Our Cars : Meet the Fleet No.2 – Rover 25 GTi

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

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Sometimes, a car can come along that really surprises you. And that’s the case with my 25 GTi, which I acquired back in April in the knowledge I was about to be made redundant from my old job, and needed something cheap and economical to run around in for a few months after handing back the company car I had in my old job.

Prior to that, most of my car fleet was purely indulgent. Rover 800s, a Jaguar X300, a Land Rover Defender and various others that were enormous fun to own in small doses, but weren’t necessarily ideal for daily use due to their heady fuel consumption. Enter the 25 GTi – a car that was staring into the jaws of the crusher at the same time as I was looking for a cheap runabout to keep me inexpensively mobile for three months while I was between jobs.

The car’s elderly owner had been its custodian since early 2002, having purchased it from Marshall’s Rover in Bedford when it was 18 months old. Alas, the owner had become frail in his later years and was no longer able to drive, so the 25 had sat on his driveway for three years, with its only mileage being an annual trip to the MoT station as he was adamant that he might need to use it again one day. Between 2011 and 2014, the total distance covered was just 90 miles – a 15 mile trip to the MoT garage and back, three times. With a couple of months’ ticket left, though, the owner’s family convinced him that the car would become a liability he didn’t need, and so he decided to dispose of it.

The photo flatters! When discovered the 25 was utterly filthy and strewn with cobwebs.
The photo flatters! When discovered the 25 was utterly filthy and strewn with cobwebs

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That’s where I came in – having rescued various old cars through the years, it’s got to the point now where they tend to find me – and, in the case of the 25 GTi, it was brought to my attention by a friend of a friend. It was early in the week, and the car was due to be scrapped on the Saturday unless someone picked it up before then. Having established it was still MoT’d, had only covered 71k, had four nearly new tyres and even had a couple of months’ tax in the windscreen, I figured it was worth a gamble so, on the Friday afternoon, the princely sum of £180 changed hands and I hopped on a train to Bedford to drive it home.

Several things became apparent during the gingerly conducted 40-mile drive back. First, the car was utterly filthy having lived outside for three years. There was moss growing in all of the door channels, cobwebs between the windscreen and headlining, fungus in the footwells and a weird oily film across the whole car from where it had languished beneath a tree. Second, it hadn’t been driven any distance for a very long time – the brakes were heavily corroded, it felt lumpy under acceleration and the alternator pulley was making a horrid screeching noise, not helped by the fact the battery light kept flickering on and off. While there was potentially a half-decent car underneath, the 25 wouldn’t be a daily driver from the get-go.

Some of you, then, may wonder why I even bothered. After all, there are still quite a few 25s left on the road to choose from, and finding a good one isn’t impossible. Finding a nice GTI, on the other hand, is a real rarity. Powered by the 1.8-litre VVC K-Series as found in the MGF and 200Vi models, the GTi is a real Q-Car, with 142bhp on tap and a 0-60mph sprint time of only eight seconds – making it significantly faster than the contemporary VW Golf GTi. The precursor of the much less discreet MG ZR 160, the GTi is more of a discerning warm to hot hatch, with traditional Rover cues such as half-leather upholstery and chrome trim. Rover only sold around 1,400 GTis in the UK during a two-year production run and, according to howmanyleft.co.uk, there are now only 277 still taxed.

Indeed, it was only when I discovered how rare it was that I committed to getting it sorted out – the photos don’t really show quite how revolting the car was when first collected, and I have to confess that I did consider breaking it at first, knowing that the engine alone should be enough to get me my money back.

First up, I changed all the belts under the bonnet. Alas, the battery light remained on, so I procured a used alternator from my local breakers for £25. That extinguished the warning light, but the battery itself was no longer taking charge, so I had to add a new battery to my shopping list. I dismantled, cleaned and refitted all of the brakes – the discs were actually in surprisingly okay condition – cleaned up all the electrical connections and coil packs, and changed all the fluids. Taking it for a test drive subsequently was a revelation – the car still felt a little lumpy at idle with a slight chugging noise as if it has an air leak of some description (I’ve yet to investigate further, as it never stalls and seems to run okay) but the performance and braking were transformed – indeed, as my confidence with the car grew, it soon became apparent that it was actually massively entertaining to drive and, aside from a slight bang from a loose exhaust bracket, was really tight and responsive to drive. Why Rover didn’t really market it properly, then, is anyone’s guess – you only have to look at the success of the subsequent MG ZR (the car that almost saved MG Rover) to recognise that the demand would have been there.

Although it was now much improved mechanically, I didn’t want to spend any more on the GTi until the MoT man had given it the once over. The emissions were at the upper limit of acceptability, but other than that, the car went straight through – leading me to give it the attention it had now earned.

A rather busy time in my personal life meant I left the 25 parked up for a few weeks, but when I got chance to go over it properly I discovered it was actually a far better car than I expected. Aside from a few small scuffs on both bumpers and a tiny bit of surface rust on the trailing edge of one sill (I know, catch it quick because that’s where they go!), the Tahiti Blue bodywork was in exceptional order, as was the interior – the only downsides there being a small crack in the leather on the driver’s seat side panel and a loose door bin. It also came with the added bonus of genuine Rover rubber overmats and a boot liner – nice accessories that imply the car was properly looked after early in its life.

Smart cabin cleaned up beautifully - this was like a haunted house inside when I got it, such was the spider population...
Smart cabin cleaned up beautifully – this was like a haunted house inside when I got it, such was the spider population…

 

Looking good, the 25 GTi's transformation from rags to riches went better than I thought.
Looking good, the 25 GTi’s transformation from rags to riches went better than I thought

 

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Such was the filth and grime both inside and out that cleaning the 25 took me around 16 hours – at my local Land Rover dealership, that’d be £1600 in labour alone! Nevertheless, the results were worth it – gone was the grubby, down-at-heel shed that I’d picked up in April, to be replaced by a car that was clean, bright, mechanically sorted and rewarding to drive – just what I needed, then, for my short-term transport requirements.

The question, though, was what next for the GTi? With a new job on the horizon and new company car imminent (all will be revealed…), it’s work will very soon be done and, as is always the case, I’d hate for it to once again fall into the danger zone of being a cheap, unloved banger. Luckily, it looks like it will be going to a very good home in the non-too-distant future to someone who lives and breathes Austin-Rover cars much in the same way that I do and, funnily enough, needs a short-term transport solution. He needs it so he doesn’t need to subject last year’s short-term transport to another British winter, and I supplied him with that one as well, so maybe it’s safe after all…

The 25 GTi, yesterday. Keeping the Editor's weekend transport company...
The 25 GTi, yesterday. Keeping the Editor’s weekend transport company… and yes, that is my Vitesse in the background

 

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

18 Comments

  1. Great to read about the Rover 25 GTi which is a very rare and vastly underrated model when compared to the more recent MG ZR. Apart from the 25 GTi being the last sporting variant to represent the Rover marque, this particular example looks particularly fetching in Tahiti Blue pearlescent! I really hope it will be looked after by the new keeper.

    Sorry to challenge the quoted production figures but according to SMMT figures (released to me in 2004), 1,984 examples were built in total (3- and 5-door form, UK and export sales). I am wondering whether the quoted figure of 1,400 might refer to Home Market sales only?

    The 25 GTi’s production life lasted a mere eighteen months before the imminent sales launch of the MG ZR range, particularly the flagship ZR160 variant from July 2001. The last example I know of to be registered (rather than built) was a 3-door example finished in Solar Red, which was on a 51 registration.

    Before anyone says it wears the ‘Hairpins’ alloy wheels, as found on the MG ZR, on the Rover 25 and 45 that style was known as ‘Active’.

    • David – of course you’re right. There were around 1,400 sold in the UK. How many of the 600ish export models that remain would be an interesting one to find out, given how the disposable nature of UK society means survival rates – pro rata – are probably lower than in other markets.

  2. Somebody is going to mention the impending Head Gasket Failure so I’ll get in there first. Any plans for precautionary measures ?

      • Totally agree with Herr Boucke. It always amazes me how full the world is of armchair experts on Rover K series HGF when in reality how many head gaskets have been changed needlessly when it was some other part (inlet manifold gasket anyone?) that produces identical symptoms that has turned out to either have been the culprit or has been left unchecked until the HG did finally let go.

        As somebody who despises people who have a fascination of fixing things that aren’t broken (cant sell a car with road tax anymore for example) I believe if something’s working as it should, then other than routine maintenance it is best leaving it alone.

        • Very true, Kev, though the owner’s son did tell me he recalled the car having its head gasket done ‘a few years ago’. It doesn’t overheat, and as most head gasket failures are symptomatic of poor maintenance I see no reason to worry – just make sure it never overheats, and ensure the coolant level is checked at least once a week. As an aside, I’ve owned 11 cars with K-Series engines – only one of them had head gasket trouble, and I bought it like that because, at the time, buying a broken one and mending it was the cheapest way to get my wife into a Freelander (her choice, by the way!)…

          • Thanks Craig – just the reassurance I wanted. Recently sourced a ‘new’ back box from a scrapyard where the opinion was that ” ALL K series suffer HGF between 50,000 and 80,000 miles.

      • Alexander, I was very pleased to read this comment.

        My 1.8K 75 had serious HGF issues. My current ZR 105, now owned for 25 months & 27K miles, has, however, been faultless in every respect. It shows no signs of HGF. The total mileage is now almost 56,000. If it were not for all the doubters out there I’d think “It will most likely never fail”.

        Craig, the 25GTi is a beauty!!

  3. My brother had one for a while but the VVC unit gave up and there wasn’t one garage that would even consider looking at it, but when it was running it was very rewarding car.
    So are we likely to see a certain Mr Gunn sat in the 25?

  4. Yes the 25GTi looks really good following its transformation and a shame this model is rare. My ZS had the same 16″ Hairpin alloys (liked those wheels). I also owned a 1997 Rover 414 in Tahiti Blue – the colour was one of the reasons I was attracted to the car.

  5. Text book example of what can be found for silly money – 180 for a perfectly serviceable motor. I’ve never bought new cars just because of the stupid depreciation this example just shows with a little patience and know how you can hardly lose. Nice one Craig.

  6. Many sound motors are going to the breakers for want of a simple service and minor repairs. I have recently seen a very serviceable 1.4 litre Corsa scrapped simply because it was on an R plate and nobody wanted it. It was mechanically sound but the exterior was tatty having not been washed for several years and (like the one above) routinely parked under a tree.

    Regrettably I wasn’t in the market for a banger because I know that this one had been serviced regularly and even had a new cambelt a couple of years ago. Reluctantly after advertising in the local paper and ebay motors it just didn’t sell and hence it was driven to the scrap yard where the owner received £100 for it in crisp £20 notes.

    Glad to see the 25GTi saved. Hopefully when it moves on it will end up in a good home as it deserves. I regrettably had to turn one of these down 5 years ago for the princely sum of £1,500, 1 owner with 50k on the clock as I needed something bigger. 🙁

    In my experience, HGF on these is usually caused by failure to change the anti-freeze every few years. I would be far more tempted to change the inlet manifold gasket for safety as that is where most of the problems seem to originate (again in my experience).

  7. A really great and powerful car! I owned one (5 doors,racing green) from new from 2001 until 2005 and it’s just great memories! Not a single problem in nearly 100.000 kms. And now the car is still running well in Picardie with its new owner.
    I’d love to drive another one!

  8. hi craig, still running my 25 gti a 5 door in anthracite.. with 104k on it.. will need the valve stem seals doing soon as i get faint blue smoke on startup… rare car now.. allthose who critacize the k series?… ha! mines just says 25.. think there was GTi badge at some point.. but a good sleeper.. and surprises a few people.. keep it running! and you tony!
    regards
    mark

    • For reasons unknown to me the ‘GTi’ badge for the tailgate was not consistently fitted and it appears there is not a particular age of example that is affected the most. I do not think it was as a consequence of the Project Drive programme which saw the Viking longship badges on the rear pillars of the Rover 25 removed in the late Summer of 2000, for the 2001 Model Year.

      Early publicity shots featuring a Sienna Gold example showed it sporting a red ‘Vi’ badge on the tailgate, which was the alternative identity used for export markets.

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