Central to Austin Rover’s plans for the late-1980s and into the ’90s was a fresh-looking replacement for the under-performing Montego. There were many promising design proposals, but the AR16 and 17 looked like viable propositions – smart mini-Rover 800s.
Here’s the full story behind their conception.
Austin AR16/AR17: The real Montego replacement
After arriving at BL in the winter months of 1981, Roy Axe knew that little short of a complete overhaul of the entire Austin-Rover range would be required to return the company to profitability by the late 1980s. Harold Musgrove had achieved a near-miracle by getting the Metro, then the Maestro/Montego onto the marketplace, given finite Government backing.
They were competitive, but Axe (and his styling team) were well aware that there were styling weaknesses with the M-cars. The first big project had been the Rover 800 – a joint Honda/Rover project (known as XX) that introduced a sharper new design language to Longbridge and Cowley, via the Canley styling studios.
Extending the 800’s styling
However, once underway, Project XX would be joined by a family of crisply styled cars, ranging from the promising AR6 supermini through the AR8 family hatchback (that would become the familiar Rover R8), via the medium-sized AR16/17, to the executive-class 800.
As explained by Stephen Harper, the author of the sketch below, the AR16 was an interesting project undertaken at Canley. ‘Before the Rover 600, back in 1982, a Honda-based car below the Rover 800 was developed under the codename AR16. This is an original sketch of the Austin ‘600’, a replacement for what we called the “Embarrasor” [Ambassador – Ed].’
The image below is clearly interesting for a number of reasons:
- There was still plenty of confidence in the Austin name in the early-1980s, with the Montego-class motor retaining the marque name.
- The original AR plan was to abandon the capable LM10/11 underpinnings in favour of Honda-based technology.
- AR knew that to remain competitive in the fleet market, it needed a hatch and a saloon offerings, like Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra.
The Austin flourish
The all-British AR16 design continued to flourish throughout 1984 and ’85, and soon, full-size clay models of the entire range were produced at Canley. As all cars were based on the Montego, they featured the same, sound, suspension layout.
But a lengthened wheelbase allowed the team to build a more balanced looking car – with heavy Rover 800 overtones. The engine lineup was to include the S-Series 1.6-litre engine (a straight Montego/Rover 216 carry-over), the 2.0-litre O-Series, and the M16 2-litre 16-valve unit, which was to eventually lead a short life before being replaced by the T-Series.
Like the Montego (and unlike the Rover 800), the AR16/17 was also conceived with an estate car version in mind and, as can be seen from the image below, this car looked like a very practical proposition indeed. The car was touted for a 1988-’89 launch, by which time, the Montego would have been ready to be put out to pasture.
From Austin to Rover – and the end
During 1985, the AR16/17 dropped its Austin branding and became a fully-fledged member of the Rover family, becoming the 400-Series. As 1985 wore on, it became clear that there were future funding issues at Austin Rover, and the project lost it impetus.
Although the Montego was under-performing on the market, and profits from this car were sadly lacking, it was considered competent enough by senior management – who were being hamstrung by the lack of funding now coming from the Government – to soldier on into the late-1980s with a facelift, along with the AR16/17’s M-Series engine option.
That would become the AR9 (above) and, in turn, even that project was watered down into what became the MY88.5 facelift (below). But by then, the management new broom of 1986 led by Graham Day knew that Rover’s mid-range future lay in the collaborative venture with Honda.
The project officially died in November 1988, according to a report in The Engineer magazine.
The AR family laid bare
|AR5||Rover 213/216 replacement|
Scheduled for a 1989 launch, but was cancelled in favour of the Honda- based AR8 (see below), which served as a replacement for both the Maestro and the Rover 213/216.
All-new supermini styled by Gerry McGovern and others under the direction of Roy Axe, incorporating K-Series engine and steel suspension. Abandoned when it became clear that there were not enough company funds to finance its development. Replaced by the .
Engineered in-house and scheduled for a 1990 launch, this car was cancelled in 1985 in favour of the Honda-based AR8.
Renamed version of the Honda YY. Renamed R8 in 1988.
A lower-cost Montego replacement conceived after the AR16/17 plan was abandoned.
|AR16||Sub-800 five-door hatchback|
Counterpart to the four-door AR17, both of which were based on the LM10 platform.
|AR17||Sub-800 four-door saloon|
Counterpart to the five-door AR16, both of which were based on the LM10 platform.
Gallery: several stages of AR16/17 evolution
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.