As the relative hoopla surrounding the quarter century racked up by the Rover R8 (200/400) this week dies down, I feel that it’s down to me to restore a little balance to proceedings. As you can see, it’s going to be a little ditty to the original Rover 200 series (which was nicknamed the SD3 within the company), introduced in 1984 – and therefore hitting its 30th anniversary.
Thanks to rapidly diminishing numbers, and a sense of apathy, in the wider world, this fine little car seems to have been left in the lay-by of history, which I think is a bit disappointing. Yes, when it was rolled out in June 1984, to replace the Triumph Acclaim, the Rover 200 came as a bit of a shock, not least because this was the first ‘small’ Rover to hit the blocks since the ill-fated Rover M1 prototype of 1945.
The decision to drop Triumph in favour of Rover for this thinly-disguised Honda Ballade raised a few eyebrows, but in the crazy world of Austin-Rover of the early-1980s, this decision made sense. After all, marketing Rover and Austin was challenging enough – adding Triumph into the mix – despite the Acclaim’s success – would have been a tough call. Even if the Rover 200 was more of a replacement for the Triumph Dolomite than the Acclaim ever was.
The first year of Rover 200 production was reserved for the 213. This version was powered by Honda’s sweet 1342cc 12-valve power unit, which delivered excellent performance and refinement – as well as a memorable near-silent idle. The earliest cars were offered in ARG-generic colour palettes, and in S, SE and Vanden Plas forms – and despite being pitched as a niche model, sales straight out of the blocks were strong.
Then, in May 1985, the range was included to include the 216. The new variation was powered by ARG’s new S-Series engine, which had debuted in the Montego just a month earlier (and also making it into the Maestro weeks later). It was based on the old R-Series power unit, which in turn was really a tweaked E-Series, but thanks to careful development by BL Powertrain, it produced excellent power and fuel consumption figures. And today, it should be viewed as one of the unsung heroes of the whole story.
In addition to the usual ‘cooking’ 200s, a new range-topping variant was unveiled at the S-Series launch – the 216 Vitesse. Trading on the excellent Indian Summer reputation of the go faster SD1, ARG hoped that a similarly tweaked 200 would add glamour to the range. To ensure it lived up to the name, the 216 Vitesse received a Lucas fuel-injected version of the S-Series, boosting power outut from 86 to 105bhp – enough to match the Ford Orion 1.6i Ghia. Subtle front and rear spoilers were added, as were houndstooth patterned seats and natty cross-spoke alloys. Combined with the better colours in the SD1 line-up, the once frumpy Anglo-Japanese saloon suddenly looked rather appealing.
And as we know, sales picked up markedly from this point – so much so, that following the Roverisation facelift of 1987, which brought in a wider-opening boot, centre console and improved interior, it sealed the future of the company. The 200 ended up eclipsing the underachieving Montego in the sales charts and redefined ARG’s Rover-only future direction, sidelining the runt of the old Austin car parc.
Thirty years on, if you see a 200 on the road, you’re going to be very lucky indeed. They’ve not really been a survivor, thanks to rampant rust and other fragilities, and keeping one MoT worthy is a much harder job than it is with the more solid (and widely-supported) Maestro or Montego. So I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to borrow this wonderfully-preserved 1985 216 Vitesse from car-collecting friend John Corbett. The car in question is rather special, too – having notched up a mere 34,000 miles, and showing BL Powertrain boss and architect of the K- and M-Series engines, Roland Bertodo, on the original invoice and receipts.
It’s incredibly original, with very little sign of corrosion, and other than the later, non-standard stereo, it’s pretty much as it was when it left Longbridge. Driving it today is a fascinating experience – first impressions are dominated by its tininess on the road and light, slim-pillared interior. The low scuttle line results in terrific forward visibility, and the clear instrumentation. When I fire it up, the S-Series unit sounds honest, a little lumpy, and sucks a pleasingly bassy induction note. I like it. The PG1 gearbox is also smooth shifting, and feels as it should.
I should say at this moment that I have incredibly nostalgic feelings for the 200. It’s the car I learned to drive in, and then pass my test first time, and then I spent many happy afternooon bombing around in my mate’s (mum’s) Vitesse during the summer of ’87 while I studied my A-levels at Bispham Tech in Blackpool. Good times… And as I head for the A1 in this one, those memories of times long gone, come flooding back. Perhaps I need a trip back to Blackpool in this one – don’t count against it.
Accelerating to motorway speeds, the engine’s strong mid-range torque delivers surprisingly punchy acceleration. Up to 70mph, it’s quick and, although slightly busy once up to speed, such is its urge and shortish gearing, heading into licence endorsing territory is a little too easy. Would I want to use this on a daily basis, driving up and down the country? You bet! It’s not perfect, though. The suspension is choppy, with far too little travel for your average rough British B-road, and the dampers struggle to keep it under tight control. In this department, especially, a Montego would leave this car for dead.
But I have to say that overall, I really do like this car – and completely understand why so many 1980s buyers bought these instead of Maestros and Montegos. The interior was tight, the chassis settings average at best, but it was a classy package, wearing a badge with plenty of executive kudos, and that’s why it set such solid foundations for the R8 that followed.
I hope that, as the years pass, the SD3’s place in history will be more readily recounted – but, right now, I’m enjoying driving a great example of one car that really means quite a lot to me. If you see me around, give me a wave!