The accidental Rover owner
I hadn’t been intending to buy a Rover last year. On the contrary, I’d bought myself a very nice Honda Civic i-CTDi at the start of the year and I was fully intending to hang onto that car for a good few years, to enjoy its effortless power delivery, its tremendous torque and its oh-so-clever interior design.
But then, on the August Bank Holiday weekend, an absent-minded lorry driver (I’m being very restrained in my choice of words here) slammed her 18-wheeler into my Honda, writing it off – and coming very close to writing me and my family off as well.
As a result, I suddenly found myself in need of another car. I decided to get myself something cheap to run around in for a few months until the insurance money came through – that would also give me a chance to have a good think about what sort of car I wanted to buy as a long-term replacement for the Honda.
But what to buy? I had a few basic requirements: I needed something large enough to transport me and the family; I needed something with a hatchback; I needed something that was new enough to be usable as a daily driver. Also, it had to be cheap. The Rover 45 instantly came to mind.
I think we’d all agree that the Rover 45 was not the finest car to have emerged from the MG Rover stable. Leaving the lamentable CityRover aside, the Rover 45 was probably the least-loved car that MG Rover produced. However, the 45 is large enough (just) to be used as a family car. It can be had with a hatchback. It’s relatively recent. And nowadays, Rover 45s are certainly cheap to buy.
As such, the Rover 45 met all of my requirements. On top of this, thanks to my time spent reading AROnline, I realised that I knew an awful lot about the Rover 45. Yes, I could have bought a Focus; I could have bought an Astra. Either of those cars is probably objectively a better car than a 45, but I realised that I knew next to nothing about them. Despite never having owned one, I felt as if I knew the Rover 45 quite well and that I’d know what to look out for.
There were two other reasons why I wanted a 45: firstly, my time spent reading this website had given me an itch to own a car from the BMC>MGR stable. Now, here was my chance to scratch that itch. Secondly, I’ve always found myself rooting for the underdog – and, to my mind, the unloved 45 is definitely an underdog. So, my mind was made up: a Rover 45 it was going to be.
Oh, one more thing: it was going to have to be a diesel. I know that some Rover enthusiasts can get quite exasperated if you bring up the subject of K-Series engines and head gasket failures but, as far as I was concerned, given the choice between an engine that has a reputation for blowing its head gasket and one that hasn’t, there was no contest. On top of that, driving the Honda before it ended up as a Scania’s radiator grille decoration had given me a taste for diesel ownership. I especially liked the fact that I only had to fill up every three weeks as opposed to every two.
So it was that a few days after the crash, there I was, sitting in front of AutoTrader, searching for diesel Rover 45s for sale within a 50-mile radius. Knowing that the average buyer of the Rover 45 when new was someone considerably older than me, I was hoping to find a well-looked after example: ideally, something that had been serviced regularly, garaged every night and polished to within an inch of its life every weekend.
Amazingly, that’s just what I found. There, at the top of the search results, was KV53 KNF, a twelve year-old Rover 45 iXL with just 48,000 miles on the clock. It had been in the same family for the past ten years. It had a service history. It appeared to be in great condition from the photographs, both inside and out. The price was very reasonable. It was a mere thirty miles away. It wasn’t coloured gold. I called the seller immediately, asked a few pertinent questions and arranged to see the car the following evening.
The moment I saw the car in the metal the next day, I knew that I was going to buy it – and I knew that I wasn’t going to get rid of it after a few short months. It was far too good for that. The car had been bought at two-years old by an elderly gentleman and used very lightly. When he died, the car had passed to his wife, who had used it even more lightly. She had passed the car to her son, who had used it to commute to work for the past few months and was now selling it.
The Rover seemed to be absolutely immaculate. The seller – a very pleasant chap – had prepared the car for sale so well that it looked like new. I gasped in amazement when I opened a door to look inside, because the interior was utterly spotless. There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere – not even down the sides of the seats. It looked and smelt like a brand new car. The outside of the car was in similar condition. There were a couple of very small marks in the paintwork and one alloy wheel was slightly scuffed but, for a 12-year old car, the condition was simply outstanding.
A good long test drive assured me that pretty much everything worked as it should. There was a slight wobble in the steering when I took the car up to 80mph and a bit of knocking from the track rod ends when the steering was on full lock but, aside from that, it started, drove and stopped perfectly. There were a couple of other minor problems: the cassette player didn’t work (not a big issue, given that I don’t own any cassettes) and some of the pixels on the clock weren’t working. Other little niggles? Well, there was an oversized union flag sticker stuck to the tailgate, which had obviously been there for years and which I thought would probably be a real pain to remove. And there was a tow bar fitted. No problem, I thought: I’ll just take it off.
Despite these minor issues, there was nothing that worried me. After the test drive, we quickly agreed a price that we were both happy with, I handed over the cash and collected the car the next day. I was now the proud owner of a Rover 45.
I was most amused by people’s reactions when I announced that I had bought a Rover 45. My wife told me that I had just lost all of my street-cred. Given that I hadn’t been aware that I actually had any street cred to lose, this didn’t bother me unduly. My best friend burst out laughing. Terry, my trusted mechanic who’s done a sterling job of looking after all of my cars for the past fifteen years, grimaced, shook his head and sucked in air through his teeth. He cheered up marginally when I explained that it was a diesel, not a petrol.
In contrast, my next-door neighbours, a retired couple, were very pleased when I arrived home in the car.
“I had two of those,” said Mac as he looked over the car, “I bought the last one just before they went bust. Nice cars…” he reminisced, “but I had to get rid of them both when they blew their head gaskets.”
“Lovely car,” beamed Pat, approvingly. “The best cars in the world, they are. The best cars in the world.”
I’m not sure that I know anyone who would agree with Pat that the Rover 45 is the best car in the world but, despite that, I certainly had bought myself a very nice old car.
The following day, I booked the Rover in with Terry and asked him to change the belts (they weren’t quite due for replacement but, given the fact that I was going to keep the car, I wanted to err on the side of caution), change the filters and fluids and give the car a once-over and sort out anything else that needed doing.
As it turned out, the only extra things that needed to be sorted out were a small patch of surface rust on the underside of the front footwell and a rubber driveshaft boot that needed to be replaced. Terry advised me to leave the trackrod ends for now as they were only just starting to go. When I mentioned the fact that there was a slight wobble in the steering at about 80mph, he laughed.
“That thing’s probably never even done 80 miles an hour before you bought it!” he said.
Anyway, balancing the wheels cured the steering wobble completely. Terry (slightly begrudgingly, I thought) admitted that the Rover wasn’t so bad really and proclaimed the engine to be “bulletproof”. I collected the Rover, fresh from its service, happy in the knowledge that it was now pretty much sorted.
Of course, that wasn’t to last…
Getting to know you
The first thing I thought when I looked inside the Rover 45 I was about to buy was “Wow, this car looks like new!” The second thing I thought was “Oh, my God, that fake wood is appalling!”
I’m sure we all know about Project Drive, MG Rover’s bid to cut costs and become more competitive – I was fully aware of it when I went to view this Rover – but it’s only when you see the results of it with your own eyes that you begin to appreciate how much it affected the quality of the cars. In my eyes, the two areas of the Rover 45’s interior that were most affected by Project Drive were the wood-effect dashboard and the seats.
Early Rover 45s may not have had real wood in their dashboard, but at least it looked as if it might have been real wood: it was really quite convincing. My later 45 is described in an MG Rover brochure of the time as having a “rosewood-effect fascia insert”. I’ve seen more realistic-looking wood on the sides of a 1970s Hitachi television set. It’s terrible. I would dearly love to meet the person who signed off the decision to use it in the car… and I’d like to check their eyesight. Early 45s also had wood-effect inserts in the doors. My later 45 does not and, for that, I’m thankful.
Where this dreadful fake wood is concerned, less is definitely more.
And then we come to the seats. Early Rover 45s had seats from the 75 which were rather comfortable – even if they did look a bit old-fashioned, to my mind. My later 45 has more modern-looking seats, which I think are quite an improvement visually. However, they’re not that great to sit in. It’s not that they don’t offer support; they offer plenty of support. It’s just that they support you in all the wrong places. A car seat that pushes your pelvis and shoulders forward while leaving a big space behind the small of your back is not a seat you want to sit in for a long time.
And then there’s the adjustable lumbar support which pushes into your pelvis rather than into your lumbar region.
“So, that said, relax,” coos the Rover brochure, enticingly. “Mould yourself into the precision-made upholstery of the driver’s seat with height adjustment and lumbar support.” I’m afraid the only way I could mould myself into that seat would be if my spine had been fitted back-to-front.
Shall I give you another example of poor design? The split-folding rear seat where only the backrest splits so that the rear seat, when split, only folds down to about 45 degrees, making it utterly useless.
Having read about these gripes, you might have got the impression that I hated the car that I’d just bought. Well, I don’t hate it – not at all. Yes, the fake wood is terrible. Yes, the seats could be more comfortable. Yes, the rear seat split-folding mechanism is badly-designed. But it’s faults like these that give a car character and charm – if it were perfect, it’d be boring.
One other aspect of the 45 that gives it character in my mind is the mash-up of Rover and Honda parts: a British engine in a Japanese car; traditional English-looking touches in a Japanese-designed interior. It amused me to find that some parts of the Rover – for example, the stalks and the tailgate and fuel filler release levers – seem to have come from the same parts bin as the 1990 Honda Prelude I owned many years ago.
I mentioned earlier my plans to remove the union flag sticker and the tow bar. I was right about the sticker being a pain to remove: it took a lot of white spirit and an hour of patient rubbing. However, I did manage to get it off and after a little touch of wax you’d never know that it had been there. The tow bar was a different matter. I noticed when I washed the car that a small section of the rear bumper had been cut away to make the tow bar fit. If I wanted to remove the tow bar, I would need to replace the rear bumper as well. I decided that I would live with it, looking upon it as an extra bit of rear-end crash-protection.
Having removed the sticker and given the car a wash and wax, it was looking good, despite the tow bar. I bought a brand new original set of MG Rover interior mats from Rimmer Bros, which set the somewhat chintzy interior off nicely. I started to notice that the car was attracting the odd admiring glance – mainly from men of a certain age sporting beards and walking sticks.
In contrast, in the MG Rover brochure I referred to earlier, I was amused to see that the Rover 45 was pictured alongside smart, young, thrusting executives – obviously MG Rover’s target market for the car. There it was, parked outside a modern plate-glass office block; there it was, being driven enthusiastically through the Birmingham tunnels, no doubt by a keen salesman on his way to seal a deal. Did this in any way reflect the people who actually bought the Rover 45? Was there a single smart, young, thrusting executive (outside the MG Rover Group) who chose a 45 as their company car? Somehow, I doubt it.
Anyway, how does the car drive? It’s fun! It reminds me of some ways of the old Minis I owned when I was younger. It handles quite nicely, it’s responsive and, although it’s not as quick as my Honda was, there’s enough power and torque for safe and easy overtaking. My daily drive to work consists of about five miles of narrow, winding, potholed country lanes, followed by one junction of motorway. The Rover handles all of this with aplomb, while at the same time being outrageously economical.
One thing it isn’t is quiet. The L-Series is far from being the most refined of engines. This is at its most noticeable when starting the car first thing in the morning. I wonder whether the Massey Ferguson-like clatter wakes up any of my neighbours as I leave for work. However, things aren’t quite so bad once the engine has warmed up; the racket quietens down to a level of noise that’s just this side of acceptable and it’s perfectly possible to listen to the new stereo that I’ve fitted without having to turn it up to ear-splitting levels.
It’s fair to say that I was thoroughly enjoying my old Rover – but then the problems started…
The troubles begin
I opened the door to get into the Rover one morning to find a strange bit of metal lying in the driver’s footwell. It was round, about half an inch across, shaped a bit like a bottle top but with a slot running across it. I picked it up and turned it over in my fingers, wondering what it was and whether it was anything vital. I thought it had probably dropped out from underneath the dashboard, so I got down on my hands and knees and stuck my head down by the pedals, peering upwards to see if I could see anything obviously broken. I couldn’t for the life of me work out where it could have come from, so I popped it into the glove box. Everything seemed to work fine when I drove the car and nothing else dropped off, so I quickly forgot about it.
I found out what it was about a week later, when I discovered that I couldn’t insert the car key into the ignition barrel. The piece of metal was the very end of the ignition barrel and the slot was where the key went in. Without this piece of metal in place, the ignition barrel closed up and it was impossible to get the key in. After a bit of poking around with my penknife, I managed to open up the slot enough to get the key in and I managed to place the broken piece back in place. However, every time I took the key out, the broken piece came out with it and there was no way of fixing it in place. I realised that I needed a new ignition barrel.
A quick search on eBay turned up an ignition barrel with two keys from an MG ZS at a very reasonable price, only ten miles away from home. I realised that this job was probably beyond my very limited mechanical capabilities, so I booked the car in with my mechanic, Terry, to have the ignition barrel changed. He told me it wouldn’t be a difficult job.
When I collected the car at the end of the day, Terry explained to me what a nightmare of a job it had been to change the ignition barrel. He handed me a large piece of steel – it was the security shielding from around the original ignition barrel. He said he’d never seen security shielding like it. He’d ended up having to remove the entire steering column from the car, place it in a vice and attack it with drills and hammers to get the security shielding off before he could remove the ignition barrel. I was very glad that I hadn’t attempted that job myself.
“God knows why they put something like that on a Rover 45,” he said, “It’s not as if anyone in their right mind would ever want to steal it.”
I had to admit that he was probably right.
Anyway, thanks to having to have the ignition barrel changed, I now have two keys for the Rover: a Rover key to open the boot, and an MG key for the ignition – something else to add to its charm. You may be wondering why I didn’t go for a Rover ignition barrel, rather than one from an MG. I realised that if I did that, I’d end up with two seemingly-identical Rover keys and I’d always be putting the wrong one in the ignition.
The next problem to rear its head was one that is very common on Rover 45s, and one that – somewhat surprisingly – I was completely unaware of until it happened to my car. I’m talking door handles. I happen to think that aesthetically, the Rover 45 door handle is a thing of beauty: a nicely-chromed, well-shaped handle set into a body-coloured surround.
If only the build quality lived up to the looks. The problem is that the handle’s body-coloured surround is made of a very weak plastic. Two bolts screw into the body-coloured surround, holding the handle to the door. If you pull a door open a trifle enthusiastically, you are likely to find that the plastic cracks and the handle and its surround come away from the door.
I don’t think the rear seats in my 45 had been used very much and, because of this, the rear door handles were a tad stiff. I’d only had the car for about a month when I noticed to my surprise that both rear door handles were starting to come away from the door. A quick Google search informed me that this was a very common problem and advised me of a fix (perhaps “bodge” would be a better word), involving some very strong adhesive. I did search eBay for some replacement handles, but all of the ones I saw in my car’s colour looked in worse shape than mine.
So, both rear door handles were promptly bodged. Having had to repair them, I’m now very aware of their fragility, and this means that I now open the doors in a particular way so as to lessen the strain on the handles: I push my thumb against the surround while pulling the handle (as illustrated below). Of course, it’s all very well me knowing that the doors need to be opened like this, but other people obviously don’t know – and, even if told, they sometimes forget. So I’ve become quite adept at getting to the car first whenever a door needs to be opened and opening it myself. My friends and family must think I’ve become very courteous in my old age; they don’t realise I’m just doing it to save the car from further damage.
Mind you, I don’t always get there in time. We went to stay with my mother-in-law in Yorkshire just after Christmas. After an evening’s heavy rain followed by a heavy frost, the doors of the Rover were frozen shut. Having finally managed to coax open the driver’s door with a combination of warm water, de-icer and patience, I was horrified to see my mother-in-law stride over to the car, grab hold of one of the rear door handles and yank the door forcefully open. My fruitless shout of “No!” must have echoed around Scarborough like a foghorn, but it was too late: the door was open. Thankfully – amazingly – it was undamaged. My bodge had held.
The next problem to afflict the Rover was the heater resistor – again, a very common problem, but this time an absurdly cheap and easy fix, thankfully.
Just recently, I’ve sourced a front wiper motor and linkage on eBay, as I’ve noticed that the wipers occasionally sweep too far and hit the edge of the windscreen. I’ve had this happen on two other cars in the past and, in both cases, the wiper linkage eventually broke. I haven’t got around to fitting the new linkage yet, but that’s my next job.
What a litany of problems! But, lest we forget, this Rover 45 is over twelve years old and it is now being driven more than it has ever been driven in its life. For its first twelve years it led something of a sheltered existence – barely being used at all, some years – and now it’s being heavily used as a full-time family car. This is no pampered “modern classic”. Yes, things have gone wrong. But they’ve all been fixable (or bodgeable) and none of the problems have shaken my belief that this is a car that has got years of life left in it.
What’s next? Well, I’m currently bidding on eBay for a roof box to give us some extra storage space for when we travel over to the continent in the car this summer. I’m sure the Rover will cope just fine (touch horrible fake wood).
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.