Our Cars : Richard Truett’s Rover 220 Tomcat

Our man in the USA, Richard Truett, has picked up a new car – it’s a Rover 220 Tomcat that’s a former AROnline Car of The Month.

Here’s the story of how it seduced him so much, he ended up shipping it all the way to Detroit.

Rover 220 Tomcat

Five years ago, I bought J668 ROL (below), the well-known silver Rover 214GSi  which had passed through the hands of several AROnline alumni, including the remarkable Mike Humble.

When you get a car that has been ‘Humbled’, everything down to the light in the ashtray works properly. Indeed, when the Rover arrived in Detroit from the UK on a snowy day in February 2016, it had not one fault. And it served me well for the two years I kept it. (The car now lives with a Toyota engineer in Ohio).

I very much enjoyed J668, but the 200 series car I really wanted was the top of the range, the 220 Coupe. Had the Triumph marque not been interred, the front-wheel-drive Rover 220 may very well have been a sporting Triumph for the 1990s. Indeed, there does seem to be some Triumph DNA in the 220.

The torquey DOHC 16-valve T-Series engine’s super-efficient combustion chamber design is inspired by the Triumph Dolomite Sprint’s 16-valve SOHC motor. The 220 is fast, 0-60 in 6.5 seconds for the 197bhp top-of-the-line turbo model, and 8.2 seconds to 60 mph for the 134bhp naturally-aspirated version.

Rover 214 SLI

And the 220’s glass roof panels, when removed and with the centre bar in place, remind me a little of the view you get inside a Stag. I have looked off and on since J668 for just the right the 220. Having read Des Hammill’s Rover K-Series book, I became a little leery of the K-Series engine and its potential to eat headgaskets. You are not easily going to find a pair of experienced hands in the States who can work on a K-Series engine.

So, if I did end up with Tomcat, it would have to be one powered by the T-Series. And, because of the expense of importing a car from UK into the USA, it would have to be close to perfect. What are the chances of finding a Mk1 220 in that condition nearly 30 years down the road? And yet, I did.

Finding the impossible

On 8 November 2021, I saw an eBay auction for K22 OTC, a Polynesian Turquoise 1993 220 non-turbo that appeared to be in showroom condition. Not long after I put a link to the car on AROnline’s Facebook page, Keith Adams sent me a note with this link to its original Car of The Month feature.

That boosted my confidence and I was able to work out a deal with the owner, Nigel Palin. I would pay full price if he would work with me as I put in motion the things needed to export the car to the USA: payment, shipping across the ocean, transportation to the docks, etc. Nigel had bought K220 earlier in 2021 from Lee Stott, the Longbridge Engineer who did much of the restoration work, but Nigel never actually get the chance to drive the 220. It helps to have friends on the ground in the UK, and Keith Adams was standing by if needed to assist moving the car.

The eBay auction ended 10 November. The money for the car was wired on Monday, 22 November. That Friday, thanks to Nigel, the 220 was picked up at his house and taken to the Liverpool docks, about 90 minutes away. Nigel arranged for the transport, and I reimbursed him.

Rover 220 Tomcat leaving Nigel's place

Rover 220 at Liverpool Docks

The 220 was loaded on to The Atlantic Sky on Wednesday, 24 November, and she left Liverpool five days later. The Atlantic Sky disgorged more of its cargo 12 days later in Baltimore, Maryland, my car included. The 220 cleared customs on Monday, 13 December and, six days after that, a car hauler with the Rover arrived at my house just north of Detroit.

She was somewhat grubby from her time outside on the docks and from the 547-mile ride from Baltimore. However, since a freezing drizzle was coming down, I drove the Rover straight into the garage and wiped it down. The next day, the weather cleared and warmed enough to take the 220 one mile away to a car wash for a proper and thorough cleaning.

I couldn’t tell much about the 220 driving slowly through neighbourhoods trying avoid the local law enforcement authorities. The 220, still on its UK plates and registration, was not exactly legal to drive. But I could feel that the T-Series is a fast-revver with bags of low-end torque.

On 22 December, I took all the importation paperwork and the V5C logbook to the Michigan equivalent of the DVLA and registered the 220. I also ordered a personalised tag, ROVR220.

On 26 December, a bright, sunny and warmish winter day, I finally had the chance to put some real miles on the car. I drove for about 90 minutes on the mostly quiet roads north of Detroit. The 220’s condition is as close to flawless as possible. There is not a screw, nut, bolt, clamp or other bit of hardware loose or out of place. Everything looks new and works perfectly, and the car is in near perfect condition cosmetically.

The 220 came with all her papers from new. She’s had four additional owners after the first long-term keeper. In that time she’s acquired Rover 800 front seats, a new paint job and many other repairs with original Rover parts to keep her in top condition. The car is a joy to drive. The engine starts on the button and runs smooth and quiet. There are no leaks or smoke or strange smells, no noises from the smooth-shifting gearbox and nothing wrong with the suspension or brakes. The car is on lowering springs, which may not be the best for Detroit’s miserable roads, so those may get replaced in 2022.

Rover 220 Tomcat T-Series engine

It’s too early to know what the reaction will be to the car in Detroit. But the Motor City has always warmly welcomed British cars. And right-hand drive is a bonus for hardcore fans of imported cars.

In my time so far behind the wheel of the 220, I can say this is the easiest of the seven RHD cars to drive here that I have owned. Visibility is excellent. The 220’s size is just right. I was worried about torque steer, which on the turbo model, brought loads of negative comments from contemporary road testers. Keith told me the naturally-aspirated version is the better balanced car, and he’s right. There is not a trace of torquesteer and the car is a joy to drive.

Just as I was about to set off on that first drive, I turned on the radio. There was a tape in the player. I don’t know if this was a happy coincidence or if Nigel thought of a special way to welcome me to the car. But the first song that played was James Brown’s 1985 hit Living In America.

Stay tuned to see how Richard gets on with his Rover 220 Tomcat in the USA…

Richard Truett

5 Comments

  1. As Craig Revel Horwood would say, Gorgeous Darling.

    I love tomcats, drove one once and it was great. Very jealous.

  2. try the turbo and you will be smitten,the 220GTI and GSI turbo are a great sheep in wolfs clothing and not to be messed , unless you have a ford cosworth and then you may stand a chance!! such underrated cars and the next to fly up in price if you can find a genuine one,get one nowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

  3. Back in the mid 1990s I was given the opportunity to attend a one day motorsport driving course with the Ian Taylor Motor Racing School based at Thruxton Race Circuit. The car being used to ferry ‘students’ around the race circuit and also for them to build up their motorsport driving skills was the non-turbo Rover 220 Coupe. “Don’t drive it like you’re on the road, keep revving it and don’t change gear until you’ve reached 4,000RPM!” barked the instructor. “Oh, and hold the steering wheel properly, you’re not learning to drive again,” he continued, reminding me that the ‘shuffle’ method wasn’t for the race track (unless I wanted to spin off at the first apex).

    After the first lap I managed to settle down into that new-found driving environment and began to enjoy exploiting the 220’s power delivery. The non-turbo T Series revved eagerly while the handling felt very composed, even through the occasional hard braking manoeuvre and over-zealous cornering. The more I exploited the engine’s power between cogs the more I began to question why anyone actually needed the Turbo version as this was certainly a quick car. I was actually sorry to step out of it and into a Formula 3 car!

    Apart from the lowering springs and the 800’s front seats you’ve mentioned, it is great to see one that hasn’t been heavily modified or abused, but instead has been carefully maintained to look like a showroom centre piece. I also like the fact it hasn’t been fitted with the chrome grille (as officially fitted from late 1993 onwards), with its low bonnet line giving it more than a discrete nod to the styling of the Rover SD1. A lovely example – perhaps you might start a trend for them Stateside…

  4. Great story. And David you remind me of the time I was driving a Ford Sierra on a skid cradle at the John Watson racing school. The instructor got me doing about 50 and then raised the car off the ground. He told me to keep the wheel straight – do NOT steer into the skid (as we were very quickly almost broadside!) I couldn’t help it – I had to turn the wheel just as he dropped us back down. My gosh did he ever shout at me!

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