Our Cars : Steven Ward’s Rover 600

Steven Ward's Rover 600

Was it really over a decade since I wrote Short-selling the Syncro? Yes. So how has the article fared in that decade? Well, I’ve been running one daily for the last 19 months so I’m well qualified to comment further. And, as we know, in the last 12 months, the roads haven’t exactly been busy, so it’s been thoroughly tested as I continued to work in the field as it were. Some days I pretend to be Setright while driving, other days I’m Bulgin. Legislation prevents me being Llewellyn or Bishop.

This particular Rover 600 has been known to me for the best part of 20 years. Initially registered by Rover (show me one that wasn’t), it then passed between brother and sister before I bought it. Heir to the car Tim Colley (a long-time AROnline reader), already had a FDH Rover Turbo Coupe cluttering his garage. As I’d been supplying both parts for this car and, indeed, whole cars to the family, I was offered first refusal on the 600. But that didn’t come for some time.

When it did come, the timing was ideal as I was now working in the post-industrial environment of various city centres of former port towns in the North East of England. This involved driving through rush hour traffic and parking on the grittiest of industrial roads leading to docks, industrial estates and the like. If I’d continued to use my SUV, it’d have been a toss-up what occurred first: DPF failure or theft. I needed a petrol auto which was reliable and neither easy nor desirable enough to lift.

The Rover 600 comes home

From its slumber in the south, the 600 was started and driven home, close to 300 miles, without issue. I ran it for a month before finding the time to service it. Enter my long-time friend and work colleague Sean. Former Rover Master Tech (of international repute I’d like to add) and, latterly a guru for GM Europe, we’d worked together over decades and we looked forward to getting to grips with the 600. I don’t think, in fact I know, he wouldn’t have relished working on its replacement, the Rover 75.

The car itself is a 1998 620SLi auto in BRG with a grey cloth interior. It’s highly specified which may have something to do with Rover being the first registered keeper. Features include factory air-con, an electric sunroof, ABS brakes, twin airbags and seven-spoke alloys with 195/65 V-rated tyres. Naturally, there’s all the other pieces such as walnut inserts in the doors and stainless steel treadplates on the sills. The wheel is also leather trimmed and it’s got a high-level centre console come armrest. Finally, there’s front mudflaps and proper rubber floor mats inside. The full-size spare wheel remains untouched.

Up onto the two-poster ramp the 600 and went and there it was serviced. That’s it. No drama, no faults found, nothing. The oil was changed along with the air, fuel and oil filters. Dead easy, no access issues or snapped fastenings. The brakes were fully stripped, cleaned and adjusted along with the fluid being flushed. Everything came apart and went back together without issue or complication. The spark plugs were changed. The coolant was flushed and bled without a single hint of complication. Here was a car actually designed to be serviced over and over again, over a long period of time. All we could fault were the battery and wiper blades, so they were changed.

A clean bill of health

The timing belts (there’s two, remember, the extra one being for the counter rotating balancer shafts) had been done previously and the autobox fluid was spotless, it having been changed not so long ago (Forget your sealed-for-life bollocks, automatics need fluid changes – this Hondamatic is designed to allow you to do it from home along with the engine oil).  Showing its age, there wasn’t a cabin filter for the air-con.

I’m embarrassed to report that was 18 months ago. There’s not been a spanner laid on the car since. The pandemic is to blame, but the car hasn’t helped itself – it’s just worked unfailingly and not used any fluids in doing so. Actually, I tell a lie: the passenger windows were unreliable in action. However, this was down to lack of use. A generous squirt of silicone spray and they’ve been perfect since. No dramas with twisted channels or failed mechanisms, just lube and go.

I’ve done more than 7000 miles in the car and its been an absolute pleasure to use and get to know, really know. You don’t realise how fast you’re driving it until somebody is following you or is a passenger. The autobox is incredibly responsive, no slush here. Following Setright’s teachings, I’m a left-foot braker and not afraid to move the lever manually between D3 and D4 to suit rather than relying on kickdown. I couldn’t imagine going back to a manual for commuting. It’s also usefully longer geared than the manual in top.

Like clockwork? Oh, aye…

There were two tyres which showed cracking to the sidewalls and these were replaced with a pair of Goodyears. The difference this made to the steering was astonishing – and they were on the rear axle, not the steering end. Which brings me to another point: the last 600 I owned was fitted with Honda’s variable assistance steering which just isn’t as good as Rover’s Positive Centre Feel set-up. Sorry, but it’s not.

The handling of the car is beautifully balanced and progressive. It really does want to help you get the best from it and it’s so satisfying to experience. Can wishbones really make that much difference to steering progression over struts? Well, the ZS is fine example in extremis, so who knows, but whatever, it is delightful.

Of course, we know the ride, on those wonderfully elegant wishbones is good, but really, the slogan ‘Relax it’s a Rover’ is actually true. This car, with the mad Doctor’s 1-2-1 long distance ride settings (as measured using NASA parameters) is very well judged, albeit unfashionably soft. Roll is progressive but, unlike in a similarly equipped 400, it never feels excessive to the point you fear you’re going to scrape the door handles on the road surface. Put that down to the 600’s extra width which seems to give a very low centre of gravity. The wheels can hit the bump-stops it’s true (but still less frequent than in a 800), but there is simply no fidget in the ride comfort. There’s no lateral rock from the anti-roll bars either. Rover also demonstrated to BMW at this time that their own dampers, were actually not damping enough. There’s more to damping than a stiff ride.

British improvements to the Accord

The front seats too, improved over the original 600. There is an article in the Anne Youngson book ‘When Rover Met Honda about a Rover Engineer who was so keen to demonstrate his improved design to Honda that he flew out to Japan with a seat and took it across Tokyo on a rush hour train. The resultant design, still with the dual density foam first pioneered on the 800 Series in conjunction with ICI and still featuring anti-submarine squabs for safety, cossets and supports more than the early ones did. What’s more, the later seat design is patented for the lumbar support. There’s no cost-cutting with map pockets or height adjustment either. But don’t think they are excessively styled or stuffed – they just aren’t and are better for it.

Then there is the sense of well-being that we all know and love from the Honda-era Rovers. The ergonomics suit me, more so than the MGF. Maybe that’s because my stature better matches one of the senior Engineers involved in this car than the Brian Griffin-engineered MGF. You still sit low with legs outstretched, better to minimise the effects of motion on the body. The belt line is similarly low, reducing the stress of driving. The windscreen features the SD1 pioneered ‘zone tinting’ shadeband, but not the later ‘Optikool’ feature. The dials are large and elegant in their simplicity, unlike the sucked Werther’s Originals that featured in the 75.

The interior has held-up remarkably well. There’s no damage to the interior and there are no rattles or squeaks. This being a late example, the glovebox is lined (and lockable like the petrol and boot releases) and the door cards feature a bottle holder. If the shell was as torsionally weak as some implied compared to the 75 (it wasn’t actually, it was respectfully stiff, just not Landcrab stiff as the 75 was), then the interior wouldn’t have stood-up this well. Refinement is also up to scratch, road noise is muted, just wind roar being noticeable. There’s no suspension bump-thump either.

The best of Honda, Part Two…

But that engine! Boy, does it love to rev and it sounds terrific in doing so. My example has been fitted with a stainless exhaust which needed fettling to reduce the boom associated with the change in metal. I’ve also retro-added a further 6x2ft strip of sound proofing to the floor under the carpet above the run, so now you can’t tell it’s there. But there’s no need to rev the engine for it to deliver. Commuting, it rarely goes above 3000rpm, dispelling the myth these engines lack torque. Maybe in a manual, but not in the auto. Incidentally, the whole powertrain is hung on trick engine mountings for both vibration and ride comfort, which are electronically controlled on the autos. No kangerooing or irritating resonances on these motors.

One final myth I need to dispel is rust. This car has none, anywhere. The paintwork is as smooth and as glossy as we’ve come to expect from Rover. The brake lines are protected, a feature of which was deleted from all other Rovers after 600s left the line. There’s clear over base lacquer everywhere, not just the areas which you see and that’s so satisfying. And forget worshipping leather; bitterly cold in the winter, sticky hot in the summer, discretion really is the better of velour. Many people have commented on the car, all of them positive.

If I was to be negative to the 600 it’s that I find it lacks the absolute attention to detail design touches that we found in Rover’s 800 and especially, 200. Maybe that’s because it was a Honda package handed wholesale to an increasingly reliant Rover Group? Maybe it was a purposely old design, simple and proven, which was rolled out to facilitate and ease the start of Swindon’s assembly halls? Who knows, but at least the benefit of this is that everything works, beautifully, all the time. Certainly, the 800 has hugely irritating features which were still apparent after 13 years on sale. You cannot say that of the 600.

Rapidly gaining classic approval

The good news is that these cars are finally being appreciated as the Rover that you can both enjoy driving and maintaining. Auction values are climbing and there’s a growing number appearing on classic car dealer’s websites. This really was the high-water mark of the Honda-Rover co-operation and one, which even now, is exceptionally elegant in form. That beauty when you’re polishing it (as I do) gives an enormous sense of well-being. There’s not a line out of place and yet, even the lower rear doors and windscreen surround pressing are shared with the Accord.

There’s a school of thought that what Honda learned from Rover was crisis management, suspension and packaging. Rover, when its creativity was curtailed, as Honda was wont to do to them, was ultimately master of the facelift. Sadly for BMW, they just didn’t grasp this, instead giving them free rein with a hands-off, money no object approach. The result was the 75 and failure.

Meanwhile, Rover’s lack of creativity meant that the company was constantly reliant upon Honda for the Joint Venture-developed models and that has arguably resulted in Honda’s European failure (despite the previous Civic chassis resembling a Maestro). Nobody has won. That just makes the 600 all the more poignant as the last of the great Honda-Rovers. Ask anyone Who Was There about Where It All Went Wrong and the divorcing of Honda is the first thing they will say.

15 Comments

  1. Still a great looking car, especially in the ubiquitous maroon! I saw a very nice maroon example the other day

  2. Lovely looking car in excellent condition both mechanically and cosmetically. i always preferred the R600 over the Accord (even though I had a company P reg Accord 2.0S for a year). That was the most powerful car I’ve ever had and I really liked it too.

    But, the Rover added elegance with the extra chrome and wood trim throughout. Richard Woolley did a good job on an already good car.

    I once saw a run out 600 Auto in light green metallic with leather trim and alloys – fully color coded. Looked fab.

  3. Really lovely cars – the Rover 600, and this particular example.

    However, the inverted snobbery used against the R40 is a little tiresome.

  4. Mr Ward, it is just a nonsense t fantasy to say that “Auction values are climbing and theres (sic) a growing number appearing on classic car dealer’s websites.”

    P138 CAD, a 1997 623GSi sold on 26/07/19 at auction for £500 with 11 months’ MOT and 78,271 genuine miles. A probate sale. It would appear that the buyer didn’t pay or didn’t collect it, because it went through the same auction house on 31/01/20 for £275, with the same mileage. (It was MOT’d on 17/04/20 at 78273, just 2 miles more.) That’s a massively depreciating car, in just 6 months, Mr Ward!

    The only 600 that has sold at auction for more than £1,000 was a 1999 620, sold in March by Mathewsons last month for £3,950, only because it was an exceptional car with only 18,800 miles and which had been dry stored at 15,248 miles between 2007 and 2018 and then fully re-commissioned.

    600s are bangers, that sell for banger money, unless you have an exceptional car, with exceptionally low mileage, which has been stored, properly, for years. Only then will they be worth anything, and even then the cost of the storage and the re-commissioning will be more than the car is worth.

    • Thank goodness somebody else feels the way I do about about this piece of hyperbole. The 600 is an Accord in a party frock, and while a decent enough car in it’s day it doesn’t warrant the gushing praise lavished upon it here.

  5. The other problem with this article is that Keith Adams wrote one about the 600 being a future classic over 10 years ago. (“The bypassed future-classic….” ) Was the title.

    Someone commented on that article to say that they had bought a P reg 623 GSi at Christmas 2005 with 225K on the clock for £400, instead of using the train to go to their fiancee’s parents. They sold it 30 months later for £650.

    Someone else bought a 15 year old 620 SLDi with 164K on the clock, and rusty wheel arches for £200.

    Someone else sold their (at the time of sale) 8 year old 623 GSi with 140K on the clock for £1900.

    Someone else had bought a 620Ti for £450, which they then sold for £400 for parts in 2017 having spent £400 on the HGF problem.

    Far from prices having risen in the last 10 years or so, they have dropped or stayed the same, which when you take inflation into account is a drop in real terms.

    • Loads of cars are touted as “future classic” in magazines and online articles. Most of the time, this is an optimistic claim.

      The 600 is one of my favourite Rovers but it’s not really a classic. Even the Montego that came before it is only just getting there. Being charitable, you could say it’s “a good candidate for the Festival Of The Unexceptional”.

      This particular car looks in great nick, and is in the best 1990s Rover colour – BRG.

  6. Like them or not, these cars were the best Rover made in the nineties and always did well in ownership and reliability surveys. I saw a BRG example locally in use with only a few rust spots for 20 years and there’s still a white example around on a P plate. Combining Honda reliability and build quality with a Rover interior and comfort was a winner at the time.

    • I neither like ’em or dislike them. I haven’t seen one on the road for many years now and the last one I can remember seeing was being used as a mini-cab. It was in a bad way owing to the tin worm. I was never taken with them and couldn’t help but think “Honda” anytime I saw one because,despite the makeover, that’s what they looked like to me.

      • @ standhill, being based on a nineties Honda is no bad thing, as nineties Hondas were upmarket cars with excellent driving abilities and rock solid reliability. They’d come a long way from the odd looking seventies Civic and the bizarre 600 cc cars the company imported in the late sixties, which were dire to say the least. A tie up between Rover and Honda was just right for the early nineties as both had an image that was totally on the up.

  7. Some interesting comments on here.

    The 600 was a good motor that Rover so badly needed at the time. OK so it didn’t set the world on fire in so far as sales figures or for clobbering the competition, but it was exactly the car that its dealers needed at the time.

    Well built with mouth watering colour schemes, they looked a million dollars under the showroom lights and were just the thing that the older trad Rover owners wanted and so desperately deserved – a well specced car that didn’t go on the blink all the time.

    Sadly though Rover were hamstrung when it came to cracking the fleet market and chasing the rivals of Ford and Vauxhall. PPU (profit per unit) was worryingly poor as Honda ensured Rover payed top whack for their parts bins and expertise but even today, if in lovely condition, the 600 roundly trounces an equiv period Accord.

    And oddly enough… when did you last see a 1998 Honda Accord??

  8. Agree with what Mike says. I had a ’96 P reg Accord (company car). Was well built. good performer and actually decent fuel economy. Despite that I still agree the R600 was better in looks and overall packaging. But the Accord was a great doner car as the basis for Rover to build upon.

  9. The 600 unfortunately was hamstrung by being a Honda, which as soon as BMW took over the car became an orphan and was hardly marketed. It was a shame as it was a supremely capable car, in the old fashioned style of a luxury car, comfortable and well built compared to the “how does it handle” generation we get today. If it had been launched in the 80s it would have been a bigger success, as comfortable was still seen as a virtue.

  10. Partly true Daveh, as I have said before in these pages – BMW could not believe the profit margin, it was non-existant…..Cowley were making them for fun! Honda took a royalty of £1000 per car, also many of the parts were Honda sourced (with profit margin). If there had been money in it BMW would have kept making it – Cowley was idle for a year. It just did not make any sense giving a competitor so much money and keeping none for yourself………

  11. Thank you Steven , I really enjoyed reading this article. When done right the Rover-Honda cars had the perfect mix of understated style , packaging , durability and reliability. Something that could have evolved if the relationship had continued. Rover versions of the 1998 and 2004 would have been interesting. The 2000 Civic again could have been great base for a 45 replacement , although its shape doest lend itself well for conversion into a saloon.

    Do you think the quality and attention to long term durability was less rigourous on the HHR? My well looked after 45 has sadly rotted it’s sills out from the inside , to the point of making little sense for repair.

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