The Brightest Hour Is Just Before Twilight (2)

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.

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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.

Image: Rover Group

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.

This is what basic looked like. Image: Rover Group

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.

Living with the curse of sophistication. Exploded view of one side of the R8’s Honda-designed rear suspension. They did it to the other side too. Image: Haynes

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.

To the distress of SD1 admirers everywhere, the shiny grille arrived with the 1993MY 400 facelift and soon spread to the entire range. Retro-fits were all the rage, and not just to R8s. XX 800s, Metros, Montegos, and even Maestros got them too. Image: Rover Group

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.

Image: Rover Group

Reference sources:

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

14 thoughts on “The Brightest Hour Is Just Before Twilight (2)”

  1. Bravo Robertas, this is an excellent, realistic review of the R8.

    I really hated the addition of the ‘toothbrush’ grille, especially on the coupé.

    On build quality, I recall that the level of rectification work rendered by Swindon was massively less than that required on the Crowley-built Legend. The Concerto always came across as a bit of a poor relation, but as you wrote previously, it mattered so much less to Honda than the 200 did to Rover.

    1. Mr. Robinson, if you read this, could you please contact me directly? Many thanks.

  2. Yes, excellent work, thank you Robertas. There was, of course, a fourth variant that was unique to Rover, the three-door hatch with the “opera” windows aft of the body-coloured C-pillars, as seen in the photo above. This was an interesting resolution, and more characterful than the obvious alternative treatment, retaining the floating roof and blacked out C-pillars of the five-door.

  3. These provided much needed sales and a boost to the companies image of course but I see these cars as the real end point for Rover as a proper car company that could independtly engineer a new vehicle from the ground up. Having utterly failed to get a grip on increasing standards and improving technology through the 70s and 80s, even with the partnership with Honda on XX, they just surrendered wholesale and became largely trim designers.

    Other than the 75 with it’s heavy BMW input (design and parts, and better for it) everything they ever introduced after this was made from reheated R8 parts (R3 200), was a trim and badge option on a Honda (600, 400/45), or was just wrongheaded and crap (75/ZT V8, that idiotic supercar). Their largest contribution, the K series engine, was a disaster.

    1. Hi David. Although very similar is style to the contemporary Accord, the 600 actually had unique bodywork and a “four-light” DLO, unlike the Accord’s six-light design (with its additional rear-quarter window behind the rear door). My impression of the 600 is that had a rather chequered life on the market: briefly fashionable and even aspirational, it seemed to descend quite quickly to used car lot fodder, and even relatively young examples seemed to age prematurely. An elderly acquaintance of mine had one and it felt quite old and baggy, with lots of creaks and rattles, even at a relatively low mileage. Perhaps this is a harsh verdict on limited evidence and I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences of the 600.

    2. Agreed Daniel. It had some pretty strong competition at the time too, didn’t it? 406, Mondeo, Vectra and Laguna all spring to mind for starters and the Rover didn’t manage to break through in the end, even though it felt like it might do for a while soon after launch.

  4. The 600 deserves several stories of its own. What’s fascinating about the seven Honda / Rover joint ventures is that each was structured differently in terms of input by the two firms, commonality of shared components and use of major assemblies by the two companies -and even outside suppliers (Peugeot, Chrysler and VM for example).

    The differentiation of the 600 and Accord bodies-in-white was masterly, but the chassis suffered the Honda blight of over-complicated mediocrity (don’t believe everything LJKS told us…).

    The 600 played more than a bit-part in Rover’s downfall as immediately after the BMW takeover in 1994 Honda forced a renegotiation of supply and royalty terms for the 600, which gave the new masters a zero or negative margin on sales. The result was that its replacement, the R40 (Rover 75) was given priority, rather than the R30, which would have taken over from the mediocre and uncompetitive 400/45.

    The reason given for BMW’s purchase of Rover was that it would give the amalgamated business the economies of scale necessary to compete as a sustainable independent entity. A better than class-competitive C segment car could have delivered the numbers BMW needed, the 75 didn’t.

    In case anyone’s wondering:

    Rover 600 (1993-98): 270,998
    Rover 75/ MG ZT (1999-2005): 238,424

  5. Compared to cast iron, aluminum blocks reduce engine weight by about 8 to 10 pounds per cylinder. That’s it !

    If the K engines had cast iron blocks, the cars using them would have weighted 40 to 60 pounds more, and Austin Rover might be still with us.

    Frankly, aluminum blocks are stupid for street driven cars.

    Every manufacturer has problems with them, although not as frequent as Rover.

    If you really want to save vehicle weight using aluminum, there are a hell of a lot less risky ways to do it than aluminum blocks.

    If a manufacturer in the 1980s wanted to save weight in car using aluminum, a sensible place to start would have been: aluminum subframe, aluminum suspension struts and control arms, aluminum rad support, aluminum bumper beams, aluminum hood and fenders, aluminum trunk lid…

    With that strategy, instead of a fragile, failure prone engine and a rust prone body, you get a durable, robust engine and far fewer corrosion prone panels and parts. And you save a hell of a lot more weight than 40 to 60 pounds !

    1. They made many design decisions with the K that seem utterly pointless from an end user point of view, even if they’d stuck with aluminium there was no real need to push the weight savings to such extremes. You can make a robust aluminium engine, just not the way they did it.

  6. This Saturday morning, I saw a Rover 200 and memories came up from the darkness. I am very fond of this car, I can say that I admire it. This one was a dark gray 4 door version. We talk about the 1989 models. It had a modern and powerful engine, if I remember well the 1.4 offered 90 horsepower, and this when the Golf 1.3 was 65 or 75 hp. Modern suspension, like the Honda Civic, good brakes. The styling was distinctive, elegant, and one of its main strengths. The larger cars were never sold here, so the 200 was the first example of SD 1 influenced styling we saw. The roof floated above the glass and the dark colored pillars. I particularly liked the third side window. It was offered in interesting colours. The usual metallic greys, white, red, blue, a very nice brownish dark red that suited the 5 door beautifully, a very nice dark green, racing green style, I think that dark colours suited the Rover 200/400 better than the light ones.

  7. However, black was not popular. I may call it by mistake Rover 200, 200 was the 5 door and 400 the 4 door? I liked the before and after facelift cars the same, something that I don’t say often for other cars. It caused a sensation here because after all these years of Japanese cars, came something different. There were people who had owned British cars in the past, and were happy to see them return to the market. These cars were well built and they are still on the road. I saw a white one 5 door recently in great condition.

    1. Good morning gpant. Yes, the R8 generation 200/400 were really nice cars and suited Rover’s image well:

      They were nicely trimmed and finished cars, and definitely felt more ‘premium’ than their C-segment competitors. There was a wide range, comprising three and five-door hatchbacks, a four-door saloon , five-door estate, coupé and convertible.

      The R8’s successor was a real disappointment, dowdy and cheap looking by comparison.

  8. Continuing this discussion, Daniel, please allow me to describe an hypothesis of my thinking. I suggest that there always were people in my country who loved British cars. As an example, the Rover P6 was easy to find here. The next car, the SD1 was rare, I never remember having spotted one. The Rover 200 was the answer to these people. A positive statement, saying Rover is here to make you feel happy. And people responded positively. Somehow the 200 covered the need the SD1 had left unanswered. After Rover stopped producing cars, these people were left on their own in the desert. The market that needed a well built upmarket car existed and still does so today.

    1. Good morning gpant. Yes, the automotive landscape in Europe really lacks a modern day equivalent to Rover or Lancia, cars that are formal and comfort-orientated, rather than trying to be overtly ‘sporting’. Both marques were, of course, terribly mismanaged and abused en route to oblivion (or near-oblivion in Lancia’s case). As long as the market remains fixated on SUVs and crossovers, a revival of the formal saloon looks highly unlikely, sadly.

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