Alarmingly, the Rover 400 HH-R has just celebrated its 20th birthday. Apart from making me feel surprisingly old, as history lessons go, the launch of the the car was one that came with many tough lessons for Rover Group, and is cited by many as the beginning of the end for Longbridge (though, in truth, that most probably began much, much sooner).
At the time of its introduction, in the spring of 1995, Rover was, in marketing terms at least, riding on the crest of a wave. The R8 had been a real education – a car that was properly built, properly developed, properly designed and properly marketed, and which, very quickly, lifted the public perception of Rover to new levels.
The struggles that the company had faced with its previous mid-size models, the Maestro and Montego, were offset by a nifty little package that was an unprecedented showroom success, and which had given Rover the confidence it needed to move the brand upmarket.
Under the stewardship of BMW, Rover also had new leaders with a background in selling premium models, and it was this move upmarket that, ultimately, gave the HH-R a difficult birth. That, and a relationship with Honda which had already grown strained, but started to fall apart completely after the brand was sold to BMW. Honda, it’s rumoured, had been ready to buy Rover in its entirety when British Aerospace had put it up for sale, and had gone as far as completing the due diligence process. So when a decision was taken at the last minute to allow BMW to take over, it’s hardly surprising that Honda became less predisposed to helping out Rover Group.
As such, in many areas of the car’s development, Rover was forced to go it alone. The saloon was a Rover-only project that involved new bodywork tooling, while in turn Rover was not able to benefit from the estate version of the sister Honda Civic, which would have been a natural successor to the R8 400 Tourer (which, to satisfy fleet requirements, was kept alive until 1999, a whole four years after the ‘new’ 400’s launch). The HH-R also used Rover engines in all but the automatic models, where complete engine and transmission units had to be bought in from Honda at inflated expense. The saloon, meanwhile, was a Rover only project – from the rear screen backward, developed entirely by Longbridge’s engineers and never offered as a Honda.
The car’s gestation, then, was a bit of a mess. But what about the execution? Well, in many senses, it wasn’t that bad. The styling was a little bland and certainly not as clean as the R8, which was less than six years old at the time and, in the eyes of many, barely ready to be replaced anyway. The interior, too, was a little less ‘Rover’, with more Honda switchgear, some rather bizarre electric window switch positioning (the driver’s side on the door, the passenger switch by the handbrake where it could be reached by both occupants to reduce cost) and some harsh-looking light grey or beige plastics, which could have looked far better if they’d just been a few shades darker.
Dynamically, though, the HH-R was pretty good – the ride quality was exemplary and the paint finish as smart and glossy as you’d have expected from a Rover. It wasn’t a bad car, just not a great one.
That led to two problems. First, its predecessor was recognised by many as a truly great car, which won many plaudits from the motoring press. Second, Rover had some grand ideas about what it was trying to be. In pricing terms, the HH-R was much closer to cars from the segment above, and it was no match for a Ford Mondeo or contemporary Peugeot 406 in terms of its handling, packaging or interior design. Yet in size terms, it was barely bigger than an Escort or an Astra, but markedly more expensive.
Sales were initially quite strong, but soon tailed off – numbers were bolstered by fleet deals and heavily-discounted transaction prices, but it never achieved the same reputation for solidity, durability or quality as its predecessor, a problem not helped by the head gasket problems that affected models with the enlarged versions of the K-Series engine.
A mild facelift in 1998 improved the looks significantly, with darker rear light lenses, improved interior fabrics and new wheel designs, whilst the launch of the Rover 45 18 months later gave it a further boost, with a 75-style front end treatment and much nicer, darker interior plastics and new dials. By 2000, though, the rivals had already caught up, and Rover’s pricing strategy was reviewed to the point that the HH-R was priced below smaller rivals rather than alongside bigger ones.
Ironically, the HH-R was still going strong in 2005 at the time of Rover’s demise – the Honda Civic on which it was based having already gone through two successive incarnations. It was woefully outdated despite a recent facelift, yet was given some semblance of desirability through the addition of sporty MG ZS variants.
It could never be considered one of Rover’s great success stories, but was the Rover 400/45/MG ZS really such a terrible car?
In a nutshell, no. Whilst the very earliest cars suffered from corrosion problems (and let’s not mention head gaskets, as the whole subject can get a little tiresome), HH-Rs built from 1997 onwards seem to be fairly durable, and (like many BL/Austin-Rover cars) appear to have survived in surprisingly good numbers compared to their contemporaries. Whether this is down to an older customer demographic or better inbuilt durability is up for discussion, but whatever the reason they seem to have survived better than most, including its sister car, the R3 200 (we’ll discuss that one here very soon…).
I can, therefore, only speak from personal experience. And my own HH-R experience was enough to completely convert my previously nonplussed opinion…
In 2005, I changed jobs and had to hand back a company car, but for the first six months of working for my new employer I wasn’t eligible for their car scheme. In that period, I knew I would cover about 35,000 miles, but I had no intention of spending ‘proper’ money on a set of wheels, as I knew that, by the winter, I’d have a brand new lease car as part of my employment contract.
The answer came in the form of a 1997 Rover 414i, purchased under pressure as I had seven days in which to source affordable, reliable transport. This was just six weeks after the MG Rover collapse, and residual values had fallen through the floor. As such, I was able to buy an extremely presentable eight-year old car for just £625, albeit with a relatively high 125,000 miles on the clock from its one company owner.
That Nightfire Red base model (albeit with optional air con AND sunroof) did me proud. I changed the oil twice and, in just under six months ran it up to 153k (the rest of my mileage was in my ‘once-a-week’ 825 Coupe). Not once did it ever fail or let me down. I looked after it, and it looked after me. I sold it in early 2006 to a young couple in London who were friends of a friend, and they kept it until 2012 when it finally expired at 196,000, without having ever been serviced during their ownership. P427 BDG, RIP.
Since then, I’ve owned three other HH-Rs, two as cheap family hacks (an R-plate 416i saloon and an X-plate 45 Connoisseur), and one as a toy (an MG ZS 180). And you know what? Clockwork service from each and every one. For a car that the uneducated will tell you is rubbish and unreliable, well, that was never my experience…
The HH-R will never be remembered as a true great. But as a second-hand workhorse, it had many redeeming features.
Happy 20th birthday old bus – you weren’t loved by everyone, but you certainly weren’t as bad as many people made out…