THE VERY FIRST ROVERS THAT WEREN’T REALLY ROVERS
The new breed of Honda-based Rovers included some wonderful cars, but Terry Burgess wonders how well the strategy worked out for the British marque in the long term.
In mid-1984, the Britishowned motor industry was a shadow of its former self. Following over 15 years of the calamities of British Leyland, Austin-Rover as it was now called was regrouping, casting off much of the legacy of its BMC and Standard-Triumph origins and looking forward to a smaller, brighter future. Jaguar was divested and soon to be privatised, the MG and Triumph factories had been closed and the Morris brand killed off early in the New Year. Of the BMC heritage, the Mini remained and the Metro was a clever repackaging of what had gone before and was very much a BMC car in its essentials. The A+ power unit descended from the 1952 Austin A30 engine continued in these cars, and also in the Maestro and Montego 1.3 models. The SOHC 1.6 and 2.0-litre engines also used in those cars were descended from the E and O-series units of the Maxi and later Marinas.
Of Triumph, there was almost nothing left. The Spitfire and Dolomite had struggled on until 1980, and the TR7 until 1981, latterly made at Cowley and then Solihull. Although nothing remained of those models, the 2300 and 2600 engines used in the Rover SD1 were of Triumph derivation, which brings us to Rover. Leaving aside Land Rover still made at Solihull, there was really only one Rover in early 1984 – the Cowley-built SD1. It wasn’t so very unusual for Rover to be marketing one basic type of passenger car, as the P4 (sold variously as the 60, 75, 80, 90, 95, 100, 105 and 110) had been Rover’s sole offering from 1949 until 1958 when the P5 Three Litre was announced.
The SD1 hadn’t been quite the success British Leyland had hoped for, mainly due to quality and reliability problems with earlier versions, but the Rover name still had some credibility and Austin-Rover decided that the replacement for the Triumph Acclaim should be a Rover. The Acclaim itself was a rebadged Honda Ballade, the first fruits of an agreement between Honda and Austin-Rover which would continue until the BMW takeover in 1996, although the Honda-derived 45 model continued until 2005. The Acclaim was manufactured on the old Maxi assembly line at Cowley. It differed little from the Ballade, but despite jingoistic mutterings it was an immediate
success, having the lowest warranty costs of any car ever manufactured by Austin-Rover or its predecessor companies and providing a smooth, lively, economical performance from its 1335cc four-cylinder OHC power unit, with the options of fivespeed manual or three-speed automatic gearboxes.
Honda replaced its models at relatively frequent intervals compared with the British company and the new Honda Ballade was due for launch in 1984, so Austin-Rover prepared to replace the Acclaim after just three years in production. The decision to name it Rover was a logical one, as the brand was perceived as more upmarket than Triumph and their intention was to create a new model more distinct from its Japanese sister than the Acclaim had been, with a higher perceived quality of interior furnishings. The resulting Rover 213 was mostly pure Honda, but the 216 models to be launched in March 1985 were to have the Austin-Rover S-series SOHC engine, although with the Honda gearbox in manual form.
June 1984 saw the launch of the Rover 213 which, unlike the Acclaim, was to be produced at Longbridge in the old Austin works. There were four versions: the 213, 213S, 213SE and 213 Vanden Plas. The SE came with automatic transmission as standard, although all models were available with or without it. At the time the styling seemed bold, with a distinctively boxy, wedge shape having a low bonnet line and high boot. The frontal treatment on the Rover was quite different from that of the Honda.
When referring to this generation of small Rovers, it is customary to describe them as SD3. This is not the official model designation, but follows from SD1, the range code for the large 2300/ 2600/3500 and later 2000 hatchback Rovers and the SD2 project which was cancelled. SD stood for Specialist Division and had its origins in British Leyland rather than Rover, who had previously used the simple P for Project system, hence the P4, P5 and P6. The true code for the 213/ 216 series is XH, although this seems to be little known (other than to spare parts suppliers) and never caught on with enthusiasts.
In fact it really is misleading to refer to the XH as the SD3 because the car had little to do with British Leyland’s Specialist Car Division at all. In fact it marked the beginning of the Rover brand’s transition from a relatively low-volume specialist manufacturer to a mass-market brand, effectively replacing Austin and Morris. Therefore, I shall use the XH designation for the remainder of this article.
The XH, although very closely based on the Honda Ballade, was somewhat different both outside and inside. As far as the 213 versions were concerned the differences were cosmetic, as mechanically there was no difference at all. It is tempting to assume that the XH was little more than an updated Triumph Acclaim, but that is not the case. Whereas the Acclaim had MacPherson strut front suspension, the XH has longitudinal torsion bars after the fashion of the Ital/ Marina/ Minor, although somewhat differently attached to the floorpan. Austin-Rover made some changes to damper settings, but the ride and handling received criticism from the press in early test reports.
In time for the launch of the 1.6-litre models, improvements were made to the suspension by Austin-Rover and these were subsequently incorporated by Honda for the Ballade. I’m not going to go into detail regarding the 1.6-litre variants of the XH, but suffice to say that they were sold with carburetted and fuelinjected versions of the S-series engine and offered a higher-performance alternative to the 213 models.
I have owned two 213S models, both silver in colour, one a 1987 E-registered automatic in the late 1990s and the other a 1988 F-registered manual which I have just sold. The automatic 213 also used a Honda gearbox which you might suppose to be a good thing, but Honda – not wishing to pay royalties to patent-holders Borg-Warner and others – had designed
their own automatic gearboxes and continued to do so until 2014, avoiding the planetary geartrains usually found in sequential automatics and using conventional individual gears on parallel axes, each gear being selected by its own hydraulic clutch. Unfortunately these transmissions were not always reliable long-term. My own car had begun to exhibit worrying symptoms at about 72,000 miles before succumbing to terminal corrosion in the body structure, particularly the sills and rear wheelarches. In the 1990s Honda was the subject of a successful class action in the United States due to premature automatic transmission failures on the US-built Honda Accords, which usually managed only 75,000 miles before expiring, although some did better. The 216 models did not use the Honda automatic transmission, having a ZF unit, so although the 216 engine was considered less well-behaved than the 213, being prone to oil leaks and electronics problems, the automatic 216 had the more reliable gearbox.
The most reliable XH was the 213 with manual transmission which was not only reliable, but offered excellent economy and spirited performance with a 0- 60mph time of 11.5 seconds. The 213S, with a red S on the boot-mounted badge, wasn’t a sporty version as might be expected, but really a deluxe version with full wheel cover trims, chalkstripe/plain velvet upholstery, a radio cassette and remote fuel-flap and boot releases. The automatic-standard 213SE (optionally manual) was a bit posher still with walnut veneer door trims, rear seat hatch, central armrest and box/ plain velvet upholstery, while the Vanden Plas was poshest with leather upholstery, soft shagpile carpet, RDS radio, electric windows and central locking.
Mechanically the 213S was and is a gem with a wonderfully smooth, rev-happy yet very flexible three-valves per cylinder SOHC Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine driving through a slick five-speed gearbox. Sadly, early cars were particularly prone to rampant corrosion, extending even to the upper doors on some examples, but all models were prone to rust in the sills (both inner and outer) and the floors where they joined the sills. The fronts of the rear wheelarches were also highly vulnerable, together with the transverse box section behind the front bumper. A large proportion of XH models were rotten before they were ten years old, which explains why there are very few examples left, despite production of over 418,000 from 1984 to 1989. By contrast, the Rover SD1 sold 303,000 in ten years and the Rover P6 sold 322,000 in 14 years. After the transfer of SD1 production to Cowley in 1981, only four-wheel-drive vehicles would be made at Solihull. The SD1, the last true Rover, faded away in 1986, itself replaced by another Honda-based confection, the 800-series.
The XH 1.3s weren’t heavy at around 880kg, so the performance exceeds what you’d expect from 70bhp and the car is very chuckable, although prone to losing traction from the inside front wheel when exiting roundabouts and tight bends on the limit. If I’d kept mine, I might have looked at fitting a rear anti-roll bar. CVCC engines could achieve very low emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, thus easily meeting emissions standards without the use of a catalyst. My own car recently gave test results which were way inside the limits for modern Euro VI engines. However with CVCC, emissions of oxides of nitrogen are high and, as catalysts became compulsory, so CVCC lean-burn engines disappeared.
Today they offer exceptional economy for a classic car and the 213S can easily achieve averages above 40mpg, being compatible with unleaded fuel, although E10 is another matter! The 213S was a really decent car in its time and, if you can find a solid example today and keep it that way, it is a great modern classic. It represented progress for Austin-Rover and led to the highly successful R8 214/ 216, 414/416 range with its various derivatives, including the 220 Turbo Coupé and the later bubble-shape 200/ 25s and the 400/45s. Meanwhile, back in the late 1980s the Rover name was applied to the Maestro, Montego and an updated Metro. For many diehards, the debasement of the Rover brand was complete, and it all started with the XH 213 in 1984. Calling Hondas Rovers rather than Austins probably helped sales, but one wonders what might have come out of Solihull had the Rover company not fallen into the clutches of British Leyland and its successors.