Our Cars : Mike’s 400 blots its copy book

Mike Humble

After months of trouble free motoring it had to happen eventually. The old scrotter itself, our Project HH-R, has finally given me a serious enough reason to dig deep into the pocket in order to keep the old girl rolling just that little bit longer…

If you go down to the woods today… The Project HH-R really has been a big surprise

It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you settle back into the driving seat snug in the knowledge nothing’s going to let you down, something happens. Let’s be honest, with a Rover, especially an old ‘un, you have to be accommodating and understand that things don’t always go to plan. When I say up until very recently the HH-R has done absolutely nothing wrong, I mean just that. No fluid top ups, nothing hanging off, nothing knocking, banging, wheezing or clunking – in an ideal world, it’s been the ideal car. However, as far as copy for this site is concerned, it’s been a struggle to write anything captivating or interesting.

I’ve toyed this over in my mind a few times but I’m drawn to the conclusion that this might be the most dependable and satisfying project car we have run in recent years. Not the most-loved Rover of the company’s latter period – although not, perhaps, quite as forgotten as the 600 Series – but the HH-R 400 series has to be one of comfiest, snuggliest and underrated bargains of its time. An equivalent Astra bumps and thumps over ruts and potholes while the last generation of Ford Escort had barely any redeeming features whatsoever. The 400, on the other hand, rides like no other conventionally coil sprung car of the era and even today – it’s just so smooth!

Special K – the peppy little 1.4 has remained oil tight since last year’s top end rebuild and thrives on the occasional good hiding. Over 40mpg is achievable without even trying

Anyway, back to the crux of reliability – it all went wrong a few days ago. There I was driving home to leafy Horsham in the wind and rain when I pulled up to the roundabout near Pease Pottage Services. Over the dulcet tones of LBCs Clive Bull on the wireless I heard someone pipping their horn to grab my attention. Looking over to my left there’s a Sussex Police X5 so I drop the nearside window down for the driver to quip: “you’ve got a number plate lamp out, sir.” Giving that silent doff of the forelock look that says you’ve noted it I arrived home, meandered round to the back and indeed spotted one of the lamps was out.

Despite a good rummage everywhere I could think of, there was no bulb to hand. But I could be in luck as there was ten minutes to go before my trusted motor factor closed for the day. A session of putting the world to rights and the handing over of 48 new pence gained me fresh new 501 bulb and, with a quick wiggle of a Philips, the car was legal once again before you could mutter “all Rovers are rubbish mate!” Joking aside though, the 414iE has been a superb little rattler to trundle around in. It bombs up and down the M23 safely, reliably and economically – what more can you ask of a car? I’ve endured more heartache with new motors – and that’s a fact!

You cannot fault the ride comfort, the slick gearchange, the overall refinement and the really solid deep-rooted build quality that most of the other class rivals couldn’t touch. For sure it has all the modern day social acceptance of loon pants and other fellow motorists in the Surrey/Sussex money belt may laugh and scoff but, if they only knew just how cheap dependable daily motoring can really be… Well, need I say more. These later 400 Series cars are underrated – in fact, almost ignored these days – but, for the buyer, that’s great news. If you are looking to step onto the tentative first rung of retro-modern Rovering safe enough for daily duties, grab one while you can.

The previous owner had left some small change in the ashtray that I’d never bothered to remove since buying the car last October. After deducting my expenses for replacing the aforementioned bulb I still have 3p left over. And look… Yes, that’s right, the tray illumination still works, too – win!

Hold on a moment, though – earlier this evening, I finally decided to remove the small change from the ashtray that the previous owner so kindly left behind. It turned out there was 51p in silver and copper. Blimey! That’s the first time a car of mine has gone wrong, I’ve mended it, and I’m still up on the deal.

To the tune of thruppence… Now THAT’S motoring for you, eh?

Mike Humble


  1. Hahahaha lol!

    My dad once had that with an MOT for his 1990 sierra clx 2.0i.
    Had done about 500.000km with it. One time he brought it to the local Ford dealer for the MOT and told them to fix whatever they’d find wrong that wasnt expensive but to call first if it was to be expensive.
    He got a call later on from the garage about the costs of getting it to pas the MOT.
    They wanted to check if he was alright with them spending 80 cents on fixing the license plate light at the back!!! LOL

    • Once, when having an MOT on my first Focus, I got a call from the garage asking for permission to replace a rear indicator bulb as the orange tint was fading… cost was only about £1 I told them they needn’t have consulted me for such a trivial amount to ensure a pass.

      • The garage knew they didnt need to check before spending the 80 cents. It was ment as a joke to call with a serious voice about the cost and then telling it was 80 cents. We thought is was hillarious

  2. Weird mutter: “all Rovers are rubbish M8”. I wonder what sort of un-experimented body could fable that… I live all the noticed “ride comfort, the slick gearchange, the overall refinement and the really solid deep rooted build quality”, right inside my car.
    But the candy on top of the cake is “in an ideal world its been the ideal car”. Bull’s eye!
    Your “HHR project” picture, is similar to the octavia. How low must be the common artistic taste nowadays, that all producers go back to Rover models to get inspired…

  3. Capless bulbs – when I bought my X-type in 2009, the first bulb I changed was a sidelight bulb, which was a spare part from the Ventora I scrapped in 1985! How do I explain to my wife that it’s OK for me to hoard stuff, but not her?
    More seriously, I bought a pack of capless bulbs from a certain notorious car and bike spares chain store, only to find they wouldn’t fit the Jag, they were too big to fit in the slot in the car fitting.
    I took a bulb back to complain, but the guy on the counter seemed to think I’d bought the wrong bulb. I’ve never found them to have a constructive attitude when things don’t fit – it’s just so handy to be able to buy stuff up to 8pm on weekdays…

    PS in case you think I keep too much, when my dad died, I inherited his tool cupboards; and found spare headlight bulbs for his first two cars, a Morris 8 and a Rover 12, stashed in the back of one cupboard. I managed to find someone who owned a Morris 8 and a Rover 12 to sell them to! More than a coincidence… the Rover bulb, IIRC, was 36 watts.

  4. And there was me thinking the head gasket had gone. Now why would I have thought that !!

    Yes, these later Rovers did have something. I still remember my Rover 75 V6 with fondness.

  5. Lucky it wasn’t a headlamp that needed changed. That’s a wee bit tricky.
    I have a tear in my eye thinking of my old 45 diesel.
    The more you drive it the more you love it. My current astra is decent enough but just no comparison.

  6. I am driving a Rover myself. I just checked it, and what do you know? I really need a 501 bulb for the license plate light on the back! The other one is still in good order.
    Seems like I need to avoid all the “notorious” bike spares chain stores” for it. Thank you for the tip!
    In some cases you need to have the old bulb with you for the search, mostly regarding a Jag, a Triumph, a Chevy a.s.o. These builders do not supply bikes…

  7. I have a very similar story to Mikes. There I was riding blissfully along in my recently purchased £1700 Rover 75 Conniseour 1.8 – aware of the tasteful and quality interior – whilst relishing in the delight of almost silent progress , when I became aware of a reduction in power. It soon became evident that this immaculate 2004 example with not a single scratch or blemish on the bodywork and with not a stain or mark on the light grey interior – was suffering from some kind of malfunction.
    Conveniently, I was on my way to a friend who runs a hugely successful Land Rover specialist. The engine being quite familiar to them (as it was fitted to the Freeranger) – they quickly diagnosed the problem. Head gasket failure! My friend couldn’t touch it for weeks so a quote was sought – £1300. However, a mechanic who works for my son’s vintage restoration company – said he would do it for us in his own time. Wonderful! He thought it would be about £400 so he stripped the head and then discovered oil and water was passing around the cylinder liners which were slopping up and down and rotating wildly-nilly! (Just a little more serious than Mike’s problem).
    So! We went to buy a brand new car today! Looked at half a dozen of the best rated super-minis. After two hours, Annie and I couldn’t drum up any spark of enthusiasm – there was no ‘buzz’, no excitement, no bloody interest
    So Biggles and his lady donned their leather helmets and piloted the MG back home – dejected, disillusioned and throughly cheesed off!
    Then Annie suggest we try and find an MG Magnette from the 50’s – no it won’t do a 100mph at 60 to the gallon – but jee, did our eyes light up!!!

  8. OTOH who would really want to save a nineties Escort, perhaps the most horrible Ford of all time, even worse than a Mark 4 Zephyr, that at least had some kind of presence on the road? I know the K series Rover engine developed a reputation for head gasket failure, often resolved quite easily, but you could forgive this for a vastly better driving experience in a Rover that at least started most of the time, didn’t have engines that liked their petrol and sounded like they’d blow up at 70 mph, and had nasty interiors.

  9. In c.1998 I was speaking to a BMW colleague about the reasons that the 400 wasn’t selling and he asked “Is it because the quality is so low?”. It wasn’t.

    The BMW perceived quality assessment process (QZ) was to review the whole vehicle against set criteria and give points where it failed to meet them. So the lower the score, the better the car. 400 scored very well, much better than all other Rover Group products, and on a par with many BMWs.

    It didn’t sell because of the price, size (compared to Mondeo, 405 etc) and an image that was too far away from what the market was looking for at the time.

    The switch from R8 to HH-R, plus R3, plus legacy R8 products (Coupe, Cabriolet & Tourer) was catastrophic as far as Longbridge’s financial viability was concerned and grasping at lower pricing was only a dash to the bottom.

    Rover (and predecessors) had been living hand-to-mouth for decades and with no Government safety net it only took one product to fail big-time to take Rover down and that ended up being HH-R…

  10. I admit Ford messed things up with the Mk 5/6 Escort & were slower than usual to sort things out, taking at least half the decade to get them to where they should have been at the launch.

    Some of the American Fords seem to have been much worse, the early Edsels, Pinto, 1970s Mustang II come to mind when reading American car sites.

  11. I ordered 2 501 bulbs along with Hella 3003 spotlights for my discovery and 2 boxes of 501 bulbs arrived, 20 or 40, I cant remember which. I’ll not be needing to buy any more for a number of years!

  12. The K-series engine is a little cracker.
    I have owned a few and the HGF which i never had was mainly
    due to a faulty coolant cap and not the head.

  13. My local Ford dealer tried to charge me £5.95 to change a rear brake light bulb (in 1992) when the car was in for a warranty service. 69p for the bulb and the rest labour. “Only 20m blocks of labour sir regardless of the job” This was the one and only time i had given my wife a blank cheque.

    I rang them and said that if they didnt remove the charge i would stop the cheque. They agreed and i took a new cheque over the next day. Nrever trusted a garage since.

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