Designed for the US market, but introduced after the Sterling pull-out, the 800 Coupe was very much a car without a target audience. The Rover 800 Coupe development story tells the tale of how this promising concept went from hero to zero.
Keith Adams talks to the important players in the car’s convoluted gestation period.
Rover 800 Coupe: always the bridesmaid…
The future of Austin Rover looked bright in 1982. The green shoots of recovery were clearly visible, and the Japanese were ready to give the British a vote of confidence. As a result, the second collaborative deal between Honda and BL had been signed during November the previous year.
This had proved a great deal more far-reaching than the original Ballade/Acclaim licence production arrangement, and would involve the ground up co-development of a joint new executive car. As can be read in more detail in the Rover 800 development story, the births of the XX and HX cars were not without incident.
However, the XX programme did allow Harold Musgrove to begin the process of transforming Austin Rover from the 1970s lame duck to a late-1980s ‘beautiful swan’ of a company that would be able to go toe to toe with BMW. It must have seemed like a fanciful idea to many within the company, still tied up with the final stages of productionisation of the Maestro and Montego ranges but, given Honda’s engineering prowess and Austin-Rover’s design flair, Musgrove certainly believed it was achievable.
Engineered and designed for America
The XX was conceived very much with the American market in mind and, according to the original Concept Submission Documents shown to management in 1982, the XX range should incorporate a Coupe version to top the range. The market for Personal cars in the USA was a very strong one, and there was no reason to believe that the company could not take a healthy slice of it.
According to Rover Group Designer, David Saddington, the importance of such a car was understood by management, and as a result, “the Coupe was always going to get all new exterior… After a sketch programme, my design was selected for further work, and we progressed to a fairly high level of feasibility.”
In his role as director of design, Roy Axe was acutely aware that the Coupe was an essential addition to the XX lineup: ‘We were not aware at first that Honda had a two-door coupe in their plan but we were aware that the USA was the prime market for the Honda product. The UK plan did have some longer-term goals, a wish list so to speak, and on this list were re-entry into the USA and a two-door model,’ he said.
Rover CCV is born
In order to promote the coupe idea, Axe devised the idea of building a concept car, to follow up the MG EX-E; a coupe which was loosely based around the XX. Axe felt that it was vital for Austin Rover to produce this (and the EX-E before it) in order for it to re-attain the company’s credibility in the eyes of the industry.
A coupe concept would be the ideal showcase for the company’s talents, whilst at the same time, showing upper management how appealing an XX-based two-door could be. Roy Axe planned the coupe, knowing that it could ruffle feathers within the company: ‘…with Gordon Sked and Richard Hamblin it was decided to do an XX-based coupe. This I felt might stir up those who thought a coupe was an unnecessary luxury, and also whet the appetite for the upcoming XX saloon style. The Rover CCV was stand-alone, and as shown it had impracticalities – but had the will and finances been there to do it, it could have been done…’
David Saddington relates that the CCV had a further purpose in life: ‘Primarily to build on the enthusiasm of MG EX-E, the idea of another show car was raised, and it was decided to base the show programme on the XX Coupé. After all, we knew two things – the EX-E was fantastic, but wasn’t going to be made for production; secondly, the XX Coupé was going to production, and a ‘teaser’ would help us launch it.’
From idea to motor show: early steps
The same design team that produced the EX-E, knuckled down to the development of the Coupe Concept at Canley. Saddington again: ‘With hindsight, Gerry McGovern was pretty much seen as being the Concept guy, and he got the job of doing the show car. An old clay was used, and basically made more aggressive – closer to the original sketch.’
Given that the design was scheduled to be shown at the Turin Motor Show in April 1986 – just three months before the launch of the 800 – Roy Axe decided that the new car should bear a family resemblance. ‘The design office set the parameters and I felt that the Coupe should pick up the character of the 800 in terms of basic form and character lines. The extra form at front and rear and the more shapely sides greatly enhanced the 800 based lines,’ he said.
There was also a side benefit to the CCV being based on the real thing, and Saddington related it thus: ‘When we launched the real thing, the public would be ready for the advanced style, and able to see how quickly we had made the fantastic concept into a production reality!’
Rover CCV steals the Turin Motor Show
Thus, the Rover CCV was born. The end result was arrestingly handsome and press acclaim duly followed, when it was launched at the Turin Show in April 1986. Needless to say, Roy Axe was more than satisfied with the result: ‘The reaction can be read in the publications of the day, which were all very complimentary. To get that reaction in Italy was a particular pleasure.’
The positive reaction that the CCV received from the press spurred on designers to continue working on the 800 Coupe, by now codenamed ‘Anna’. By this time, the CCV-like design was pretty much settled upon by the designers.
Axe, however, relates that even though the CCV had been an unqualified success as a show car, it was still as far away from production as it ever was. Although many people within the Design and Marketing Departments knew that this would be almost essential for the success of Rover’s re-entry into the American market, it was not to be – and managers canned it. According to Roy Axe, this situation came down to finances: ‘For the USA a two-door coupe would have been much preferable to the four door, but plans and funds available did not support this… There were better places to use the limited use available – or so it was judged.’
Management pushes for a production 800 Coupe
Still, following much lobbying from Axe, management’s opposition to the idea of a coupe based around the XX concept began to soften: ‘As it was, it was some time before the  Coupe work started again. Of course, I was in fact the instigator of this project at all times and the major pusher with support from the USA team. Strong direction was essential at this time.
‘We became involved with Bertone (a product planning idea) and there was a rival Coupe sketched by them, but the in house team won out. Bertone was then contracted to make a production version of the CCV under our supervision, but the project failed to make the financial parameters.’
Given that, the cost argument, which had reared its head was now a real factor. In order to keep costs to a minimum, Roy Axe decided to employ outside contractors: ‘I had been lobbied by International Automotive Design (IAD) for some time to give them a project to develop and this seemed to me to be the opportunity.’
IAD takes up the design work
Richard Woolley relates: ‘The productionisation of project Anna was outsourced to IAD in Worthing. Designer Chris Greville-Smith oversaw the transition of the car from fibreglass concept to metal.’ Some of the more futuristic elements of the CCV design were toned down in order to ease the transition to production.
Woolley again: “The car that was developed at IAD bore a close resemblance to CCV, except for more feasible headlights (semi-covered units with lift-up flaps) and glasshouse construction… the IAD car had a similar look to the CCV through the use of black-out on all the metal pillars”
Project Anna made it to the full-size mock-up stage, but Roy Axe recalled that the experience with IAD had not been an unbridled success: ‘I managed to get the budget, and engineering were otherwise occupied, to further this work with IAD. This proved to be a disaster and IAD let us down and at considerable expense. So, this was a second failure to do this with outside help.’
Rover 800 Coupe development problems
The problem of funding was down to the unique nature of the Coupe bodyshell. It required a unique body and structure and, as a result, the high levels of investment required to get it into production were not released by management. Rover’s re-entry into the US market was compromised by this decision, for sure, but as subsequent history relates, the company’s lack of a coupe was small beer compared with Sterling’s poor reliability record.
However, Roy Axe was still very keen to see the 800 Coupe enter production, and worked on creating a workable solution. Richard Woolley recalls that a lower-cost 800 Coupe could be created: ‘We began an investigation on a car that had a much higher level of carry-over from the saloon.’
Effectively, sharing much of the 800’s underpinnings and some external panels, a pleasing car could still be created. Sadly, Roy Axe received no material support from within the business for his Coupe, and its development was belaboured as a result: ‘I had another go, this time in the USA. I had worked with American Sun Roof when I was with Chrysler and knew them as a capable group.’
The American connection fails to bear fruit
Designer Adrian Griffiths went out to the USA in order to plan the saloon-to-coupe transition, and as Woolley puts it, ‘…to work out what could be done by the expedient method of carving up an 800 saloon to get a coupe.’ It was a good plan, but given the limited resources available, and a less than willing upper management, the project progressed slowly.
David Saddington recalls that Griffiths’ design was, ‘very attractive’. It was almost inevitable that this venture would fail, too: ‘Engineering still had no resource to apply to a coupe, so we gave ASC a Rover 800 and sketches and tried to make the thing work. In the end, there were just too many compromises based on the carryover required to make the vehicle financially viable and after a very valiant effort, defeat had to be admitted.’
Interestingly, Saddington recalls something else about Adrian Griffiths’ scheme: ‘Oh, and by the way it had a grille on it! The first view of what became known as the Roverisation programme.’
Project drift sets in as no green light is given
The look of the car remained remarkably faithful to the CCV design, even though much of it’s understructure had been changed, while further commonality with the 800 was being insisted upon. As the work progressed, not only was a Coupe built, but also an extremely pretty convertible version (pictured above). Although the looks of the car were good, the finished article then performed badly in customer clinics in the USA.
By this point in time, the fortunes of Sterling was on the wane in the USA, and the car was seen as being paramount in turning the brand around. Now that it had been established that the Coupe could be built at a reasonable cost, the decision was made to back it and to give it a re-style in lieu of the launch of the Rover 800 (R17), scheduled for 1991.
It was at this time, that the project returned to Canley, becoming a fully in-house effort again.
From America back to Canley
Following his work on the R8 and Rover 600, Richard Woolley was drafted in to update the style of the Coupe with a view to increasing its desirability to prospective customers. Woolley describes the process: ‘Adrian returned from the USA, and I was enlisted to do some sketch work on how the car could be improved.’
Tying the Coupe in with the upcoming R17 meant that a curvier solution could be found, thus distancing it from the CCV – by this time, some four years old. The design process continued around the principle of sharing as much with the saloon as possible, whilst giving it a distinctive style. Woolley again: ‘The car gained a simpler body section, a strong D-pillar (up to then it still had the all black-out treatment).’
From here, it was David Saddington that was given the task of translating Woolley’s sketches into production reality. He recalled: ‘…Full circle for me. I got the job of putting the R17 Coupe into production. It was in itself a difficult one, but good to see the grille and bonnet from the Coupe going across the range.’
CCV scheme ditched for more classic solution
With Richard Woolley and David Saddington charged with the styling, it headed in a different direction: the CCV, as handsome as it was, had aged during the intervening years. Curves were in – straight lines were out. The all-black glass-house looked good in 1986, but very quickly it became old hat. Woolley’s solution (above) was simpler to produce, and in hindsight, probably more elegant, even if it would later be accused by some of not being bold enough. That conservatism stemmed from the desire to produce a car that the Americans wanted to buy…
Much of the existing car’s architecture needed to be replaced, and it was Wyn Thomas (later praised for his work on the Rover 75 and MINI) who looked after the design of those items, such as the interior door casings, that were unique to the Coupe. It obviously worked, because one aspect of the Coupe (and the 800 that sired it) that was universally praised, was its interior ambience.
Struggling with rapidly falling sales, Sterling’s press office released a concept sketch of the Coupe (above) in early 1990 (some two years before it launch!) – the idea being to give the brand some much needed glamour… No doubt the Americans were more than impressed with Woolley’s sketch, even though they ran the risk of revealing aspects of the upcoming R17 saloon and fastback. Certainly, it was a less-than-gentle hint that the American dealers wanted a Coupe to sell.
Sterling killed – Coupe loses its main market
In the end, the Americans would never see the Coupe. Falling sales, and an irreversibly bad name with customers and the press, meant that Rover were forced to pull out of the US market in 1991. That left Rover with a very big dilemma: the Coupe was created for Americans – and now the company had lost its biggest market for the car.
The other problem was that big Coupes simply did not sell in Europe (unless they wore a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz) badge, and Rover were now looking at potentially tiny sales volumes. Given the cost of developing the Coupe, it was unlikely that Rover would ever see a return on it – and there were sections within the company who thought that it might be a better idea to abandon the car completely.
Thankfully, Rover bit the bullet and in 1992, went ahead with the launch. Because it was conceived to act as the company’s flagship, it was introduced with every conceivable option as standard, and a range-topping price befitting of its status within the range. Needless to say, the press did not feel that the 800-based Coupe could justify its £30,770 asking price and Autocar gave the car a pasting in their first road test.
The rivals listed in their road test included the Mercedes-Benz 300CE and Jaguar XJS – cars which had blue chip credibility and ability to match. Even if the Rover’s chassis had played a blinder, it might have struggled to match them, but as it possessed very little talent, the results were sadly predictable: it never sold.
Rover 800 Coupe: beautiful inside and out
So, without doubt, it was a car of mixed ability. In summing up the Coupe, Autocar had this to say: ‘Its cabin is a wonderful place to sit, but it is not enough for any car, let alone one priced at more than £30,000, to expect to survive almost exclusively on its static qualities. There are too many frighteningly capable opponents out there ready and able to give you a wealth more real ability for a lot less wealth.’
So, it was not enamoured with its price or chassis, but as a refined tourer, it did fit the bill – and admitted that on the motorway, ‘the 800 treats you to the kind of unruffled progress you’d expect’.
The Honda-sourced V6 also received a thumbs-up: ‘Its manners are faultless, sounding as relaxed and sophisticated as the Mercedes-Benz at its 6400rpm red line despite the German’s inherently smoother straight six configuration. No other rival, not even the Legend, can offer such civility from its engine.’
But compromised on the road
So, dynamically Autocar may have panned the Coupe for its lack of sporting handling, but the magazine did herald it as something of a triumph aesthetically. This fit perfectly with the company’s stated aims for the car. As far as Rover was concerned, however, the emphasis was on luxury and not performance: ‘It was a ‘luxury coupe’ not a ‘sports coupe’ and the emphasis was very much on the ambience of prestige and elegance, not on dynamic driving characteristics,’ is how one source described its aims…
Undeterred, Rover continued a limited development programme on the Coupe and, following a more realistic pricing strategy, it did come good in later years. Thanks to a product maximisation strategy, the very able 2.0-litre turbo engine was added to the Coupe range, and in Vitesse Sport tune, it delivered a not inconsiderable 197bhp. This engine, allied with the Vitesse Sport chassis literally transformed the Coupe.
In Vitesse Sport form, this was a very pleasing car indeed – in terms of dynamics as well as interior ambience. However, by the mid-1990s, the Rover 800 range – like all non-premium large cars – was swamped by the German opposition. Just about all of Rover’s advertising budget for the 800 model was diverted to the newer Rover 600 range – the company’s important addition to the junior executive sector of the market.
A tough sell
Rover knew the Coupe possessed enough charm to win over potential buyers, it was just that they found it difficult getting potential customers to actually come and look. Back in 1992, Rover organised a regional ‘ride and drive’ exercise, which according to one company source, ‘was an attempt to indoctrinate the dealers as much as customers that this was a special car that warranted its premium price position, and one that would be sold to the high standards of customer sales and service Rover was now targeting.’
Customers were asked to rate the Rover in relation to the opposition, and whether they would actually buy one. The results were very positive, and one of the Rover executives present at the exercise stated that guests had no reservations about rating the Rover highly. Very highly in fact! In the words of Newslink, the in-house dealer magazine the Rover would make an ideal second car…
‘How do you react when someone, returning from a test drive proceeds to put at the bottom of his critique form “It would make an excellent second car”? But wait – look at the top of the form to see what kind of car this gentleman normally drives. A Bentley Turbo R.’ – Rover Newslink magazine
The praise was not limited to the owners of British-built cars: ‘In case anyone should think that perhaps Rolls Royce and Bentley drivers are more pro-British than most, let’s have a look at some other forms. How about a couple of Mercedes 500 SEC (Coupe) owners? One noted: ‘The first appealing British car for some time.’ The other said: ‘hard to fault, very impressed.’ Another German car enthusiast, who listed a BMW M5 and a Porsche Carrera on his fleet, was moved to say of the 800 Coupe: ‘A joy to drive’.
In conclusion: a good car that came too late
The 800 Coupe was not the sales flop that most people assume it was: ‘In Italy it was introduced in 2.0-litre Turbo form only, to take advantage of the 2.0-litre tax class. In 1993, about 600 units were sold there, about 70% of all Coupe sales (including the UK)! Indeed, the success of the car in Italy meant that Rover met or even exceeded the volume targets it had set for it!’
That does make one wonder how the Americans would have taken to it. The 800 Coupe certainly had all the ingredients to succeed over there. The sad fact is that the Sterling adventure was killed stone dead in a few short years; and it was as a result of poor quality. There was nothing wrong with the product, as the success of the Honda Legend clearly demonstrates.
Roy Axe felt that the end result was the product of too many missed opportunities: ‘The final effort was a two-door Rover 800 rather than a coupe. This vehicle was introduced after I left the company and after the USA operation was closed. In my opinion, as soon as the closure of the USA operation was known, the project should have been scrapped. The 800 at this point was getting very old. It was designed for a six-year life and was well past its sell by date! A second-generation Honda was well in production and a third very close to introduction, but the 800 soldiered on with only a relatively minor facelift. A coupe in the wrong market on an old product is not sensible.’
Had the quality been good at the outset, Sterling sales might have been better during the early years, generating thumping profits. As a result, an emboldened Rover management might have been able to sanction the development of the CCV-like coupe that Roy Axe so desperately wanted. It remains a tantalising prospect, even today.