Here’s a a lesser-known Rover Vitesse. The Australian market-only416i Vitesse was launched in 1986 as a stylish replacement for the Quintet.
Good looking, too. Should they have sold it in the UK as well?
Rover 416i Vitesse: making a name down under
The need for Austin Rover Group (ARG) to have a mid-size offering wearing a badge that had a wide appeal in export markets such as Australia was considered to be an important one by the early 1980s.
One solution was to utilise an existing Honda model built in Japan for ARG to sell in Australia under the Rover name. The new model would be called the Rover 416i, with the higher-spec version carrying the Vitesse moniker, although in this guise it wasn’t conveying a higher performance intention.
This was an extension of the formal relationship that already existed between Austin Rover and Honda which had resulted in the launch of the Honda Ballade-based Triumph Acclaim in 1981, followed in 1984 by the SD3 200 Series, both of which had been built under a licensing agreement.
The 416i was the result of a similar licensing agreement although it would not be built in one of ARG’s own factories, let alone present them with the opportunity to have a significant input in changing its design specification. This arrangement to sell a smaller Honda-built model to bolster ARG’s sales in Australia had started in 1983 with the Rover Quintet which was based on the Honda Quint and was the first Honda product to carry the Rover name. The Quintet was then be replaced by the 416i in 1986.
A smaller car to sell in higher numbers
Rob Turner, a long-standing member of the Rover Car Club of the Australian Capital Inc. disclosed to the author in September 2002 that JRA Limited, as the Australian importer and distributor of Jaguar, Rover, Land Rover and Range Rover vehicles during the 1980s, had wanted a smaller car to sell in higher numbers.
The Honda Integra five-door was considered an ideal model as Australia had a more favourable currency exchange rate with the Japanese Yen than the British Pound. As part of the licensing arrangement it would assume the model identity of 416i.
More upmarket and better specified than the alternative three-door version sold under the Honda identity, the Rover 416i went on sale in February 1986 and was powered by a 1.6-litre twin-cam Honda engine producing 120bhp.
The equipment specification was by all accounts well equipped for its day, with central locking, power steering, electric windows and mirrors, alloy wheels and a sunroof being fitted as standard. Rob Turner recalls that a further distinction of the Rover 416i was that it had a beam rear axle whereas the equivalent Honda Integra (below) came with independent rear suspension. This change was presumably done for costing reasons.
Bred to be driven
It was not until 1987 when the 416i Vitesse version went on sale alongside the entry level variant, now renamed as the 416i SE. In this guise the focus of the Vitesse was on providing an enhanced level of standard equipment, to include a rear spoiler, body-coloured bumpers and locally-sourced wood grain for the interior. On the rear passenger doors above the protection strip there was a ‘Vitesse’ decal, while a complementary moulded badge finished in silver was fitted on the rear panel below the offside tail-lamp.
Meanwhile, advertising literature used the strapline ‘Bred to be Driven’ to emphasise its driving appeal through its engine using ‘technology that blitzed the world’s Grand Prix circuits’. It also boasted about the Vitesse having a snappy five-speed manual gearbox, front ventilated disc brakes and low-profile tyres on 14-inch alloy wheels to endow it with ‘an enthusiasm for driving’.
The official Retail Price List dated July 1987 confirms that the 416i Vitesse had a showroom price of $A29,270 which was $A3500 more expensive than the 416i SE. Automatic transmission was a $A1370 optional extra while air conditioning was a dealer fitted option and added a further $A1500 to the purchase price. The exterior colour range was fairly limited, with the choice including mid-green, red, dark blue metallic, silver, gold and white.
David Watson, who worked for JRA Limited at the time and corresponded with the author in September 2002, estimated that around 1800 examples of the 416i in all its guises were imported up until 1990. The range was refreshed in around 1988 where the changes included a new-style front bumper. On the Vitesse variant it also incorporated front fog lamps.
Craig Cheetham tells the wider story of the curious hybrid Rover-Hondas sold in Australia in the 1980s. Meet the Rover Quintet and 416 – and the R8 that was never sold by JRA.
‘Everything you ever wanted in a car’
Much has been written on AROnline about the collaboration between Rover and Honda and the cars which that generated – indeed, the vast majority of those have a huge following among our readers.
However, one of the lesser known offspring from the alliance is the Australian-market Rover 416i, sold from 1985 until late 1989 – a whole four years of sales before the 416 badge appeared on a UK market car.
The car’s gestation was complicated. JRA Limited, formerly Jaguar Rover Australia and an offshoot of the original ill-fated Leyland Australia company, was keen to market a compact model in the domestic market, but import tariffs and the UK/AUD exchange rate at the time made it nigh-on impossible to ship a British-built Rover over to Australia and still achieve anything vaguely resembling a profit.
Furthermore, at the time, the only UK-made models that would have fitted in the market at that level were the Maestro and Montego, or the SD3 Rover 200 Series. Neither the Maestro nor Montego would have sat comfortably in the Aussie market, which at the time was dominated by Ford, GM Holden and Toyota, with a fair smattering of locally-produced Nissans and Mitsubishis making up the numbers.
Imported cars were, by their very definition, premium – something that worked fairly well for the likes of Citroën and Peugeot, with their perceived Gallic flair, and also for the Germans, whose symbolic quality was enough to justify the inflated price tag – but nobody in their right mind would have paid above and beyond the sticker price of a Ford Laser (read Escort/Mazda 323) or Holden Camira (Mk2 Cavalier) to get behind the wheel of a Maestro or Monty.
A plush-trimmed 200 could have been enough, but the car was just a little bit too small for a market that was still, in many ways, rooted in the large rear-drive saloon mentality. The Holden Kingswood (and latterly Commodore) and Ford Falcon were not just cars, but very much a part of the fabric of Australian society for several generations – and, to some families, they still are (believe me on this one, as I worked for Holden as recently as 2013).
The answer, then, came in the form of the new Honda Integra, though this in itself wasn’t an entirely new concept. For the previous three years, JRA had been selling the Rover Quintet (as documented in Paul Guinness’s excellent article here), so a Rover-badged Honda wasn’t an entirely new thing.
The Rover 416i was based on the contemporary Honda Integra (Project YY) and was marketed as ‘Everything you ever wanted in a car’. It’s believed that a commercial arrangement existed whereby the Australian market Rover 416i was built and sold exclusively as a five-door hatchback, whilst the near-identical Australian-market Honda Integra was built and sold exclusively as a three-door to avoid any overlap – apart from the body styles, the only real differences were badging and trim.
The Rover 416i was introduced by JRA initially as a single model. Subsequently, the model range was expanded to two trim levels, the Rover 416i SE and Rover 416i Vitesse. At launch, the single model Rover 416i was supplied with alloy wheels. The later Rover 416i SE was supplied with silver-painted steel wheels without wheel trims, black bumpers and valances; the Rover 416i Vitesse was supplied with alloy wheels, body coloured bumpers and valances.
The Rover 416i SE and Rover 416i Vitesse received a mild restyle circa. 1988, which included a different shaped front air intake and larger front fog lights. The Rover 416i Vitesse also received different pattern alloy wheels around the same time, which really set off the car’s lines well by giving it a wider, chunkier appearance.
The Rover 416i continued to be sold in Australia alongside the larger Rover 825/827 Saloons and 827 Vitesse Hatchback until 1989 when the Honda-sourced Rover 416i ceased production. The R8 200 and 400 range were exhibited at the Sydney Motor Show the following year to determine whether or not imports would be viable, but despite the cars being well received by the media and the public alike, the volatility of an ever-fluctuating exchange rate meant the decision was taken not to import them.
JRA itself ceased trading in 1993, although Rover returned to the Australian market in 2001 following the launch of the Rover 75 and MG ZT, which enjoyed moderate success.
Today, the 416i is a largely unremembered car, though it appears to have been extremely resilient, with none of the corrosion problems that blighted 1980s Hondas in the UK – that was probably down to the kind Australian climate which meant owners could exploit the legendary reliability of Honda’s engine and transmissions.
One thing’s for certain – it was definitely the only production Rover to feature pop-up headlights…
[Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Rob Turner and Chris Forsey for their help in compiling this article – you can visit their excellent site about the Quintet and 416i here. Incidentally, Chris Forsey’s 416i is the metallic red car in the pictures.]