up and cleaned up - the brilliant 2.0-litre T-Series plant.

My aim is to keep the car as standard looking as possible and I know its been said before, but I intend to keep the car. I have, though, made some changes – in my opnion, the ashtray and cigar lighter looked cheap and horrible so they have been replaced with a flap panel item that was fitted to the higher spec Rover 45.

I am also aiming to locate a pair of electric mirrors, an MGF interior mirror which has built in courtesy lamps,a pair of tweeters for the front doors and, to finish off the exterior, some torpedo badges and a gold twin pinstripe.

The previous nasty looking ashtray replaced by this tasty R45 item.

The problem with buying a car you have never seen before, even though I had faith in the vendor, is that you travel some distance and have to make a snap decision to buy the car warts and all. After spending a while going over the old girl in leafy Horsham, I found some corrosion on the driver’s floor nearby to the jacking point. With this in mind, I decided to drop it in for a snapshot health check or in other words, an MOT.

My trusty tester, Steve Anderson at New Way Garage in Gatwick, reckons its as a result of lack of use i.e. parked in a garage after being out in the wet. The car had only done just under 1000 miles between the last two MOT’s.  Steve, who has been a vehicle tester for 30 years, said he had never seen a Honda Civic or a Rover of this type corrode in that place before – nor have I and I have spent many an hour under many a Rover.

The Green Machine awaits her fate!

Staffing problems saw me brew the tea upon my arrival (first test of the day) and, for more than the first time in my life, I was summoned to be hoisted 6ft in the air listening out for Steve’s cry of “rock the steering….. foot on the brake” from somewhere beneath my feet. The test went without a problem. The corrosion was in fact a test fail – not as bad as it reads – but, not owning a welder anymore, I have entrusted Steve to make good the repair.

The welding problem was the only fail or advisory for that matter and trusty Steve told me that, otherwise, it’s a lovely little car and its emissions were better than some new cars – it showed 0.00% on its Co2 reading. Other patients at his garage included a 1979 Jaguar XJ12 Series 3 awaiting a mild restoration and a 1985 Ford Granada MK2 2.3 LX – one of the very last of its type, awaiting new sills.

One of the last of the "real" Ford cars is this 1985 Granada 2.3 LX

Anyway, there we have it, the HHR is officially a car I am going to keep – she’s parked up securely in the garage now waiting for some tin bashing and I’m off into Horsham town to buy a tin of underseal!

Posted in: AROnline Blogs, Our Cars
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

4 Comments on "Project HHR Update : More testing times"

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  1. Dylan says:

    The trademark pinstripe and other subtle tweaks sound just the ticket, Mike. Restrained elegance rather than artilery-sized exhausts under a Civic!

    I had a 25TD – I’m not sure I would have said it was refined except compared to the “tin shed” that is my Defender! However, as a package that degree of performance with nearly 70mpg if gran was onboard would make a German envious.

    I take your point about post-1996 cars aiming at the “yoof” market (I wonder if any of them have heard of BRM??) but they still maintained the traditional values which was no mean feat.

  2. Two R8s says:

    What’s a torpedo badge?

  3. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    @Two R8s
    The small engine denomination badge as fitted to Cowley-built Rover 75s.

  4. Two R8s says:

    @Mike Humble
    Thanks for clarifying that. Those back seats look wonderful…

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