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.
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. 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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…
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