Our Cars : Meet the Fleet No.5 – Rover 800 Vitesse

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Craig Cheetham

Everyone's dream car is a bit different. Here's mine
Everyone’s dream car is a bit different. Here’s mine…

Most kids my age used to fantasise about Ferrari Testarossas or Lamborghini Countachs, those Athena poster icons that pretty much summed up the late ’80s and early ’90s. But, as friends, family and even girlfriends used to tell me, I wasn’t like most kids. On the car wall of my bedroom (truth be told, there were four car walls, one of which finally gave up a little space to Catherine Zeta Jones as I hit my teenage years), most of the imagery was 50 Shades of Grey. And no, that’s not a euphemism, for what else would a budding motoring journalist of the future do but collect press photos of the very cars that, had I been of a mind to, I could have spotted by taking a gentle stroll through the middle class suburban housing estate in which I grew up. Okay, so I see here that I’m not painting an entirely inspiring picture of myself. More like a latter day Adrian Mole, but obsessed with Austin Montegos and Ford Sierras rather than his tape measure. Maybe that’s why I didn’t need a Testarossa, because car-wise, I didn’t feel a need to over-perform. It didn’t stop me loving a performance car though. BL-ARG aside for a minute, not a day goes by where I don’t look out the front of the house and wish there was a Lancia Delta Integrale, BMW M3 or Ford Sierra Cosworth sitting there waiting for me. But being a) a Northerner, b) frugal and c) a reiteration of the above, just in case you don’t get it, the reality for me is that any car I’ve owned has had to be attainable. My daily – a company car – is German, diesel powered and has a retail price upwards of £30,000. That, to me, is not attainable in the real world. I have it because it’s part of my employment package, and jolly nice it is too. However, if I didn’t have it, I’d not really miss it. Thanks to my northern (ir)rationality, sitting alongside it is my dream car. And, of course, it’s grey. Several shades, though I suspect that’s not quite how it left the factory.

A Rover 800 Vitesse. In grey. Or black and white, at least...
A Rover 800 Vitesse. In grey. Or black and white, at least…

It had to be grey, because in the press picture it was grey. It may not have even been grey and, to some younger readers. it may come as a surprise to learn that, even as recently as 20 years ago, it was commonplace for car manufacturers to put out black and white press pictures, but anyway, the car I craved from the age of 14 was a grey Rover 800 Vitesse. Took me a while to get to the point, didn’t it? I think, for many years, I was actually slightly ashamed of the fact, because I worked in the dab-of-oppo-fuelled environment of mainstream motoring journalism, where liking a car that other mo-jos didn’t was a hanging offence, and having a standalone opinion wasn’t encouraged. Yup, I handled like I was on rails and stuck to the script like a sixpence. Those who knew me, though, knew better. And having surpressed my urges for over 20 years, it was in June of this year when I finally broke free from the shackles and declared to the world that a) I was going to buy my dream car and b) it’d probably cost less than a grand and would be proudly sporting the Viking longship on its bow and stern. 099 (800x600) Step forward M759 GFH. A low-blow non-Sport Rover 800 Vitesse in Charcoal Metallic – the closest match I could find to that press piccy, and a four-door to boot (I defy convention, unlike most 800 fans I like my XXs as Fastbacks and my R17s as saloons – most people I know swing the other way on both). If you’re not already bored, there’s a cracking story behind this one, too. I never do things conventionally, and on this occasion the adventure found me… After a month of searching (I nearly bought a red Vitesse Sport, which was in remarkable condition, great value, but also a fastback and not grey, so would never have been ‘the one’ no matter how much I loved it), I was idly browsing the interweb on my lunch hour, three weeks away from impending redundancy, when up popped M759. It wasn’t perfect, had covered a six-figure mileage but, importantly, had been dry stored since 2002 when its existing owner had upped sticks and moved to Amsterdam, where it was currently residing in the back of a factory unit. Furthermore, he’d recommissioned it, with new tyres, a cambelt and some localised bodywork. A quick telephone conversation ensued, during which he made various assurances that it was completely rot free, largely due to being kept indoors since it was seven years old, and had also been partially retrimmed. It also came with bills totalling 3,000 euros in the past 3,500 miles, all from the former MG Rover dealer in Amsterdam’s Southern suburbs.

Ripples in boot lid are an annoyance - does anyone have one in Charcoal going spare?
Ripples in boot lid are an annoyance – does anyone have one in Charcoal going spare?

Of course, I had no proof of this, the car wouldn’t be taxed or UK MoT’d and there were question marks around its export status – according to the DVLA it had an export marker against it, but it was also being sold with a full V5. In summary, then, an elderly Rover 800 with sketchy service history, for sale in a different country with no MoT and no strictly legal way of driving it home. A sensible purchase? In my book, life isn’t worth living if you don’t take the odd gamble every now and again, so by the time I’d come off the ‘phone I’d already booked a train and ferry ticket online for the week after leaving my old job, and had agreed to transfer some funds into the owners bank account to prove my intentions were honourable. Foolish? Yes, probably. Fast forward six weeks, and I found myself on the Harwich to Hook of Holland overnight ferry, a bunch of ‘just in case’ DVLA import paperwork and VAT declaration in my hand (hello, incidentally, to the lads from Southend Rugby club, who I bumped into at the bar and who took me in as one of their own and left me feeling a little worse for wear the following morning). I figured if I had all the bits I thought I’d need, I could probably just wing it… I’d also pre-booked an MoT for my return on the Saturday morning, halfway between my house and Harwich – 30 miles each way being just about within the tolerances of acceptability. By midday, I was both in Amsterdam and starting to feel like a human being again, so it was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I met my Vitesse and its owner, Chris Norris, an Australian who had moved from London in 2002 and driven from his old home to his new one, before parking the Vitesse up alongside other interesting vehicles in his collection. On a different day, I could quite easily have driven home in his Alfa 155 instead, and frankly I’m still trying to deny he’s still got it up for sale… On the whole, his description of M759 GFH had been pretty fair. There were a couple of scuffs on the bumpers that were bigger than first expected and some shallow dents on the bootlid (anyone have a spare Charcoal bootlid, by any chance?), but these were easily offset by the near-mint interior and the way in which the car drove crisply and tightly – it may have covered 122k, but it felt like less than half that and, as per the description, was entirely rot free.

Near mint Vitesse interior with minimal dash lift. Even 20 years on, I still love those Recaros...
Near mint Vitesse interior with minimal dash lift. Even 20 years on, I still love those Recaros…

 

The last time I'd travelled in a Vitesse was my parents' neighbour's L-plate example when I was 19 years old. This one smells exactly the same as that one always did - funny the things you remember!
The last time I’d travelled in a Vitesse was my parents’ neighbour’s L-plate example when I was 19 years old. This one smells exactly the same as that one always did – funny the things you remember!

The journey home was relatively uneventful, though I did discover the usual 800 header tank seepage as I pulled into Hook of Holland and left it ticking over for the turbo to cool down – like so many 800s, the tank has cracked at the upper edge, and was leaking under pressure. With five hours to kill to my ferry crossing, I sought out the local DIY shop and the Dutch equivalent of JB Weld to fill in the crack. Not pretty, but 2,000 miles later my ‘get you home’ bodge is still holding firm. So much so, indeed, that while I now have a spare header tank waiting to go on, it’s living in the boot with some coolant and my socket set, as I want to maximise the life of the current one before swapping them over. Told you I was a frugal Northerner, and according to my regular mechanic, he reckons my JB Weld repair is probably tougher than an OEM expansion tank anyway…

M759 GFH waiting to board the Hook of Holland to Harwich ferry - homeward bound after a 12-year exile
M759 GFH waiting to board the Hook of Holland to Harwich ferry – homeward bound after a 12-year exile

As for the MoT? 13 years since its last UK test, it went through with an advisory for a slightly blowing exhaust box. Within three hours of repatriation, it was taxed, MoT’d and fully road legal – a better result than I could have wished for, and one that endeared the car to me instantly. I also like the fact it’s not a Sport, as it’s always the flagships that tend to survive and not the next ones down… Oh, and that export paperwork – with an MoT and a V5C green slip I managed to tax it over the counter at the Post Office, so I sent off the filled-in change of keeper details to Swansea knowing full well that I had 12 months ‘legality’ to play with while they wondered what to do about the export marker. Not a lot, I suspect, as the V5C in my name turned up three weeks later, no questions asked, no complicated forms to fill in, and it’s no longer showing as ‘exported’ online.

I've switched the original orange lights for the later smoked type. My preference, and hey, it's not irreversible...
I’ve switched the original orange lights for the later smoked type. My preference, and hey, it’s not irreversible…

Since getting the Vitesse home, I’ve added a few things to the jobs list. The alloys are in desperate need of refurbishment, because although they’re largely unkerbed, they’ve been painted badly at some point and whatever has been daubed on is now flaking off. I spent a whole afternoon trying to clean them up, using all types of cleaner and solvent, but just made them look worse. I then found a shabby but solid looking 820 SLi for sale with excellent alloys at a dealer, but as soon as I expressed an interest (as, I assume did a few others) at the £295 asking price (good spares car/winter hack?) the price went up by four hundred quid – and I don’t do business with people like that.

I've tried all sorts, but still can't get the wheels to clean up properly. Time to wave the white hanky and call in the experts - after all, this one's a keeper
I’ve tried all sorts, but still can’t get the wheels to clean up properly. Time to wave the white hanky and call in the experts – after all, this one’s a keeper

 

Tatton Park Classic Show in August saw some hasty cosmetics and LOADS of polish...
Tatton Park Classic Show in August saw some hasty cosmetics and LOADS of polish…

Instead, I’ve booked a local company with a good reputation to do the wheels at some point in the coming weeks. I’ve also had a go at painting the bumper corners myself after finding a can of Charcoal paint in the boot whilst camping at the Tatton Park Classic Car Show in August. Even after four bottles of Old Golden Hen, the resultant finish is way better than I expected, but then I’m told that Charcoal is one of the easiest Rover Metallics to match. I probably have a steadier hand after four bottles as well…

I'm not one for shameless plugs but this cost me £15 and made the worn out seat bolsters look like....
I’m not one for shameless plugs but this cost me £15 and made the worn out seat bolsters look like…

 

....this. 1,000 miles down the road and it still looks as good - reassuring to know that some things still do what they say on the tin.
…this. 1,000 miles down the road and it still looks as good – reassuring to know that some things still do what they say on the tin

Several coats of wax, and a liberal application of the truly excellent ‘Leather Forever’ leather restorer on the seat bolsters brought the interior up to almost A1 standard, so the only remaining jobs after the alloys are to source a proper Rover R850/950 radio cassette (anyone??) and tidy up the rust bubbles on the sunroof surround. I genuinely believe that, with those jobs done, it’ll be one of the best Vitesses in the country. And that’s a good job, because whilst I have no intention whatsoever of parting with a car I’ve wanted for over 20 years, there’s a new Rover 800-shaped project on the horizon. More on that one to follow…

Finally, a minor irritation... I do have a nice shiny new badge to go on, of the later type, but if anyone out there has a timeworn 'e' they have no further use for, there's a pint in it for you...
Finally, a minor irritation… I do have a nice shiny new badge to go on, of the later type, but if anyone out there has a timeworn ‘e’ they have no further use for, there’s a pint in it for you…

 

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

30 Comments

  1. Ha ha ha.

    Brings back memories. Me and my mates used to tool around for most of 97 and 98 in an L plate nightfire red saloon Vitesse, with ATC air conditioning.

    We installed a boost gauge where the clock was and upped the boost using a plastic green fish tank valve to bleed boost off the waste gate control. We had a lot of laughs in that car.

    At the time, the Vitesse was 3.5 years old and we were just 20 years old. Amazing bang per buck as I seem to remember we picked it up for around £3200. It was in very good nick but a bit leggy on the mileage but with FRSH.

    It was a fast, interesting executive car and had a lot of kudos at the time, especially with a load of young blokes and girls driving about in it. Great memories.

    • John, by my calculation that makes us about the same age. The difference being that when I was 20, I was tooling about in a V-reg Allegro. Happy days nonetheless, but I’m slightly jealous of your 20-year old self!

      • Me and my peer group were all really into Rover’s back then. 🙂

        I had a big bumper 1990 827 Sterling which I managed to get from a dealer in 1996 with only 18,000 miles on the clock.

        My two best mates had: – a flame red J plate (early) 820 Vitesse Fastback and an L plate nightfire 820 Vitesse saloon respectively.

        The later car was better. Although Rover had made huge strides to sort out build quality and stop having the teething issues with new cars which they were so well known for the early T series engines suffered with sticking valves.

        We had great times in our old Rovers. Great memories.

  2. I can still vividly remember my first R17 viewing. I was on my way back from college in Middlesborough to home in Cumbria – the A66. Stopped at an AR dealer, still in the North East. Boy, was I impressed!!

  3. Nice one! Should be good for quite a few miles yet. An interesting “sleeper” practical daily drive classic car. Glad to dee you didn’t get any hassle from DVLA. Just goes to show that they can do some things right!

  4. Half leather, wood, a Honda V6 for reliable and fast motoring, what more could you want? The second generation Rover 800 proved to be a decent executive car and those around now have a following and hopefully before long will become a practical classic.

  5. Mention of a pint reminds me of my Manta Club days.
    A member called James Sanquhar (name changed to protect privacy, but he didn’t sound very Welsh) rang me at home in the Welsh Valleys to ask if I knew anyone who had a gearbox to fit his Manta A, which had suddenly decided that three forward speeds were quite enough, thankyou.
    I collected said gearbox from a former colleague in Lucas by meeting him at an Eastern Valley pub half way between his house and mine, and planned to meet James at the Blue Anchor in Aberthaw, which is a grade A boozer.
    I was held up at work, so I rang the pub to tell James I would be late. Even in the Vale of Glamorgan, which has different social strata to the Valleys, there weren’t many Sanquhars in the bar.
    Thus forewarned, James greeted me when I arrived with £25 in one hand, and my pre-ordered pint of Owd Peculier in the other.
    My sort of bloke!

  6. The 600 and 800 should become practical classics soon. Both were extremely satisfying cars to drive and are more durable than eighties Rovers.

  7. I share your passion for the cars that are now forgotten, but have charm. I also thought a slight boot ripple & badge mismatch were only things that bothered me. I’m feeling far less alone now, so thank you!

    An example of this is with my ’03 Discovery. It came to me with a broken fuel cap clip & missing cap on one of the wipers. I was seriously embarassed to drive it until the bits turned up in the post. I like moderate but interesting cars that are intact. Things in the past include a ZT-T V6, Alfasud Sprint (’87), SW20 Toyota MR2 etc. Not exotic, but have never felt jealous of a new Merc or any exotica. Especially not with how clogged the roads are these days. Charm beats gadgets & even ability these days.

    • Ha ha,
      Another OCD Discovery owner!
      Im driving an 04 Td5 Discovery – fast becoming a classic in its own right and probably the last Landrover (except the defender which Im not allowed “Not driving a farmer’s car!” etc) which is still relatively easy to work on with basic tools. I’m struggling to think of something as good with which to replace it when the time comes.

      Anyway… Craig you’re not alone, my teenage years in the 80s were also spent with an unhealthy interest in the latest addition of the AR Cars brochure except my object of desire was just a little older – Targa red Sd1 twin plenum vitesse did it for me! Closest I ever came was dad’s Opaline green 2600SE. If I ever come across one of those at the right time….

  8. Lovely cars, the R17 Rover 800 Vitesse. Even in 180bhp form. This was the model that stopped the evocative Vitesse moniker from ‘straying’ too much into the luxury comfort arena. Which is what had happened with the ‘XX’ generation 827 Vitesse in its final year of production.

    In R17 form the 800 Vitesse was back as a convincing high performance executive saloon and it received some encouraging reviews by the motoring press. Sadly by the time the 200Ps Vitesse Sport had arrived in July 1994, any plans for advertising their latest sporting flagship were put in the sidings, largely due to the presence of Rover Group’s new owner who were well noted for producing premium-priced sporting executive saloons… Perish the though of a cheaper priced offering from its English subsidiary receiving too much attention.

  9. @ David 3500, the replacement of the Honda V6 with the KV6 also saw a decline in reliability and the used guide on here favours the Honda V6. Luckily until the last two years all Rover V6s come from Honda.

    • Absolutely right. However, the 827 Vitesse as a sporting model sadly lost its ‘sporting’ personality from September 1990 when it adopted the same TL7 as the Sterling saloon.

      The arrival of the second generation R17 800 Series saw a return to a genuine sporting engine, the turbocharged 2-litre T Series, for the Vitesse. The 180Ps Turbocharged T Series was rather more entertaining for the keen driver than the more laid back Honda V6, despite the latter being a very well engineered engine. Clearly the ongoing developments to the engine, suspension and steering for the supplementary Vitesse Sport variant made the recipe even more intoxicating, as in July 1994, Autocar magazine declared: “Rover has made a winner out of the car that carries its most evocative mantle”.

  10. I wonder if John Major would be interested in owning an 800 as it was his government’s car of choice when he was in power.

    • Unlikely. As the “grey man of politics” he would have preferred a nice Maestro diesel (still in production when he became PM).

      • Believe it or not, I know what John Major drives. He lives very close to me and I used to drive past his house every morning on my way to work. Most recently, he’s been driving a used dark blue Volvo XC90. He had a green Volvo 940 Estate for about 10 years before that…Very, ahem, conservative.

  11. I’ve owned an G reg 827 Vitesse with the NCO automatic ‘box and a P reg 820 Vitesse saloon. For sheer outright power the Vit Turbo takes some beating but I actually preferred the ride and handling of the 827, at autobahn speeds the 827 always felt that little bit more composed (probably down to the proper tyres it was shod with rather than narrow things that Vit Turbos had.

    I regret selling both. G746 CPA is out there somewhere and one day I’d like it back! P841 KUK lives on, through the magic of Google Earth!

  12. “My daily – a company car – is German, diesel powered and has a retail price upwards of £30,000. I have it because it’s part of my employment package, and jolly nice it is too.”

    What’s your day job Craig? Do you still work for Chevrolet?

    • Hi Andy – evidently not. I used to look after PR for Chevrolet Europe before they decided to withdraw from the mainstream market, so I was made redundant in June. I’m now Operations Director of a company called Newspress, which distributes press releases, images and videos and hosts websites for a large number of car manufacturers, so I’m still in the midst of the industry. The daily? Whisper it… A company issue BMW 318d Touring. Not a bad family motor, nice to drive, quiet, quick, well made. But given the choice, I’d take the Vitesse keys every time – and I’m not just saying that because of the audience! Still, it’s convenient to have something to use all winter without giving the proverbial about taking it out on gritted roads (apart from, maybe, its fondness for going sideways).

      • Sorry to hear about the Chevrolet job.

        However it amused me when it was announced that a company which was pulling out of Europe, and would not sell any new cars, was actively sponsoring Manchester United.

        Bit like Saab sponsoring Middlesborough, or Dhaihatsu sponsoring Wigan.

        • I could never publically air my views about it at the time, Will, for obvious reasons. But I was born into a Stockport County supporting family, and – in addition to that – prefer to spend my weekends playing rugby rather than hosting VIPs at football matches, so I’m sure you can read between the lines 😉

  13. One of the best cars I have owned was a late R17 Vitesse saloon with the 200bhp engine. It looked good in Oxford Blue with Stone Beige leather piped in dark blue.

  14. Great Car, although I always fancied an 825 Sterling Coupe (even if the engines are less reliable). Anyway, I have a brand new R950 Casette Player, CD changer, Data Cable, Mounting Brackets and Handbook if your interested?

  15. Had one of the last 200hp Vitesse’s as a company car. What a hoot it was! Very quick, economical, and huge (unlike it’s 75/ZT ‘replacement’- although I like them for different reasons).

    I extended its lease from 2 to 3 years as I enjoyed it so much, then my mate bought it for (buttons) from the lease company to 140,000 miles. A few rattles, a few electrics packed up, and a gearbox at 100km but it never let either of us down ever and never had any major repairs. Also rust free unlike anothers friends similar aged E class.

    The best fun was actually taking the speedo needle of the scale (it read 150mph I think)

    Where are you now S606KOH?

  16. Craig you’re not alone, my teenage years in the 80s were also spent with an unhealthy interest in the latest addition of the AR Cars brochure except my object of desire was just a little older – Targa red Sd1 twin plenum vitesse did it for me! Closest I ever came was dad’s Opaline green 2600SE. If I ever come across one of those at the right time….

  17. They’re a great car. I’ve recently brought my 58k ’99 vitesse fastback in zircon silver out of 6 years of storage. I always wanted one and when this one came up 6 years ago, I had to have it as even then, good ones were pretty few and far between. I did a few minor recommissioning jobs on it over winter and it’s been used sparingly for 6 months over summer. I wouldn’t ever part with it as it’s immaculate and a hoot to drive!

  18. Looks stunning, still has real presence.

    Amazing what they did with the angular XX based on the Legend.

    Prefer the R17 saloon to the fastback, the XX fastback at least has an SD1 look to it.

    Still look stately, as mentioned earlier these were standard issue government transport in the 90s.

    Though my favourite R17 wishlist variant is still the coupe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.