Essay : Raise a glass to – 25 years of the Rover 800 Vitesse Sport

Rather like Craig Logan as the third member of pop group Bros, the Rover 800 Vitesse Sport has become something of a forgotten member of the high performance executive car sector. David Morgan raises a glass in recognition of its achievements.

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport: a forgotten sporting hero

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport

Mention high performance executive cars of the 1990s and the chances are you will instantly remember something with either a German badge or possibly something from the land of the midnight sun. As for Blighty? Mmm… time to phone a friend, Jeremy.

Which is a shame because the R17 generation Rover 800 Vitesse Sport was a genuinely capable executive car. It might have looked like any other 800 Series derivative, apart from having some subtle colour-coding and a bigger 17-inch wheel design but, under the skin, it showed the enthusiasm and skill of Rover’s engineers to create something more engaging. In essence, it gave the Vitesse name its mojo back after the somewhat average success of the XX-generation 827 Vitesse with its stock Honda V6 and the follow-on R17 820 Vitesse with a 180PS turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series engine.

Make no mistake, the 180hp 820 Vitesse, which went on sale from March 1992, wasn’t a bad car in that it was praised by the motoring press for delivering eager performance. But for the more enthusiastic driver, they concluded it was lacking dynamic involvement.

Nor was the Vitesse mantle alone with its hazy association with the original and much-celebrated SD1 Vitesse enough to convince some potential buyers. Rover Cars eventually addressed these shortcomings by unleashing the 800 Vitesse Sport as the new very high performance derivative (VHPD) for the 800 Series line-up.

Rover’s engineers create a ‘proper’ Vitesse

Announced on 19 April 1994, the 800 Vitesse Sport featured a 200hp version of the turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series engine. This version of the home-grown engine together with an uprated PG1 gearbox with a Torque Sensing (TorSen) differential, were already being used in other VHPDs offered in the R8 200/400 Series range. Therefore, extending their availability to the 800 Series, closely followed by the Rover 600 Series, was a natural route to follow.

The engineering changes for the 800 Vitesse Sport were comprehensive and included lowering the suspension by 20mm and uprating it by retuning the spring, damper and anti-roll rates. Even the steering arms were uprated in order to improve feel. More obvious was the fitment of a new 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheel design shod with Dunlop SP Sport tyres. Gordon Sked, the former Director of Rover Cars Product Design, told the author in November 2011 that, ‘this was a large wheel size at that time and it was essential to underpin the sporting appeal of the car.’

John Dalton, who was a former Rover 800 Brand Manager, confirmed to the author in October 2002 that the Vitesse Sport programme had started in 1992 as a 1994 Model Year project and was part of a phased introduction programme. Known internally as the 200hp Vitesse, the programme was initiated by Rover Marketing to provide a ‘proper’ Vitesse for the enthusiast.

At the same time the original 180hp model would be retained as, following price realignment, it had become a very successful UK tax beater below the £19,250 company car tax threshold. The 180hp version was to have been renamed as the 820ti in line with the Vitesse’s alternative identity in Europe, and as per the smaller 620ti due to follow, although this ultimately did not happen.

After a review on whether to use the Vitesse name for all European markets, a decision was made to rename the 200hp version as the 820TS for export markets such as Italy, which was one of the biggest markets for the turbocharged variants. For the home market the Vitesse Sport did not carry a ‘sport’ identifier but instead wore the existing moulded ‘Vitesse’ badge for the bootlid/tailgate, as found on the 180hp version.

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport
Rover Vitesse badging added a touch of class

Praise from the motoring press

The engineering enhancements certainly transformed the Vitesse Sport into a car that offered a sharper sporting edge than the 180hp version and also gave it a claimed higher top speed of 143mph. Meanwhile, 60mph could now be reached nearly a second quicker at just 7.1 seconds. According to former Product Affairs Manager for Rover Group Corporate Affairs, Denis Chick, the Vitesse Sport was ‘a true Vitesse for the first time in a long time and a car that many in the know within Rover [Cars] had been waiting to be put into production.’

The motoring press also agreed, with Autocar & Motor (27 July 1994) concluding that ‘Rover has made a winner out of the car that carries its most evocative mantle.’ Carweek (21 September 1994) displayed similar sentiments declaring ‘The Vitesse isn’t just back from the dead, it’s a winner.’ Praise indeed!

With an on-the-road price of £21,995 the Vitesse Sport was £1500 more expensive than the ongoing 180hp version, although it came with a higher Trim Level 5 specification. Despite this, it still undercut the Volvo 850 T5 by £2000 not to mention most versions of the Saab 9000 2.3 Turbo fitted with the 200hp engine.

The Vitesse Sport’s launch also coincided with the availability of a ‘Lux Pack’ (as in luxury) for the Vitesse variant which could be specified on both the 180hp and new 200hp versions. Adding a further £2000 to the purchase price, the Lux Pack combined the features of ATC (automatic temperature control) air conditioning, leather seats, heated front seats and an electrically adjustable driver’s seat. This option pack also enabled buyers to choose Light Stone Beige as an alternative interior colourway to the regular Granite Grey.

Examples of the Vitesse Sport model specified in Tahiti Blue, Nightfire Red and British Racing Green paint colours would have their bodyside protection strips and bumper top sections colour-keyed with the exterior colour rather than being finished in neutral black.

John Dalton confirmed that there were plans within Rover Marketing to use the Vitesse Sport as the sporting flagship model in advertising. However, these plans which would have likely featured some catchy slogans extolling the dynamic qualities of the Vitesse Sport over its German rivals, were not to be. Presumably this was due to the recent takeover of the Rover Group by BMW and issues over pitching Rover’s VHPD directly against its new parent’s model competing in the same market sector.

Subtle enhancements plus a Coupe

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport Coupe

In March 1996 the R17 800 Series received its first major update. Unveiled for the 1996.5 Model Year, these revisions were mainly based around improved specification and the same colour and trim enhancements for the exterior and cabin already introduced on the new KV6-powered variants.

The main news concerning the Vitesse was that the 180hp engine option had now been discontinued, leaving the 200hp Vitesse Sport – now referred to as just the Vitesse – as the sole VHPD. In addition, the two-door coupe could now be specified with the 200hp turbocharged T -Series engine.

Kevin Jones, who was the Product Communications Manager for Rover Cars at the time, remembers regularly asking Marketing why there was never a performance version of the Coupe; something new Sales and Marketing Director Tom Purves was also keen to see. This was addressed with the announcement of the 800 Turbo Coupe on 12 March 1996.

Sharing the same Trim Level 8 specification as the flagship V6 Coupe, albeit without the availability of automatic transmission, the 800 Turbo Coupe had an on-the-road price of £25,995 which was £4000 more than the Vitesse. By December 1996, the Turbo Coupe’s identity had been changed to Vitesse to bring it in-line with the regular four and five-door bodystyles, although still maintaining its premium price and specification.

The 800 Vitesse continued to attract favourable interest from enthusiasts and company car drivers, with examples regularly seen displayed on the Rover Cars stand at British motor shows. This included a Nightfire Red pearlescent saloon at the NEC in 1996 and an Oxford Blue pearlescent saloon at Earls Court in 1997.

End of the road for one of Rover’s most evocative mantles

However, all good things eventually come to an end and, during the third week in September 1998, the final examples of the Rover 800 Series rolled off the assembly line at Cowley. The on-the-road price for the Vitesse was now £23,975 for all three bodystyles. For the four and five-door bodystyles the only options available were a multi CD autochanger (£500), a leather seat pack with heated front seats and electrically adjustable driver’s seat (£1,250), and metallic, pearlescent or duotone paint (£425). These prices were officially unchanged right up until the end of 1999 when the 800 Series was no longer listed in the Rover Cars price list.

Details relating to the final 800 Vitesse to be built remain undetermined due to the whereabouts of the production records continuing to be unknown. However, it is known that some of the remaining unsold examples would be registered as late as 2000, some of which attracted ‘W’ registrations.

So what about a Rover 75 Vitesse? According to Kevin Jones, the former PR and Brand Communications Manager for MG Rover Group, there were definitely no plans to bring back the name for the all-new Rover 75, let alone deliver more sporting saloons under the Rover brand.

This was disappointing as despite the inspiring efforts of the independent and renamed MG Rover Group to deliver a range of performance versions using MG as its mainstay performance brand, there was still a legion of Rover enthusiasts who mourned the passing of the Vitesse name.

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport: now a fading memory?

Rover 800 Vitesse Sport

In more recent times the 200hp 800 Vitesse has sadly become something of a forgotten performance executive car with the motoring press. Despite its noted driving attributes, few classic car publications have given it editorial coverage as a modern classic, let alone recalled how it gave the 800 Series a creditable performance ‘halo’ offering to take on the likes of the Saab 9000 and Volvo 850 T5.

And while this lack of recognition continues, quite a few examples have also been lost over the years to the modifying fraternity, some of whom have installed the heavyweight turbocharged T-Series engine into R3 Rover 200s and MG ZRs. All of which feels like a less than dignified end to one of Rover Cars’ most accomplished performance saloons and also the last one to wear the evocative Vitesse nameplate.

So, if you find a 200hp Vitesse for sale that hasn’t been ruined by the modifying fraternity and doesn’t have bodywork resembling a haggard-looking sun-worshipper in Benidorm, snap it up fast. For the money you’ll get a fitting reminder of Rover Cars’ glory days in the early 1990s when their engineers were given a free rein to transform an already likeable performance-orientated car for the thrusting executive into something even more polished.

In the meantime, join me in raising a glass in fond memory of the 200PS 800 Vitesse Sport.

My thanks to the following individuals for all their help with this article: Denis Chick, John Dalton, Ian Elliott, Kevin Jones and Gordon Sked.

4 Comments

  1. This was a nice looking edition of the 800, and it went well. I recall they seemed to suffer with their gearboxes though, as a friend of the family had one from new in Nightfire Red and I believe it went through a couple of replacement gearboxes and he wasn’t a happy chappie as a result. He liked the performance, just not the lack of reliability, unfortunately. Perhaps due to more power going through that ‘box than it was originally designed to take, despite being “uprated” as per the article).

    That kind of sums up Rover’s attempts when using its own engines though doesn’t it. Therefore, I would take the earlier 800 Vitesse with the Honda 2.7 V6 over this model any day of the week.

  2. I always liked the look of these, but I felt the interior let it down compared to the opposition. I looked at one back in the mid noughties, along with a 5 series, but it never stole my heart and so I passed and ended up with an S60.

  3. The changes to the chassis should be entirely credited to Andy ‘Kitty’ Kitson, aka ‘The Stig’ who still roams the halls of Longbridge.

    John Barker, a much respected journalist of Performance Car at the time, rated the Vitesse Sport as being better than the BTCC dominating Volvo T5 . Praise indeed.

  4. As the article mentions, the XX-generation 827 Vitesse was definitely not as inviting to drive. It also didn’t have the ‘Positive Centre Feel steering’, which was actually rather good. I’ve had my 2000 registered Sport for 18 years. Clocked up an incredible mileage, so the T16 engine capability and reliability is second to none. Gearbox admittedly, if severely pushed (or after market boost controllers are fitted), can be a weak point. However regular oil changes help here. This car was a capable fast cross country road car.

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