Friday, 3 October 2008

Classic - Rover 216 Vitesse

We have a lot to thank the Japanese for. They’re an industrious little archipelago, collectively counting the introduction of raw fish into the western diet and the practice of drunkenly serenading your friends in nightclubs amongst their many achievements. They gave us animé. They’re really good at flying fighter planes. Their mobile phones make ours look like the inexpert handiwork of Jacobean peasants. They make wine out rice and, against all the odds, it isn’t disgusting. They’re generally quite short so they’re not irritating to sit behind in the cinema. And, of course, their cars are pretty damn good. It’s commonly acknowledged that Nippon rides are more reliable, less problematic and better built than their overseas rivals. It’s also true that, historically speaking, they’ve consistently pioneered technological automotive advancement to an extent that made the rest of the world blush mightily and hide behind their live axles and rapidly dissolving steel.

Little surprise, then, that an impoverished Rover drew upon the know-how of the rising sun when they were looking to build a replacement for the Triumph Acclaim. (A Rover replacing a Triumph? Welcome to the Byzantine structure of British Leyland in the eighties…) The Acclaim, of course, was based on the Honda Ballade – in ignominious end for Triumph, one might argue – and BL saw no reason to dick about with the formula. The Rover 200-series was based on the second-generation Ballade, with just enough parts nailed on in the UK to meet British component-content requirements. The collaboration agreement between Honda and British Leyland had been signed in 1979 (with the Acclaim being produced from 1981-4), so the relationship was sufficiently strong to roll out the thinly-veiled EuroBallade in 1984, Rover’s Viking longship proudly glued to the nose. The positioning of the new four-door saloon was supposedly to sit in the model line-up alongside the Maestro and Montego as an upmarket alternative. If you have first-hand experience of these three models, you’ll be aware that this is the kind of logic that might lead to the conclusion that Jordan is an upmarket version of Jodie Marsh but hey, BL didn’t have time to be logical – there was national pride in industry to restore!

Unfortunately, in the quest for a quick entry into the quasi-upmarket family car world, credibility was somewhat compromised by their endearingly childish compulsion to get the car into showrooms without really thinking it through. They weren’t overly concerned with rustproofing for one thing, and the fact that the 200-series was pressed from magical Russian steel that turned into miniature fireworks when it came within ten feet of an arc welder provides a very good reason why you really don’t see that many of them around these days. They rusted, they couldn’t be repaired, they got crushed and forgotten. Indeed, the model seems to live on solely as Hyacinth Bucket’s light blue runabout, which is a very depressing legacy indeed.

The car was available in two iterations: the 213 and the 216. The former came equipped with Honda’s triple-valve 1.3-litre engine, while the latter came with Rover’s 1.6-litre S-series in either carburetted 85bhp guise or with Lucas injection and 101bhp. The Honda unit was more refined but ultimately pretty sluggish, while the S-Series was a woefully archaic lump that traced its roots back to the Austin Maxi. The car was surprisingly warmly received by the motoring press, who overlooked the questionable ride quality and downright frightening handling in the wet, possibly because they were provided with the swanky Vanden Plas model which had leather seats and electric windows, just like a posh car. Favourable reviews led demand to outstrip supply, so that punters had to join a waiting list for their 200-series.

British Leyland were flourishing in the face of potential catastrophe, and in 1985 they played their trump card – the 216 Vitesse was launched. It came equipped with uprated suspension for a more controlled and less terrifying ride, huggy sports seats, pseudo-aerodynamic addenda at both ends and fancy latticed alloy wheels. The pedestrian saloon could now boast a fine sporting pedigree… Now, slapping a Vitesse badge on the back did draw inevitable comparisons with the SD1 Vitesse and, to be honest, the 216 just couldn’t match up to the hype. The Rover SD1 looked like a pie-chomping Ferrari Daytona and the Vitesse model had a barnstorming 3500cc V8, while the 216 Vitesse just had that weedy 1600cc four-pot. It got pissed all over by the XR3i too, but the discerning 216 driver could take solace in the fact that he was a few rungs up the social strata above the Dagenham hoi palloi. OK, this wasn’t actually the case, but the fake wooden door inserts and beige plastics sort of created that impression to the more deluded and impressionable motorist, which is basically the same thing.

So… poor build quality, unimpressive reliability, short lifespan, underwhelming performance, delusions of grandeur – a chapter of motoring history that deserves sweeping under the carpet? Well no, not really. You see, BL’s tie-in with Honda really helped push the Rover brand to the masses in the mid-eighties. Alright, they weren’t brilliant, but they weren’t expensive either, and people were used to shonky quality from British cars – it was easy to conveniently ‘forget’ the Japanese assistance when the cars where still assembled at Rover’s Longbridge plant, so folk could take pride in buying British. The 216 Vitesse was the jewel in the series’ crown, appealing both to young upstarts who wanted something a little out of the ordinary and to the pipe-and-slippers old farts who were still clinging to a rose-tinted view of domestic industrial triumph and honest-to-goodness imperialism. And it had a jazzy rubber spoiler on the boot, like an RS2000, which is just about as cool as you need to be.
Just you try finding one today though. In hindsight, maybe Honda should have supplied the bodywork too…


Anonymous said...

Just a couple of points

Firstly the 200 (SD3) used real walnut trim. As did the following R8 200.

Secondly - Use honda bodywork? Have you seen how few Hondas are left from the 80s? Not very many!

Anonymous said...

Nice write up! I had a 213 as my first car, 1.3 12v Honda lump was surprisingly rev happy and survived 40k of 'yoof' driving and in 3 years of ownerships only the boot release broke, so I must have had a rare reliable. Sadly rust killed it in the end as with all of them.

juice said...

I think the boot release must have been a weak point - my mum had a G-reg 216 Vitesse when I was a kid, and the boot would often spring open on the way home from the supermarket and liberally spray groceries across the street...

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