Essay : Not their finest hour – Rover 820 Fastback

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

BASE!  How low could they go?

Making the most of its sleek, avant-garde lines, Rover launched its thrusting new flagship fastback... but left the old Ital engine under the bonnet
Making the most of its sleek, avant-garde lines, Rover launched its thrusting new flagship fastback… but left the old Ital engine under the bonnet

It may have a cult following today but it’s fair to say that the Rover 800 never really got off to the best of starts back in 1986. Despite it having clean cut lines and a silhouette like no other large Rover before it, early models lacked the quality and robustness of rivals. It was on a hiding to nothing from the outset mainly because it bore no similarity to the SD1 2000-3500 range, and yet its predecessor was met with the same indifference when that was launched 10 years earlier.

The Carlton and Senator were cars seemingly hewn from German granite and the Granada, even though it emulated a bloated Sierra, oozed user friendliness and the unstoppable might of Henry’s marketing henchmen. As the mid 80s progressed, Ford and GM shifted into overdrive leaving a lost and bewildered Austin Rover behind, licking its wounds in the service station car park and still struggling to come to terms with the sales of the Montego and Maestro not meeting their initial projections.

It was not so much about the cars, more to do with the marketing, and if the latter is effective, you can do no wrong – see the horrendous to drive but massively successful MK5 Escort for proof. The 800 did have some innovative power units in its favour, like the 2.0-litre M16 (nowhere as bad as some people may have you believe) and the impressive Honda sourced V6.

But with Pinto-engined Granadas and GM Family 2 powered Carltons doing battle in the sales team car park, what Rover really lacked was a car that looked like one of the execs, but could be built (and sold) on a shoestring. The answer came in 1988, when Rover decided to get serious about the fleet market and introduce a five-door 800, the Fastback.

Austin Rover made the decision to offer their own base model poverty special from the Fastback’s launch in May 1988 – no badge or special trim name, just known as the plain old 820 and available only in the five-door body style. I once heard a rumour from a man based at the long demolished Canley Metrology Centre that this was only really done to keep the O-Series/PG1 gearbox combination viable, owing to the unexpected slowness of carb-fed 2.0-litre Montego model sales. Whether this is true will always remain a mystery, but it sounds plausible either way, whatever the truth may be, the base 800 was a bit… erm… well rubbish really.

Press and brochure images of the 820 always showed the exterior, but we've been through our files and can't find an engine shot anywhere. There's probably a reason for that!
Press and brochure images of the 820 Fastback always showed the exterior, but we’ve been through our files and can’t find an engine shot anywhere. There’s probably a reason for that!

“O” what a shame:

The M16, thanks to a twin-cam head, developed its power with some ability to rev, if rather vocally, especially in multi-point injection form and the C25 Honda unit was a true journey shrinker, even more so when the 827 appeared with greater low-down torque. They were good engines for their time, lively, easily matching their rivals for power and fuel efficiency and generally good to drive.

But in the poor old plain 820, with just 100bhp and a single SU-HiF44 carburettor, the O-Series unit had all the traits that it had in the Montego – only amplified due to the Fastback’s additional weight and volume. Without a crossflow cylinder head and coupled with its long stroke, the base 820 was reluctant to rev high when required. Driven very hard, the cabin would drum and thrum with boomy noise and high frequency vibrations, while not really making much progress.

Even the Granada with its ancient Pinto unit had the luxury of half decent engine and gearbox mountings, while the Carlton had newer 1.8 or 2.0-litre OHC engines. Under the bonnet, the 800 failed to impress, looking like the aforementioned 2.0 Montego (or worse, Ital). But it was costlier and more difficult to service, too, owing to the lack of hydraulic tappets, setting them correctly (if you had access to the special clamping tool) required the timing belt to be disturbed each time. There was little point to the engine other than to hit that magic fleet price point of sub £12,000, as the injected versions used no more fuel but gave much better performance.

All the minor quality improvements for ’88, such as the simplified (and far more reliable) dash dials and improved rustproofing, went some way towards lifting the shaky reputation the 800 had gained and enough for it to remain moderately successful until the R17 facelift, but this base spec entry model failed to make the grade. Standard trim included a mid-line Philips wireless (with digital search, no less), a single plank of wood, electric front windows and that was really about it. The 820 sold in very few numbers and was deleted from the range almost as quickly as it came – leaving the much better (albeit visually barely different) 820e to compete with the junior execs.

But was the base 820 that awful? Well, even though Ford had their own fleet special low powered vehicles, they weren’t constantly being scrutinised and criticised by the motoring scribblers. Rover quite rightly wanted a slice of the cake but their credibility was always seen way below par, not so much in retail sales, but fleet sales – and the company car market was very important. Both GM and Ford, along with other credible European makes, had the muscle and deep pockets to slog it out price wise in a pricing war that had been rumbling away since the mid 1980s.

Austin Rover tried their hardest to show the public they were making an engineering and product led comeback, but in reliability terms, the 800 range had hardly shown Volvo or VW records of dependability when first launched. Quite simply, the 820 was underpowered, underwhelming and under refined in a class where much more is expected – as the saying goes “there’s no second chance for a first impression”. As you can guess, it sold in penny numbers, suffered terrible residual values and faded away to the point that nowadays it’s almost the forgotten Rover 800. It didn’t do much for the rest of the range either, because in plusher trim levels the 800 was really a very nice car.

But the O-Series 820 was very late to a party it probably shouldn’t have been invited to in the first place. The fleet market rapidly moved towards multivalve twin cam units and even Ford saw fit to delete the Pinto by late 1989. Perhaps if Rover had made more of the single-point injection 820e as its base model and reduced the price accordingly, it may not have incurred the wrath of the motoring press that was unleashed on its carb-fed O-Series powered sibling, but once again, Rover had tried to follow the leader (Granada) and had fallen short by a country mile.

Rover 820

Bodystyle: 5 door Fastback only

Engine:1998cc 8v “O” series with single SU HiF44 Carb and programmed Lucas ignition

Transmission: 5sp Manual Rover PG1/T5 gearbox – no auto option

Max Power: 100BHP

Produced: 1988 – 1990 by Austin Rover Group Cowley

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

53 Comments

  1. I’ve always felt that the original XX saloon was more a homage to the P6 rather than the SD1 with the Fastback joining in 88 to cover that angle.

    In way you have to feel sorry for the 800, they had all these dreams of it being a classic British executive saloon competing with the Carlton and the Granada, leaving the Cavalier/Sierra to the Montego. There were even plans for an LWB 800 saloon but this was canned due to concerns of it stepping on the toes of the XJ40, so the 800 was ‘dumbed down’ from classy exec to cheap large saloon to try and prise people over from Ford and GM on price rather than quality.

    It didn’t work, they only sold 300,000 examples in 13 years, the SD1 matched that in 11 and the 75/ZT managed 275,000 sales in 6 years.

    • I’m not sure the 800 was ‘dumbed down’. The Vitesse and Sterling had a whiff of premium about them. The 800 was a reasonable car and certainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was no need to feel sorry for them!

      Considering the market share of BL in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the quality of the design (if not engineering) in the SD1, that the 800 got so close to the SD1 in sales over 11 years, could be viewed as an achievement.

      The 75/ZT was a smaller car, replacing both R600 and R800.

  2. A company car special?

    What’s the big deal?

    Even BMW did it with the 316i.

    They aren’t bought as the prime variant of the model range, they’re bought to get a foothold on the ladder.

  3. I always liked the look of these – even better in some respects than the SD1, with the added advantage that I very much doubt the 800 had a habit of trying to kill its occupants, a habit my SD1 showed to the extent it wrote itself off (diesel on the road at all of 25mph) in a Isle of Man TT worthy tankslapper and knocked me unconscious.
    I dont see why the venom for this particular model though – if you want slow and awful try that denizen of performance hell that is the Humber Hawk – 2 tonnes plus and 80hp and you could get it with an American slushbox, I think it might have been a torqueflite – so called in this case because the transmission took one look at the gutless wonder and legged it for the hills as fast as its little brake bands could carry it. 0-60 in about three weeks.
    Admittedly an engine that was designed for the Maestro would probably not be at its best in the 800 but AR far from alone in this level of awfulness. I dont think there is a single major brand, bar possibly BMW, that hasnt tried to make a shonky shop model of one or other cars.. Ford even managed to top AR and the Allegro with the single most horrible vehicle of all time, as previously mentioned, the Mk 5 Escort/Orion, the entire range was downright awful even after the facelift. I seem to remember 1.3 litre cavaliers were the dregs of that range when my father got his ’81 SRi, Allegro thousand anyone (thousand being both the engine size in cc and how long it took to hit 60mph in seconds). Renault did the same or similar with the 20 & 15 but at least they didnt try to put their 1108cc 4 into the 15 which was about equal to putting the 1000cc A series into an All-aggro.
    They were all, to a dreg, desperation models. They were for the person who just had to have the one up model despite how dismal the spec and performance and those sort of people got what they deserved in spades. Think the nursing home manager in Waiting for God…
    Manufacturers are still doing it – witness the poor souls who pay over the odds for a poverty spec Peugeot 207 with a bluetooth connector, and claim it to be the second coming – Renault are as bad. Citroen do it, probably the only reason MG don’t is because they cant sell any of the normal models as it is.

    There is one advantage to this automotive dreg however that you might have missed – the more godawfully ancient, rattly and noisy the engine a given poverty spec car has – the less electronics there are in it to fall on their sword at 3am on a Sunday morning in Wales (watch out for the vampire choirs…).

    • Jemma, I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, don’t exaggerate. The kerb weight of a Humber Hawk was 1433kg, which is well under 2 tons in my book; while the slushbox was a Borg Warner DG – which presumably, was an abbreviation for Doesn’t Go.

  4. For a reason I cannot explain, on sight of the Rover Fastback, a thought of a newly-built detached house in mock-Georgian style enters my mind.

  5. The Rover 800 Fastback always seemed too long at the back, normally hatchbacks are shorter than the related saloon versions (think R8 200 and 400).

    It’s funny how the whole big hatch market vanished until the Germans, with their desire to fill every tiny niche brought it back, e.g. the A5 Sportback which is quite a smart looking machine when compared to the horrible 5 series GT!
    http://www.orangewheels.co.uk/system/files/12/original/Audi%20A5%20Sportback.png

  6. It should never have been made, but a few years earlier didn’t Ford have poverty spec 1.8 litre Granadas that had almost no go and were quickly ditched. However, since it was Ford, that can be excused, but Rover weren’t the only culprits in producing very underpowered basic executive cars and looks wise, an 820 fastback is always going to be better than a Mark 3 Granada.

  7. Surprised to read Mike’s criticisms of the O-Series 820. I was working at Canley in 1988, and along with several other colleagues, was drafted into a group with the task of quickly running in a lot of base 820 Fastbacks for fleet demonstration purposes. The deal was, you picked up a car from the Baginton compound with a full tank of petrol, you did 400 miles as quickly as possible without thrashing it, took it back, picked up another, and so on. I got through five examples in about a couple of weeks, much to the confusion of a neighbour, who couldn’t understand all the colour changes! Bearing in mind that my regular car then was an 820Si, I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the O-Series cars. OK, I wasn’t door-handling it, but it was a perfectly pleasant way of devouring all those miles.
    Bear in mind that in the early days of the Fastback programme, it was actually slated to be called the 600 Series, with a deliberate positioning below the Saloon 800 range. That all changed, but the base model reflected this earlier ‘entry model’ thinking.

    • Interesting reply, thank you. I remember driving some of these when delivering new cars to customers, they drove absolutely fine to me – as I remember it!

  8. Vauxhall had a 1.8 Carlton, my Dad had GL one that managed OK apart from a problem with a relay (AC Delco electrics can be tricky!) over 3 years.

  9. “It was on a hiding to nothing from the outset mainly because it bore no similarity to the SD1 2000-3500 range, and yet its predecessor was met with the same indifference when that was launched 10 years earlier.”. Are you suggesting that the launch of the SD1 was greeted with indifference ? What are you basing this on ? My memories of the SD1 launch are of the euphoria that a BL car could have excellent styling and a desirable overall package. That was before the reality of the abysmal build quality was revealed.

    • I noticed that too! I remember my dad asking for a discount on one at launch to then be shown the lengthy waiting list; these cars were unattainable at launch.

  10. The Rover 820 was actually quite a useful tool in terms of using consumer psychology to manipulate buyers’ perceptions that the 800 Series was more accessible and better value for money, based on its on-the-road price as the new entry level model. This certainly would have worked well in the budget conscious company car market.

    Land Rover repeated the same strategy in 2000 when there was a slight drop in sales of the Discovery Series II in the home market. Rather than potentially ‘cheapen’ the upmarket perception of the model by actually lowering prices across the range, Land Rover instead introduced a new entry level model, the E, which lacked the niceties of the higher spec variants such as painted end caps for the front bumper and alloy wheels. Priced at approximately £21,000 it quickly attracted floating buyers to consider purchasing a new Discovery.

    The reality was that most of them ultimately did not buy the new E model but instead chose to spend slightly more on a higher spec version (e.g. S, GS). The E derivative was probably the worst selling derivative in the Series II line-up. However, it had helped to shift more Discoverys during a patchy period and would be dropped from the model line-up in 2002 after it had served its purpose.

    MG Rover Group had similar success with the Streetwise. When buyers saw the entry level model with its ghastly looking steel wheels, they quickly chose the higher spec S or SE with more stylish looking alloy wheels.

    • Noseying around a small multifranchise dealer recently that included Renault and Dacia, conversing with one of the sales guys I asked about the dropping of the Laguna but it was said that their Renault franchise are very busy because of Dacia – people come in to look at a Sandero or Duster and ultimately like the look of the new Clio or Kapture and ‘upgrade’ to those.
      Conversely those who used to buy Clio Campus base models now have Dacias they can replace their current car with, without cheapening the main Clio models or keeping old models in production (as per the previous gen ‘Clio Campus’).

      Seemed to be the same with MINI when we looked a few years ago – the ‘One’ was surprisingly affordable, but by the time we specced it up to match the humble spec of the Getz it would replace, it came in at an eye watering £17k.

  11. My issue with the 800 “fast back” goes deeper than this car, it is I believe the product of usual “half-baked” and “cold feet” thinking at Austin Rover and or Roy Axe dislike of Estates.

    It’s well documented that in replacing the SD1, Austin Rover still saw Ford as its main competitor so a saloon was desired for the market, however clearly at Ford they were thinking the other way and so we had a Rover saloon battling with a Ford hatch. However we know the fastback was conceived at the same time as the Saloon, being planned originally as a cheaper version which in itself was “half-baked” as it would cost more to make than a saloon.

    I suspect that some of the thinking was cold feet over the saloon, they wanted some of the Granada Mk2 market share, but worried about keeping their existing SD1 customers so planned for both, the problem is you ended up with a “fast back” that cost more to make yet demanded a lower market price, (because Hatch Backs were low rent in that market segment) and at the end of the day only offered a little more stowage space and flexibility over the saloon.

    The thing I do not understand, is why they did not go the whole way with an Estate version of the 800, after all Ford and Vauxhall offered such estates and Volvo were building a following amongst the UK executive family transport market. Of course later on BMW 5 series touring was to blow Ford and Vauxhall out the market.

    I do think however with its “boxy” lines the 800 would have made quite a sleek Estate so could have been styled to keep the SD1 market happy and also offering mores space for the family attract a bigger share of the premium end of the fleet market than a Hatchback. My thought, however is that Roy Axe did do Estate cars.

    I am not sure if Roy Axe ever did an estate, the nearest he got to the Arrow Estate was using its lengthened floor pan as a basis for the Rapier, he was working in the US when the Avenger Estate was done, Alpine, Horizon and Sunbeam were all signed off as Hatchbacks with the Solara as an afterthought and no plans were made for a Tagora estate. At Austin Rover the Montego estate was signed off by his arrival and it was saloons and hatchbacks and he was gone when the R8 touring was styled.

    So I do believe that a combination of Austin Rover management not having a clear product strategy along with a designer who did not or could not do estates meant that they failed to exploit a key part of the market from the mid 80’s to early 90’s when BMW 5 series touring took all before it.

  12. Loverly car horrid engine. As to the question of Estate 800 – Ford did not introduce a Granada Mk3 estate until well into its life because they did not see a market for big estates. And for those slagging off the Mk5 escort my family had 3 three and loved them to bits. Yes they did not handle as well as an R8, but it was also cheaper! And if you look at the market the Mk3 Golf was a wobbler, and the Astra well that took corners like its suspension was made of jelly. Decent handling cars in that category did not come about until the Focus and Astra Mk4 came along.

    • You are quite right about the delay in Ford launching an estate variant of the Mk3 Granada.

      But this needs to be put in the context that Ford were going down the hatchback route may be in part because they saw the economy of having a single body type.

      But it was a mistake and 5 years later they launched a saloon version and a further 2 years later they launched an Estate.

      Had the Rover 800 been launched as a hatchback only then it would have made sense and a continuation of the strategy with the SD1.

      However we know the strategy was not like that, they had recognised that the market considered Saloons more upmarket so had planned a saloon from the start.

      Things start getting muddle headed when they also plan a Hatchback version to be sold as the 600, which would have meant that a more expensive to build car would have been priced significantly lower in the market.

      Logic would have suggested that if you were planning on two body types, then a Saloon and Estate would make more sense than a Saloon and a Hatch.

    • ” Decent handling cars in that category did not come about until the Focus and Astra Mk4 came along.”
      – It was the Peugeot 306 that made Ford ditch the Escort for the much-improved Focus. Richard Parry-Jones drove a 306 to familiarise himself with Ford’s European competition and realised that the Mk5 Escort was way off the pace… as I remember him writing in a car magazine article.

      • At one point in my student house we had 3 mk5 Escorts (albeit mine was an Orion – the big booted Escort). They were cheap to buy because by the early 2000s no-one wanted them (imagine that today – 2006 Focuses being almost disposable, a £150 car!), at just over 10 year old they were starting to rust badly and were an MOT fail away from being scrapped (as 2 of them including mine were).

        Terrible cars, lemons with borderline dangerous handling and shoddy quality and questionable reliability, but for cheap student motoring they did a barely adequate job. They actually looked OK in my opinion, in original pre-smiley-grille form (ignoring the wheelarch bubbles), the two 3 door hatchbacks with factory spoilers looked like XR3is, the Orion looked like a mini Sierra Sapphire.

        Replaced mine with a ZX – the stablemate of the 306 – what a revelation that was! Comfortable, reliable, economical, cornered with confidence (albeit the NA diesel was slow!), felt better built. No rust whatsoever though the doors seemed to attract dents (An early example of the lack of side rubbing strips?).
        Had originally wanted to replace the Orion with an R8 that an elderly lady in the kitchen I worked in was looking to replace, but she traded it in at the dealer for some sort of Daewoo.

        Vowed to never buy another Ford again – but it isn’t easy when the Mondeo (modern day SD1?) and Mustang are incredibly tempting.

        • Ford were very complacent about the Mk5 Escort, & paid the price in some ways.

          I remember Top Gear liking the ZX, especially as it was launched at just the right time, when Ford were struggling to sell Escorts & Vauxhall hadn’t launched the Mk3 Astra.

        • The ZX was a very nice car to drive, though terrible locks (which kept jamming) and slightly temperamental electrics!

          I replaced it with a Focus, which was a cracking cart and light years ahead of the crummy Escort Mk5

  13. @ Daveh, my dad had a K reg Escort 1.4 LX as a company car and it was noisy, thirsty, not very well made and refused to start in wet weather. Also the 1.3 version was a horrible hound that had all the go of a milk float and was as noisy as a sixties Mini above 50 mph. I think this was the worst Ford ever made.
    OTOH the Eacort’s Rover opponent, the 200, was everything the Escort wasn’t, well made, classy inside, refined, good looking and excellent to drive even in basic form. You can see why Rover had a waiting list for these in 1990 and Ford had to save face almost immediately by revising the Escort.

  14. I never drove a 820E but until last year I was using its predecessor with the same engine, my sd1 2000, as a daily driver.
    Driving it a weekly 750+ km on LPG.
    Except for the V8 sound I did not have the feeling I was missing much compared to my other sd1, a 3500.
    Ok, the engine is a bit rough and vibrating quite a bit but torque and acceleration was adequate with a mileage of 11 km to the liter.
    Actually exactly the same mileage as my current Rover 75 K 1.8 on LPG, also not the biggest tyresmoker around, but having the same long distance touring quality as the sd1.
    So from my personal perspective it would seem that the 820E is the perfect candidate in my lineup of economical, comfortable and big rover saloons, if I will ever find one.

  15. The Mk4 Escort was an amazing marketing success, but I think the Escort Mk5 was actually a disaster for Ford, as people finally could by then see what Ford were up to, and it needed the quality of thinking with the Focus to rescue it later.

    I don’t think the SD1 was met with indifference on launch, either. It had a healthy waiting list to begin with and was a ‘Car of the Year’, wasn’t it?

  16. @ Ian, the SD1 in 1976 was hailed as a masterpiece and futuristic, being a large hatchback when all other executive cars were still saloons. It was a fantastic car, light years ahead of the P6, but sadly strikes and poor quality soon hurt it. The car did come right by the early eighties, but it was too late and Volvo, Ford and BMW had eaten into its market share.
    The 800 suffered from poor quality in its first two years, but again did come right but by then Rover wasn’t such a big player as the Germans were dominating the executive car market. That said I’d much rather have a post 1988 Rover 827 than a BMW 5 series as quality wise there wasn’t that much in it.

  17. I remember the 820e well but not the base 820. Perhaps the 820e should have been the entry level model rather than making a lesser powered car. The 800 fastback was a decent looking motor and gave a nod to the previous SD1.

    Better to go for the bigger plusher versions though. Although in company car circles – price is always a factor.

  18. I’m sure I saw a statistic that said that the Rover 800 facelift of 1991 became the class best seller for a while in the early 90s. Re the MK5 Escort references. I’ve an old copy of CAR magazine from early 1992 that pitted one of the first 1.8 Zetec versions (still pre Sept 92 facelift) against the then class leader Citroen ZX and the newly launched Golf MK3. It wiped the floor with the Golf and came within a nats of beating the ZX. Not always as bad as folk-law would have you believe.

    • Your observation is correct. The second generation 800 Series also won numerous awards from various print publications, with What Car? magazine’s award being the most memorable, for me. In 1992 and 1993 Rover Cars had to introduce an additional shift for assembling the R17 generation model due to demand for it. This was because it had become Britain’s best selling executive car. I think this honour had slipped by 1994, however.

  19. The Rover 800 was the car of choice for the Major government, as they wanted something less ostentatious than the Jaguars favoured by Maggie and something that reflected the more straightened first half of the nineties where the recession had hit the middle classes hard. Indeed Major seemed made for this car, a sensible middle aged character who liked his comforts but didn’t want to seem flash.

    • Yep, the 800 was the default Government car in the 90s for Cabinet Ministers, because it was built in Britain. Junior Ministers got by in 400s – the 414Si as I recall. Government drivers loved the 800, always referring to it as the Sterling, even in lower spec versions.

  20. Oh, yes – I remember the Discovery MPi. I was working in powertrain at the time developing MEMs software.
    They lacked engine braking as demonstrated by the hills around Gaydon. To cruise at around 70 mph MEMs was at around wide open throttle. That engine had to work for a living !

  21. @ Jonathan, then we had Blair with his people carriers, usually made abroad. Mind you, under Labour, we had Rover, Ford and Peugeot either go bankrupt or move abroad and Vauxhall close Luton. Odd thing is Labour used to scream like mad when Linwood and Canley were closed, yet didn’t do much when car plants closed under their watch. At least Tony Benn and Harold Wilson, for their faults, tried to save the country’s car industry, Blair did nothing and Thatcher split it up, meaning British Leyland was no longer a major player.

    • Mrs Thatcher may have hived Jaguar off from BL but it always enjoyed a semi-detached existence so it was logical. Also whilst her Government did sell the Rover Group to BAe for a song, she fought against a reluctant cabinet to continue investing in/bankrolling BL, depending on your political pursuation.

  22. Another article which stretches credulity to the limit. The Pinto a half decent engine ? The truly awful Honda V6 “impressive” ? Contrasting the O series unfavourably with the Carlton etc because the GM motors were OHC ? ( So were the O series ). Sometimes it is difficult to believe that Mike Humble actually was around in the era of which he writes

  23. Of course I make reference to the GM and Ford OHC units. As I mentioned, both Ford & GMs attention to installation gave both the Granada and Carltons engines well insulated from the cabin.

    Also, servicing was easier and the Pinto required just a simple spanner job to adjust valve clearances, where the GM family two unit featured hydrualic tappets. Also, both Ford and GM had reliable ignition and carburation systems both being proven and above all – reliable in the long run.

    The 800 was an attempt to introduce a technically advanced specification to the executive car sector, the SPi 820e should have remained the entry model. The O series was a fine engine in a car like the Montego, it just seemed odd that they saw fit to use a carb instead of the Lucas injected unit at a time where fuel injection was the only way forward.

    To play follow your leader is all well and good when you have the clout and credibility to do so – not when the piggie bank is empty and your ankles are tied together.

    I most certainly was around in that era and whereby the Granda 1.8 or 2.0 were truly bilious inducing to drive, they had the full package of mechanical integrity, superb marketing power and sold by the skip load. The 820 base model was hastily concocted, poorly assembled (in comparison) and prone to faults – the only reason why the fleet customers stayed away.

    • The valve gear on the ‘o’ series would not need checking or adjusting and was very reliable.Years later we found out the short commings of hydraulic tappets,remember sticking valves anyone.

      The noise at high rpm was to do with the Heron combustion chamber and the resulting heavy pistons.

      The ‘o’ series was probably the most reliable engine ever made by the company.

  24. I currently own one of these fastbacks, and i love it, yes it is not the 2.0, but a 2.7 Auto, and it still goes like stink, and not too bad MPG either.

    However I am considering selling it to get a Rover 75 V8

  25. According to one bangernomic site the timing belt tension on the 4 cylinder engines is very hard to set correctly for a DIY mechanic. I’m not sure if this refers to the O series or the Honda units.

  26. not overly hard hard Richard

    Requires the use of a Burroughs gauge on both O & M16 engines

    M16 did have a problem with tensioners slipping thus wrecking the engine in serious cases… was modified soon enough though with a dealer in service mod!

  27. Good story. My dad worked at British Aerospace and had many Rover 800s as company cars. We found that the R800 mk 1 improved after the big bumper facelift- especially in quality terms. The 820 base was gutless and dad was over the moon when he was allowed an 820i auto, which he found was miles better, even as a slushbox! A load of mk 2 followed including 2 x Vitesse and 3 x Sterling’s! Looking back through my motor magazine collection it would appear that the mk2 800 found favour with What Car. The mk1 facelift in 820e trim nearly won a 1990 group test in What Car against the Granada, 605, 164, XM and Audi C3 100 with comments picking up that the more expensive 820i may have won convincingly!

  28. The 1.8 and 2.0 Carltons weren’t that strong performers. The 2.0i Carlton had the same power output as the Montego 2.0i and nowhere near the M16i units, the 1.8i Carlton wouldn’t have been much more powerful than the base 820.

    Very few people ever buy the base model of any range, probably it is only there so they could sell the real base by using it as a mind trick – which is all marketing really is.

  29. The Rover 800 was a fine car after the massive improvements made in 1988,and in V6 form was a cheaper alternative to a Jaguar with Honda reliability.

  30. I actually drove the base model 1.8i Carlton on several occasions, as owned by my boss who used to let me drive when we were going anywhere together. He didn’t enjoy driving and had asked for a basic car. The accountants got him a Carlton 1.8i manual which he considered too big and complicated! I found it pretty good to drive albeit with somewhat leisurely acceleration. It was certainly comfortable regardless of which seat you were in and would happily waft along at 70mph all day on the motorway. IIRC sticking tappets were caused either by failure to change the oil and filter regularly or else using the wrong grade of oil.

    In contrast, the worst car I’ve ever owned was a Mk4 Escort 1.4LX bought in a hurry after having my Golf Mk2 written off by a drunk driver. That had a nasty harsh engine and was quite unstable in a crosswind.

    I never had the opportunity to drive a base 820 but the later 820e was fairly impressive, and certainly nicer to sit in than any drastic grey plastic Ford interior.

    Note that not everyone wants all the gizmos, in fact Mrs E just wants a basic car with a normal handbrake and a radio that will play Radios 2 & 4. When the salesman started explaining that her new car has bluetooth and would sync to her phone and that she could play music from her phone on the car stereo she just looked at him blankly.

    I suggest that for quite a few people a basic cheap car is exactly what they do want, as shown by the number of Dacias currently being seen on UK roads. I have the most basic version of a well known German manufacturer because I do about 20,000 miles per year, and deliberately avoided the more upmarket models.

    Perhaps the 820 was before its’ time?

  31. If a 94bhp Rover 820 fastback was good enough for a certain Comptroller of the UK Patent Office, I’m sure it would be good enough for mere mortals with only one brain.
    His successor drove a Renault Clio. She had a reserved parking space, but there was plenty of spare room!

  32. @Christopher Storey – “The truly awful Honda V6”.

    Are you for real? The Honda V6 engine, certainly in 2.7 form was an absolute peach of an engine.

    It was a beautiful piece of engineering and construction. It made good power, good torque and was pretty much unmatched for it’s wonderful silky smoothness.

    I cannot think of an engine at the time which was close to it except perhaps the BMW M50. The M50 did not appear until 1990 anyway and I would not say the M50 was better, just different.

    The Honda V6 suited the Sterling and the other range topping 800’s brilliantly.

    Truly awful? I say you don’t know what you are talking about.

  33. There was a trend in the seventies and eighties to produce stripped out, low powered entry models in the executive class. I can remember the BMW 518 from this era, very sluggish, basic and not very exciting to drive, but it sold as it was a BMW and appealed to buyers who didn’t want a Granada, but whose budgets wouldn’t stretch to a bigger engined 5 series. The Rover 820 joined a club of basic executive cars that included the BMW 518, 1.8 litre Carltons and Granadas and carburated Mercedes 190S.

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