Revamping a model is never an easy task, especially when you are constrained by budget and the need to retain the underpinnings from an existing car.
However, as David Morgan highlights, in the case of the second-generation Rover 800 Series, the transformation gave it a greater presence in the executive market.
Rover 800: the ultimate grilling
The early-1990s was a promising period for Rover. New models such as the R8 200/400 Series were showing that they could deliver well-built and desirable cars that customers were ready to wait up to 12 weeks for. Meanwhile, clever colour and trim initiatives and ‘new’ derivatives such as the Mini Cooper helped prolong interest in older models.
The only problem that the company was finding in selling the existing XX-generation Rover 800, was that it was not really seen as being exclusive enough – and given the fact that, following the sale of the company to BAe, the corporate plan was to generate as much profit as possible from each model, the Rover 800 would need to receive a facelift in order to be seen more as a British BMW instead of the Ford Granada rival that it really was.
In 1989, plans were drawn up to give the 800 a comprehensive facelift but, immediately at this point, the company added larger US-spec Sterling bumpers to the car – this subtle change made quite a difference and the road presence of the car increased accordingly.
Rover 800 R17 plans start to hatch
The substantial facelift was soon given the project code, R17, and the plan was to undertake the following: restyle the car to give it that classier appearance the company sought, and to overhaul the 2.0-litre engine. The restyle was considered essential as the existing 800, which was undoubtedly a pleasant looking car, was a design of its time and that time was 1986. The world was moving on – and the Rover 800 was being left behind.
Marque identity was very important in the executive market – and, where the Rover presented a rather bland frontal aspect in the interests of aerodynamics and family resemblance to the SD1, other manufacturers had gone down the same route – so now, you would find cars from Citroën, Renault and many others that, from the front, looked all but indistinguishable from the supposedly upmarket Rover.
However, the R17 project was compromised by the need to retain the existing cars very capable underpinnings, but as there had been significant backroom work on tuning the chassis, this was not a complete handicap. Also, the smooth and strong Honda engine would be retained – a positive aspect to the range – as would the interior, which was perhaps, the best aspect of the car.
Retaining the existing passenger doors
Contentiously, one decision was made, which further compromised the car’s overall style, and that was the retention of the existing side doors. Despite the mistakes of the past, it seemed that Rover had not learned from the folly of this policy.
An insider put it in these terms, ‘It is true about R17 initially having to use XX door pressings – on the specific instruction of Andy Barr…. but he, like Musgrove, ruled very much by fear, so people naturally avoided being the bearer of bad news. I believe someone did try to make the point that the dies were coming up for replacement by the time that R17 was due to start production, but got shouted down.’
So, the decision to keep the existing doors, made on cost grounds, would prove to be incorrect: the dies were worn, which meant that the economy benefits of this decision were totally eradicated.
How to incorporate that grille
Gordon Sked agonised over the way the Rover 800 should incorporate a more traditional grille design on the facelifted car. The Rover 600 was actually the first car to be designed to house the new set-up, but the 800 would reach the market first, and would carry over many existing styling cues. In fact, the decision to add the grille to the 800 was only taken after positive clinic results on the 600, which meant a quick redesign. In the end, after looking at countless grille proposals, he chose a solution that ‘looked more right than all the others.’
Arguably, the new look succeeded – the car looked bigger, had much more road presence and certainly conveyed a bolder marque identity. Only the fact that the doors jarred the overall effect of the redesign, because they forced the car to maintain a rather flat roof, not in keeping with the rest of the curvaceous design.
In an engineering sense, there was little new to report beyond the 2.0-litre engine: the M16 engine received comprehensive re-engineering in an effort to increase torque at low revs – the result was a success, and the newly-designated T-Series engine proved to be a more suitable power unit for the car. The V6 Vitesse model was replaced by a 2.0-litre turbocharged version, now available in both saloon and fastback body styles, but beyond this, the new car wasn’t fundamentally changed underneath the skin.
Background to the R17’s development
Back in 1988, shortly after the purchase of the Rover Group by British Aerospace it had been announced that the Cowley South Works, the old Morris Motors plant, would be demolished and 4000 jobs shed and operations moved into the North Works, formerly the Pressed Steel Fisher building, purchased by BMC in 1965. On 20 July 1992 Rover opened a £200m car assembly operation that it said would rival the factories of its Japanese competitors. A new 360,000-square-foot assembly plant had been installed at Rover’s existing Cowley North plant, uniting operations that used to be spread among three factories.
The new plant had a capacity of 110,000 cars a year, over double the then output of 51,000 cars a year. With the introduction of Japanese-style production techniques, Rover planned to increase production at Cowley within two years from the then current 33 cars a day for each worker to 40 cars, well above the European average of 31.
The Rover Metro/100, launched in May 1990, had shown that it was still possible to deliver a class leader out of a revamp programme. However, Rover Cars was aware that it would take a lot more effort with the 800 Series if it was to be seen as a serious alternative to more premium brand offerings. Funding an all-new replacement model was out of the question and so a major update was embarked on from 1989 under the codename R17.
Rover 800 (R17) takes shape under Sked
Designed under the lead of Gordon Sked, the replacement model needed to deliver more robustness and visual ‘bulk’; something the ‘XX’ generation 800 Series had noticeably lacked over the ‘HX’ Honda Legend. It was also a key attribute of BMW’s successful E34 generation 5 Series, which Rover Cars aspired to take on in the executive car sector. At a less premium level, even the Vauxhall Senator, with its more sturdy frontal design, commanded more stature than the Carlton on which it was based.
A small part of the design brief for the R17 centred on creating a more sculpted bonnet design and the presence of a radiator grille treatment with chrome surround, to convey prestige and heritage. Rover’s Design Engineers opted to take inspiration from the Rover P5 grille and create a more squat design which could be applied to the different front ends of new and updated Rover models.
In the case of the R17, there was the constraint of having to work with existing parameters such as the slope of the front wings and corresponding bonnet leading edge, as well as retaining the existing headlamps. Despite this, Gordon Sked and his team delivered a grille treatment that gave the 800 Series a real shot of presence in the executive car market.
Even the bonnet’s more pronounced centre ‘bulge’ and extra chrome work for the body’s sides took a bow to the P5. Inside, the dashboard fascia was given greater elegance courtesy of more wood trim for the sides of the instrumentation binnacle. Meanwhile, the centre console was redesigned to sport wood inserts with an analogue clock (on SLi models and above) inspired by… yes, you’ve guessed it, the Rover P5. Moreover, if that wasn’t enough to convince you of Rover’s illustrious past, some of the press photos featured the new 800 Series juxtaposed with a P5.
Rover’s rather conservative new reality
Announced on 12 November 1991, the R17 800 Series was 2.7in longer in length that its predecessor. The price hike from old to new was modest, ranging from £200 to £400 depending on model. Even better, every trim level and engine option could now be specified in saloon and fastback form, and not certain variants remaining the preserve of just one body style.
The new model undoubtedly carried over a significant amount of parts from its predecessor, most noticeably in the interior with the dashboard fascia, door mouldings and some of the switchgear. On the outside only the doors appeared to be unchanged apart from the repositioning of new protection strips.
However, as Jeremy Clarkson pointed out, Rover Cars had ended up having to replace the tooling anyway! Apart from this, the rest of the bodywork was more obvious in being new. Perhaps it did not come as much of a surprise to read in the June 1992 issue of the Rover Group Facts and Figures publication that the project had cost £245 million.
A compelling entry price
Kicking off the line-up was the 820i with an on-the-road price of £17,495. Even at this level the list of standard features included rear seat head restraints, while the re-engineered bodyshell meant that it was now possible to offer split-folding rear seat backs on the saloon.
The 820Si cost £1800 more but came with features such as anti-lock brakes, electric rear windows and an electric sunroof, while you also got burr walnut inserts in the doors. The higher spec SLi priced at £21,495 featured an attractive six-spoke alloy wheel design, front fog lamps, power adjustment of the driver’s seat and Automatic Temperature Control.
Sitting at the top of the range was the Sterling powered by the familiar 167bhp 2675cc Honda V6 engine. At this starry height you really could not want for anything, with the only option listed being pearlescent paint which added a further £95 to the on-the-road price of £27,995.
Press launch memories
As Denis Chick, the former Product and Communications Strategy Director at Rover Cars recalled, the official press launch took place at Ettington Park, south of Stratford, with photography taken at Eastnor Castle and Walton Hall. Early reviews in the motoring press were positive, with the redesigned and renamed 2.0-litre T-Series engine being noted for being much smoother and quieter than the effervescent M16i from which it had been developed.
There were no changes to the 2.7-litre V6 other than a three-way catalytic converter being fitted as standard. As part of a phased introduction programme these engines would be joined from February of the following year by the 2.5-litre Turbotronic diesel supplied by VM Motori S.p.A.
This engine had been introduced in the first-generation 800 Series in just one trim level and body style for the 1991 Model Year. For the second-generation model it could be specified with i, Si and SLi trim levels and in both body styles which would undoubtedly help boost sales in Central Europe.
Big changes for the 800 Vitesse
The sporting variant was the Vitesse featuring a 177bhp turbocharged version of the T-Series engine, priced at £20,650 and available with just seven exterior colours. As with its V6-engined predecessor, this latest Vitesse showed an understated style to its performance potential, whereby its sporting intent was restricted to a seven-spoke alloy wheel design and a rear spoiler for the fastback body style.
The original plan had been to fit the Vitesse with 16in five-spoke Rover Sport alloy wheels, as was featured in early sales literature, although this was amended shortly before the official on-sale announcement in February 1992. Inside, the changes focused on Recaro front seats finished in a combination of Granite Grey leather and Silverstone pattern fabric.
A number of the Vitesse’s features could also be specified as part of a Sports option pack available on the 820i and Si variants costing £1435.
The Rover 800 Coupe makes a splash
Product planners were also looking to instil more of the prestige of the P5 Coupe into the forthcoming two-door Rover 800 Coupe. The desire to build a two-door Coupe in the style of a luxury Grand Tourer had first been considered as far back as the early 1980s while development work was progressing on the ‘XX’ 800 Series. This was confirmed by the unrelated Rover CCV (Coupe Concept Vehicle) design concept, which had been unveiled at the 1986 Turin Motor Show, to gauge interest in the prospect of a future production Rover Coupe.
Despite the CCV receiving rave reviews, Rover wouldn’t commit itself to building a Coupe based on the 800 Series until after the sales success of the 800 Series in the lucrative North American market had been confirmed, and that there was a growing demand for luxury Coupes.
Revealed on 3 March, 1992 under the heading ‘Rover brings back its Coupe’, the 800 Coupe was hardly just another model in the new 800 Series line-up, but a flagship model intended to elevate the brand’s premium aspirations. Priced at £30,770 – the most expensive Rover car built to that date – a maximum of 50 examples would be assembled each week at Cowley alongside the regular saloon and fastback derivatives. This was also the first variant in the R17’s line-up to feature a driver’s airbag (initially as a £725 option).
Failing to make the hoped-for impact
Sadly, the Coupe never got to establish its presence in the main market it was originally designed for, as the continued year-on-year decline in sales of the first-generation 800 Series had forced Rover Cars to pull out of selling cars to North America during the summer of 1991.
No matter, by early 1993, Rover Cars had to introduce a night shift to cope with demand for the 800 Series, with the Vitesse variant already commanding 15 per cent of UK sales. The Coupe sold particularly well in Italy, a country known for its love of stylish and elegant cars. The Coupe’s appeal for that market was enhanced by the introduction of an extra engine option in the form of the 177bhp turbocharged T-Series engine, intended to meet the 2.0-litre tax break.
By 1994, the 800 Series range had been enhanced by the introduction of new variants such as the 827i and the special edition 820 and 820(SE). Priced from £14,995 to £16,495, these special edition offerings were for company car drivers who were looking to cut the higher taxation cost of their car and the amount of personal tax paid compared to seven alternative mainstream and premium makes.
Vitesse models get big improvements
While the 177bhp Vitesse variant was selling well, for some it still lacked the dynamic excitement and eager performance delivery of a true high performance executive car, last seen in the SD1 Vitesse. With this in mind, Rover Cars announced the 197bhp Vitesse Sport in April 1994 which benefited from sitting 20mm lower and having thicker front and rear anti-roll bars.
Different steering arms were also used while to help harness its power a Torque Sensing traction control system was fitted. Enhancements to the exterior were limited to a new 17in alloy wheel design and colour-coding the side protection strips and bumper tops.
As Gordon Sked, a former Rover Group Product Design Director, said in November 2011: ‘In line with changing trends in the executive sector there was no wish to over-dress the Vitesse variant but instead deliver a subtle sporting appearance. To underpin the sporting appeal it would be fitted with 17in wheels, which were low volume, and were considered to be large for that period.’ Indeed, Gordon had several Vitesse Sports himself and recalled they were ‘very nice to drive.’
The reviews for the Vitesse Sport – which sold alongside the existing Vitesse – were certainly encouraging. Autocar & Motor magazine aptly concluded in its road test published in July 1994 that: ‘Rover has made a winner out of the car that carries its most evocative mantle.’ Ambitions to market it under potential straplines around the themes of ‘Deutsch marques’ or ‘Drives you round the Benz’ were ultimately not delivered; possibly due to the recent change in ownership of the Rover Group.
The long 800s: an inside story
One special variant which did not get reviewed by the motoring press was the Regency LSE (long saloon, executive). Coachbuilder Thomas Startin Limited had started building a long-wheelbase version on the R17 in 1992, whose wheelbase had been stretched by 12 inches. This carried over much of the development work previously carried by Coleman Milne of Westhoughton on the first-generation 800 Series. However, Startins had called their own version the Regency LSE and they would go on to build a six-door limousine which had a 36-inch extension to its wheelbase over that of a standard factory-built 800 Series.
As Martin Clive, Specialist Vehicles Sales Manager for S. MacNeillie & Son Limited, said in August 2002: ‘In February 1995 agreement was reached between MacNeillies, Rover Cars and Startins to transfer the coachbuilding activities of Startins and production of the Rover 800 derivatives to MacNeillies’ premises in Walsall. A great deal of investment in body tooling was made and improvements to the folding occasional seats were introduced.’
The Rover 800’s final facelift
By the end of 1995, the R17 was being readied for its first major update which would bring new colour and trim enhancements and more notably an all-new engine option. Codenamed ‘Merlin’, this was an all-new V6 design developed in-house to replace the expensive to buy Honda 2.7-litre V6.
As part of the ongoing arrangement with Honda to supply this engine, Rover had to forecast six months in advance the number of engines it would need to be supplied with directly from Japan. With Honda having already replaced this engine with a larger 3.2-litre version for use in their all-new generation Legend and therefore not being willing to undertake any further re-engineering work, to enable it to meet more stringent emission legislations, Rover went it alone.
Announced on 16 January 1996, the 2.5-litre KV6 proved to offer a high level of refinement and smooth power delivery, while also being marginally more powerful than the outgoing Honda V6.
KV6-engine: 24-valve upgrade
The introduction of the KV6 engine also coincided with a number of engineering changes to the body and suspension as well as cosmetic enhancements. This included silver finish vanes for the radiator grille, to bring its treatment in line with the 200, 400 and 600 Series. For the interior there were ‘Rover’ inscribed walnut door cappings and a choice of three contrasting secondary colours for the carpets and seat piping when specified with the Lightstone beige colour way.
However, it was the introduction of four duotone body colour options that provided a more intriguing link with classic Rovers. Duotone colours options had featured prominently on Rovers such as the P4 and P5. Now it was being re-introduced for the R17-generation saloon and fastback models. At the same time, new monotone colours such as Bolero Red and Oxford Blue were providing a nostalgic nod towards the popular Bordeaux Red and Admiralty Blue colours last seen on the P5B in the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Coupe was gearing up to take on a more sporting role thanks to the introduction of the 197bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series engine from the Vitesse Sport (which itself had now became the sole Vitesse offering). The arrival of the 800 Turbo Coupe from March 1996 (below) gave potential buyers the ability to opt for a Coupe derivative offering a more involving driving experience but with the same level of luxury as found in the V6 version.
Simplified line-up towards the end
By December of that year the 800’s line-up was revised whereby the SLi trim level was discontinued and the 134bhp 2.0-litre T-Series could now be specified in the Sterling variant. For the Coupe’s line-up the turbo variant was renamed as the Vitesse and the non-turbo T-Series and V6 as the Sterling. Apart from the deletion of the trim level and engine-size designation badges on i and Si variants, to be replaced by a simple ‘800’ badge, there would be no further changes to the 800 Series.
By the end of 1997 it was an open secret that Rover Cars was likely to unveil a replacement model, the Rover 75, the following year to replace both the 600 and 800 Series. Despite this, the company still managed to find time to unveil an intriguing coachbuilt 800 Coupe at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. Although very much a late request from Rover’s Sales and Marketing Director, Tom Purves, for an already busy team of colour and trim Design Engineers, this one-off car was finished in time and displayed alongside a 3.0-litre P5 Coupe.
Bolero Red pearlescent was the chosen exterior colour while the interior featured a two-tone Wildberry and beige theme for the dashboard fascia and carpets. Re-trimmed by a Rolls Royce coachbuilder, the interior also came with rear picnic tables, a rear centre arm rest, which featured a wooden chess set inside, and chrome plating for the door locks and seat lifters.
A good innings
The last Rover 800 Series, an 825 Sterling saloon finished in White Gold metallic, was completed during Week 38, commencing Monday 25 September 1998. There was no announcement of this by Rover Cars as the plan at that stage was for its successor, the Rover 75, to go on sale in June of the following year. However, by early November, many Rover dealers were already offering discounts on stocks of unregistered 800s, with savings of up to £3000 being possible on the flagship Sterling. Some of these last cars for sale in the home market were ultimately not registered until 2000 and attracted W registrations.
According to figures provided by the Rover Group Press Office, a total of 128,595 second-generation Rover 800s had been completed. This comprised of 89,973 saloons, 32,174 Fastbacks and just 6448 Coupes. Furthermore, figures provided by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders suggest that the 820 Sterling Coupe had proved to be a surprisingly strong seller, despite being a late addition to the Coupe range. A total of 983 examples were built compared with 1035 examples with the KV6 engine. The Vitesse Coupe was the rarest example with just 383 examples completed.
Conclusion: was the R17 a successful replacement for the XX?
Total production of both the XX- and R17-generations of Rover 800 was about 330,000 examples. So was it a success?
In many ways, and based on the issues already highlighted, Rover had done a remarkable job keeping the 800 Series going for so long when the average life cycle for an executive market rival was just eight years. The only model which had a comparable life-span and the same core body styles was the Saab 9000, built from 1985 until 1997, with a total of 503,000 examples having been built.
For many the R17 800 Series gave Rover Cars’ flagship model the prestige and model proliferations that had been noticeably lacking with the first-generation model. Its demise also marked the end of the Rover brand’s presence in the executive car market which it had frequented since the ground-breaking P6 nearly 25 years before.
*Thanks go to the following people who have provided information used in this article: Nigel Biernacki, Denis Chick, the late Martin Clive, John Dalton, Kevin Jones and Gordon Sked.