Drive story : Rover 800 // Nürburgring
September 2003 saw the Rover 800 Coupé make a welcome return as car of the month.
Owner Keith Adams returns from his Rover bound German trip enthusing about this “curate’s egg” of a car. One question remains unanswered, however, and that is: Is this the world’s most depreciating car?
Originally posted: Car of the month, September 2003
Nürburgring for a ‘Monkey’
You know how it is – you get an idea, and you just can’t shake it. Well, that happened to me a few weeks ago… I wanted to prove that a £500 car could achieve anything that a new £20,000 Euro saloon could, thus proving to myself once and for all, that “Bangernomics” work.
The original plan had legs: for several months, I had been using a Citroen XM CT Turbo for my 100-mile daily motorway commute. Bought for £500 this charismatic French barge had been well looked after throughout its life, possessing a full service history and an unmarked interior. Why so cheap? Well, it was white for a start – but more tellingly, the owner lived in darkest Northamptonshire – and such off-the-wall cars were certainly not the flavour of the month in a county where it seems that anything outside of the 97 per cent standard deviation is seen as the Devil’s work. The Citroen XM was well outside of that comfortable place; a place where you could be guaranteed of seeing at least a dozen of the same cars on any given day. It should come as no surprise that said ex-owner replaced said car with a Vauxhall Vectra. His loss, my gain!
So, once ensconced in this car, the idea was germinated. In its usual 600-mile week, the XM delivered many esoteric pleasures – mainly at high speed and in a straight line, where its high gearing, relaxed (yet controlled) ride, low wind noise and superb seats gave their best. But that was the thing – driving up the M1 surrounded by predominantly German executive cars, the XM was just as capable, and despite what the doomsayers’ prophesised, it never missed a beat. And it made me think – why should I be afraid of taking this thing abroad to see some of the sights? After all, if it could handle the M1 with such aplomb, a trip across Northern Europe would be like a walk in the park.
It was decided: I’d take the car to the Germany, take in some sights on the way, and then run it around the Nürburgring in order to give that Hydractive chassis a work-out. What could be simpler?
Tickets were booked, a route was planned, and a holiday was drawn up centring on the beautiful Cathedral city of Aachen – conveniently located at the point on the map where the Belgian, German and Dutch borders converge. For those in the UK reading this, Aachen really is undiscovered treasure, thanks to the fact that it is completely overshadowed by its close neighbour, Maastricht.
Now the plan was set…
However, like all good plans in my life, it was not meant to be. A couple of weeks before I was due to set sail for Europe, I received a phone call from my good friend John Capon. He had found an original 1993 Rover 800 Coupé, which although not in the best cosmetic shape, did have a full service history, was a known local car and everything appeared to work on it. Best of all, the guy selling the car had just retired, and wanted rid of the car – and as such, he would sell me it to me for £500. Knowing John’s high standards, his idea of “cosmetically sound” is everyone else’s “mint and boxed”. The price was also good enough to warrant taking a punt on the car unseen, so armed with £500 in used banknotes; I trekked down to Devon in order to look at the Coupé.
Now, as anyone with petrol in their veins will tell you, this amounts to a fait-accompli: you go to look at a car, and you have money in your pocket, and the chances are that unless it has three wheels and no steering wheel, you WILL buy it. It has happened before with me, and yes – it happened again. I drove into the courtyard where the 800 Coupé was parked, saw it, fell in love, and decided to buy it there and then. Bad practice perhaps, and not best recommended to those spending lots of money, but it is how my mind works, and it adds to the adventure of this car enthusiast’s life. After all, wouldn’t life be boring if we bought rationally?
Now, my views on the Rover 800 are well known – it is fundamentally, an innovative car that showed the British could design a car alongside Honda, whilst maintaining a fair dollop of that commodity that BMW liked to describe in later years, as “Britishness”. In true BMC>Rover tradition, the 800 was launched in pre-production form, which meant that customers inevitably put up with less than perfect reliability and poor build quality. It tarnished the 800’s reputation with buyers and the press, but thanks to Rover’s quick reactions, many of the teething troubles were ironed out by 1988. More unusually, this bad reputation was surmounted here in the UK, and the Rover 800 went on to become something of a success with executive buyers.
Many people thought that the 800 looked a little bland in its earlier form, but I disagree: I think the design was extremely neat and particularly clean in its execution of the belt- and shoulder-lines. The six-light treatment is nice, and the blacked-out pillars give the impression of a large glass area, without encumbering it with a goldfish bowl-like persona. Next to the Rover 800, the contemporary Ford Granada looked like a downmarket, formless blob.
The most exciting variation of the 800 – the Coupé – would not appear, however, for some time. Initially planned for in 1984, the product planners floated the idea of a Coupé in order to help with the company’s re-entry into the American market. In the original 800 Coupé concept submission document, which was used as a tool to encourage senior managers to Okay the car for production, the Audi Quattro, BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz CE were cited as rivals – a trifle ambitious perhaps, but achievable given Toyota’s later success with the Lexus brand, seemingly conjured up from thin air. The concept document also went on to say that without this variation, that the company’s ambition of re-entering North America would be severely compromised. How right it was.
After a lengthy gestation period and almost endless clinicking in the USA, the Coupé was launched in 1992. However, because of the fact that the Americans were essentially a conservative lot, the Coupé sadly lost its adventurous set of clothes based on the 1986 CCV concept car. What did appear was effectively a two-door re-roofed version of the R17 saloon. The Americans wanted classy, and they wanted “British” and this incarnation of the Rover 800 delivered both in spade-loads. How sad it is, then, that Rover pulled out of the USA in 1991, and the car that could have turned around the company’s fortunes there was never offered there…
It has to be said as well that the 800 Coupé does look very, very good on the whole: in profile, especially, it works very well: the graceful roofline with its gentle curves are complemented by the well-styled, bulkier R17 rump. The low bonnet line added to the success of the profile. In all, the lines melded wonderfully, and it is probably only in this version that the R17 lines work really well – after all, it is not saddled with the flat roof and XX-style door pressings. The Coupé looks homogenous and successful, whereas the saloon and fastback both look like the sufferers of a poorly executed facelift (a shame given how many improvements were incorporated in R17 over XX).
Doubtlessly, the Coupé underlines Rover’s folly of incorporating the original XX side doors into the R17 programme… after all; it was an economy that was conceived in order to re-use the original presses. However, this advantage was negated when it was found that the presses were too worn to re-use, and new tooling was required anyway. D’oh!
That aside, I have always liked the Coupé, and ever since seeing it for the first time in the flesh back in 1992, I wanted one. Rationality did not play a part in this decision; after all, it was reported by AUTOCAR magazine as being a duffer dynamically – and an overpriced one at that. However, I was sold on the looks, and that understated style that hinted at British plurocrat without resorting to over the top retro.
What stopped me getting one then was the small matter of its £31,000 list price and my less than brilliant salary (what’s new?). However, time is a great leveller and because of the 800 range’s well-known image problem, 1992’s £31,000 became 2003’s £500.
And so it was, that I was now faced with the prospect of taking a driving holiday through Europe in a ten year old Rover 800 – surely something undertaken by only the brave or foolhardy. As anyone that knows me will tell you, it is certainly more of a case of the latter, as bravery is not something entered in my personal vocabulary. I could have cancelled, but at the end of the day, I was planning to go in a Citroen XM – wasn’t that just as bad? So it was Rover or bust…
There were mitigating circumstances, however. This 800 had obviously been well maintained, had new tyres all round, clean and fresh engine oil. But most importantly, was what lay under the bonnet: a Honda 2.7-litre V6 engine and gearbox. As can be read elsewhere on this site, this engine is good for 350,000 miles without breaking into a sweat, and given that there was only 130,000 miles on this example, it was barely even run in. The drive back from Devon was trouble free, and the elegant old Rover didn’t miss a beat.
In the week between buying the car and taking it to Germany, I prepared the car in my usual thorough way: I checked the oil and gave it a clean. It was fine.
On the positive side, it has a suitably opulent looking interior – and it is this that strikes you as soon as you open the door. Visually then, the interior of the Rover is a success, but the pleasures are more than just superficial: the interior truly is a great place to sit in. The front seats are wonderfully thick and supportive, and clad in high quality tan leather – I mention this first, because it is appropriate to start where the Rover is most able, and frankly, that is on static appeal, as will become clear. The seating position is superb (and this is a good thing, as the steering wheel is only height adjustable) and offers excellent support for the thighs, lumbar region and shoulders. The same can also be said for the rear, and although it was badged as a Coupé, this 800 actually offers saloon car accommodation for two – in the most inviting individually tailored buckets you are likely to encounter this side of a Bentley.
If you think I exaggerate, then consider that the interior colour scheme is a Rover masterclass on how to make a car look expensive: the colours gelled perfectly. Light tans complement dark browns. Wood veneer was thick and lustrous, and the instrument binnacle surrounded instruments that were legible and clear, whilst looking as pleasing as anything the Germans could offer at the time. Look a little closer and it is easy to remain impressed, thanks to dashboard switches that have a high quality feel that early 800s could only dream of, and new-to-R17 column stalks that feel weighty and positive in use.
Heck, even the original Clarion stereo with boot-mounted CD multi-changer sounds good.
On the run down the M11/ M25/M20, it felt good. Certainly it did not lack stability or surefootedness, and the variable power assistance worked well here, offering good centre feel and positive feedback on all the surface changes our motorways have to offer. In terms of refinement, the Coupé was good in the main: engine noise was subdued to the point of near extinction, perhaps because the constant wind rustle around the frameless windows was overpowering it. Although this wind noise was not a tiresome companion at UK motorway speeds, it certainly made you aware of its presence, and as a result, the quality of the stereo took on renewed importance.
However, it is pretty easy to impress on the no-brainer run down to the coast, with mind in neutral, cruise control set at 70mph, and the stereo purring away in the background. By the time I arrived at Dover, the Rover had amassed a positive tally of points on its scorecard
The same could be said about France as well, thanks to its billiard smooth autoroutes, but this sense of equilibrium would soon be thrown into sharp relief by Belgium’s more demanding motorway surfaces. The first sign of trouble manifested itself near Brussels, when smooth blacktop gave way to what can only be described as dark brown apple crumble – where the Rover once was composed and in control, it slightly went to pieces, treating ridges nervously – hopping and skipping like a shopping car and not the top of the range executive it was supposed to be. The early conclusion drawn was that a little more suspension compliance was obviously in order if this car was going to be taken seriously as a long distance cruiser. Still, there was little sign of the body shake evident in the 800 saloon, so the two-door Coupé structure was obviously beefier and that was helping matters.
Refinement was also taking something of a pounding in Belgium – culture went AWOL for a while, as the 205-section W-rated tyres roared in disapproval, and remained thoroughly vocal all the way to Germany, especially disliking the rippled concrete surface of the E40 Bruges motorway.
Still, it was a small blot on the otherwise impressive Rover’s copybook, and by the time Germany was in sight, the scorecard remained positive.
A quick stop to check fluid levels and condition of the tyres showed that this ten year old car had used no oil or water en route, and although fuel consumption remained on the right side of acceptable, returning 26mpg, the car’s overly small fuel tank was cursed, as my range was certainly longer than the car’s. As reliable as clockwork, the Rover needed a refill every 350 miles – and in this age of transcontinental journeys, this was simply not good enough. Still, it allowed for some exploration on the way down – and in passing, the Belgian market town of Bruges was thoroughly investigated… Before I left, the town’s stock of chocolate was depleted by a significant amount, and not to feed too many national stereotypes, the market square really did smell of waffles!
Satisfied that the tyres were in good shape, I pressed on into Germany. This was one part of the journey I was relishing, because it was the first time I had encountered a speed limit-free public road, and I intended to see how the Rover would handle high speeds demanded of a top of the range car. First thing’s first, if you are intending to max your car in Germany, consider that this country’s motorway network is similar to that of England’s inasmuch as it is heavily used and loaded with many lorries. Also consider that it is usual for the weather to change at the drop of a hat…
Up to this point, I had diligently used the Rover’s excellent cruise control in order to keep within many of the European speed limits, but after hours of Belgian boredom, I was glad to finally be able to give it some stick. The Rover’s excellent straight-line stability was no 80mph veneer, and once 100mph is breached, it remains impressively arrow-like in its demeanour, and the tuneful Honda V6 remains impressively subdued. Wind noise does not increase dramatically either, which does come as a surprise. It is still easy to consider 100mph as part of the Rover’s cruising gait, so I press on further…
At 110mph, that easy demeanour has now gone, and you feel that the Rover is beginning to work a little harder for a living. Not that at any time does it feel less than in control, but you get the impression that it is now getting nearer to its limit of its abilities. The focus is now planted firmly on the horizon as 120mph is reached, and the matter of what other cars are doing becomes paramount. Still, the Rover feels good and although noise has increased by a click or two, it is still not bad enough to be considered too intrusive. A hole in the traffic leads to a further push and it is with a sense of disappointment that as I take a quick glance at the speedometer to see that at 130mph, the miles are not exactly piling on as I would have expected. In fact, as I recall from my time at Donington, my 16-Valve Citroen BX would probably have been pulling harder.
After being baulked a couple of times by traffic, I decide that discretion was the better part of valour, and give up on the idea for the day. Aachen awaited and there would be other times.
As a connoisseur of food and drink, Aachen comes as a pleasant diversion. That evening, my host, Alexander Boucke takes me around the centre of the cathedral town in order to take in an evening meal and perhaps a drink or two. Alexander’s presence reminds me just how much German I have forgotten between leaving school and now. It is also comforting to know that the standard of German restaurants is as good as any restaurant guide promised.
The following day, I ease the Rover into Aachen’s urban traffic, and it is with a sense of real relief that this Rover seems to shrink around you when driving it. It is easy to thread from lane to lane thanks to the excellent door mirrors and less than expansive width, but it pays to remember that the 800 Coupé is still a long car – in fact, it is not that short of five meters in length. As the city limits are reached and the urban sprawl makes way for the back roads, it becomes clear that the 800 Coupé is not too shabby on A-roads, too. Certainly, it is not the uncultured beast that contemporary road tests would have you believe, and although some potholes do force the car to bang as it hits them, damping and body rigidity are just good enough to for the bang not to be accompanied by the shudder you would get in an 800 saloon.
As the roads of get twistier, the test gets sterner, and the Rover’s case sadly begins to fall apart. The Eifel region of Germany boasts some amazingly nice, twisty roads, and it is easily imagined that in a well set-up driver’s car, they would be a pleasure to navigate. However, “navigate”, would be an apt term to use for the Rover, as things get tighter, it gets increasingly boat-like in the way it handles.
For a start, the steering is terrible. In the two-litre Rover 800s, you are presented with what was called PCF (or Positive Centre Feel) steering, which not only offers variable assistance, but also less than three turns from lock to lock. These cars feel alert and light on their feet largely thanks to PCF. However, in the V6 Rover 800s, it is Honda’s far inferior system that is used, and although it weighs up at speed, it does so in a very abrupt way and non-linear way. Rather disconcertingly, it can weigh-up mid-bend, and you are never really sure in what direction the wheels are pointing. Also that on-centre feel, so good at on the motorway, takes leave just when you need it most – mid-corner. Another problem is that it is geared at an excessively low 3.2 turns from lock to lock, and combined with a poor turning circle, you find yourself twirling tiresomely at the wheel in order to negotiate hairpins…. I nicknamed it “hide and seek” steering during the trip.
However, it is not all bad news – and once you get used to the absence of steering feel, and drive accordingly in anything less tight than a hairpin, you find that there are bags of grip when you push. It is not a particularly rewarding practice looking for these limits thanks to “hide and seek”, but at least you know that the car’s limits are high, and most drivers’ confidence levels will give out before the Rover relinquishes its grip on the tarmac.
The chassis tried its best to keep up, but like the steering, ended up feeling slow witted and cumbersome. In tight corners, there was too much roll, although in more open sweeping corners, it felt secure and solid. If all this paints a bleak picture of the Rover/driver interface, it shouldn’t. These roads really that looked like coiled spaghetti when viewed on a map, and they would have challenged any car. In the Rover’s defence, it is a 1500kg touring car, and negotiating something like the Stelvio pass would not have been in its design brief. Ploughing motorways was – and at that, the car largely excels.
The engine is another area where the Rover excels. It has to be said that on the same hairpins and climbs, it sounds so sweet and so soulful, that you can see why Honda are renowned as one of the world’s best engine builders. Below 4000rpm, it gives off that distinctive V6 growl, that makes itself heard when you want it to. Above 4500rpm, and like all Honda units of that era, it seems to “come on cam” and pull with real vigour. Also, that pleasing V6 growl becomes an NSX-like wail that any red-blooded driver will enjoy hearing whenever they can. However, that high-rev energy does not mate well to the automatic gearbox, where the tall first gear left the Rover bogging instead of punching its way out of corners… by the time 4500rpm came along, and it was singing its tune, it was time to brake for the next turn. Frustrating to say the least.
Still, it had been a lightly trafficked run down to the Nürburgring and by and large, it had been a pleasurable drive. Nagging doubts about the 800’s chassis set-up were largely negated by the beauty of the surroundings, and thanks to those ample armchairs and good visibility, I arrived at the fabled racing track relaxed and unstressed.
So how did the Rover fare on the ‘Ring itself? I don’t know, because it was closed for the day. To be honest, it was probably for the best not to take it there… the truth may well have been hard to swallow.
One wonders just how many other £500 cars would have handled the whole trip with quite as much aplomb – OK, a Jaguar XJ6 for the same money would have delivered more chassis refinement on the way, but would it have made it to the Nürburgring in the first place? Or perhaps my first choice: the Citroen XM? Well, that would have certainly been better with regards to chassis refinement, but it would have been slightly more taxing on the motorway. Besides, that car’s gearbox was particularly unpleasant, and would have left me with a palmful of blisters.
No, the Rover was a flawed beast all right – as so many endearing cars are. But what marked it out as particularly pleasurable for me were the gentlemen’s club interior, superb seating and interesting engine note. There was also the slight matter of that side profile – not many cars work too well side on, but for me, the Coupé’s lines are magic. Driving down high streets, I had little option but to look to the side and admire the reflection of the car in shop windows. I hope that doesn’t sound too sad, but I really cannot think of too many cars for such little money that would have the same effect on me.
There may be Japanese DNA in this car’s make-up, but for me, it is all-British – and it is this very “Britishness” that appeals. So this car, bought for irrational reasons, appealed for all the wrong irrational reasons. I generally like to think of myself as someone who likes a car for possessing a fine engine, gearbox or chassis, and the Rover really only scores on one of these three criteria. I still like it, and that’s the most important thing, though. One hopes that the ownership experience will prove just as satisfying, but given those moments on the continent, “hide and seek” or not, the Rover scores more than well so far.