For some, the Rover 213/216 was a badge too far. But for others, this was a sensible new direction for the Austin Rover Group, and a lifesaver for the company.
Which ever side of the ‘Ronda’ fence you sit on, there’s no denying that the introduction of the Rover 200 Series was a good move for a struggling BL, and demonstrated that people would pay extra for a little class…
Rover 200: A change in direction
Both BL and Honda were happy with the direction their collaboration had been progressing. Weeks after the successful launch of the Triumph Acclaim in the UK, agreements on the companies’ next two joint-venture cars were being drawn-up.
In November 1981, after discussions about the direction that the two would take their partnership, the companies agreed terms: As the Triumph Acclaim was essentially a badge-engineered Honda Ballade, it would be replaced at the same time as its Japanese counterpart by the next-generation version of the Ballade, when it was due to appear in 1984.
This arrangement was straightforward enough – and because of Honda’s five-year lifecycles, Austin Rover had guaranteed itself to be in the place of always being in possession of a reasonably fresh and new mid-liner. The second of the two collaborative deals would emerge as the Rover 800 and Honda Legend – and would prove to be much more of a joint engineering and design effort.
Project SD3: The new small Rover
Austin Rover was very happy with the image that the Acclaim had picked up in the minds of buyers. The Japanese connection was proving to be a positive asset because it was proving to be an antidote to the now deeply-ingrained image of unreliability that was associated with the rest of the product range.
This was no mere perception either. The Acclaim generated the lowest warranty costs in the history of the company – and, if nothing else, it proved that the British workforce was highly effective in assembling cars to Japanese production tolerances.
Austin Rover’s Director of Product Development, Mark Snowdon, stated that, for the first time in recent history, the outgoing Acclaim was, ‘…a product we’re not dissatisfied with. And that shows clearly that we’re making good progress.’
Building on the success of the Triumph Acclaim
Where the Triumph Acclaim was let down, was that it was seen as being out of step with the rest of the range and therefore difficult to market.
This dilemma occupied the minds of the strategists because, as before, the new car’s configuration was being strictly controlled by Honda and the marketing of the car would therefore play a much more important role.
Early on in planning for the new car, Austin Rover decided that it should be a more upmarket car than the Acclaim – this decision being justified by Snowdon, ‘Luxury versions of both big and small cars sell well at the moment. Because we already have volume car representation in the hatchback and notchback markets, it makes sense to place the Acclaim’s replacement as a more luxurious and expensive car.’
Where the new car sits in the Austin Rover range
In fact, because the car that Honda was developing to replace the current Ballade was slightly larger and arguably more stylish, it made positive sense to follow this path and attempt to turn the new car into a latter-day Triumph Dolomite. That would also distance it (and hopefully not cannibalise sales from) the Austin Maestro and Montego.
Because BL’s car division was now known as Austin Rover, and Triumph was now in its last gasp, with the TR7 now dead – and the Acclaim acting merely as essentially a stop-gap, the decision was taken to introduce the new car as a Rover. This fitted in nicely with the company’s plans to move this car into a more upmarket niche – in fact, Mark Snowdon was extremely keen on the move.
‘Because we already have volume car representation in the hatchback and notchback markets, it makes sense to position the Acclaim’s replacement as a more luxurious and expensive car.’ – Mark Snowdon
‘Our company’s name is Austin Rover. People tend not to associate the name Triumph with those two,’ he said. ‘It was particularly confusing in Europe, a market where we are starting to do well. We also thought the Rover badge would simply be more appropriate on a small luxury car. Triumph still has the image of cheap sports car makers – and that’s not what we want.’
Moving the Rover name into a new space
This strategy of placing such a prestigious nameplate on such a small car was certainly a risky one because there was a very real danger of cheapening the Rover name. If nothing else, it certainly showed that Austin Rover had a great deal of confidence in the ability of the new car to carry off its move upmarket without a hitch.
Unlike the Triumph Acclaim, it was clear that there was room to develop the new car modestly – and the first step was to develop their version of the car to accept the forthcoming S-Series engine. There was very real logic in this decision because, although the Acclaim had been a sprightly car, by virtue of its revvy engine and light weight, the slightly heavier new Rover would need a larger engine option to become a viable alternative on the fleet market – a sector the company was keen on re-establishing itself in.
The Acclaim was never a particularly big success as a company car – 26% of the sales of this model were sales to the fleets – an unusually low number for a British mid-sized car. As it was, it was claimed that the 1.3-litre version would contain a 70% local content – the same as the Acclaim – but that figure would be increased significantly to nearer 90% in the S-Series powered model.
Project SD3 – more British than LC9/Bounty
Also at variance from the Acclaim programme, the interior of the Rover would be more influenced by Austin Rover – since the Acclaim had been almost pure Honda, the newer car had a more British interior. Careful attention was paid to this aspect of the new car’s design – a particular design brief was to give the impression of quality and airiness. Happily, Rover achieved these aims.
This, along with the Rover-influenced grille/headlight treatment, more successfully placed the car as homegrown in the minds of potential buyers.
As the new car neared production, it underwent a serious amount of customer clinic work, in order to get the sales and marketing strategy just right. Significantly, a car that Austin Rover would use as a benchmark for the new car was the Ford Orion: the logic behind this was simple – this car was (in an engineering sense) merely an Escort with a boot, and yet it commanded a healthy premium over its hatchback counterpart because of its more exclusive nature.
Scoring well in customer clinics
In testing at Gaydon, as well as in customer clinics, the Rover would go head to head with the Ford Escort-based Orion on many occasions. In customer clinics, the choice of the Rover name was backed-up by a positive response, ‘we found that out of all the possible names, Rover was best suited to the car’, stated Snowdon.
There was a great deal of thought put into the naming of the new car, now Rover would be offering a two-car range, the new car’s nomenclature would need to integrate with the then-current SD1, but also with the upcoming XX model. Rover traditionally have never used names for their cars, always preferring a numeric title and, following this logic, it would have been logical to name the new car the Rover 1300 and Rover 1600. However, after serious consideration by Austin Rover, the decision was made to brand the series as one, and not give the two versions their own names.
The reason for this, was that the idea had proven for successful for BMW and the usage of the 200 Series moniker was the British company’s take on this. And so it was thus: 1300cc versions would be known as the 213 and the 1600cc versions were to be known as the 216. Unfortunately, in true Rover tradition, the full range was not available at launch in June 1984 and the S-Series versions would follow later.
Rover 213/216: Viking badges, Honda tech
Technically, the car was pure Honda but, unlike the Acclaim, the 1984 version of their Civic model was more suitably sized for Europeans. The wheelbase was useful 5.5-inches longer than the Acclaim, giving the car more usable interior room – and the revisions to the interior undertaken by the British certainly succeeded in giving the new car a more upmarket ambience.
The Rover 213’s engine was arguably the most advanced ever to be fitted to an Austin Rover/BL/BMC car and the specifications of new 1342cc power unit certainly made impressive reading. This Tokyo-developed crossflow 12-valve power unit allowed for free breathing and, as a consequence of the improved gas flow that this configuration allowed, improved fuel economy was the result.
Improved carburetion further improved potential for economy when compared with the Acclaim, which had a more traditional twin-carburettor setup. The new engine also was light, because of its all-alloy construction, and compact because of its siamesed cylinder bores (which had been done before in the dim and distant past of BLMC).
The result of this considered piece of design was an impressive power output of 70bhp at 6000rpm (the same as the Acclaim), and maximum torque of 75lb ft at 3500rpm (an improvement over its predecessor). Both these figures compared very favourably to the A-Plus engine, which in Maestro form produced a reasonable 68bhp, but with considerably less mechanical refinement.
Austin Rover’s modifications to the suspension setup were limited to minor adjustments to the damper rates, with the aim of improving the ride quality – the result was an improvement over the Honda Ballade, but because the suspension components were manufactured in Japan, Austin Rover was really limited in what changes it could make.
This would come back to haunt the company.
Rover 213 hits the road
When the press first drove the Rover 213 on 19 June 1984, much discussion followed over the choice of the names for the car – and the surprise was clear (as most people assumed it would be badged as a Triumph) in the words that followed on the effect the new small Rover would have on all those traditionalists out there.
Be that as it may, the Rover 213 acquitted itself very well and the praise given by CAR magazine is indicative of this: ‘Inside, the British contribution to the 213 is obvious. The seats and upholstery are as English as after-work pints and roasts on Sunday. Particularly impressive are the second-from-top SE model and Vanden Plas. Both have walnut door inserts.’
‘Inside, the British contribution to the 213 is obvious. The seats and upholstery are as English as after-work pints and roasts on Sunday. Particularly impressive are the second-from-top SE model and Vanden Plas. Both have walnut door inserts.’ – CAR magazine
Mechanical refinement was also lauded, ‘A second after you’ve let go of the key, watched the red ignition light go out, and seen the tachometer needle move to the 500rpm mark, you are likely to be surprised just how quiet the motor is – unless you’ve been driving a Civic. I thought the first time I started the car, that the engine had stalled: the lack of noise at idle was remarkable.’
What the papers said
First impressions may have been rather favourable, but the extended drive would reveal flaws in the overall chassis package. ‘Ride has never been a notably strong point of the rear-wheel-drive SD1 Rovers with their live rear axles and although the Rover 213 Vanden Plas is completely different in concept… it is fair to say that the ride is not this baby Rover’s strongest suit either’, Autocar magazine summed-up.
But Motor was somewhat more scathing in its opinion of the Rover 213: ‘It’s not that the 213 handles badly, but the consensus of our testers was that the Rover’s chassis behaviour, not only falls short of the standards set by the all-but-identical Civic – a curiosity this – but can’t even compare with those of the old Honda-based Triumph Acclaim. Nor does it compare favourably with the Maestro and Montego.’
What this all added up to was that the Rover 213 was high on static qualities, but fell short when it came to the extended drive. That was certainly the view of the road testers out there – and, yes, back-to-back with a Montego over give and take roads, it is fair to say that the Rover 213 would not see which way the Montego went.
But in terms of raw showroom appeal, the Rover had the beating of the all-British car – and that was most certainly not good news for Austin Rover, who saw the Montego as a volume seller at the time.
1985 improvements: Rover 216 added to the range
The appeal of the Rover 200 Series was broadened when the 1.6-litre versions were launched in May 1985. If the S-Series engine could not hope to compete with the silky smooth Honda 12-valve in terms of refinement, it gave the small car a fair turn of speed – and, in the bar room talk of the mid-1980s, that mattered.
Unlike the S-Series powered Montego and Maestro, the Rover 216 retained its Honda gearbox, the same type that was used in the 2.0-litre Austin and MG Montego/Maestro. This did the car no harm whatsoever because in service the Volkswagen gearboxes were not only found to be rather unpleasant in use, but were also questionable in their reliability.
Rover used the opportunity to also make some further significant changes to the suspension set-up: Honda managers had originally stated flatly that this was their system and Rover did not need to tamper with it, but they had not figured on its sheer incompetence in launch form.
Suspension woes – how ARG tried to improve the Rover 213/216
What Rover found was not so much a problem with the ride quality – that was always going to be compromised by the suspension, which had limited travel. But what they – and road testers – found was, disconcertingly, the car would suffer from excessive pitching under acceleration and corkscrewing when cornering.
This basic flaw obviously resulted in inconsistent handling and the company did not want such a compromise present on their car – Honda derived or not. So, the Chassis Engineers went about trying to solve the problem, which they did fairly quickly.
It was found that there was a 17% difference in spring rate between the left and right rear wheels, which once eliminated by Austin Rover, left the Rover 200 with consistent and class-average ride and handling. Significantly, Honda also took up these changes in its Ballade model – and not just those built Longbridge.
Honda and Rover: closer co-operation
This was the first real sign that the Honda deal was becoming more involved. Whereas the Acclaim was a licence-build arrangement, pure and simple, the Rover 200 would mark the start of more co-operative thinking. Honda marked the event with the announcement that, following in Nissan’s path, it was to set-up a facility in the UK at a green-field sight in Swindon.
The site, which initially was quite small-scale, was set-up to undertake quality checks for European-specification Ballades produced in Longbridge – and the upcoming HX (the Honda Legend) produced at Cowley. As for where the SD3 name came from, an insider explained: ‘we called it SD3 for fun, really. It was a nickname given to the car just before launch to give it a sense of continuity, following on from SD1 and SD2.’
If the site was a success, there were further plans to phase in the production of engines – and eventually cars. Meanwhile, over in Longbridge, Honda was also making its presence felt, because along with the production of the 200 model, an announcement was also made that Rover would be working with Honda to phase in the gradual introduction of Japanese working and managerial practices.
This would mark a significant turn in the history of the company’s labour relations and managerial practices – something that would live on long after the deal with Honda fell-through.
How Honda helped Rover modernise
Speaking to Autocar magazine at the time of the launch of the R8-generation Rover 200 in 1989, George Simpson (Graham Day’s replacement as Rover Managing Director) stated that, when he joined Triumph at Canley in the 1960s, there were 14 different canteens and, depending on what managerial level you were at, your drink and lunch entitlement differed.
This product of a different era must have seemed like a million years ago to the workers of Longbridge, who would now be dining alongside their managers – and rightly so. Ironically, it was at the new Roy Axe studios in Canley, where the Japanese Engineers soon made their presence felt during the development programme of the XX/HX – and a good relationship between the Japanese and the British was soon formed.
The car certainly benefited from the development work that had been undertaken on it in the background and, unlike the other models in the range, the Rover 200 became increasingly popular throughout its life.
Rover’s Indian summer with the 200-series cars
Along with the carburettor-fed 216 cars, there was also the Lucas-injected EFi models, available in luxury Vanden Plas and sporty Vitesse EFi trims – and these soon became the focus of the Marketing Department, which soon realised that this compact and quick package was a highly marketable proposition.
The Rover 200 already abounded with static qualities and now, thanks to the relatively powerful little engine, it had excellent straight-line speed as well – something that Ford had successfully latched onto a year or so before with the XR3i-engined Orion 1.6i Ghia.
The oft-referred to halo effect soon trickled its way down the range until all Rover 200s were seen as a sub-BMW 3-Series alternative. Of course, the car did not have the depth of abilities to get anywhere near the BMW but, for the first time in a long time, the British company had produced a car with showroom appeal.
Rover 213/216: a consistent sales success
In sales terms, the Rover 200 exceeded the expectations the company had of it, but that success possibly reflects the failure of the Montego and Maestro, rather than the world-beating success of the 200 model.
The sales story of the Rover 200 Series in the UK is brought into relief by the relative performances of both the cars (listed below), as reported by the SMMT: the Montego’s figures read disappointingly when one considers that this was a volume seller, conceived to fight Ford and GM in the company car market, whereas the Rover 200 was initially treated as a niche model by Austin Rover:
The jump in sales of the car from late 1986 onwards can also be put down to the advertising and marketing emphasis of the company radically changed after the arrival of Graham Day. One surprising fact about the Rover 200 was unearthed by Austin Rover’s huge market research programme undertaken (from late 1985 into the following Spring) was that customers perceived the it as being an expensive car – as Kevin Morley put it, ‘Customers see the Rover 200 as a car with a starting price of £10,000.’
In fact, this was far from the truth – the entry-level 213 models actually cost nearer £7000 – and, as a result, all advertising for the car centred on the range’s starting price but continued to make great play of its exclusivity. The resultant jump in sales following this change in tactic is plain to see from the SMMT figures listed above.
Already, the replacement for the Rover 200 was well underway by 1987 (known now as the AR8 – ‘YY’ was dropped as the development programme’s name in 1986) – and, although Honda would still dominate this collaborative effort in terms of engineering, the emphasis of the overall project was changed so that Rover would now have more of an influence in the conception of the car’s styling and interior.
These results would become very clear by 1989 when the new car appeared, but what was fascinating about the Rover 200 was that, during the course of its production run, it moved from being an up-market niche car (the latter-day Triumph Dolomite) to the staple product of a company with upward aspirations – and Rover talked of the AR8 as not only the ‘new Rover’, but increasingly as the ‘Maestro replacement’.
Future direction changes
Because of the sales success of the Rover 200 (and 800), the company’s future direction now lay with a range comprising entirely of Rovers – and, as we shall see, this policy of Roverisation would be applied to the Austin Metro, but would leave the old-generation Maestro and Montego out in the cold – people simply did not want them. Following Rover’s purchase by British Aerospace (BAe), the Rover marque was now firmly established as the vehicle that would take the company upwards towards a more prosperous future.
This policy was still very much a risky one – and there were some very clear pitfalls in it, but in stark business terms, the Japanese Rover was here to stay. Traditionalists would bemoan the fact that Rover cars now represented nothing more than badge-engineered Japanese cars, but the cold hard facts were that these Rondas sold, whereas Austins did not.
Not only this, but it could also be argued that, once the sweeping Roverisation had been completed, the company would end up in the place of finally offering an integrated range of cars that offered a logical range for the buyers – surely the stuff of dreams back in 1981, when the first Triumph Acclaim rolled off the production line.
For some, it made the Rover name too accessible and did not have that air of Rover style or sophistication that buyers had come to expect from Austin Rover Group’s then-most prestigious marque. But it was a strong seller – 418,000 examples were sold in just five and a half years and it was a regular member of the Top 10 best-selling cars in the home market.
It also delivered a level of luxury the likes of the Ford Orion, Vauxhall Belmont and Volkswagen Jetta could not match. The success of SD3 also paved the way for the even more successful (and desirable) R8 generation 200 Series that superseded it from October 1989 and the stylish R3 generation 200 Series announced in October 1995.
And let’s not forget that the success of SD3 and its successors also saw some very interesting and quite entertaining medium-sized Rover derivatives being launched. Who could forget the pomp of the original 213 and 216 Vanden Plas or the grunty sound of the 216 Vitesse EFi? Or what about the rare and half-hearted 216 Sprint special edition from May 1988?
Because of this change in direction by the company and its increasing reliance on Honda, the ‘Ronda’ strategy would now direct the company well into the 1990s and well beyond the takeover of the company by BMW in 1994.