One car that marked a milestone in the long and chequered history of BL Cars Ltd was the Rover 200 range of 1984. Another collaboration with Honda akin to the Acclaim, but with much more British input and proving to the world that we could screw a car together.
Nimble, compact and with svelte interiors – Mike Humble pays to tribute to the most British of Japanese cars.
Faking it but also making it
I was thinking about how quickly two years can pass, by flicking through a range brochure for 1982. Models like the Acclaim, Allegro, Ambassador, Ital and TR7 beautifully photographed in all their glory. Yet, thumb through the pages of an Autumn 1984 Austin Rover brochure, and almost as if you are in another generation Mini, Metro, Maestro, Montego and Rover SD1, a streamlined range heralding a new feeling of confidence, pride and British design ingenuity.
On a personal note, if one car was sum up the then recently-formed Austin Rover Group’s new found mojo, that would be the Rover 200. A vehicle that single handedly crushed the image of all the things we came to know the company for such as poor efficiency, strikes, Derek Robinson, chronic underinvestment and dismal quality – as well as shaping the range of things to come in the future.
Say what you will regarding the technical input or engineering strength of Honda in Austin Rover, but without this, both Cowley and Longbridge would have been huge retail parks long before the events of 2005. The Acclaim proved that we could (given the right tools and ingredients) build a decent car of quality that people would buy, yes okay it was built rather like a flat pack furniture, but our guys could do it right and meeting Honda’s own high quality threshold – no mean feat.
The next collaboration came in the form of the Rover 200 of which Austin Rover (and quite rightly so) opted to call it a Rover rather than a Triumph. What made the whole gig that little bit more impressive, was the fact that both the Rover and Honda’s own version – the Ballade, were to be assembled at Longbridge side by side with officials from both company overseeing matters such as quality control.
Quick as a flash, out went the creaking leaf-sprung Ital and in came this exciting and not bad looking small four door car offering features and engineering integrity never seen before at Longbridge. Wrap over doors and aluminium engines promised refinement and efficiency while a genuine quality feel of the interior everywhere you looked and felt shouted out the new found confidence of ARG.
Yes, the car was very much a Honda-engineered product, but UK stylists had much more input and say so over matters such as minor styling and interior trim, in fact visually, the Rover looked different enough over the Honda to maybe justify the makers claims that this car was Born To Be A Rover. It certainly looked more European than previous Honda offerings while also giving a look of a genuine premium three box saloon that also looked quite good on the eye.
Engines came in the form of a single cam all alloy 1342cc giving an unstressed 70bhp – a similar engine to the Acclaim yet breathing through a single carburettor and featuring a novel three valves per cylinder format – also capable of running on (cheaper) two star fuel. A five speed gearbox was standard with the option of an automatic transmission, models came in base 213 level through to an opulent Vanden Plas version offering the traditional Connolly hide and burr walnut treatment.
Other significant changes over the outgoing Acclaim included front torsion bar suspension and a simplified rear coil sprung beam axle that freed up more boot space than the double wishbone rear system that cramped luggage space in the Acclaim. Passenger accomodation was also better too, though the neat folding rear seat backrest function carried over on most models.
1985 saw the launch of it’s bigger engined brother – the Rover 216, utilising Austin Rover’s recently introduced 1.6-litre S-Series engine coupled to the same Honda designed but Austin-built T5AR gearbox found in the 2.0-litre Montego. Engineers opted for this rather than the Volkswagen-sourced gearbox found in Maestro and Montego, owing to issues relating to poor gear shift quality.
The new version featured an engine in two states of tune offering carburettor or fuel injection, which also enabled an additional model that would cater for the more youthful sporting owner – the 216 Vitesse. At the top of the range you had the 216 Vanden Plas EFi, but for buyers who wanted equipment while still wishing for a smaller engine, ARG introduced the 213 SE which still offered the power windows and walnut trim features.
Soon after launch, the 200 range was outselling the main volume models of Maestro and Montego, and after some considerable success, the company saw fit to really make the car an aspirational purchase with some glossy advertising. Following on from the launch of the 800 series, the Rover 200 gained some useful trim revisions and minor detail changes that came as redesigned front seats with higher quality upholstery, revised electric window switchgear with the radio re-positioned to a new centre console, re-designed rear light clusters and an improved boot lid with bumper level sill making the loading of objects much easier. The 200 series was now a quality product that people certainly aspired to purchase and some lovely new colour schemes were introduced for the 1987 model range making a class car that little bit classier.
On the whole, the 200 range was a reliable little car with both the manual 1.3 and 1.6 offering superb fuel consumption and spirited performance. Some problems regarding ECU gripes were common on 1.6 vehicles as were some reports of oil leaks, but on the whole, owners liked them and often repeat purchased.
Corrosion either oddly seemed to be none existant or rampant however, and many examples came to an early end owing to serious structural weakening due to rust. The 200 in SD3 form continued up to 1989 with a run out limited edition known as the 216 Sprint being the only 200 to be offered as a factory special, and this carburettor-fed engined edition was only to use up stocks of close ratio gearboxes and uprated suspension components that would have been fitted to the injected Vitesse.
Critics panned the car for its knobbly ride comfort and bland middle class England appeal, this was exactly what Rover wanted, as middle class people bought new cars, with cash and seldom haggled for a discount. Austin Rover had won the fight for survival and were now rightly so fighting the battle to make a profit – especially as Mrs Thatcher was drawing plans for privatisation.
A former dealer owner once told me that the 200 made a substantial sum of money for Austin Rover, and many owners who had been less than happy with Maestro or Montego purchases came back to try a 200 instead. And that kept customers who otherwise may have jumped brands – the 200 more by luck and timing rather than judgement, may have saved the companies fortunes.
To close, the 200 range gave Austin Rover a vital shot in the arm, the R8 shape 200 series even further proved a point that with the right collaboration and forward thinking management, Rover were now a serious contender on a global scale capable of building a first class – even top class product to that matter, that people were prepared to both wait, and pay a premium for.