The R8 oh-so-nearly spearheaded a Rover revival for the mid-1990s. A perfect fusion of Honda and Rover, and the absolute pinnacle of the relationship. Sadly, it dated quickly and then was not effectively replaced.
Probably the surprise of the top ten, given its current “banger” status, but a welcome and deserving addition all the same.
THE R8 came about as the third phase of the Honda-Rover collaborative partnership. Although no-one knew it at the time, it proved to be the zenith of the arrangement.
The Honda-Rover deal had been surprisingly successful: the Rover SD3 213/216 had proved beyond doubt, that when given a well-engineered car, which was designed for assembly, the Longbridge workforce could screw together a car that was as reliable as anything the Germans or Japanese could produce. It may have looked Japanese, but it was what the poeple wanted, seduced by the allure of the then upmarket Rover badge. Within a couple of years of production, SD3 outsold the Maestro, and in doing so, sounded the death-knell of the Austin marque.
The second phase was the Rover 800, and it was this car clearly demonstrated how not to run a joint venture. Rover and Honda agreed on very little when it came to the make-up of their large cars, and where disagreement was at its most pointed, both teams went their own ways. This resulted in a car that shared surprisingly little common componentry, and in many ways was the worst of both worlds. Early 800s were a frustrating mixture of anodyne styling, beautiful interiors and dreadful quality issues – and the failings were mainly due to the Britsh stubborness to accept Honda solutions when they were better than our own. As one manager once said, it was beset with the “not invented here” syndrome.
Thankfully, a dose of reality swept through the Rover, and when it came to the next project, R8, there was more of a willingness to accept Honda engineering in place of its own. Not that the R8 was a Honda-dominated effort. Far from it, in fact. The British and Japanese stylists worked together, and although the origins of the car’s looks were seated in Tokyo, it was the Canley based design team that made far-reaching changes to the R8’s detailing and stance, which massively boosted its appeal. In terms of interior design, the British had significant input here, and although they deferred to the Japanese when it came to electrical and instrumentation systems, British character shone through.
The suspension make-up was also a pleasant amalgamation of Anglo-Japanese thinking: rear suspension was a Honda multi-link arrangement, but the front comprised of MacPherson struts – just like the majority of its European rivals (Japanese market Concertos, interestingly, remained with wishbones upfront). So long before it became the norm, Rover was able to offer a small/medium family car with an independently sprung rear.
The R8 was also blessed with a cracking engine range: at launch, all cars appeared with 16V engines, something that really only became the norm some ten years later. The Honda power units were a known quantity, but what truly impressed was the specification of the K-Series engine that powered the 1.4-litre models. 16 Valves, twin camshafts and a modular sandwich construction: all aspects of more exotic engines. The K-Series was all the more remarkable for being developed entirely by Rover during one of the most politically turbulent times of its career.
So, the ingredients for a class-leading car were all there: advanced engines and suspension, clean and contemporary styling and the right badge. Rover managers were confident that the R8 would do the business, and set the prices accordingly: the entry level 214Si competed with the 1.6-litre opposition, whilst the higher powered Honda versions were priced deep into GTi territory. Not that any of this mattered, because the quality of the product was so right that Rover was justified in charging the premium. The press said so, and the public agreed wholeheartedly. For a few sweet months in 1989-1990, Rover was king of the hill, and almost everyone aspired to own one. Premium pricing and all.
The R8 should be considered an innovative car in a marketing sense, too. Body variations were introduced on a thick-and fast basis; a four-door saloon, three-door hatchback, two-door Coupe, two-door cabriolet and five-door estate were all released, long before it became the industry norm to stretch platforms so widely. In packaging terms, it moved the game on, too: the quality of the interior far exceeded anything its rivals had to offer, offering soft-feel plastics, light and airy interiors, and a smattering of high quality wood veneers. This is something, that even to this day, rival manufacturers struggle to do well.
So, as Richard Porter says below, Rover finally got it right. Its slightly posh slot in the marketplace gelled perfectly with the mood of the time, and as a result, people bought it in droves. Within months, middle-market expectations were pushed up, and no longer was a 16 valve engine or independent rear suspension the realm of the executive car. Rival manufacturers took notice, and within a few short years, this sector of the market changed beyond all recognition.
The R8 demonstrated once and for all that manufacturing cross-pollination could produce a seriously competent car.
In retrospect, the story has an unhappy ending, because Rover failed to replace it effectively, thus frittering away all of this car’s good work. It’s a story that has already been told, though: just look at the ADO16…
The HH-R 400 was introduced to replace the upper half of the existing 200/400 range. However, it was developed as a straightforward replacement for the whole range. The reason for the anomaly was that Rover saw fit to apply more premium pricing, thereby placing it in the heart of the Mondeo market. Customers were confused as to this car’s role in relation with the newly-launched R3 200, and concluded it was overpriced.
The first car in the history of The Artist Formerly Known As British Leyland for which no excuses were needed. Simply a good, solid, competant car successfully launched to a favourable reception from press and the public. More than that, the R8 managed to pre-date several industry trends in its own, quietly able way. Not many manufacturers then or now have managed such a smart use of one basic floorpan. And of course the whole range looked good, in a neat, Middle England appeasing sort of way. This was the moment at which Rover managed to find their own slot in modern, mainstream car making. Slightly posher and way more pleasant than your Fords or Vauxhalls, and managing to spread into niches too. Shame they’ve since thrown it all away, but that’s why the R8 is my nomination – it’s a high watermark from a time when it really seemed like the company had turned it around. And indeed, from when they didn’t need to make any excuses.
…it proved the company could turn out a decent, reliable product that appealed to the masses.
The R8 was my choice, because of its nice blend of Brit and Jap engineering, amazingly roomy for the size of car, no killer rust and will go forever if you do basic maintenance. Not perfect, the body is not stiff enough for great handling and the nose gets too light when loaded, but a sweet car that won’t let you down when you need it.