30 Years ago this week, the Rover Group launched perhaps its best realised product. We look back at the R8, née Rover 200-Series.
In the late 1980s it really did seem that at last Rover Group had finally found its place. Much of the credit was due to their new Japanese friends, but the rump of British Leyland was at last demonstrating a new found competence and confidence. However, agony would eventually follow the ecstasy of these heady days.
On 11 October 1989 Rover Group presented, with justifiable pride, the second-generation Rover 200 series, and with it the eagerly anticipated and all-new K-series engine. Every new Rover of the era had an equal and opposite Honda, and the 200’s was the Concerto, which had gone on sale in Japan in June 1998, only 16 months after Rover and Honda had signed the contract to build Project YY as a joint venture.
The precocious arrival of the Honda product is unlikely to have pleased the British side of the partnership, but the Suzuka-built Concerto was very much on the margins of the Honda range, sold in the Japanese domestic market through the upscale Honda Clio dealer network as their only representative of the Civic platform family.
Engines, interiors, and external skin details apart, the Concerto (HW) and Rover 200/400 (R8) project was fully engineered by Honda, but styled to the dictates of Roy Axe’s design office in Canley. The result was a car very much in the character of the XX Rover 800, with flush side glass, blacked-out A pillars and the signature SD1-influenced frontal treatment.
The interior for both the Rover and Honda also followed the themes set for the 800, which was admired for its appearance and ergonomics, but blighted by poor fit and finish. The dashboard and furnishings were engineered in their entirety by Honda, with Japanese switchgear and instruments. The result was a somewhat diluted interpretation of the 800’s interior idiom, but with far greater integrity.
The Concerto / R8 was far more important to Rover than it was to Honda, and the British partner was able to dictate the specification where it mattered. The most obvious manifestation was the Longbridge-built cars’ MacPherson strut front suspension. Japanese-built Concertos had the double wishbone set-up which was becoming a Honda standard. Rover insisted on the struts, to provide space for a diverse selection of engines: 1.6 litre Honda D series, 2.0 litre Rover M series, Peugeot XUD diesels, and the 1.4 litre K series.
Rover’s input to the design included some Issigonis-era desiderata; the bodyshell’s torsional stiffness was 17% greater than the outgoing 200 and 8% greater than the Maestro. The new car was also notably better packaged than the Honda norm – Rover Design Director Roy Axe claimed that that “we have a car not much larger than an Escort with a Sierra interior package”.
With most of the work under the skin delegated to Honda, Rover’s designers were able to dedicate their attention to visual presentation, and here they excelled. Sparingly-used wood and chrome, along with attractive fabrics gave a premium feel to the interior. Exterior treatments were equally successful, with carefully chosen colour schemes, wheel cover designs and even badging typefaces. “Retro” influence went no further back than the hugely influential 1976 SD1, but egregious modernity was also avoided.
Choice was at the heart of the R8 series’ success. It could be a retiree’s runabout, a high-miling diesel saloon, or a be-spoilered GTI without looking incongruous in any of these roles.
The five-door 200 hatchback was joined by the four door 400 saloon in March 1990, and the three door 200 hatchback arrived in September of that year.
Part two follows tomorrow.