The Brightest Hour Is Just Before Twilight (1)

30 Years ago this week, the Rover Group launched perhaps its best realised product. We look back at the R8, née Rover 200-Series.

Image: Rover Group

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.

Image: The author

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.

Image: Rover Group

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.

Image: Rover Group

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 214 cutaway. Image: Haynes

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.

14 thoughts on “The Brightest Hour Is Just Before Twilight (1)”

  1. Thirty years… Time is really flying. I have some memories of the Concerto, which was sold outside Japan, too – at least in Switzerland it was quite a common sight, probably more so than its Rover equivalent. A school friend of mine used to drive one of these, belonging to her mother, in the early nineties. It was indeed a somewhat unusual Honda design, being taller than the contemporary Civics and Accords. This probably accounted for the untypically roomy interior. I remember that I liked the sober design with the flush windows a lot. I think that Honda today could learn something from their past…

  2. An excellent piece celebrating a real high point in Rover’s chequered history, thank you, Robertas. The R8 was a delightful car and demonstrated the full potential of the Rover-Honda relationship. As Simon pointed out, it wasn’t a typical Honda and was genuinely influenced and improved by Rover’s knowhow and was a true “semi-premium” offering, a clear cut above the Escort and Astra. This made the R8’s successor all the more disappointing: the 400/45 was nothing more than a rebadged Honda, and not a particularly good Honda either.

  3. How times change… I well remember the R8, as they were quite popular in Portugal.
    My father had a red 416GTi with the 130hp engine from the Honda CRX and it was quite punchy for the time.
    It was very well equiped (seat height adjuster even) and the interiors were quite above VW, Ford, Opel and all the french suspects. I think it was even above contemporary BMW’s, although not as long lasting.

  4. The Honda was also sold in Britain, although it was indeed a niche offering.

    This was a good car and a sales success for Rover, although this was largely because it offered a decent value proposition. Unfortunately, Rover let this success go to its head, and prices crept up. The company seemed to think it had done all the work necessary to be considered a true luxury nameplate.

    The ‘Tomcat’ coupe over reached itself and was a commercial flop, and the successor 200 and 400 models were just too expensive.

    Jaguar would go on to make similar mistakes with the XE and XF, effectively throwing away market share.

  5. I will be interested to see where Robertas takes us in the follow up episodes. It may be no accident, but the timing of Robertas’s informative article is appropriate given the recent marking of Sir Michael Edwardes’s passing. This was indeed most probably the high-point of the Honda-partnership era, although at one point I thought the 600 would surpass it.

    The core R8 did well because it got the basics very right and was tastefully attired. The interior was so well executed in terms of its trim and overall aura. I’d argue that the previous generation 200 in facelifted form gave a strong taster for what was coming.

    Sadly, the weak links proved to be the Rover engineered engines – the M Series was a bit rough and thrashy and the K Series was fragile (possibly as a result of being light and powerful for its size). It seems amazing then to me that BMW, having bought Rover, allowed it so much autonomy to develop out the K Series to larger capacity and V6 formats.

    Before the Tomcat there was an interesting 3-door version and a nice estate, albeit I recall they got the rear doors wrong in that conversion.

    1. That’s intriguing S.V. What was the problem with the rear doors?

      The Tourer really was a handsome thing:

    2. And a cabriolet too… that’s six bodystyles off the same basic architecture.

      Such choice!

    3. The problem was that they were carry overs from the hatch, and so the proportions of the rear side window to the door window and broader door aperture were not right.

    4. Oh, right, I see what you mean when I look at the side profile of the Tourer:

      It might have benefited from a more upright C-pillar, but at least the D-pillar is still more inclined than the C-pillar, so it’s not so bad. Estate cars with upright tailgates and sloping C-pillars (so that the rear side window is longer at the top than at the bottom) always look slightly odd to me, like the estate version was an afterthought:

  6. This car´s the next step after the Triumph Acclaim. It´s not a very convincing Rover at all. Nice car in many ways but so obviously a form of badge engineering. I was not aware Rover had so much input. That makes the lack of Roverness all the odder. One thing is true of this period, that quite a few firms identities were watered down in the name of bland contemporary (not Modern) designs.

    1. Good morning, Richard and NRJ. I’m somewhat surprised by your lack of enthusiasm for what was probably Rover Group’s most succesful and highest quality product (after the very expensively developed 75). It may not have had any traditional Rover styling cues, but Rover already had history of revolution rather than evolution in this regard: The P5, P6 and SD1 were all totally different designs with no carried over design cues. The closest to an evolutionary design was, ironically, the five-door fastback version of the XX 800, which was strongly reminiscent of the SD1, especially in the rear three quarter view. I really liked the R8 and XX in their original forms, before the addition of the chromed grille that was the start of an ultimately futile move into “retro” designs. Rover was sufficiently proud of those designs that it considered rebodying the Montego in similar style:

      This makes the dreary 400/45 replacement for the R8 all the more disappointing. The Rover developed R3 200 was, however, a very credible “larger supermini” but was hobbled by Rover’s greedy decision to pitch it as a Golf/Astra competitor instead, just as the 400/45 was pitched against the Mondeo/Vectra.

  7. Hi,

    Iam surprised too that Rover has so much influence, especially with the exterior design as the 200 always looked Japanese to me but it could be because I knew it was based on the Concerto.Even though I was young, I think I was somehow aware of the power balance between the 2 manufacturers and to me, Rover was most probably the one who did the begging and went to other manufacturers in search for a replacement to the 213/216. I absolutely loved the 213/216, I think it looked very original and I think it could have been a sort of British 3 series, in the style department at least. Shame the styling theme wasn’t carried over but then again Rover was busy going bankrupt back then.

    1. These cars were indeed principally Hondas under the skin, but Rover somehow convinced Honda that they understood the European market much better than they did, and so had a fair amount of influence in shaping the product.

      This led to an odd line up in Honda’s dealerships, where customers could choose from a Civic in various bodystyles, or a Civic Concerto or Domani, which were similarly sized and related but quite different.

      The second gen 200/400 (then facelifted and renamed the 25/45) did not build upon the success of the first gen model – as mentioned above, they were decent cars, but the marketing was hopeless. Even then, Honda might have persisted were it not for the BMW takeover.

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