Blog : S-Series, the missed bargain?

Steven Ward

Should the Rover 400 have been offered with the S-Series option as well? Steve Ward thinks so...
Should the Rover 400 have been offered with the S-Series option as well? Steve Ward thinks so...

As you may have read in Blogs, three teams from the AROnline family participated in the recent RatRod Rally from Calais to Romania. Two of these teams used ARG based cars, me included. Seven solid days of jousting between a 216GTi and a Montego 1.6LX over terrain which varied wildly – and I have come to a rather unusual conclusion: the Rover 400-series of 1990 should have been offered with the option of an S-Series engine.

Back in October 1989 when the Rover 200 was launched, your choice of powertrains was limited to two small, all-alloy engines of world class ability – one Rover, one Honda. Both were high revving units that punched well above their weight, even if they lacked the low end torque that had traditionally been the calling card of a British car. Rumour had it the M-Series from the 800-series was due to be fitted once someone had done a bout of metal bashing to fit the lump. However, that rumour wasn’t realised until 1991 at the earliest and even then it was GTi only for a while.

Rover couldn’t cope with demand for the Rover 200 when it was launched, and indeed for a few years after launch demand remain incredibly high. The pent-up demand was exaggerated when the old SD3 Rover 200 was discontinued for the 400 series. This was the default model for the more mature and conservative clientèle who were less interested in cars, a distinctly different clientèle to 200 series. Likewise, the fleet market, previously turned off by the dull but worthy Maestro clambered for a Rover 200 or 400. Waiting lists turned from eight to 12 weeks, unheard of since the launch of the Austin Metro. Most people were willing to wait, despite a higher than class average price tag (which wasn’t subject to negotiation either) and a somewhat mean level of standard equipment. Fleets couldn’t always wait however.

Surprisingly, some within Rover [most notably led by company boss George Simpson – Ed] felt the price of the 200/400 wasn’t steep enough and that Rover should have cashed-in when it had the chance. This seems surprising until you consider that the Honda engined cars cost Rover £1000 more to assemble that the K-Series equivalent. When Rover went back to Honda and begged for more engines, somebody should have questioned why they weren’t looking at the tried and tested solution sitting on the engineering shelf. An option which was still acceptable to the public, especially in 400-series format.

During development, a number of prototype R8s were fitted with the S-Series engine. In Rover 216 (SD3) format, it was also fuel injected to great effect. Fleets liked it for its punchy performance and low running costs, the older generation liked it for its effortless verve. Here was an engine for the vast majority of the British public – driven best in the meat of its torque curve. There was no 16-valve nonsense to contend with, but it had the delightful manners of a car with fuel injection. It was also a ‘safe engine’ meaning if the rubber timing belt snapped, no engine damage occurred, unlike pretty much everything else on the market.

The S-Series was mated to the VW gearbox for Maestro and Montego, and Honda’s PG1 ‘box (built under licence by Rover) for later Montego and SD3. So there wasn’t even a need to tool-up for a new bell housing unless Rover wanted to mate it to the R65 gearbox (a beefed-up PSA unit built under licence) as per 214. These cost savings could have paved the way for a standard PAS fitment on these cars. This would have appealed to the older clientèle and the fleet user choosers.

You see, the 400 saloon started to struggle very early on in its life. Many considered 1.4 engine to be too small for the size of car. And it felt that way – unless you liked to thrash it to get genuine performance – something which its target audience didn’t care to do. It was also hard work without PAS. So for the R8 400 to be acceptable to the Hyacinth Bucket brigade, you needed to order the 1.6 and you needed to specify PAS – and yet you still got windy windows and flat paint with grey bumpers. Of little concern was the fact you lost a staid solid rear axle for a sexy multi-link affair – the cost to change from SD3 to R8 was still very steep. Too steep for many loyal customers, especially since some of whom, still, would rather buy a British engine over a Japanese one.

The argument about equipment levels, heavy steering and additionally, high fuel consumption figures also applied to the dominant fleet buyers. The 416 could be great on fuel, but frequently wasn’t. An 820 was a much more economical motorway tool. So although the 1.6 Honda D-series was the thinking man’s choice of R8 powertrain throughout its successful production run, it wasn’t without its faults.

Servicing costs were also theoretically high; 6k intervals, expensive Honda filters and tappets that should have been adjusted every 24k were out of kilter with the times. Look at what Ford, Vauxhall and VW were offering to see where I’m going here. The S-series was right with them on costs, servicing and power delivery more than K- or D-Series was. Lets not ignore the Volvo 300 and 400-series which were a major competitor to the 400 in private sales.

What I’m suggesting is that Rover should have launched the 400 series with a fuel-injected S-Series engine for the OAPs and cost conscious Fleet Buyer. Standard PAS, standard electric windows, standard fuel injection. This would have enabled dealers to mop-up additional demand and retain all existing customers instead of casting those with a tight budget and set ideas aside, additionally build rates would have also increased with the availability of extra powertrains.

Not everyone was fussed over 16-valves and featherlight, advanced construction. Whats more the D-series was starting to play-up in service; high oil consumption in random engines was starting to concern Rover, enough for them to start pestering Honda. Who ignored the fault and continued to supply the odd duff engine.

Some may say Rover, the new brand, the new image, was right to have cast aside anything from the old BL days. After all, the S-series was based on a crackers Issigonis ideal from the 1960s. For some, the ’60s and E was a bad trip…

However, Rover cheapened the 214 by dropping 8-valves and fuel injection for a period and fitting 155 tyres to no effect. Surely the S-series wouldn’t have been this desperate a move or cheapened the brand as much? Finally, consider this; a team within Cowley had developed a S-series with 16-valves. Rover had the ability and concept to save £1k per car and sell more of cars sitting right on the shelf all along. £1000 per car in the early ’90s was not to be sniffed at.

What has drove me to write these thoughts, is the time I recently spent comparing the Rover 216 GTi with the Rover Montego 1.6LX. Really, theres very little in it for the most part. The S-Series is acceptably refined below 5000rpm, its very economical and its nice to drive. Certainly leagues ahead of a CVH equipped Orion which was a big rival at the time.

Also consider this; the twin cam D-Series in the Rover 416 GTi produced 105lb ft at 5700 rpm. The fuel injected S-Series in the old 216 gave 102lb ft at 3500 rpm. This speaks volumes to prove my point – it’s doubtful anyone with any mechanical sympathy would ever rev a S-Series to 5700 rpm, so to replace it with an engine that was getting into its stride when the old unit was calling a halt to proceedings was a bit daft really.

Keith Adams


  1. I’d say the reason that most of the volume players kept their 8v power plants was because they’d not actively developed any small/medium sized engines since the 80s. Ford’s CVH, Peugeot’s TU and vauxhall’s 8v units were integrated families covering 1.0-1.6 (or thereabouts) with lots of shared components, meaning using them in the MK 5 escort, 306 and Astra (each a development of an older model) was a no-brainer. The 200/400 was as close as Rover group had got to a “clean sheet” design in the middle sector since the maestro and montego, and it made sense to engineer it to only use the latest M/T and K series units.

    I’ve not had the opportunity to try an EFi S-series engine, but judging from the carb model I would agree it has a healthy slog of torque, but it feels strangled higher up and like and engine from the late 70s, which it unfortunately is. Ford saw the need for 16v engines in its range and, by 92/93 had launched their own twin-cams (the only mondeo 8v was a diesel). Also, Rover were aiming to be something above the Ford/vauxhall level, and having modern, refined engines was a part of this attack.

    A “half-way house” may have been to use the 1.4 8v K-series with MEMS, or even to develop the “sabotage” 1.6 K-series block earlier and use that.

  2. How would a single point injection S Series have fitted into this hierarchy? I’d guess it would be no more powerful than the 85bhp carburettor version, therefore less powerful than the 1.4 twin cam K series.

    I think a lot of people went for the Honda engine not just for the extra capacity, but for its origin. Honda engines were regarded as indestructible, whereas an all-new, very advanced Rover was very much an unknown quantity.

    It all comes down to vulgar money. The reported figures were £1700 to buy a D series from Honda, against £700 to make a K series. Anyone’s guess where an S series fits in. However, would Honda, who were very much driving the YY show , have countenanced supplying only 10-20% of the engines?

  3. The power may not have been very different, but I would guess that tractability and MPG would be better with single point injection, and of course, cold starting would be much improved!

  4. On Robert’s final point, not so long afterwards, Honda were insisting that 600 should be fitted with their engines only. Also, BAe weren’t keen to spend money where they could avoid it, so why pay to develop an s-engined R8 when there was a D-series that needed no further investment? A pity though – it sounds like it would have been a nicer, more flexible drive.

  5. I own a jreg 3dr sohc 216 gti but it has just done 100k goes like a train vgood mpg does not use a drop of oil what more is their to say. i keep a dizzy in the boot.

  6. Suppose it was all down to marketing. More valves = more power etc.

    Wonder if they could have found a use for that grizzly old 8v O-series?

  7. @JH Gilson

    In two litre form I can’t see a rationale for it (less power than the new twin cams, not very refined) but in reduced 1.6/1.7 form you could argue for it, but again, you have the same problems of refinement and expense (at least the S was a “natural” 1.6). You could argue that the perkins prima should have been fitted though.

    Another what-if is why did Rover not develop a 1.8 capacity unit to sit between the honda 1.6es and the M/Ts at the top of the range? A sleeved/short stroke M/T would have been a great asset, and would have probably meant that the 1.8 K would not have been developed.

  8. trouble is at the time 16valve was the buzz word. Most car buyers didn’t know what the techical difference between 8 and 16v was, only that more is better. Most still don’t know, as car enthusiasts we often forget that.

    It would have been hard to sell an 8valve engine which would have been sold at a higher price than a smaller 16valve engine.

  9. Even though the S-Series was dated by the time the R8 appeared on the scene, was a 1.8 version of the S-Series engine ever considered?

  10. Intersting point. An S-Series injection would have been an appealing option to those wanting a more relaxed, less revs drive. I think, however, it’s a very minor ‘might have been’ lost in the huge success story that the R8 was. You could take virtually any car and say maybe they should have offered this version or that variant.

  11. Robert Leitch makes the point that, reading this article, I had considered. Whilst the S series does stack up well as a possibility, Honda were supplying the D16 to Rover for this car – and would Honda have been willing to reduce the number of engines they supplied? The only alternative would have been two R8 1.6 options – which would have undoubtedly been confusing for the buyer and the mechanic unless Rover had adopted the BMW tactic of badging its cars with the wrong engine sizes.

    I think the biggest ‘what if’ here is one that Steven suggested earlier in the year. Why could more not have been made of the Maestro and Montego ranges? Restyle them to fit in with the corporate look, replace the A series with a 1.4K, give Maestro the new Montego interior, throw the kitchen sink at them and market THESE to the blue rinsers and the fleet markets – leaving R8 as an aspirational item.

  12. Good article! It raises the question of the value of these joint partnerships Rover did; how much did Rover really get from Honda? Sure, new bodyshells and work practises, but was that worth 1,000 quid an engine more?

    FWIW, I feel the S-series showed the mistake of developing the K-series at all. The K- was brilliant in some ways, but it cost 500m quid in the 1980s – think what that cash could have done to develop the E4 and E6 engines into S-variants and with BL gearboxes. Cut the pricey outsourced (and unreliable VW) gear out. Especially if there was a 16v S-head in the wings.

    A bit like the T-series; was it really necessary to swap the T- for the K-engines? Given the known head gasket faults on the K? (Un)reliability played a large part in killing MG Rover eventually.

    A bit more on the 16v S-series head would be nice. Didn’t know about that… 🙂

  13. Weights as follows – possibly not an entirely clean comparison:

    ARG S series – 275lbs
    Honda D series SOHC – 235lbs
    Honda D series DOHC – 249lbs
    Rover K series – 215lbs
    Rover T series – 380lbs
    Austin A series – 250lbs

    Another unrelated thought – the S series was killed off by the impending Euro 1 emissions standards in 1993. Where there’s a will there’s a way in these cases, but it may have been that the odd angled valve combustion chamber would not have helped.

    The twin cam head for the S series would have solved that problem, and would have diversified the armoury for Rover’s post-Honda future.

    • Is it known what the weight is for the E-Series engine in both 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder forms?

      A Twin-Cam 16-valve S-Series would have made for an interesting comparison with the 1.6 Honda D engine used in the R8, the former roughly matching the latter in 115-122 hp form is certainly a possibility though not sure about it matching the latter in further tuned 125-130 hp form as used in the Rover 216 GTi without utilizing forced induction (as done on the 150 hp 1.6 Janspeed Rover 216 Vitesse Turbo).

      Also fascinated by what the dieselized 1.6 S-Series planned in the AR6 was capable of in both NA and turbocharged forms, particularly how it would compare with the similar 1.6 Volkswagen EA827 diesel as well as the 2.0 Perkins Prima / L-Series engines.

  14. If I recall, the 1.6 S delivered 85bhp – and 105bhp in injected form when added to the range in 1985. Very good in the original 200 series saloon. However the 1.4 K engine in the R8/400 cars was 103ps, so I cant see why owners thought it would be underpowered.

    I agree that putting 1.6 S engines into the range would have been a useful alternative selling point, but by then Rover were promoting 16 valve technology – werent they?

  15. Perhaps another avenue to explore would have been to negotiate Honda’s 1.5 SOHC engine in as the ‘Honda Option’ as found in their Concerto, thus leaving development room for the S-series to twin-cam and earlier introduction of the M-series as the range topper 16v

  16. Unless Honda were being rather more altruistic in the pricing of the EV2 than later on, it seems entirely possible that the 1.6 litre SD3s cost less to make than the 1.3.

  17. What I don’t think I’ve made clear enough in my article is that Rover had agreed to purchase a set volume of D-series powertrains for use in R8. However, within a few months of launch and in anticipation of the 400 debut, Rover had to go back to Honda and beg for more powertrains -way above the initially agreed amount. At this point, the S-series should have been applied to 400 as according to internal market research these customers could care less about 16 valves. While having two 1.6 engines could confuse the stupid, Vauxhall sucessfully managed to sell both 8 and 16 valve 2.0 litre engines in identical Cavalier bodyshells.

  18. I’m intrigued by the £700 for a K series, and £1700 for a D series when good old Uncle Henry was selling Zetec’s (‘nee Zeta’s) to the general public for just 20% more. So why not get Ford to make your engines for you?

  19. The comparison to the Cavalier there is a good one I suppose the model designation would be more confusing thats all. i.e they’re all Caveliers to the buyers regardless of engine size, however people at the time to my recollection didn’t see themselves as buying a Rover 400, they saw it as a 414, 416 etc, so there’d be 2 416’s 1 8v 1 16v.
    I suppose another way could have quite simply to, as you’ve said, put the D-series in the 216 and the S-series solely in the 416

  20. @Andrew Elphick: let us not forget that, some years previously, Ford was interested in buying Rover principally to get a hold of the K series for its own use.

  21. In fuel injected form the S series put out 104 BHP and I have very fond memories of driving a 216 Vitesse. That engine may well have suited the R8 400 series. However given the huge range of body varients offered I think it is a shame that Rover didn’t consider a fastback version of the 400 which would have competed so successfully with the Cavalier hatch. The S series efi should also have gone into the Montego late in life and the T series to give more performance and help maintain fleet interest for no real outlay in costs.

  22. all they needed to do was develop a new head, balance the engine up to 7000rpm and they would have had a more advanced engine whilst not going overboard on cost. At least this would have worked as a stopgap when the R8 was in production. Similar power figures to the D series could be achieved but much more torque available through the rev range.

    This could have given more time for the K-series to be developed properly as a larger capacity engine and the problems we see now, ironed out.

  23. Or perhaps Rover should have got their finger out and brought the 1.6 K series to the market more quickly. An 8 valve version of this would have satisfied fleet buyers.

  24. The original 1.4K developed 94 bhp.
    My dad bought an SD3 1.6 because:
    a) it would be a more relaxing drive;
    b) 12 valves were too many!
    Well, he was a chemist. My mum was the engineer.

  25. Peugeot put a 16v head on their TU engines, they soldiered on for years in 306s, Xantias, 406s etc.

    The ’16v’ badging was big even up through the turn of the millenium, when it became like ‘ABS’ badging, phased out as everyone had it!

    The Ford Zeta was an absolute disaster (I owned one). CVH was the tried-and-tested basic option.

    Rover could have done like BMW do now, use the model digits almost as spec, with a slight nod to the actual engine size.
    Rover 215 = 8 valve 1.6
    Rover 216 = 16v 1.6
    or 216/217?

    My pick of the bunch would be the XUD diesel, the R8 was one of the classiest applications this engine was ever outsourced to.

  26. All that was needed was a couple of tweaks on production tollerances to cure the oil leak and breather problems and maybe re engineer to include hydraulic lifters to keep abreast of the rivals spec and like you say Steve, a bargain power unit.

    The long stroke in relation to the D series may have required a different sump to keep the block height agreeable for the R8, but the torque figures show a far better spread of power over the D series.

    The only worry would have been the perception of the range without the Honda input with so many years of questionable quality beforehand. Would the press and public have been so universally applauding?… we will never know, but from a mechanical, sales & ownership background, I have a lot of respect for the S series!

  27. “However the 1.4 K engine in the R8/400 cars was 103ps, so I cant see why owners thought it would be underpowered”

    because like all small capacity engines, they lack low down torque when compared to a larger capacity engine of the same bhp. ie. you have to rev the crap out of the 1.4 to take advantage of the power. So in order to overtake for example you had to change down and push the revs through the roof, whereas the larger capacity units would allow you just to boot it and go.

    Take for example a fire engine weighs 12 tonnes and has about a 250-300bhp 12 litre engine, The Range Rover TDV8 offers a similar power output with a 3.6 litre engine, but if you put the Range Rover engine in a fully laden fire engine it would be as gutless as hell.

  28. I almost bought a K plate 414 recently – I didn’t like the lack of PAS, but it didn’t seem too underpowered to me. The S in the 400 – seems it could’ve been a good idea, I assume the S was/would be cheaper than the K or D – either making more ££££s for Rover, or (rather) a cheaper car for the punter…

    Which brings me to the Cavaliers mentioned above 🙂 Yes initially the 16v Cavs were the GSi’s, but after the GSi was phased out and the Turbo phased in the GSi’s 16v engine appeared in the SRi for a few years – sold along side the old and cheaper 8v SRi, before the new ecotecs were launched. Differences were minor (engines aside) – interior trim/spec and different alloy wheel designs, but otherwise they were identical. So it can be done!

  29. If you think ARG / Rover’s engine portfolio was messy, Honda had the following four cylinders in production around 89-91:

    A series 1.6-2.0 litres
    B series 1.6-2.0 litres
    D series 1.3-1.7 litres
    E series 1.2-1.8 litres
    F series 1.8-2.3 litres

    And then there were the five cylinder G series and the C series V6 both available in 2 litre capacities.

  30. Vauxhall also did it slightly later in the Mk3 Astra with the 1.4 Hi and Lo torq engines (62 & 80PS if memory servs)So they didnt care about confusing,Renault also did it in the Megane with their 1.6i and 1.6e engines.

  31. Having had a HHR 1.4 and a month in a brand new Corsa 1.4 and feel qualified to comment. Both had to me thrashed hard uphill compared to my 306 1.8 which pulls along much more strongly in 4th & 5th.

  32. Still have great memories of my 216 Vitesse. Great engine as long as you didn’t thrash it too much. Would have been a great option if the engine mountings had been developed to give the right refinement. Apart from the odd cam cover leak that is…..

  33. “The long stroke in relation to the D series may have required a different sump to keep the block height agreeable for the R8, but the torque figures show a far better spread of power over the D series.”

    But the D-series is yet more undersquare than the S-series.

    D-series: bore 75mm, stroke 90mm
    S-series: bore 76.2mm, stroke 87.6mm.

    The tragedy, I suppose, is that £150 million of taxpayers’ money was spent developing a super-light 1-litre to 1.3-litre engine for a car that was never to appear when Rover’s real need was for a competitive engine in the mid-market.

  34. not living in England – I’m from Australia, I’m looking at the s series head as a swap for my morris 1500. a Leyland Australia 1100/1300 with an e series in it.
    Looking at all the s series info on the net ive found 2 sets of conflicting info one saying the r series head is alloy and the s series has bigger intake ports and is alloy, and the other info saying that the heads were only cast iron.
    Can someone please me what the truth is ?
    thx -Daniel.

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