The cars : Rover 200/400 development history
Rover comes good.
NOW Rover was safely tucked under the wing of British Aerospace, the company was starting to begin to look like a viable, going concern: Graham Day had made some painful cuts in the business during his short tenure as Chairman and Managing Director of Rover, but thanks to the comparative excellence of the Rover 800, his rather risky strategy of taking the company up market was beginning to look like it could actually work. If the idea of BL moving up market, to form some kind of ‘British BMW’ was the stuff of fantasy as recently as 1985, by 1988 it was actually beginning to happen.
The Rover 213 and 216s were certainly proving popular – and unlike with the previous Triumph Acclaim model, not just with the elderly. With the smaller Rover enjoying an Indian Summer in its later years, at the expense of the Austin Maestro, which had by this time dropped out of the SMMT top ten sellers list in the UK, it was inevitable that the R8 Rover 213/216 replacement would be refined into a replacement for the Maestro as well as the older Rover. This was the rationale for Rover’s decision to go with Honda’s plan for their version of the car – a five-door hatchback, not the more exclusive four-door saloon configuration of the then current small Rover.
The development of this version of the Rover 200 model commenced in late 1984, when Austin Rover and Honda signed a fourth collaborative venture. Unlike in the case of the Rover 800, where Honda and Austin Rover ended up designing their own cars side by side, the ‘YY’ project as it was called at the start of the venture, would be conducted in a very different way.
Honda and Rover attain some balance
Rover and Honda both learned a very hard lesson that collaboration is only successful when both companies concerned know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and use it to their advantages. With the 800 and Legend, the end result of pride and independent thinking for the sake of it was a pair of cars that, although part of a joint venture, only shared 20% of their parts. What had to happen with the YY and HY programmes was that, whenever the engineers or designers disagreed on something, a decision should be made: go with Honda’s or Rover’s solution. There would be pain initially in this, but pride soon gave way to pragmatism in the decision making process – and the result would be a much smoother development programme.
Because of this change in tactic, the two cars would share no less than 80% of their componentry.
For Honda, this was no disaster because they had long since harboured the ambition to produce a more European focused car than their previous offerings in the sector, the smaller Civic, larger Accord and the forgettable Honda Quintet. Because of this, Honda deferred to Austin Rover’s expertise in interior packaging, seats, cabin styling, but most significantly British engineers led the suspension tuning, if not the complete design. Honda engineering project leader, Kenzo Suzuki summed up the situation perfectly, Rather than having separate team of engineers doing related jobs separately in both countries the majority of the work was done at Honda’s facilities in Japan.’
As discussed on the
at a time working with Honda in Japan.’
The decision to adopt one styling solution for both cars was made very early in the design process: both Honda’s and Austin Rover’s early clay models looked so similar that the decision was made for them. There would be superficial differences between the two cars, (such as their grilles, headlights, front wings and tailgates) but both teams working side-by-side, this time in Japan, would design these, whilst co-developing their shared centre section.
During 1985 and 1986, the British engineers would shuttle forwards and backwards to Japan in order to keep in touch with the ‘YY’ programme, now known by Austin Rover as the AR8. The British had influenced a great deal of the design in the initial stages of conception, but by this time, they were offering no material input to the design – Honda were leading the programme. If this seemingly devalued the abilities of Austin Rover’s engineers, it should not have, because Honda relied very much on them at the start of the car’s gestation – and without Austin Rover’s expertise, it is doubtful whether Honda would have produced a car so well tailored to the European market.
Conservative or progressive? Let’s do both
In terms of design, right from the beginning, Austin Rover made the conscious decision to style the new car very conservatively. Whereas the Maestro maintained links with its forebears – and as a result of the car’s hideously elongated development programme, it ended up looking very old very quickly; the intention was for the new car to tread a rather different design path. Like the XX, which by this time had its styling finalised for production, the smaller car would continue the same neat, contemporary, if slightly anodyne family look. As in the case of the larger car, Roy Axe would have responsibility over the entire design of the car and as a result of his team’s acknowledged excellence, and unlike the XX/HX programme; they would have far more influence over the joint look of the car than Honda would.
Axe defined that the understated look would be continued, but because the YY/HY was an altogether smaller car than the XX/HX, a softer and more rounded shape was evolved. Compared with the 800, the new car was treated to a subtle deepening of its flanks, which resulted in a more compact glass area, and as a result, a visual feeling of solidity was added to the design. Other styling features were carried across pretty much unaltered, such as the headlamp/grille treatment, which was pure 1982 XX – another area that the smaller car continued the theme was in the handling of its glasshouse.
In the case of the 800, where the A-posts were painted black as well as the B and C-posts, this styling idea was continued to its logical conclusion by also blacking out the D-posts. The result was a neat and very contemporary look that defined the ‘floating roof’ look that became a Rover trademark during the following decade. If this seems like a fairly insignificant detail, it should not, because whereas the broadly similar 1990 Ford Escort shared the Rover’s proportions and ‘six light’ configuration, the application of this black-pillared look on the Rover made it look somehow classier and sleeker than the more aerodynamic Ford.
Honda also proposed that the new car would follow their traditional practice of having a very low scuttle and deep windscreen. When the initial clay models were prepared, following Honda’s wishes, the car appeared as being rather top-heavy (a crime the Maestro was guilty of) and as a result of Roy Axe’s persuasive arguments, Honda raised the ‘shoulder’ line of the car to resemble something more classically European. In fact, with regards to styling – inside and out – Rover led the programme: the end result was a British design. Given the very obvious ambition for the XX to be ‘aerodynamically’ styled, it came as a disappointment that the YY would pay no real attention to smoothing the design of the car – it did eventually appear with a rather indifferent figure of 0.35Cd about which, Roy Axe stated, ‘it certainly isn’t the best in class in aerodynamic terms’.
Inside, Rover designed the dashboard, and this fact was very obvious from the first look at the low-line dash, which like so many Rover and BL cars before it featured a prominent instrument binnacle and tray beside it. The design was no worse for that, although Gordon Sked described the design as being an evolution of the then-current Rover 213 model, a model whose success the company was very keen to repeat. The British could also claim responsibility for the excellent seating and driving position, which they carried over almost unchanged from the Rover 800. Austin Rover, however, swallowed their pride when it came to the switchgear and dashboard instrumentation, because they deferred to the acknowledged excellence of Honda.
K-Series – Britain’s most advanced engine
Austin Rover had no doubts about the engine that they would use: the new K-Series engine that had been under development since 1983, and which had been so stoutly fought for by Harold Musgrove when asked by the Government to lower the company’s borrowing. Musgrove and Horrocks had won the battle with Senior Conservatives, who argued that Austin Rover needed to be realistic in their expectations of what state aid they would be receiving from the government: stopping the K-Series programme would trim at least £250 million from their company’s demands. Needless to say, Musgrove won this argument and as a result, Roland Bertodo was allowed to complete the promising programme.
And promising it was: the engine, conceived as a replacement for the (what must have seemed) irreplaceable A-Series, the new unit radically differed in design from its antecedent. When conceiving the K-Series engine (which incidentally shared its name with the engine developed for use in the ADO74, during 1972), Bertodo’s team had already learned many lessons whilst optimizing the O-Series engine, which they put into practice with the new, smaller engine. Like the M16 engine, the K-Series was designed primarily as a DOHC 16-Valve unit with pent roof combustion chambers, in order to reach a high specific output, whilst retaining a lean-burn configuration, which allowed for low emissions.
Where the K-Series differed from the M16 – and all of its rivals for that matter – was that the all-alloy engine was of layered construction, the whole lot being held together by a set of 16 inch long bolts, which ran from the cylinder head through to the crank case, and whose passages doubled as crankcase breathers and oil passageways. The radical (and Rover-patented) arrangement allowed for the top and bottom end stresses on the engine block to be distributed equally, and therefore help lessen the risk of cylinder block distortion that alloy engines were known to suffer from when subjected to extreme operating conditions.
Initially, 1.1-litre 8-Valve, 1.4-litre 8-Valve and 16-Valve versions were produced, but engineers left a degree of upward expandability in the design – and that would become evident in the years following the launch of the AR8.
Following the 1986 departure of Harold Musgrove and the re-branding of the parent company to become The Rover Group, the car division was also re-branded in the same way, becoming The Rover Car Company. As a result, the AR8 (and AR6) programme was renamed the R8, in deference to the fact that the Austin component of the car division was now well and truly moribund. In the later stages of R8 development, the engine line-up was finalised and it was decided that the entry level for the new car would be 1.4-litres: this decision was made by Head of marketing, Kevin Morley, who realised that in order to move upmarket into the higher profitability zone, the company would no longer be prepared to produce loss leaders – that would be left to Ford and Vauxhall, with their ‘Popular’and ‘Merit’ models.
Because of this, and the fact that Honda would be supplying the high-tech 1.6-litre engine for the new car, Rover justifiably felt that they would be in a position to back up their ambition of producing a ‘premium’ range of medium sized cars. Interestingly given the excellence of the K-Series engine, the British power units would no longer be the weaker link in the engine range; in fact, if anything, the Honda engine (derived from the Civic Shuttle) would be put in the shade. It is not often that once can say that Honda had been beaten in terms of a four-cylinder power unit – that situation would be turned around later, when the Honda CR-X would find its way under the bonnet of the GTi.
After the £250 million expenditure on the K-Series engine, Austin Rover, had no resources to produce their own gearbox, so following the example of the Maestro, the company bought in a rival’s unit: this time PSA. Unlike the previous car’s gearbox, however, Rover expended much effort in refining the package, producing their own well-engineered linkages and strengthening the casting in order to cope with the extra torque that the K-Series engine produced, compared with the Citroën AX and Peugeot 205.
Unsurprisingly, and very early in the project, Honda conceded that Austin Rover were better placed than themselves to make decisions about what chassis configuration would be most suitable for European consumption. As a result, the R8 and European market Hondas would be available with McPherson strut front suspension, whilst maintaining the Honda layout of fully independent wishbones at the rear. The British took this decision in order to give the new car longer suspension travel, were cheaper to produce and were rather easier to package. Honda took this view, but as we shall see, they obviously did not entirely agree.
During 1987, with the engineering programme all-but finished, Rover knew that they had an excellent package with which to base their future upon. Needless to say that when embroiled in negotiations with British Aerospace, the R8 and its K-Series engine were cited time and time again of examples of the company’s engineering excellence. Graham Day pointed to the desire to move the company upmarket, something that Professor Roland Smith could see would be healthy for his shareholders’ returns, and as a result the R8 was soon the subject of late model development programme in order to eke out the most profit from the car. Because of this, and following the sale of Rover to BAe, the nod was given by management for Gordon Sked to expand the range to include cabriolet, Coupé, three-door and estate versions. Honda, on the other hand, would never produce anything other than four and five door versions of their Concerto model.
As with the Legend/800 before it, it was the Honda version of the car that was announced first, this time some sixteen months before the Rover R8. If the Japanese were disappointed by the new car, the significance of the model was not lost on the international media – it was very evident that although the Concerto was a rather conservative design, especially given the advanced styling of the recently launched 1988 Civics, it would provide Honda with the perfect springboard with which to attack the European market. Not only that, but it was an easy car to imagine with Rover badges front and rear and duotone paintwork.
Honda was complimentary about the British input in the design of the car; as Kenzo Suzuki of Honda said about the rather obvious Rover design cues, ‘We learned from the collaboration that when ARG design a car they determine the packaging first and style the car around it. We tend to style our cars first and then design the interior. In the Concerto, though, we have tried to benefit from what we have learned’.
Interestingly, the Honda Concerto, in Japanese form, was treated to all independent double-wishbone suspension, front and rear (which required different floorpans for their European and Japanese versions!) – because Honda wanted to maintain their engineering purity. Honda also developed a four wheel drive version of the Concerto, that used the company’s ‘INTRAC’ transmission system first seen in the four wheel drive Civic Shuttle: because this system was developed for the Japanese version of the Concerto and Honda wanted to keep it for themselves, this desirable option never made it over to the Rover R8 (a shame, given the traction problems that the later, Turbocharged 220 Coupé would suffer from). As related earlier though, the company recognised that the British knew more about the state of the art when it came to European suspension tuning, and as a result, all European Concertos shared their suspension system
with the Rover R8.
Upwardly mobile Rover
During 1989, the final marketing decisions for the Rover R8 were made: naming the car was easy, because it was replacing the well-established Rover 200 model, it would continue this simple and straightforward naming convention – 214 for the K-Series 1.4-litre version and 216 for the Honda powered 1.6-litre version. No accommodation for the Maestro would need to be made, as during 1988, it was decided to leave it in production in order to keep Cowley producing cars.
By this point, the factory was now well and truly under-utilised. On the quiet, the Maestro remained in production to counter the company’s bottom of the range rivals, such as the Escort Popular and Astra Merit – it would also act as a useful insurance policy against the unlikely event of there being a buyer backlash against the high prices of the new Rover.
Like the Rover 800 before it in 1986, the new range would also be launched in stages, but this time, the same mistakes of limiting supply and emphasizing the top of the range would not be made. Right from the start at the time of the launch, it would be stressed that the Rover 200 series would be offered in a range of cars – and the entry level car, the Rover 214Si, would be priced at the same level as the mid-range 1.6-litre opposition.
It was an outwardly risky ploy by Rover, but given the sophistication and sheer classiness of the new Rover 200. So, pricing the car, was settled – but marketing it would also prove difficult because what Rover were trying to achieve with the car was something that they had not done before – and that is successfully sell their car at a premium, but fortuitously for the company, the timing of the new car’s launch was perfect. Kevin Morley stated that at the time, the buyer of mid-range cars were disillusioned with their Escort and Astras, finding them, ‘ageing’ and ‘samey’.
So, on 11 October 1989, the Rover 200 was launched to the public. And what an impression it made on the road testers! No Rover received such a warm welcome when it was launched than this one did – and it is easy to see why: In a class dominated by the 1980 Ford Escort, 1984 Volkswagen Golf and 1984 Vauxhall Astra, the new car immediately created an impression of being something fresh new, and welcome in its class.
Rover knew that their rivals had new cars coming, but they were still at least a year away (in the case of the Ford) and as such, in their desired ambition to sit at the top of their given market niche, the company was unchallenged. There were other premium mid-sized hatchbacks on the market at the time, but they amounted to nothing more credible than the Volvo 340 and Alfa Romeo 33 – neither of which was in the same league as the Rover concerning packaging and driver appeal.
Of course Rover expected people to pay for the privilege of driving something that they considered to be such a cut above the rest and, as a result they priced the car accordingly:
|Car:||Rover 214Si||Rover 216GSi||Escort 1.6 Ghia||VW Golf GTi 8v|
|Maximum Speed:||104mph (168km/h)||120mph (192km/h)||110mph (178km/h)||114mph (184km/h)|
|0-60mph (97km/h):||11.3 secs||10.0 secs||9.2 secs||8.6 secs|
Looking at the table above, it is easy to see why the press and the public were soon so carried away by the car at the time of its launch: in the case of the Rover 214Si, here was a car that offered quality and performance that most of the 1.6-litre opposition struggled to match. The costly top of the range 216GSi, however, offered something that the (better equipped) cost rival, the Ford Escort 1.6 Ghia could not hope to match, and that was sheer pace and overall showroom appeal. In fact, during that time, the 216GSi offered ‘MG’ levels of go and ‘Vanden Plas’ levels of interior opulence – and quite simply, no rival had an answer to this.
In fact, it soon became clear that Rover’s advantage over the Class of ’89 was so great that Rover Cars new managing Director, George Simpson was rumoured to have given Kevin Morley’s marketing team a severely hard time for not making the Rover 200 more expensive than it was when it finally appeared. Simpson stated, when interviewed by Autocar magazine in 1989 that the company wanted to realise their dream of going further upmarket, but also, not abandoning the volume market sector. ‘We’re not aiming at BMW, nor will we ever be BMW. We have no intention of getting out of the volume market. What we are doing, and the 200 is the start of this, is aiming our cars away from the popular sections of the mass market and more at the top end, where the Rover name, and all it stands for can make an impact’.
And it did make an impact: Autocar magazine pitched the 216GSi against the then current class leaders, the FIAT Tipo and Renault 19, as well as the venerable Ford Escort 1.6 Ghia – and the scale of the Rover’s dominance over the other cars is manifestly clear. ‘In the final analysis, however, it’s (the Tipo) simply out-gunned and out-gripped by the Rover which turns out to be a remarkably complete and well-executed car. Rover’s real achievement with the 216 has been to give it some class. Its shape is essentially no more adventurous than the Renault’s but thoughtful detailing lifts it out of potential anonymity. The cabin is a minor triumph too, the mixture of textured plastics, leather and wood substituting a warm and inviting ambience that is traditionally Rover for a smart and slightly clinical one that is Honda. Bear in mind that the Rover is roomy, refined and well equipped and it’s hard to see how it can lose this contest. It’s worth the extra money: the quality shows.’
If the 216 was viewed as a triumph when compared to its rivals, it must be said that this model made a slightly less convincing case for itself when viewed alongside the 214, with its K-Series engine. Rover was very proud with what they achieved with the K-Series engine – and its long life (in an era where power units would need to be upgraded regularly to keep up with ever changing emissions regulations) was a testimony to its fundamentally good design. Following their lukewarm response to the Rover 800 back in 1986, Car magazine would unconditionally praise the 214SLi model when tested against its rivals.
The levels of equipment in this middle of the range model were less than generous, but given that, the essentials were there and it was not only the performance, ride and handling that impressed, but the interior ambience. ‘The wood works well, every piece of plastic is nicely finished and textured, the seat fabrics are subtle and even the carpets suggested Wilton to the Carpetland of the others. And there’s a chromed ‘Rover’ kickplate on the sill to remind you why you’ve paid that little bit extra. Somehow, when other manufacturers try to recreate this sort of image, they fail – witness the Orion 1600E.’ As with the Autocar test result, where the Rover mauled the opposition, the Car result read similarly: ‘Rover has achieved what it set out to do with the 200. It has distanced it from the competition, yet kept it accessible. You get a car high on refinement, quality and driver appeal. It’s not perfect, but it is desirable. At last, Rover has got it right.’
Like the SD1 before it in 1976, the impressive new Rover received a raft of awards from the motoring press in Europe as well as the UK (although it lost out in the International Car of The Year contest to the Citroën XM). The 214 was without doubt the best received car from the Midlands company since the SD1 and unlike the older ancestor, the company built the car to Japanese standards right from the beginning of the production run at Longbridge. Rover were careful to ensure that the £400 million investment in Honda robots installed in their factory were producing the car to the same high standards as the Suzuka factory, and so used forty Honda production engineers who acted as consultants when building up to the beginning of the Rover’s production run.
The following April, Rover finally pensioned off the existing Rover 213/216 to make way for the saloon version of the R8, called the 400. In line with Rover’s new upmarket pricing policy, the saloon was priced rather ambitiously at a premium of between £200 and £600 model-on-model. Rover justified this by stating that the new saloon had an identity all of its own, compared with the hatchback 200 model. This was a daring thing for Rover to try although the premiums were not that great, on top of the already steep price of the Rover 200 the new 400 series amounted to a rather expensive car. In addition to the standard model range, a new flagship was launched: the Rover 416GTi 16v.
Stretching the point: six body styles from one platform
Although George Simpson had stated that he had no intention for Rover to become a ‘British BMW’, the 416GTi was certainly an attempt by the company to establish themselves in the 3-Series sector of the market. The ingredients that made up the GTi were predictable enough: the car was fully equipped with standard leather upholstery and the all the options available on the car added as a standard fitting. What differentiated this car from the lesser GSi version was its twin cam version of the Honda engine, which produced 128bhp, as opposed to the 114bhp of the single cam version – this was an incredibly high output for a naturally aspirated 1590cc engine.
Its high state of tune was reflected by the fact that the maximum power was developed, Honda style, and way up the rev range at 6800rpm. Torque was also notably absent from this engine, but as the engine was lifted straight from the Honda CR-X, it was fitting for the small two-seater to be fitted with such a zingy engine. In the luxurious GTi version of the 400, it was, however, somewhat misplaced: this fact being borne out by the fact that the top of the range car was priced to directly compete with the Audi 80 2.0E, BMW 318i and Mercedes-Benz 190E. Needless to say, the GTi was not an unqualified success, amounting to a confusing clash of ideals – the sporty, under-geared demeanor of the car not matching the out and out luxury of the cabin. The result was the Rover 416GTi 16v was neither fish nor fowl, but worse than that, as a plush hatchback, competing against the Golf and Escort, it was supremely impressive – against the premium Germans, it was most certainly out of its depth.
The engine was certainly more suited to the next model to appear: the three door GTi model – a car that was designed to go eyeball to eyeball with the iconic Golf GTi. Kevin Morley had always made it clear that the car that he most wanted to emulate was the Volkswagen – and with the three-door GTi, he certainly knew that the company possessed a car that was certainly capable of tilting at the German. Ironically enough, the sports GTis never seemed to score well with the customers – whether it was because the Rover image was incompatible with a sports car – or the sporting hatch somehow did not add up to the sum of its parts, like the 416GTi, but it emerged as a rather uninspiring addition to the ‘hot hatch’ pack.
By 1992, the range was further expanded by the addition of the 2-litre T16 engine, lifted straight from the Rover 800 – and after the Honda powered cars with their stratospheric rev limits, the torquey British designed engines certainly added up to a more relaxed (if unexpectedly unrefined) drive. As time passed, Rover continued to add more and more derivatives to the range: the Tomcat Coupé was added at the end of 1992, the cabriolet version followed in 1993, then the estate version, which Rover badged as the ‘Tourer’.
Rover certainly maximised the R8 platform to the full, as planned back in 1987, but it was a marketing operation as well. Initially, the intention was for the Tomcat Coupé and three-door GTis to be badged as MGs, but once the full implications of the Mazda MX-5 Miata became clear, BAe ensured that Rover placed added impetus into the fledgling PR3 roadster programme (which would emerge in 1995 as the MGF). Because of the desire to compete with Mazda, BAe did not wish for the MG nameplate to be ‘devalued’ by being applied to humble saloon based cars, as they had been during the ’80s.
As a result, all performance and open-topped R8s would emerge as Rovers – and as a result, the largest range of separate body styles on any car from the company was created:
|1989||Five-door hatchback 214/216 (later, 216 DOHC, 220, 220T, 218D and 218TD)|
|1990||Four-door saloon 414/416 SOHC and DOHC (later 420, 420T, 418D and 418TD)|
|1991||Three-door hatchback 214 8v and 214 16v, 216 SOHC, 216 DOHC and 220)|
|1992||Two-door coupé 216/220/220T (later K-Series 1.8VVC)|
|1993||Two-door cabriolet 214/216|
|1994||Five-door Tourer 416/420/418TD|
As can be seen from the above list, the Rover 200 eventually was built in no less than six body variations, and as a result, the maximum that could be extracted from the platform was done so. In the past, BMC, Leyland and Austin Rover relied on badging variations to give depth to the range (an example of this was the ADO16 which was produced in six flavours: Austin, Morris, MG, Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas – but the only bodily differences between them, simplistically put, was their radiator grilles); with the R8, Rover became a niche manufacturer – and in its sector, the company produced a variation to plug any gaps that they identified on the marketplace.
By 1994, both the 200 and 400 received a chrome grille – a simple screwed on item – in order to instill the range with the ‘Rover’ identity, but also to tie the car in with the newly launched Rover 600. They ploy was a partial success – by this time, the car was beginning to look a little past its prime. It was not so much a case that the car was uncompetitive, but that rival companies launched replacements for their mainstream cars: in 1991, an improved Astra was announced, the Golf III followed it onto the market months later – the competition soon caught and passed the impressive small Rover. This phenomenon soon exposed a weakness of the R8 and that was one that befell the larger Rover 800 as well: It was based on a Honda – and Hondas were tied in to a five year lifecycle, and cars that have short planned lifecycles are invariably not designed in a ‘timeless’ way.
Not that it mattered, of course: Rover were already working on the replacement for the 200/400 and had been since 1990 – but unlike the excellent R8 and most disappointingly for Rover and their fans, that car designated ‘Theta’ and ‘HHR’, would be almost entirely designed by Honda.
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.