For some, it was a badge too far, but for others, it was a sensible new direction for the Rover marque.
Which ever side of the ‘Ro-nda’ fence you sit on, there’s no denying the Rover 213 and 216 were a good move for a struggling BL, and demonstrated that people would pay extra for a little class…
A change in direction
JUSTIFIABLY, both BL and Honda were happy with the direction their collaboration had been progressing. Weeks after the successful launch of the Acclaim in the UK, agreements on the company’s next two joint venture cars were being drawn-up. In November 1981, after discussions concerning the direction that the two would take their partnership, the companies agreed terms: As the Triumph Acclaim was essentially a badge engineered Honda Ballade, it would be replaced at the same time as its Japanese counterpart by the next generation version of the Ballade, when it was due to appear in 1984.
This arrangement was straightforward enough – and because of Honda’s five-year lifecycles, Austin Rover had guaranteed themselves to be in the position of always being in possession of a reasonably fresh and new midliner. The second of the two collaborative deals would emerge as the Rover 800 and Honda Legend – and would prove to be much more of a joint engineering and design effort.
The small Rover
Austin Rover was very happy with the image that the Acclaim had picked up in the minds of buyers – the Japanese connection was proving to be a positive asset because it was proving to be an antidote to the now deeply-ingrained image of unreliability that was associated with the rest of the product range. This was no mere perception either; to this point in time, the Acclaim generated the lowest warranty costs in the history of the company – and if nothing else, it proved that the British workforce was highly effective in assembling cars to Japanese production tolerances.
Mark Snowdon stated that for the first time in recent history, the outgoing Acclaim was, “…a product we’re not dissatisfied with. And that shows clearly that we’re making good progress.”
Where the Triumph Acclaim was let down, was that it was seen as being out on a limb and out of step with the rest of the range and therefore, difficult to market.
This dilemma occupied the minds of the strategists, because basically as before, the new car’s configuration being strictly controlled by Honda, the marketing of the car would play a much more important role. Early on in planning for the new car, Austin Rover decided that it should be a more upmarket car than the Acclaim – this decision being justified by Snowdon, “Luxury versions of both big and small cars sell well at the moment. Because we already have volume car representation in the hatchback and notchback markets, it makes sense to position the Acclaim’s replacement as a more luxurious and expensive car.”
In fact, because the car that Honda was developing to replace the current Ballade was slightly larger and arguably more stylish, it made positive sense to follow this path and turn the new car into some kind of latter-day Triumph Dolomite.
Because BL’s car division was now known as Austin Rover, and Triumph was now in its last gasp, with the TR7 now dead – and the Acclaim acting merely as essentially a stop-gap, the decision was taken to introduce the new car as a Rover. This fit in nicely with the company’s plans to move this car into a more upmarket niche, in fact, Mark Snowdon was extremely keen on the move. “Our company’s name is Austin Rover. People tend not to associate the name Triumph with those two. It was particularly confusing in Europe, a market where we are starting to do well. We also thought the Rover badge would simply be more appropriate on a small luxury car. Triumph still has the image of cheap sports car makers – and that’s not what we want.”
This strategy of placing such a prestigious nameplate on such a small car was certainly a risky one because there was a very real danger of cheapening the Rover name. If nothing else, it certainly showed that Austin Rover had a great deal of confidence in the ability of the new car to carry off its move upmarket without hitch.
Unlike the Triumph Acclaim, it was clear that there was room to develop the new car modestly – and the first step was to develop their version of the car to accept the forthcoming S-Series engine. There was very real logic in this decision because although the Acclaim had been a sprightly car, because of its revvy engine and light weight, the slightly heavier new Rover would need a larger engine option in order to become a viable alternative on the fleet market – a sector the company was keen on re-establishing itself in.
The Acclaim was never particularly a big success as a company car – 26 per cent of the sales of this model were sales to the fleets – an unusually low number for a British mid-sized car. As it was, it was claimed that the 1.3-Litre version would contain a 70 per cent local content – the same as the Acclaim – but that figure would be increased significantly to nearer 90 per cent in the S-series powered model.
Also at variance from the Acclaim programme, the interior of the Rover would be more influenced by Austin Rover – whereas the Acclaim had been almost pure Honda, the newer car had a more British interior. Careful attention was paid to this aspect of the new car’s design – a particular design brief was to give the impression of quality and airiness. Happily, Rover achieved these aims. This, along with the Rover-influenced grille/headlight treatment more successfully placed the car as home-grown in the minds of potential buyers.
As the new car neared production, it underwent a serious amount of customer clinic work, in order to get the sales and marketing strategy just right. Significantly, a car that they Austin Rover would use as a benchmark for the new car was the Ford Orion: the logic behind this was simple – this car was (in an engineering sense) merely an Escort with a boot, and yet it commanded a healthy premium over its hatchback counterpart because of its more exclusive nature. In testing at Gaydon, as well as in customer clinics, the Rover would go head to head with the Orion on many occasions. In customer clinics, the choice of the Rover name was backed-up by a positive response, “we found that out of all the possible names, ‘Rover’ was best suited to the car”, stated Snowdon.
There was a great deal of thought put into the naming of the new car, now Rover would be offering a two-car range, the new car’s nomenclature would need to integrate with the then current SD1, but also the upcoming XX model. Rover traditionally have never used names for their cars, always preferring a numeric title, and following this logic it would be common sense to name the new car the Rover 1300 and Rover 1600, but after serious consideration by Austin Rover, they decided to brand the whole series as one, rather than giving the two versions individual titles. The reason for this, was that the idea had proven for successful for BMW and the usage of the 200 Series moniker was the British company’s take on this. And so it was thus: 1300cc versions would be known as the 213 and the 1600cc versions were to be known as the 216. Unfortunately, in true Rover tradition, the full range was not available at launch in June 1984 the S-Series versions would follow later that year.
Technically, the car was pure Honda, however, but unlike the Acclaim, the 1984 version of their Civic model was more suitably sized for Europeans. The wheelbase was useful 5.5 inches longer than the Acclaim, giving the car considerably more interior room – and the revisions to the interior undertaken by the British certainly succeeded in giving the new car a more upmarket ambience. This quality was played upon with relish by Austin Rover, who centred on this aspect of the car above all others in marketing it – and rightly so.
The Rover 213’s engine was arguably the most advanced ever to be fitted to an Austin-Rover/BL/BMC car and the specifications of new 1342cc power unit certainly made impressive reading. This Tokyo developed crossflow 12-Valve power unit allowed for free breathing and as a result of the improved gas flow that this configuration allowed, improved fuel economy was the result. Improved carburation further improved potential for economy when compared with the Acclaim, which had a more traditional twin-carburettor setup. The new engine also was light, because of its all-alloy construction, and compact because of its siamesed cylinder bores (which has been done before in the dim and distant past of BLMC). The result of this considered piece of design was an impressive power output of 70bhp at 6000rpm (the same as the Acclaim), and maximum torque of 75 lb/ft at 3500rpm (an improvement over its predecessor). Both these figures compared very favourably to the A-Plus engine, which in Maestro form produced a reasonable 68bhp, but with considerably less mechanical refinement.
Austin Rover’s modifications to the suspension setup were limited to minor adjustments to the damper rates, with the aim of improving the ride quality – the result was an improvement over the Honda Ballade, but because the suspension componentry was manufactured in Japan, Austin Rover was really limited in what changes it could effect.
On the road
When the press first drove the Rover 213 in June 1984, much discussion followed over the choice of the names for the car – and the surprise was evident (as most people assumed it would be badged as a Triumph) in the words that followed regarding the effect the new small Rover would have on all those traditionalists out there. Be that as it may, the Rover 213 acquitted itself very well and the praise given by Car magazine is indicative of this:
“Inside, the British contribution to the 213 is obvious. The seats and upholstery are as English as after-work pints and roasts on Sunday. Particularly impressive are the second-from-top SE model and Vanden Plas. Both have walnut door inserts.”
This will become an increasingly common theme in Rover fettled Hondas: Japanese ergonomics meet English wood and leather. It would prove to be a surprisingly popular theme – and Honda would learn a lot from Austin Rover in terms of dashboard architecture and interior ambience.
Mechanical refinement was also lauded, “A second after you’ve let go of the (ignition) key, watched the red ignition light go out, and seen the tachometer needle move to the 500rpm mark, you are likely to be surprised just how quiet the motor is – unless you’ve been driving a Civic. I thought the first time I started the car, that the engine had stalled: the lack of noise at idle was remarkable”. It must seem like a fairly minor point, but these seemingly small qualities leave a lasting impression in the minds of potential buyers. During the life of the Rover 200, it would be this overriding impression of quality that would stand the car apart from its Austin badged counterparts and ultimately led to the formation of a model strategy built around the Rover marque.
First impressions may have been rather favourable, but the extended drive would reveal flaws in the overall chassis package. “Ride has never been a notably strong point of the rear-wheel drive SD1 Rovers with their live rear axles and although the Rover 213 Vanden Plas is completely different in concept… it is fair to say that the ride is not this baby Rover’s strongest suit either”, Autocar magazine summed-up, but Motor was somewhat more scathing in their opinion of the Rover 213: “It’s not that the 213 handles badly, but the consensus of our testers was that the Rover’s chassis behaviour, not only falls short of the standards set by the all-but-identical Civic – a curiosity this – but can’t even compare with those of the old Honda-based Triumph Acclaim. Nor does it compare favourably with the Maestro and Montego.”
What this all added up to was that the Rover 213 added up as a car high on static qualities, but fell short when it came to the extended drive. That was certainly the view of the Road testers out there – and yes, back-to-back with a Montego over give and take roads, it is fair to say that the Rover 213 would not see which way the Montego went, but in terms of raw showroom appeal, the Rover had the beating of the all-British car – and that was most certainly not good news for Austin Rover, who saw the Montego as a volume seller at the time.
Certainly, the appeal of the appeal of the Rover 200 Series was considerably broadened later that year when the 1.6-Litre 216 versions were launched in May 1985 – and if the S-Series engine could not hope to compete with the silky smooth Honda 12-Valve in terms of refinement, it gave the small car a fair turn of speed – and in the bar room talk of the mid-Eighties, that mattered. Unlike the S-Series powered Montego and Maestro models, the Rover 216 remained with a Honda gearbox, the same type that was used in the 2-Litre Austin and MG Montego/Maestro – this did the car no harm whatsoever because in service the models which used the VW gearbox were not only found to be rather unpleasant in use, but were also questionable in their reliability (fleet managers reported that the fault lay in the linkages – an Austin Rover part). Forsaking this option for the Rover 216, meant that the company was not running the risk of compromising its reliability.
Rover used the opportunity to also make some further reaching changes to the suspension set-up: Honda managers had originally stated flatly that this was their system and Rover did not need to tamper with it, but they had not figured on its sheer incompetence in its initial form. What Rover found was not so much a problem with the ride quality – that was always going to be compromised by the fact that the suspension had limited travel, but what they – and road testers – found was, disconcertingly, the car would suffer from excessive pitching under acceleration and corkscrewing when cornering.
This basic flaw obviously resulted in inconsistent handling and the company did not want such a compromise present on their car – Honda derived or not. So, the chassis engineers went about trying to solve the problem, which they did fairly quickly. It was found that there was a seventeen per cent difference in spring rate between the left and right rear wheels, which once eliminated by Austin Rover, left the Rover 200 with consistent and class-average ride and handling. Significantly, Honda also took up these modifications in their Ballade model – and not just those built Longbridge.
This was the first real sign that the Honda deal was becoming more involved. Whereas the Acclaim was a licence build arrangement, pure and simple, the Rover 200 would mark the start of more co-operative thinking. Honda marked the event with the announcement that, following in Nissan’s path, it was to set-up a facility in the UK at a green-field sight in Swindon. The site, which initially was quite small scale, was set-up to perform quality checks for their Ballade models produced in Longbridge – and the upcoming HX model (the Honda Legend) produced at Cowley. As for where the SD3 name came from, an insider explained: ‘we called it SD3 for fun, really. It was a nickname given to the car just before launch to give it a sense of continuity, following on from SD1 and SD2.’
If the site was a success, there were further plans to phase in the production of engines – and eventually cars. Meanwhile, over in Longbridge, Honda were also making their presence felt, because along with the production of the 200 model, there was also the announcement made that Rover would be working with Honda to phase in the gradual introduction of Japanese working and managerial practices.
This would mark a significant turn in the history of the company’s labour relations and managerial practices – something that would live on long after the deal with Honda fell-through.
Speaking to Autocar magazine at the time of the launch of the R8 Rover 200 in 1989, George Simpson (Graham Day’s replacement as Rover Managing Director) stated that when he joined Triumph at Canley in the Sixties, there were fourteen different canteens and depending on what managerial level you were at, your drink and lunch entitlement differed. This product of a different era must have seemed like a million years ago to the workers of Longbridge, who would now be dining alongside their managers – and rightly so. Ironically, it was at the new Roy Axe studios in Canley, where the Japanese engineers soon made their presence felt during the development programme of the XX/HX – and a good relationship between the Japanese and the British was soon formed.
The car itself certainly benefited from the development work that had been undertaken on it in the background and unlike the other models in the range, the Rover 200 became increasingly popular throughout its life. Along with the carburettor-fed 216 cars, there was also the Lucas injected EFi models, available in luxury Vanden Plas and sporty Vitesse trims – and these soon became the focus of the marketing department, who soon realised that this compact and quick package was a highly marketable proposition. The Rover 200 already abounded with static qualities and now, thanks to the relatively powerful little engine, it had excellent straight-line speed as well – something that Ford had successfully latched onto a year or so before with the XR3i engined Orion 1.6i Ghia.
The oft-referred to halo effect soon trickled its way down the range until all Rover 200s were seen as a sub-BMW 3-Series alternative. Of course, the car did not possess a depth of abilities to get anywhere near the BMW, but certainly for the first time in a long time, the British company had produced a car with real showroom appeal.
In sales terms, the Rover 200 exceeded the expectations the company had of it, but that success possibly reflects the failure of the Montego and Maestro, rather than the World-beating success of the 200 model. The sales story of the Rover 200 Series in the UK is brought into relief by the relative performances of both the cars (listed below), as reported by the SMMT: The Montego’s figures read exceptionally disappointingly when one considers that this was a volume seller, conceived to fight Ford and GM in the company car market, whereas the Rover 200 was initially treated as a niche model by Austin Rover:
The jump in sales of the car from late 1986 onwards can also be put down to the fact that the advertising and marketing emphasis of the company radically changed after the arrival of Graham Day. One surprising fact about the Rover 200 was unearthed by Austin Rover’s huge market research programme undertaken (from late 1985 into the following Spring) was that customers perceived the it as being an expensive car – as Kevin Morley put it, “Customers see the Rover 200 as a car with a starting price of £10,000”.
In fact, this was far from the truth – the entry-level 213 models actually cost nearer £7000 – and as a result, all advertising for the car centred on the range’s starting price but continued to make great play of its exclusivity. The resultant jump in sales following this change in tactic is plain to see from the SMMT figures listed above.
Already, the replacement for the Rover 200 was well underway by 1987 (known now as the AR8 – ‘YY’ was dropped as the development programme’s name in 1986) – and although Honda would still dominate this collaborative effort in terms of engineering, the emphasis was of the overall project was changed so that Rover would now have more of an influence in the conception of the car’s styling and interior. These results would become very apparent by 1989 when the new car appeared, but what was fascinating about the Rover 200 was that during the course of its production run, it moved from being an up-market niche car (the latter-day Triumph Dolomite) to the staple product of a company with upward aspirations – and Rover talked of the AR8 as not only the ‘new Rover’, but increasingly as the ‘Maestro replacement’.
Future direction changes
Because of the sales success of the Rover 200 (and 800), the company’s future direction now lay with a range comprising entirely of Rovers – and as we shall see, this policy of Roverisation would be applied to the Austin Metro, but would leave the old-generation Maestro and Montego out in the cold – people simply did not want them. Following Rover’s purchase by BAe, the Rover marque was now firmly established as the vehicle that would take the company upwards towards a more prosperous future.
This policy was still very much a risky one – and there were some very evident pitfalls in it, but in stark business terms, the Japanese Rover was here to stay. Traditionalists would bemoan the fact that Rover cars now represented nothing more than badge engineered Japanese cars, but the cold hard facts were that these Ro-ndas sold, whereas Austins did not.
Not only this, but it could also be argued, that once the sweeping Roverisation had been completed, the company would end up in the position of finally offering an integrated range of cars that offered a logical range for the buyers – surely the stuff of dreams back in 1981, when the first Triumph Acclaim rolled off the production line.
Because of this change in direction by the company and its increasing reliance on Honda, the Ro-nda strategy would now direct the company well into the 1990s and well beyond the purchase of the company by BMW in 1994.
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.