Rover Vitesse and Tony Pond: back in the news (but only one is amazing)
It has hit the headlines once again thanks to the efforts of Mark Higgins in a Subaru WRX STI. He’s just beaten late legend Tony Pond’s lap record around the Isle of Man TT course, a whole two decades after Pond blitzed the isle.
Cue an excuse for me to hit the archives and remind myself of the big barge Pond pedaled to an improbably mighty average speed. And it’s quickly clear Pond did something even more amazing than Higgins’ latest star runs.
The Vitesse was, see, blessed with just 177hp from its 2.7-litre V6 Honda engine. 177hp! A VW Polo GTI with an engine half the size beats that nowadays, and is a whole 2.8 seconds quicker to 60mph, too.
Yes, this new ‘fast’ Rover 800 took a yawning 9.7 seconds to reach 60mph, and could only reach 132mph all-out. How on earth did Pond do it? Thankfully, by 1990, Rover had at least fitted a manual gearbox, rather than the yawning four-speed auto of the launch car.
Even so, with such limp power and pace, watching Pond’s 100mph lap becomes all the more amazing – and that’s without considering what mighty challenges the soggy, rolling handling threw in too.
Higgins, by way of contrast, has a near-bona fide rally car for the road. To take nothing away from him, is it any wonder he was able to push the average speed record up to 113mph?
Pond, I salute you. This Rover reads, on paper, like a boat. You did the impossible, and turned it into a 100mph recordbreaker. You, not it, deserved the record to stand for so long.
What the Fastback Rover XX itself? This was the hatch version of the 800, launched in 1988 with the new Vitesse as the fanfare range-topper.
Rover expected to eventually share a sales split with the saloon. As no extra production capacity was installed at the Cowley plant (which now makes MINI), it wouldn’t actually do much for overall volumes. So what was the thinking?
Apparently, to ensure no SD1 drivers were lost. The youngest SD1s were, by 1988, coming up for two years old and were pressing dealers for something new. Rover wanted to cash in with these existing hatchback-loving customers.
Roy Axe led the styling. Changes were made aft of the C-pillar: new roof, rear quarter panels and the hatchback itself. This was set at 18 degrees, the same as the Rover SD1. Good for aero, apparently.
Remarkably, Rover managed to carry over the rear doors, bumper, lights and numberplate surround. That’s why it was a hatchback with a letterbox-like slot opening: good old British design consideration meant the rear lights ate into the boot opening, restricting ultimate practicality.
There was one quite cool addition, though – an electronic boot release switch. Familiar to Japanese car drivers, this was something new for a big hatch Rover, and served as a ‘surprise and delight’ feature salesmen savoured.
The Fastback saw the introduction of the Vitesse model, which sat alongside the saloon Sterling at the top of the range. This was the £20k Rover, to compete with same-price BMW 528i SE.
However, Rover also introduced a new entry-level 820, with a headliner £11,995 list price. With a miserable 100hp, it was going nowhere fast, but it did reduce the 800 entry price by almost £1000.
A Montego 2.0 HL, for comparison, cost £9995: a Mini Mayfair sold for £5000.
The ongoing story of the Rover 800 is fascinating, and boasts intrigue deep into the mid-1990s. What’s most satisfying is the achievement of Tony Pond behind the wheel of one, though. Subaru now has the record – ironically in a saloon – but Pond’s achievement remains remarkable nonetheless.
It’s only reading how comparably archaic the big Rover was that you realise just how impressive it was. Vitesse sounds impressive, but it really wasn’t. Pond added that bit for them.
+ MINI helps UK economic deficit
+ The surprises of the Rover 400 rotter
+ Mini brochure makes fascinating reading