Kevin Davis explains the reasons why the Rover BRM lights his fire.
Mention the words Limited Edition and instantly, visions of a poverty spec supermini spring to mind with snazzy wheel trims, an aftermarket sunroof, a silly stripe down the sides and a stupid name (Renault 19 Be Bop springs to mind). Thankfully, the Rover 200 BRM LE fits none of the above.
Rover was keen to promote the sporting abilities of the 200 Series, which had been on sale since late 1995, and wanted a flagship model to rejuvenate interest in the range. Using the MG name was out of the question as BMW, who then owned Rover, didn’t want the brand diluted from the MGF with warmed over hatchbacks and saloons, and believed MG meant proper sports cars. So the marketing men at Rover delved into their history books and came up with BRM – British Racing Motors, whose motor racing history was legendary. Unfortunately it is also littered with spectacular failures.
Rover’s link with BRM came about as a joint effort to build a gas turbine racing car for entry a Le Mans in 1963, using Rovers experience at adapting gas turbine engines for road use and BRM’s motor racing chassis engineering. The Rover-BRM completed the gruelling 24-hour race, but was regarded by traditionalists as a fad with no future. Another car was built for the 1965 Le Mans, which finished tenth, and there ended Rovers association with BRM.
So the story goes, Rover approached the owner of the BRM marque, David Owen, and asked him if they could use the BRM name on a range of sporting saloons and hatchbacks, derived from its existing range, to which the answer was yes – ‘but’ he said, ‘do it properly’.
Rover built its first concept of the 200 BRM and showed it at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show to gauge public reaction, where it was well received, though people probably had to be reminded about the Rover connection to BRM, as well as who BRM were! Rover decided to go ahead with the project and, after a years worth of development, the Rover 200 BRM LE was launched in October 1998.
Based on the 200vi, the 200 BRM was substantially different. 1960’s styling cues played heavily inside, with red quilted leather seats and door panels, red carpet, seat belts and steering wheel, alloy heater controls and turned aluminium trim. On the outside, Brooklands green paintwork was complemented with sparkle silver body trim, big 16-inch alloys, and an exclusive woven mesh grille sat above a huge orange ‘snout’ in the front bumper, which was the BRM trademark nose on all of its 60’s Formula One racing cars.
But it was the engineering aspects that mark the 200 BRM out, the suspension received the most work with a 20-millimetre lower ride height over the vi and improved damping and handling, the compromise is spot on. A close ratio gearbox with traction control also livened things up, though the 1.8 VVC engine remained unchanged from the vi.
The problem was, no one knew about the 200 BRM, by the late 90’s BMW’s marketing strategy didn’t include performance versions of Rover cars (especially as they made most BMW’s look expensive and slow, pound for pound), so the only way you’d know the car existed was a visit to the showroom. And once you’d got over the orange snout, which some dealers painted silver, thinking it was costing sales, you then had to get over the £18000 asking price. Few were prepared to pay that for some dodgy heritage, so the price was dropped to £16000, and when the Rover 25 was launched, and BRM’s were still languishing in Rover back lots, the price went down again to £14000. In all, 795 were built for the UK, with 350 going to foreign markets. The intention was for each car to have a certificate of authenticity and a plaque mounted in the car showing the build number, but when push came to shove, Rover didn’t bother.
The motoring press were less than enthusiastic about the 200 BRM. Autocars road test of 18.11.98 chose to write a whole paragraph about its fiddly turned aluminium heater controls, and then went on to say it was nothing more than a cynical marketing attempt to sell more 200’s. It’s as if the tester didn’t like the car before he even looked at it; you can read it between the lines in every sentence. Most other motoring magazines chose a similar angle, harping on about silly orange mouths and, again, cynical marketing. Only Auto Express was genuinely enthusiastic about the BRM and seemed to understand where Rover was coming from.
The Rover 200 BRM is a cracking car, and the best thing about it is they only built 795 for the UK, and that’s it – there won’t be any more. I’m thankful that Rover were allowed to build the 200 BRM at all under the ownership of BMW, it showed that Rover was capable of making proper hot hatches and gave us one of the most stylish and distinctive Rovers – if not cars – of recent times. It’s unique. Not only that, it’s a great drive too.