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If You Can't Sell a Honda to the Brits, Try Calling It a Rover

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author photo by Aaron Gold September 2016

The other day, I was talking to someone about Geo, the short-lived GM brand that was an oddball collection of cars from Japanese partners Suzuki, Toyota and Isuzu. Lest you think such illogical leaps are exclusive to America, let me tell you about the time a British automaker climbed into bed with a Japanese partner: British Leyland's association with Honda.

If you think things were bad at GM in the 1970s, you should have seen British Leyland's cars of the same era. Britain was never really known for top-quality automobiles, but BL's products at the time were unusually slipshod, to the point that any model coming out of the factory with at least 60 percent of the intended number of doors was considered well built. Build quality was so bad that even the Brits were sick of 'em, and believe you me, these are people who know how to endure misery (case in point: the Spice Girls).

Enter the BL-Honda alliance. The first product of this unholy union was the Triumph Acclaim, a rebadged version of the Honda Civic sedan, known in the UK by the comical name Ballade. BL was smart enough to mostly leave the design alone, and the Acclaim stunned the British public with amazing feats such as starting on the sixth or seventh try, driving through puddles without stalling, and not reducing itself to a fine rust-colored powder after the first snowfall.

In 1984, the car was renamed Rover 200 (the last two digits denoted displacement, so the cars were called 213 or 216), and in 1989, there was a new version, based on an angular Euro-market Civic hatch derivative, with the more sensible name of Concerto.

This is the point where the 200 and I crossed paths. I went to work as a college intern for a British car magazine, and we were at the tail end of a long-term test of a Rover 214. BL (now Rover Group) had messed with the Concerto this time, but for once they managed to not screw it up. They fitted an in-house-designed engine, known as the K-Series, and the 1.4-liter version was a cracker with four cams, 16 valves and 102 horsepower -- note that this was during a time when Volkswagen's 1.8 put out only 90 horses (the 1.4-K was later used to good effect in the Caterham Seven). The British may not be much for screwing cars together, but they know how to make a good engine, and the 214 was a solid car, with enough leather and wood inside to allow one to forget it was really just a re-engined Ballade ... er, Civic.

Our 214 disappeared, but I soon made the acquaintance of another long-term Rover, the 620. The 600 was a 3 Series fighter, a class of car known in Britain as the "executive saloon." The 600 was based on the Accord, and when I say "based on the," I mean "was an." Honda couldn't give Accords away in the UK, but all it took was slightly smoother sheet metal, a chrome grille and a Rover badge (well, that and a factory in England), and the Brits were in love.

I spent a lot of time in the 620; it was the managing editor's long-termer, and he'd often take home other vehicles as they came through the office. If no one else snagged the 620, I would (mainly because it beat the other option, a 1.0-liter Nissan Micra). It was the nicest Accord I ever drove, and aside from a mysterious brown goo that oozed from the grille when the weather turned warm, it held up pretty well. I always figured the 620 would do well in the U.S. were it not for the disaster that was the Rover 800. We'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Rover200

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
If You Can't Sell a Honda to the Brits, Try Calling It a Rover - Autotrader