Intended to be the cornerstone of Rover’s late-1990s growth, the 400 hatchback and saloon were vitally important new cars – not least because they were to replace the best-selling 1989 200/400.
However with the final Rover co-developed with Honda, they got the pricing and dynamic mix wrong, and just as quickly as the original 200/400 built up a strong following, the 1995 debutante lost it…
End of the relationship
FOLLOWING the successful launch of the Honda-based Rover 200/400 and its derivatives, Rover was finally well on its way to defining a clear and focused product plan for the middle-market. After many years of overlapping model ranges, marque confusion and general buyer apathy, the Rover strategy was finally beginning to bear fruit: products of Longbridge were no longer the object of mirth in bar-room conversations, in fact the 200/400 was proving to possess that ‘aspirational” quality that the company had been seeking for so long. All that really stood on the way of the company positioning themselves into a market niche some way above that of Ford and GM was the presence of the rapidly ageing Maestro/Montego models.
So why was Rover continuing with these (by then) prehistoric models, when the R8 models were proving such a hit in the middle-market – loved by private and fleet buyers, alike? The marketing department at Rover certainly could have done with dropping them like a hot potato – the cars did not fit easily in the newly liveried showrooms or up-market range catalogues – but the decision was made to continue building them. Of course, the presence of the Montego and Maestro meant that the Cowley production line continued to roll on. Without them, the Cowley East works would be lying dormant – and would remain so until the end of 1992, when the Rover 600 was due to go into production.
The Montego also proved to be the only real weapon that Rover possessed in order to fight in the very heart of the fleet market. The Rover 400 saloon may have been priced at a premium, and the engine range extended from 1.4-litres to 2.0-litres, but it was still essentially an Escort class car – and, therefore, did not offer the accommodation of the Sierra/Cavalier opposition. The Montego, on the other hand did, and for all its plain-Jane styling and questionable image, it still offered a roomy and effective package. However, both cars were living on borrowed time Rover knew these cars had to go if it wished to continue on its successful way upmarket.
In 1991, the brave decision was therefore taken to tidy up the middle of the range and the product plan devised was built around two platforms, which would form part of the ‘Portfolio range”. Nothing unusual in this, perhaps, but the intention was to launch these two unrelated cars within months of each other (along with the MGF), thereby taking a broom and sweeping out the entire middle market cupboard.
In the case of the car to replace the Rover R8 400 saloon, as well as the Montego, Rover management made it quite clear that the only way forward was to produce another Honda under licence, but with some styling changes – to reflect its status. After the success that Gordon Sked’s design team made of the Rover 600 exterior – most notably Richard Woolley – it certainly made sense that Rover should perform another Honda redesign for their next medium sized car. Thankfully, the ambition of the engineers and marketing strategists to use the recently launched and highly acclaimed K-series power unit in the new car was reflected by the management as well.
As it was, the deal between Honda and Rover for the new mid-sized car was struck during 1991 and the project, called HHR, was soon underway. As expected, Honda provided the donor car upon which the HHR was to be based: the Civic 5-door, which at the time was already nearing production. As with the Rover 600, Richard Woolley headed up the external design team, and would soon be working on a ‘theme” for the new car, again working on the information passed to Rover from Honda regarding the donor vehicle. ‘I was still on a high from the 600 project, and had great hopes for this next one. ‘Theta’, the theme I produced was very much like a young brother to 600, with a proportion that suggested a four-door even though the car was to be a hatchback.”
As before with the Rover 600 programme, Woolley flew out to Japan in order to show Honda his Theta ‘theme” – and begin adapting it to work with the Honda platform. However, the plan was rather foiled by the fact that Honda wanted to do things a little differently this time. Woolley takes up the story: ‘I left for Japan again in November 1991, confidant that I could again get a strong product for Rover. What a disappointment though, when I walked in to the same Tochigi studio! To find that Honda had pretty much finalised their design, that it was based on the very lacklustre Domani, and that we were to be held to much higher levels of commonality than 600/Accord.”
Because the HHR was to be based on this car, the feelings of Woolley, as well as the designers back at Canley towards the new car were somewhat downbeat, in marked contrast to their approach to the earlier collaborative projects (Accord/600, Concerto/R8 and Legend/800). In fact one senior designer put it in far more definitive terms – he could not believe that management were ‘being so stupid” for starting the project from such an inappropriate base point and that he said that he ‘almost cried” when he saw the Domani for the first time.
In the weeks following Woolley’s arrival in Japan, little joint work was completed – Rover wanted to create a smaller version of the 600, and Honda were not giving them the base product, or the flexibility, to do so. Certainly, the amiable if fraught relationship of before was replaced by something more unpleasant, ‘Over the following weeks, no design work was progressed, in its place some quite acrimonious discussions, and it became clear that Honda would not budge from their position. For them, this project was to be their ‘bread and butter’ car for Europe; one that would not, in any circumstance, jeopardise the quality levels of their new plant in Swindon by not being based on a tried and trusted platform.”
This was an admirable stance for Honda to take, from their perspective, but given that the HHR and HH-H models were supposed to be the product of a collaborative partnership, Honda were not really giving Rover enough leeway to replace their much-loved R8 effectively. Because of this clash of ideals, Rover and Honda had pretty much reached a impasse over the Rover product, as Woolley recalled, ‘By December 1991, we were at stalemate, and had actually packed our bags to return home for Xmas with no intention of returning! Some last minute high-level negotiations took place that saw an agreement between Honda and Rover to recommence discussions in the New Year, and that Honda would do their best to address criticisms of their car.”
When Woolley’s team did return in January 1992, Honda’s design for the HH-H had not changed in any great sense – and the only concessions that they would give Rover were in terms of a few millimetres here, and a few there. It was not nearly enough. But given that Geoff Upex had lobbied senior management to, perhaps, go it alone, it was alleged that he was curtly told that the choice was to go with Honda, or face closure. Woolley, however, did knuckle down and in February 1992, began work on the new design, even though he knew that the product was potentially going to compromise Rover. As Woolley recalled later, ‘It was an altogether fraught time, with my counterpart from Honda remarking that this was the most difficult project he had ever worked on! We continued to debate changes with Honda that I felt were essential to at least get to a competitive design, and it’s true that some were incorporated. However, Honda’s approach did not fundamentally change, and the HH-H and HH-R went on to design completion 12 months later.”
Be that as it may, Honda had produced a neat and contemporary five-door hatchback from the four-door Domani – and as Car magazine’s Richard Bremner put it, the job Honda did on the Domani was somewhat akin to BMC’s modifications on the 1800 to turn it into the Austin Maxi: the side doors were retained, but the car received a hatchback and shorter front and rear ends.
Rover did decide early on in the programme to distance the HHR from the Honda Civic five-door by offering the option of a four-door saloon, totally unrelated to the Domani – and therefore unique to Rover – and it was in this design that Rover managed to effect more influence on the car. Because Honda were quite uninterested in producing a Civic saloon (the conservative British tend to love the saloon far more than their European counterparts) Rover had a free hand – and it shows, because where the hatchback tended to look somewhat truncated, the saloon was a really well-integrated design effort. Work on the saloon was carried out at Canley and began in July 1993, again headed by Richard Woolley. This decision, and the pleasing design that resulted, probably lengthened the shelf life of the HHR – and in view of the length of the car’s subsequent production run, this was no bad thing. Woolley felt better about the saloon HHR, as did the marketing people – and it is reflected by his view on the saloon, ‘I guess we pinned our hopes on this derivative a little, even though it was itself constrained by its Domani heritage. Rover Marketing even went as far as to say at the time of the 5 door launch that the ‘real’ new Rover 400 would come when the saloon was launched.”
The move upmarket
During 1993, and to tie in with the work that was taking place on the R3, the HHR was gradually eased into a market position somewhat above the originally intended slot. As explained in more detail in the next section, Rover would move each of the Portfolio models then under development up a market sector, in order to maximise profits without needing to raise production volumes. In the case of the HHR, that would ease it away from the upper portion of the Escort/Astra class and into the heart of the Mondeo/Cavalier battleground. The rationale behind this was to leave the little 100/Metro in production and then trade on the more exclusive Rover name in the HHR and R3 classes – offering class instead of space.
In terms of chassis design, the HHR was pure Honda: wishbones front and rear, a sophisticated set-up and typical, classic Honda in every way. Rover’s chassis engineers soon got down to work on the new car, and in line with its newfound upmarket aspirations, they decided to ensure that it was set-up in a rather different way to its predecessor and class rivals. Majoring on a cosseting ride and chassis sophistication, the spring and damper rates of the HHR were softened to an almost unheard-of amount – they knew that in a class full of ‘driver’s cars”, they were taking a risk. But given the fact that the company was oozing confidence anyway, one more risk taken with the new car was worth the extra profits that would be coming in.
However some within the company didn’t share the management’s confidence. Ex-employee, Chris Chapman said: “I remember Portfolio being presented to us in the exhibition hall near Q gate and the general feeling of underwhelment, especially the cheap/claustrophobic interior and the loss of the facia storage shelf due to the airbag. Driving a very early production car, it seemed much more sophisticated than an R8 in the suspension department, but the showroom appeal compared to the competiton was nothing like an R8’s – it was not the great step forward it should have been.”
Towards the end of the HHR’s development programme, momentous events were happening to the Rover car company. In February 1994, BMW had purchased the company from British Aerospace, leaving Rover’s collaborative partner on the HHR firmly out in the cold. As the HHR was only a year away from launch by this time, BMW could do nothing to influence the conception of this car – the official line was ‘business as usual”. Bernd Pischetsrieder and Wolfgang Reitzle had both viewed the Portfolio models at Gaydon within days of the take-over, and although there was little they could do about the level of Honda input to the HHR, they agreed to its continued development. BMW and Rover top brass managed to reduce the royalty payments that Rover were to pay to the Japanese during the life of this car, and even persuaded Honda to honour this contract for the length of the HHR’s lifespan. No-one at the time would have suspected that the HHR would remain in production for a lot longer than even BMW, Rover or Honda could ever have believed.
The 400 is launched – and underwhelms
The Rover 400 was officially launched on the 29th March 1995, and was met with a sense of muted antipathy from the press. It was clear to even the most casual observer that this car was almost pure Honda in its design – in fact, to more seasoned observers, the changes that Rover had made were disappointing in their ineffectiveness. In a nutshell, the new mid-sized Rover appeared to be almost as much a Honda (as opposed to a British car) as the original joint-venture – the Triumph Acclaim – had been back in 1981. Many questions were soon asked of Rover: Why such a disappointing design? Had it not been for BMW, would this have been the shape of Rovers in the future?
As it was, there was a lot to applaud the Rover 400 for, though: the car marked the first application for the new, enlarged version of the K-series engine – now cleverly expanded to 1589cc. Refinement and performance of this new version was certainly up to scratch, and like its smaller brother, it proved to be more than a match for its Honda counterpart. This change in engine policy meant that in terms of petrol powered units, the range was now powered entirely by British engines (1.6-litre automatic, aside), whilst the diesel versions were now L-series powered (as opposed to Peugeot XUD-powered).
The 400 range offered a wide variety of power options – 1.4-litres through to the 2.0-litre T-series engine – and even though the entry-level model was somewhat smaller than its rivals, Rover countered the lack of cubic capacity with a high specific output. Although the 136bhp version of the T-series engine found a natural home in the Rover 400, it was the 2.0-litre version of the KV6 engine (codename Merlin) that really excited the company. Producing a healthy 150bhp, the KV6 was under development and running in Rover 400 ‘mules” even before the car was launched – but it would not be until the arrival of the facelifted Rover 45 model in 1999 that a V6-powered Rover midliner entered the sales catalogue.
If there was a fly in the ointment, it was that rival manufacturers were rapidly catching up with the K-series engine – so while the idea of a 16-valve twin-cam, fuel-injected engine had seemed something of a novelty for a ‘cooking” saloon back in 1989 (the time of the R8’s launch), this certainly was not the case by 1995.
Be that as it may, the highlight of the K-series was somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the car. The people that mattered – the customers – found the Rover 400 somewhat disappointing and overpriced. If the premium pricing policy seemed like a winner with the classy and compact R8, its replacement certainly did not appear to have the looks to justify the continuation of this policy. Of course, Rover countered this allegation by telling everyone to wait for the saloon version, due in early 1996, but it did not ease the fact that the new 400 hatchback was not what the public wanted at the time, and was certainly not offered at a favourable price.
Autocar magazine was reasonably pleased with the 416i and reported so in their road test. The verdict was lukewarm – and they gave the car qualified approval: ‘with looks that will be routinely mistaken for Honda’s new five-door Civic, this latest 400 needed to be convincingly different beneath the badge. This it achieves by a whisker. With that sweet spinning, characterful K-series engine and an outstanding urban ride quality, Rover has created a car that feels genuinely unique, not just a cynical badge engineered Honda. Sure, Peugeot’s 306 still has the dynamic measure of this car, but compared with the dull homogeneity of the competition from Ford and Vauxhall, the 416i offers up just enough ‘typically Rover” character, just enough specialness to raise it above the common horde. But only just.”
At least Autocar were realistic in their choice of rivals for this car, plucking them from the small/medium arena. In Rover’s launch advertising for the 400, they pitched it against such luminaries as the Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna and Citroën Xantia. Interestingly, it compared very well to all-comers in this class on the handpicked ‘ride quality” index figure. All but the Citroën, that is.
Sales of the Rover 400 in the UK were buoyant, and in direct comparison with the combined sales of the outgoing R8 400 and Montego, they appeared to be quite good. But the comparison is certainly muddied by the fact that the 400 was designed to fight in the ‘D class” rather than the upper end of the ‘C class”, as marketeers liked to refer to the differing market sectors. So in the heart of the UK market, where Ford and Vauxhall continued to make hay, Rover continued to appear almost mortally weak.
In the first full year of sales, the 400, including the stylish saloon version, grabbed 3.15 per cent of the market – and although Rover continued to make noises about not chasing volume sales, the cold hard facts were that after allowing for Honda’s royalty payments on each 400 sold, profit margins were not huge. Export sales continued to make reasonable headway, so even though sales in the home market were suffering, Rover’s production volumes remained at a reasonable level – no doubt helped by the BMW connection. However, exports are affected by the fluctuations of the currency markets, and as we shall see, Rover and BMW would suffer terribly from these in later years.
In 1997 and 1998, the Rover 400 captured 2.85 and 2.55 per cent of the UK market respectively, maintaining a regular top ten presence. By the following year, however, this had collapsed disastrously to 1.51 per cent. What had caused this collapse? Well, the product had never captured the public’s imagination in the way that the R8 had, but also, following the change in government (May 1997) and the strengthening of sterling against European currencies, the price of imported cars had become so much cheaper in relation to that of the domestically produced Rover. This allowed companies such as Renault (with the Megane) and Volkswagen (with the Golf) to make serious inroads into the Rover’s market. What made the situation even worse for Rover was the flipside: the price of UK cars became more expensive in export markets, so in order to remain price competitive, Rover needed to drop their prices to such an extent that they began to make serious losses.
Rover 400 becomes 45
By 1999, BMW had begun to take emergency measures for Rover – and the first of those, the 45 facelift duly appeared in December 1999. Improved in many ways over the 400 model, the facelift served two purposes:
- To strengthen links with the ultra-impressive Rover 75;
- To maintain sales momentum of the range until the BMW/Rover-designed R30 model would be ready in 2002/2003.
The changes were small but many in number. Most obvious were the cosmetic changes to the nose of the car, including pretty quad-headlights and a more pronounced Rover grille. This also facilitated a higher bonnet line – necessary for the 2.0-litre KV6 finally to be squeezed in, replacing the rough-and-ready T16 power unit. The interior architecture and dashboard were unchanged, but the fitment of Rover 75 front seats (a trick the company had adopted in the past with the Rover Metro back in 1990), an uprating of equipment levels, and extra chrome fittings certainly boosted the showroom appeal of the car. But the main news was in the area of pricing and marketing: Rover no longer kidded themselves that the car was a viable Vectra/Mondeo rival, and as a result dropped the list prices to a more realistic level (healthy discounts were already widely available on the 400, anyway).
The other big news was that KV6 engine: Rover had previously shown the 425 model back in 1998 – initially promised as a production model, but killed for political and other reasons. The concept never went away though, so in December 1999, the productionised version (using the 2.0-litre version) joined the price lists. Whereas the 1.4 and 1.6-litre versions were considered by the press to be somewhat unimpressive in relation to the newer Ford Focus, the smooth and rapid V6 version made up for any deficiencies on the packaging and chassis front. The potential was there, and the backroom boys at Gaydon were already working on replacing that 2.0-litre engine with the 2.5-litre version first shown almost two years previously.
Autocar magazine were somewhat unflattering about the Rover 45 1.6iL they road tested in March 2000, rating it a three-star car. They said: ‘In isolation the Rover is a competent but mismatched car. Its lively engine, entertaining dynamics and decent specification are let down by staid lines, an out of date interior and a weak image.” The image is a subjective issue of course, and the styling, although improved – and in the author’s eyes, still elegant in saloon form – the appreciative customer base for this car was diminishing all the time.
An MG is born…
Shortly after Autocar’s less than glowing road test, seismic events led to the creation of the MG Rover Group – and the rebirth of the 45. As with the later Rover 75 and 25 models, the new management decided that to keep the saloon car ranges alive, they needed to encourage younger buyers into the fold, and if any car in the Rover range needed this, it was the 45.
The resulting prototype was wheeled out to the press in August 2000. Codenamed X20, the revitalised Rover 45 had been re-engineered to become an MG saloon. Rob Oldaker rejigged the suspension settings and Peter Stevens restyled those body parts that he could change easily (such as the bumpers and sideskirts). Many changes were made to effect the transformation from Rover to MG and the results, it has to be said, have been truly successful. The final and definitive car was launched in January 2001, and unusually for a performance-focused car, the ZS was launched as a range of models that mirrored the Rover 45 itself, including – rather surprisingly – the L-series diesel version! The 2.5-litre KV6, however, was reserved solely for the MG version.
One thing the excellence of the MG ZS chassis did demonstrate was the fact that the suspension system developed by Honda was fundamentally right, but flawed in the early execution…
One final facelift…
As the MG Rover era continued, it became painfully obvious that the 45 (along with the 25 and 75) was going to need a facelift in order to keep buyers interested. With limited resources and a number of Honda related parts supply issues, it was clear that the most the car would receive would be new front and rear bumpers and an equipment re-jig. A new-style dashboard was also going to need to be developed in-house in order to replace the Honda original, which the Japanese company was no longer going to supply.
Before the facelifted 45’s launch, many rumours circulated that this would be an extensive facelift (against what logic would suggest) and that the MG versions would gain some of the magic found in the MG XPower SV.
In the end, the rumour-mongers were proved wide of the mark, and the ‘new’ 45 and MG ZS were rolled-out in April 2004 to a flat reception from an underwhelmed press. The lack of any exciting developments on the body front were a disappointment, and they perhaps overshadowed what was actually a very effective front end restyle. As it was, sales of the 45 and MG ZS continue to slide with the rest of MG Rover’s product range (post-November 2003, and the ‘Phoenix Four’ Pension fund scandal), and that led to further losses in buyer confidence.
The facelift marked the beginning of a sad end to the 400/45/ZS line – and when MG Rover hit the rocks in April 2005, it breathed its last.
As the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers did their work at Longbridge in the months following the production lines coming to a halt, it became clear that the 45 and ZS had probably died for good. The fate was sealed in July 2005, when it became clear that Honda had visited Longbridge and taken back parts of the car’s production facility – meaning there would be no way that there would be a rebirth of the line in China (or Longbridge).
It was an ignominious death really…
During the late 1990s, BMW’s intention for Rover had always been to develop a single car, the R30, to replace both the 25 and 45 model ranges, but this plan finally died in March 2000 when the Germans and British parted company. MG Rover now had to devise a new model strategy with which not only to replace the 25 and 45, but also to revitalise the image of the company. The process of introducing the MG version of the Rover 45 had certainly given the range a serious boost in buyer appeal, but in reality it gave little more than breathing space while it knuckled down and tried to find a partner’s money with which to get the RDX60 into production.
The first thoughts would be to say that the Rover 400 was a failure – and in the cold light of sales figures it plainly was. The trouble with this theory is that by that logic, Rover should be held accountable, when in reality, they were very much tied to Honda’s terms on what they could and could not do with the new car. So is it Honda’s fault? Well no, because Honda were protecting their own interests, and as it has been recorded within these pages many times, if it were not for Honda, Rover would probably have ceased to exist by 1990. So, does blame for the failure of the Rover 400 lie with British Aerospace? In many ways, yes: had it not under-invested in the car division year after year, then Rover would have been in a much stronger position to design its own car. BAe took the easy way out – they saw that the Rover 600 had turned out well, so assumed the smaller car would follow the same course under Richard Woolley’s steady hand.
The only problem with this was that the designers were not given enough room to express themselves fully – and the success of the later 200, MGF, Freelander and Rover 75 indicated that they could get the job done given this freedom. And so, through necessity, the car that emerged from the Canley design studio looked far too much like the Honda from which it was derived. By this time, car buyers had become too sophisticated, and their readiness to accept the Rover 400 as a badge engineered Honda meant that they were deprived the joys of the K-series engine… and that alone lifted the Rover 400 above the Honda Civic.
It is fair to say, therefore, that the Rover 400 started out as a product of company under-investment, then became a victim of wider economic circumstances, and finally succumbed to political events. It’s now doubtful that history will prove to be kind to the Rover 400, 45 and MG ZS – and that’s a shame because in ZS form at least, it ended up a rather effective driver’s tool. Obviously many customers were unable to appreciate that…
Proofed by Declan Berridge