Now you see it…
Tony Turner explains how a Rover 25 GTI came into his life.
Well, it was all my late wife’s fault – when she was still around, she decided she wanted a more practical long-distance vehicle than our long-serving Morris Minor, and that it would be a Rover 25. Mine not to reason why…
To be honest, it wasn’t a car I’d previously paid much attention to. ‘Think they have some issue with head gaskets,’ I suggested helpfully, calling on my vast fund of automotive knowledge. ‘If it breaks, we’ll get it fixed,’ I was told firmly. And it did, and we did.
After that, the car – a 2002 1.4 Impression – behaved impeccably, doing all the local stuff and also taking trips to Scotland and the West Country in its stride, fully loaded with wife and her two sisters plus their cargo, on missions to inspect old Celtic boulders and suchlike.
On the rare occasions I was allowed to drive it, I thought it was a pleasant little car, relaxed at motorway speeds and with a good ride-handling balance. When we found ourselves first-footing down the A1 after an unexpected pre-Christmas snowfall, it also proved very sure-footed, with enough traction to nip round stranded HGVs confidently on the ups and downs of our local dual carriageway.
However, even its proud owner conceded it wasn’t exactly a ball of fire to drive, with overtaking on give-and-take roads needing a lot of pre-planning. Despite having the more powerful of the two 1.4 engine options (103bhp vs 84bhp), it always felt as though it was hauling a lot of weight around (and not just the occupants). Perhaps for that reason, it was also hard to get the hoped-for 40+ mpg, even on long runs. Even the Morris Minor – which admittedly during its many years with us had quietly become a Spridget under the skin – had more get up and go, with about the same thirst.
Anyway, not my problem – until I sadly inherited the Rover. While the sentimental side of me wanted to keep it, I was consoled by the thought that, in happier times, we’d both chatted vaguely about what to replace it with. So I set about that challenge with a reasonably clear conscience.
By then, I’d become a Rover 25 enthusiast – it wasn’t exactly cutting edge, but it seemed such an honest, friendly car, once its mechanical maladies were sorted out. That meant an MG ZR with the clever VVC engine was the obvious choice for extra performance – until you noticed its rather tacky sideskirts and big roof spoiler (would I really want to be seen in that?)
The Rover 200 BRM was another option – its suspension tweaks has been carried over to all the 25s and I’m ancient enough to remember fondly the Grand Prix cars with the same colour scheme. However, they were getting a bit scarce and pricy – and, oh my dear, that orange nose, that interior! And then there was the Rover 200 vi, which shared the VVC engine but without all the BRM’s suspension mods – it was also getting quite elderly and, frankly, I prefer the 25’s four-headlight look anyway.
I then discovered that, for just 18 months, Rover had produced the 25 GTI, as a toe-in-the-water exercise before launching the ZR – as well as being slightly younger than the other VVC-powered Rovers, it was usefully understated, with just body-colour (as opposed to black) bumpers and roof spoiler, matte black grille and hairpin alloys to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill 25s – truly, a proper Q-car.
There were only about 1300 25 GTIs produced by the time they stopped making them in early 2001. When I was looking for mine in 2012, that figure had dwindled to just over 450 but there were still enough around to avoid choosing a bad one. Not that I let that stop me…
How not to buy a car
I freely admit it – I’m hopeless at buying used cars. I know all the wise advice about going to look at several, choose the best you can afford, don’t be swayed by the distance travelled to view it – I know it all and I cheerfully ignore it.
Instead, I side with a friend of mine who, tasked by his wife with going to look at an old Fiesta as a potential first car for their daughter, returned triumphantly from his mission, reporting: ‘After some haggling, I persuaded the bloke to take the asking price.’ A kindred spirit – we’re the dream of anyone selling a car that’s seen better days. In my (feeble) defence, I actually quite enjoy putting Heart before Head, then putting a car through ‘rehab’, to get it back towards where it ought to be – it somehow makes it more personal to me, with the satisfaction that I’ve performed some sort of rescue exercise.
That would, of course, be fine, if I had Mike Humble-like mechanical skills, rather than having to entrust the latest project to local specialists to sort out. This could explain why the cat and I are sometimes in conflict over ownership of the last portion of bread and water.
Anyway, that’s how I came to be the slightly shamefaced owner of this particular 25 GTI, which popped up on eBay one Friday night. The seller informed me that he’d only bought it as a stop-gap while looking for a nice MGF (not a Herculean quest, I would have thought), that it was basically okay but had a couple of issues – a leaky water pump and an ABS light that came on occasionally (read permanently).
Mind you, on the plus side, he had a garage receipt for its head gasket and oil rail having been replaced within living memory, there was some tread on the tyres (though a strange assortment of brands) and it was a three-door, which I personally think looks much more together than the five-door version. The clincher was the Solar Red paintwork, one of the colours exclusive to the GTI when it appeared. Head said ‘Hmm, not sure’ but was inevitably shouted down by Heart demanding that £650 be handed over promptly.
Even taking it back home gently – and very conscious that the K-Series engine’s small coolant capacity means it can’t afford to dribble too much away through a leaky water pump – it was immediately clear that this was a much more purposeful car, with a deeper engine note than its little brother, sharper steering and a firmer ride. Much firmer… It also had such niceties as buttons for the radio on the steering wheel (though the code had gone AWOL when it gained a new battery) and aircon that, whilst not exactly Arctic, was at least slightly cooling on a July day.
Just those two little issues to sort out, then we could really start enjoying it…
Next time: Rudi goes into rehab