Our Cars : Say hello to the Project Rover 416 GSi

The ancient Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 BC), reputedly said “the only thing constant in life is change.” 

How very true – and, in the spirit of AROnline bangernomics, Mike Humble and Neil Rapsey have been posting yet more V5 documents to Swansea in a scenario that’s very familiar to readers…

We have been here before. We didn't half take some stick from our partners!
We have been here before. We didn’t half take some stick from our partners!

I won’t try to dress it up or beat about the bush here but I just couldn’t bond with the recent Rover 75. I’ll argue the fact till the cows come home, but the post-2004 Rover 75 is a tragically inferior car to the models and versions that came before it. It seems that anything and everything had been cut out, trimmed back or deleted in order to save MG Rover massive savings in production costs. From a business point of view you cannot blame them, the company was bleeding more money by the second than a novice in a Las Vegas casino – and we all know the outcome that followed in April 2005, don’t we?

Anyway, as much as I really appreciated the gutsy performance of the 148bhp 1.8-litre K-Series turbo and the fact that it seemed to use barely any more fuel than the 120PS version, the love just wasn’t there even after a few months of ownership. My reasoning was that maybe I set the bar too high. The 2002 75 Club SE most of you will be familiar with was pretty much as good as one could get mechanically speaking and all of the cost-cutting Project Drive items had been lovingly put back into the car. Plainly put, I simply couldn’t put my heart and soul into going through the same time-consuming toils on the newer car.

Meanwhile, some many light years away from leafy Horsham, way out west in South Wales, Neil Rapsey had bought an unloved and slightly tatty Rover 400 saloon from a trader. He had brought the car back to life after a considerable period of being parked up – and done a damn fine job of it, too. The other half and I recently spent some time down there celebrating his wife’s birthday and this was the first time I had seen the car since last year’s Peterborough show. Being a total sucker for a pretty-looking R8 and, despite the fact this one’s an auto, I quietly fell in love with the little thing that I have always jokingly called the model the thinking man’s Montego.

Here she is - a 1993 416 GSi automatic with 73,000 miles.
Here she is – a 1993 416 GSi automatic with 73,000 miles

Throwing an idea out there, I half-jokingly mentioned we could always swap cars for a giggle again – our respective partners both sighed and slowly shook their heads in knowing what may lie ahead. So fast forward a few weeks, and we both find ourselves taking another hand-over picture on the driveway. Neil never really recovered from parting with his last 75 so he is happy, while I get back into the seat of what was possibly Rover’s high watermark – the R8 Series Rover 200/400 model. It marks a change of direction for myself as it’s the first Honda-powered Rover I have ever owned and the second automatic – despite the fact it’s also my 70th BL – Rover branded car.

So, what’s the score so far? Well, it’s been pressed straight into daily smoker mode and required no further expenditure than a few gallons of petrol at the moment. It’s got a few squeaks, creaks and rattles though nothing that a fettle session with a small tool kit can’t sort. Performance could be better though, with every commute to work it becomes that little bit more lively – it spent many years parked up idle in a past incumbency. I’ve just thrown in a bottle of fuel treatment and a damn good hiding to and from work locking out top gear has transformed the drive in just over 50 miles. An endoscope view shows some carbon build up on the valves, though this will be sorted before long.

Virtually unmarked interior is improved thanks a BMW business head unit, Illuminated MGF interior mirror and Rover 25 wood effect heater surround with Streetwise heater control panel. For an old car she's amazingly refined at speed with an agreeable ride quality too.
Virtually unmarked interior is improved upon thanks to a BMW business head unit, illuminated MGF interior mirror and Rover 25 wood-effect heater surround with Streetwise heater control panel. For an old car she’s amazingly refined at speed with an agreeable ride quality, too

Other items which require attention include some minor fettling on the rear brakes, an annoying rattle from the sunroof blind, some slight adjustment of the boot lock and a general tidy up of the bodywork. All in all, Neil has done a cracking job so far and I can’t wait to get stuck right in to take it to the next level. Being Honda-powered, it’s a hoot to whip around in and, when you mash the pedal into the cut pile it roars like hell, sounding just the same as a mate’s old Honda CRX – mind you, it should do as it’s the same engine type. Even though its a four speed giffer-matic gearbox that saps a fair bit of the available 115PS of power, it’s nippy – really nippy, in fact.

However, to conclude, all the usual R8 qualities are there, and that revolves around the quality. A nice rigid body shell, sumptuous colour-coded interior trim, tactile textures to most of the plastics and fabrics not to mention superb steering turn-in despite the suspension travel being longer than a whippet’s hind leg.

It’s all looking rather good… so far!

Powder coated valve cover looks really smart. Performance is steadily coming back to life thanks to a fuel treatment and "itallian tune-up" programme.
Recently powder-coated valve cover looks really smart. Performance is steadily coming back to life thanks to a fuel treatment and “Italian tune-up” programme. Just like all Honda D-Series units tend to, it sounds like a dying washing machine when started up from cold, but sewing-machine smooth once warmed through


Mike Humble


  1. Big fan of the R8, having owned a 214Si as my first car. Calling it “Rover’s high water mark” is a pretty ballsy statement – I think SD1 and P6 fans might want to debate that!

    • Andy W., I think Mike is referring to more recent times, and perhaps the larger company, when he describes the R8 as Rover’s high water mark”

    • The P6, while a worthy car in it’s day was never a world beater. The SD1 was an unmitigated disaster for the company as a whole. Regardless of how these cars may be viewed now, SD1 should never have got near a production line.

    • It was certainly the high watermark in terms of commercial success, both in terms of volume and profit. Probably the only solidly profitable product BMC/BL/AR etc sold post war.

  2. You could certainly say that the R8 is the “high water mark” for any of the non-Solihull Rovers, but as a P6 owner I would say that.

    Big fan of the R8 though (except in the post 1995 R3 dashboard era). We have owned four of the chuffers, including a 1994 216SLi with the Honda unit and 5 speed manual. Lovely car, but noisy on the motorway, very thirsty and you could tell where the money was taken out of it when compared to the earlier ones (headlining, head rests etc). We swapped it for a Derby built Corolla.

  3. The high water-mark from my perspective, comfortable, quick and with a premium feel way ahead of the Ford/Volkswagen alternatives at the time.

    My parents had a ’91 GSi Auto from nearly new, (granted it was the pre-catalyst engine) and it really was a quick car, even as the mileage went up (199k when rotten arches finally sounded the death knell). It handled and rode fabulously on the 185 section tyres too.

    The only gripe was the lack of folding rear seats. The boot was a good size but hopeless for bulky items.

  4. I always thought the saloon R8 series cars were good lookers and considering this is a 23 year old car, it still looks smart – inside & out. Nowt wrong with the Honda engine and as Mike says, they are nippy despite having an auto gearbox. I would have thought that Auto versions of this model were fairly rare anyway.

  5. 70th BL – Rover car. Good God! At this rate, the R8 won’t even see winter with you!!

    A nice car though.

  6. Which fuel treatment do you use – I have wondered if some are automotive snake oil so if you know of one that actually works…

    There seems to be a few R8 convertibles around at the moment if anyone wants one.

  7. I always look at these R8’s as the car that could and perhaps should have got Rover back towards the top of the tree..
    Back in 89′ people who would never have gone anywhere near a Rover dealership, found themselves looking at and actually buying an R8 🙂
    A great car, in all its versions. Miles better than the Escort and Astra of the time. Was pushing VW in terms of build quality & components too.
    It looked right, both from the outside and the inside.
    It drove well and was reliable too.

    I remember the 420 GSI version that we had at work at the time.
    Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing…. 🙂

  8. I ve currently got 2 r8 s. A 1991 gti twin cam and a 1999 cabriolet. Both great cars, one with the bullet proof Honda engine and the other one with the k series. I love these cars and remember when they were first launched, rover couldn’t make enough of them, they sold like hot cakes. Definitely worth preserving these models because they were and still are well built and quality cars of the period. Go out and buy one to preserve for future prosperity before it s too late.

  9. I’ve never actually owned an R8. Indeed, I’ve only driven a 214 Si about 50 miles.

    Always, liked them though. The gulf between the R8 and Maestro was huge. Likewise, it’s superiority over Escort, Astra. It was a small quality car leagues ahead of contemporary rivals.

    At the time, it really did seem as though Rover had found the road to recovery. You could not have dreamt of the events of April 2005 !!!!

  10. @ Kev, the SD1 was an extremely futuristic looking car when it was launched 40 years ago, a big hatchback( when most executive cars were large saloons) that looked excellent and had the Rover V8 to power it along. Problem was, it was built in a strike prone new factory, the quality was abysmal and it ruined Rover’s name for making durable, reliable upmarket cars that its predecessors were famed for. Cars like the 400 and later 800 brought the reputation for quality back, but by then it was too late, the products of Germany and Sweden had taken over the market.

    • The points you make are all spot on. I think we’re in agreement here! The one point you don’t mention however, is perhaps the most important one of all. The most basic issue the SD1 suffered from was a complete lack of market niche – there was then, and still is now, absolutely no market for an executive hatchback. This niche requires two products; a conventional 3-box saloon, and an estate car. In recent years, the estate car has also included the 4×4. That the SD1 was even considered for production shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the market.

      In addition, it should be remembered that outside of the UK, the Rover name was almost meaningless. In Europe and the US Rover had almost no presence at all. At best, foreign markets considered the name to be staid and dull. At worst, especially in the US, Rover was considered almost a joke. Indeed, the SD1 did such damage in the US market that the name was completely abandoned.

      • Agree with this to an extent, though I would say that with the likes of the Audi A5 ‘sportback’ / A7, there is some market these days for an exec fastback hatch.
        (BMW also made an attempt with their ‘GT’ models, but the proportions are so ungainly that the only time I see them they are being used as taxis).

        Rover was trying to look to the future, the Pininfarina proposals and the CX, the car itself was good looking – a 4 door Daytona. Ford were also looking to tread the futuristic fastback path, replacing the Escort, Cortina and Granada with the hatchback mk3 Escort/Sierra/mk3 Granada(Euro Scorpio).

        In the US they did drop the Rover name for Sterling with the 800, however the Rover name later become associated with Range Rovers, and the other products of Land Rover – luxury lifestyle vehicles. If JLR ever brought the name back they shouldn’t have too much trouble with branding, selling alongside the RR/Disco range.

      • Actually when the SD1 was launched there was a huge demand for the vehicle. The waiting list ran into months. However as the lack of quality became apparent the waiting list turned to dust.
        Had the quality had been as good as the looks/concept it would have been a world beater. It was ever thus with BL.

  11. I bought a 214SLi on a K plate in 1998 when my dad’s old Volvo 245 gave up the ghost. It was the smart white diamond over grey combination with red contrast rubbing strip.

    My only bitch was the K series was a bit noisy at speed but the car was comfortable and well put together. We replaced it with a 75 tourer when our daughter was born, purely for the space 7 years later. It drove nicely and was smart inside and out.

    The only issues I had was the rear suspension arm bushes and a radiator and otherwise it was reliable for all of the time I had it. The glass sunroof started to leak late on when the steel frame under the rubber seal started to rot, causing the rubber to lift. Otherwise, I was very happy with it.

  12. More on the SD1 being a hatch. An executive hatch might have been a bit of an odd mix back in the day but there was obviously some demand out there – Renault 25 & 30, Saab 900, Audi Avant, Citroen CX. In later years Granada and, of course, the 800 Fastback.

    Now it’s all rather different with the popularity of 4x4s , SUVs.

  13. My own J-plate 214S was a wonderful car which I held onto for many years. Despite owning several good cars since I think it is my favourite of all. I believe I cried when I sold it.
    While mooching around my loft the other day I saw a pair of roof bars I bought for it to use when transporting extra ‘stuff’ on family holidays. If anyone with an R8 could use them they are free to a good home.

  14. More thoughts on the SD1, it won the Car of the Year award in 1976 and the motoring press raved about the styling, the fantastic driving experience and the car being cheaper than rivals from BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes. Clearly there was a huge potential across Europe for the SD1 to take on the most expensive cars in its class and buyers around the continent eagerly anticipated exports from Solihull. However, delays caused by strikes and the shocking quality on some cars( poor paintwork and collapsing trim were a common complaint), not to mention woeful reliability in the six cylinder versions, saw exports fade away and British buyers drift over to Ford and Volvo. Had the SD1 been built properly, then no doubt we’d still have Rover.
    OTOH the 400 was a revelation. Here was an extremely good looking small Rover that totally flattened the opposition, looked more like a Jaguar than a small saloon inside, and was a reliable, well made car that developed a big following in its first generation. For a while, with the 200, Rover Metro and improved 800, it seemed Rover could do no wrong and all their cars from this era proved to be durable, well made cars that befitted the Rover badge of old.

  15. @ Dave Dawson, the Graham Day/BAE era was a golden era for Rover. The ill fated Austin badge was ditched, strikes and poor quality became a thing of the past, and the company made some genuinely good cars. People wanted to buy Rover again and the 200 and 400 really were light years ahead of their rivals from Ford and Vauxhall and deservedly had a waiting list for new ones. It’s no surprise that many survive now, they were well built and reliable cars, and no doubt there’ll be an owners club set up before long for the small Rovers.

  16. Tempted to start a splinter group for Honda Concertos – no K series worries and vehicles arguably not released for sale before going through two sets of inspection, although Honda had a reputation for rejecting cars on completely different criteria to Rover’s. There’s one in Armagh on Auto Trader at the moment with 37k miles and paintwork that looks immaculate but I’m not sure about the seat covers and mismatched wheeltrims…

    One thing I like about R8’s is how solid they feel, eg the door clunks, but so many had rippled panels which rather spoilt things. There was a superb family owned Nightfire Red 218SLD near here on eBay some months ago but how does one persuade the missus of the need for yet another car?

  17. @ Chris C, I quite like the Roverised Honda Civic from the late nineties. As good looking as a 400, but with the usual Honda reliability and durability.

  18. I had a Jan 1990 G reg 214Si (bought in Jan 1993 with 20K recorded miles from a Rover dealer and PX ing an E reg Montego 2.0HL) which had enough options to effectively lift it to SLi standard but without the wood trim which I’ve never liked in cars and it was finished in Oyster Beige with a beige interior. It was beige-tastic and an absolutely superb car which was utterly reliable. Much more lively than my 2.0 Montego but, strangely no more economical…The only problem was that it was a bit noisy/boomy at 70MPH which made motorway cruising a little tiring. I was proud of my Rover and it’s great to see R8s still about and cherished.

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