Concepts and prototypes : Rover 700 Series (1986-1988)

Keith Adams tells the story of the AR18, a short-lived proposal to replace the Rover 800 with an altogether more adventurously-styled saloon and two-door coupe.

AR18/R16: The missing Rover

AR18/R16 the Rover 800 that wasn't...
AR18/R16: the Rover 800 that wasn’t…

Back in 1988, when Rover was getting down to the business of devising a replacement for the XX-Series 800, there were still questions over financing the project. It was clear that, under British Aerospace’s (BAe) control, Rover wasn’t going to be getting the development resources that it had under Government ownership and the Design Department was now under strict financial control.

When Roy Axe’s team designed the original XX, it had been lifed for a production run of around five years, with the intention of it then being replaced by all-new model. Without a decent budget, an all-new model was going to be out of the question – so various facelift schemes were devised.

The cheapest facelift proposal of the lot – the R17 – used the existing car’s passenger doors (see the Rover 800 development story to see why that ended up being a false economy); but Axe put Richard Hamblin’s team in charge of producing an alternative project.

New car to be called Rover 700 Series

Initially known as AR18, the design brief was to produce a four-door saloon and two-door coupe. The cars would sit on the 800’s underpinnings, which were still competitive at the time – and the 700 Series tag was considered for the car, giving Rover the opportunity to produce a range-topper on the 800 LWB floorpan (which had yet to be cancelled at that point).

By 1988, the project had been renamed R16 and ran alongside the R17 programme but, as our exclusive images clearly show, R16 really did move Rover forward in terms of design – especially as this car was mooted for a late-1990 launch. However, as it transpired, BAe wouldn’t invest enough to allow Rover to move forward with this concept and stuck with the R17…

We’ll leave it to you to decide whether that was a good move or not.

Essay: Rover 75 revisited

In 2014, Robert Leitch cooked up an enticing counterfactual recipe for Rover’s 1990s’ growth, based on using the Rover 700 design scheme instead of the less exciting 1991 Rover R17…

The appearance of these previously unseen Rover 700 pictures made me think, not for the first time, what sort of car Rover might have made to succeed the Rover 600 and 800 without the intercession of BMW, or the legacy of Honda.

Briefly, our scenario is that, in 1994, Rover has said its last sayonara to former partner Honda. Either British Aerospace, or a new non-carmaker master is funding a replacement for the 600 and 800, which will share the same platform and major components and free the company of expensively licensed Honda heritage.

Even without a very limited project budget this is possibly the hardest challenge the firm’s Designers face as they are entering a fiercely fought sector with some excellent competitors.

Rover 700: How big?

Wheelbase Front track Rear track Length Width Height Weight (kg) Model
Rover 75 2745 1505 1505 4745 1778 1427 1425 2.0KV6
Rover 620 2727 1475 1480 4645 1715 1380 1255 620Si
Rover 820 R17 2770 1483 1450 4880 1730 1397 1408 820Si
BMW 3-Series (E46) 2725 1481 1493 4471 1739 1415 1360 318i
BMW 5-Series (E39) 2830 1516 1530 4775 1800 1435 1496 520i
Mondeo MkII 2754 1522 1537 4731 1812 1429 1301 2.0LX
Mondeo MkI 2704 1503 1487 4556 1745 1372 1322 2.0LX

The table above shows the dimensions of the ‘BMW’ 75 compared with its predecessors and competitors. In a decade the ‘footprint’ of the mid-size class has grown so large that the 1986 Rover 800 is now scarcely larger than a Mondeo. The closeness of the principal dimensions of the ‘BMW’ Rover 75 to the 800 bears out the notion that an R17-based predecessor set the dimensions of the design which reached production.

What is notable is how little separates them – around 45mm in track and around 66mm in wheelbase, excepting the ‘one class up’ BMW 5-Series. That car is included as it points to how a larger Rover 900 could be derived from the same platform.

The dimensions our notional cars would be:

Wheelbase Front track Rear track Length Width Height Weight (kg) Model
Rover 700 2750 1525 1525 4650 1750 1430 1400 733 Vitesse
Rover 900 2900 1525 1525 4800 1800 1450 1490 932 V6

The ‘dual identity’ of the two cars dictates a width in the upper range, otherwise the dimensions would not deviate beyond the Mondeo territory for the 700. Market placement demands a piece of legerdemain, to build down to Mondeo/Vectra prices while having distinctive enough character and engineering to compete with the Audi A4 and A6 and BMW 3 and 5 Series on their own terms.

Rover 700: Powertrains

The foremost weakness of the Rover 75 was the engine line up – four engines which, each in their own way, fell short of what was expected of them.

1.8 K-Series
Struggled to haul around a car 250kg heavier than Rover’s next heaviest passenger car application, the HH-R 400. The sluggishness might have been bearable in the light of the car’s ‘relaxed’ ethos, but premature engine failures were not. The MGR-era turbocharged version addressed the former weakness and hastened the latter.

2.0 and 2.5 KV6
An answer to a question nobody asked. The 2.5 is almost big enough to make its case, but 2.0-litre buyers saw ‘turbine-like smoothness’ as no compensation for a fragile, thirsty, expensive to maintain engine.

BMW M47 diesel
Considered the best choice at the time, but unloved by those who make their living tending to the needs of middle-aged and elderly BMWs

Ford V8
Enormously appealing, but ultimately irrelevant. The heart may yearn, the head will go for a BMW 330d.

My answer to this is a new home-grown engine line which covers most of the above territory. I’d call it the U, or Universal series, not just in compliance with alphabetical sequence, but also to demonstrate its versatility. The new engine would use the T-Series and L-Series cylinder heads, combined with a new block emancipated at last from the dictates of the ADO17 gearbox. Using the existing heads would set the cylinder centres closer than an ideal size, but would save on tooling – the budget for the exercise would be around £250 million.

The new U-Series engine proposal

The new block would have a longer crank than the T-Series and eliminate the offset con-rods which had been a family characteristic since the O-Series. Wider bearings would therefore be possible. The new cast-iron bottom end would be dimensioned to accommodate a 100mm stroke to allow a maximum capacity of 2250cc and would incorporate contra-rotating balance shafts for the larger capacity versions.

A variable valve timing system would be introduced for the upper-level versions, a simple cam-phasing arrangement rather than the complex variable duration K-Series VVC system. The intention would not be to create an 8000rpm screamer, but to optimise breathing across the normal rev range giving smooth running and torque delivery at low engine speeds without the compromise of the engine being starved of air flow at high revolutions, thereby robbing the driver of the full benefit of the engine’s cylinder capacity and valve area. As well as increasing power, the system would reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

The U-Series range could encompass everything from a basic but competitive 16V entry-level 1.8-litre to a turbocharged 2.2-litre with an output close to the Ford V8 in the ZT 260.

  • U-4 1.8 16v – 125bhp
  • U-4 2.0 16V – 140bhp
  • U-4 2.0 VVT 16V – 160 bhp
  • U-4 2.2 VVT 16V – 175bhp
  • U-4 2.0 16V Turbo – 190bhp
  • U-4 2.2 16V VVT Turbo – 230bhp
  • U-4 1.8 Diesel – 85 / 100bhp
  • U-4 2.0 Diesel – 95 / 110bhp
  • U-4 2.2 Diesel – 110 / 125bhp

All the fours, but what about more?

Although these cover about 90% of the market’s needs, there would still be a place for a larger, multi-cylinder option. Imagining for a moment that the men from Kia had not turned up one day on Rover’s doorstep with several suitcases full of Won and the KV6 was consigned to the roster of ‘engines that might have been’, a bought-in V6 would be the logical option. GM, Ford, Alfa Romeo, VW, or Peugeot could well have been delighted to sell a few more petrol V6s – even in the mid-1990s they were not a popular option.

Another possibility would be a home-grown U-5, which could also serve in place of the Land Rover TD-5. This would favour the wide track approach, but was perfectly feasible technically and in market acceptability, as Volvo were already demonstrating with the well-regarded and successful 850.

The question of which end should be driven is, at first glance, wide open. A move to rear-wheel drive has strong appeal, allowing a wider range of engines to be accommodated, and affirming an aspiration to BMW and Mercedes Benz territory. However, the need to share parts with the smaller Rovers and the time required to develop a new RWD chassis, with nothing in the range as a starting point, would dictate front-wheel drive as the cost and time effective choice. The key to the project is evolution – build on what had been produced previously rather than starting anew.

Transmissions are an easy enough matter. Breaking the ‘no-Honda parts’ rule just for once, I’d go for the PG1 gearbox for the lower-powered versions, with the Chrysler gearbox used in the 825D for the most powerful diesels. By the mid-1990s the choice of suitable proprietary automatics was considerable. Choose with care from the offerings of Aisin, Jatco or ZF.

Rover 700: Chassis

Here, there is but one way to go – a full Hydragas set up updated for the 21st century, retaining the classic double wishbones and trailing arms, but also enhanced by self levelling and active damping control, to give a ride and handling experience only Citroën could come close to matching.

That’s the dream. Regrettably, the new car was entering a world almost as cynical as the one we now inhabit, where suspension does not sell cars – NCAP ratings, ECE fuel consumption figures, CO2 tax breaks and litanies of largely unnecessary equipment and technology do.

Therefore we shall go to the opposite extreme, and opt for a scaled up version of the R3 200’s MacPherson strut/torsion beam set-up. Remember this is happening a few years before the Focus’s control blade rear suspension challenged the torsion beam orthodoxy. Rover had been saddled with complicated Honda suspensions which promised far more than they delivered and a return to LC10-era simplicity would stand a chance of delivering acceptable results at low cost.

Rover 700: Body Engineering

Once more we face the dichotomy of the idealistic and acceptable realism. It would be wonderful to bring the ideas embodied in Spen King and Gordon Bashford’s ECV3 to production reality and produce something far lighter and more efficient than the competition. Again constraints of time, money and a far less adventurous and individualistic customer base would dictate a conventional steel monocoque, possibly taking the ‘soft presses’ idea used successfully for the R8 derivatives forward in concert with aluminium and plastic panels to allow variants and facelifts to be achieved at low cost.

Building in a greater than normal degree of adaptability into the body design and tooling would be high on the wish list. It is notable that around the same time as the ‘BMW’ 75 appeared, Fiat were making much of the ‘spaceframe’ construction of their new Multipla, which allowed substantially different body variants to be engineered at a fraction of the cost of a traditional monocoque. Little has been heard of the idea since…

The long wheelbase flagship car could provide the better opportunity for adventures in aluminium, anticipating the road on which Jaguar were about to embark.

Body variations would be the lifeblood of the new car – by the end of the 20th century it was unthinkable to offer one body style. A four/five-seat saloon would be a given, but why not pair it with a close coupled four-seat, four-door fastback? The obvious second bodystyle would be an estate car – the ‘BMW’ 75 wagon nearly never happened, but was one of the rare success stories of the MGR era. Rather than the obvious coupe or convertible, there could be more profit in seizing the Zeitgeist with a high-riding, Volvo XC-style estate, or even a luxury seven seat MPV – imagine a better looking Subaru Tribeca.

Rover would remain the core brand but, with no in house competition from BMW or Honda, there would be a strong case for reviving the Triumph identity, or producing MG versions. My own pet idea, never attempted even in the MGR era, would be an honest-to-goodness Morris Oxford, in saloon and estate car versions, as a sort of proto-Skoda Superb.

Rover 700: Finding its style

Imagine yourself as a technologically aware 35-year old, in possession of a modest fortune, and approaching the peak of your career. The truth universally acknowledged is that you will be in the market for one of the aspirational mid-liners which are our new Rover’s rivals.

‘Do you see yourself surrounded by sitting on over stuffed chairs, facing swathes of veneer and instruments evoking 1930s radio set designs?’

Do you see yourself surrounded by sitting on over stuffed chairs, facing swathes of veneer and instruments evoking 1930s radio set designs in an evocation of a gentleman’s club ambience rendered absurd by a television screen at its centre and a buttock-sized airbag in the steering wheel boss?

No, of course, you don’t. You’re looking for a cool, minimalist, ergonomic driving environment, of exactly the sort which the 1963 Rover P6 introduced to a startled world and initiated a design progression which continued through to the SD1 and XX.

In conclusion

For once it’s surprisingly easy to pinpoint where it did all go wrong – the sequence of events which led to the ‘BMW’ 75 started with the airbrushing of the P6 and SD1 from Rover’s history in favour of the 1959 P5 Three Litre. That car was overweight, underpowered, grew too big and heavy to replace the P4 as was intended and failed to match its predecessor’s legendary refinement and quality and certainly not the audacious radicalism of its design. The P5’s afterlife status as a signifier of a certain type of British identity has more to do with its association with royalty and the top tier of government than its engineering or general competence.

The P5’s exterior and interior styling is rightly admired as a snapshot of a bygone age, but doomed it to be a marginal product in an era when the market wanted drivers cars, like the Jaguar Mk2, rather than gentleman’s carriages. By the early-1960s a strengthening economy and wider availability of tertiary education saw Britain’s professional and managerial class growing in number and becoming ever younger and more ambitious – these were not people prepared to wait to step into dead mens’ shoes.

Thankfully, by the time the P5 went on sale, the Rover Company had released the safety catches on their own young guns and showed they knew exactly what was wanted with the P6. The parallel with the 1998 75 is clear. Until the R17, the Honda-era Rover design vocabulary had a clear lineage back to the SD1 and P6 – with the wedge/fastback interplay, proudly grille-less noses, floating roofs and flush glazing. The XX interior is more like an evolution of the P6 than the SD1’s was. Like the P6 and SD1, the aesthetic of the XX, R8, and the doomed AR6 was rational, minimal and forward looking.

A leap forward – not retro – was needed

Move forward to the early 1990s, and the signs were that the customers rather liked the new style which arrived with the R17 – witness the eventual adoption of the chrome grille across the R8 range. In retrospect, it’s a pity that Rover fell into that particularly narrow trough of design identity, from which only the MGR-era MG offerings represented any sort of escape.

What was desperately needed for the new range-topper was an ‘XF moment’ a convincing break from a referential aesthetic which had no place left to go but up its own fundament. Other manufacturers were unhealthily bound to their past – Jaguar and Saab spring to mind – but, elsewhere, there was positive design progression particularly at Volvo and, to a lesser extent, in the Alfa Romeo 147 and 156. Jaguar has – fingers crossed – set themselves free in two bounds.

‘What was desperately needed for the new range-topper was an ‘XF moment’ a convincing break from a referential aesthetic which had no place left to go but up its own fundament’

I have looked at the possibilities and tempered them with reality. The budget for any new medium/large Rover would inevitably be a fraction of that of a new Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series and there is a huge risk that these constraints would result in a product offering no obvious advantage over its mass market rivals.

Notwithstanding this, I think it would have been a job worth doing – one of the industry’s toughest challenges. With bulletproof mechanicals, a ‘bespoke’ approach to range options and development and exterior and interior design with wide appeal, we could even have seen a true British Rover once more.

AR18/R16 the Rover 800 that wasn't...
AR18/R16: the Rover 800 that wasn’t…
Keith Adams


  1. Looks like an elongated 600 at the front and a 75 at the rear.

    I think it would have given Ford and Vauxhall a real run for their money and one or two others, too.

    Yet another missed opportunity… I think it’s unforgivable that BAe, having got Austin Rover for a song, then underfunded the Rover Group.

  2. I agree – it does look a bit like the bastard offspring of a 600 and a 75!

    Personally, I love the R17 and think it is much nicer looking than this. However, I think my tastes are probably a little “individual” and, if I’m honest, I can’t help thinking this would have been rather more competitive.

    It is certainly well ahead of its time in style terms. I wonder, though, could it also have been designed with a nod to the American market?

  3. I’d agree it looks like this influenced the Rover 75 design team or, at least, the person who drew up the rear lights anyway.

    It’s hard to tell if this would have faired much better than the late 800 though, as it’s clear from the photos this was the barebones of a design and that the model was only one step from the paper sketches. The ‘model’ looks like masses of work would have been required before it became a serious proposition.

    Looking at how far back the rear doors go, there wouldn’t have been a lot of headroom in the back.

  4. Dennis :
    Looking at how far back the rear doors go, there wouldn’t have been a lot of headroom in the back.

    I agree. Looks like a very small cabin in quite a long body. If you extend the line of the rear window and the windscreen upwards, they’d meet at a point just above the roof. Almost a triangular cabin…

  5. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but, ahaa, it’s like a Mazda Eunos 300 – short wheelbase, long overhangs and frameless windows. Makes me wonder what R17 could have been like with a new roof and doors… See the image at this link.

  6. I love this “peek” at another “what might have been” Rover car. Yes, the rear boot shape and lights resemble the R75 and still seem to have that “Rover family look.”

    I agree that the front lights may have been copied from the R600 (or XX R800). The grille could have done with a little more work perhaps but the side profile does lend itself to being worthy of the Rover identity.

  7. That’s not a good looking car by any means – it looks like something Korean crossed with an old Honda Leg-end – and it’s completely over-bodied – one bend in the road and it’ll fall over. For once, I’m glad that this one got away!

  8. I like the rear design and it’s a nice length. I think it would have been hit and miss though. It reminds me, or at least the front does, of the Alfa 166. It is quite nice though. I like that design – a production version might have faired quite well if it was reasonably priced.

  9. This is certainly not as elegant looking as the R18 models that came on stream from November 1991. The rear box area certainly shows that, even at this early stage, the Rover P5 was an influential force, and all the better for it.

    At the front, the sleak nose looks like it has taken inspiration from the 1986 Coupe Concept Vehicle (CCV), but lacks the same serious intent and authority of the R17.

    I think it ultimately reinforces how hard Rover Cars tried to facelift the first generation XX 800 Series when such little finance was forthcoming for the project. If more funding had been available then we might have seen new sleeker R8-style headlamps, a greater reworking of the interior – particularly for the door architecture and dashboard – followed by new outer door skins.

  10. In some ways I actually prefer this – the front end needs some work done on it but otherwise good.

    It is a good mixture between the 600 and 75 and, with the front end suitably modified, could have made for a much more attractive car than the 75 as built, while retaining the majority of its appeal and retrospective styling…

    Another could have been… *Sigh*

  11. CityRover grille meets Lancia Kappa – what’s not to like!

    I keep thinking big Australian Mitsubishis though.

  12. Rover would have been in a stronger position if they had replaced the 800 with a production version of this car. It would have fitted in well the rest of the Rover range at that time.

    Unfortunately, as with most projects, concepts and prototypes made by BMC>MGR, this was a real opportunity lost.

  13. The lack of money to even launch a reskin gives the lie to the idea that BMW took over a profitable company. They took over a company which had no money to develop new cars and was just maxing the profit out of rapidly ageing models.

  14. A clean looking concept, quite ‘British’ in its execution in my opinion. I disagree with the comments about it having a Japanese flavour to it. Very modern looking for the late 80s too – it would have looked a lot sharper then the contemporary Granada and Carlton. Hey, ho, what can we do about that now though?!

  15. There is a hint of Lancia Kappa about it. Amazing that the XX was only scheduled to last five years. I still think the Series 1 is sharper looking than the facelifted version which dated horribly as soon as it was launched.

  16. A much better looking car than the 800 or 75 in my eyes. It has the substance and weight that the 800 lacked without being bloated like the 75. This would have stacked up well against well Jaguar and Mercedes in terms of presence. The design also seems to have aged extremely well given the twenty years that have passed by.

  17. Not as elegant as the 800 facelift, 600 or 75 in my opinion.

    Looks very Japanese, from the rear it could be a Honda Integra four door.

  18. Frameless door glass – that would have been fun to get rigid. Surprised they apparently made a fullsize model when so much needed tweaking/reproportioning, eg rear side doors/wheelarches, tail slope, narrow rear cabin, high swageline producing oversize bumpers, inadequate front numberplate surround. There’s the basis of an attractive car in there though.

  19. As others have said, kind of odd proportions: long nose, short cabin, big overhangs. Got potential though.

  20. If they were really going to do this, Rover should have shared a platform with Lancia IMHO – the two are so similar.

    It does seem to look vaguely Korean minicab-ish. This is one that I’m not shedding any tears over.

  21. Looks very nice, 75ish. I reckon that this could have been a good seller. A nice smooth design and the lines seem to flow.

  22. Yup, a cancelled project Rover were right to drop.

    This looks less like a Rover than the car it was based on…

    Really, the only thing to note about this is that it may be very early on in its development. Look at the very first 800 mock ups – if this had been moved on and on it may have been great but what’s shown above was by no means fit for production.

  23. Ah, that’s where the Chinese found their rear lights for the Roewe 750 – not a nice looking car at all.

  24. Looks like nothing of this planet. May have gone down well on Mars though. We’ll never know now though.

    Saying it looks like a Camry, Alex Scott, is a slight against Toyoda who would be turning in his grave!

  25. The back does resemble the 75 but it looks a lot cleaner and the grille could have definitely used some work. It would have looked good on the road in the early 90s against the likes of the Alfa 164, Peugeot 605 and more modern than the then BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class. Would reliability have held up, though?

  26. Was this design sold to Mazda for their Xedos? I’ve had a Xedos 6 – the small grille looks quite similar and so is the centre of the car. Never mind, I have a 75 now…

  27. There was a Giugiaro prototype doing the rounds at the time called the Jaguar Kensington – that looked a bit like this and eventually surfaced as the Daewoo Leganza. I do prefer the R17.

  28. Wow – deja vu much? Nice juxtaposition of the new Rover 55 and this R16 – 20 years of development and the new Rover is a twin of the junked model from the 1980s. Hehe!

    I agree with Lord Sward – the R17 was a better fit for the 1990s fashion, but this R16 had some good styling. However, it is clearly based on the joint Honda work of the 800 – massive overhangs and a small cabin (which Honda still produce today!) – the exact opposite of Austin legacy.

    I also agree with Luke Scott – the K-Series is a nice engine, but its unreliability hurt AR and its development budget swallowed what should have gone on getting the bodies right – they were the consistent problem for AR (poor styling, lack of body variants to cover market segment).

    Reskins like the R16 should have been affordable ways to keep public interest – and sales – for cars that always had the performance and handling to beat their rivals. Think of XX, then R17, then R16 reskins at 3 year intervals, with refinements to engines and handling and interiors. Had to make profits…

  29. I think that there’s something of the rear end of this in the Focus convertible – the forward sloping back which doesn’t really go with the rest of the Focus.

  30. The front bumper / bonnet / windscreen lines and profile suggest to me:

    1)pedestrian-friendly collision engineering
    2)small frontal area and drag factor considerations, including the small area of the radiator grill

  31. Dreadful looking car. Out of proportion and makes a Ford Sierra look sexy. What happened to the Designer. Did his Labrador savage him to death by chance………..

  32. Concepts rarely make it into production ‘as-is’.

    I think that this is an elegant design, hints of Jaguar Kensington about it. Though translated into production, it may have had last-gen-3series syndrome and looked underwheeled.

  33. Certainly of its time, featuring a number of styling trends that popped up on a lot of cars in the early 90s, including the original Mondeo. Personally I reckon the 800 looked far better and the R17 was probably the right way to go. Pity they didnt realise the bodyside tooling was shot beforehand though. They could have used it as an opportunity to got rid of the rather fussy ridges long the 800s side.

  34. Yes – just read the R17 story again. Yet again a BL/Rover product was compromised on the whim of a bombastic, shoot-from-the-hip, idiot, bully. In this case Andy Barr who insisted on keeping the 800 doors for the R17, even though the tooling was life expired. Thank god that corporate culture and the characters that went with it have gone.

  35. Lots of little designs that no doubt influenced the 75, those rear lights and bumper, the line of the rear pillars etc.

  36. For me, the car it most closely resembles is the Bentley Continental R, and since it came before that by about 4 years ……..

  37. @40

    I take back my earlier comments and seek forgiveness.

    The rear styling is pretty good and reminds me of a Rover 75 or Bentley. Funny how things start to grow on you.

    Wonder if the same principle works with an Allegro……….. Might be pushing it there!!!

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