Don’t be fooled. This is not your usual car launch. Oh, for sure, the country house location is a mainstay of this kind of event, and the display of cars, fanned out around the impressive frontage, is par for the course.
The light refreshments in a conference room ahead of a press conference will also be familiar to anybody who has attended a product launch, and yes, there are even company representatives on hand to schmooze the journalists, while photographers snap away, looking for the perfect angle.
But something is amiss. For the cars spread around the entrance of Lucknam Park, a fabulous Palladian stately home-turned-hotel in the Wiltshire countryside, are 30-year-old Rover 200s.
They – and indeed, we – have been gathered here today by the Rover 200 & 400 Owners’ Club, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the international launch of the second-generation 200 by... holding it all over again. And the stops have all been pulled out.
Not only are we at the original location of the launch, but we’re here 30 years to the day after the event; one of the cars here would even have been here the first time around, as it’s the first 200 to have left the production line.
What’s more, we’re joined by Denis Chick, who oversaw the event itself as Rover’s global head of communications, and Kevin Jones, now Head of Communications for DS, but who, 30 years ago, was in charge of Rover’s fleet of press cars.
This is quite a singular event, then, and one which a great deal of effort has gone into pulling together. But, you’re probably asking, why? After all, to most people, the 200 – and its booted saloon counterpart, the 400 – was a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable family car.
Yet to Rover enthusiasts and British motor industry historians alike – not to mention those who were employed by the company at the time, as Chick and Jones recall – the time of the launch of the R8, to use the car’s official development code, is remembered as one of real optimism.
The company was finally getting its act together after years of corporate thrashing. And with, at last, a corker of a mass-market offering in its new small family car, the stage was set for Rover’s recovery.
The R8 really was good, and thanks in part to a development process in partnership with Honda, whose Concerto shared the 200’s basic body-in-white, it could boast a litany of engineering and specification highlights.
All-aluminium fuel-injected engines, all with 16-valve heads, came as standard throughout the range – though a single cam, carb-fed version was added later on as a ‘budget’ option – and every model got independent multi-link suspension. You could specify even the cheapest 200 with power steering and anti-lock brakes, too.
After years of British Leyland ‘make do and mend’, this meant the 200 finally felt like the class leader Rover had long promised, but failed to deliver. The 200 even made other, established rivals like the Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra look staid and dated, and it comprehensively trounced Ford’s Mk5 Escort, which was to arrive a year later with barely any of the 200’s advanced engineering.
This, then, is a Rover worth commemorating; one that, in another reality, might have heralded a turn-around and a return to prosperity for a company that was, surely, due such a thing.
So what’s it actually like? Happily, club member – and co-organiser of the day – Craig Cheetham has kindly offered to let us get behind the wheel of his 43,000-mile, Flame Red 214Si, to find out. We’re heading out on the original road route around the Wiltshire countryside, in convoy with several other 200 owners who’ve turned out for the day.
This 1.4-litre K-Series engine was the second-least powerful engine in the 200 range, but with 95bhp to its name, it punched well above its weight, bettering some rivals’ 1.6-litre engines, let alone their 1.4s.
Where it struggles, however, is with torque, as we soon discover out on the road. On the flat, in 5th gear, the 214 bimbles along quite happily, but show it an incline, or demand anything more than gentle acceleration, and it’s stumped – more so than its higher-capacity rivals would be.
Happily, the gearshift is sweet enough, so slipping down a ratio or two is no trouble, and with a few more revs on the clock the little K-Series bounds along much more gamely, singing its heart out as it goes.
It’s a comfortable little car, this, too – perhaps not quite as fluid over larger bumps as a Peugeot 309, but smooth nonetheless, its suspension glossing over smaller potholes and soaking up the worst of the bigger ones to boot.
It handles neatly, too. Turn the wheel, and the nose follows sharply and directly; there’s very little of the sort of body lean you often find in cars of this era, and if you push harder, there’s a good supply of grip on offer, with the result that the 214 feels agile and light on its feet.
Granted, the steering – which isn’t power-assisted in this example, but doesn’t need to be as it’s plenty light enough – could offer more feel, but with that exception, the 214 is rather a lovely little thing to drive.
Its trump card, however, is its interior. A huge glass area means plenty of light, and light, warm materials choices only add to the airy feel. The plastics all feel high-quality, too; next to the pervasive cheapness of the contemporary Escort and the Teutonic austerity of the Golf, the 214 feels like a breath of fresh air.
And while the thin slivers of wood might look dated now, it isn’t hard to see how much more upmarket they would have made the R8 feel when compared with its contemporaries; the same goes for the plush velour fabrics and carpet-lined doors.
This, then, is a very likeable little car that has far more historical significance than you might think. It’s also a fabulous starter classic available for very little cash, if you fancy that sort of thing. Tidy examples can still be had for less than £1,000, while even the very best shouldn’t cost you more than £5,000 or so.
Of course, there are issues to watch out for: the K-Series is famous for its propensity to eat its head gasket. Indeed, its notoriety as such is one reason Rovers gained a reputation for iffy reliability during the 1990s – just one of many reasons why that bright new dawn faded away, in the end.
But most of these engines will have had their head gaskets replaced with stronger aftermarket items that last the course. And with that exception, the 200 is a reasonably robust little car, and one that’s cheap to look after.
Here, then, is that rare thing: a modern British classic in the making, with a place in the history books, that’s affordable to buy and own – and one for which you won’t have to make excuses. Not to mention one with the support of a friendly owners’ club that, on the evidence of this ‘launch’, doesn’t do things by halves.
Next time you see one out on the road, then you might give one of these Rovers a second glance – be it to lament what might have been, or to celebrate when Rover got it right.
Have you ever owned a Rover? Do you miss the brand, or is it good riddance? Let us know in the comment section below.