Best of British : Happy 30th to the Rover 200 series

Most of us know the Montego, along with the Leyland Roadrunner, celebrated a 30th birthday this year. Also, back in 1984, the Rover 200 was introduced – an important product that today, almost seems forgotten in classic car circles. Mike Humble stumbled upon the sole surviving early 216 Vitesse… and this one’s rather special too!

The Rover 200 series has reached 30 this year. 1.6 versions followed a year later and this is the last remaining pre facelift Vitesse - it's quite stunning and has some very special history too!
The Rover 200 series has reached 30 this year. 1.6 versions followed a year later and this is the last remaining pre-facelift Vitesse – it’s quite stunning and has some very special history too!

I have some very fond memories of the Rover 200 launch when the 1.6 version first hit the showrooms way back in 1985. The local dealer near where I lived at the time – North Street Garages Haverhill, asked if I could look smart and hand out glasses of wine and nibbles to the salivating customers who had been cordially invited to the unveiling ceremony. Even though I cannot exactly remember the model on display – it may have been a VDP EFi, I do recall getting pens, posters, brochures and other clutter as well as a very high speed test drive along the old A604 to Linton and back for my toils. Sadly, I cannot comment on the drive quality… I was only thirteen at the time!

The 200 series (codenamed SD3) was first launched 30 years ago. It was incredibly important for Austin Rover and it played a bigger part than was ever thought in the image recovery of the group and in general public perception. What many of us fail to remember is that the original Rover 213 was barely ten years on from the effective bankruptcy of British Leyland and its subsequent nationalisation. To progress from the Allegro, Marina or Triumph TR7 – cars all designed in the darkest of B.L days, to technology-led cars such as Montego and Rover 200 was no mean feat for a company that was battling for survival as well as public and media forgiveness.

Rover 200 soon became a well-received vehicle, just like the Acclaim, it showed that a British workforce could actually assemble a fine car if given the right ingredients and cutlery. Another interesting fact is that Honda chose Austin Rover to work with not on a cost ground, but quite simply because they had seen the potential of the group. It wasn’t long before the 200 range started to outsell both Maestro and Montego despite the cost premium and I recall a former time served ARG salesman – Graham Mayes, telling me that many Montego customers leapt into a 200 once they saw the reviews and felt the quality. It also outsold the car it was based on too, the Honda Ballade, by almost embarrasing numbers.

S Express - The 105bhp power unit boasted Lucas fuel injection and cracking torque and a rorty engine note but only found a home in the Rover 200.
S Express – The 105bhp power unit boasted Lucas fuel injection, cracking torque and a rorty engine note from its induction system but could only be found in the Rover 200

It was also common for an ARG salesperson to steer a Maestro or Montego customer into this new bite-sized luxury car and despite the visual similarity of it and the SD1 being like chalk and cheese, they sat happily side by side in the showroom. Fast forward a good few years and I found myself on more than one occasion tempted into buying a used 216 Vitesse. Unfortunately, they failed to have that certain je ne sais quoi that the more youthful customer looked for in a vehicle, in a nut shell; they were seen as an old person’s car and not really suitable for a gentleman in his early twenties with an eye for the fairer sex.

The SD3 shape morphed into the immediately successful R8 200 in 1989 and slowly the first generation 200 series started to vanish from the urban horizon. Every now and again you will still spot the odd 213 and 216 quietly going about its business and sometimes they pop up on internet auction sites. But most models are getting very rare, with the range being worse than average for rust. Many have been broken for spares or simply scrapped as the dreaded Sheffield Worm dined with delight on the bodywork. Residual values took a hammering owing to the new 1989 R8 being superb and the 1990 BBC TV series Keeping Up Appearances using an SD3 200 as the family hack of the socially challenged Mr and Mrs Bucket – it’s pronounced “bouquet” by the way!

Getting back to the Vitesse, how many examples in daily use do you think still exist of the early pre-face lifted 216? Well amazingly there is just one left on the road, but at least it’s rather special owing to the fact it was originally owned by a rather important person – especially if you follow the site, the cars and the history. John Corbett owns a Moonraker blue Rover 216 Vitesse EFi that looks really quite stunning even up close – it still sports its pretty ornate alloy wheels and period side graphics on the lower flanks. The vehicle in question – C244 JOA sports a Birmingham South registration owing to the fact is was first driven by ARG powertrain director Roland Bertodo – the man who went on to develop the K series.

“I’d seen it for sale originally on PistonHeads back in 2011… I grabbed a second opportunity and bought it at the start of this year” – John Corbett on his repeated chance to buy a very special Rover

John told me ‘I’d seen it for sale on PistonHeads back in 2011 and to this day I cannot fathom how I never took the plunge and bought it there and then.” The car then disappeared off the radar for a while only to turn up at Anglia Car Auctions to be then purchased by John’s friend Mark Wells. John continued: ‘Mark is a compulsive serial car buyer but never gelled with the Rover and failed to have any mad passion for it, so I grabbed a second opportunity and bought it at the start of this year.” John also owns many more ARG era vehicles including a pre-production 1.6L Montego – the oldest known survivor.

While we were talking at the Lancaster Classic Motor Show at the NEC, Austin Rover’s former PR manager Denis Chick, who is now Communications Director with Vauxhall, ambled over and showed great admiration for the Rover. In next to no time he started to recall those glory days of a once mighty British motor industry. He recalled halcyon times of both Montego and Rover 200 launches back in 1984: ‘Oh yes,” said Denis; ‘the launches were done on fairly tight budgets and seemed to go on for weeks at a time. We literally had to mix and match parts from one car to another if they were damaged.” Reminiscing with crystal clarity, it’s more than obvious Denis still holds a candle for our much-missed BLARG product and company.

Denis Chick - former Austin Rover P.R Manager now Communications Driecctor with Vauxhall wandered over and shared some stories about the good old bad old days.
Denis Chick – former Austin Rover PR Manager now Communications Director with Vauxhall wandered over and shared some stories about the good old bad old days

Sliding into the velour sports seat of the Vitesse, I noticed his eyes and hands slowly move around the interior, re-acclimatising himself to the almost concourse 216 as if he was being reunited with a long lost childhood sweetheart he’d never stopped loving. Denis explained that he felt Austin Rover got a little too cocky and tried to out-do Honda in terms of engineering now they had a new found confidence. He mentioned: ‘We learned a hell of a lot in terms of quality and product engineering but that said, they also learned from us about packaging and presentation of the interior.”

“They drove the wheels off the damn things, we had them come back missing mirrors, bumpers and various pieces of trim, but boy they were fun times indeed” – Denis Chick the former Austin Rover Group PR Manager talking about some of the European motoring press during the Montego and 200 launches.

Denis oversaw the launch of both Rover 200 and Austin Montego during a period of product led recovery and recalled a funny tale about the launch of both vehicles; ‘when we presented the cars to the European motoring press, we learned very quickly to always ensure the Italian’s were the last on the list to drive the cars.” I probed him about this to be told: ‘They drove the wheels off the damn things, we had them come back missing mirrors, bumpers and various pieces of trim – but boy they were fun times indeed.”

Owner John Corbett - left of picture stands with Ian Arthur from Hegarty Insurance - Denis was quite happy to stay seated behind the wheel of the sole surviving Mk1 216 Vitesse.
Owner John Corbett – left of picture stands with Ian Arthur from Hagerty Insurance – Denis was quite happy to stay seated behind the wheel of the sole surviving Mk1 216 Vitesse

John seemed both concerned and a little saddened that there was no other SD3 Rover 200 at the show. He made a passionate point of telling me that all there is to support this cracking little fun-sized Rover is a Facebook page and a sprinkling of mentions on a few motoring forums. Expanding on this, John said: ‘It’s an almost criminally ignored car nowadays when you consider how much good fortune the first 200 range brought to the group. It quickly became one of the most successful and profitable models in the company’s long and chequered history.”

But there was so much to take in at the show and Denis was needed back on the Vauxhall heritage stand, so I left John in the hands of Ian Arthur on the Hagerty Insurance stand where John’s car was doing a bit of PR work for the company who specialise in classic motor insurance – but keep ‘em peeled for more news of the sole surviving MK1 Vitesse that just happens to have a very interesting past… John may be letting me loose with my tool kit on her and I can’t wait.

Mike Humble


  1. A lovely story and I still have a place in my heart for the little 216 Vitesse version. I remember when they first came out and trying to persuade my father to buy one as his first company car. He immediately pointed out the lack of rear legroom as a obvious demerit in a car that he would often have to take customers out in when they visited his engineering works. Instead he bought an MG Montego EFi which was a great car and also very reliable. But I still had a secret hankering for him to buy a 216 Vitesse as a cheaper to buy entry ticket onto the Rover ownership ladder (especially as the SD1 Vitesse was not a good proposition for those companies with a firm eye on the expenses sheet).

    Despite my very youthful years, I certainly did not view the Rover marque in any way as “an old person’s car”. More stylish and aspirational, thanks largely to the halo effect of the SD1 Vitesse picture on my bedroom wall. I often referred to the SD3 200 Series as the Rover ‘compact’ and hoped I would end up owning one when I learnt to drive and passed my test. I ultimately did not.

    • My dad had a moonraker blue 216S (C269NCH) long gone now! Was a cracking car and even towed a large family caravan at times – was solid and spacious for our family at the time. It too replaced a Triumph Acclaim (A698DAU) which is also long gone. Never understood my dad going from the Rover to a Montego… which in turn became the end of his time with the BLARG brands.

  2. I too remember as a child of the 80’s, that if you drove a Rover, especially an SD1, then you had some money! My Science teacher in High School (late 80’s) had a 216 Vitesse, a very posh motor in it’s day and definitely impressed us school kids 🙂

  3. My dad’s 216 was reliable and economical, but a bit cramped inside – even if we did manage to fit a fridge into the back seat! Probably the worst BMC/BL car for rust after the ADO16 – the only bit that didn’t rust on my dad’s (G582JAW – died in 2001) was the front passenger door, which was replaced after a clown in an Escort reversed into it.

  4. My Gran had a D reg one from 1989 to 2000, which replaced a Triumph Acclaim.

    It lasted well though she didn’t do much long distance drives in it.

    From what I remember it was still fairly solid in 2000 when it was replaced by an L reg R8 200.

  5. Remember these well, they were a common sight until the end of the nineties and early models were still seen far more often than the Austin Maestro of this era, better engines and quality probably explained this.

  6. The post-facelift 216 Vitesse was a pretty sharp looking thing, with plenty of showroom appeal. One of those rare facelifts that actually worked!

    • “The post-facelift 216 Vitesse was a pretty sharp looking thing, with plenty of showroom appeal. One of those rare facelifts that actually worked!”
      – Agreed, maestrowoff

  7. I remember these 200’s well, and in our Maestro owning family they were always known as the ‘Baby Rover’. Shame there aren’t more left.

  8. The 200 carried on the good work started by the Acclaim by adding sporting models. No wonder Austin Rover dealers were always keen to turn buyers away from Maestros to 200s, apart from the making more money, the customer would always be more satisfied with their purchase and would come back.
    I owned a 213 when I was living in bangernomics world and for £ 500, I obtained a tidy ten year old base model with a service history that proved to be completely reliable. Only an MOT failure caused by rust saw me part with it. My stepdad a year before he died bought an E reg 213 S, which was largely rust free( luck of the draw, second generation models seemed to be better rustproofed), and provided economical and reliable motoring up to his death.

  9. My first experience of the SD3 200 was at the Press Launch in Northumberland in Spring 1984. No wondor buyers preferred these to Maestro’s & Montego’s because the kudos of a Rover badge was more desired than an Austin. As Glenn says, the 200 built on the success of the Acclaim by adding sporting versions too.

    A friend had a 1987 216 Vitesse as his company car in white which was a nice car…

  10. @ Hilton D, while the motoring press were hammering the M cars, the 200 got off to a flying start and probably staved off another crisis at Austin Rover as it was their second best selling model and totally outsold the Maestro, which seemed dated and crude in comparison. I always remember mine being as quiet as a 2 litre car at 70 mph and regularly returning 40 mpg, important when you were in a £ 3 an hour job and money was very tight.

  11. Quite agree Glenn. The original 1342cc / 213 was a refined car and produced 71bhp if memory serves. Also the 1.6 versions provided the extra power to compete with the Montego and equivalent Ford’s etc (albeit in a more compact body.) They did indeed enhance the image of ARG.

  12. @ Hilton D, it paved the way for the Rover revival at the end of the decade and sent Austin to the promised land, as the brand had been badly damaged since the launch of the Allegro. The Volkswagen Golf might have had better rust protection, but the Rover 200 was a nicer car to drive and better value for money, even base models came with a radio and five speed gearbox as standard when these weren’t too common on basic 1.3 litre cars in 1984. It also came at the right time as the Maestro was developing a reputation for unreliability and 1.3 versions weren’t a patch on the small Rover.

  13. My Dad had one of these. He never kept cars long enough for tinworm to take hold, usually he either crashed them or bought something newer on impulse.

    Honda designed some very attractive cars back in the 80’s- such as the CRX and first generation Accord Aerodeck (largely forgotten now- it was a 3 door ‘sports estate’ a la Scimitar or Lancia Beta HPE, albeit more practical). AR did the right thing in not restyling the Ballade in the process of Anglicisation.

    If only they rustproofed the things properly…

    • Yes Bilbo… I recall the 1st generation Accord Aerodeck 3 door Hatch in the mid/late 80s. It was a nice looking car but there were not that many seen on UK roads. I also liked the 1981 onwards Honda Quintet, though not many of those seen either.

  14. Along with the mark 2 Cavalier and Skoda Estelle/Rapid, the Rover 213 is one of those cars I wish I had the chance to buy when I had the chance. Mum’s friend had a new C reg 216 Vanden Plas and later on my sister bought a used E reg VP, I was very fond of the SD3.

  15. The original Rover 200 (SD3) has a very special place in my heart. I’ve owned countless cars over the years, but none more repeated than the Rover 213. In all, I’ve owned five of these little cars (US-style full disclosure: one was co-owned with a mate).

    My first was a 1985 213 S, a rather basic pre-facelift car, which charmed me with its simplicity and impressed me with its smooth 12 valve four-pot. Several S and SE models followed, including a rare SX in white, with full colour-coding. The SX was as close as the SD3 came to a “sports” trim, to my eyes.

    The only real complaint I had with the 213 was shocking levels of understeer, especially in the wet. Whilst I appreciate the 200 was never intended as a sports saloon, contemporary Astras and Escorts handled better at the limit of adhesion.

    But overall, even the onward-ploughing handling characteristics couldn’t put me off this great little car, and I ended up enjoying many a happy mile in many a reliable example of the breed.

  16. Supplying engines and designs to Austin Rover probably benefited Honda just as much as Austin Rover, as the company’s market share was heavily restricted by the 11% agreement on Japanese imports and they always had to stay third to Nissan and Toyota. The link with Rover and a loyal following for the Hondas that could be sold over her probably persuaded Honda to build a British factory to get round the limit on sales.
    Although the last Civics to come out of Swindon were bloated and overpriced, the Rover based Civics and Accords made in Swindon were very nice cars and sold in decent numbers and looked a lot classier than their predecessors.

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