Rover R8 – A Launch From The Past

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By Chris Pollitt

Writing about classic cars for a living is pretty great. However, given the classic nature of the subject matter, getting invited on press launches for ‘new’ cars isn’t something that ever happens. Or so I thought.

Last week, I saw a press release on Newspress that filled me with glee and saw me sending an email in a flurry of giddiness. The Rover R8, as it turns out, is thirty years old (yes, it makes me feel ancient, too) and to celebrate this, the 200 and 400 Owner’s Club took it upon itself, with the help of motoring PR man, Craig Cheetham, to reenact the media launch from 1989. Same cars, same location and even some of the same people. What an amazing concept! I dusted off my Fine Young Cannibals tape, set my VCR to record The Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow and hit the road for the Cotswolds.

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The destination was Lucknam Park Hotel near Chippenham in Wiltshire. Back in 1989, it had only just become a luxury hotel, having been a private residence prior. It was perfect for Rover. This was virgin territory in terms of car launches, and as such, it would serve to further cement the importance of the car Rover was launching – the R8 200 and 400 series. 

This is where the uneducated will chip in with the same, tired head gasket jokes. The bit where the cretinous will hark on about how the Rover R8 was a bad car. Their reaction is not based on any substance or fact. It’s merely the manifestation of a schoolyard like mentality that sees the dim pick on the easiest target, and given Rover is now defunct, it’s a very easy target indeed. These people, however, have usually never driven an R8. If they have, it was a haggered, unloved shed. But here’s the thing, any car that’s not looked after will be rubbish. It’s nothing to do with the badge.

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I’m a fan of the Rover brand. A huge fan in fact. I’ve owned five R8s and three 800s (in fact, I still have one in the form of a 1999 Vitesse Sport). That said, I’m not so passionate as to be blinkered by pride and think  Rover could do no wrong. I agree and fundamentally know that the K Series had head gasket issues. What I don’t do, is dine out on that one known failure and tar the entire range with it. The Lotus Elise had a K Series, so did the Morgan Plus 4. Where are the head gasket jokes?

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Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

The K Series was in fact the bedrock of automotive advancement on which the R8 was built. Nothing in its class offered an engine as advanced or as refined as the K Series. It boasted double overhead cams, 16-valves and fuel injection. It was a smooth, powerful, refined engine. And if that didn’t float your boat, there were the Honda engines (remember, the R8 was a joint venture between Honda and Rover). The R8 was powered like no other car in its class. The ageing Escort boasted a clattery CVH that would make eardrums bleed if pushed. The Vauxhall Astra? We were still on the Mk2 in 1989, and it was an old car then. The Rover was a cut above.

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Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

Of course, the R8 wasn’t just about the engine. The car was something of a marvel too. It was and, in my humble, still is a good looking machine. The build quality for a car of this class was outstanding. Compare it to the Escort and Astra mentioned earlier and it’s chalk and cheese. The cars come from a Period when Rover was on song, when the staff took a great deal of pride in their work and when the engineers gave them something genuinely great to screw together. The R8 still feels tight and together, even thirty years on. And they’re great on the road. Fully independent suspension (five-link at the rear), perfectly weighted steering, brakes that were matched perfectly to the R8’s mass – it was and still is an absolute joy to drive. Even a 1.4 can enthral, while a 220 T Series turbo model will leave you breathless. 

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Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

And all this was worth celebrating. Or, as this wonderful event demonstrated, still worth celebrating. To be at the same venue as those journalists some thirty years ago was special. With the cars lined up outside the hotel, a 214Si, 214 GSi, 216 SLi and 216 GSi, including the first R8 to roll of the production line, it felt like we were in 1989, until we had to send a Tweet or use our smartphones to take a picture that is!

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Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

The 200 and 400 Owners Club, overseen by Chairman and former Rover Group engineer, John Batchelor, pulled out all the stops for this event. The cars, the location and even a fifty mile drive route so we may better experience these cars. The icing on the cake, however, was the presence of former Rover Group Product Communications Manager, Denis Chick. He very kindly hosted a talk covering the original launch, after which he fielded questions from the owners and journalists assembled. Dennis’ presence, complete with Rover clothing, further served to take us back to ‘89. It felt like we really on the launch of this car! And it didn’t stop there, as former MG Rover Product and PR Manager, Kevin Jones, was there too, and was more than keen to add information and anecdotes to the offerings of Dennis.

As a concept for an event, this is frankly, brilliant. It’s just somewhat strange that it takes the Owner’s club for a now defunct company to take the first step. This day out was fun, it was interesting and it was strangely immersive. It wasn’t a club of people with blind faith for a car that did indeed have its flaws. It was the coming together of people who are simply passionate for this once great brand, and who quite rightly want to remind the motoring world that the cars still have significant merit. Other brands should be doing this too, in my opinion. After all, how can you look to the future without celebrating the past?

Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

Rover, Rover 200, Rover 400, Rover R8, R8, 200, 400, Rover R8 Launch, Rover 200 and 400 Owner's Club, classic car, retro car, motoring, automotive, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk

It might be easy to mock the Rover brand, but more fool those of you who do. Rover was a once magnificent brand, rich in staff that loved the product. It was the management, the funding and the questionable latter-day buyouts that killed off Rover, not the cars. The cars were good, they were built with passion and as this event goes to show, there is still a rich, entrenched group of people who are passionate about them. I’m very proud to be one of them.

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