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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.