Replacing the Montego with a Honda-based product was never going to be straightforward…
…and in the end, the Rover 600 never replaced it at all.
A new era begins
THE fifth major Honda collaboration with Rover was a project to replace the upper Montego models, whilst opening up new markets for Rover – to produce a viable rival for the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz 190. This market sector was a major growth area in the European market and Rover with their newfound upmarket aspirations were keen to cash in.
Initial thoughts on how to replace the Montego had surfaced in 1984/85 – and the model was originally planned as a shortened version of the XX, to be available in saloon and hatchback form. The AR16 and AR17, as they were dubbed, made an appealing car, being essentially more of a British design than the car they were based upon, and styled to match the new and rather successful Rover “theme”. The Roy Axe studios worked on new versions of the car, but as corporate plans favoured a move towards further co-operation with Honda, the AR16/17 died a quiet death following the appointment of Graham Day.
Day knew that Rover no longer possessed deep enough pockets to produce a truly satisfying executive car on their own and instigated talks with Honda on producing a new car to fill the gap in their range. As far as Honda were concerned, though, any deal cooked up with Rover which involved the Accord would need to be controlled by them: the Accord was already a major player in the US market – and as far as they were concerned, Rover could not teach them anything – the Accord ran to a tried and tested formula.
Working with Honda
After these talks on which centred on Rover building a badge engineered version of the Accord, a plan was hatched and the deal was finalised in June 1989. Rover would have access to the 1993 version of the Accord, but they would have no involvement with the technical development of the car.
Honda also laid down quite strict stipulations for Rover to adhere to in the makeup of the new car – dubbed Synchro during the early stages of the design process, but changed to the SK1 (for the Honda engined version) and SK2 (for the Rover engined version) once the serious work got underway in Japan. Firstly, the new Rover could not be sold in the USA, it should use nothing but Honda petrol power units and the only changes Rover should make to the car would be with its external design.
Following his work on the then yet-to-be-released R8, Richard Woolley was chosen to lead the way with the Synchro’s external design and was soon working hard on a style for the car. As with the previous collaborative models, the Synchro would involve a great deal of side-by-side working with Honda designers in Japan, and a further demonstration that both companies wanted a different look to their cars, but were prepared to work towards common goals.
The earliest thoughts on the new car were born in England, and it would involve several months’ hard work at Canley to produce a full-scale model based on Woolley’s plans for the car. “I had produced a ‘theme’ design for 600 at Canley in the months preceding my departure for Japan in October ’89. Based on some early information on mechanical package and proportion, this theme prepared me for some intense work schedules at Honda.
“We did not ship the model out to Japan, but ‘captured’ the surface data and I had a full suite of photographs to take along. The theme was the first time that the Rover Grille had been re-incorporated into a front-end style.”, Woolley related.
Once in Japan, the English and Japanese design teams would again work alongside each other, as they had before with the Rover 800 and the R8, but with Honda adopting more of a leading role on the technical front. During the time spent together, both design teams worked extremely hard to produce their individual products, and this resulted in some very long working days; “Meetings often went on until late at night, and on one occasion I saw a quite senior Honda spokesman fall off his chair asleep, in front of about 30 people”, Woolley recalled.
Honda may have been the dominant technical partner, but this did not stop Rover from exerting a strong influence over its own design. It simply came down to the fact that what Honda and Rover wanted different things for their cars: “When I arrived in Japan, Honda were also at the theme stage, and we began to have discussions on the levels of commonality between the two cars. It was obvious that both Honda’s designer and myself were after two very different feelings for the cars.” Thankfully, Richard Woolley’s Synchro theme was successfully transposed onto the final mechanical template offered to them by Honda.
Although the basic architecture of the Accord would need to remain untouched, Rover soon devised a new set of clothes that would give the car a completely new identity of its own. Unlike the previous Roy Axe headed design efforts (including the Rover R8), the new Rover would move away from the “folded paper” school of design and towards something more contemporary. Gordon Sked led Rover’s design department by 1989 and the Synchro’s appearance reflected a new direction by the company.
Styling to success
Styling and external designs forwarded by Richard Woolley formed the basis of the new car – and his desire to produce a design that was more obviously “Rover” in its outlook was highly apparent. “I was after something more akin to the classically proportioned sporty four door saloon look, which I’d always felt was at the heart of Rover.” Chief differences between the Synchro and the Rover 800 were the side window configuration and the re-adoption of a prominent Rover radiator grille – a throwback to the Rover P5, which would form the centrepiece of the new car, rather than being an add-on, as it was on the R17.
The decision to go back to using a prominent Rover grille was taken by Roy Axe – and was the result of a backlash against me-too design in the European car industry. For some time, it became apparent that the look pioneered by the SD1 back in 1976, was becoming increasingly adopted on a wide scale – and Rover, who wanted to breathe some marque identity back into their cars were keen to move away from this phenomenon.
The Rover 800 facelift model, the R17 would be the first beneficiary of this new thinking although its grille was actually added late on in the programme following very positive market research results returned by the SK1/SK2. Also, there was a clear decision to move back towards the organically shaped car, and this reflected the fact that the aerodynamic school of thought was widespread in the European industry – and following on from such cars as the pioneering Ford Sierra in 1982, the 1986 Audi 80 (B3) and the 1986 Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton, it was becoming fashionable to produce a car with a streamlined appearance.
Once the styling had been settled upon, the task was to engineer the car to accept the new style, whilst ensuring that Honda’s brief of not making major structural changes was adhered to. A full size model was built and using this, customer clinics for the new car were held – and the car scored very highly: the design was viewed as being classy, but understated. These exceptionally favourable results convinced Rover that the new car was exactly what the needed to plug the gap between the 800, which by the time of the new car’s launch would have received its only major face-lift, and the larger engined versions of the 400 model, which at the time, was yet to be launched, but the company were confident of its chances.
Development of the Synchro was then passed over to Honda, who in fine tradition, were formulating a new car that, although was an evolution of their current Accord, was entirely new from the wheels up. The European version of the Accord, and therefore, the version that Rover used in developing the Synchro would be available in 2.0 and 2.3-litre versions and would initially come in one body style – a six-light four door saloon.
Honda developed the interior and although Rover had no input into the overall design, the style of the dashboard was very redolent of Rover’s own designs – with its separated instrument binnacle, swooping centre console and passenger side dash top stowage tray. This is one area that Honda learned lessons from Rover – and each of their subsequent mass-market models showed by just how much.
Of course, Rover had their own ideas when it came to the interior colour schemes – and it is obvious that although the interiors of the Accord and Syncho were all-but identical, the clever use of colour and light wood veneer meant that the Rover version of the car would be a nicer place to sit in. Because of this, Rover would generally use warmer caramel-type shades for their major plastic mouldings, whereas Honda stuck to their traditional greys. This, in fact, was a variance that the two companies had found since their very first collaboration – the Triumph Acclaim.
Marketing – the push upwards
Marketing the new car did pose some interesting dilemmas for Rover: obviously, the new car was aimed at plugging the gap between the 400 and 800 – so, therefore, the 600 badge was an obvious name to call it. The difficulty lay, however, with the Montego and how the new car would affect the outgoing Austin. Back in the days of the AR9, this car was conceived as a straightforward Montego replacement, but now the 600 was taking shape, it was being aimed at an altogether different market.
The Rover 600 would initially be offered with the entry-level version being powered by the 115BHP version of the Honda 2.0-litre engine – and this equated to the most powerful normally aspirated version of the Montego. Very quickly, the decision was taken to keep the Montego in production beyond the point of the 600’s launch, in order to cover a sector of the market, which (although diminishing) was not covered by the small but expensive 400 and the larger 600.
The future for the range was, however, beginning to look distinctly Honda shaped and although the 600 was a handsome car, it lacked in inherent “Britishness” that the cosmetic adjustments made to the car did little to disguise. Not that it mattered too much – the 800 did have a British ambience, and that was on the whole nearly as Japanese as the 600.
Customers, however, kept telling Rover that they loved the car during ongoing clinics and – these results also led Rover to adopt an ambitious pricing policy for the car, that moved it so far away from the Montego, that there would no longer be any doubt as to whether this car was a replacement for it – it most certainly was not: whereas the Montego was a budget priced Ford Sierra rival, the stylish Rover 600 was going straight for the jugular of the BMW 3-Series.
As with all of the previous Honda/Rover joint efforts, it was the Honda that reached the market first: the Accord being announced during the late months of 1992. Many observers that knew that a new mid-range Rover was on its way, and was based on the new Honda were more than a little worried by the Japanese version’s styling – which was a little heavy handed. They need not have…
Impressing the world…
The Rover 600 was officially launched in April 1993, and hit the market at a particularly fertile period in the European mid market: Ford had replaced their Sierra with the new and frighteningly competent Mondeo and the result was that the Rover would be fighting some new and impressive machinery. Not least the E36 BMW 3-Series that had been announced in November 1990 – and had not began to show even traces of ageing.
Needless to say that with its Honda underpinnings, the Rover 600 was seen as being at a disadvantage against such fearsome opposition, but the truth was somewhat different. Car magazine summed up the situation perfectly in a group test, which pitted the 620SLi against the BMW 318i, Ford Mondeo Ghia and Citroen Xantia:
“Assemble these four cars for appraisal by an unprejudiced public and the Rover would win hands down. No question. It is a winner. If we’re talking class – and that’s what the upper echelons of the M2 sector are all about – the 620SLi exudes it. It is not as roomy as appearances suggest, it does not perform with great distinction, and it’s no more fun to drive (arguably less) than the Ford Mondeo. But it scores handsomely for comfort, refinement, quietness and build quality. Above all, it imbues the driver with a sense of it’s good-to-be-here well-being that its rivals cannot match. It has style, it has image, it has class.”
Like the older first Rover 200 before it, the Rover 600 proved very strong on static qualities: it looked right and as Car magazine summed up, it exuded a classy image that at the time, made it a bit of a unique proposition in its class. What went against the 600, though, was the overt Honda influence in the engineering of the car – as was demonstrated time and time again in the past, Rover were not interested in producing a car that used wishbone suspension – it allowed for too little wheel travel, which resulted in the inability to deliver a supple and well-damped ride.
Trouble was looming for the Rover, however, and it would come in the form of the company’s new ownership. With Honda effectively disentangling themselves from Rover s quickly as possible, the future for the Rover 600 was effectively a short one. By the time of the BMW takeover, Rover were already working on adapting the Rover 600 to accept the turbocharged version of the T16 engine, already used in the 420 Sport and 820 Vitesse models. But, the mainstream 600 models would continue to rely on Honda for their engines – and because Honda chose to re-negotiate their licence agreement following BMW’s takeover, it was now effectively costing the company an excessive amount of money to produce the 600.
Because of this, BMW set about producing a replacement for the 600 and 800 models, and sadly, ceased any meaningful marketing of the car soon after this decision was made. Nevertheless, British engined versions of the 600 soon appeared – the first of which was the L-Series powered turbo diesel version. This useful model significantly added appeal to the 600 model in those predominantly DERV orientated markets, such as France and Italy, where the Rover 600 had already established itself s being popular. The L-Series engine was an update of the Prima engine first found in the Maestro and Montego – and like its progenitor, proved remarkably economical in service.
Developing the range
Following hot on the heels of the diesel version came the highly effective and sadly underrated 620Ti version. With a maximum power output of 197bhp at 6000rpm, it truly was a real Q-car, because like all Rover performance models of the time, it wore no body addenda hinting at its colossal straight-line speed.
Autocar were impressed: “We approached the new Rover turbo with some trepidation because previous high-powered front-drive Rovers have had either poor traction, bags of wheel fight or both. The 620Ti is far easier to tame than any of its predecessors. A small amount of torque steer is evident when the car is pulling out of tight corners in first or second gears, and the car will also tramline under very hard braking, but in most circumstances this is a predictable, stable car that just goes where it’s pointed.” Certainly the 620Ti was able to put its power down respectably, and this was due in no small part to Honda’s intelligently designed front suspension geometry.
Overall, the 620Ti emerged as an excellent performance saloon, but because it seriously encroached on BMW’s hallowed ground, and it was not quite how the parent company saw Rover in the contemporary executive market, marketing support for the car was dropped.
Rover 600Ti performance figures (Top Gear magazine):
Standing start acceleration:
|2.8 secs||4.1 secs||5.6 secs||7.2 secs||9.5 secs||11.9 secs||15.0 secs||18.9 secs||24.7secs|
Maximum speed in gears:
Overall fuel consumption:
Customers liked the Rover 600 – and although it was comfortably outsold across Europe by the BMW 3-Series, it established itself for its tight build quality and impressive reliability. Many saw the marriage of British style and Japanese reliability as a positive buying point – and not many people were disappointed by their 600s in service. Also, the Rover 600 won many admirers for its styling, and if Rover tried quite hard to disguise the fact that it was a genuinely stylish car with some boring colour options and rather unremarkable wheel designs, it is a design that in the context of its replacement has aged very well.
It was also a car that contained more Rover DNA than many people have given it credit for – rather like the 200/400, it was a car with a Japanese designed interior, but it still managed to look like Rover had penned it. Why? Because Honda more than happy to adopt the design principles set out by Rover, if ultimately it improved their own products along the way. When asked about the success of the Rover 600’s design, Richard Woolley is quite clear about his own feelings. “Yes, I am proud of the car, and although the engineering was all Honda, Rover significantly influenced the approach that was taken to the project as a whole.”
When it came to producing a replacement, BMW and Rover continued the style pioneered by the Rover 600, except perhaps increasing the already liberal (but certainly not excessive) amounts of chrome used on the car. The 600’s replacement, the Rover 75 may have looked reasonably similar, but it drove very differently: and the essentially sporty appeal of the car was sadly lost to BMW’s misguided ambition for Rover to offer a pillow soft ride above all else.
Rover 600 production figures (Cowley):
Thanks to “an insider” and Richard Woolley for their help with this story.
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.
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