Hmm, curiouser and curiouser, another one of those strange British Leyland concepts that went absolutely nowhere, but was somewhat endearing. The idea behind the Austin AR16 project was to give a new breath of life into the Austin brand after years of misuse and neglect, but would ultimately do very little (in fact, nothing at all) to save it.
The project began spiritually in November 1981, following the arrival of designer Roy Axe into the ranks of British Leyland. Axe had been brought in to help the management devise a complete overhaul of the British Leyland range to replace the ailing and highly unreliable slew of cars it was offering the British public, including the likes of the bland Ital, the uninspired Ambassador and the 8 year old Allegro. At the time, British Leyland was finalising the design of Harold Musgrove’s M-Car range, these being the Austin Metro, the Austin Maestro and the Austin Montego, all of which helped to kill off the last of British Leyland’s early disasters. However, each of these three cars were somewhat humble in design, and upon their launches between 1980 and 1983, each of these models proved to be but a modest hit here in the UK, but weren’t enough to woo the foreign market. This is where Axe decided that a new range of highly competitive models should be developed to try and get the British car industry back on the map.
The first plan was to have a flagship model to kill off the 8 year old Rover SD1, a sublime car that was the epitome of crisp styling and great performance, marred by biblical unreliability and poor production values. Axe’s plan was to become the Rover 800, and would be based largely on earlier principles following the joint Honda/BL projects such as the Triumph Acclaim and Rover 200, both cars based off the Honda Ballade. Axe chose to base the design of the 800, then known as the Rover XX, off the Honda Legend.
However, the Rover 800 would only be the executive flagship of this new range, as Axe had huge ideas for a sweeping range of models from a replacement for the Mini (another replacement, seeing as the Metro failed completely to do this), to an estate car and a family saloon. Originally, the idea was to have these cars come under the Austin brand, the Rover brand being exclusive to the Rover 800, but in 1985 it was decided that the Austin marque would be discontinued, with all new cars for the non-sporty, family market coming under the Rover brand. Each would be numbered according to their general place in the market, with the lowest, the Rover 200, being a Supermini, the Rover 400 being a hatchback, the Rover 600 being a family saloon and the Rover 800 being the top-of-the-range executive motor. There were even calls for the Rover 200 to be translated into a concept for the new MG Midget, being a tiny drophead coupe similar to the 1950’s original it would derive its name from.
By 1985, a set of finalised concepts had been constructed for the entire range, and all were very interesting in their overall aesthetic, though mechanically there was very little to distinguish them. The engine lineup was to include the S-Series 1.6L engine (a straight Montego/Rover 216 carry-over), the 2.0L O-Series, and the M16 2.0L 16-valve unit, which was to eventually lead a short life before being replaced by the T-Series.
However, trouble brewed towards 1986, when British Leyland’s continual inability to make money led the Thatcher Government to sell the company to private ownership by British Aerospace. The result was that funding became very short for the company, and thus the newly founded Rover Group was forced to gird its loins. The review found that although the Montego and Maestro were underperforming on the market and not making nearly enough profits, it was still a capable and easy to build machine, and thus it was chosen that Roy Axe’s sweeping range of products would be cut from the equation. Though the project would stutter on for a few more years, being juggled around a variety of concepts with Honda and Rover, it was officially killed off in 1988, and Rover’s new 200 to 600 range wouldn’t see the light of day until the 1990’s, but by then it was far, far too late.
It is interesting to note how in the latter years of British Leyland during the mid-1980’s, Rover did make a valiant effort to try and refresh their model range. Sadly, the tragic loss of such endearing projects like the Rover CCV, the MG E-XE and even the AR16 came down to being victims of circumstance. Rover had been a dying company since the early 1970’s, and any attempts made by them to try and reclaim their severely damaged reputation simply had not the incentive or the cash to back them up, even though some of these brilliant ideas could have been, what we might consider today, true classics!