Keith Adams’ recent disappointment with the Rover 800 Series after a very revealing drive came as no surprise to me. One aspect of ‘Heritage’ that passed from the Rover SD1 to the 800 Series was a lack of dimensional accuracy of the body and sub-assemblies. This was despite Harold Musgrove vehemently thumping the table when he told audiences of how the 800 Series’ Body-In-White engineering was better than that of its closest rival – Audi’s 100.
Lessons, we were told, had been learned from the SD1’s lack of quality.
Sadly, while he genuinely believed his own rhetoric, Musgrove was badly let down by his less-than-diligent Engineers. This failing only came to light when one northern Police force started making serious complaints to ARG. They stated that their fleet of 800s would crest a hill and go one way, and then land the opposite way when they were driven with gusto.
In engineering terms this is known as ‘bump-steer’ but it can also feel like torque-steer to the uninitiated. Following on from ARG’s protracted legal battle with the Police Federation over the Metro fuel filler debacle, a hands-on Chassis Engineer was dispatched to experience the Traffic Officers’ concerns and resolve the problem.
En-route North and having an inkling what the issue was, the Engineer called in on ARG’s supplier of subframes in County Durham. Here he saw the 800’s simple subframe being assembled from pressings in a process which could, at best, be described as flawed and which lead to wildly varying tolerances. He held an impromptu meeting with the Managers to ask why it was not being assembled to ARG’s precise dimensional accuracy.
The engineering firm retorted bluntly that, if they knew what the dimensions were and the tolerances to which they should manufacture them to, then they’d do their best. At this point, it was discovered that a steering rack could sit some 7mm higher on one side of the subframe compared to the other side. Understandably, this affected the way the cars drove. However, this inaccuracy wouldn’t be picked-up on a 4-wheel alignment check or the like.
Shocked that this seeming lackadaisical supplier had never seen a set of blueprints from which to work to, the Chassis Engineer returned to Longbridge to find the paperwork and sort the issue out. Eventually, it transpired that nobody had actually laid down what the dimensions were – the blueprints were blank.
Only a prototype part had been dispatched to the supplier at the pilot build stage with the question: ‘How cheap can you make this?’
‘Cheap enough,’ was the reply and hence the contract was signed without further ado. Unbelievably, the tooling for the assembly wasn’t much more than a series of clamps to hold the pressings in place while they were welded by hand. This meant that, even when the specification was laid down, consistently achieving it wasn’t a realistic goal.
That, then, is why some 800 Series cars can feel quite unpleasant to drive, while only a precious few drive as well as they should. However, ARG wasn’t that stupid and ensured that any Press Cars were always hand-fettled to ride and steer right. Sadly, fastidious attention to detail, proper money for tooling and suppliers chosen on quality not cost was never a luxury BL, ARG or Rover Group could ever afford.
If you naively think the Nylon Tie 800 Series was the only model affected then, sadly, you’d be wrong. Nor was this lack of blueprint definition limited to body or chassis departments. I could give more examples, but I feel I’ve highlighted enough to be going on with.
This unintentionally negligent engineering practice continued right up until the bitter end of production at Longbridge. Colloquially known as ‘Birmingham Engineering,’ this make-do approach only ceased when the last TF was nailed together.