Essay : The Sterling fixer
It’s the most unlikely of scenarios – you own a Rover 800 in the USA, and you need to find that frustatingly NLA part. Is your goose cooked?
It’s not, according to Richard Truett, who’s tracked down the Sterling fixer…
Charles, King of Sterling
Dale Charles is your man if you live in the USA and run a Rover Sterling…
HOW does a man with no particular affection for British cars in general and Rover cars in particular end up with what is likely the world’s largest private stash of new factory spares for the Rover 825/827 Sterling? That man, Dale Charles, says it’s all because of a car crash years ago. And thereby hangs a tale…
Rover’s final withdrawal from selling cars in the USA was a memorable one. The announcement came in August 1991. Not long after that, a full-page color ad that is now considered a classic appeared in national magazines and newspapers. In big, black print, the words: “Some things America was not ready for” appeared above pictures of King George, a wild Sid Vicious-like kid wearing a sneer and a multi-colored mohawk hairdo, and a Sterling saloon. Below the photos, the text promised parts and service would be available for the Sterling for as long as needed. The final words on the page were “Sterling by Rover.”
With rebates on the Sterling 827 as high as $8000, Rover was anxious to quickly shift the final cars. In the USA, the Sterling was sold with a three-year or 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that covered everything. Rover wanted to get the clock ticking on those warranties so that it could put its American nightmare in the corporate rearview mirror. And it worked. By the end of the 1991, most of the rest of the final Sterlings were in customer hands.
Now its three years later. With those warranties expiring, Sterling’s dealer network is quickly unravelling as customers shift into other cars. So it’s getting harder and harder to find a pair of factory trained hands to sort out the car’s delicate electrical problems and other maladies. And this is where Charles enters the story.
In 1994, he opened a a foreign car repair business in Brooklyn, New York right next door to an auto body repair shop. Charles had, of course, seen a Sterling or two in his travels. But the car left no impression on him either way. He didn’t grow up enamored of Jaguars and Triumphs and other British classics. And he never set out to specialize is repairing Sterlings. But fate had a different plan.
“One of the body shop’s customers had a wreck with a Sterling,” Charles told ARO. “I was anxious for work, so I handed the customer my card. And I worked on it.” Charles, who always enjoyed solving complex electrical problems, found he had a knack for figuring out the Sterling’s quirks, and for fixing the car’s other common problems. Word spread, and soon Sterling drivers from all over New York and then from all over the East Coast were bringing their cars to Charles for repairs and maintenance. One day, he had 10 Sterlings in his shop.
Because he was doing so much Sterling work, Charles needed to keep an inventory of parts on hand. So, he bought out a dealership’s parts department. By the late Nineties, Rover had pretty much wound down its involvement with the Sterling. Somehow, there emerged two major sources for Sterling parts in the USA, a Jaguar and Land Rover parts company called Atlantic British, and a Texas company named British Royal Motorcars. Because Charles did so much work on Sterlings, he was well known to both.
Not a sight you’ll see very often in the USA
Rover sold close to 40,000 Sterlings in the USA from 1987-91. But as the years wore on, the number of Sterlings on US roads rapidly diminished. And so did the demand for spares. By 2006, British Royal was closing up shop and unloading Sterling parts for pennies on the dollar. That’s when Charles ended up buying more than two huge tractor-trailer loads full of parts.
Then earlier this year, Charles bought out the remaining parts from Atlantic British. All the spares are now with Charles, who closed his car repair business in New York and moved to a farm in Bainbridge, Pennsylvania. He’s in the process of sorting and stocking about 78,000 new parts. He’s got such things as new wheels, seat upholstery, body, electrical and trim parts, brake, suspension and engine components and much more. He also has a supply new Sterling badges, which were used only on the USA Rover 800s.
Charles estimates that no more than 1,000 Sterlings are in daily use in the USA. So, he’ll more than have enough spares to keep the remaining cars on the road for as long as people want to drive them. But Charles does more than just sell parts. He’s still working on cars that come to him from all over the East Coast. He does Sterling restorations as well. Charles, 41, is about as friendly as can be. He is known on the Internet as The Sterling Fixer. He gives freely of his time helping Sterling owners or technicians sort problems.
And even though he has a monopoly on parts, his prices are very reasonable. Oddly enough, after all these years, Charles is finally getting around owning and driving a Sterling of his own. He’s just registered a 1988 SL. Charles says that car improved after 1988, and made another leap forward in 1991, when the CCU (Central Control Unit) was added. That helped reduce electrical problems. He says more than anything else, poor quality switches and bad soldering of wires let down the car.
His favourite Sterling is the rare limited Oxford Edition that came to the USA in 1990. Just 350 were built. This was a sort of super Sterling that featured a standard built-in cell phone, trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer, Connolly leather interior with contrasting piping, electrically adjustable rear seats, and polished rosewood trim. The color, Nordic metallic blue, was also unique. And finally, on the windshield was Roy Axe’s signature in a special decal. Even The New York Times gave the car a good review, calling it better than its Honda sibling.
So what does the future hold for the Sterling in the USA? Well, for one thing, the remaining Sterlings have fallen into the hands of people who are determined to look after them. Charles says he knows of customers with three and four Sterlings and several others stashed in their back yard for parts. Charles believes the Sterling is slowly headed for classic status. “There are people who really, really love them. I can see the Sterling being welcome at British car shows someday,” he says.
With proper maintenance, the Sterling has proven to be a long-lasting car. Charles knows of several with around 300,000 miles on the clock. With nearly 15 years of hands-on experience with the Sterling, you’d think Charles has seen it all in terms of what can go wrong. But he hasn’t. Says Charles: “Once in awhile, I get a surprise.”
Dale Charles prefers to be contacted via e-mail at Sterlingfixer@juno.com
Dale’s mad about Sterlings…