Following on from his excellent Rover SD1 development story, David Morgan tells the interesting story of how the 800 Series battled to emerge the shadow from its illustrious predecessor.
Read on to find out how this unlikely fast hatch, saloon and – eventually – Coupe came good after a shaky start.
Six appeal: The Rover 827 arrives
Following on from the Rover SD1 and 216 Vitesse, the next significant chapter in the Rover Vitesse story would occur in 1988 with the launch of the 800 Series Fastback. The XX-generation Rover 800 Series had been unveiled in July 1986 as part of a collaboration project with Honda and initially seemed to have very little in common with the old SD1. Nor was it seen by some buyers as looking to attract a more enthusiastic driver.
However, the delay in offering a very high performance derivative was possibly worth it as, in February 1988, the 800 Series received a 177bhp 2.7-litre Honda V6 engine to replace the current 2.5-litre version. The bigger engine not only had a slight increase in power over the outgoing 2.5-litre V6 but, more importantly, offered noticeably superior mid-range pulling capability.
This was followed by the five-door Fastback bodystyle which was formally announced on 25 May 1988. Designed under the direction of Roy Axe, Director, Design and Concept Engineering, it had a welcome hint of the SD1 in its styling, particularly from the side profile. The Fastback offered another attraction – the availability of a Vitesse variant.
The obvious design reference with the SD1 is perhaps not that surprising. During an interview with CAR magazine, published in the May 1986 issue, Axe talked about the strength of design distinctiveness of some of the existing models, particularly the Rover SD1. He even went as far as to say ‘The Vitesse is certainly a car to put away for the future.’ Clearly, the appeal of this model would remain influential when it came to designing the supplementary Fastback bodystyle for the 800 Series.
Featuring the standard 2.7-litre V6, the 827 Vitesse would head up the Fastback’s line-up while the existing Sterling, offered as a four-door saloon only variant, would remain as the overall flagship model to convey premium luxury. For a few select export markets such as Italy, where there were significant tax penalties for petrol engines above two litres, the Vitesse variant would instead feature a normally aspirated 140bhp 2.0-litre M16i engine.
The 800 Fastback had the same drag coefficient of 0.32 as the saloon although for the Vitesse it was reduced to 0.30, thanks to having a deeper front bumper spoiler, a rear aerofoil spoiler and rear sill spats. Other design enhancements included a unique 15in alloy wheel design. This wheel design had actually been previewed in prototype form on an MG Montego the previous year for press photos relating to the availability of a body styling enhancement package for the Montego saloon.
While the springs and ride height for the 827 Vitesse were unchanged over those on other Fastback models, it did benefit from improved stiffness through larger anti-roll bars being fitted and recalibrated gas dampeners to improve stiffness on rebound.
At launch the Vitesse was offered with a Flint Grey interior colourway and a choice of just four exterior colours comprising of Black, Pulsar Silver metallic, Stone Grey metallic and Targa Red. The Vitesse’s on-the-road price was £19,944 with the only extra costs options available being air conditioning (£1212), an anti-theft alarm (£125) and headlamp wash (£179). Electronic automatic transmission was available as a no cost option.
Taking its message to Stuttgart
The promotional launch for the Fastback range predominantly focused on the Vitesse derivative and was based around themes juxtaposing it with British post-modern architecture such as the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, designed by the renowned British architect Sir James Stirling (above).
This included the image used for the front cover of the sales brochure and in the narrative for the television commercial which prominently implied that its German rivals had set the standard to beat. In contrast to this, the image used for the print advert under the strapline ‘The fastest Rover ever built. Nearly’, showed an 827 Vitesse positioned in front of the 1965 Rover-BRM gas turbine race car in a more traditional setting.
The main press launch for the full model line-up took place at Billesley Manor near Stratford-upon-Avon (below), with the press demo cars being registered on E… MDU registration numbers. The 827 Vitesse was no slouch with a claimed top speed of 140mph and it received some encouraging reviews from the motoring press.
What the papers said
David Benson, writing for the Daily Express (19 June 1988), described it as ‘The best Rover ever built.’ Performance Car (September 1988) compared the Vitesse against the Ford Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth and Jaguar XJ6 in a group test and considered its ride and refinement more appealing than that of the ‘knobbly Sapphire’. Additionally, the Vitesse was praised for being ‘impressively fast, offering impressive flexibility from the broad spread of power.’
Then again, What Car? (December 1988) were less convinced by the Vitesse’s performance and felt that it needed more power and less sensitive power steering to make it a true sporting saloon.
Former ARG Product Affairs Manager Denis Chick confirmed to the author in September 2003 that Honda wouldn’t allow ARG the opportunity to tweak its V6 engine, despite the potential for delivering more power. This meant there was little opportunity to give the Vitesse more obvious ‘halo’ performance over that of the other 827 derivatives.
Further enhancements revealed
Less than five months after its launch, the 827 Vitesse was taking centre stage on the Austin Rover Group stand at the 1988 British International Motor Show and revealing some subtle enhancements for the 1989 Model Year. These included extending the range of exterior colours to eight and offering a choice of four colourways for the interior. Rear head restraints had now been introduced for the Fastback range and were fitted as standard in the Vitesse.
For those Vitesse owners wanting even more luxury, a joint option of leather seats and a power-operated driver’s seat was available for £1250.
The British International Motor Show also reaffirmed the availability of the TWR (Tom Walkinshaw Racing) manufactured body styling enhancement package for the Fastback range and a new 16in five-spoke Sports alloy wheel design as mainline fit extra cost options. This body styling enhancement package had been designed by ARG’s Concept Design Team and originally revealed at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show for the saloon bodystyle. Both options were now being previewed on a Pulsar Silver metallic 827 Vitesse display car found in Hall 2 of the National Exhibition Centre.
Achieving a world first
The lack of a more powerful version of the 2.7-litre V6 for the Vitesse might have disappointed some aficionados, although it did not stop rally driver Tony Pond from attempting to set a production car course record, by lapping the 37.73 mile Isle of Man TT circuit at an average speed of 100mph.
The Rover Vitesse Challenge was attempted on 10 June 1988 with Rob Arthur as his navigator and saw them completing the course in 22 minutes 44 seconds, averaging a lap speed of 99.58mph. Despite narrowly missing out on creating a world record, Tony would return to the circuit two years later, on 6 June 1990, to re-attempt the challenge.
On this occasion he decided to undertake it as a solo run without the weight of a 14-stone navigator and spent quite a few hours memorising the TT route beforehand, which was relatively straightforward as he was a resident of the Isle of Man. This time he achieved a lap time of 22 minutes 9.1 seconds which equated to an average speed of 102.195mph, meaning he had achieved his 100mph average lap speed target. His lap record would remain unchallenged for 21 years.
A missed opportunity?
Speaking to the author in January 2014, Wynne Mitchell, who was a Chassis Engineer for Tony Pond Racing, recalled that the 827 Vitesse used for the 1990 Challenge was fitted with racing tyres, better brake discs with competition pads, a roll-cage and a louder exhaust so that the marshals could hear it. However, the rest of the car, including the engine, was completely standard.
Furthermore, on the back of the 1990 success, Tony Pond Racing proposed that new springs and dampers could be offered for the road car under a ‘TT 100’ theme; something that Rover Cars’ London-based marketing agency wanted to work with. However, for reasons unknown, this was not given the go-ahead.
Ian Elliott, who was Austin Rover Group’s Corporate Advertising and Promotions Manager at the time, recalls that a further 827 Vitesse was built by Engineers at Gaydon for use in rallying as a team-building exercise. This was a bit more radical than Tony Pond’s car in terms of the engine’s ECU settings and also having numerous other modifications which included rose-jointed suspension, all of which helped it to do rather well in rallies.
Afterlife for the Challenge car
So what became of the Rover Vitesse Challenge car? Originally registered as G333 CVC, records on the DVLA’s website show that it was first registered in April 1990 and only taxed for six months. Visitors to the Thruxton Race Circuit in the 1990s would have seen it being used as both a training vehicle and also for giving courtesy rides to family members of those enrolled on performance driving courses run by the Ian Taylor Racing School.
An interview with the current keeper of the Rover published in the February 2021 issue of Practical Classics reveals that the Racing School actually acquired the car in December 1990 and it was used as an instructor vehicle for the Association of Racing Drivers Schools courses, where it was driven by pupils for their racing licence training. It was retired from active service in approximately 2001 and was eventually acquired by the current keeper who, at the time, worked at the race circuit.
Viewers of the Duke video showing Tony Pond’s 100mph lap of the TT circuit in June 1990 will have noticed that he also drove another Rover 827 Vitesse registered as G531 HUY. This example was filmed for the commute between Tony’s home on the Isle of Man and the start of the race circuit. DVLA online records show the car’s road tax ran out at the end of September 1991 and there is now an export marker against it.
Time for a mild makeover
With the renamed Rover Cars (nee Austin Rover Group) having unveiled the new R8 generation 200 Series in October 1989, it came as little surprise to find the 800 Series receiving a mid-life revision. The package of enhancements for the 1990 Model Year (MY) was announced at Motorfair ’89 held at Earls Court.
For starters there were deeper front and rear bumpers similar to those already fitted to the North American-spec Sterling 827 models, which gave the 800 Series more visual presence. The exterior badging was also revised whereby it took influence from the Times New Roman font, although the ‘Vitesse’ emblem still kept its unique freehand scrolled design. The Vitesse model also retained its familiar five-spoke alloy wheel design whilst the other derivatives in the line-up were receiving new wheel trim or alloy wheel designs. In essence, the most obvious change for the Vitesse variant was inside the cabin where the seats now featured leather side borders in place of cloth, to complement the existing ‘Lightning’ fabric on the centre cushions.
The retail price for a 1990 MY Vitesse now stood at £22,390. Optional extras comprised of automatic temperature control (ATC) air conditioning (£1785), a closed-loop catalytic converter (£400), Connolly leather seats with an electrically adjustable driver’s seat (£1,325), headlamp power wash (£190), pearlescent paint (£103) and a power amplifier for the in-car entertainment system (£138).
The Vitesse ‘Executive’
These enhancements were quite modest when compared with the ambition to take the 827 Vitesse onwards and upwards for the 1991 Model Year. Rover Cars had recognised there was a growing demand for a five-door Fastback model with a premium level of specification and chose to deliver this via an enhanced Vitesse, referred to internally as the Vitesse ‘Executive’.
Kevin Jones was a Product Communications Manager for Rover Cars at the time and recalls that within the company there was a view that the 827 Vitesse was suffering from a loss in direction. Speaking to the author in October 2002, he said that the identified way forward for the Vitesse derivative was to deliver an enhanced specification through the Vitesse ‘Executive’ route.
Revealed on 11 September 1990 at the British Motor Show, the Vitesse ‘Executive’ featured the same Trim Level 8 specification as the Sterling. This included the new 15in ‘fine spoked” alloy wheel design which provided a neat reminder of those fitted to the SD1 Vitesse. The exterior colour range was also adjusted to embrace new colours for the 1991 MY, such as Caribbean Blue pearlescent, Nightfire Red pearlescent and Quicksilver metallic, to supplement the existing five carryover colours. Each body colour was now only available with one specific interior colourway, which on the Vitesse had been restricted to either Light Granite or new Lightstone Beige.
With an on-the-road price of £25,995 the 1991 MY 827 Vitesse was up against the likes of the more powerful Saab 9000 2.3 CS Turbo and Ford Granada Scorpio 24V. Even so there were still a few optional extras available such as two in-car entertainment system upgrades (£125 and £600 respectively), self-levelling rear suspension (£345) and a Sports pack (£250) comprising of sports suspension and 16in 5-spoke Roversport alloy wheels.
Mixed messages (and the 820 Turbo 16V)
For some driving enthusiasts the 1991 Model Year changes had somewhat diluted the Vitesse’s apparent sporting role, to focus more on opulence. This need for a more obvious sporting offering would be revisited again from March 1991 with the announcement of the 820 Turbo 16V limited edition variant.
Featuring a 180bhp turbocharged version of the 2.0-litre M16i engine developed in partnership with Tickford, the 820 Turbo 16V partially addressed the need for a more driver-focused executive saloon. However, the feedback from the motoring press was lukewarm, with some publications such as Autocar (26 June 1991) questioning whether it made for a better car than the 827 Vitesse. It was also not helped by the fact that a heavily revamped 800 Series – known internally as the ‘R17’ – was due out by the end of the year.
The final examples of the 827 Vitesse were completed in late summer 1991. Figures from the Rover Cars Press Office suggest that a total of 201,900 examples of the ‘XX’ generation 800 Series had been built. More specifically, data from Rover Marketing reveals that over 10,000 examples were Vitesses, including the normally aspirated 2.0-litre M16i version built for a select number of export markets such as Italy. Its successor therefore needed to not only deliver a more dynamic performance intention, but also maintain these sales figures.
New era: The R17-800 Vitesse
Announced on 12 November 1991, the second-generation ‘R17’ 800 Series was found to be a substantial update over its predecessor, resulting in significant changes having been made to the design of both the saloon and Fastback bodystyles. They would also be joined by an elegant two-door Coupe as part of a staged introduction for particular variants.
Designed under the direction of Gordon Sked, Director of Rover Cars Product Design, the remit for the R17 800 Series was to deliver more robustness and visual ‘bulk’ than its predecessor. This was seen as a key attribute of BMW’s successful E34 generation 5 Series that Rover Cars aspired to take head-on. At the front the more muscular bonnet profile, together with the re-introduction of an elegant radiator grille treatment with chrome surround, echoed a heritage connotation with the classic Rover P5.
Meanwhile, the rear profile with its larger number plate mounting panel and a more rounded outer edge for the tail-lamps gave the R17 more visual reference to the SD1, especially in five-door form.
Taking the subtle approach
Speaking to the author in November 2011, Gordon Sked recalled: ‘The majority of changes [for the Vitesse] were addressed through the main R17 design programme, with the intention for the Vitesse variant being to maintain a subtle, sporting appearance rather than looking to over-dress it.’
This approach was clearly the right one as the second-generation 800 Series became the UK’s best-selling executive car within twelve months of going on sale. In addition, the Vitesse variant was one of eleven Rover Group vehicles to receive the prestigious Institute of British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers (IBCAM) Auto Design 92 Gold Award.
Turbo power delivers the performance
There were also important changes for the R17’s chassis and steering which would serve well for when the Vitesse model followed as part of the phased introduction programme. To be offered in both four and five-door bodystyles, the Vitesse would receive its own unique powerplant in the form of a Garrett T25 turbocharged version of the new 2.0-litre T-Series engine.
The T-Series had emerged as a re-engineered version of the M16i unit with an emphasis on being much smoother and more refined than its predecessor. In turbocharged form the T-Series produced 177bhp which would enable the Vitesse to have a claimed top speed of 137mph. The turbocharged T-Series would also be used as a supplementary engine choice in the 800 Coupe sold in export markets such as Italy from 1992.
Denis Chick was the Product Affairs Manager for Rover Group Corporate Affairs at the time and remembers the official press launch for the 800 Series being held at Ettington Park, south of Stratford-upon-Avon. Photography was taken at Eastnor Castle and Walton Hall with early publicity shots for the Vitesse showing it displaying the 16in five-spoke Roversport alloy wheel design. However, this particular wheel design was ultimately not offered on the production version.
Kevin Jones confirmed that all the official press photos had been completed at Eastnor Castle although, because of the intended delay in the sales launch of the Vitesse, Engineering decided to change the chosen wheel design to a more stylish 16in seven-spoke design. This meant that new photos had to be shot.
John Dalton, who worked in Rover Cars Marketing at the time and was also Rover 800 Brand Manager, says that around twenty five pre-production Vitesses were built in 1991 before the first volume of production examples commenced in January 1992. In Europe the model would be badged as the 820 Ti while, for a few export markets such as Italy, there would also be an 800 Turbo Coupe version.
Keen pricing adds to its appeal
On sale from 15 February 1992, the only indications of the Vitesse’s high performance role were the unique seven-spoke alloy wheel design and an aerofoil spoiler on the five-door version. Inside the changes centred on new Recaro front seats finished in a combination of Ash Grey leather borders with ‘Silverstone’ fabric for the centre cushions. The level of standard equipment was similar to the Trim Level 4 spec found on the normally-aspirated Si variants.
With an on-the-road price of £20,650 the Vitesse was keenly priced, with the only optional extra being ATC air conditioning at £1150. In true Vitesse tradition it was offered in a restricted number of exterior colours which comprised of Black, British Racing Green metallic, Caribbean Blue pearlescent, Flame Red, Nightfire Red pearlescent, Nordic Blue metallic and White Diamond.
The advertising strategy for the Vitesse was notably aimed at the company car driver, with the print advertisement showing a Nightfire Red example parked between a Saab 9000 and BMW 5 Series in a ‘Directors only’ car parking area. If that wasn’t sufficient indication then the featured strapline certainly was: ‘Isn’t it time you resigned from the bored?”
The best from Cowley?
Early press reports for the Vitesse were encouraging, particularly in relation to acceleration and its compliant suspension. Auto Express (2 June 1992) for example wrote: ‘…but the instrument that really caught our attention was the speedometer which was nudging a remarkable 142mph. The new turbocharged 16-valve Rover obviously deserves its Vitesse name.’ They concluded: ‘If you’re in the market for a comfortable, elegant saloon with more than a touch of secret sports car, the Vitesse is made (in Britain) for you.’ However, Autocar & Motor (20 May 1992) felt that the Vitesse’s chassis was more committed to a supple ride rather than sharp, exciting responses.
Indeed, this latter view was aired by other road-testers and it would not be until 1994 when the Vitesse would look to address those criticisms through a supplementary Vitesse Sport derivative. Despite this, the 800 Vitesse would prove to be a strong seller in the home market. As disclosed by John Dalton to the author in October 2002, the Vitesse would command 15% of the 800 Series’ UK sales in 1992 and 1993.
Rover 800 Vitesse Sport upgrades
While the 177bhp Vitesse variant had been noted for delivering smooth and eager performance from its turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, the more enthusiastic driver concluded that it needed to feel more engaging in relation to its ride and steering. That criticism would be addressed with the arrival of the Vitesse Sport as the new very high performance derivative (VHPD) for the 800 Series line-up.
Announced on 19 April 1994, the 800 Vitesse Sport featured a 197bhp version of the turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series engine. This version of the engine together with an uprated PG1 gearbox with a Torque Sensing differential, were already being used in VHPDs offered in the 200/400 Series range. Therefore, extending their availability to the 800 Series, closely followed by the 600 Series was a natural route to follow.
The engineering changes for the Vitesse Sport were certainly comprehensive and included lowering the suspension by 20mm and uprating it by retuning the spring, damper and anti-roll rates. Even the steering arms were uprated in order to improve feel. More obvious was the fitment of a new 17in six-spoke alloy wheel design shod with Dunlop SP Sport tyres. Gordon Sked, the former Director of Rover Cars Product Design, said to the author in November 2011 that ‘this was a large wheel size at that time and it was essential to underpin the sporting appeal of the car.”
John Dalton, who was a former Rover 800 Brand Manager, confirmed to the author in October 2002 that the Vitesse Sport programme had started in 1992 as a 1994 Model Year project and was part of a phased introduction programme. Known internally as just the 197bhp Vitesse, the programme was initiated by Rover Marketing to provide a ‘proper’ Vitesse for the enthusiast.
At the same time the original 177bhp model would be retained as, following price realignment, it had become a very successful UK tax beater below the £19,250 company car tax threshold. The 177bhp version was to have been renamed as the 820ti in line with the Vitesse’s alternative identity in Europe, and as per the smaller 620ti due to follow, although this ultimately did not happen.
After a review on whether to use the Vitesse name for all European markets, a decision was made to rename the 197bhp version as the 820TS for export markets such as Italy, which was one of the biggest markets for the turbocharged variants. For the home market the Vitesse Sport did not carry a ‘Sport’ identifier but instead wore the existing moulded ‘Vitesse’ badge for the bootlid/tailgate as used on the 177bhp version. This was an elegant looking design with a typeface derived from the Times New Roman font and a chrome-effect finish for the lettering.
Receiving rave reviews!
The engineering enhancements certainly transformed the Vitesse Sport into a car that offered a sharper sporting edge than the 177bhp version and also gave it a claimed higher top speed of 143mph. According to former Product Affairs Manager for Rover Group Corporate Affairs, Denis Chick, the Vitesse Sport was ‘a true Vitesse for the first time in a long time and a car that many in the know within Rover [Cars] had been waiting to be put into production.’
The motoring press also agreed, with Autocar & Motor (27 July 1994) concluding that ‘Rover has made a winner out of the car that carries its most evocative mantle.’ Carweek (21 September 1994) displayed similar sentiments declaring ‘The Vitesse isn’t just back from the dead, it’s a winner.’ Praise indeed…
Former Rover Cars PR Manager Kevin Jones confirmed there had not been a standalone press launch for the Vitesse Sport. Instead, there had been a regional press event held at Virginia Water in Surrey where the Vitesse Sport could be driven and compared with the newly-announced 620ti derivative, which shared the same engine.
Supporting the sales launch press release were official press photos showing a five-door version finished in Nightfire Red pearlescent juxtaposed in front of the recently completed Cable & Wireless College based in Westwood Heath, on the outskirts of Coventry.
Greater personalising opportunities
With an on-the-road price of £21,995 the Vitesse Sport was £1500 more expensive than the ongoing 177bhp version although it came with a higher Trim Level 5 specification. Its launch also coincided with the availability of a ‘Lux Pack’ (as in luxury) for the first time which could be specified on both the 177bhp and new 197bhp variants. Adding a further £2000 to the purchase price, the Lux Pack combined the features of ATC (automatic temperature control) air conditioning, leather seats, heated front seats and an electrically adjustable driver’s seat. This option pack also enabled buyers to choose Light Stone Beige as an alternative interior colourway to the regular Granite Grey.
The range of seven exterior colours was also adjusted whereby Caribbean Blue pearlescent was replaced by Tahiti Blue pearlescent and Nordic Blue metallic by Charcoal metallic. The carry-over colours were: Black, British Racing Green metallic, Flame Red, Nightfire Red pearlescent and White Diamond. Examples of the Vitesse Sport model specified in Tahiti Blue and Nightfire Red would have their bodyside protection strips and bumper top sections colour-keyed with the exterior colour rather than being finished in neutral black.
Taking a cautious approach with advertising
John Dalton confirmed that there were plans within Rover Marketing to use the Vitesse Sport as the sporting flagship model in advertising. However, these plans, which would have likely featured some catchy slogans extolling the dynamic qualities of the Vitesse Sport over its German rivals, were not to be. Presumably this was due to the recent takeover of the Rover Group by BMW and issues over pitching Rover’s VHPD directly against its new parent’s model competing in the same market sector.
Instead, an image of a Vitesse Sport saloon would be used in an advertisement for the 800 Series line-up from late 1994 promoting the self-monitoring role of its Modular Engine Management System. It used the subheading: ‘This Rover 800 can make 213,538 decisions in a second. You only have to make one.’
Premium proposition as a two-door Coupe
In March 1996 the R17 800 Series received its first major update. Unveiled for the 1996.5 Model Year, these revisions were mainly based around improved specification and the same colour and trim enhancements for the exterior and cabin already introduced on the new KV6-powered variants. Compared to the rest of the 800’s line-up the Vitesse suddenly seemed like the poor relation as it received no visual enhancements. Indeed, a number of its unique features such as the rear aerofoil spoiler on the five-door version and the Vitesse Sport’s colour-keyed bodyside protection strips and bumper top sections, had now been extended to the rest of the 800 Series line-up.
The main news concerning the Vitesse was that the 177bhp engine option had now been discontinued, leaving the 197bhp Vitesse Sport – now referred to as just the Vitesse – as the sole VHPD. In addition, the two-door coupe could now be specified with the 197bhp turbocharged T-Series engine.
Kevin Jones, who was the Product Communications Manager for Rover Cars at the time, remembers regularly asking Marketing why there was never a performance version of the Coupe; something new Sales and Marketing Director Tom Purves was also keen to see. This was addressed with the announcement of the 800 Turbo Coupe on 12 March 1996.
Sharing the same Trim Level 8 specification as the flagship V6 Coupe, albeit without the availability of automatic transmission, the 800 Turbo Coupe had an on-the-road price of £25,995 which was £4000 more than the Vitesse. By December 1996 the Turbo Coupe’s identity had been changed to Vitesse to bring it in-line with the regular four and five-door bodystyles, although still maintaining its premium price and specification.
With a greater choice of exterior colours being available on the updated 800 Series – three solids, seven metallics, six pearlescents and four duotone colour schemes – this enabled the Vitesse to offer its highest level of individualising opportunities for the customer.
Recognition maintained in those autumn years
The 800 Vitesse continued to attract favourable interest from enthusiasts and company car drivers, with examples regularly seen displayed on the Rover Cars stand at British motor shows. This included a Nightfire Red pearlescent saloon at the NEC in 1996 and an Oxford Blue pearlescent saloon at Earls Court in 1997.
Not even popular television could resist the opportunity to use an 800 Vitesse, with Midsomer Murders’ character DCI Tom Barnaby, played by the actor John Nettles, driving a five-door version in the second series of the fictional crime drama. This example was finished in Zircon Silver metallic and registered as R372 HJW, which was from a batch of consecutive registrations used by Rover Cars in the autumn of 1997 for registering some of its company vehicles.
The Vitesse name would also be briefly extended to a Range Rover special edition launched in North America in 1997. Known as the 4.6 Vitesse, this special edition derivative was offered in the high impact colours of AA Yellow and Monza Red. It ultimately did not carry the ‘Vitesse’ nameplate but was recognised as such by its colour and trim features.
Journey’s end for an ‘evocative mantle’
However, during the third week of September 1998, the Vitesse nameplate would be discontinued when the final 800 Series, an 825 Sterling saloon, left the assembly line. Rover Cars had not made an announcement about the end of 800 Series production, presumably as a healthy stock of new unsold examples had been built up to fulfil most new car orders until the sales launch of the all-new Rover 75 in June 1999.
The on-the-road price for the Vitesse was now £23,975 for all three bodystyles. For the four and five-door bodystyles the only options available were a multi-CD autochanger (£500), a leather seat pack with heated front seats and electrically adjustable driver’s seat (£1250) and metallic, pearlescent or duotone paint (£425). These prices were officially unchanged right up until September 1999 when the 800 Series was no longer listed in the Rover Cars price list, although in reality most dealers were already offering healthy discounts.
Details relating to the final 800 Vitesse to be built remain undetermined due to the whereabouts of the production records continuing to be unknown. However, it is known that some of the remaining unsold examples would be registered as late as 2000, some of which attracted W registrations.
So was the R17 800 Vitesse a success?
Combined data from both Rover Marketing and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) was provided to the author in 2003. It suggests that over 15,000 examples of the R17 Vitesse in 177bhp and 197bhp form and for sale in all markets were likely built. This figure also includes the export market 177bhp Turbo Coupe and 820ti, together with the more recent 197bhp 820TS and Coupe.
Rover Marketing data confirms that nearly 98% of the 1963 examples of the 177bhp Turbo Coupe built up until the end of 1995 were destined for Italy. SMMT production data, which is taken from the original submissions from Rover Cars, suggests that just 383 examples of the 197bhp Turbo Coupe/Vitesse Coupe were built. This makes it not only one of the rarest 800 Coupe variants, but also the rarest of all the Rover Vitesses built.
Despite its performance and driving attributes, the 197bhp Vitesse has, in more recent times, become something of a forgotten performance executive car with the motoring press. Few classic car publications have given it editorial coverage as a modern classic, let alone recalled the significant contribution it had in giving the 800 Series a creditable very high performance ‘halo’ offering to take on the likes of the Saab 9000 and Volvo 850 T5.
So while Vitesse sales figures were strong in proportion to overall sales of the R17 800 Series, its ongoing recognition has sadly not been as successful.
Was there a potential afterlife?
One question that was occasionally asked by journalists and potential buyers when the all-new Rover 75 was unveiled was whether there were any plans to rejuvenate the Vitesse name? According to Kevin Jones, the former PR and Brand Communications Manager for MG Rover Group, there were definitely no plans to bring back the name or deliver more sporting saloons under the Rover brand.
However, one such offering which some onlookers believed presented such an opportunity was the 75 Design Theme. This had been unveiled as a design concept at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show when the Rover Group was still owned by the BMW Group. Sporting the Longbridge colour of Anthracite metallic, the Design Theme with its more assertive body styling, sports suspension and an interior featuring modern looking gloss black wood trim, looked every inch a sporting saloon capable of carrying the Vitesse name forward. Sadly, it wasn’t to be…
Speaking to the author in September 2003, Denis Chick said: ‘The 75 Design Theme showed that Rover Cars could produce a sporty Rover, although it was merely a styling exercise that would never have gone into production under BMW.’ A further consideration mentioned by Denis was that, at the time of its announcement, the company’s only suitable engine was a mildly-tuned version of the 2.5-litre KV6 developing around 177bhp, although this had not yet entered production. However, even if it had, it is questionable whether this tuned KV6 would have delivered sufficient performance attributes to enable the Rover 75 to take on those VHPDs from other premium brands. Manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo and Audi had already been moving the performance goalposts through having larger, more powerful engines at their disposal; something Rover Cars did not have.
MG takes over the performance baton
Instead, in November 2000, the now independent and renamed MG Rover Group proposed that MG would be used as the mainstay performance brand for its models. The MG ZR, ZS, ZT and ZT-T line-up derived from the Rover 25, 45 and 75 went on sale from 23 July 2001 and were offered with bolder looking design characteristics and a choice of engines, some of which were mildly tuned over the versions used in the Rovers.
They would be joined from September 2003 by a 256bhp V8-powered, rear-wheel drive MG ZT260 variant that attempted to capture some of the spirit of the original Rover SD1 Vitesse. It was supplemented by the 75 V8 in 2004 whose remit was to convey premium levels of luxury and effortless performance delivery.
However, a couple of interesting questions to ponder over are: whether an MG-branded offering had any direct impact in raising the profile of the Rover models? And did the Rover 75 V8 perhaps offer something a little too neutral to limit its sales potential?
Ultimately, was there still an appetite and place within the executive market sector for a standalone Rover VHPD rekindling the Vitesse name?
The Rover Vitesse’s lasting legacy
Today consistent use performance identities have an established role to play in extending the appeal of a premium brand beyond its core models. Yet, for a performance mantle that had a mere sixteen year career with the Rover marque, the Vitesse name undoubtedly achieved recognition at numerous levels beyond just the showroom. Few can fail to be impressed by how that original remit for a very high performance executive express has stood the test of time so well and continues to attract a healthy following from Rover enthusiasts more than 35 years after the first examples left the assembly line.
My thanks to the following individuals for all their help with this article: David Adams, Professor David Browne, Denis Chick, David Clark, Nicky Colman, John Dalton, Bruce Duncan, John Davenport, Ian Elliott, Stephen Fussell, Steve Harper, Kevin Jones, Wynne Mitchell, Gordon Sked, Allan Scott, John Simister, Kevin Spindler, James Taylor, Rob Turner, Helen Walch and David Watson. Thanks also to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.