Former Rover Engineer, John Batchelor, recalls his best moments working for Rover Cars, and some of its most interesting projects.
Enjoy his recollections of working in Japan as well as Longbridge, and some insightful observations about collaboration with Honda.
I’ve been lucky to work in the British car industry my entire working career but, at the beginning most people I knew thought I was making a big mistake. Joining British Leyland didn’t seem like the best career move at the end of the 1970s!
I’d always been interested in technical stuff at school and took the notion that working on cars was what I wanted to do, so applied for the only two Automotive Engineering degrees on offer and to the UK’s car manufacturers for sponsorship. With okay A-Level results, I was able to join Jaguar Rover Triumph and study at Loughborough University from 1980.
I was interested in aerodynamics, probably due to the fact that our next-door neighbour worked in the Hawker Siddeley wind tunnel at Brough, and was able to work in that department during my placements. Part of the job for the ‘new kid’ was benchmarking competitor cars and obtaining final data for production cars in the MIRA wind tunnel – this is where I first came across the SD3 213/216. When I joined the Aerodynamics Department full-time, I then did some of the aero development work on the HPD (High Performance Derivative), aka the 216 Vitesse.
A change is good as a rest
After 18 months in the Aerodynamics Department, I fancied a change and was lucky enough to be offered a role in the Chassis Department working on the rear suspension of the XX project, the Rover 800, so I moved from Canley in Coventry to the Drawing Office at Longbridge in 1985.
I must have worked well enough as, after nine months, I was ushered into one of the manager’s offices and asked if I would be interested in joining the project team that was working the next Rover ‘medium’ car. I was, even when I was then told that I would need to be in Japan in two weeks’ time… and I’d be working as a Steering Engineer. At 24, you’re game for anything.
The team had already been working for six months on the concept of the joint Rover/Honda project, referred to as the AR8 by Rover (this was changed to ‘R8’ when Austin Rover became Rover Group) and YY by Honda, and were moving from Honda’s Waco plant, in Tokyo, to the new Honda R&D centre at Tochigi to start on the detailed engineering design of the first prototypes.
Off to Japan
I was lucky enough to spend nearly six months in Japan along with up to 40 other Rover Engineers. Honda lent us several cars and minibuses to travel to and from our hotel in the nearby city of Utsunomiya. These include a Jaguar XJ6 and a Rover SD1 Vanden Plas, both of which had been gifts from BL to Honda on the signing of previous deals, probably the Acclaim and Rover 213 (SD3) programmes.
We got into trouble with the local police, as we were unknowingly parking them illegally, which resulted in a trip to the local police station with one of the hotel’s receptionists to sort things out. As a solution, I went to the local Shinto Shrine to discuss using their car park, which was busy during the day but empty at night when we needed to use it. I ended up negotiating rates with a fully-robed priest on a paper napkin – I bet neither of us had had any training for that sort of thing!
The Rover team all stayed in one hotel, The Washington (below), for 13 weeks during the summer of 1986 but, whilst the hotel coped well, it wasn’t really equipped for the needs of long-term guests, especially tall ones – the single beds weren’t long enough and the double beds were, if you slept diagonally, but there weren’t enough to go around, so there needed to be a rotation system when people left.
Not playing fair at football
We also had a game of football with Honda after somebody came up with the idea of the two groups of Engineers playing against each other. This must have been ‘lost in translation’ as the printed programme we were given on the morning of the game consisted of a Honda team we recognised none of the names of. This was because it was the Honda Football team being bussed up from Tokyo to play us, all about 23 years-old and fit, unlike a bunch of Engineers from the UK…
It should have been a very one-sided match but, of course, it ended up in a very honourable 3-3 draw.
The relationship between the Rover and Honda teams was generally excellent, with everyone dedicated to finding one design solution rather than going separate ways, as was the case on the Rover 800/Honda Legend ‘joint’ project – both companies learned their lesson with that approach.
But playing fair in design
Standards were compared and discussed and the best solution agreed, with Standards being modified to benefit from the learning. The only exception to this was with Powertrains. Honda was not prepared to use the new K-Series engine as the smaller of the engines and stuck with a proven 1.4-litre of its own.
There was brief cheering from the Honda team when it was announced to a joint meeting that Austin Rover had dropped development of the planned ‘S16’ engine – a DOHC version of the S-Series – and would instead be taking the Honda 1.6-litre D16 engines.
Interestingly, one standard that Honda wouldn’t change was resistance to corrosion – its 960-hour salt-spray standard was significantly more stringent than Rover’s but was quickly adopted as we all knew the car would be better because of it.
It meant that European suppliers had to invest heavily in new paint facilities to meet it. This, plus Honda‘s use of better-coated fixings, is why these cars are still easier than many to keep running and work on. (Even though many of the fixing are one-size too small for easy removal)
Learning from the Japanese
Another area that improved was that of machining tolerances such as the adoption of ‘assembly-machined’ front brake discs and hubs to reduce brake run-out and improve brake judder. This was a shock to some of the older manufacturing team members, but the investment required was made and again the cars were better for it. I remember being told that the existing equipment was ‘good enough for Marina and Maxi’.
When there were some queries about Honda’s aero test results, I was asked to view their facilities and advise if the results were credible. Unsurprisingly, they were and their aero models were beautifully detailed.
At the end of the design phase, Honda arranged an evening in a local ‘wedding palace’ (below), where Japanese wedding receptions are held – and a very enjoyable evening was had by all.
After the first prototypes for both companies had been built the project largely transferred to the UK and Honda set up Engineering Offices in Bromsgrove but spent much of their time at Longbridge with the Rover Engineers in the Joint Engineering Team (JET), pictured top of the page, based in the New Model Centre.
Both sides learnt a lot during the development and lots of friendships were made, some of which continue to this day. During the later stages of the R8 programme I moved through several roles, including Steering Development, and eventually took over running the Medium Cars’ Brakes Design Team just before the launch of the R8 in September 1989.
Rover Cars Engineering was split into three teams with Medium Cars covering R8, Large Cars covering 800 (and later 600) and Small Cars, Mini and Metro. During a subsequent re-organisation, I took over running the Medium Car Chassis Team which delivered the three-door, diesel and 2.0 M16 derivatives and then the Cabriolet and Coupe versions into production. This included being present for the Coupe’s record-breaking ‘Tomcat Affair’ 24-hour run at Millbrook in September 1992.
Moving on to the next generation
After a delay caused by the takeover of Rover by British Aerospace (BAe), it was decided to continue the development of a smaller vehicle to sit below the larger jointly-developed-with-Honda HH-R, which was to become the Rover 400. The ‘SK3’ project was supported by Honda R&D, but was to produce a Rover-only model.
It seemed inappropriate to continue to use the SK3 codename for the new project so we were thinking of new ones and I’m pretty sure I suggested the use of ‘R3’ as it fitted in with the other Rover Cars programmes, although it did cause it little confusion with the PR3 (MGF) project.
The R3 programme was installed in the top floor of the South Engineering Block at Longbridge, alongside the HH-R team, with the PR3 on the ground floor. These three cars made up the 1995-96 Longbridge ‘Portfolio’. The major challenges on this project were size (being rather too close to the HH-R) and cost.
Rover R3 strategy decisions
With the R3 sitting between the Metro and the 400 price, costs had to be very carefully controlled, as did tooling costs as BAe were very tight with funding. One of the first tasks was to replace the highly effective but overly complex, space consuming and expensive R8 rear suspension with a simpler H-frame.
This design used much of the original tooling used to produce parts for the Maestro/Montego, but with a new ‘twist’ of angled mounting bushes to improve on the older cars handling tendencies. I joined the project after the SK3 stage and took the car to Job 1 with a small team who worked incredibly well together and produced a car that we were all excited by.
During this period BAe sold Rover Group to BMW and, although it didn’t seem to affect our project, it certainly did affect the HH-R team, with the relationship with Honda being strained whilst they continued towards their Job 1. BMW kept very much in the background during this period – in fact, they stayed so far away, we had no idea what their opinion of our new car was.
Moving on from the R3
The launch took place in Rapallo, Italy with the first evening of UK journalists featuring in one episode of the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary ‘When Rover met BMW’. It was also the night of the infamous Panorama programme featuring Lady Diana Spencer’s interview which completely distracted the vast majority of the journalists from our new car…
Following the completion of the R3 programme in early 1996 I saw an internal vacancy for an engineering role in Japan, which I was attracted to because of the time I’d spent in Japan a decade earlier. I was offered the role, lived in Yokohama for three years and was able to take my family back to visit Utsunomiya and the Tochigi prefecture.
The ‘Rover-ised’ updates for the HH-R and R3, the 45 and 25, were in development back in the UK at this time and I was involved with them by advising how best to make the cars suitable for the Japanese domestic market. This included things like how annoying a roof-mounted radio aerial is for Japan, as it has to be removed when parking in the very common rotary car parks and it’s a long reach!
We didn’t manage to change that, but we did manage to keep folding door mirrors in the Discovery 2 programme, as they wouldn’t have sold without them. They then came in handy for many other markets.
I spent most of my early career working on medium-sized Rover projects and thoroughly enjoyed the time, so much so that I’ve owned five R8s and now use an R3 as my every day car. I have recently bought a Turbo Coupe, as 2022 is the 30th anniversary of its launch. They do get you that way!
If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!
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