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Rover 213 and 216 (1984 - 1990)

Last updated 25 September 2013

 
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Model Timeline

April 1982
Austin Rover begins strategic planning for its Acclaim replacement

Austin Rover was very happy with the image that the Triumph Acclaim had picked up in the minds of buyers – the Japanese connection was proving to be a positive asset because it was proving to be an antidote to the now deeply-ingrained image of unreliability that was associated with the rest of the product range. This was no mere perception either; to this point in time, the Acclaim generated the lowest warranty costs in the history of the company – and if nothing else, it proved that the British workforce was highly effective in assembling cars to Japanese production tolerances.

Mark Snowdon stated that for the first time in recent history, the outgoing Acclaim was, “…a product we’re not dissatisfied with. And that shows clearly that we’re making good progress.”

Where the Triumph Acclaim was let down, was that it was seen as being out on a limb and out of step with the rest of the range and therefore, difficult to market.

This dilemma occupied the minds of the strategists, because basically as before, the new car’s configuration being strictly controlled by Honda, the marketing of the car would play a much more important role. Early on in planning for the new car, Austin Rover decided that it should be a more upmarket car than the Acclaim – this decision being justified by Snowdon, “Luxury versions of both big and small cars sell well at the moment. Because we already have volume car representation in the hatchback and notchback markets, it makes sense to position the Acclaim’s replacement as a more luxurious and expensive car.”

In fact, because the car that Honda was developing to replace the current Ballade was slightly larger and arguably more stylish, it made positive sense to follow this path and turn the new car into some kind of latter-day Triumph Dolomite.

Because BL’s car division was now known as Austin Rover, and Triumph was now in its last gasp, with the TR7 now dead – and the Acclaim acting merely as essentially a stop-gap, the decision was taken to introduce the new car as a Rover. This fit in nicely with the company’s plans to move this car into a more upmarket niche, in fact, Mark Snowdon was extremely keen on the move. “Our company’s name is Austin Rover. People tend not to associate the name Triumph with those two. It was particularly confusing in Europe, a market where we are starting to do well. We also thought the Rover badge would simply be more appropriate on a small luxury car. Triumph still has the image of cheap sports car makers – and that’s not what we want.”

This strategy of placing such a prestigious nameplate on such a small car was certainly a risky one because there was a very real danger of cheapening the Rover name. If nothing else, it certainly showed that Austin Rover had a great deal of confidence in the ability of the new car to carry off its move upmarket without hitch.

Unlike the Triumph Acclaim, it was clear that there was room to develop the new car modestly – and the first step was to develop their version of the car to accept the forthcoming S-Series engine. There was very real logic in this decision because although the Acclaim had been a sprightly car, because of its revvy engine and light weight, the slightly heavier new Rover would need a larger engine option in order to become a viable alternative on the fleet market – a sector the company was keen on re-establishing itself in.

The Acclaim was never particularly a big success as a company car – 26 per cent of the sales of this model were sales to the fleets – an unusually low number for a British mid-sized car. As it was, it was claimed that the 1.3-Litre version would contain a 70 per cent local content – the same as the Acclaim – but that figure would be increased significantly to nearer 90 per cent in the S-series powered model.

Also at variance from the Acclaim programme, the interior of the Rover would be more influenced by Austin Rover – whereas the Acclaim had been almost pure Honda, the newer car had a more British interior. Careful attention was paid to this aspect of the new car’s design – a particular design brief was to give the impression of quality and airiness. Happily, Rover achieved these aims. This, along with the Rover-influenced grille/headlight treatment more successfully placed the car as home-grown in the minds of potential buyers.

May 1983
Honda Ballade undergoes transformation into new Austin Rover

car

As the new car neared production, it underwent a serious amount of customer clinic work, in order to get the sales and marketing strategy just right. Significantly, a car that they Austin Rover would use as a benchmark for the new car was the Ford Orion: the logic behind this was simple – this car was (in an engineering sense) merely an Escort with a boot, and yet it commanded a healthy premium over its hatchback counterpart because of its more exclusive nature. In testing at Gaydon, as well as in customer clinics, the Rover would go head to head with the Orion on many occasions. In customer clinics, the choice of the Rover name was backed-up by a positive response, “we found that out of all the possible names, ‘Rover’ was best suited to the car”, stated Snowdon.

There was a great deal of thought put into the naming of the new car, now Rover would be offering a two-car range, the new car’s nomenclature would need to integrate with the then current SD1, but also the upcoming XX model. Rover traditionally have never used names for their cars, always preferring a numeric title, and following this logic it would be common sense to name the new car the Rover 1300 and Rover 1600, but after serious consideration by Austin Rover, they decided to brand the whole series as one, rather than giving the two versions individual titles.

The reason for this, was that the idea had proven for successful for BMW and the usage of the 200 Series moniker was the British company’s take on this. And so it was thus: 1300cc versions would be known as the 213 and the 1600cc versions were to be known as the 216. Unfortunately, in true Rover tradition, the full range was not available at launch in June 1984 the S-Series versions would follow later that year.

Technically, the car was pure Honda, however, but unlike the Acclaim, the 1984 version of their Civic model was more suitably sized for Europeans. The wheelbase was useful 5.5 inches longer than the Acclaim, giving the car considerably more interior room – and the revisions to the interior undertaken by the British certainly succeeded in giving the new car a more upmarket ambience. This quality was played upon with relish by Austin Rover, who centred on this aspect of the car above all others in marketing it – and rightly so.

January 1984
New Triumph is a Rover

Interior of the 213 Vanden Plas, as pictured in the original Rover 200 advertising campaign: the emphasis was placed heavily on the on the exclusivity of the product. The tactic certainly worked because the car soon successfully distanced itself from the rapidly fading Maestro and Montego models in the minds of aspirational customers, even though it was dynamically their inferior. If anything the initial marketing worked too well, because when the company quizzed potential customers in 1985, the answer they got was that the 200 was too expensive for them!

Interior of the 213 Vanden Plas, as pictured in the original Rover 200 advertising campaign: the emphasis was placed heavily on the on the exclusivity of the product. The tactic certainly worked because the car soon successfully distanced itself from the rapidly fading Maestro and Montego models in the minds of aspirational customers, even though it was dynamically their inferior. If anything the initial marketing worked too well, because when the company quizzed potential customers in 1985, the answer they got was that the 200 was too expensive for them!

The Rover 213’s engine was arguably the most advanced ever to be fitted to an Austin-Rover/BL/BMC car and the specifications of new 1342cc power unit certainly made impressive reading. This Tokyo developed crossflow 12-Valve power unit allowed for free breathing and as a result of the improved gas flow that this configuration allowed, improved fuel economy was the result.

The Rover 200 was classically “wedge” shaped and nowhere is that fact more evident than in this photograph. In no way can it be considered stylish in the way that more aerodynamically styled rivals were, but it was well received by the British public nonetheless.

Improved carburation further improved potential for economy when compared with the Acclaim, which had a more traditional twin-carburettor setup. The new engine also was light, because of its all-alloy construction, and compact because of its siamesed cylinder bores (which has been done before in the dim and distant past of BLMC). The result of this considered piece of design was an impressive power output of 70bhp at 6000rpm (the same as the Acclaim), and maximum torque of 75 lb/ft at 3500rpm (an improvement over its predecessor). Both these figures compared very favourably to the A-Plus engine, which in Maestro form produced a reasonable 68bhp, but with considerably less mechanical refinement.

Austin Rover’s modifications to the suspension setup were limited to minor adjustments to the damper rates, with the aim of improving the ride quality – the result was an improvement over the Honda Ballade, but because the suspension componentry was manufactured in Japan, Austin Rover was really limited in what changes it could effect.

June 1984
Rover 213 launched

When the press first drove the Rover 213 in June 1984, much discussion followed over the choice of the names for the car – and the surprise was evident (as most people assumed it would be badged as a Triumph) in the words that followed regarding the effect the new small Rover would have on all those traditionalists out there. Be that as it may, the Rover 213 acquitted itself very well.

First impressions may have been rather favourable, but the extended drive would reveal flaws in the overall chassis package. Ride was not a notably strong point of the rear-wheel drive SD1 Rovers with their live rear axles and although the Rover 213 Vanden Plas is completely different in concept… it is fair to say that the ride was not this baby Rover’s strongest suit either.

What this all added up to was that the Rover 213 added up as a car high on static qualities, but fell short when it came to the extended drive. That was certainly the view of the Road testers out there – and yes, back-to-back with a Montego over give and take roads, it is fair to say that the Rover 213 would not see which way the Montego went, but in terms of raw showroom appeal, the Rover had the beating of the all-British car – and that was most certainly not good news for Austin Rover, who saw the Montego as a volume seller at the time.

May 1985
Rover 216 launched

The appeal of the appeal of the Rover 200 Series was considerably broadened later that year when the 1.6-Litre 216 versions were launched – and if the S-Series engine could not hope to compete with the silky smooth Honda 12-Valve in terms of refinement, it gave the small car a fair turn of speed – and in the bar room talk of the mid-'80s, that mattered.

Unlike the S-Series powered Montego and Maestro models, the Rover 216 remained with a Honda gearbox, the same type that was used in the 2-Litre Austin and MG Montego/Maestro – this did the car no harm whatsoever because in service the models which used the VW gearbox were not only found to be rather unpleasant in use, but were also questionable in their reliability (fleet managers reported that the fault lay in the linkages – an Austin Rover part). Forsaking this option for the Rover 216, meant that the company was not running the risk of compromising its reliability.

Rover used the opportunity to also make some further reaching changes to the suspension set-up: Honda managers had originally stated flatly that this was their system and Rover did not need to tamper with it, but they had not figured on its sheer incompetence in its initial form. What Rover found was not so much a problem with the ride quality – that was always going to be compromised by the fact that the suspension had limited travel, but what they – and road testers – found was, disconcertingly, the car would suffer from excessive pitching under acceleration and corkscrewing when cornering.

This basic flaw obviously resulted in inconsistent handling and the company did not want such a compromise present on their car – Honda derived or not. So, the chassis engineers went about trying to solve the problem, which they did fairly quickly. It was found that there was a seventeen per cent difference in spring rate between the left and right rear wheels, which once eliminated by Austin Rover, left the Rover 200 with consistent and class-average ride and handling. Significantly, Honda also took up these modifications in their Ballade model – and not just those built Longbridge.

September 1987
Rover 200 facelifted

For 1987, the Rover 200 range received a mid-term facelift. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this nip and tuck helped contribute to the car's burgeoning sales. Within the company, it was referred to as the "800 facelift", and many elements of the bigger car can be seen in this version of the 200 - especially the interior and trim/colour combinations. Access to the boot was also vastly improved with the adoption of a lower loading sill.

For 1987, the Rover 200 range received a mid-term facelift. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this nip and tuck helped contribute to the car's burgeoning sales. Within the company, it was referred to as the "800 facelift", and many elements of the bigger car can be seen in this version of the 200 - especially the interior and trim/colour combinations. Access to the boot was also vastly improved with the adoption of a lower loading sill.

This was the first real sign that the Honda deal was becoming more involved. Whereas the Acclaim was a licence build arrangement, pure and simple, the Rover 200 would mark the start of more co-operative thinking. Honda marked the event with the announcement that, following in Nissan’s path, it was to set-up a facility in the UK at a green-field sight in Swindon.

The site, which initially was quite small scale, was set-up to perform quality checks for their Ballade models produced in Longbridge – and the upcoming HX model (the Honda Legend) produced at Cowley. If the site was a success, there were further plans to phase in the production of engines – and eventually cars. Meanwhile, over in Longbridge, Honda were also making their presence felt, because along with the production of the 200 model, there was also the announcement made that Rover would be working with Honda to phase in the gradual introduction of Japanese working and managerial practices.

This would mark a significant turn in the history of the company’s labour relations and managerial practices – something that would live on long after the deal with Honda fell-through.

The car itself certainly benefited from the development work that had been undertaken on it in the background and unlike the other models in the range, the Rover 200 became increasingly popular throughout its life. Along with the carburettor-fed 216 cars, there was also the Lucas injected EFi models, available in luxury Vanden Plas and sporty Vitesse trims – and these soon became the focus of the marketing department, who soon realised that this compact and quick package was a highly marketable proposition. The Rover 200 already abounded with static qualities and now, thanks to the relatively powerful little engine, it had excellent straight-line speed as well – something that Ford had successfully latched onto a year or so before with the XR3i engined Orion 1.6i Ghia.

The oft-referred to halo effect soon trickled its way down the range until all Rover 200s were seen as a sub-BMW 3-Series alternative. Of course, the car did not possess a depth of abilities to get anywhere near the BMW, but certainly for the first time in a long time, the British company had produced a car with real showroom appeal.

In sales terms, the Rover 200 exceeded the expectations the company had of it, but that success possibly reflects the failure of the Montego and Maestro, rather than the World-beating success of the 200 model. The sales story of the Rover 200 Series in the UK is brought into relief by the relative performances of both the cars (listed below), as reported by the SMMT: The Montego’s figures read exceptionally disappointingly when one considers that this was a volume seller, conceived to fight Ford and GM in the company car market, whereas the Rover 200 was initially treated as a niche model by Austin Rover:

UK SALES19851986198719881989
Montego 73,955 62,658 56,238 63,649 57,835
Rover 200 43,669 45,197 50,254 58,890 68,316

The jump in sales of the car from late 1986 onwards can also be put down to the fact that the advertising and marketing emphasis of the company radically changed after the arrival of Graham Day. One surprising fact about the Rover 200 was unearthed by Austin Rover’s huge market research programme undertaken (from late 1985 into the following Spring) was that customers perceived the it as being an expensive car – as Kevin Morley put it, “Customers see the Rover 200 as a car with a starting price of £10,000”.

April 1990
Rover 200 production ceased

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