Kicking the habit : Project HH-R

Giving up Bangernomics is even harder than giving up smoking – and that’s a fact!

Words and Photographs: Mike Humble

My 1999 420 iL - flawed but essentialy all there

Every New Year’s Eve, at the stroke of midnight, many folks up and down the land make those resolutions. The morning after, when the drink has worn off, most have been forgotten about and quietly fade away as quick as they came. For some it’s smoking while others vow to loose a few pounds or join a gym – the latter has never appealed to me on the grounds that being in the same room with 20 other sweaty men looking each other up and down is as an attractive and appealing a proposition as throwing myself down a flight of concrete stairs. However, my bad habit is sodding around with cars and I just can’t kick it!

I recently gained a Civic Diesel as a company car but intended to keep my Rover 25 Impression S as a plaything. Unfortunately, as many of you know, the 25’s gearbox internals made a last ditch bid for the freedom of the outside world without prior warning or symptoms. I weighed up the idea of sourcing a gearbox but eventually sold the car on a spares or repair basis and settled into the new job and new car. It’s rather like the time I gave up smoking – the first few weeks was fine, but cold turkey settled in as I went through the anxiety and shakes of sheer desperation. This time, it’s not a cigarette I need to grasp in my fingers – it’s a spanner. Keith Adams is partly to blame – I’ve had withdrawal symptoms ever since the SD1 was moved on to its new (temporary) home a couple of weeks back.

Anyway, with my partner’s (reluctant) blessing, I set out looking through the free ads, on eBay and so on – all the usual mediums. One of my favourite activities is looking at online porn or, to be precise, Auto Trader. Here you will find a whole multitude of cars from overpriced rubbish through to underpriced undesirables. I can literally spend hours till I go square-eyed and get a numb bum…

My good friend, the aforementioned Mr. Adams, shoved a rather tidy Citroen BX GTi 16v under my nose and, having driven it a few months ago, I was very tempted. After doing a Wurzel Gummage and putting my sensible head on, I decided that it was not for me – that’s because, if something goes wrong, I want the car to be back on the road in a few days rather than a few weeks – BXs are not the most popular inhabitant of my local breaker’s yard.

Anyone wading through the treacle of dud cars just aching to be offloaded onto the next unsuspecting punter will see the tired cliches in the adverts such as First to see will buy, Any trial, Lovingly cared for and the up and coming Emmigration forces reluctant sale. I warn you now, be very wary of the last one. I once went to see a Volvo 740 whose lady vendor claimed her husband worked for an oil company in the North East and they were looking for a quick sale owing to fact they were moving to Saudi in three weeks time. The car was a complete pup and, needless to say, I didn’t buy it –  imagine my surprise then when we were shopping a month later in York only to see the couple walking out of Debenhams.

The key question was what did I want? I have had that many cars over the past 22 years from Audi Avants at one end of the scale through to a brace of Lada Rivas back in the early 1990s. The most rewarding /reliable cars I have run have been Saabs – older ones, of course – I wouldn’t give you tuppence for most post-2003 Saabs. The 9000 CSE Anniversary I owned oozed Swedish idiosyncracy from every pore but was as easy to live with as chocolate Labrador, the 9-3 SE Turbo went like a rocket but was as docile as a spring lamb and a 9-3 2.3 SE I piloted had so much torque that I don’t think the rev counter ever went vertical. My first “viewing” was, then, a change from the norm – a 2001 9-3 TiD SE.

Used Saabs - wonderful to own but buy with GREAT care!

The lovely thing about looking at secondhand Saabs is that the public think they are complicated, expensive or just too quirky for the norm. This is so very wrong but, thankfully, whereas your average 1998 Mondeo or Vectra will be life-expired through lack of TLC or as a result of years of abuse, older Saabs tend to be driven by “nice” people who care for their cars, love them and, most important of all, service them on the button.  Saab’s therefore tend not to be owned by the plebeians of this world and make a brilliant used purchase as values are as rock bottom as anything else of a similar vintage unless it’s a Cabrio or a mint classic pre-1993 900 Turbo. However, as with any car, it’s buyer beware and you MUST do your groundwork before you leave the house.

Anyway, after speaking on the ‘phone to a seemingly lovely chap who had a postcode to die for (a Saab owner trait), I set off to view the aforementioned diesel Saab. He had only only owned it for 7 months so some alarm bells were ringing – on the ‘phone he mentioned it had a recent steering column fitted so more alarm bells. No surprise then when, before I even started the engine, the bonnet was raised and I asked the chap to rock the steering sharply then watched the whole brake servo and master cylinder bob up and down – the bulkhead had split, a common and very serious problem. Sadly, I bid the vendor goodbye and walked away.

I reckon that over 60% of used cars, especially old clunkers, have a dark secret lurking –  it really is like walking through a minefield. Many people buy with their heart – BIG mistake, always, always buy with your gut feeling so, if it doesn’t feel right, smile and walk on. I have never professed to know it all, but I would say I know enough and have still been caught out once or thrice – it’s all part of the “fun” of buying a used car. Anyway, more looking and more searching ensued until fellow Sales Executive Steve Ward offered the chance a lovely 9-3 for peanuts but that wasn’t the right model for me (got to have my burr walnut) and I found myself veering back to my old friend, Rover.

The lovely 600 series - but only a nice, unmolested Ti flicks my switch!

To be honest, I  love the post ’96 600 series – its engineering and quality are sublime, but only the Ti floats my boat and good ones are very, and I do mean very, few and far between. The thought of an 800 Coupe passed through my mind as did a Tomcat 200 and I even considered a poorly 75 1.8 to restore and sell on – there’s enough of them out there for sure but then I saw a model I would never consider as a rule – the 400 Series. The Rover 400 always had a pedestrian image which, to a degree, was unfair. Its construction engineering was pure Honda (no bad thing) but Rover really knew how to make a silk purse as t’were – so the interior was a cut above your average medium five door class. I was hit between the eyes with three things that make me go weak at the knees – BRG Paint, burr walnut and a damn good hiding – leather variety of course!

A three hour drive later found me looking at one of the last HH-R 400 Series models made – the 420 iL. Personally, I adore the T-Series engine with its torquey bottom end grunt and mid-range punch and, if you can cure the oil leaks it’s a brilliant engine – light years ahead of the 1.8-litre K16 and 2.0-litre KV6 engines which it replaced in terms of durability and, if driven right, not bad on the fuel either. The T-Series sounds nice too, not buzzy and course but businesslike and throaty. Its PG1 gearbox has a nice shift quality too – so long as the selector bushes and linkages are not shot – though I reckon the engine is torquey enough to shave a few hundred more rpm when cruising at the legal 70mph in top, fifth seems ever so slightly low in ratio.

The steering and suspension are pretty good too, with much being said about the ride quality at launch especially on high speed runs – once again, vastly superior to the Astra or Escort of the day. Having driven so many cars over the years, you sometimes forget how good some motors are. The Peugeot 406 was unbeaten for its ride comfort – I should know, I have owned three – as was the Citroen BX, but these HH-R 400 Rovers really are a pleasant place to be – even by today’s standards. The doors close with a reassuring thunk and the switchgear, obviously from Japan, works with a feeling that it’s going to do the distance.

The interior of the iL is trimmed with leather and, as any seasoned Rover buff will know, it’s lost none of its strange yet pleasant leather and carpet smell. The boot has seen nothing but shopping bags, no scrubbed carpet, broken parcel shelf or loose odds and ends around the spare tyre – it’s genuinely like brand new. I must, though, add that all is not perfect (after all it’s a Rover) – the car was sold to me via a trader I know and comes with all the faults you expect with a T-Series-engined Rover including a leaking valve cover, a non-functioning clock and a hole in the rear silencer big enough to push a small child into.

The 2.0 T-Series - an excellent unit which weeps a dab of oil but is less prone to imploding than a K16

The front brake discs are more warped than an Abba LP that’s been left in the sunshine and the pads have so little friction material left that you could slice an uncut loaf with what’s left of them. High speed braking comes with an awful hum, groan and judder. I honestly don’t know what’s more frightening and nasty to experience – the brakes on my car or being trapped in a lift with Germaine Greer, you decide. The plug leads are soaked in oil resulting in a rather delightful low speed misfire under throttle and I know that, when I remove the pipe from the throttle body, it’s bound to be gummed up with sticky goo. Oh yes, it’s good to be on planet T-Series. The BMW-sourced CD player refuses to play thanks to a jammed disc, but I have another unit with a dodgy tuner and I have just swapped the CD drive tray over making one good wireless out of two dud ones. Oh yeah! This is what bangernomics is all about!

Unmarked County Green with Cream hide - there are worse places to sit out there!

Any redeeming features? Well, its BRG pearlescent paint is stunning and has been well kept, its leather interior with cream piping makes you remember a time when everything was okay with the world while its fit and finish is superb – not a squeak, not a rattle – a credit to the elderly couple who owned it from new covering just 52,000 miles in 12 years. The problems with the car are, in the grand scheme of things, not much to worry about and, after inspecting the brakes and exhaust, they have arisen only because the original components are life-expired. Besides, who really wants to own a Rover which doesn’t make you want to get your hands dirty once in a while? Come on, be honest now.

Bangernomics can make you and can break you, but it’s something I have adored all my adult life. Making and losing a few bob along the way is a matter of course. Some folk like the horses, while some gamble on cars but my missus won’t complain because, thanks to the long drawn out evenings, she’s in control of the TV remote!

Project HH-R is underway.

Mike Humble


  1. You really do need to know what you are doing when it comes to bangernomics. My dad served his time in the trade, but I am a mere amateur who’s skills and knowledge barely extend past basic servicing.

    My last banger (a Peugeot 406 HDi) was bought with heart-over-head after a short test drive. It never ran right, needed sensors (MAF and clutch pedal), mounts and the nearside doors were rusting badly for such a recent car (2002 vintage).

    I agree with Mike that the Peugeot 406 had a great combination of comfort and handling, but the worn engine mounts made driving smoothly a challenge. I therefore wanted my next banger to be something even more comfortable.

    A friend, who is a Citroen enthusiast, was selling one of his fleet, a mint condition 1991 XM 2.0 turbo automatic. I was initially smitten on the test drive, but found myself in a similar situation to Mike whereby I couldn’t justify running that age of Citroen as a daily runner. Luckily, the car went to another Citroen enthusiast.

    The next car on the list was a 2002 Citroen C5 2.2 HDi auto. Alarm bells should have rung when I turned up only to find the car sitting in a yard full of cars and a price in the window £500 more than it was advertised at (and me wondering if it was wise phoning beforehand to enquire whether it was still available…). The seller justified the price hike by insisting that a headlight had been changed for the MOT – it was advertised in the first ad with a year’s ticket anyway… The car itself looked okay. The early C5s won no beauty contests, but this one really did look well in black.

    However, on the test drive, while it was extremely comfortable and the autobox shifted as it should, I couldn’t help but notice the nagging error messages on the MFD. They may have been a result of the car sitting for a while or the battery being disconnected without the proper procedure. Anyway, alarm bells rang and, with the seller not wanting to discuss prices lower than halfway between the original and the post-headlight price, I walked away.

    The next car was a low mileage 2000 Honda Accord Coupe with an autobox. That was a bit of a wildcard, but it looked like it ticked most of the boxes and, from what I read, Honda reliability was spot on.

    Inside, while it was based on a US market car, it looked like Honda had learnt something about interior ambience, with tan leather and splashes of fake wood. The ride was very comfortable (and possibly un-European) but it suits the ‘relaxed cruiser’ character very well. I took the car for a good test drive on a variety of roads, made an offer and got a good price (based on a wheelarch scuff, headlight bulb and handbrake needing tightened).

    I would like to think of my Honda Accord Coupe as something of a spiritual successor to the Legend/800 Coupes. I’m happy enough in my banger and, while it does drink more fuel than the old Peugeot diesel, I’m hoping that repair bills and (hopefully) low depreciation will work on my side.

  2. It is nice to see an article about one of the frequently forgotten about runout iL editions of the 400 Series, complete with the very rare feature of County Green leather seats – in that colour combination it almost reminds me of the stillborn 425 V6 Limited Edition from 1997.

    The T-Series was, as you say, a great engine which delivered more in the way of old school low-end grunt, without sacrificing refinement too much.

    Mike’s is a really nice example.

  3. I once owned a 2002 Saab 9-3 TiD – and what a crock of SH one T it turned out to be! I suspect it had the beginnings of the split bulkhead problem, the EGR valve needed cleaning every 3-4 weeks, the turbo inlet hose split, the wheel bearings failed, the clutch failed and, best of all the turbo disintegrated, taking a couple of valves and the throttle body with it.

    I got rid of the car a year ago. I’ll still be paying off the debts I incurred trying to keep it on the road for the next three years – if you fancy buying an old Saab, AVOID THE TiD AT ALL COSTS!

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