In the second part, we examine R8’s mid-career and consider the heart of the matter – the all-new K-Series power unit.
In mid-life, the proliferation continued with three wholly Rover developed variants codenamed Tracer (1992), Tomcat (1993), and Tex (1994), respectively a convertible, T-roofed coupe, and sporting estate car.
The K series engine was completely new, the replacement for the Austin A series which was introduced in 1952, and had not changed in its basic architecture over 37 years and a 59% increase in capacity. The design was entirely ARG/Rover’s with no Honda input.
The new 1.4 litre engine had an astonishingly high specification for the entry-level engine of the range, far in advance of anything offered by European competitors. The slightly undersquare (75mm x 79mm) all aluminium in-line four, with 16 valves operated by twin belt-driven overhead camshafts, gave a healthy 95bhp at 6250rpm. Fuel injection came as standard with the K16, albeit Rover’s home-grown MEMS-SPi single point fuel-injection system rather than full multipoint EFI.
Rivals were still firmly in the carburettor and two valves per cylinder era, and perhaps Rover’s launch of the class-beating K16 version of the engine was a deliberate attempt at “shock and awe”, in an audacious assertion of technological leadership.
In mid-1990 the K8 engines arrived, with the same bottom end as the original 16V unit, but topped by a completely different cylinder head with wedge shaped combustion chambers, and eight valves in line operated by a single overhead camshaft. In the pre Euro 1 days, this engine was fed by an SU KIF44 carburettor.
Though technically regressive, the 75 bhp 1.4 litre K8 brought the 200 within reach of those who might otherwise be considering a low-spec Golf, Escort, or Astra, but now had the option of a car which did not, every time they used it, make them wish they had paid a bit more.
The Rover 200/400 would never challenge the might of VW, Ford or GM in sales numbers – Rover lacked the production capacity and distribution and support infrastructure, but the sales figures are still impressive. It was, by a massive margin, the best-selling car ever to carry a Rover badge. Aggregated with the 126,346 Concertos produced at Longbridge the 200/400 was a million seller, and then some – the actual total is 1,080,045.
Another impressive statistic is that the R8 200/400 was the sixth best-selling car ever produced by the constituents of the BMC / BLMC / ARG / Rover behemoth. Ahead of it were the Mini, ADO16, 1100/1300, Metro, Minor, and Marina/Ital. The shortest-lived of these had a production life of 13 years. Rover’s best-seller had an effective lifespan of less than six-years, although the aristocrats of the range, the coupe, convertible and ‘Tourer’ estate, continued to be produced in small numbers until 1998.
The Rover R8 was not a car to thrill the car enthusiast or connoisseur of engineering as, for example, the Citröen GS or Alfasud did. Its significance is as a demonstration of how to get so much right, from a company which had previously under-achieved in this market sector. At this point the reader will wonder if this paragon of perfection had any flaws. The widely-known K series engine problems I’ll reserve for later.
On other matters, the ride and handling, while acceptable by the standards of its class and time, never lived up to the promise of the complicated Honda multi-link rear suspension. Some European rivals, the French particularly, did far better with less.
Build quality of the R8 was far better than its BLMC/ARG predecessors, but the amount of rectification work Honda carried out at Swindon on Longbridge-built Concertos suggests that there was room for improvement with the Rover-badged cars. The 220 Turbo cars, with nearly 200bhp of less than linear power output, were downright uncouth despite the adoption of a Gleason Torsen differential.
The R8 Rover 200/400 was to be the pinnacle of achievement by the Rover / Honda alliance, which had been annulled before the end of the car’s model cycle in mid-1995. As for the K series, which showed so much promise, and was even more widely acclaimed at the time of its launch than the car it powered – that’s a different story, and a far from happy tale.
CAR September-December 1989
When Rover Met Honda. Carver / Seale / Youngson. CSY Publishing 2008
Rover 214 and 214 Owners Workshop Manual. Haynes Publishing Group 1992
Men and Motors of ‘The Austin’. Barney Sharratt. Haynes Publishing Group 2000-2005
Rover – The First Ninety Years. Eric Dymock. Dove Publishing 1993
The Rover K series engine 1989-2005. Des Hammill. CP Press 2008
Austin Memories austinmemories.co.uk