Replacing the Montego with a new Honda-based executive car was never going to be straightforward. The Rover 600 development story, with significant input from David Morgan, tells how Rover managed the task, and far more successfully than anyone could have expected.
Sadly, the Rover 600’s success story was hampered by political events beyond its control.
Rover 600: a new era begins
The fifth major Honda collaboration with Rover was a project to replace the upper Austin Montego models, while opening up new markets for Rover – to produce a viable rival for the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz 190. This market sector was a major growth area in the European market and Rover, with its newfound upmarket aspirations, was keen to cash in.
Initial thoughts on how to replace the Montego had surfaced in 1984/85 – and the model was originally planned as a shortened version of the Rover 800 (XX), to be available in saloon and hatchback form. The Austin AR16 and AR17, as they were dubbed, made an appealing car, being essentially more of a British design than the car they were based upon, and styled to match the new and rather successful Rover ‘theme’. The Roy Axe studios worked on new versions of the car but, as corporate plans favoured a move towards further co-operation with Honda, the AR16/17 died a quiet death following the appointment of Graham Day.
Day knew that Rover no longer possessed deep enough pockets to produce a truly satisfying executive car on its own and instigated talks with Honda on producing a new car to fill the gap in their range. As far as Honda was concerned, though, any deal with Rover which involved the Accord would need to be controlled by the Japanese company.
Working with Honda
After these talks, which centred on Rover building a badge-engineered version of the Accord, a plan was hatched and the deal was finalised in June 1989. Rover would have access to the 1993 version of the Accord, but it would have no involvement with the technical development of the car.
Honda also laid down quite strict stipulations for Rover to adhere to in the development and marketing of the new car – dubbed Synchro during the early stages of the design process, but changed to the SK1 (for the Honda-engined version) and SK2 (for the Rover-engined version) once the serious work got underway in Japan.
Firstly, the new Rover could not be sold in the USA, it had to use nothing but Honda petrol power units and the only changes Rover was permitted to make were to the car’s external design.
Following the Honda ‘Way’
Writing in the book When Rover Met Honda, published in 2008, former Rover Manager Anne Youngson disclosed that Honda approached Rover with the offer to allow them to build its own version of the next generation Accord. For Honda this would enable them to generate extra sales from the Accord through simultaneous production of a Rover version at Cowley. For Rover this would enable the British company to have an all-new car at a considerably lower cost than by going it alone.
In addition, it would also benefit from the more disciplined ’Honda Way’ of product development. This essentially involved the departments engaged in a project such as design, industrial engineers and manufacturing having a closer working dialogue from the outset collectively to complete a milestone and build, test, analyse and modify ‘iterative loops’. As a result, this ensured that, from the earliest stages, the vehicle would be designed to achieve total quality. The focus on speed and meeting strict timescales would also extend to the supplier network.
The ‘Honda Way’ would also extend to restricting the number of variants, colours and factory-fit options to ensure quality and build consistency were maintained.
Setting the Rover 600’s design themes
Following his work on the then yet-to-be-released Rover 200/400 (R8), Richard Woolley was chosen to lead the way with the Synchro’s external design and was soon working hard on a style for the car. As with the previous collaborative models, the Synchro would involve a great deal of side-by-side working with Honda Designers in Japan, and a further demonstration that both companies wanted a different look to their cars, but were prepared to work towards common goals.
The earliest thoughts on the new car were born in England, and it would involve several months’ hard work at Canley to produce a full-scale model based on Woolley’s plans for the car. ‘I had produced a ‘theme’ design for 600 at Canley in the months preceding my departure for Japan in October 1989. Based on some early information on mechanical package and proportion, this theme prepared me for some intense work schedules at Honda.
‘We did not ship the model out to Japan, but ‘captured’ the surface data and I had a full suite of photographs to take along. The theme was the first time that the Rover grille had been re-incorporated into a front-end style,’ Woolley said.
Japanese and British Engineers working side by side
Once in Japan, the English and Japanese design teams would again work alongside each other, as they had before with the Rover 800 and the R8, but with Honda adopting more of a leading role on the technical front. During the time spent together, both design teams worked extremely hard to produce their individual products, and this resulted in some very long working days.
‘Meetings often went on until late at night and, on one occasion, I saw a quite senior Honda spokesman fall off his chair asleep, in front of about 30 people,’ Woolley recalled. Honda may have been the dominant technical partner, but this did not stop Rover from exerting a strong influence over its own design. It simply came down to the fact that Honda and Rover wanted different things for their cars.
Woolley added: ‘When I arrived in Japan, Honda were also at the theme stage, and we began to have discussions on the levels of commonality between the two cars. It was obvious that both Honda’s Designer and myself were after two very different feelings for the cars.’ Thankfully, Richard Woolley’s Synchro theme was successfully transposed onto the final mechanical template offered to them by Honda.
Injecting Roverness into this most Japanese of cars
Honda would be responsible for the engineering of the core car, including the engine choice. However, Rover’s Design Engineers would be given the freedom to develop an alternative body design while working alongside Honda’s Engineers in Japan. Richard Woolley would be responsible for the exterior design of the Rover project.
Mindful of the issues facing the ‘XX’ 800 Series in a number of markets such as North America where its weak frontal identity was not congruent with a perception of prestige, he decided to create a stronger, more distinctive character for the 600 Series, with an emphasis on heritage.
Inspired by past Rover luminaries such as the P4 and P5 saloons, Woolley started with a modern rendition of the classic radiator grille with an elegant chrome surround. The decision to go back to using a prominent Rover grille was taken by Roy Axe – and was the result of a backlash against me-too design in the European car industry. For some time, it became apparent that the look pioneered by the SD1 back in 1976, was becoming increasingly adopted on a wide scale – and Rover, which wanted to breathe some marque identity back into its cars, was keen to move away from this phenomenon.
The 600 Series would be the first new-generation Rover to be purposely designed from the outset around the Rover grille theme. Other heritage-inspired design features included a chrome number plate surround for the bootlid and a more muscular looking bonnet profile with a central bulge.
Rover 600: styling to success
Although the basic architecture of the Accord would need to remain untouched, Rover soon devised a new set of clothes which would give the car a completely new identity of its own. Unlike the previous Roy Axe-headed design efforts (including the Rover R8), the new Rover would move away from the ‘folded paper’ school of design and towards something more organic. Gordon Sked led Rover’s Design Department by 1989 and the Synchro’s appearance reflected a new direction by the company.
Styling and external designs forwarded by Richard Woolley formed the basis of the new car – and his desire to produce a design that was more obviously ‘Rover’ in its outlook was highly apparent: ‘I was after something more akin to the classically proportioned sporty four-door saloon look, which I’d always felt was at the heart of Rover.’ Chief differences between the Synchro and the Rover 800 were the side window configuration and the re-adoption of that prominent Rover radiator grille.
There was a clear decision to move back towards the organically-shaped car, and this reflected the fact that the aerodynamic school of thought was widespread in the European industry – and, following on from such cars as the pioneering Ford Sierra in 1982, the 1986 Audi 80 (B3) and the 1986 Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton, it was becoming fashionable to produce a car with a streamlined appearance.
A different identity achieved
By retaining only the front doors, roof panel and lower section of the rear doors from the Honda Accord, Woolley created a design which looked modern and upmarket. Remarkably, despite these constraints, the actual production design retained a strong visual relationship with his initial styling drawings completed by November 1989. A computer system called Stereo Lithography was also used to produce rapid prototypes for the 600 Series project.
The task was now to engineer the car, while ensuring that Honda’s brief of not making major structural changes was adhered to. A full-size model was built and, using this, customer clinics for the new car were held – and the car scored very highly: the design was viewed as being classy, but understated.
These exceptionally favourable results convinced Rover that the new car was exactly what the needed to plug the gap between the 800 and the larger-engined versions of the 400 model.
Honda, with a dash of Rover inside
Development of the Synchro was then passed over to Honda which, in fine tradition, was formulating a new car that, although an evolution of the current Accord, was entirely new from the wheels up. The European version of the Accord and, therefore, the version that Rover used in developing the Synchro would be available in 2.0 and 2.3-litre versions and would initially come in one body style – a six-light four-door saloon.
Honda would be responsible for designing the interior. Even so, it had already learnt a lesson or two from their British partner on how to design a more tasteful looking dashboard fascia. This, in turn, created a useful starting point for Rover’s Interior Designers to deliver a more luxurious feel.
Lighter colourways such as Stone Beige, alternative ‘Chevron’ and ‘Windsor’ seat fabric designs, a generous helping of burr walnut inserts and, of course, the bright finish ‘Rover’ etched sill tread plates all helped raise the ambience to a noticeably higher level when compared to the Honda Accord. Even the wheel trim designs fitted to the majority of the Rover 600’s variants had a touch of understated elegance about them rather than conveying the usual ‘budget’ image.
Rover 600 marketing: the push upmarket
The Rover 600 would initially be offered with the entry-level version being powered by the 115bhp version of the Honda 2.0-litre engine – and this equated to the most powerful normally-aspirated version of the Montego. The decision was taken to keep the Montego in production beyond the point of the 600’s launch, in order to cover a sector of the market, which (although diminishing) was not covered by the small but expensive 400 and the larger 600.
However, the future for the range was beginning to look distinctly Honda-shaped and, although the 600 was a handsome car, it lacked in inherent ‘Britishness’ that the cosmetic adjustments made to the car did little to disguise. Not that it mattered too much – the 800 did have a British ambience, and that was on the whole nearly as Japanese as the 600.
Customers kept telling Rover that they loved the car during ongoing clinics and these results also led Rover to adopt an ambitious pricing policy for the car, which moved it so far away from the Montego that there would no longer be any doubt as to whether this car was a replacement for it – it most certainly was not: whereas the Montego was a budget-priced Ford Sierra rival, the stylish Rover 600 was going straight for the jugular of the BMW 3 Series.
As with all of the previous Honda/Rover joint efforts, it was the Honda that reached the market first: the Accord being announced during the late months of 1992. Many observers, who knew that a new mid-range Rover was on its way and was based on the new Honda, were more than a little worried by the Japanese version’s styling – which was a little heavy handed. They need not have been…
In an April 1993 interview with Auto Express magazine, Gordon Sked, Director of Rover Cars Product Design, said that, during pre-launch viewing clinics held across Europe, pundits had judged the prototype car fitted with the grille to be worth £2000 more than the alternative prototype car which was not fitted with a grille.
Launching the 600 and impressing the world…
Announced on 7 April 1993, the Rover 600 Series was initially offered in just six variants. Priced from £13,995, the entry-level variant was the 620i powered by a 115bhp 1997cc Honda engine. At this level you got the niceties of electric front windows, central door locking, speed sensitive power steering, a perimetric alarm and a Blaupunkt electronic stereo radio/cassette player with four speakers.
One thing you didn’t get as standard on the 620i was colour-coded bumpers, but instead bumpers finished in an unpainted neutral black. As former Rover Cars PR Manager Kevin Jones explained: ‘The idea behind the unpainted bumpers was only meant to be a way to encourage buyers to purchase the higher spec Si version. To an extent, the policy worked.’
The higher spec 620Si cost £1000 more and came with a more potent 131bhp version of the same engine, twin exhaust pipes, infra-red remote central door locking, larger 15-inch steel wheels and colour-coded painted bumpers. At this level you could also specify automatic transmission as an extra cost option and an SE pack comprising of anti-lock brakes, an electric sunroof, roof-mounted interior light and steel wheels specified with luxury-style wheel trims.
Climbing the range
The 620SLi cost from £17,200 and added electric rear windows and door mirrors, rear door sill tread strips, burr walnut inserts in the doors and a higher-spec Blaupunkt stereo. However, it was the 620GSi which delivered the more indulgent luxuries such as powered height adjustment for the driver’s seat, leather seats, burr walnut inserts in the centre console and 15-inch ‘Prestige’ style alloy wheels.
Sitting above the 2.0-litre engine was a 2259cc twin-cam Honda engine producing 158bhp reserved for the 623iS and range-topping 623GSi. The 623iS could be identified by its bootlid spoiler and seats trimmed in Windsor fabric and leather, while the 623 GSi came with all the aforementioned luxuries found on the 620 version, but with automatic transmission as standard and lower profile 195/60 tyres.
For some buyers the 600 Series represented a marked departure from Rover’s usual policy of offering equipment and trim-related personalising opportunities. The only factory fit options available were air conditioning (£1,050) and metallic or pearlescent paint (£345). Even the choice of exterior paint colours was limited to just five – Black, British Racing Green, Caribbean Blue, Nightfire Red and White Diamond.
Beyond this, if you required the trim level badging to be deleted from the bootlid or wanted to add further items such as a top-line RDS radio, 10-disc CD changer, front fog lamps, alloy wheels on lesser models or even painted bumpers on the 620i, then it was down to the dealer to provide this.
Impressing the motoring press
The press launch took place at Hartwell House in Aylesbury, with initial road-tests being favourable. Auto Express in its road test published on 9 April 1993 wrote: ‘One of the most impressive things about the new Rover 600 is that even the base two-litre models are a joy to drive. The Rover is the most direct expression of the 14-year link with Honda, with the 600 series engine, gearboxes, suspension and many interior panels being identical to the Honda Accord. Yet the Rover is distinctly different.’
Even when the same publication did a comparative test a week later between the 620SLi against the Honda Accord 2.0iLS, both cars impressed with their refinement and low road and engine noise. On looks it judged the 600 Series to be the winner every time, although when compared to the Accord it concluded that ‘Rover cannot justify charging over £2000 more for what is essentially the same car.’
With its Honda underpinnings, the Rover 600 was seen as being at a disadvantage some stiff opposition, but the truth was somewhat different. CAR Magazine summed up the situation perfectly in a group test, which pitted the 620SLi against the BMW 318i, Ford Mondeo Ghia and Citroen Xantia:
‘Assemble these four cars for appraisal by an unprejudiced public and the Rover would win hands down. No question. It is a winner. If we’re talking class – and that’s what the upper echelons of the M2 sector are all about – the 620SLi exudes it. It is not as roomy as appearances suggest, it does not perform with great distinction, and it’s no more fun to drive (arguably less) than the Ford Mondeo. But it scores handsomely for comfort, refinement, quietness and build quality. Above all, it imbues the driver with a sense of it’s good-to-be-here well-being that its rivals cannot match. It has style, it has image, it has class.’
Like the older first Rover 200 before it, the Rover 600 proved very strong on static qualities: it looked right and, as CAR Magazine summed up, it exuded a classy image that, at the time, made it a bit of a unique proposition in its class. What went against the 600, though, was the overt Honda influence in the engineering of the car.
Rover was not interested in producing a car that used wishbone suspension – it allowed for too little wheel travel, which resulted in the inability to deliver a supple and well-damped ride. But trouble was looming for the Rover 600, and it would come in the form of the company’s new owner, BMW, which announced its purchase of the Rover Group in January 1994.
With Honda effectively disentangling itself from Rover as quickly as possible, the future for the Rover 600 was effectively a short one. By the time of the BMW takeover, Rover was already working on adapting the Rover 600 to accept the turbocharged version of the T16 engine, already used in the 420 Sport and 820 Vitesse models.
Brit power: the T- and L-Series cars
Publications such as Auto Express and the long-since defunct Carweek predicted that further body styles would follow such as an estate version based on the Accord Aerodeck or even a two-door coupe. However, the reality was that Rover’s hands were tied by Honda, and the main thrust of development would be limited to powertrain work.
As former Rover Cars PR Manager Kevin Jones explained: ‘There was little likelihood of any variations to the core model. In some ways, it was cost-effective fleet sales to keep costs low and extract a profit in challenging conditions where the mainstream competitors were dealing with bigger deals and higher volumes. Instead, we attempted to offer more aspiration, with durability and perceived qualities and brand value.’
This approach to keep an even tighter control on costs would not stop Rover’s Engineers from undertaking their own major engineering programme to enable the 2.0-litre Rover petrol and diesel engines to be offered. Rover had always intended to fit its own engines to supplement the Honda units and provide broader sales opportunities to help increase volume at Cowley.
As Anne Youngson disclosed in the book When Rover Met Honda, Honda’s engine rotated in the opposite way to a Rover engine, so the engine bay had to be reversed in relation to the block and most of the ancillaries.
Adding T-Series power – not an easy task
So extensive was this that a completely new development and test programme had to be undertaken. The engineering programme for the Rover engines also attracted its own special working code of SK2. This followed the SK1 Honda engine programme’s naming strategy of using the first letters of the surnames of the Rover and Honda Managing Directors, George Simpson and Hiroshi Kobayashi.
The SK2 programme would see the introduction of Rover’s home-grown 200bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series engine in the very high performance 620ti, followed by the 2.0-litre L-Series diesel in other variants in early 1995.
This useful model significantly added appeal to the 600 model in those predominantly diesel-orientated markets, such as France and Italy, where the Rover 600 had already established itself s being popular. The L-Series engine was an update of the Prima engine first found in the Maestro and Montego – and, like its progenitor, proved remarkably economical in service.
Rover 620ti: thrusting executive
Launched in July 1994, the 620ti cost £19,995 and was fairly discrete in giving off the performance message. Limiting the visual enhancements to a new 16-inch six-spoke alloy wheel design and new sports front seats trimmed in Silverstone fabric with leather side cushions, did not find favour with everyone – especially those wanting a more explicitly styled package. However, underneath the skin it was engineered to impress the driving enthusiast, with larger diameter anti-roll bars, uprated springs and dampers and a TORque SENsing differential.
The launch of the 620ti variant also coincided with the discontinuation of the 620GSi and 623iS variants, and the introduction of the 623SLi which with its competitive price allowed company car drivers to take full advantage of the revisions to the company car tax structure. Meanwhile, the introduction of Pewter Grey metallic took the range of exterior colours to six.
More importantly, all variants were now fitted with a driver’s airbag as standard, while a passenger’s airbag was fitted as standard to the 620ti and 623GSi and available as an extra cost option on all other variants. Thankfully, those awful neutral black bumpers fitted as standard to the 620i were now firmly consigned to history.
What the papers said about the 620ti
Of the British engined versions of the 600, it was the T-Series powered turbo version that made it to market first. With a maximum power output of 197bhp at 6000rpm, it truly was a real Q-car, because like all Rover performance models of the time, it wore no body addenda hinting at its colossal straight-line speed.
Road testers had mixed views of the 620ti. While it delivered real grunt to the 600 Series line-up, when compared to its bigger brother, the 800 Vitesse Sport, the 620ti seemed to lack the same driving appeal. In road-test comparisons with the class-leading BMW 325i, which cost over £2000 more in standard guise, the 620ti was considered to be good, but not that good. Carweek summed it up as ‘Dull ride, unpredictable steering don’t do justice to [the] high power.’ Other road tests though were generally more gracious.
In contrast, Autocar was impressed: ‘We approached the new Rover turbo with some trepidation because previous high-powered front-drive Rovers have had either poor traction, bags of wheel fight or both. The 620ti is far easier to tame than any of its predecessors. A small amount of torque steer is evident when the car is pulling out of tight corners in first or second gears, and the car will also tramline under very hard braking, but in most circumstances this is a predictable, stable car that just goes where it’s pointed.’
Overall, the 620ti emerged as an excellent performance saloon but, because it seriously encroached on BMW’s hallowed ground and it was not quite how the parent company saw Rover in the contemporary executive market, marketing support for the car was dropped.
Rover 600Ti performance figures (Top Gear magazine):
Standing start acceleration:
Maximum speed in gears:
Overall fuel consumption:
Scent and cosmetic enhancements
By 1995, sales of the 600 Series had played a major part in increasing Rover car sales in important export markets such as Germany and Italy. Italian buyers in particular loved its British style and aspirational image. To further increase awareness of the Rover brand in that market, Rover enlisted the assistance of Milan-based perfume chemist Promoparf S.p.A. to create a special scent for its Italian customers, to be offered in a scent bottle resembling the shape of the Rover 600’s radiator grille. Called Essenziale, this product was unveiled in December 1997 on the eve of the Bologna Motor Show.
The first update for the 600 Series did not occur until February 1996, with the main engineering change focused on replacing the entry-level 115bhp 2.0-litre engine with a smaller 1849cc Honda engine developing the same power. Meanwhile, the GSi trim level would be available with the 131bhp 2.0-litre engine once again and, for the first time, with the 100bhp 2.0-litre L-Series diesel. The exterior colour range was also significantly expanded to include four solid, eight metallic and three pearlescent paint finishes, many of which were shared with the updated 800 Series.
By April 1997, around 200,000 Rover 600s had rolled off the production line at Cowley and it was anticipated that it would remain in production for a further two years before its replacement, the Rover 75, went on sale. This meant continuing to pay Honda a royalty for every example built, not to mention the cost of buying in Honda engines which were specified in the bulk of models sold. Then again, Rover did earn some revenue from supplying Honda with the L-Series diesel engine for the Accord, even if it was offered in just one variant.
Any further updates to the 600 Series would therefore need to be low cost and not result in creating any new major components. The enhancements were ultimately limited to lowering the suspension by 10mm and exercising the familiar mid-life practise of colour-coding items such as the door handles, door mirrors, side protection strips and sills with the main exterior colour. At the same time two new exterior colours were introduced – Charleston Green and Kinversand – which replaced some of the existing colours. The latter colour, despite looking dramatic as a burnt orange, did not find many takers and so was discontinued within a year.
Towards the end…
The final enhancements for the 600 Series were the availability of supplementary iS and iL variants launched in March 1998. These focused on delivering some of the sporting or luxury feature content found on the higher ti and GSi. The iS variant provided sporting touches such as half-leather sports seats, 16-inch alloy wheels and front foglamps. Meanwhile, luxury was the core remit of the iL variant in the form of full leather seats, 15-inch alloy wheels and additional wood trim. Both versions could be specified with either the 1.8-litre Honda petrol or 2.0-litre Rover L-Series turbo-diesel engines.
Collectively, these new additions took the range of 600 Series variants for the home market, excluding option packs and transmission choice, to thirteen. Add in the choice of four solid, seven metallic and three pearlescent paint finishes, and this could not be more far removed from the original policy to limit build complexity and complication.
With the replacement model, the Rover 75, being unveiled in October 1998, the 600’s days were now numbered. At the end of the first week in January 1999 the final example of just 92 cars built that week rolled off the assembly line at Cowley. No announcement was made that production had ended as it needed to maintain a showroom presence until at least June of that year when the Rover 75 officially went on sale. Rover Cars’ data suggests that a total of 273,221 examples of the Rover 600 had been built, with the final unsold examples being registered in 2000.
Was it a success?
Look at the Rover 600 Series from just the perspective of sales and it hardly made a dent in sales of BMW’s hugely successful E36 generation 3 Series or Audi’s A4 – even when considering just their four-door saloon variants.
Yet, given the 600 Series spent most of its production life following the Honda approach to restrict the number of variants built in order to minimise complexity, it actually proved to be a reasonable seller for Rover Cars. But it was never going to be a heavyweight sales contender against premium offerings which already had established brand kudos, or volume-orientated makes with their recognised fleet discount price opportunities.
The relatively low cost and speed of delivery of the Rover 600 project from completed styling drawings to showroom models, was a breathtakingly fast time for what was an entirely new model, with simultaneous engineering having played a key role in this achievement.
And the Rover 600’s legacy?
Customers liked the Rover 600 – and, although it was comfortably outsold across Europe by the BMW 3 Series, it established itself for its tight build quality and impressive reliability. Many saw the marriage of British style and Japanese reliability as a positive buying point – and not many people were disappointed by their 600s in service. Also, the Rover 600 won many admirers for its styling and, if Rover tried quite hard to disguise the fact that it was a genuinely stylish car with some boring colour options and rather unremarkable wheel designs, it is a design that in the context of its replacement has aged very well.
For Rover Cars, which was keen to build on the quality reputation and emerging aspirational image of the Rover brand kick-started by the R8 200/400 Series, the 600 Series added further ambition to these objectives. Even with Rover Cars’ bullish approach to commanding premium prices over the cheaper and slightly better equipped Honda Accord, the 600 Series happily exploited buyers’ growing desire in the 1990s for an upmarket image and greater presence in the premium upper medium market.
It was also a car that contained more Rover DNA than many people have given it credit for – rather like the 200/400, it was a car with a Japanese-designed interior, but it still managed to look like Rover had penned it. Why? Because Honda more than happy to adopt the design principles set out by Rover, if ultimately it improved their own products along the way. When asked about the success of the Rover 600’s design, Richard Woolley is quite clear about his own feelings. ‘Yes, I am proud of the car and, although the engineering was all Honda, Rover significantly influenced the approach that was taken to the project as a whole.’
Rover 600 production figures (Cowley):
Thanks to ‘an insider’, David Morgan and Richard Woolley for their help with this story.