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On This Day


Wednesday 29th March 1995

23 years ago

The Rover 400 was officially launched, and was met with a sense of muted antipathy from the press. It was clear to even the most casual observer that this car was almost pure Honda in its design – in fact, to more seasoned observers, the changes that Rover had made were disappointing in their ineffectiveness. In a nutshell, the new mid-sized Rover appeared to be almost as much a Honda (as opposed to a British car) as the original joint-venture – the Triumph Acclaim – had been back in 1981. Many questions were soon asked of Rover: Why such a disappointing design? Had it not been for BMW, would this have been the shape of Rovers in the future? Rear view was more appealing than the frontal aspect, but somehow the proportions seemed slightly wrong – the cause probably being attributable to the long nose and short, truncated tail. The saloon version, which appeared early in 1996, addressed this issue admirably – and proved to be one of a very rare breed of cars: a well-balanced notch-from-hatch conversion.Rear view was more appealing than the frontal aspect, but somehow the proportions seemed slightly wrong – the cause probably being attributable to the long nose and short, truncated tail. The saloon version, which appeared early in 1996, addressed this issue admirably – and proved to be one of a very rare breed of cars: a well-balanced notch-from-hatch conversion. Rear view was more appealing than the frontal aspect, but somehow the proportions seemed slightly wrong – the cause probably being attributable to the long nose and short, truncated tail. The saloon version, which appeared early in 1996, addressed this issue admirably – and proved to be one of a very rare breed of cars: a well-balanced notch-from-hatch conversion. As it was, there was a lot to applaud the Rover 400 for, though: the car marked the first application for the new, enlarged version of the K-series engine – now cleverly expanded to 1589cc. Refinement and performance of this new version was certainly up to scratch, and like its smaller brother, it proved to be more than a match for its Honda counterpart. This change in engine policy meant that in terms of petrol powered units, the range was now powered entirely by British engines (1.6-litre automatic, aside), whilst the diesel versions were now L-series powered (as opposed to Peugeot XUD-powered). The 400 range offered a wide variety of power options – 1.4-litres through to the 2.0-litre T-series engine – and even though the entry-level model was somewhat smaller than its rivals, Rover countered the lack of cubic capacity with a high specific output. Although the 136bhp version of the T-series engine found a natural home in the Rover 400, it was the 2.0-litre version of the KV6 engine (codename Merlin) that really excited the company. Producing a healthy 150bhp, the KV6 was under development and running in Rover 400 “mules” even before the car was launched – but it would not be until the arrival of the facelifted Rover 45 model in 1999 that a V6-powered Rover midliner entered the sales catalogue. Be that as it may, the highlight of the K-series was somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the car. The people that mattered – the customers – found the Rover 400 somewhat disappointing and overpriced. If the premium pricing policy seemed like a winner with the classy and compact R8, its replacement certainly did not appear to have the looks to justify the continuation of this policy. Of course, Rover countered this allegation by telling everyone to wait for the saloon version, due in early 1996, but it did not ease the fact that the new 400 hatchback was not what the public wanted at the time, and was certainly not offered at a favourable price. Autocar magazine was reasonably pleased with the 416i and reported so in their road test. The verdict was lukewarm – and they gave the car qualified approval: “with looks that will be routinely mistaken for Honda’s new five-door Civic, this latest 400 needed to be convincingly different beneath the badge. This it achieves by a whisker. With that sweet spinning, characterful K-series engine and an outstanding urban ride quality, Rover has created a car that feels genuinely unique, not just a cynical badge engineered Honda. Sure, Peugeot’s 306 still has the dynamic measure of this car, but compared with the dull homogeneity of the competition from Ford and Vauxhall, the 416i offers up just enough “typically Rover” character, just enough specialness to raise it above the common horde. But only just.” At least Autocar were realistic in their choice of rivals for this car, plucking them from the small/medium arena. In Rover’s launch advertising for the 400, they pitched it against such luminaries as the Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna and Citroën Xantia. Interestingly, it compared very well to all-comers in this class on the handpicked “ride quality” index figure. All but the Citroën, that is. Profile shot of the 400 saloon shows that classy-looking saloons can be sired from hatchbacks – maybe the public's perception of the Rover 400 range would be remarkably different had this version been launched first.Profile shot of the 400 saloon shows that classy-looking saloons can be sired from hatchbacks – maybe the public's perception of the Rover 400 range would be remarkably different had this version been launched first. Sales of the Rover 400 in the UK were buoyant, and in direct comparison with the combined sales of the outgoing R8 400 and Montego, they appeared to be quite good. But the comparison is certainly muddied by the fact that the 400 was designed to fight in the “D class” rather than the upper end of the “C class”, as marketeers liked to refer to the differing market sectors. So in the heart of the UK market, where Ford and Vauxhall continued to make hay, Rover continued to appear almost mortally weak. In the first full year of sales, the 400, including the stylish saloon version, grabbed 3.15 per cent of the market – and although Rover continued to make noises about not chasing volume sales, the cold hard facts were that after allowing for Honda’s royalty payments on each 400 sold, profit margins were not huge. Export sales continued to make reasonable headway, so even though sales in the home market were suffering, Rover’s production volumes remained at a reasonable level – no doubt helped by the BMW connection. However, exports are affected by the fluctuations of the currency markets, and as we shall see, Rover and BMW would suffer terribly from these in later years. In 1997 and 1998, the Rover 400 captured 2.85 and 2.55 per cent of the UK market respectively, maintaining a regular top ten presence. By the following year, however, this had collapsed disastrously to 1.51 per cent. What had caused this collapse? Well, the product had never captured the public’s imagination in the way that the R8 had, but also, following the change in government (May 1997) and the strengthening of sterling against European currencies, the price of imported cars had become so much cheaper in relation to that of the domestically produced Rover. This allowed companies such as Renault (with the Megane) and Volkswagen (with the Golf) to make serious inroads into the Rover’s market. What made the situation even worse for Rover was the flipside: the price of UK cars became more expensive in export markets, so in order to remain price competitive, Rover needed to drop their prices to such an extent that they began to make serious losses. By 1999, BMW had begun to take emergency measures for Rover – and the first of those, was the replacement of the 400 by the 45 in December 1999.

Rover 400

Rover 400

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