The Rover 200 Coupé was unveiled 30 years ago this week at the 1992 Paris Salon. By then, the car had claimed 37 UK land speed records, 36 of which still stand today. ‘One of the most beautiful cars Rover have ever put into production also turns out to be the fastest,’ said the advert, about a coupé that would develop cult status in the UK.
Nobody could accuse Rover of failing to squeeze the most out of its R8 platform; three and five-door hatchbacks, five-door estate, cabriolet and coupé bodies ensured that there was a Rover 200-series for everyone. Work on Project Tomcat began in 1988, with the production version boasting a sunroof with two lift-out glass panels, a suggestive bonnet bulge and styling that could rival any curvaceous coupé of the 1990s.
There were four models: 216, 216 automatic, 220 and 220 Turbo, with Honda initially providing the 1.6-litre engine and gearbox for the 216 and Rover the 2.0-litre 16-valve unit for the 220. A Rover 1.8-litre K-series engine replaced the 2.0-litre engine in 1996.
Rover never expected the 220 Turbo to be a big seller. At launch, it predicted that the flagship would account for just 10 per cent of 200 Coupé sales, with the more affordable 216 grabbing the majority share. That’s the thing with coupés: many punters want the style, but not necessarily the performance. Looking good is more important than going fast.
Billed as the fastest road-Rover ever built, CAR claimed the 197bhp 220 Coupé Turbo had “the on-paper potential for a head-to-head ruck with the super-coops from Stuttgart and Maranello. Zero to sixty in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 147.6mph meant that the Rover ran riot in a group test against the BMW 325i Coupé, Honda Prelude VTEC and Volkswagen Corrado VR6 – on paper.
Unfortunately, the 220 Turbo failed to shine against its rivals on the road, although CAR did concede that the Rover had “Herculean strength” and “looked the part”. It finished fourth, with the BMW, Volkswagen and Honda taking podium places, in that order. In an Autocar & Motor twin test, the entry-level 216 Coupé was beaten by the Vauxhall Calibra.
None of this stopped the 200 Coupé from gathering a strong following, especially in the UK. Gorgeous styling, generous levels of equipment and low prices made it a mainstay of the coupé market throughout the 1990s. Unlike its rivals, it also had a few records to its name.
The record-breaking attempt was the brainchild of Project Tomcat chief engineer Nick Fell, who wanted to create some extra buzz around the launch of the Coupé. Called ‘Tomcat Affair’, it stemmed from an article in CAR, in which Phil Llewellin toured UK speed record sites in a Vauxhall Lotus Carlton. Could the production Tomcat be a record breaker?
Project engineer Steve Carter recalls how the team decided to investigate which speed records were within reach of the 150mph 220 Turbo. Numerous class records for 2-litre wheel-driven cars (speed and distance over a 24-hour period) were up for grabs and held by a Vauxhall Astra GTE set at the Millbrook proving ground, near Bedford.
Speaking with Classic.Retro.Modern. magazine, Carter said: “The intention was to build two vehicles as close as standard as possible except for safety requirements, using know-how from the Tomcat Turbo race car that was being developed concurrently.
Two cars were built at workshops in Gaydon using former test vehicles, with long-range fuel tanks installed to avoid losing too much time refuelling, along with a strengthened powertrain to reduce stress. The engines would continue running during driver changes, pit stops and refuelling.
The first record attempt didn’t go according to plan. “A noisy driveshaft joint reared its ugly head,” recalls Carter. “We changed the driveshaft and reduced the lap speeds, but the problem continued; it became a recurring problem on both vehicles. By 3am it was clear that the time lost and a lack of driveshaft spares meant we couldn’t continue, so the weekend was aborted.”
The extreme angles of the banked circuit had overheated and worn the joints, so GKN came up with a solution. Come the end of September 1992 – perilously close to the Paris Salon – it was time for the second attempt. There were two Rovers, one of which would concentrate on long-distance records.
As the, er, records show, the Tomcat Affair was successful in securing many titles, including 3332 miles and 613 yards at 136.43mph over 24 hours. “The atmosphere was brilliant, and although everyone was tired, we all appreciated what had been achieved: 37 records, and we had driven further in our 24 hours than the winning Peugeot had at Le Mans a few weeks earlier,” recalls a jubilant Carter.
Though understandably proud of the what the small team achieved on a limited budget, Nick Fell admitted the Tomcat Affair was a big distraction. “The preparations for the weekend were running in parallel with getting the Tomcat into production, but it was much more exciting working on record cars than being shouted at by production managers on the Longbridge night shift.
“The Tomcat Affair was a big distraction for the team, and we should have put more attention into boring issues such as sunroof rattle, door glass setting and turbo hose blow-off. Nonetheless, the Tomcat Affair would most definitely have been worth the compromises had we fully capitalised on it.”
Editor, James Mills, was one of the road testers who encountered the 220 Turbo back in the day. “It had so much potential, especially given the firepower and the handsome styling, but there was a feeling that it lacked finesse throughout, and struggled to contain all that firepower. The unsettled ride and equally unsettling torque-steer made it hard work on a good bit of road. And when you’re facing the 325i and Corrado VR6 – even the Prelude, which handled surprisingly sweetly – you needed to bring your A-game. The later 620ti was a better-sorted car, in that respect.”
Mills reports that the 220 Turbo was a regular site at Millbrook, during its development. “We’d see them pounding round the outer lane of the high-speed bowl, at top speed, doing durability heat-soak runs where they’d thrash it senseless then park it against a wall and switch it off to check it kept its cool. One poor chap was running half a lap ahead of us, one day, and we came around the bowl to find a thick wall of smoke. The Tomcat’s driver’s side rear tyre had burst, and somehow the driver had drifted from nearly 150mph all the way down the slope of the bowl before gathering it all up and awaiting help. I next saw him hand back his radio to the track controller, buy a pack of Marlboro reds from a vending machine then disappear into the Gents for a much-needed, ahem, sit-down and smoke.”
In August 2022, nearly 30 Rover 200 Coupés converged on Millbrook for a celebration of the car’s record-breaking run. The event was attended by one of the original cars, recommissioned for the gathering.
As for the road cars, after years in the doldrums, prices have been gathering pace for a while. The 220 Coupé Turbo remains the most coveted of the range, but buyers have woken up to the charms of the cooking models. You’re advised to study this buying guide before taking the plunge. Also, be sure to check out the Rover Coupe Owners Club.
The 200 Coupé doesn’t appear on the Hagerty Valuation Tool, but a quick look at Car & Classic reveals prices ranging from £2000 for a 1993 216 to £19,995 for “what is probably the best remaining Rover 220 Coupé Turbo“. Blimey.