The first car to be genuinely co-developed by Honda and Rover, the 800 was a technically advanced replacement for the SD1. In its heyday of the late Eighties, the car was nigh-on unbeatable in its class.
Writing his first Car of The Month feature for austin-rover.co.uk, Rover 800 enthusiast Brian Gunn tells the story of Steve Whipps’ impressive 78,000-mile Sterling…
Sharp suit, running shoes..
This 1990 Rover Sterling 2.7 V6 in Cherry Red is a very fine example of the breed, the TWR designed “Bodystyling” side skirts and rear spoiler looking particularly attractive in this view.
DESIGNED at a time when Austin-Rover was actively chasing a “high technology” image, the top-of the range 800 was literally loaded with gadgets. Coupled with a very tidy – one would say striking – style, and the classic Rover attribute of a well appointed interior, this car had it all. Sadly, the only retro feature of this car was its rather “BL-esque” build quality, particularly evident in the earliest cars. Austin-Rover’s development team played a blinder though, and managed to iron out most of the crinkles by the late Eighties.
Contemporary reviews of the XX version of the 800 often described the exterior style as “bland”. Maybe in the context of the mid Eighties it was, but these days, I see the sharp suited, clean-as-a-whistle style of the early 800 as a welcome antidote to the amorphous blobs that many modern cars have become. This is a car that was designed to be striking, aerodynamic and futuristic, while retaining a strong link with the highly regarded SD1. Customers also had the option of fitting any number of items from a TWR designed bodykit, carefully styled to accentuate and compliment the lines of the car. The worlds most indiscreet spoiler could be specified – which in the context of Eighties excess, suited the car perfectly.
The first thought that strikes you after settling down in the comfortable drivers seat of this car is how well Roy Axe and his team designed the interior of this car. It might have been designed twenty-odd years ago, yet in terms of ergonomics it’s bang up to date. There’s a feeling of light and airyness, yet the controls wrap around the driver, without leaving them feeling “hemmed in”. The careful design of wood and plastic combine together, to form a dashboard structure that isn’t overtly retro or futuristic and is therefore rightfully praised as one of the car’s greatest assets.
On the road
Glorious Honda V6 engine in high power pre-catalytic convertor specification.
Turn the key, and that lusty V6 instantly starts and settles to a smooth idle. Being an earlier 800, the engine benefits from a high compression ratio, and it is not strangled by a catalytic convertor. This results in a wonderfully soulful, yet mellow exhaust note; perfectly suiting the slightly sporty nature of the car. Coupled to an electronically controlled automatic gearbox, this engine makes the ideal powerhouse for effortless, relaxed driving; yet allowing you to press on when the need arises..
On the move, the sense of effortless power really shows through. The automatic ‘box changes gear in a way that typifies it’s Japanese origins; it is crisp and tightly controlled. There’s no Borg-Warner style slur on this one… Again, like all good Honda engines, this one really comes alive well above 2500 rpm; but due to a rather nifty variable length intake system it produces measureable torque low down.
Turning one’s attention to the ride and handling, it is clear that this car was designed for the motorway. It’s not that the car feels cumbersome or long, but sadly, the steering is slightly undergeared and suffers from the well documented “hide-and-seek” feel. It’s such a shame Rover didn’t put their foot down and insist the rather excellent (and award winning I might add) Positive Centre Feel steering system from the 2-litre version of the 800. Ride is firm, but relatively supple – disguising the classic Honda developed short travel double wishbone suspension rather well. The car likes to be pushed hard, and the more you do, the more you realise it has large reserves of grip. Body control is tight on longer sweeping corners, the suspension only struggling to manage on tighter bends.
Steve relates how he came to own the car:
“I bought the car in may this year from a private owner in Southend for the princely sum of £350. Its faults were limited to having a dented wing with a bad filler repair and a cracked windscreen but that was about it, apart from some scratches on the paint work!”
“When I got it home I noticed the sun roof needed doing, the first thing I did was get the wing repaired and sprayed, as well as the sun roof – which was rubbed down and the roof re-sprayed. I took the car to the National BL day at Peterborough, where I met Brian Gunn who, after having a look over the car, offered to change the cam belt for me and replace the water pump.”
“When he came to change the belt he also brought the rear spoiler and side skirts with him. Brian also fitted a new radiator on the car and new transmission cooler pipes were fitted. Once this was done, the next job was to have the skirts and spoiler fitted and sprayed, as well as a respray for the boot and bonnet. The only other thing the car has needed is replacement of the brake discs and pads.”
“Originally, I bought the car as a short term project, as I was looking for a P6. As soon as I took ownership though, I knew that it was too good a car to let go”
In summary, this Sterling remains an excellent car to use everyday, providing an effortless, and thoroughly interesting drive. Thanks to its Japanese drivetrain, reliability will never be a problem, and one can be sure that considering the way Steve’s car is being looked after; this one will last for many years to come…
Sumptuous interior marks this car out as the luxury Sterling model. Electrically adjustable seats all round!
With thanks to Steve Whipps for the photos.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.