The cars : Rover 416i Vitesse

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

Rover 416i Vitesse

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.

Honda Integra

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’

Probably the least well-known 'Ronda' of the lot - Australia's 416i, seen here in Vitesse trim
Probably the least well-known ‘Ronda’ of the lot – Australia’s 416i, seen here in Vitesse trim

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.

An early 416i SE (the base model) - this example is still in regular use
An early 416i SE (the base model) – this example is still in regular use

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.

From the rear, it's only the Rover badging that marks the 416i apart from the Honda Integra on which it was based
From the rear, it’s only the Rover badging that marks the 416i apart from the Honda Integra on which it was based

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.

An Australian-market Honda Integra - identical to the 416i other than in number of doors
An Australian-market Honda Integra – identical to the 416i other than in number of doors

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.

Japanese simplicity defined the cabin - steering wheel boss wore same font as badges
Japanese simplicity defined the cabin – steering wheel boss wore same font as badges

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.

By the late 1980s, JRA was using the same 'premium' feel to its advertising as Rover in the UK
By the late 1980s, JRA was using a ‘premium’ feel in its advertising – just as Rover Group was in the UK

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.

R8 416 was shown at Sydney Motor Show, but the decision was taken not to import it to Autralia
R8 416 was shown at Sydney Motor Show, but the decision was taken not to import it to Australia

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…

At least one R8 416 exists in Australia. This ex-JRA car was used for evaluation pruposes while bosses were deciding whether or not to bring the car over officially
At least one R8 416 exists in Australia. This ex-JRA car was used for evaluation purposes while bosses were deciding whether or not to bring the car over officially

[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.]

42 Comments

  1. Always thought of the Integra/Rover 416 as a natural successor to the Triumph Dolomite, esp the styling.

  2. I had one just like the red one shown 2nd from the top. It was a sensational little pocket rocket and sold really well in Australia due to the fact it had four doors for the demographic that could afford it.

    I do miss my 416i, but I got an 84 SD1 3500SE (Aust spec) instead. Thank you so much for show casing this forgotten piece of Rover history.

  3. I was in Australia in 2006 and spotted a couple of Rover 75s, although the biggest British car was the Mini, which had a cult following among better off younger Australians.

  4. And the difference between this car and the Honda was what exactly? Bonnet, boot and steering wheel badge! Anything else?

    “Everything you ever wanted in a car” – Because everyone wants to stick a Rover badge on a Honda, and say they are driving a Rover, rather than a Honda.

    If I stick Rolls-Royce badges on a Lada, and write Rolls-Royce in marker pen on the steering wheel, does that change it into a Rolls-Royce?

  5. Never heard of an Australian Integra based Rover 416 till reading this. I do remember the Rover “Quint” based on the Honda Quintet though. I first saw that at the 1980 Motor Show and rather liked it – but it was not a huge success in UK I gather…

  6. To anyone seeing this car for the first time it must help explain the lineage of the HH-R which shares nothing with the R8.

    Aussies certainly seem to be fans of bigger cars and the R8 might have just been a little too ‘compact’ for that market at that time. However things move on now cars in their class such as the Corolla and the Mazda 3 are very popular out there.

  7. The main thing I remember about the 416 is the engine cover was stamped with Honda rather than Rover.

  8. The Rover 200 did make it to Australia, sort of, as the Honda Concerto on which it was based. This was made in Japan and had a different engine (1.6 SOHC) and double wishbone front suspension, instead of struts like the version Longbridge made for Honda Europe. Fit and finish were way better but the English Rover had a more refined engine (1.4 K series) with a better torque spread and a better ride – R8 and Concerto were both sold in NZ.

  9. Too small to be a Sierra, too big to be an Escort. Would have made a perfect (and properly made) alternative to the Maestro!

  10. YY was the initial Honda project name for the R8 project, which they later changed to ‘EJ’.

    It may have been used twice but that seems unlikely….

    It followed ‘XX’ – the Rover 800. I think the UK Legend production at Cowley was referred to as HX and 800 production at the Sayama factory as JX.

  11. Yep, might have made a good MG, but you can say that about any thing other than an 1800. At least they didn’t make a Vanden Plas version.

  12. The car’s existence in Australia probably has more to do with;
    – it being a replacement for Rover Quintet,
    – Austin-Rover’s growing relationship with Honda,
    – Honda’s growing reputation for quality (though soon to be pricey) cars in Australia, and
    – probably the need for JRA to do SFA in regards to production, having lost most of its assembly capabilities by this stage.

  13. They’re pushing artistic licence a bit with that advert of the car outside Sotherby’s!

    Unless Sotherby’s has a Tokyo branch 🙂

  14. A few things..
    – Australia in 1985 still had import quotas. JRA had alot of import quota for historical reasons, and a little like Heathrow landing rights it was on a use it or lose it basis. As I understand it they could have tried to sell their quota but at the time there were basically no takers as Hyundai had yet to emerge and the established brands were well catered for.

    They used part of their historical quota importing Peugeot 505s, then eventually brought the 205GTI out but they were financially stretched and so couldnt stock them properly (see below)

    – The Quintet and 416 ironically looked more like Rovers than any of the UK based products, the 5 door gave it a junior SD1 kind of look and there was a strong SD1 customer base. It did look really classy.

    – JRA ltd was sold off by Graham Day to an MBO who were overstretched and went bust in the early 90s I was a trainee at the time for the insolvency firm that was dealing with them

    – from 1988 JRA had a big contract assembling Landrover 110s for the australian army which should have been their meal ticket but amazingly they still managed to go broke, it was a textbook of 80s over leverage and just total incompetence all round

    • Pleased to advise that the burgundy (Oporto?) car from Waterloo is doing just nicely, thank you. Despite some minor (but irritating) body damage, the mechanicals are just fine after 250,000km. The plan is for this car to go onto historic plates next year.

  15. The 416i wasn’t sold in New Zealand, even though the Honda Integra was assembled by NZMC. The Montego was imported, taking advantage of a lower tariff on UK-built cars of only (!) 25 per cent, but initially only as an estate, to complement the saloon-only Honda Accord, and uniquely, as an MG – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nzcarfreak/14944856306/

    • Integra was never assembled in New Zealand. By then, the importer was Honda New Zealand, not NZMC, and the lower volume cars such as Prelude, Concerto and Integra were imported and mainstream Civic and Accord were assembled locally. NZMC imported the initial Montego, as a wagon, and badged Austin and they paid the then maximum duty rate applied to assembled British cars of 20%, not 25%. Later Montego were imported by newly formed Rover New Zealand, the range then included sedans and they were badged MG.

  16. any idea how many rover R8 220GTI TURBOS where exported to japan,these had the flared arch extensions and japanese writing on all the fuse box.sticker information

  17. “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”

    Is that really the case, surely they wouldn’t redesign the rear suspension (an expensive exercise) just for the badge engineered Rover version?

  18. Looking again at this article reminds me how decent looking a car the Integra / R416 was in all its guises – better than the current Civic’s? The 1.6 120bhp engine seems quite a good output in those days too.

  19. Why didnt they just sell this in the 80s here? After all the Maestro and Montego didnt “sit comfortably” in the UK market either!

  20. With the Integra in mind, why did Honda force Rover to use the obsolete Honda Domani as the basis for the Rover 400 instead of the 3rd generation Integra (that was available as a 4-door saloon\) or 6th generation Civic?

    • They were the same car – Domani was the name for the cars sold through the Honda sales channel Honda Clio in Japan while Integra was the name for cars sold through the Honda Verna channel. Honda Clio had previously sold the Concerto, as this was the more luxury oriented Honda branding. Honda during the 90s had quite a few weird and wonderful ideas, like the Accord Inspire, which was actually a Legend with different sheet metal.

      • Most of the bigger Japanese manufacturers have one than one dealership network in their home market, only selling certain cars from the range.

        • Yep – most cars where badge engineered. Back in 82 Nissan launched the Pulsar as the Nissan Liberta Villa via it’s Bluebird Sales channel and as Nissan Langley via its prince sales channel. They also had a Sunny dressed up as a Laurel Spirit. Mazda tried to go down this route with the launch of it’s failed sprouting in the early 90s with Autozam, Eunos and Efini.

          The Domani / Civic / Integra / Orthia were all the same car – with the Integra only having a more sporting looking body – it was sold in the US as an Acura.

        • It’s amusing that Japanese companies had a similar split dealer setup that BMC had for so many years after the merger!

          • I had presumed it was because the Japanese manufacturers had such a big slice of their home market. Some of Nissan’s were originally Prince Motors dealers, who they took over in 1966 originated the Skyline and what was to become the original Cherry.

      • Understand a number at Rover were bothered by the fact Honda had pretty much finalised their design, that it was based on the very lacklustre Domani, and that Rover were to be held to much higher levels of commonality than 600/Accord with many feeling it was an inappropriate base point from which to start the HHR project.

        Even if they were the same car that in many forms remained in production at Honda until around 2000-2002, what am getting at is surely there was a better starting point from among the Civic-based family for HHR to take form and properly succeed the R8 at Rover?

        Interesting the 1st-2nd gen Inspire / 3rd gen Vigor were derived from the 2nd gen Legend, does that also include the 2nd gen Ascot and Rafaga? Would the 2nd gen Legend have benefited from the 2.0-2,5-litre G 5-cylinder engines at the lower-end of the range below the sole 3.2-litre V6 or other engine options?

        • Nate the Ascot was originally a six light version of the accord. The later Ascot, Ascot Innova and Rafaga were based on the previous Accord but with a modified platform, with the Ascot Innova was just the same accord as us Brits got. Only the Ascot and Rafaga got the 5 cylinders. The only accord based on the Legend was the Accord Inspire, which with the mk2 became just the inspire!

          • Styling aside would say the 2nd generation Honda Inspire’s engine range is more complete compared to the 2nd generation Honda Legend.

            Is it known if the first 2 generations of Honda Jazz/City in the 1980s to 1990s as well as the Honda Logo were derived from shortened versions of previous generation Honda Civic platforms (the Today kei car is another matter altogether)?

            Was the ER engine in the 1st generation Honda Jazz/City is a clean sheet design or derived / influenced by existing Honda engines?

        • Honda were in the process of setting up Honda UK Manufacturing (HUM) in Swindon in the early 90s and, in their often conservative way, wanted to minimise any risks to quality so chose to build an existing product in this new facility.

          Their choice of the Domani as the base fitted in with their other Civics better than it did with Rover’s plans to replace their R8 200s and 400s.

          The limited coverage of the existing R8 range led to Rover engineering the 4 door version of the 400, shown at the launch of the 5 door but not available until early the next year, and the only slightly smaller R3 200.

          The use of the Domani as the base hobbled the 400 due to its limited size and re-styling opportunities and obvious Honda origins, such as facia and door handles.

          The launch of the Mondeo highlighted the car’s problems and strong market competition with that car, and the Cavalier and 405, led to sales being half of the plan. Those sold may not have been profitable either causing much the financial crisis that brought about BMW’s sale of the company.

  21. When Nissan started building the UK factory in 1984/5, a new Bluebird saloon was its first car (we know that).

    There was already a boxy FWD Bluebird sold in the UK. The Sunderland built Bluebird was already sold in Japan as the Nissan Stanza and Auster.

    • Yep and like the Accord which was sold in 3 different versions, 1 for North America, 1 for Asia and 1 for Europe!

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