Steve Dean tells the story of how he ended up buying a Rover 75 Tourer 1.8 Connoisseur SE, and why it now occupies a place close to his heart.
Words and photography: Steve Dean
It all started with a bike. Having just turned 60, I was determined to become fitter. It was my daughter who suggested buying a bike, but there was one problem: I wanted to transport it to wherever I wanted to cycle, but I only had a small car. The Fiesta was a company car and great for daily and business use, but there was no way I could put a bike in the back (even with the seats down) and it didn’t seem very likely that I’d be able to find a suitable bike rack either.
I began thinking about a car for leisure, with plenty of boot space and lots of room for grandchildren. It would need to be quite cheap, but also with a fairly low mileage and interesting – nothing too outrageous, but perhaps a bit left field. A classic car might fit the bill, but good ones were too expensive and I’d worry too much about damaging it.
Out with my wife one day as a passenger in her Citroen C3, I noticed a gold Rover 75 Tourer. It went past quickly, but just gave me enough time to notice that it was a good-looking car which looked as though it might fit the bill as a leisure vehicle.
My previous BMC>MGR ownership history
I’d previously had a (Rover) Montego 1.6L Estate, followed by a ‘proper’ Rover, a 214Si. While admitting to liking a Montego risks ridicule from those who’ve most likely never driven one, I had in fact enjoyed it immensely and it had been 100% reliable. I’d also enjoyed the Rover 214Si, and remembered the K-Series engine as something of a revelation in its time: powerful, free-revving and amazingly quiet. I didn’t know a lot about the Rover 75, but I knew enough of its history to know that it was a high-quality car that was invariably cheap, and which was enjoyable to drive. Suddenly, I wanted a Rover 75 Tourer!
After a few days of research, I decided that I wanted one with the 2.0-litre BMW diesel engine. I found one for sale at a dealer about 50 miles away and was so convinced that it was the one for me that I even requested an insurance quote against the registration number seen on the dealer’s impressive group of photographs. I liked the Seafrost Blue colour and, for its 70,000 miles, it looked in good condition.
Already convinced that I was going to buy it, I turned up at the dealer’s premises on a cold Saturday in March, both expectant and excited. The first problem, though, was that I hadn’t driven an automatic for about 30 years, when I’d taken a wonderful Rover SD1 on a tour around Cornwall. I thought I could remember how the automatic gearbox worked, but realised on the test drive, as I came to a sudden halt a few hundred yards down the road, that pushing an absent clutch pedal, and therefore putting both my right and left feet on the brake at the same time, wasn’t a very good idea.
I couldn’t blame the car!
This wasn’t the fault of the car, but, having tucked my unneeded left foot under the seat, I then noticed rather a lot of smoke in the rear-view mirror. I hoped that it was a result of the car standing for a while, but there was an oily smell coming from somewhere, the smoke made it seem as though the engine would be needing some kind of expensive work, and – worse still – the car’s performance felt nothing like the pull of a strong diesel which I’d expected. Those of you who watch Wheeler Dealers as often as I do will know that Mike Brewer often mentions that the car is ‘talking to him’. I know exactly what he means, and this car was saying ‘I’m not for you.’ It just didn’t feel right at all.
The dealer looked suitably puzzled when I told him that the car was both smelly and smoking, and I wouldn’t be buying the car. I’ll never know whether, with a bit more patience, I might have become its proud owner. I returned home disappointed, but still wanting a Rover 75 Tourer.
Some judicious research that evening showed up a 2004 Firefrost Red Tourer at a dealer about 40 miles away. I could see from the photos that it wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t really want a car that I was afraid to use for hauling bikes around and for letting the grandchildren eat crisps on the back seat. Horror of horrors though, it was a 1.8 K-Series facelift model. I was aware that the facelift model was frowned on by Rover 75 purists and that purchasing a 1.8 K-Series was possibly tantamount to madness. However, it only had 49,000 miles on the clock, and had a reasonable service history. I decided that it would do no harm to look at it, but wasn’t overly hopeful.
Off for another test drive
So, the next day found me setting off on a test drive. Compared with the previous day’s experience, the car felt lively and wanted to be driven, with not a hint of smoke from the tailpipe. Furthermore, this one was also ‘talking to me’, but it was something along the lines of ‘I’ve had a hard time recently, but I’ve still got a lot of life in me and I’ll be fun to both drive and own.’ I was hooked, and, 17 months of pleasurable driving later, I have to say that it was telling me the truth.
I wasn’t quite smitten enough to forget to enquire about the history of the head gasket. The dealer showed evidence that it had been changed five years earlier at 25,000 miles. Servicing was nearly up-to-date, there was no ‘mayonnaise’ in the header tank, and everything looked promising. The dealer even put two new tyres on the front and MoT’d the car for a year.
Not bad for a £1695 car I thought, even if the head gasket might still be a candidate for replacement in the near future. The dealer’s last words were, ‘You’ve bought yourself a cracking car’, and I replied, ‘I know!’ I still think that both of us were right.
Getting the Rover 75 serviced
I know a reasonable amount about cars, and serviced my first three cars (a Mk1 Cortina, a Mk2 Cortina and a Mk1 Fiesta) myself. I started to lose confidence, though, after stripping the thread on the sump drain plug of my Mk2 Escort and eventually found myself entrusting my cars to various garages to maintain.
I’m fortunate to live just five minutes walk from Hawkinge Vehicle Services, an MG Rover specialist, and asked them to service the Rover soon after I’d bought it. Expecting a potentially large bill, I was surprised to find that only the rear exhaust pipe needed changing. The car drove very well indeed and, after I’d cleaned and polished it, the paintwork looked reasonably acceptable. In fact, I even found myself looking back at the car whenever I left it. It looked a lot nicer than I’d expected.
Well, you know what they say about 1.8 K-Series head gaskets! A few thousand enjoyable miles later, I noticed that one of the coolant hoses was starting to split and all the hoses were rock hard after driving. Unscrewing the header tank cap revealed that virtually all the coolant had turned to mayonnaise and, even with my limited mechanical knowledge, I realised that the dreaded head gasket failure had struck.
…then the head gasket popped
This was soon confirmed by Hawkinge Vehicle Services and the car was left there for a head gasket replacement, new water pump, new timing belt and replacement coolant hoses. Oddly enough, I wasn’t too worried about this, as I was confident that a very reliable car would be returned. Indeed, it was, and the car has gone from strength to strength ever since.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the amount of sheer driving pleasure the Rover 75 Tourer has given me, along with the enjoyment of bringing back to life a car which had definitely seen better days. Although a very practical vehicle, which has performed well in carrying bikes and is happy to cosset crisp-eating grandchildren on the comfy leather seats, I often just take it out for a drive on my own.
Contrary to expectations, the 1.8 responds well in the higher rev ranges (albeit a bit loudly), whilst being remarkably quiet at normal motorway speeds. The JATCO automatic box is smooth-changing and careful accelerator control can maximise economy or performance, according to taste. Okay – it’s no ball of fire, but it’s more than capable of out -accelerating most average cars, providing engine revs are not allowed to drop too low. That said, I do of course keep the revs low until the engine is thoroughly warmed up – I don’t want another head gasket failure!
Conclusions: what do I think of my 75 Tourer?
It’s strange how the world seems a nicer, more gentle place in the Rover 75. My Fiesta EcoBoost is a surprisingly peppy little car, which seems to enjoy being driven rapidly. Not so the Rover… The ambience produced by the polished wood dashboard with gently-lit oval dials, the leather seats, the smooth changing auto-box and the hum of the 1.8 K-Series engine combine to give a driving experience which calls for measured progress, rather than any hint of competitiveness.
I often take it out when I need to relax, and feel much better for doing so. Passengers also enjoy the car, declaring how comfortable it is and how pleasant it is to ride in. Have there been any downsides to the car? Not really, except perhaps that I think its status hovers uncomfortably at the moment between being simply an old car and a (nearly) modern classic.
From a ‘bangernomics’ point of view, it’s been a great success. I’m not sure I could easily find another car which does everything so well at the same price. However, I intend to keep it a long time so that ultimately it will be a true classic – one of the last cars produced by Rover. It will need a few minor dents removed, the alloys refurbished and a respray when I can afford it.
In the meantime, though, I’ll simply enjoy driving it for what it is – a brilliant car which amply proves the lost potential of one of the great names of British motoring.