I was just 12 years old in the summer of 2010 when my parents announced that the family would be jetting off to Switzerland for our two-week-long family vacation, having scored some last-minute plane tickets on the cheap. Naturally, this sparked a great deal of excitement within my wide-eyed former self, as I’d never been to continental Europe and hadn’t even left the country since a jaunt up to Vancouver as a toddler. But the prospects that elevated my youthful anticipation weren’t so much those of seeing historic buildings or picturesque towns or gorgeous mountain scenery; those were all well and good, but the main draw for me was something else entirely. It wasn’t even the cars, believe it or not, which may seem odd given the venue for this increasingly haphazard bit of storytelling. It was the car brands.
[Author’s Note: As you can probably tell, this article has very little to do with this particular Sterling and far more to do with how I first began my own CC hunt, vis-à-vis my search for a Sterling. If you’d like to learn more about Sterlings, I highly suggest reading these articles by our very own CC editors.]
See, for whatever reason (I find as I get older that it’s increasingly difficult to pry into the mind of my younger self) earlier that summer I had developed a rather unhealthy fascination with photographing the logos of as many brands as I could. Not a single household appliance could escape my quick trigger on the shutter button of my father’s trusty Fuji F10, and the dozens of blurry closeups quickly piled up. All completely useless, of course. But I can only assume it gave me some sort of satisfaction, given that I kept pressing onward. And it would have been just another unremarkable manifestation of childlike curiosity, had the trip eastward not mapped that curiosity onto an underlying lifelong interest. For I had all but run out of brands in my house to photograph by the time we packed our bags; Kenmore and KitchenAid and the like had been thoroughly documented, and I was in need of some fresh material.
Enter the European car brands. I knew that the Swiss enjoyed a wide selection of car choices from many manufacturers who dared not peddle their wares on our shores, or whose previous dabbles in peddling said wares were somewhat cataclysmic. I now had the opportunity to scope out these foreign merchants on their home turf and add their various insignia to my digital encyclopedia. And so began my great Car Project, launched as an established entity on August 19, 2010; some five months before this website became its own independent entity, and more than a year before I discovered it (as evidenced by my first comment, on a CC Clue for a 1972 Toyota Corona coupe). It began with a single picture of an Audi logo in the grille of a circa-1992 Audi S2 Avant (yes, I know we get Audis here in the US, but I hadn’t yet progressed my logo chronicles to the car stage until I went abroad), and it continues today, almost nine years later.
By now (if my incessant prattling hasn’t scared you off by now) you’re probably wondering how this has anything to do with a 1991 Sterling 827 SLi. Or, if you’ve followed the (il)logical progression of my twelve-year-old mind, you’ve realized how this has everything to do with it. See, after spending two weeks in Switzerland I had crossed off almost every common car logo from my list. Most of the rare care brands in the US (like Peugeot, Renault, Lancia, Opel, etc.) were not so rare in Europe, mostly because they’re European brands. And whatever American brands I hadn’t found in Switzerland were crossed off very quickly after I returned home. So by the middle of September my once-prolific searches were coming up dry, and I was running out of new territory to cover. But there was one more door to open before I closed the book on my logo search.
The final quandary, the last stronghold against the tyrannical throes of my lens, was the set of car brands we got here in the United States, but that never made it across the pond. Some of these were simple, and I recorded them almost immediately: Acura, or Saturn, or Eagle, for example. But, I wondered, surely there were more? Maybe even some that I hadn’t heard of? And so I took to the internet in search of these mysteriously unknown brands who dared evade my grasp. It wasn’t long before I dialed in on a new target: Sterling.
As I mentioned before, our CC editors have already covered the Sterling story admirably. As such, I won’t get into much detail here, because I’d be both wasting my time and insulting their good work on the same subject. If you’re unfamiliar with Sterling, I would highly suggest reading their excellent articles (linked in the introduction and at the end of this article) to get a bit more background. But the basic gist of it is that Sterling was a creation by ARCONA (Austin Rover Cars of North America) to regain a foothold in the American market after several large-scale disasters using the Rover name, the last of which being the ill-fated import of the Rover 3500 (SD1 for all you non-American folks) in 1980.
British Leyland was in dire straits financially by the late 1970s, and entered a partnership with Honda that resulted in the co-developed Rover 800 series and Honda (Acura) Legend of 1986, after the Rover Group was spun off earlier that year, following the spinoff of Austin Rover in 1982. (Don’t ask me any more about how the British automotive industry worked in the 1980s. In fact, I’m fairly certain the British themselves hadn’t a clue.) ARCONA subsequently imported the Rover 800 from 1987-1991, using the newly-created Sterling brand name to avoid Americans’ negative connotations associated with the Rover marque.
For the first two years, Sterling offered only one model: the 825 sedan, which sold decently well in 1987 before experiencing a 37% sales decrease the next year, due in no small part to electrical gremlins and build quality concerns (as well as the novelty wearing off). In 1989, the Sterling received a larger 2.7L Honda engine and was appropriately renamed the Sterling 827. With the 1989 model year also came the 827 SLi hatchback, a rather handsome shape that also served the dual purpose of differentiating the Sterling from its Acura counterpart, as the Legend was offered in a sedan bodystyle only.
Unfortunately for ARCONA, Americans were none too keen on overpriced hatchbacks, and the damage to Sterling’s reputation was already terminal by the time the hatchback arrived anyway. Sterling limped on until 1991, selling fewer cars in its last three years than it had in its first alone. It was yet another unmitigated disaster for Rover, and one of the final nails in the coffin for the last major independent British automaker. The Rover Group was sold to BMW in 1994, and only the success of its Land Rover brand prolonged its inevitable demise until 2000 (when Land Rover was acquired by Ford, consigning Rover to a slow and painful death that mercifully ended five years later).
Having read all this (at a very superficial level, mostly consisting of Sterling = rare), my twelve-year-old self still wasn’t convinced that Sterling was worthy of being anointed as my CC Holy Grail. After all, Merkur (another company that I had just discovered) offered many of the same eccentricities and rarity, and a similar uniquely-American-market logo. But then I saw Sterling’s badge, and I was hooked. It was majestic: a royal coat of arms swathed in silver and black, featuring a red cross and a literal down-to-earth evocation of Peugeot’s prancing lion. It was then that I decided that I absolutely must find a Sterling, and add its logo to the annals of my collection. And so my journey began.
It began by asking my father whether he had ever heard of Sterling, since I knew he had been in the market for a (much cheaper) car around the time Sterlings were being sold. He replied that he had, and that he remembered one running about our neighborhood until fairly recently. I quizzed him for more details about the car, and he then recalled us walking past it some years previously, and him pointing it out to me. Of course, I immediately began racking my brain, searching for some recollection of this now-precious memory. Where had I seen this shape before? Where were we walking? What were we doing?
And then it all came flooding back to me. I remembered the car – though I didn’t know what it was at the time. It was a red sedan, with five-spoke wheels, perched on a slightly elevated driveway on the left side of a small house, underneath a tree growing from the left side. We were walking to a local brunch place that my family frequented, and it was on the right side of the street as we walked south.
I realize this may sound a bit far-fetched. How could I remember something I saw as a child so clearly after not thinking about it for years? But my memory (as I’m sure some of yours do as well) has always had a strange affinity for cars. I still remember the red Chevy Cavalier my family rented on vacation when I was 3, and the white Isuzu Oasis minivan that I rode in on the way to my best friend’s birthday party in preschool. I remember the beige Ford Explorer my kindergarten teacher drove, and the bright red Celica my first-grade teacher had. In fact, I could probably rattle off every rental car my family’s ever driven. So while it’s possible the Sterling was a manufactured memory, it was also very possible it was a genuine one. I hopped onto Google Maps and scoured Street View in the area I had narrowed down the car’s location to, searching up and down several streets, looking for a match of the picture I had formed in my mind. And while I didn’t find a perfect match, there were two driveways between my house and the restaurant that looked awfully similar to what I had imagined. But there was no Sterling in either of the driveways. How odd.
Over the next few weeks I trekked up and down the streets, hoping for any trace of the Sterling’s reappearance. Maybe the owner had a strange work schedule. Maybe they were on vacation and left it at the airport. Maybe they lent it to somebody else for a while. But as the days ticked on I realized that the car was gone. Perhaps it was never there in the first place. Perhaps I had imagined the whole thing. I looked through every picture my family had ever taken, through historical satellite imagery, through every resource I could find. And at the end of the day, I found nothing to suggest the car had ever existed. I was crushed. But not yet defeated.
With my parents, I began to walk through my neighborhood (and the surrounding areas), looking for a Sterling: if not the one I remembered, any one would do. And somewhere along the way, I started taking pictures not just of logos, but of the cars themselves. My collection grew steadily. Ten cars, then twenty, then another twenty and another forty, and two months later I was pushing 150 cars photographed. Looking back, some of them were pretty lame (Jeep Wrangler? Scion xD? Plymouth Voyager?) but others were genuine finds (Volvo PV544, Rambler Marlin, Peugeot 504 to name a few). And then one day, I struck gold.
I wasn’t even looking for cars, necessarily. It was Halloween of 2010, and my family was returning home after a visit to the pumpkin patch with my grandparents. I’d brought my camera with us to document the day’s events, but as we neared home my it was my eyes that were pointed outside through the window, scanning the streets for any sign of car-related life. We meandered down streets I’d been up and down many times before, and I was beginning to chalk this journey up as another unfruitful one. But just as I was about to give up hope, we flashed by a familiar-looking dark shape parked near the corner of a side street. I dropped whatever I was holding and immediately began fumbling for my camera, and pleading with my mother to stop and go back. My mom (bless her heart) indulged me, and we turned around to go back and look. And as we got closer and closer, there was no mistaking it: I had finally found a Sterling.
It wasn’t the Sterling that I had recalled: it wasn’t even a sedan. It was the much-rarer 827 SLi hatchback version (and a manual, at that) which couldn’t have topped 5,000 total sales in the US, and hasn’t ever been featured on this website. At the time, I didn’t think much of that, but looking back, it was quite the find. I took some fairly horrible shots of it, and then, finally, added the logo to my collection. My journey was complete. But in the process, it had sparked a new journey that continues to this day. I now have taken pictures of 2,852 separate cars; some old, some new, some rare, some largely un-noteworthy. But it’s been a great deal of fun for me, and it’s a constantly rewarding hobby: every time a new adventure, visiting a new neighborhood with new cars. And I get some good exercise in the process, since I look for cars almost exclusively by bike now. But it all started with the determination to find this oddball British-Japanese clunker with a cool badge on the front.
I saw the Sterling again a few years later, and took some better pictures; you can probably tell which are old and which are new(er). But I haven’t seen it since, and judging by its VIN not being smogged in California since 2014, it has likely joined the great Rover in the sky along with the rest of its kin. So it goes. But that’s been my mission ever since: to document the cars rapidly disappearing from our streets, before they’re lost for good. (Remarkably similar to the Curbside Classic mission, now that I think about it.) I hope you’ll join me in this adventure: it’s finally time for me to open up my archives and share some of the finds with this wonderful community, as I’ve been meaning to do for years. There’s not much that we haven’t covered, but there are still some cracks to fill yet.
Photographed in Santa Monica, CA – October 2010 & August 2013
Curbside Classic: 1987 Sterling 827 SL – A Living Legend by Brendan Saur
Curbside Classic: 1987 Sterling 825 SL – Turkey In The Grass by Paul Niedermeyer