The cars : Rover 216 Vitesse development story

Following on from his excellent Rover SD1 development story, David Morgan tells the rarely-related story of how its little brother, the 216 Vitesse, made it into production.

Read on to find out how this Honda-based performance saloon did a great job of keeping up appearances.

Rover 216 Vitesse

Rover 216 Vitesse: the Viking comes good

The Rover SD1 Vitesse had undoubtedly served as a very useful high performance variant to help raise the profile of Austin Rover Group and its models. There was surely no better role model to have when planning for the arrival of a new lower medium-sized Rover and its own performance-orientated variant.

The Rover 200 Series (SD3) had arrived in June 1984 and saw the Rover family of cars extended to two ranges. At launch, it was initially powered by a 1.3-litre Honda engine. However, when ARG announced plans to introduce a bigger, more powerful engine option the following year, it came as no surprise to find a Vitesse variant featuring in the 200’s line-up.

Announced on 12 March 1985, the Rover 216 models would feature ARG’s home-grown 1598cc S-Series engine. In the 216 Vitesse EFi and luxury Vanden Plas EFi, the S-Series unit came with Lucas electronic fuel injection which increased the engine’s power from 85bhp to 103bhp.

Maintaining the family style

Rover 216 Vitesse

For the 216 Vitesse the visual links with the SD1’s very high performance derivative were obvious and included a 14-inch version of the multi-spoke alloy wheel design and a ‘Vitesse’ decal on the lower section of the rear doors. Of more significance were a polyurethane spoiler on the bootlid and a deep front air dam spoiler which helped improve the Vitesse’s performance over that of the 216 Vanden Plas EFi. The 216 Vitesse was quoted as having a 0-60mph dash of 9.2 seconds compared to 9.4 seconds for the Vanden Plas EFi and a higher top speed of 112mph.

Inside, there were sports style front seats trimmed in Flint Grey-coloured sculptured velvet for the centre panels, with lighter Osprey plain velvet borders. Further accoutrements included burr walnut door inserts and an electronic tune three-band stereo radio/cassette player with four speakers. Meanwhile, dynamic enhancements extended to ventilated front disc brakes, an uprated suspension and a rear anti-roll bar.

At launch the choice of body colours for the Vitesse was restricted to five and comprised of Arum White, Black, Moonraker Blue metallic, Silverleaf metallic and Targa Red. The 216 Vitesse’s retail price was £7,898.58 which made it ninety one pence more expensive than the Vanden Plas EFi. Despite this you still had to pay extra for Black (£59.58) or clearcoat metallic (£109.34) paint and rear seat belts (£86.49).

Mixed reviews from the motoring press

Rover 216 S-Series engine

The 216 Vitesse’s press launch took place at The Olde Bell coaching inn in Hurley as part of a joint event with the MG Montego Turbo. Those early press demonstration cars were registered within the B824–B829 NWK registration sequence.

Early comments were positive about the performance gains offered by the bigger 1.6-litre engine over the Honda supplied 1342cc unit found in the 213 models. When the 216 Vitesse was compared against its rivals in March 1986, road-testers from What Car? magazine wrote: ‘Once more, though, the Vitesse offered everything one could need for everyday driving… the cabin is designed very much with luxury in mind.’

However, eight months later and the magazine’s re-appraisal was less flattering, describing the car as having a decidedly ‘Japanese aura and no small BMW-style charisma.’ Criticism was also aired at the ‘lack of high revs smoothness and refinement one would hope for.’

Motor Sport (May 1986) was more complimentary, particularly about its performance, concluding that ‘for those who want their Rovers economical but quick, this car has a great deal in its favour.’

Beyond the showroom

John Dalton, who worked in ARG Marketing at the time, confirmed to the author in October 2002 that there had been no plans to campaign the 216 Vitesse in major motorsport events other than being used for Autotests at the 1985 Rallysprint. In this series rally drivers took on race drivers in various disciplines. Despite this there was still a desire within ARG to emphasise its performance credentials through a publicity-generating event.

In July 1985 a press demo 216 Vitesse finished in Silverleaf metallic and registered as B826 NWK was driven by a crew from Motor magazine on a 4000-mile race against yachts competing in the Round Britain Race. Whereas the yachts had fewer obstructions to encounter in their journey round the British isles – apart from the yacht Drum co-owned by Duran Duran pop star Simon Le Bon capsizing – the Rover had to navigate the nearest-the-coast roads.

A rota of different crews shared the driving with the only glitch in the Vitesse’s performance being near Campbeltown in Scotland when it was driven through a dry-stone wall and dropped six feet into a boggy field. Despite sustaining frontal damage, including kinks in the subframe and radiator, it was still perfectly driveable and went on to complete the rest of the course, managing to beat the yachts by more than a day.

The 216 Vitesse had undoubtedly broadened the showroom appeal of the Vitesse moniker, including through its advertising strapline ‘Say Goodbye to Boy Racers’ and, following the demise of the SD1 in July 1986, it became the sole model to keep the Vitesse name alive in many of ARG’s market territories for the foreseeable future.

Keeping up appearances

Rover 216 Vitesse

In October 1986 the 200 Series received its first comprehensive in-house update to deliver enhanced practicality and a more stylish interior. Announced for the 1987 Model Year (MY) the biggest change was at the rear where the number plate panel had been redesigned to allow a lower boot sill at bumper level. Inside the cabin were new door casings with chrome door release handles and a revised centre console with updated switchgear.

For the 216 Vitesse the exterior changes extended to a new rendition of the multi-spoke alloy wheel design and a scrolled font style for the ‘Vitesse’ badge found on the bootlid. Additionally, the ‘Vitesse’ decals on the rear doors had been discontinued to help emphasise a cleaner, more contemporary profile to the body’s sides.

Standard equipment levels now extended to electric door mirrors and a leather-bound steering wheel rim and sports gear lever gaiter. The seats had also been redesigned to provide better support which, on the Vitesse, were now finished in Flint coloured sculptured velvet centre panels with matching plain velour side cushions.

The 216 Vitesse’s on-the-road price was £8,759.46 which represented an increase of just £32.30 over that of the outgoing 1986 MY model. Black paint was still £67.02 and metallic paint £122.16. For the first time the Vitesse could now be specified with the options of air conditioning (£829.87), a sunroof with either manual (£337.99) or electric (£430.97) operation and an upgraded stereo radio/cassette player with Dolby noise reduction (£49.99). Collectively these enhancements would give it a greater air of executive ambition against the likes of the BMW 316i and Ford Orion 1.6i Ghia.

No shrinking violet

This raft of changes would help keep sales of the 200 Series buoyant throughout the remainder of its production life. The only changes announced for the 1988 Model Year were with the range of body colours – for the Vitesse that meant new Atlantic Blue metallic replacing long-serving Moonraker Blue.

At the 1988 British International Motor Show, much of the focus for Austin Rover Group’s 1989 Model Year range centred on revamped versions of the Metro, Maestro and Montego. In contrast, the 216 Vitesse played a more modest role, despite having received some cosmetic tweaks for the 1989 MY.

These comprised of the side rubbing strips and corresponding strips in the bumpers now being colour-keyed with the main exterior colour. The range of five exterior colours was also revised to comprise of Black, British Racing Green metallic, Flame Red, Pulsar Silver metallic and White Diamond. Inside, the existing sculptured velvet and plain velour seat covers now featured contrasting red piping on the edges of the centre panels.

One new development for the 200 Series that was previewed on the Flame Red 216 Vitesse motor show display car was an exclusive body styling enhancement package. Conceived by the Concept Design team this featured new bumper mouldings with a ribbing insert feature, auxiliary driving lamps in the front bumper, sill extension mouldings and a wrap-around boot-lid spoiler. Completing the enhancements was a new five-spoke alloy wheel design.

Despite being promoted in the January 1989 issue of the Today’s Cars sales brochure, this body styling enhancement package was ultimately not put into production. David Adams, who worked in Product Planning at the time, suggested to the author in January 2003 that the enhancement package did not proceed beyond the initial mock ups as it was not expected to work from a financial point of view. This was, in part, due to the impending launch of the replacement R8 generation 200 Series.

End of the line for the 216 Vitesse

Rover 216 Vitesse

The last SD3 200 Series (SD3) to be built was a 216 Vitesse finished in British Racing Green metallic (above). According to Richard Laing of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust (BMIHT), it was completed in December 1989. The price list confirms that these final 216 Vitesses had a showroom price of £11,187, with the only extra cost options being Black or metallic paint, air conditioning and electric operation of the sunroof. That final car was retained for the collection of vehicles held by the BMIHT and not registered. However, in July 2003, it was one of a number of duplicate lots to be sold off by the museum through an auction, with the highest bid reaching £3600.

BMIHT records show that a total of 418,367 examples of the 200 Series had been built in just over five and a half years. The whereabouts of the production records is currently unknown, to help provide a more formal indication of production numbers for specific derivatives. However, Kevin Jones, who was a Product Communications Manager for Rover Cars at the time, believes the 216 Vitesse would have accounted for more than 10% of total SD3 production.

The future identity strategy for the sporting variants in the replacement ‘R8’ 200/400 Series would see GTi being the new favoured moniker, to give the re-named Rover Cars an opportunity to have a consistent performance identity across its new small and medium-sized Rovers. This would leave the 800 Series as the sole Rover model to carry the Vitesse name.

Rover 216 Vitesse

17 Comments

  1. Would have been interesting to see how the injected engine went in other BL cars, but presumably it would have competed with the base O-series in the Maestro and Montego. Still, nearly 50k made, so quite successful in it’s own right.

    • I would have liked to have seen the 16v Development of the O Series for the Rover 800 to have made it into the MG Maestro and Montego. Certainly a 16v MG Maestro would not have been as good as the 16v Golf GTI was said to be at the time, but then neither was the 16v Golf GTI.

  2. I always liked this 200 series, considering it to be a very well made car. It would be nice to own a nice example of a Vitesse today.

  3. An interesting article that confirms what i knew about the 216 Vitesse, and more. in the days when I aspired to own an SD3 Rover, the Vitesse was the most desirable car of the range.

    I did have a friend who had a MY 1987 Vitesse as his company car, in white. It was nice to ride in. The successor R8 range did well to build on the SD3 sales base.

  4. Some people laughed when an Orion sized car was launched in 1984, but with such a complete range of models, powerful engines and upmarket interiors, the SD3 was soon a hit and a much needed one for Austin Rover as the Maestro failed to sell in huge numbers. I had a base model 213 for a year and was impressed with the build quality, performance, refinement and reliability and could see why these cars were so popular when new.

  5. A nice car the 216 Vitesse, especially after the very successful 1986 facelift which made it look much smarter than an Orion or Jetta. Unlike the Maestro and Montego, it looked aspirational, the sort of car in the company car park which showed you were successful LOL

    The fuel injected S series with the Honda gearbox was a nice combination, the ultimate development of the E series engine from the Maxi!

  6. “However, eight months later and the magazine’s re-appraisal was less flattering, describing the car as having a decidedly ‘Japanese aura and no small BMW-style charisma.”
    Why the sudden downturn by the motoring press? The Vitesse treading on the toes of 3 series sales? 3-series advertising spend under pressure?
    A 1980s 3-series certainly had ample charisma if oversteer and tricky nervous weather roadholding is considered “charismatic”

    • To be honest, I assume it is like a lot of the time when hacks get invited out to Portugal or wherever for the launch and the car company puts on loads of hospitality for the journos. They get a ‘friendly’ review, when the same car gets a ‘real life’ test – like the difference between the fuel consumption tests in the lab on the rollling road with alternators disconnected etc. and real-world conditions – the cold hard facts hit home. I mean it’s a bit different zinging around in a LHD car in sunny climbs, as compared with doing a 5,000 mile road test.
      Where you discover the heater doesn’t work well enough or the actually the square steering wheel is just to cover up a glaring design error…

      Let’s be fair, the 200 is not a ‘small BMW’, maybe the hacks got taken in tby the marketing team’s guff but despite it being a laudable effort, the 200 is still clearly an Austin Rover car, not a car about to supplant Mercedes or BMW sales in the way that Audi has done…

      Arguably that was the 800, a really good effort at the time.

  7. I had a 1986 Vitesse – a nice car to drive but undergeared and far too noisy at motorway speeds. Not at all relaxing for long distances. There was also a flat spot under acceleration – despite regular servicing, the garage never got rid of a hesitant response to the first few degrees of depression of the accelerator pedal. Very frustrating. That ‘efi’ never quite worked right.

  8. Sadly all 200 models, Vitesse included, were just a bit dull (in my opinion). It was a repanelled Honda after all. Solidly enough built and reliable but the thing was never going to set your pulse racing.
    Funny really, as the later MGs seemed to overcompensate with overt styling and pokey engines. Probably in a bid to shake off the image of models like those in the 200 range, i.e. pipe and slippers cars.

    I suppose what ‘did for’ the 200’s image, apart from its (very) boxy (three-box) design, was the TV show of course. The downtrodden husband’s car of choice, i.e. the opposite of ‘thinking man’s carumpet’ 😉

    I suppose after the cost of licensing from Honda, Austin Rover didn’t have the money to spend on ‘sexing up’ the 200 series to any great extent, so mainly raided the parts bin and used bolt-on goodies, i.e. seats and alloy wheels and colour-coded door mirrors and bumpers to improve the 200’s appearance.

    If Austin Rover had been just slightly more ambitious, like they were with the MG (Turbo) models, i.e. Maestro, Montego and Metro, I think they could have convinced quite a few more people to buy a 200, a range topping 2 litre with proper amounts of power would have put the cat amongst the pidgeons and done everyone a favour by competing for sales with poorer build quality cars in the ARG range, i.e. Maestro, Montego and Metro.

    Maybe winning back more customers with the better reliabilty and winning over those wanting more power and refinement. We will never find out, just one of the many missed opportunites missed I suppose…

    • Indeed – a 2 litre Rover 200 SD3… good idea. Perhaps ARG thought having 1.3 and 1.6 litres was enough to fit the bill for that size car back then and leave the bigger engine on the Montego & Maestro.

      Of course the R8 successors in 200 and 400 bodies did come with the availability of 2 litres.

    • It was just a very ordinary wee car, maybe better built than ARs usual fare, but nothing more. Don’t know if the chassis would have been up to handling “proper power”.

    • I’m not sure the SD3 needed more power, the Vitesse was quick enough for most needs

      And it’s harsh to criticise ARG’s efforts to develop and sell the SD3, considering it was ARG’s second best selling car in 87, 88 and 89. Over 95,000 were produced in 1988, 30,000 more than in 1985, that’s impressive growth

      • @maestrowoof, the SD3/ 200 paved the way to the Rover era of Graham Day as it proved there was a large market for a smaller car with a Rover badge and the SD3, even in basic form, looked upmarket both inside and out. At the time, some dealers were even encouraging buyers to buy a 200 over a Maestro as it was a much more upmarket car, which meant more profit for the dealer, and didn’t develop a reputation for faults like the Maestro. Then, of course, there was still a healthy market for small saloons, as saloon versions of the Astra and Escort were selling well in the mid eighties’.
        My own view of the SD3, having owned the basic 213 and my parents owning a 213S, was it saved Austin Rover as much as the Acclaim and the Metro, as it sold in large numbers, looked good, was reliable and well made( though more so if you bought a 213) and generated large numbers of repeat sales. Many buyers who had bought a late model SD3 would probably have traded one in for the even better R8.

        • To me it was the Vitesse and VDP EFI models which really paved the way for R8, as the 213 like the Acclaim mainly appealed to a “more mature” market really, whereas models like the Vitesse looked good in the company car park, something the R8 built on, especially as other than the base 8v engines, most R8s were pretty powerful for their time

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