Rover 416i (1985 – 1989)

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From the outset, you wouldn’t believe this is a Rover, but it is! A short-lived variant only available to the Australian market, this beautiful looking sports saloon is one Rover product that everyone appears to overlook, even though, for one of Britain’s pioneer brands, and it’s Grandfather Clock image, it certainly was something else!

To trace the Rover 416i, you have to go back to the collapse of Leyland Australia in the early 1980’s. After years of strike action, poor workmanship, and the monumental failure that was the Leyland P76, British Leyland’s operations in Australia were, for the most part, finished, concluded with the closure of their Zetland Plant in 1974. For the remainder of the 1980’s, British Leyland continued only to produce export models of the Mini, and its Dune Buggy variant, the Mini Moke. By the time the 1980’s started, it was clear that British manufacturers had to get back into the game to fend off the highly successful competition of General Motors subsidiary Holden, and other American brands such as Ford, as well as the Rising Sun that was Japanese corporations, with Nissan and Toyota setting up shop in the Outback as well.

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Who’d have imagined a Rover with pop-up headlights?

Due to the massive failure that was the P76, Leyland’s reputation in Australia had been pretty much tarnished for good, and the Australian market had no desire to buy the company’s latest products, the Maestro and the Montego, especially after some rather unflattering word-of-mouth regarding their reliability. Successor to Leyland Australia, Jaguar-Rover-Australia, or JRA, decided that the only recourse was to create a car specifically for the Australian market, much like what its competitors at Ford and Holden were doing. At the time, British Leyland was starting a blooming relationship with Honda, who created for the company the Triumph Acclaim and the Rover 200, both incredibly reliable machines based largely off their Honda counterparts, the Honda Ballade. In Australia, the company constructed a variant of the Honda Quint, the Rover Quintet, a 5-door hatchback which was the first Honda car to carry a Rover badge.

In 1985, Honda began to produce a sporty saloon known as the Honda Integra, complete with a smooth streamlined design, pop-up headlights, and a 133hp 1.6L V6 engine. Rover, still keen to make inroads into the Australian market, built these cars under license, and rebadged them as the Rover 416i. It’s believed that a commercial arrangement existed whereby the Australian market Rover 416i was built and sold exclusively as a five-door hatchback, whilst the near-identical Australian-market Honda Integra was built and sold exclusively as a three-door to avoid any overlap, apart from the body styles, the only real differences were badging and trim.

The Rover 416i was introduced by JRA initially as a single model. Subsequently, the model range was expanded to two trim levels, the Rover 416i SE and Rover 416i Vitesse. At launch, the single model Rover 416i was supplied with alloy wheels. The later Rover 416i SE was supplied with silver-painted steel wheels without wheel trims, black bumpers and valances; the Rover 416i Vitesse was supplied with alloy wheels, body coloured bumpers and valances. The Rover 416i SE and Rover 416i Vitesse received a mild restyle circa 1988, which included a different shaped front air intake and larger front fog lights. The Rover 416i Vitesse also received different pattern alloy wheels around the same time, which really set off the car’s lines well by giving it a wider, chunkier appearance.

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The rear of a 416i, demonstrating its Honda roots in terms of its boxy looks.

The 416i eventually bowed out in 1989, and plans were made to sell the new R8 series Rover 200 and 400 on the Australian Market from 1990. However, although the cars were extremely well reviewed by Australian motoring press, the frequently fluctuating exchange rate between the Australian Dollar and the Pound Sterling meant that importing them simply didn’t seem viable. Eventually JRA came to an end in 1993, and Rover wouldn’t make an appearance on the Australian market again until 2001 with the Rover 75 and equivalent MG ZT, which were somewhat successful, but not enough to make a dent on the Holden’s and Fords of the time.

Today, the 416i is a largely unremembered car, though it appears to have been extremely resilient, with none of the corrosion problems that blighted 1980s Hondas in the UK, that was probably down to the kind Australian climate which meant owners could exploit the legendary reliability of Honda’s engine and transmissions. It can be said though, this car was indeed very good looking, and the only production Rover to ever feature pop-up headlights! It truly is a shame that such a car wasn’t sold in the UK, as it certainly would have given the company’s Granddad image some very surprising pizzazz!