Curbside Classic – 1996 Rover 800 – Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

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Perhaps the car that best defined the 1970s for the British industry was the 1976 Rover 3500, known as the SD1. It was a car that created a hugely positive impression, and was considered a market leader in several ways, not least styling and performance. But how could BL follow it up, after another oil crisis and the ultimately disappointing sales of the SD1? The answer was with Honda, and the third car from the BL/Honda partnership – the 1986 Rover 800.

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The paired products were the Rover 800 and original Honda Legend (below). The basis of a transverse engine, four door saloon was quickly established, but with all the visible body work and interiors being different, except some of the glass, and sharing a Honda V6 engine: there was no place for the Rover V8. Rover would also offer a 2.0 litre version.

Honda Legend

The car had a gestation that was at times fairly heated, as the competing and contradictory requirements of Rover and Honda had to be settled. Honda wanted a low bonnet line, Rover wanted to use McPherson strut suspension, which would raise the bonnet line, Rover wanted the car to be wider; Honda wanted it to meet a Japanese width regulation. Rover changed the profile of the sides; Honda added blisters on the wheel arches, and got to the market first.

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Styling wise, the Rover 800 (or Project XX) was to be first car to really benefit from the investment BL had made in the design studios at Canley, in Coventry. Under the leadership of BL’s new Director of Design, Roy Axe, hired from Chrysler in Detroit and previously with Chrysler UK (née Rootes Group), BL began to build up a much more than cohesive and capable design function, bringing together design talent not just from within BL but also from elsewhere in the industry. Axe was within a few years to create a design capability that would not repeat the disappointments of the Austin Allegro and Triumph TR7, and which would form the core of the current Land-Rover design facility.

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The 800 itself can be seen as a progression from the SD1, a design that was much admired in the profession and in the wider arena, carrying forward details like the headlamp and nose profile, the feature lines on the sides and the rear lamp shapes and their ribbed surfaces. The profile of the SD1 was retained as well – this was especially apparent on the later hatchback version. The first version offered was a four door saloon, as it was hoped that this would be a more attractive product in export markets than the hatchback SD1. Is it me or is there an Axe style in this car, present also in the Chrysler K car , Omnirizon and the European Chrysler Alpine?

The four cylinder engine for the 800 was an interesting feature of the car. It was the 2.0 litre O series from the Princess with a 16 valve twin overhead cam conversion and fuel injection (including multi point on some models) to produce a very competitive engine, known as the M16. This may not sound that dramatic now, but in 1986 many competitors were still using carburettors and most using only 8 valves.

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Rover put a lot of effort into the interior, and it showed. This was an attractive and well specified interior, setting new trends in style and clearly moving on from the SD1. The quality and materials chosen were pretty convincing, at least in the showroom, although the interior did not have the modernist, simple appeal of the earlier car.

ROVER 800 COVER

The 800 arrived in June 1986 to another of those highly anticipated and optimistic but ultimately slightly disappointing BL receptions. The critics liked the interior, admired the engines, especially the BL 2.0 litre unit and the general air of professionalism and something a little better, if a little smaller, than a Ford Granada. But the driving experience was considered to be somewhat unfinished, the quality was clearly still not quite there (there were stories of cars having total electrical cut outs during thunderstorms, for example) and it was considered to have lost the character of the SD1. The 2.5 litre Honda V6 was considered lacking in torque too, if not smoothness.

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Rover took the route of marketing the top of range European market model as the Rover Sterling, which linked into the branding that would be used in America, for which Austin-Rover had big ambitions but where the Rover name was damaged goods.

As a result of this, it was decided that the only way forward in America would be to create a new brand, and then launch the 800 as the first product of the “new” company. After all, the Rover 800 had been co-developed with Honda, and the level of technology and quality were going to be several orders of magnitude better than the SD1 that had made failed to meet basic expectations of quality in America. The name Sterling was chosen (incidentally, previously Austin FX4 London taxis had been exported to the USA as the London Sterling – and how much more British a name can you get?), and Rover set about establishing a dealer network.

sterling ad

Initial confidence was very high, and given the promise of Japanese reliability and British interior ambience, the Sterling was hoped to be a huge success. Initial forecasts were that once the Sterling range had been rolled-out, the North American market would account for forty per cent of Rover 800 production at Cowley.

However, Sterling soon had the stuffing knocked out of it, thanks to the sub-standard build quality of the early cars. Sterling quickly received a hammering on the J.D. Power surveys. In 1987, 14,171 Sterlings were sold – way short of the initial predictions and Sterling’s troubles soon became clear.

In 1989, a new emphasis on quality and service was played up for all it was worth. Improving build quality helped, but unfortunately, the damage seemed to have already been inflicted. 1987 was Sterling’s best year, and from that point on, sales declined (1988: 8,901 sold, 1989: 5,907).

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Rover worked hard on turning things around, even going as far as releasing a picture of the upcoming 800 Coupé some three years before its launch, in order to gee-up dealers and their customers. However it did not work: 1990 sales were a paltry 4,015, and it was clear that Sterling was dying on its feet. It must have been galling for Rover to see this – after all, Honda created the Acura brand to sell Legends over there, and that was going from strength to strength.

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Still, there was some hope – the 800 Coupé had been created specifically for the American market, and market research had been encouraging for it doing very well there. The upcoming reskin of the 800, known as R17 and R18, were seen to an extra helping of “class”, so it was felt that Sterling’s fortune could make a turn for the better. The plan was to accompany the launch of these new cars with the dropping of the Sterling badge… and replace it with the Rover nameplate. Talk about a reversal of fortunes!

However, it was all too little, too late. In August 1991, Rover ceased sales in America for the third time in twenty years, never to return.

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In the car’s home market, however, it was successful and after the hatchback arrived, regularly outsold the Ford Granada which was perhaps conceptually the closest competitor. But, in truth, the Granada was no longer the competitor – the real competition was the format best represented by cars like the BMW 3 series, Audi 80 and A4 and the Mercedes-Benz 190E and C Class – all cars that were nominally a little smaller but came from fully fledged premium brands and could match Rover on price. It was like the Rover 2000 and Triumph 2000 taking on the Austin Westminster, big Wolseleys, Ford Zodiacs and Humbers over 20 years before, except this time the competitors were not from the same manufacturer, or country.

Two statistics probably tell a lot of this story – since 1981, the Mercedes-Benz 190E and its C class successor have gone through 5 distinct and genuinely new generations and sold an average of over 200,000 per year, in a market sector Daimler-Benz were not represented in before 1983; Audi’s first car in the sector was the 1968 Audi 100; the second generation launched in 1976 sold over 900,000 in 6 years. In 11 years from 1986, Rover sold 317,000 800s.

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The fastback (or hatchback version) addressed some of the character issues, and the later 2.7 litre Honda engine was an improvement, but it always seemed a losing battle for Rover, somehow.

The 2.7 litre fastback was initially badged as the Rover Vitesse, to carry on from the successful SD1 variant. The fastback range also had a new entry level model – the 2.0 litre O-Series powered Rover 820 – a direct replacement for the SD1 Rover 2000.

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In 1991, Rover gave the car an almost compete reskin, updating its appearance quite significantly, keeping just the doors (despite the fact that the tooling was worn and had to replaced anyway) and roof but adding the soon to be familiar chrome grille, and in doing so gave the car considerably more visual presence, at the expense of some of the cleanliness of the original.

The feature car is a Rover 800 2.0 litre saloon, which I’m putting at 1996 based on the passenger airbag. The engine was given some evolutionary development and became known as the T-series. Later, a 2.5 litre V6 version of the Austin-Rover K series engine was fitted, replacing the Honda unit.

Rover also offered a Coupé version, from 1992. This was a car that had no real competitors but it was hard to see what it was for really – it was trimmed like a mini Bentley with top quality materials but still suffered many customary Rover failings. It was also very expensive for what it was. It was originally aimed for the American market, but by the time it came out, the Sterling adventure was long over. This was not commercial success or arguably the image booster Rover hoped for. Let’s just say that the last one I saw was towing a burger van.

But, what happened to the Legend? In 1991, it went into a second generation which was effectively a new car, not a reskin like the Rover. This was replaced in 1995, three years before the Rover 75 replaced the 800 as Rover’s flagship, even if that was a smaller car than the 800. That tells you all you need to know about Rover’s then owner British Aerospace’s investment capability and intentions.

 

Related reading:

CC 1987 Sterling 825SL: Turkey in the Straw  (by PN)