With the mileage covered since purchase on Tuesday now standing at over 210, I’m able to reflect more on my feelings about the car. I don’t feel any disappointment that it isn’t a 600 – I will still own one at some point.
There’s naturally a big nostalgia kick with this car. The 200 (project R8) was launched in 1989 – the year I started Secondary School. The 400 saloon followed on early in 1990. In 1993, I had my school work experience at the Land Rover factory, and I still remember being driven up to the Gaydon test facility in a Rover 200 – though I can’t recall which engine it had. I do remember that the bloke, a test driver, borrowed it from a colleague, and then gave it a darned good thrashing. “It’s good to blow the cobwebs out,” he said. As he spent his days driving the Discovery Mpi, he was probably glad to be driving something with a bit of oomph…
A few years later, my dad owned a 414 – an M-plate one, so fairly near the end of production for the R8. I was driving myself by then, so don’t have many memories of travelling in it other than the occasional time I borrowed it. These cars were everywhere at this time though, especially if you travelled around Longbridge – where the cars were built alongside Honda’s Concerto.
This may cause arguements, but I reckon the R8 was the first Rover since the P6 that was actually any good. Don’t get me wrong, I like pretty much everything Austin-Rover/BL built, but the R8 was a real move forward. Maybe that was the influence of parent company BAe, but I’m sure it has more to do with the increasingly happy relationship that Rover and Honda enjoyed. The Triumph Acclaim was the first flowering of this relatoinship, but really was just a Honda Ballade with different seats. The SD3 Rover 200 that followed was pretty good, but also clearly very Honda, even if the 216 used a Rover engine. The Rover 800 may have shared the Honda Legend’s underpinnings, but managed to look and feel very different indeed. A shame then that build quality was just not quite there.
The R8 changed that. It had the quality but you also felt that Rover had a far larger say in the design of the car than what had gone before. Honda’s double-wishbone suspension was replaced by good old MacPherson struts up front and a clever-Accord-esque four-link rear suspension. The driving experience was a great deal better too, with far more concession to the European market. Greater ride comfort allied to improved (if still not perfect) ergonomics. Now the 216 used a Honda engine while the 214 used Rover’s new K-Series engine. A great engine in my experience, ruined by cost-cutting and production issues that harmed reliability. Something British Leyland knew a lot about! Head Gasket Failure became sadly common-place, but far less so on earlier cars. When it began production, it was a corker – 96bhp from just 1.4-litres and also 45mpg economy. It made Ford’s Escort and Vauxhall’s Astra seem woefully outdated.
The Rover 600 was perhaps even better, being more like the 800 and looking very different to its Accord sibling. But all was not well. The re-skinned 800 was not entirely successful, hindered by a need to retain the flat roofline of the earlier model. Then BMW took over and the Honda relationship was utterly doomed. 1995’s new Rover 400 was also a good car – the ride in particular was especially fine from personal experience – but it somehow lacked the clean-cut lines of the R8 and the view of it has been somewhat tainted by the fact that it remained in production, as the 45, until the very end of MG Rover in 2005. Also, the main beam was absolutely hopeless. I certainly remember that! We flogged it and bought our 1986 Mini instead. I think the headlamps were better.
So, I shall just bask in the enjoyment my R8 gives me. It demonstrates just how good Rover could be, and perhaps could have remained if the Honda partnership had been maintained. After all, platform sharing is no bad thing. Just ask Volkswagen.