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Anyway, on with the story, in which Craig Cheetham and Tom Barnard look three ’90s three-box legends…
Words: Craig Cheetham and Tom Barnard
Photos: Craig Cheetham
Back in 1990, Britain was a very different place. The boom years of the Eighties were coming to an end, the economy was starting to show the first signs of a wobble, but in among it was a fresh optimism as we strode into a decade that promised technology, innovation and excitement like no other before.
The 1990s was the era in which the computer would begin to dominate our lives. It was a decade in which the principles of design, engineering and communication were turned on their head as a result.
And it was also a decade of culture. One that gave us the return of Batman, Jurassic Park and a new musical genre known as Britpop. It also gave us the new Ford Orion, the Renault 19 Chamade and the Rover 400 – each of which is well worthy of celebration if you’re a Retro Cars fan.
Each was based on a successful hatchback. The Renault 19 was France’s best-seller at the time of the Chamade’s January 1990 launch and had enjoyed a decent debut in the UK, where it brought much-needed modernity to a sector of the market that had gone a bit stale.
The Rover 400, meanwhile, was based on the ‘R8’ 200 that had been launched to swathes of critical acclaim in 1989. It was essentially the replacement for the outgoing ‘SD3’ 200, which was a booted saloon, and would also be sold across Europe as the Honda Concerto. It fitted neatly into the Rover line-up, with scaled-down 800 styling and stacks more class than the Montego, though the latter remained on sale for almost as long as the R8 400 in order to meet fleet demand for a cheaper, more utilitarian saloon.
And finally the Orion – or if you wish to be pedantic, in this case it’s an Escort because the Orion name was dropped in 1993. The Ford was the booted version of the Mk 5 Escort, which it’s fair to say had a lukewarm reception when it debuted at the 1990 British Motor Show. But has time been kind to the Escort/Orion, and how does it stack up against its contemporary rivals in a modern context?
The trio were all launched within months of each other in 1990, so all are celebrating 30 years since they made their debuts. But which of them was number one back then and which has the best classic credentials today?
We brought 1.4-litre versions of each together, with Retro Cars editor Craig Cheetham and Associate Editor Tom Barnard at loggerheads to find out.
Renault 19 1.4 Prima
Of the three cars in this grouping, it was the Renault that was based on the oldest design. The 19 hatchback first appeared in 1988 to replace the Renault 11 and was a handsome design, with an aerodynamic nose and stubby rear end. Compared with the existing Ford Escort, Austin Maestro, Peugeot 309 and Vauxhall Astra when it came out, it was a striking and modern piece of design.
By 1990, though, the rest of the industry had caught up. The 19 faced rivals such as the Fiat Tipo and all-new Rover 200, both of which were strong contenders. But the 19 was still a respectable seller. The Chamade variant joined the line-up at the start of 1990, filling a void left by the Renault 9. It was critical for Renault to compete in markets such as Spain, Italy and Greece, where four-door saloons were perennially popular.
The Chamade’s styling works quite well and translates quite harmoniously from five-door to four-door, with a neat integrated ‘spoiler’ in the boot lip and the same tail lights as the hatch. It’s not a bad looking car at all, while the sporty 16v model was quite the looker.
The model in our test is a 1.4 Prima, which was the entry-level 19 and, according to howmanyleft.co.uk, is the only example left on British roads. That makes it rarer than a Pagani Zonda.
So what do such supercar levels of exotica deliver? Well, this car was so basic it didn’t even come with a radio when new and a previous owner has added to the misery by adding oversized speakers that bash into the manual window winders just to remind you that this is a purgatory trim level, something that’s also backed-up by the fact that this is the only car in our group to have a manual choke. The other two are fuel-injected.
But maybe we like the misery? After all, this is Retro Cars, and there’s something cool about a manual choke. There’s also something equally cool about the Renault’s yellow and white dials and blocky dashboard. The steering wheel and gear knob are chunky and oversized, while the driving positon is comfortable if a little ‘soft’ in the way that only French cars of this era can be.
Where the 19 falls down in this company, though, is in its powertrain. The 1.4-litre ‘Energy’ engine develops 80bhp, but is coarse at high revs and needs to be pressed hard to keep up with modern traffic. It feels more like a car of the late Seventies or early Eighties in terms of performance and refinement and while it’s still a fun car to drive, with competent handling (that front strut brace under the bonnet seems a little superfluous, mind…) the Chamade doesn’t feel as modern as the decade it was heading into.
In fairness, plusher trim levels feel very different – a GTX with velour trim or a later 1.8-litre model or turbodiesel feel more modern, while facelifted post-1993 cars have much more of a Nineties vibe.
The R8 was arguably Rover’s high watermark. There are many who say that the last-ever Rover – the 75 – was the company’s best-ever model, but here at Retro Cars we beg to differ, for in terms of its popularity, market influence, quality and sense of being the right car at the right time, the humble R8 was a much more significant player.
But more than that, it was a superb car for its time, with clean, unfussy styling, a great driving position and advanced multi-link rear suspension that – to this day – is more advanced than that seen on many modern hatchbacks.
Unsurprisingly, the R8 received a rapturous reception from the British media. For once, and against a backdrop of low expectations led by previous models, Rover had got it absolutely right, from the advanced OHC K-Series engine developed entirely in-house or punchy Honda D16, to the styling and dynamics, which were a collaboration with Honda but were led very much from inside Longbridge.
It may seem like an old banger to some, but the R8 was actually a monumental achievement and probably one of the most important British cars of the 20th century.
The booted version – the 400 – debuted in April 1990 and had a real premium feel, with looks that echoed those of the larger 800 saloon but in a sharper, more compact package. Indeed, there are many who think that the 400 looks better than the 200 and it’s certainly a nicer car to sit in than the Honda on which it is based (or at least shares its architecture), but then it should be.
Yes, these are good, competent easy-to-drive cars and in 400 form are quite sharp-suited, too.
Our example is a 414SLi from the first year of production, when the R8 trim was incredibly stingy. The original owner shelled out (thankfully) for power steering, but there’s no central locking or electric windows, despite this being a mid-range trim level. It does, however, come with a sunroof, while the Pearlescent Cherry paintwork was a pricey option in its day.
By far its most impressive feature, though, is the engine. This one features the 90bhp single-point injection twin cam version of the K-Series 16-valve engine that was a Rover staple from 1989 until the company’s eventual demise. It was one of the most powerful 1.4s on the market and bestows the Rover with lively performance and a rev-hungry nature that are quite different from the sober saloon image it projects.
That, coupled to fine handling and a slick gearchange make it feel more modern and more agile than either of its rivals here, while the excellent paint finish and classy cabin give it the feel of a car from the class above. It’s more practical then the Renault, too, with a lower loading lip and wider boot aperture.
It has its irritations, of course. Rear legroom isn’t the best and the low roof means it’s probably the least comfortable car here for tall drivers, while the coin tray to the right of the steering wheel won’t even accommodate the minimum wage, while the cheap and shiny column stalks are at odds with the quality feel of the rest of the interior.
But make no mistake – now, as in 1990, the 400 is still a fine car.
Ford Escort Saloon 1.4 Equipe
So much was expected of the Mk 5 Ford Escort when it made its debut at the 1990 British Motor Show that its distinct averageness when it did appear set it up for a media kicking.
In reality, the press were probably quite hard on the Escort. Sure, it was dynamically inferior to some of its European rivals, but the design was clean, it was mechanically simple (making it cheap to run) and the model range was vast, with hatchback, estate and saloon models all available from launch.
In 1990, the booted version carried over the Orion name from the previous four-door Escort and, to keep the image at a more premium level, it was only offered in LX-specification upwards, with the entry-level trims limited to the Escort hatch.
By 1993, though, things had taken a turn. The harsh reception of the Mk 5 led Ford to carry out a review of the range, with modifications to the steering and rear suspension to improve the handling and ride, plus a low-cost facelift, which effectively consisted of a new bonnet moulding to incorporate an oval grille and revised rear lamp lenses.
Interior changes were limited to a new airbag steering wheel and some darker plastics, and in this form the Escort would carry on until the more significant Mk 6 facelift came along in 1995.
What we have here, then, is a Mk 5-and-a-half. An Orion in spirit but an Escort in badge, as the 1993 facelift coincided with a decision to make all models in the range ‘Escort’ – something which helped keep the family Ford at the top of the UK’s sales charts against increasingly competent competition, not least from the fleet market.
Under the bonnet, this ‘Equipe’ special edition has Ford’s proven 1.4-litre CVH engine (1.6 and 1.8 cars got the new ‘Zeta’ unit), which was prone to tappet rattle and wasn’t the most efficient engine of its size, but nevertheless was easy to work on and doggedly reliable – indeed, while it feels a little slow to respond, once up to speed the engine in this car is quite refined and – whisper it – wind and road noise at speed are notably less in the Ford than they are in its two rivals here.
We also love the model’s trademark rear wiper – one of only a handful of saloon cars to ever get one, yet it’s no less useful on a four-door as it is on a more-door.
The cabin feels reasonably well-made, too. It’s not as sharp and stylish as the Rover is inside, nor does it have the character of the Renault, but the Escort brings with it a kind of functional simplicity.
It’s certainly not an unpleasant car to drive, though press it hard and it’s prone to understeer. In today’s market, though, who – realistically – is going to want to drive it like that, certainly in unmodified form as we have here?
The Escort is also the most practically packaged car here, with a huge boot and the most family-friendly back seat. Indeed, 30 years on, the Orion/Escort has more going for it than it did when new.
The biggest downside to owning one today is rust. Of course, no 30-year old car will be immune from corrosion – the R19 and Rover suffer around the sills and arches like any car of this era – but the Escort is particularly prone to rot, which is the usual reason why they end up being scrapped.
With numbers in increasingly steep decline, though, Mk 5s are starting to get preserved by enthusiasts and we can’t help but feel that a straight, tidy unmodified example such as this is something worthy of long-term preservation, love it or loathe it.
While all three of these cars are starting to develop an enthusiast interest, it’s the Ford that has the strongest following thanks to the brand’s popularity across the board.
As such, the Orion/Escort will command a premium over the others. Even so, a good example, shouldn’t set you back much more than £2,000, while a usable version in presentable order, such as the car seen here, can be picked up for £1,000 without too much trouble – though they are getting harder to source.
The Rover 400 is the easiest car of this trio to find for sale, which speaks volumes about the quality being more than just skin deep. That said, rear sills and arches do like to rot out and it’s common to find welded repairs at the trailing edge of the sill. Door bottoms are prone, too.
You’ll get one of the best 400s left for £2,000 (if you can find a 416 GTi, it’s a truly lovely car), while £1,000 should be enough to get you a very nice example from the classifieds, with usable and presentable cars from around £500.
Finally, the Renault. The 19 survives in far fewer numbers than its rivals here – a combination of being less prevalent to start with and of having a smaller following on the classic scene. As such they don’t command huge money – £1,500 should be enough to get you a superb one if you can find one, with a perfectly viable and pleasant car being yours for £500 – but the challenge is in the hunt.
I make no pretence to being anything other than a full-on Rover apologist. These cars are part of my life and have been since I used to look after them when they were new.
But in present company, personal allegiances aside, I still believe there can only be one winner. The Rover is by far and away the most advanced car here, the best to drive, the fastest, the most efficient and the sharpest styled. To not put it in top spot would be wrong, for even 30 years on it’s quite clear that the R8 moved the compact car market forward far more than either of its rivals here and was a far more comprehensively engineered car.
In the runner-up spot, it’s the Ford. It may not have been brilliantly received when it was new, but the Escort did the job that most people asked of it uncomplainingly and competently. Okay, so the build quality and rust-resilience aren’t great and it’s hardly going to set any pulses racing, but it’s a dependable and comfortable car that’s much better than history gives it credit for, and one that many people have deservedly fond memories of.
Which leaves the poor Renault bringing up the rear. I’m not going to be as cruel to it as Tom is, as I think it’s a handsome thing and I know that in a posher trim level it would invariably give a better account of itself. It also has a bit more character than its rivals here, which means that if you want something that’s a bit different or want to stand out from the crowd, it offers the ability to do that. Plus, it’s insanely comfortable.
But as a car, it’s crude and it simply doesn’t feel as cohesive as the other two here. In fairness, I’d probably choose it over the Escort with my own money, but only because it’s a bit different, not because it’s any better.
When these were all new, the saloon versions of some cars could be quite desirable – perhaps even considered sexy. The Renault 19 Chamade 16v, for example, was a credible hot hatchback which wasn’t a, err, hatchback. The Ford Orion Ghia Injection was thought of as a more grown-up alternative to an XR3i. The Rover never really had the same credibility, but underneath the staid body it was quite a sophisticated car.
Unfortunately, none of the examples here are the desirable versions. The Renault is some sort of evil punishment specification, the Ford is a weird special edition and the Rover must have been ordered by someone who buys their clothes from mail order adverts in the Sunday Express magazine.
So which would I choose? Well, the Rover is the best car. It feels the most modern and the nicest to drive. But for that reason it doesn’t feel much like a classic, and it also has a fragile feel which makes me think it’s going to break at any moment.
If the Renault broke, it would actually be a blessed relief. I wanted to love it, as I learned to drive in a 5 and this 19 shares many familiar parts that made me hanker back to those simpler times. But the 19 is truly awful – heavy, ponderous, slow and unpleasant to drive. It’s like that 5 I learned in with all of the charm removed.
Which leaves the Escort. These were considered to be pretty terrible when new, and certainly they weren’t competitive dynamically when compared to something like a Peugeot 306 or Citroen ZX. But they have a certain solid feeling which makes them feel like more of a classic these days. The gearbox is clunky, the steering ponderous and the suspension wallowy. But it feels like it will go on forever, and if it doesn’t, you’ll be able to fix it easily. That makes it my favourite.