Rover introduced a hot and more exclusive version of the 200Vi – and took the brave decision to market it under the BRM name.
Sales weren’t as strong as they might have been, thanks to an ambitious price tag but, as Kevin Davis explains, the ingredients were all there for it to be one of the hot-hatch kings of the late-1990s.
Rover’s ultimate racer?
The 200 BRM debuts at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. This concept carried several features that weren’t carried over to the production model such as a less pronounced orange snout, a silver rather than chrome grille surround, clear indicators, a front lip spoiler, wider alloy wheels and chrome eyelets in the red leather seats
Mention the words ‘Limited Edition’ and instantly visions of a poverty-spec supermini spring to mind with snazzy wheel trims, an aftermarket sunroof, a silly stripe down the sides and a stupid name. Thankfully, the Rover 200 BRM LE fits none of the above.
Rover was keen to promote the sporting abilities of the 200 Series, which had been on sale since late 1995, and wanted a flagship model to rejuvenate interest in the range. Using the MG name was out of the question as BMW, who then owned Rover, didn’t want the brand diluted from the MGF with warmed over hatchbacks and saloons – and believed that the MG marque name should be reserved for ‘proper’ sports cars.
Looking to its heritage
The marketing men at Rover therefore delved into their history books and came up with BRM – British Racing Motors – whose motor racing history was legendary. Unfortunately, it is also littered with spectacular failures. Rover’s link with BRM came about as a joint effort to build a gas turbine racing car for entry a Le Mans in 1963, using the Solihull company’s experience at adapting gas turbine engines for road use.
This allied well with BRM’s excellence in motor racing chassis engineering and development. The Rover-BRM completed the gruelling Le Mans 24-hour race, but was regarded by traditionalists as a fad with no future. A further car was built for the 1965 Le Mans, which finished tenth, and there ended Rover’s association with BRM.
Rover approached the owner of the BRM marque, David Owen of the Rubery Owen Corporation, and asked him if the company could use the BRM name on a range of sporting saloons and hatchbacks derived from its existing range, to which the answer was an enthusiastic yes – ‘but,’ he said, ‘do it properly.’
Launching the BRM
Rover built its first concept of the 200 BRM and showed it at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show to gauge public reaction, where it was well received, though people probably had to be reminded about the Rover connection to BRM, as well as what BRM actually was… Rover decided to go ahead with the project and, after a year of development, the Rover 200 BRM LE was officially launched at the British Motor Show in October 1998.
Rover said of the 200 BRM: ‘We chose the BRM name because it has a true motorsport heritage, a pedigree. All premium brands offer a sporting derivative in their model range, and we want the 200 BRM to be seen as our serious sporting car.’
Based on the already accomplished Rover 200vi, the 200 BRM was substantially different. 1960s styling cues played heavily inside with red quilted leather seats and door panels, red carpet, seat belts and steering wheel, alloy heater controls and turned aluminium trim. On the outside, Brooklands green paintwork was complemented with sparkle silver body trim, big 16-inch alloys, and an exclusive woven mesh grille sat above a huge orange snout in the front bumper, which was the BRM trademark nose on all of its 1960s Formula 1 racing cars.
Understated certainly wasn’t the word to describe the unique BRM interior
However, it was the engineering aspects that marked the 200 BRM out, the suspension received the most work with a 20mm lower ride height over the vi and improved damping and handling, the compromise was spot on. Rover described it thus: ‘We wanted Grand Tourer cruising, not Boy-Racer.’
A close-ratio gearbox with a TorSen differential further developed from the Rover 220 Turbo, reduced torque steer and improved straight-line stability, though the 1.8 VVC engine remained unchanged from the standard vi. The intention was for each car to have a certificate of authenticity and a plaque mounted in the car showing the build number but, when push came to shove, Rover didn’t bother.
What the testers thought…
The British motoring press were less than enthusiastic about the 200 BRM. Autocar’s road test of 18 November 1998 included a whole paragraph about its fiddly turned aluminium heater controls, and then went on to suggest that it was nothing more than a cynical marketing attempt to sell more 200s. It was almost as if the tester decided he didn’t like the car before he even looked at it.
Most other motoring magazines chose a similar angle, harping on about silly orange mouths and, again, cynical marketing. Only AutoExpress magazine was genuinely enthusiastic about the BRM and seemed to understand where Rover was coming from.
The production BRM. Note the more pronounced orange snout compared to the original concept
The problem was, no one knew about the 200 BRM, by the late 1990s BMW’s marketing strategy didn’t include performance versions of Rover cars (especially as they made most BMW’s look expensive and slow, pound for pound), so the only way you’d know the car existed was a visit to the showroom.
Even then, once you’d got over the orange snout (which some dealers painted silver thinking the orange was costing sales), you still had to get over the £18,000 asking price then add to that essentials such as air conditioning, a passenger airbag and a CD player.
Not a resounding success
Few were prepared to pay that for some dodgy heritage, so the price was dropped to £16,000 and, when the Rover 25 was launched at the end of 1999 and BRMs were still languishing in Rover back lots, the price went down again to £14,000. In all, 795 were built for the UK, with 350 going to overseas markets.
We should be thankful that Rover was allowed to build the 200 BRM at all under the ownership of BMW, it showed that Rover was capable of making proper hot hatches and gave us one of the most stylish and distinctive Rovers – if not cars – of recent times. The fact that Rover made a complete hash of marketing the BRM by making it exclusive rather than accessible is almost certainly why it wasn’t a big success.
Was it a worthwhile exercise?
Perhaps if Rover had concentrated on the chassis and engine/transmission developments and foregone the trim enhancements it would have lowered the costs and allowed Rover to aim the 200 BRM at the same market as the successful and sought-after Renault Clio Williams, then the story may have been a whole lot different.
Nevertheless, its exclusivity makes it one of the rarest post-war production Rovers and, as numbers dwindle, we hope that future generations recognise it for being a classic because it was a driver-focused sports hatch rather than because they only made a few of them.
The early signs are that it is gaining in classic kudos. There’s an active owners’ club and its forum, found at thebrm.co.uk, is certainly doing a lively business. Fingers crossed for the future…
|Engine||1796cc, 16-valve, dohc, in-line four-cylinder K-Series, with VVC cylinder head|
|Maximum power||143bhp at 6750rpm|
|Performance||0-60mph, 7.9 secs, maximum speed, 127mph (manufacturer’s claim)|