Unsung Heroes : Rover 420 Tourer

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

AROnline takes a another look at the decent metal which once adorned the highways and by-ways of our green and pleasant land. Mike Humble again, snatches the keys to one of Rovers finer cars.

Far from being the most spacious or cheapest hold all on the market, this one had that vital ingredient that placed it head and shoulders above the rest of the gang – distinction!

Friends, Romans and Countrymen… A toast, to the Rover 420 Tourer.


Size isn’t everything

420GSi Tourer. A class above the Astra or Escort estate? We think so!

Here at AROnline, the general consensus of opinion seems to view the HH-R range to be lacklustre and rather underwhelming compared to the R8, and on a personal level, I would have to agree. The R8 range really did put the bite back into Rover, and for a few years it seemed they could do no wrong with both the public and press loving the new breed and confidence of Rover. Following the facelift of the R8 in 1993, owners of older models were banging on the parts counters for chrome grilles – I should know, I fitted enough of them.

Those heady mid-1990s were the glory days of Rover, and I still feel sad at the thought of not seeing that momentum continue, things got muddled as Rover lost its way on the road to success. So far as estate cars were concerned, Rover still had the Montego on the books, and regardless of the smart colours or catchy names like ‘Countryman’, the Montego was sort of seen as the last gasps of British Leyland. Only the ultra thrifty, yet vocal diesel had any real credibility in the modern world and even then, it only sold in decent numbers simply because it was cheap.

Out with cheap and cheerful

I won’t waste too much time knocking the Montego estate, besides, that would be pointless owing to the fact I owned one and loved its angled looks. Loving even more its economy, with the ability to drive, seemingly forever, on the sniff of an oily rag. The dear old Monty never carried a Rover badge (in the UK), maybe because it wasn’t a Rover and maybe because the Montego, just like bicycle tyres round a lamp post, were quickly becoming a fading memory of the past. Rover was milking the wood and chrome effect for what it was worth by now, and the R8 range was proving to be a useful and versatile platform.

The company-saviour 200 and the ever-so-slightly dull 400 R8 platform morphed into a pretty looking two-door coupe, and then by stroke of genius, Rover revealed the 400 Tourer range powered by the free revving Honda D-Series 16V or Rover’s own in house 2.0-litres T-Series engine/PG1 gearbox combo. They wisely chose not to call the new car an estate – hell no; the middle classes would not to be associated with the rancid ambiguity of an estate car! Unless it was a Volvo. The Rover 400 Tourer was the chosen name, having that certain air of nobility to it.

In with class and pedigree

From the front, the Tourer was obviously based upon the R8, but viewed side or rear on, the car was actually quite handsome and cleverly used as many existing parts such as rear doors and back light clusters. The Honda developed double wishbone rear suspension made for a high boot floor and the car was no where as capacious as say, an Astra Mk3 or Escort Mk5 estate car. That said, the Astra and Escort also had no class or perceived image of opulence that the Rover possessed, even the recently introduced Golf estate looked bland and frumpy compared to the pleasing lines and splashes of chrome of the Rover Tourer.

Other superb aspects of this pint sized hold all included the fitment of the excellent 1769cc PSA sourced XUD turbo diesel. What a package indeed, that engine, Honda underpinnings and Rover’s trick of adding that magical touch of nice trim and lustrous paint finishes. One of the best selling models was the 420GSi featuring a 136bhp T-Series engine with gutsy low down torque available in every gear making for an effortless drive. Performance on the 420 was sublime, unruffled and quick if required to be and the GSi also featured revised suspension and 15in alloys offering a slightly sporting feel.

Pulling on the colour-keyed door handle let you into a familiar environment, the well crafted R8 facia garnished by a sensible amount of burr walnut. Seating featured the praised ‘Silverstone’ faux Recaro front seats with lumbar and height adjust on the driver’s side and all trimmed in good quality hide and lightning effect cloth. A useful centre floor console with leather armrest hiding a decent sized cubby box helped keep those odds and ends away from prying eyes. The load space was also looked after with an extended version of the hatchback’s parcel shelf, while the full remote alarm system kept guard as you slept.

On the whole, the 420 was a fine package indeed, offering the best of performance with favourable fuel economy. Problems in service seemed to be confined to oil leaks from the T-Series engine and the odd blown head gasket, the PG1 gearbox could whine and scream like an alleycat if used and abused, while owners who drove in heavy Oxford Brogues rather than slippers, could wear the brake pads down in shockingly double quick time.

Offering a little more versatility than the 200 hatch and so more pleasing on the eye that the 400 saloon, the Tourers were loved by their owners, and, if you keep ’em peeled, the ones you still see tend to be lovingly looked after.

Rover 420GSI Tourer run as a general hack at AROnline Towers for a couple of years in the mid-2000s. It never missed a beat.
Rover 420GSI Tourer run as a general hack at AROnline Towers for a couple of years in the mid-2000s. It never missed a beat.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

53 Comments

  1. @ H. Jones:

    Yes, there is. Rover’s success in developing the R8 200/400 Series beyond the initial four-door saloon and five-door hatchback, to spawn a further four variants, saw the Birmingham-based manufacturer providing even further competition to Honda’s own models, including those that did not form part of the R8 project.

    Therefore, when its replacement, the HHR, was discussed, Honda made sure that Rover Cars would not be in the same fortunate position again by imposing restrictions on what they could do with it, as part of the Licensing Agreement. A real shame, in some respects, as Rover Group’s designers and engineers with the right opportunity, might have given more credence to a model that was a Sow’s ear compared to the Silk Purse R8.

    The R8 Rover 420 GSi Tourer was a hugely underrated car.

    @ Mike Humble:

    I am confused by your reference to the “Sport Turbo Tourer”. The turbocharged T Series engine, to my knowledge, was never fitted in the Tourer bodystyle, only the four-door saloon.

    That said, as an enthusiast, I did suggest such a proposition to senior Rover Group management in late 1994, although the idea was obviously not considered seriously.

  2. I remember the 400 Tourer being compared in favourable terms to the BMW 3 series Touring at the time. It was still desirable even when it was on borrowed time at the end of its life being sold alongside the new HHR. It just shows how talented the Rover engineers were.

  3. Interesting that Honda placed strict restrictions on what Rover could do with the HHR being fearful of competion from Rover. As I’ve often thought, HHR marked the start of the downturn from the early nineties high.

    The 400 Tourer was an attractive, distinctive niche car, as per the other ‘spin offs’ from the standard 5dr,4dr R8.

  4. @ Mike Humble:

    This is interesting. I wonder if you had a development car come in that had potentially ‘escaped the firm’, or it was a conversion done by an external party on a former factory registered car? Either way it is certainly an interesting car.

    The only ‘performance’ variant of the Tourer that I definitely know of was the stillborn VVC-powered Tourer, which was meant to have formed part of the 1996.5 MY range. Pre-production examples were definitely built – even a press photo was made available – although the derivative ultimately never went on sale. The 136Ps T Series engine was dropped from the remainder of the R8 range just before the 1996.5 MY range with new R3 dashboard fascia was announced in March 1996.

  5. The design seems to have aged well- it still looks clean cut now. It’s sad to think that this took on Audi and now rovers gone forever….

  6. Back in the day, my boss had an M-reg 420GSi Tourer as a company car in which I managed to blag a drive on a couple of occasions. Easily my favourite R8 with it’s wood and leather plus effortless performance and handsome style.

    Mike mentions the Montego Diesel in his piece – back then our service engineers all had (to put up with) LX Diesel estates until they were discontinued. The 400 Tourer was not considered suitable as a replacement so they were provided with Mondeo estates instead. And so the demise of the Monty marked the beginning of the end of the Austin-Rover monopoly on company cars there.

  7. I had a 420GSi Tourer for a few months back in 1997 nd absolutely loved it. One of my colleagues borrowed it for a weekend and described it as “the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on”

    I had a K Series R8 Tourer and remember the handbook made mention of a VVC version. I guess it was axed very close to launch.

  8. @David 3500

    What exactly could Rover have done to rectify that situation? Could they not have just developed their own compact car in-house, like they did with the R3? The R8’s success proved that there was a business case for it.

  9. I dislike on the standard 200 and 400 models the grey bumpers. At such a price premium over the top of the range escort, they should have body coloured them.

  10. @ianto,

    Yes he did. It was made up from a Civic Aerodeck, then rebuilt as a facelift 45. I have some photos of it from the Longbridge Centenary.

  11. @Jaguarundi:

    I am guessing you are referring to replacing the R8 with something more inkeeping with the existing spirit of it than the HHR was, right?

    On this assumption the answer has to be ‘no’. To shorten what could easily be a long essay-like answer from me, Rover Group was making profits in the early 1990s but they were ultimately not enough to fulfill the core needs of Rover Cars and the ongoing business case to invest more in new Land Rover vehicles that could command a much higher profit margin. Hence the reason why so many new Rover Cars’ products were ultimately restricted by licensing agreements with Honda or were updated versions of older models like the Metro and 800 Series. A case of spreading what limited resources they had as far and wide as feasibly possible.

    Investment from Rover Group’s then owner British Aerospace was pitiful and the sale of Rover’s assets was not being reinvested in Rover Group. BMW’s commitment to investing in a new medium-sized Rover model did not emerge until late 1998, as it preferred the ‘top-down’approach’ for launching new models; namely starting with the flagship model and then working ‘down’.

    Apart from possibly not entering into a licensing agreement to build the HHR 400 Series, the only other possible option for Rover Cars was to do as it had done when turning the ‘XX’ first generation 800 Series into the R17 second generation version – significantly redesigning the body, with new outer skins, revised modular front end and updates to the interior. But this would have likely yielded benefits in the short and medium term (up to five years) only due to the likes of the Mark 4 Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra, together with the Ford Focus, raising the stakes considerably from 1998.

    Over the period 1994 – 1995, Rover Group had already invested heavily (by their financial standards) in the new second generation 38A Range Rover (£300 million), R3 Rover 200 Series (£200 million) and MGF (which required an external company to be involved in its body production in order to spread some of its asociated costs).

    In summary, there was not a simple or best solution to repeating the success of the R8.

  12. Another tribute the the fantastic XW range which with just about ever possible body combination being spawned from the 200/400 range must have been one of th reasons why BMW noticed Rover and decided to buy the iconic British manufacturer in 1994.

    Sterling Automotive still use a signwritten silver 416 Tourer on a daily basis for collecting and delivering customers cars and it’s continued reliability at well over 100k means its likely to remain in service for a number of years to come.

  13. @David 3500

    A mildly updated R8 could have been a potential breadwinner for Rover at that critical stage. Had the updated model retained the diverse lineup, it could have continued its predecessor’s success and helped to progressively rebuild the image of the Rover brand, or at least prevent it from atrophying.

    However, the R3 was positioned in the market to compete against C-segment vehicles despite being supermini sized. It was also R8-based, as I recall reading here. Perhaps they could have focused on developing a new compact car from the very start and spent that £200 million on the R8’s complete, unambiguous replacement model rather than on a new supermini. Granted, that would have left the Metro as the sole supermini in the range, but margins are almost always higher in the C-segment and Rover management did appear to see this.

  14. Will M

    It makes you wonder what other 6th generation Honda Civic related cars could have been sold as Rovers / MGs or what other bodystyles could have been derived from HHR.

  15. @Nate

    Definitely, looking at the different styles for R8, the HHR could’ve had many variants.

    There was a Civic coupe, but it was a different car to the European Domani based Civic hatches/HHR.

  16. As Honda owned a reasonable stake in Rover at the time, it seems strange that they would be so obstructive to Rover in producing additional variants of the basic HH-R platform. Surely they would have profited from them in some way?

  17. Will M

    Well, there is the Civic Coupe as you mentioned and also the Integra (imagine a 4-seater convertible version or coupe that is well-equipped), CRX (maybe as a sub-MGF “Midget”?) and CR-V with K/T-Series power, along with possibly Renault Scenic rival.

    Fwiw, I’ve always wondered how an alternate MG ZS 180 / Rover 420ti (that competed against the Escort instead of the Mondeo) would have fared against something like a Peugeot 306 GTI-6 assuming its production run lasted roughly the same as the original HHR and it kept its well-sorted chassis of the ZS.

  18. @Jaguarundi – I totally agree, the R8 range could have been given a mild makeover, the car was by far the best thing Rover had made in years and to loose all that goodwill with the public was a crying shame when they introduced the HHR. Given that the R3 shared many parts with the R8 it could also have made for better parts sharing and thus lower costs. The HHR and R8 were worlds apart despite similar dimensions, the HHR always managed to appear old hat, whereas the R8 was always edgier than a similar Escort or Astra. The R8 could also have remianed in production a little longer than it did given how long it took a new Astra or Escort/Focus to appear. It could have given at least another 3 years service, well into BMW ownership and could have paved the way for more enthusiastic BMW investment rather than the dying duck BMW inherited due to the impending HHR.

  19. Perhaps if they’d have jointly developed R3 and R8 then they could have taken R3 down in size slightly to really fit the market it was intended for (Metro/Fiesta) and simply re-skinned the R8 range to resemble what the R3 became. That cannot have cost them that much more surely, especially given how justified the argument would have been? A new car in all of the most important segments at the time?

  20. Mike,

    you get your memories mixed up here: The Montego had the rather practical (for load lugging use) retracting vinyl cover. The Tourer comes with a traditional parcel shelf – very unusual for an estate car and at times a bit unpractical due to the size. But it has its advantages when traveling and using the Tourer just as a slightly bigger version of the hatchback – which in fact it is.

  21. A couple of factory Turbo Tourers were made, but never released into the wild. I reckon Mike must have seen one of these.

    My own Tourer nearly received a Turbo lump back in 2005, and would have done (I still have the bits!) had work not got in the way. It would have been an awesome family hold-all 🙂

    /K

  22. The Renault 19 and Citroen ZX (both contemporaries of the 200/400) would evolve to become the Renault Megane and Citroen Xsara. Both soldiered on to about 2002/3 and had a number of variants based on the same platform. It is a shame that the same thing did not happen with the R8.

  23. @ James:

    My thinking entirely on potentially keeping the R8 in production a little longer and using a “cut ‘n’ shut” version of the platform for the R3 as a more convincing entry level Rover to take over from the Metro/100 Series. Back then Rover Cars was very creative in re-using the R8 platform for a new generation model with all-new bodywork. No-one complained, not even the critical motoring press.

    This is what most companies now do with modular platform designs, resulting in quick cost saving benefits because of the number of components shared and reduced gestation period.

  24. “Mike mentions the Montego Diesel in his piece – back then our service engineers all had (to put up with) LX Diesel estates until they were discontinued. The 400 Tourer was not considered suitable as a replacement”

    Although the Montego was really a proper estate, with a big boot, unlike the 400 Tourer which i always thought was lacking with the sloped rear screen robbing all the load space.

    “The Renault 19 and Citroen ZX (both contemporaries of the 200/400) would evolve to become the Renault Megane and Citroen Xsara. Both soldiered on to about 2002/3 and had a number of variants based on the same platform.”

    The Xara actually lived on a lot longer than that. While the saloons were replaced long ago they only recently stopped producing the (Xara) Picasso body style.

  25. I’ve got a 220SLi and love it. I reckon the R8 with non-turbo T-series combo is a hidden gem! I still find mine is a total joy to drive, even after 2 1/2 years and 50,000 miles behind the wheel.

  26. The only problem with the 400 Tourer was that it ran on for too long after the death of the R8 and the intro of the HHR – it looked as an act of desperation by Rover!

  27. dave @ 38.

    That should not be seen as a failing, because the R8 was a better car than the HHR.
    One should say the std R8 hatches and saloons were killed too early!

    If the tourer had been killed when the hatch was, it would have had a very short run indeed!

  28. @ DaveH, I think the real problem was that the 400 Tourer still looked quite good and the HHR appeared dated next to it. It was odd that the car went on so long as with the Tomcat, but all that did was serve to highlight just how much of a backwards step the HHR was. When you consider that the Focus wasn’t launched until 1998/9, the R8 range could have remained on sale (quite successfully I would imagine) at least until then, which would have given BMW more time to actually decide what it’s replacement should have been, even if it was a mild makeover of the R8 which they at least would not have had to pay Honda ridiculous royalties for. The whole HHR and 75 styling shift to more rounded and somewhat old-fashioned design was pretty much set by Rover Group by the time BMW had come onboard, I’m sure BMW would have had a look into this before the purchase, but when they bought Rover, it was selling rather successfully the R8 range that was doing good business. I wonder if they were really prepared for the shock to the market that would be Rover ditching all those market segments and coming out with something that looked like it should have been a predecessor rather than a successor to what had been a critically and commercially successful range in the R8. It would be like Apple launching a phone like the Nokia 3210 as the iphone 6… Now this discussion has resurfaced this in my mind, I find it baffling how Rover went from the R8 days to the dying late 1990’s without anyone really seeing the obvious flaw in direction? I really do…

  29. @james

    I imagine that BMW would have looked much more kindly on a Rover with a successful core model range and a strong, stable brand image carried forward by said range. They could have seen Rover as something resembling an equal partner deserving of respect – a slightly less expensive version of themselves, the Volkswagen to their Audi. They may not have felt they needed to spend billions just to rebuild Rover from the ground up with a new brand image and new model designations.

  30. @James..
    Have you never watched a test macth.. snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is just the british thing to do these days

  31. I agree with Mr _Bol (@37). The T series engined R8 are hidden gems

    My dad had a 220SLi (L reg) and I had a 420SLi ( K reg)briefly as a company car, before being swapped for an early 620Si. After having a couple of Montego Estates, the 420 made for a really enjoyable drive.

  32. I totally agree with the positive comments towards the R8 Rover 400 Tourer. It looked more upmarket and in a different league to the Astra/Escort competitors and still does.

    Pity an HHR Rover 45 Tourer never hit the market (love Will M’s photo of that red one!). Once I did have the loan of a year 2000 Civic Aerodeck 1.6 estate while my Accord was in dock. It drove well (125ps?) looked pretty good and had useful load capacity. I think a Rover edition would have filled a gap in their range then.

  33. The codename for the R8 Tourer was Tex – to compliment Tracer (Cabriolet) and Tomcat (Coupe) – but I’d never found out why. So I asked somebody who worked on the project.

    The answer was a little surprising….

    Apparently, the Tex name was chosen, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, as the Tourer was supposed to ‘lift and separate’ it from the rest of the R8 range !

  34. I took delivery of a charcoal black Rover 416SLi Tourer in July 1997. It still is my daily commuter now with 320000Km (200000 miles). Every thing is working properly, by far the best car ever!!

  35. @ 2 David 3500

    ” Therefore, when its replacement, the HHR, was discussed, Honda made sure that Rover Cars would not be in the same fortunate position again by imposing restrictions on what they could do with it, as part of the Licensing Agreement.”

    Good God !! Did Rover ever have a chance of long term recovery? You sometimes here comment that Rover may have done better staying linked to Honda as opposed to being acquired by BMW. Well, not if this kind of restriction was going to be imposed!

    Anyway, it’s time to go out. Happy Christmas everyone!!

  36. my husband and I started off with mini 850,then mini clubman,graduated to a total of five maxi’s then needing power steering acquired a matching pair of rover 416 tourer.one white august 1997 ( 2 years old at purchase) the other silver metallic October 1997 (4 years old at purchase) .beautiful comfy vehicles with tourer refinements. we wouldn’t have anything else.long may they last!!

  37. We’ve run a 95MY 420 GSi Tourer for 10 years and with 161,000 on the clock its still going well and returning 30 MPG over the last 60,000 miles.

    An over charging alternator took out most of the electronics except for the important engine management system.

    The only major problem has been with a failed fuel pump and every thing else were just consumables.

    The ethanol petrol introduction has caused a slight problem when going from cold start to normal temperature running however keep it above 2500 RPM until its hot solves the problem.

    A good work horse however it will eat the front tires if driven hard.

    I’ve switched to 400 hardness tires from the normal 200 range and we now have be careful in the wet.

    Its been car park shunted several times while unattended however nothing that a tin of hamerite can’t cover up.

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