The cars : Rover 800 Turbo 16V

The XX and R17 versions of the 800 differed significantly over what constituted the performance model in each respective range…

…and here’s the anomaly.

FEW cars in Rover’s recent history have raised as many questions as the Rover 820 Turbo 16v: Was it developed by Rover Special Products? Why introduce a new engine variant so close to the end of its life? Just how were Tickford involved in the project? It has also aroused a variety of responses from people within the company; not all of which tally… One thing is for sure: it is a rare beast now, and is significant for predicting the R17 Vitesse, and its move away from the silky smooth Honda V6.

By 1990, the XX Rover 800 was nearing the end of its life, and it was decided that it would be an opportune moment to produce a special version of the car (as opposed to a “run-out” model). The reason why it was decided to base this special 800 around the the M-Series engine is not completely clear; for sure, the T16 development programme would have been well underway, and the early launch date of an M16 derivative would provide engineers with invaluable data for the new engine. There is also the matter of engine choice; the M-Series was the only 800 power unit that was built in the UK (and therefore, volumes could be controlled by management), whereas the V6 and Turbodiesel units were bought in (Honda and VM respectively), and this allowed for fewer complications in relation to product development in addition to production and supply.

According to one source, the Rover project was handed to Rover Special Products (RSP). This team, set-up by Kevin Morley was engineered as a team to develop low-volume, high speciality cars without effecting the development of the more mainstream models. It was a clever arrangement, and a fertile one, too. Aside from the MG RV8, (as well as the earliest stages of MGF development) RSP also turned its hand to the matter of preparing a production version of the Mini-Cooper, which saw the light of day in 1990.

However, according to another source, this process would not have been so clear cut: “…there was a certain amount of politics around the RSP idea – of course the ‘regular’ guys took it as a bit of an insult if RSP claimed to be able to fast-track a product.” In fact, this situation was put into perspective by one manager involved in the 800 programme: “The Car was NOT developed by RSP but by a team from the mainstream vehicle line and Powertrain.” RSP’s involvement could possibly be explained by this statement by an insider: “…the organisation was more about project management…”, and although RSP did have some dedicated facilities, “…it relied on other departments to do the work!”

However much RSP was involved in the project (or not, as the case may be) the project rapidly took shape: the plan was to turbocharge the existing 820i engine (which already put out a healthy 140PS) and produce a limited-run performance variation (in saloon and fastback form) for the range; one that would complement the existing 2.7-litre Vitesse model. Interestingly, the Vitesse version of the R17 was intended to be a turbocharged version of the upcoming T16 engine, allowing the V6 models to take their rightful place at the luxury end of the 800 range.

There may be some question as to who dealt with the engineering of the new car, but the styling was something else. In order to differentiate the new car from its more humble brethren, it was decided to adopt some of the Canley designed Roversport bodykit (strips and sill mouldings; the biggest parts of the bodykit were the front and rear bumpers, which were not used). Many of these extras were available to any Rover 800 owner as dealer fit options, but there were detail differences: “The bodykit was very limited; it was only body-colour for the complete front and rear bumpers, including the add-on subternasal spoiler that was normally black. Plus, sill mouldings and the grooved side rubbing strips from the regular 800 bodykit. Plus blacked-in air intake and those lovely Roversport 5-spoke 16-inch alloys”, is how one member of the marketing team described it…

However, the turbocharged 800 needed to have its power capped: it is believed that marketing had a say in the final power output of the M16 Turbo: “The request from marketing was to not hinder V6 sales therefore the performance should be similar to the 2.7-litre Honda V6 (177PS) hence the performance was limited to 180 PS deliberately.”

This view, provided by engineering was also backed up by marketing: “There may have been an element of not spoiling the party for the V6 by keeping the power down, but there was also, very definitely, a torque restraint at that stage, and it needed the Torsen differential to help with minimising torque steer if the power went above 180PS.”

The turbocharger installation, posed many interesting questions: “…the Turbo was to some extent a dry run for the engine/transmission package for the forthcoming R17 Vitesse. The engineers had to set the boost ‘cut-off’ at 180PS because they did not have the uprated PG1 gearbox and Torsen differential at their disposal. If the power curve had not been truncated by the electronics, it could have gone stratospheric; probably 250-300bhp.” Very interesting, through a Mark one Rover 800 chassis, for sure, but there would have been lasting implications: “…the torque would have just lunched the gearbox. Even with the uprated box (in the later Vitesse Sport model), they still had to saw the mountain off at 200PS.”

Once the package was defined and developed, Tickford was commissioned simply to process the final detail development and carry out low-volume component build. It echoed an earlier collaborative agreement between the two companies with the Maestro Turbo, although in this case, final assembly took took place in Cowley…

The marketing people knew that the 820 Turbo 16v was going to be a short run special, as the existence of the R17 was well-known within (and outside of) the company. Launch date was the 26th March 1991; with the R17 following that autumn. Marketing were encouraged to play up the Tickford connection: “There was an eight-sheet marketing brief, dated 18 March 1991 (i.e., only 8 days before public announcement!) which gives some interesting background. It actually talks about publicly exploiting the sporting association of Tickford, and the press release which followed says : “The development of the turbo installation was carried out for Rover under contract by Tickford“.

As well as the turbo installation being unique to this car, the engine management system was, too. Martin Haggett, a former Rover Group development engineer recalled: “I should say something about the engine management, unlike the T16 engine in the R17, which had the in-house MEMS engine controller, the earlier M16 in XX had Lucas fuel and ignition controllers, but to achieve the ignition timing settings that they needed Tickford fitted the Rover designed ERIC (Electronically Regulated Ignition and Carburetion) from the ’89 Montego in place of the AB17 unit that had been used on naturally aspirated M16 engines. The fuel ECU was a four cylinder version of the 14CUX that was used on the Land Rover V8 for many years.”

Driving a development version proved interesting for Martin. He told us: “I was working in the engine management systems department at Gaydon in the early Nineties and my particular XX Turbo was a white saloon with black leather seats and of course the standard body kit, all of which meant it was christened the “pimp mobile”. I preferred the spacing of the gear ratios to those of the later R17 turbos and in my opinion the XX had the better ride and handling balance. The car was mostly trouble free, the turbo outlet to downpipe fixings tended to work loose, but were easily tightened once you knew this, the throttle potentiometer worked loose on the way back from the Belgian Grand Prix and there were some cold driveability glitches. I guess this was the penalty for having the project delivered in time to be part of the run out strategy for the XX. I always understood that the reason for contracting the project to Tickford was that mainstream engineering’s normal development timeframe didn’t fit with Sales and Marketing’s needs.”

In the end, 563 examples were built, of which, many ended up in the hands of BAe executives (BAe/Rover company cars being the biggest source of UK Rover 800 registrations at the time), and, sadly, only a handful survive today.

820 Turbo 16v unique features:
Garrett t25 turbo (with different ratios to standard 200/400/600/800 T16 turbos)
Sodium-filled exhaust valves
Large diameter Downpipe / elbow
Front mount oil cooler
Lower compression pistons over standard M16
Different size top ring
Different inlet cam
‘Tickford Turbo’ on ecu under seat
socketed EEPROM for fueling map
Lucas hotwire injection / ignition system (twin ECU, 1 fuel, 1 ignition) not MEMS.
V6 front brakes (285mm front discs)
Early ABS (4-way fully independent, not 3-way as on later 800s/200s/400s)
Higher pressure fuel pump (5.5bar output, reg’d to 3.0-3.2bar, delivery rate 120litres/hour) than T16 turbo setup (4.3bar output reg’d to 2.8 to 3.2 bar, 73litres/hour) lower boost than T16 turbo (0.34bar regulated)
Non-sequential injection, no cam sensor compared to T16
Shorter steering rack (2.97 turns to lock, same as mk2 turbo’s according to Haynes, better than 3.12 non turbo models)

With thanks to the usual suspects and Scott Woodcock for helping with this article.

Posted in: 800
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

24 Comments on "The cars : Rover 800 Turbo 16V"

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  1. saabing says:

    I had one of these beasts back in about 2002, in BRG with black leather. Very nice car and certainly quick ! at the time I didn’t have much trust in the 800 but didn’t realise until after I’d sold it that it was a bit special..
    Certainly on for the “I wish I’d kept that” list I’m sure we all have in our heads..

  2. Jamie says:

    I bought a 820 Turbo fastback in 1991 direct from Rover. The Rover dealer had sheets of ex-BAe company cars to choose from with a wide choice of trim, colour and mileage. BAe/Rover were just getting basic mileage onto the cars and dumping them into the second hand market to keep up sales figures. The price was heavily discounted from around £22k list to £13k for a 6 months model with with about 7k on the clock.
    I saw a silver Turbo on the road just before I was about to decide and change colour at the last minute. The silver really looked the part with the skirts and almost matching alloys.
    In the end I ran the car for 140k miles until a couple of big bills made me give up on it.

  3. Jamie says:

    One more point – the fastback had half leather seats whereas the saloon had full leather. Never could work out why Rover would differentiate on such a small production run.

  4. Mark Williams says:

    I never even knew this car existed. Shame on me!

  5. alex scott says:

    I had a an 827 vitesse for several years. absolutely loved it. I loved the seats best in the world I think. the styling I really like the styling, they have rocket / star fighter looks…. something the MG6 is absolutely missing :-|. Only things I didn’t like it understeered somewhat with the power on, and the sound system wasn’t good. A sub woofer would have been good. basically loved the car and shouldnt have sold it. alex

  6. Will M says:


    Did the full leather seats fold? Something that would be a requirement in a fastback but more of a ‘nice to have’ in a saloon car?

  7. David 3500 says:

    @ Will M – Comment 6:

    From memory the rear seats in the first generation ‘XX’ Rover 800 Series saloon were fixed. In the Fastback they were of course folding. Rover Cars would not have changed this for a short run model like the 820 Turbo 16v.

  8. Oliver says:

    I still have got such a car since the end of the 1980´s. It was called on the continent 820Ti. It had 180 HP´s instead of the 820Si wich only had an output of 132 HP´s.
    In Italy it was a standard engine of the Rover 820. The normal injection version was dropped as the turbo was available. Practical every car company had more powerful 2 litre cars for Italy because of the high taxes for cars with more than 2 litres. I will not believe the production numbers because I have seen too many of these cars in Italy and Austria!

  9. David 3500 says:

    A couple of other facts about the 820 Turbo 16V:

    Firstly, its on-the-road price in both bodystyles was £23,950. Back then that was considered to be quite expensive by road-testers although you have to remember that for the 1991 Model Year, the 827 Vitesse had moved upmarket in terms of price ad specification to a Trim Level 7, which was roughly the equivalent of the 827 Sterling (then only available as a saloon). The 1991 MY 827 Vitesse had an on-the-road price of £27,995.

    Finally, the 820 Turbo 16V was offered in a choice of just six exterior colours: Black, Flame Red, White Diamond, Quicksilver metallic, Caribbean Blue pearlescent and Nightfire Red pearlescent.

  10. Ryan Antell says:

    I think I would rather have rover 200 turbo from the early 90s

  11. T.Martin says:

    apparently, 684 were built, 4 left on the road and 18 sorned
    Remember it was looked upon as a beast at the time it came out-pity there s not more of them left-shame.

  12. Will M says:

    @David 3500

    My theory was that they couldn’t get the leather seats to fold – fine in the saloon – but the hatch had to get half-leather which did?

  13. David 3500 says:

    @ Will M – Comment 10:

    An interesting theory!

    Looking at the Home Market variants, full leather seat facings were available on the 5-door model, mainly the range-topping Vitesse, as an extra cost option for the 1990 Model Year. For the 1991 Model Year when the 827 Vitesse adopted the TL7 of the Sterling (it was internally known as the Vitesse Executive), full leather seat facings were fitted as standard.

    On the 820 Turbo 16V it was probably due to the fact that the Fastback bodystyle was considered to have the more sporting pretensions and the Saloon as more executive, so this possibly explains the difference in seat facings design. The strategy to create a special leather and Lighting fabric combination for the 5-door version only seems rather bizarre on such a low volume model. However, it is more than likely that the 827 Vitesse sold in export markets under this and different monikers (e.g. 820Ti) in 1991 may have retained its original TL5 complete with half leather and Lightning fabric seat facings. Therefore it would not have presented the need to create a new interior trim item specifically for use in this one bodystyle.

  14. alex scott says:

    sports cars do better with non leather seats because you don’t slide around so much. My disco II has leather seats, and if it wasn’t for the fold down arm rests, I would be sliding all over the place. I used to have a holden HQ with a bench seat in vinyl, that was a right pain, go round a corner and slid along the bench seat holding on to the steering wheel. so by choice I would have cloth seats. alex

  15. mike p says:

    The power was restricted to 180ps not because of Sales but because the manual g/b (pg1) was limited to 180. No amount of pressure on Transmission design would allow it to be uprated. The whole project was paid for & managed by Product Engineering, I know because I project managed it.

  16. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    Mike, absolutely – and in the piece one of the chaps said this: ‘The engineers had to set the boost ‘cut-off’ at 180PS because they did not have the uprated PG1 gearbox and Torsen differential at their disposal.’

    Good to have you doubly confirm this. May I email you about this and any projects you may have worked on – it would be great to get some of those questions posed in the article finally answered.


  17. mike p says:

    No problem, ask away.

  18. francis brett francis brett says:

    I don’t remember these at all, it would be an interesting collectors car at some point I would assume.

  19. blocko says:

    I would really love one of these. My dad had a mark 1 820sli fast back and i loved it. I never even knew rover produced this car till recently. Real shame for me as there so rare and cant own one…yet! Contact me if you have one and no longer require


  20. Gordon says:

    I have one. She’s a Nightfire Red fastback. Some rust bubbling here and there but still scrubs up well when she’s had a wash and polish. A manual boost controller helps and as long as you don’t do wheelspinning launches then the gearbox is just fine (touching wood).

  21. Andy says:

    I remember these cars, and more especially the M16/T16 turbo engine. Whilst I was still a Rover Group apprentice, and working in engine design at Longbridge on KV6, I had to go over to Solihull for a training meeting, and was loaned a ‘pool car’. It turned out that this pool car was a white 200 (R8) 3 door, with a development 2.0 turbo engine under the bonnet (not sure if it was M16 or T16), however I was told later that it had 220bhp, and having driven it on the M40/M42 it certainly felt like it. At normal M way speeds, flooring the throttle launched the car forward at incredible speed, but at the same time the car could be made to ‘turn’ with the throttle due to the amount of torque steer! The best bit, especially as the car had little or no external clues to the performance, was being caught by the usual BMW’s etc, only to floor the throttle and leave them for dead! Only when I got back to Longbridge was I told I shouldn’t have been driving it at all, as an apprentice I wasn’t ‘cleared’ to drive such performance exotica-happy days!

  22. Colin says:

    I remember my Dad having an 820 Turbo for a holiday to Austria. He’d just taken delivery of an 825D but as we were setting off the clutch started slipping. Not a good way to start a 1600 mile round trip! My brother needed to be in Austria for UK champions race training so, a few frantic phone calls later, Rover HQ sent down a replacement 820 directly for our holiday.

    It was an 820 Turbo and we made good use use of its very impressive performance to catch the ferry after traffic jams on their M25. Just after the channel the fan belt broke and we spent 2 days while the French garage (who’d never see this engine before) tried to fis it. Eventually a fan belt designated for a land rover was found to fit and we were on our way.

    Despite this, it was the best car I remember my dad having. Its performance was prodigious (it quite happily did 130+ on the autobahn and had plenty left) and we found it very comfortable and it coped well on the snowy roads of winter Austria.

    When the time came to hand it back we considered keeping it but nothing came of it. I sometimes wonder what came of that car. Registration was J293OHP, silver fastback with half leather interior.

    It was very good of Rover to loan us the car for our holiday and it certainly made for a memorable trip.

  23. Richard16378 says:

    According to the DVLA search facility was last taxed in 2003/4.

    Tax due: 01 November 2004

    No details held by DVLA

    You can check with your bank/building society to confirm your payment was successful.
    Vehicle details

    Vehicle make
    Date of first registration
    28 August 1991
    Year of manufacture
    Cylinder capacity (cc)
    Not available
    Fuel type
    Export marker
    Vehicle status
    Not taxed
    Vehicle colour
    Vehicle type approval
    Not available
    Revenue weight
    Not available

  24. Jono says:

    I used to own one of these. Red Saloon on a H plate. Bought it in 1995 for £5k and about 66k on the clock. Ran it until 2004 and about 135k. Letting it go was the hardest choice ever but it was getting very expensive to maintain. Still drive 800’s today but miss this 820 Turbo. One strange thing with it was when the gearbox went in 1997, the replacement box resulted in much higher speeds in each gear. It wasn’t more powerful but lower revving in all gears. Close to 1000rpm lower. Never knew why.

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