Your Cars : An Opel Astra lesson in Bangernomics

AROnline reader Jorge Santos has a thing for Rover 200/400s (R8s) and wanted to use his handsome Tourer as his daily driver. But unreliability drove him into the arms of an Opel Astra.

Here’s a story about the challenges of running a Rover in Portugal.

Words and photography: Jorge Santos


Revenge of the 1990s: It all comes down to HG failure!

Having bought a Rover 400 Tourer Tourer in 2017, work had been endless towards never-ending heating issues; no K-Series so no heating issues? Quite not so Sir!
Having bought a Rover 400 Tourer in 2017, work had been endless towards never-ending heating issues; no K-Series, so no heating issues? Quite not so Sir!

The story of British cars in Portugal was always one of misunderstanding and neglect. Rover R8s were very popular here in the 1990s, as it was a true world beater. However, once the rumours of headgasket (HG) failure became widespread, there was a general sense of neglect and ‘wizardry’ about these engines. Portugal was always seen a hot country for cars such as the Mini and ADO16.

Because of AROnline we now are aware that the Maxi was sent here for hot weather testing, but the excuses of ‘it was a car made for cold climates!’ were often mentioned to customers baffled by the disgrace of HG repair – most of our dealers charged highly for HG failures, but never really understood the K-Series engine.

Troubles in Portugal

The importer of said cars was a bit of a ‘con man’ (importing Rover R8s in batches and then finishing them here by adding ashtray illumination, rear electric windows and aftermarket air conditioning units that would heat the engines up even more than they were prone to. I even saw a Rover 414 (HHR) with the A/C radiator inside the engine compartment and with no cold air feed available!

Customers were in despair with their recently-acquired cars – and, by the end of the 1990s, when Volkswagen tailored something for every one with their fast-revving TDIs, Rover was on its last gasp. Despite that, the Rover 25 was still a world apart from Polos and Ibizas (at least in diesel guise), R8s were pilling up and cheap as chips, nobody wanted them.

When I came across this Rover Tourer on the online marketplace Olx in 2017, my expectations were mixed. No K-Series here – good, as I was not equipped to get a K-Series fully up and running, nor was petrol a suitable option for my daily teaching commute. A small British Tourer with a Peugeot XUD engine you say? One of the world’s best diesel engines? Why not? What’s not to like? And for €750 with less than 220,000km (136,000 miles) on it?

Hubble, bubble (toil and trouble)

Rover 400 underbonnet

What could possibly go wrong? A lot actually… Cooling was always an issue from day one. A tired out radiator was replaced and improved the situation a little, but coolant kept disappearing at an alarming pace. Many a pipe was replaced, although not initially the one in the back of the engine, but once that one was replaced, it immediately became evident something was very, very wrong. One night, the coolant tank cracked and the heat gauge popped up to dangerous red – 418 turbodiesel coolant tanks were not available, so the closest one in size and capacity (from an Audi 80) was made fit.

Even after all of that work, the engine continued overheating. Clearly, something had to be done, and I could no longer use this as a daily driver and summer was fast approaching. I had no car to go on vacation in the Algarve, and most repair shops close in August. So, the faulty engine and its cracked head would have to wait until September! Oh bugger! What to do now?

Renting a car wasn’t an option – selling this one, in this condition, was also not an option (plenty of money had been spent on new suspension, bushes, steering and brakes), and above all, I really liked my car! It was everything I needed in a car – a compact ‘lifestyle estate car’, air conditioned and diesel! But it would have to wait and I needed new wheels – but not from Rover now. There were plenty of petrol R8s in good condition…

What to do… what to do?

When it comes to compulsive car buying, I have been through it many times, mostly with terrible results! Money was scarce and a careful option would have to be seriously considered. In order for the funds to be available to cover the cost of the repairs to the Tourer’s engine, something Teutonic was becoming more and more compelling…

Going through AROnline one evening before bed led me into one which I had forgotten about. Keith Adams’s banger adventures in a Vauxhall Cavalier got me thinking. Here was an autobahn stormer! Next morning, before coffee, I spotted a 1995 Opel Astra GLS, with a low 256,000km for sale, and it was just around the corner. Not bad for a 24-year-old car! It had a matching spec to my Rover, but was petrol engined instead! In its heyday, GM was known for frugal fuel consumption and for being as reliable as gold coins in a bank!

Astra early Orange indicators, go-faster flames and those hubcaps! What´s not to like in a €350 banger?
Jorge’s Astra: early orange indicators, go-faster flames and those hubcaps! What’s not to like about this €350 banger?

Opel Astras were a tough competitor for the R8 in their day – built like tanks, drove like tanks and still attract a loyal legion of followers. I decided to give the seller a shout, so that questions were answered: the car belonged to a 71-year-old Angolan lady! It had been her car for many years now, and a used petrol Peugeot 208 SW was already there to take the Opel’s place!

Buying the right kind of car from the right person

There is one thing I should mention straight away: ex-Portuguese Empire citizens (Angola, Moçambique, Cabo Verde etc.) tend to be very keen on their cars. Maybe this is because they are from countries where cars really need to be up to their job and cut the mustard! After a long but most interesting conversation, I found out that the Astra had been her late husband’s last car, then her older and younger son’s first car (the men behind those glorious Series One orange indicators, go-faster flames and the not-so-lovely hubcaps!), then her own.

It was mostly used to go on vacations to the Algarve and family trips (mostly to the same places as I do!) and it had been in the same family for almost 16 years! A quick but thorough inspection revealed that the front struts would have to be renewed, a smell of poorly burnt petrol, one or two bulbs to change, but the MoT was valid for a year, which suited my intentions perfectly!

After some negotiation, the Astra would join my stable for the princely sum of €350! Bring on the 1990s again! Posh neighbours would soon realise their newer cars weren’t even as close to an automotive heaven as these two bangers are – they still look as good together as they did in the 1990s!

Rover 400 Tourer and Opel Astra

Work to do…

A deal was struck and it soon became apparent that the front struts would need to be followed by a full cambelt service, new locks all round, an exhaust silencer, all temperature sensors and a lambda unit. The fuel smell could be partially blamed for being parked many days and infrequent use, but as soon as I completed all the jobs, the ‘Germanity’ of the Opel would soon be restored to full glory!

After a quick wash and Aldi wax, the flames were now gone, the hubcaps removed and the indicators were replaced by the correct ones. On a sunny afternoon in Cais da Matinha, Lisbon, posing with PAQUETE FUNCHAL (below), mentioned briefly on the Austin Metro Dealer Presentation, awaiting for better days to come by! Eventually, a full set of old-NS original Opel hubcaps would be found!

Fuel consumption was improving with each passing kilometre, because the miles were racking up. It was commuting from Montijo to Barreiro and Seixal on a daily basis, doing at least 50/60km every day! Fuel consumption was soon down to the original figures (36.3mph extra urban and 29.4mph in city driving).

And yes, ‘Autobahn Stormer’ was a good nickname because it felt happy and at ease from Lisbon to the Algarve, coping with 80-90mph cruising easily and sometimes ahead of modern, heavier and newer comtemporaries! It never felt like it would miss a beat! Heating was never an issue!

Opel Astra with new wheeltrims

What do we think about the Astra?

As my Tourer’s HG and head repair went on for more than I would like to consider reasonable, this was it. I was driving a clunker for more or less €800 spent (including the car!). During the ten months I had it, it never let me down, and then it was sold with a small profit. The Astra’s a car that more than competes with modern traffic and with the sureness of a car truly built to last and serve its owner on a very tight budget.

I think that, just as Keith found with his Vauxhall Cavalier, the full Bangernomics experience back then showed us the way. We are now realising that most cars developed in the 1980s and built in the ’90s were over-engineered for their time and are a lot more reliable than their modern counterparts.

What about the Tourer?

Well, after a small fortune was spent over almost three years on a diesel car that had been repaired all of its life with nails and hammers, it is on the way to being a good car. Rover R8s are rising in interest as modern classic cars (with some going for a ‘something of a Honda’ with the single purpose of ‘ricing’ them over before rapidly finishing them off and dropping them off at the nearest scrapper).

Others perceive the R8 as the truly enjoyable, cost-conscious modern-classic car that it really is. And that is always going to be in the hearts and minds of conscious car buyers, either new cars or bangers. Jaguar Land Rover may have (or should have?) understood this by now, and MG has fully grasped that you don’t have to spend a fortune on a well built and cost effective SUV or small car for them to be sporty and classy and highly tailored with 21st century technology that every buyer now perceives as indispensable.

The return of Rover as a low to mid production capacity range of models within Jaguar Land Rover would make perfect sense now – just look at this comparison someone rightfully posted on Facebook the other day! Is there something which JLR’s new Reimagine strategy is missing? Is there a need to tell JLR’s Chief Executive Officer, Thierry Bolloré, what we all know? After all, we know Honda isn’t missing the point with its cars…

Anyway, here’s to another banger flipped!

Do you have a tale to tell about your car? Let us know in the comments or drop me a line via any of the links below.

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

12 Comments

  1. During the 80s-90s I had a close relative of both those cars.

    I had a 1985 Astra (the hatch version of the Kadett). It was a couple of years old and didn’t let me down but was rather basic, dull, slow, and boring. I got rid of it after around a year.

    In the 90s I had a 214 hatch. I kept it for over 2 years and it never gave any trouble. It was classy, smooth and surprisingly quick. In those pre-interent days I’d never heard about the HGF problems which were supposed to strike all 214s, so I never worried because I didn’t know the problem existed, and mine never had any issues with the subject.

  2. I realise it’s a comment that could well get me lynched on here but, to me, the news that “Vauxhall proves to be better than Rover” really shouldn’t be a shock to anyone!

  3. The Rover 216 and 416 of this era had Honda engines, so likely to be reliable, and the XUD was normally a very durable engine. I don’t think the 1.4 K series was as bad as bigger Ks for HGF and it seemed the 1.6 and 1.8 were worse.

  4. Astra petrol cars were good for mid-50s mpg on long runs if you kept to 55 to 60 mph. The coup de grace, a known fault among the trade, was electrical problems centred on the earthing for the alternator, if the earth links between alternator and engine block failed open circuit, the car would proceed as normal until the wiring loom began to overheat and melt or burn out. The failed links and burnt out loom was the cause of the demise of the works Astra we had, a 1.4 estate. As for the vehicle characteristics, very staid and unadventurous, a worthy car as a means of transport, but not drive, the steering was quite lifeless, the car simply did its job as intended

    • @ cyclist, when JD Power started his survey in 1994, the Astra rated quite low, with reliability issues( wiper motors could fail)as well as the wiring loom, poor driving abilities and poor dealer service counting against it. Also against the R8 Rover, it was a staid, dull looking car, a shame as the original Astra was the best car in its class ten years earlier.

      • I forgot about the windscreen wipers, the pressed steel wiper motor plate would crack and fracture, causing the wipers to fail. We had the fault. Cam belt life, the company had a large fleet, fleet management purposely disregarded the Vauxhall cambelt replacement schedule for non – management cars, claiming the cost of replacing the small number of damaged engines due to belt failure was less than the cost of regular belt changes on the large fleet. They were correct, belt failure was actually very rare. However Astras allocated to individual of management grade had regular belt swaps as per schedule! The Trade union found out this policy and tabled a censure at a company council meeting. The Astra was an unremarkable car to drive but never the less a workhorse, I have not seem one for many years, where did they go, will we ever see them at a classic car show in 10 years time?

  5. Good to see the R8 is appreciated in Portugal. Long may that continue.
    Meanwhile the Astra F / Mk3 like Jorge’s one seemed to be everywhere once upon a time – according to the autoevolution website 4.13 million of them were sold between 1991 and 1997 making it the best selling Astra yet.

  6. Good to see some love for the R8 in Portugal. Always liked those cars myself. First car I recorded 50+ mpg on was an R8 218 Diesel.
    As for the Astra F, it was a massive success – according to the autoevolution website it sold 4.13 million between ’91 and ’97. We had a late-model one. It replaced a 10-year old Peugeot 309 which it trumped in almost every way. But the 309 had better ride quality, especially on bumpy roads.

  7. The connection between the R8 and the 309 was the XUD engine. The Perkins Prima used in the Maestro was considered too coarse for the 218, so Rover went to Peugeot, who were considered the masters at producing diesel engines. Also I have nothing but praise for the XUD, from an early version in a Talbot Horizon to one in a 1993 Citroen BX that had masses of torque and was quite powerful for a non turbo..

    • The XU/XUD engines replaced the old Simca engines in the Horizon and 309, the Prima was modern compared to the old rattly Simca units.

  8. I had a 1997 Astra in the same colour – Nautilus Blue (check the touch up paint it says Nautilusblau), a bit lighter than BRG. A special edition ‘Arctic’ 1.6 16V with a/c, 15″ alloys and CDX trim inside. What could be said about the Mk3 Astra was, while it wasn’t excellent at anything, it was not bad at anything either. Compared with the Mk3 Golf – the base versions of which had no anti-roll bars – the handling of the Astra wasn’t lethal. My 1997 replaced a 1993 1.4 82PS in Spectral Blue, an Antwerp built car. Vauxhall did some really nice metallic colours in the mid 1990s.

    When it came to replacing my 1997 I looked at the Mk4s, dynamically tepid in comparison, so I went for a Vectra SRi 140 instead. The Vectra Mk2s from 2002 felt tepid, so it was either a 3.2 GSi or Saab 9-3 Aero. I still drive Saabs now.

    I do recall going to see the R8 in Marshall Cambridge. Dealers came across as being a bit superior, and unwilling to trade on an Astra. Lovely cars to drive – especially the Honda engined GSi.

  9. What is the wonderful ship in one of the photos: looks like a real classic!

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