Curbside Classic: 1987 Sterling 827 SL – A Living Legend

(CC Cohort Photos: Colin)

There was once a time when nearly every car sold in the U.S. was sold by an American automaker, designed specifically for the U.S. market, and built on American soil. Imports were virtually nonexistent in the marketplace and the Big Three didn’t give two hoots about trying to compete with cars from other continents or even attempt at offering something different than what they had for decades. But by the 1980s, it was clear that these isolationist ways could not continue. It was truly an age of globalization, and as one of the basic principals of economics goes, “trade can make everyone better off”.

You had Japanese and German automakers such as Honda and Volkswagen now building cars for the American market in America. American automakers like Ford were selling cars of their European divisions in America to compete against ‘European’ European cars (i.e. Merkur), while GM and Chrysler were partnering with Italian companies to build pricey 2-seat roadsters. And then you had Sterling.

Underneath the skin, it was essentially a Honda/Acura Legend, though the Sterling 825/827 (itself a rebadged Rover 800 Series) was assembled in the U.K. by Austin-Rover, gaining unique sheetmetal and interiors in the process, and sold exclusively in the U.S. and Canada under the Sterling marque, a newly-created brand meant to avoid association with Austin-Rover and its negative reputation in North America. Sound complicated yet?

How a “British Honda” sold in the U.S. market came to be was a result of the existing partnership between British Leyland (Austin-Rover’s predecessor) and Honda, which dated back to 1978 and the development of the Honda Ballade/Triumph Acclaim. The Legend/800 Series would be the second fruit of their labor, with development beginning in 1981.

Honda was responsible for the majority of the car’s actual engineering, while Rover’s contribution primarily went towards the design and manufacturing of its own variant, greatly personalizing the Honda to its own, more “proper” liking. That’s not to say that Rover took the Detroit route, and merely applied extra chrome, a vinyl roof, and loose-pillow seating to the tastefully understated Legend. In fact, the chaps at Austin-Rover put forth considerable effort, changing basically everything the eyes laid sight on, with unique sheetmetal and interiors that if anything, were a bit more stimulating than the more muted Honda/Acura.

On the outside, designers gave the Rover/Sterling 800 Series a very stylish set of clothes, something aided by Rover’s talented new design team. Virtually all (if not entirely all) sheetmetal was unique, owing to a very separate appearance between the two. Everything from the greenhouse, to the wheel arches, to the shape and height of the trunk (or “boot”, I should say) was unique between the two. The 800’s only obvious relation to the Legend was its exterior door handles.

In terms of design, the 800 displayed very angular sheetmetal, characterized primarily by straight, aggressive body lines, sharp angles, and numerous trapezoidal shapes. The trapezoidal profile view of the greenhouse and taillights, in particular, helped the Rover/Sterling stand out, even in a world full of other wedge-shaped designs. The low hood bonnet, sharp character line, and flared, round wheel arches gave the car some added aggressiveness.

The front of the car was the only area which the 800 bore any resemblance to its predecessor, the SD1, with a similar grille treatment and headlights (obviously excluding turn signals). This was hardly a bad thing, as the “bottom breather” look was still very in vogue, and it helped give the car a more contemporary, less stuffy look than if designers had given it a more traditional grille.

Around back, a low, flat boot with integrated spoiler and ribbed taillights completed the Rover/Sterling’s exterior makeover. A sexy, 5-door liftback arrived as a 1989 model, while a rather staid-looking 2-door coupe came two years later, though the latter would never be available under the Sterling name in North America.

Inside, similarities between the 800 Series and Legend were even scarcer, with the Rover/Sterling cars gaining a very differentiated interior. Whereas the Honda/Acura’s interior could best be described as “smart-premium”, emphasizing efficient operation with minimalist design and premium finishes, its British cousin’s interior was far more posh and proper, “British in tone, style, and tradition”, as the brochure stated.

Much like the exterior, the interiors of the 800 Series and Legend shared little, if any, common parts. Everything from dashboards to door panels to seats to controls and switchgear were exclusive to each company’s car. Reflecting its exterior, the interior of the 800 was a visually interesting design, blending ’80s space age language with classic touches such as rich, genuine wood accents and plush leather seats.

Regardless of right-hand or left-hand drive, drivers were faced with a cockpit-like instrument cluster, with the gauge cluster flanked by two prominent pods containing air vents and climate controls. The center stack, which boasted a floating appearance, contained radio controls as well as the available 18-function on-board computer with an advanced-looking LCD display diagram of the vehicle. Rather unfortunately, Austin-Rover elected to have Britain’s own rather notoriously unreliable Lucas Electronics handle most of the electronics in the 800 Series, owing to far more frequent electrical issues than the Legend.

Whether upholstered in rich velour cloth or supple Connolly leather, the 800 Series’ seats offered comfort and support, with thick side bolstering and generous thigh support for front passengers. Available 8-way power seat controls were located in the center console between the front seats. Rear passengers were also treated to a high level of luxury, with contoured seating, abundant legroom, and a fold-down center armrest.

It’s safe to say that visually, Rover and Honda very effectively differentiated their respective versions of the same car from one another. Yet, underneath the skin, the basic structural elements (chassis, floor pan, internal unibody, etc.) and most mechanics (engine, transmission, suspension system) were shared between the Legend (above) and 800 Series.

Sterlings (and Rovers, for that matter) used the same double-wishbone suspension setup in the front and rear as the Legend, although the British cars did feature stiffer springs and firmer dampers for a slightly sportier feel. Oddly enough, Sterlings came fitted with narrower 195/65-15 tires than their Acura cousin, which featured 205/60-15 tires as standard.

Over in Europe, the Rover-badged 800 Series was available in a wider range of engines and trims, including several powered by Rover’s own 2.0L inline-4. In the North America, however, the Sterling range was far simpler, with only one engine offered at a time. 1987-1988 Sterling 825 models featured Honda’s 24-valve SOHC 2.5L V6, producing 151 horsepower and 157 lb-ft torque. 1989 and on Sterlings received Honda’s 2.7L V6 (one year after if appeared in the Legend), making 161 horsepower and 162 lb-ft torque, and resulting in the car’s name being changed to “827”.

Representing a clean start for the troubled British automaker in the U.S., Sterling certainly brought with it significant hope, with many positive virtues. Honda engineering and quality with traditional British style and luxury — what could go wrong there? Well… unfortunately for the Sterling, just about every cliché issue notoriously associated with British cars of that era reigned true.

Despite the Honda connection, early Sterlings were plagued with poor quality and reliability, with common issues including glitchy electronics, poorly-assembled interior components, spotty paint finish, and the tendency to rust very prematurely — all things that were Austin-Rover exclusive and sadly only reinforced stereotypes and reservations about British cars.

Although its fairness in evaluation is debatable, J.D. Power reigns supreme in the minds of most consumers, and the 1987 Sterling 825 placed near the bottom of J.D. Power’s initial quality study (contrary to the Acura Legend’s placement near the very top), largely cementing its reputation and sales potential in the U.S. market.

Introduced as a 1987, and selling 14,171 units, first year sales were nothing incredible (compared to the Acura Legend’s 1986 introductory year of 25,062 units and second year sales of 54,713), and it was soon apparent that the damage was done. Second year sales plummeted to just 8,901, and kept falling, despite incredible incentives in the neighborhood of $5,000 off MSRP, until Austin-Rover’s permanent withdrawal from the North American market in late-1991.

By then no longer based on the current Honda/Acura Legend (as a larger, second generation arrived as a 1991 model), the Sterling 827 quietly disappeared, leaving behind few memories of Austin-Rover’s final crack at the North American market. More successful in Europe, the Rover 800 continued with a major facelift and consistent updates until 1999. Needless to say, after all these years, Sterling 825/827s are about as common as someone ordering Earl Grey tea at a Sake bar, making this example photographed by Colin a true gem.

 

Related Reading:

Rover 3500 SE (SD1): A Brilliant Exit Strategy 

1989 Acura Legend LS

1996 Rover 800