The Rover 820 Turbo 16V was a last-gasp performance variation of the XX-generation. Supplanting the V6 Vitesse, this car predicted the R17-generation’s shift to the smaller engine.
Rover Special Products and Tickford concocted this limited-run special that has a cult following today.
Rover 820 Turbo 16V: The late achiever
Few cars in Rover’s more recent history have raised as many questions as the Rover 820 Turbo 16v: Was it developed by Rover Special Products? Why introduce a new engine variant so close to the end of its life? Just how was Tickford involved in the project? It has also aroused a variety of responses from people within the company – not all of which tally. One thing is for sure: it is a rare beast now, and is significant for predicting the R17-generation Vitesse, and its move away from the silky smooth Honda V6.
By 1990, the XX-generation Rover 800 was nearing the end of its life, and it was decided that it would be an opportune moment to produce a special version of the car (as opposed to a run-out model). The reason why it was decided to base this special 800 around the the M-Series engine is not completely clear. The T16 development programme would have been well underway, and the early launch date of an M16 derivative would provide Engineers with invaluable data for the new engine.
There is also the matter of engine choice: the M-Series was the only 800 power unit that was built in the UK (and, therefore, volumes could be controlled by management), whereas the V6 and Turbodiesel units were bought in (Honda and VM respectively), and this allowed for fewer complications in relation to product development in addition to production and supply.
So, what was Rover Special Products thinking?
According to one source, the Rover project was handed to Rover Special Products (RSP). This team, set-up by Kevin Morley, was engineered as a team to develop low-volume, high speciality cars without effecting the development of the more mainstream models. It was a clever arrangement, and a fertile one, too. Aside from the MG RV8, (as well as the earliest stages of MGF development) RSP also turned its hand to the matter of preparing a production version of the Mini Cooper, which saw the light of day in 1990.
However, according to another source, this process would not have been so clear cut: ‘…there were a certain amount of politics around the RSP idea – of course the ‘regular’ guys took it as a bit of an insult if RSP claimed to be able to fast-track a product.’
In fact, this situation was put into perspective by one manager involved in the 800 programme: ‘The car was NOT developed by RSP but by a team from the mainstream vehicle line and Powertrain.’ RSP’s involvement could possibly be explained by this statement by an insider: ‘…the organisation was more about project management,’ and although RSP did have some dedicated facilities, ‘it relied on other departments to do the work!’
A quick development programme
However much RSP was involved in the project, it rapidly took shape: the plan was to turbocharge the existing 820i engine (which already put out a healthy 140hp) and produce a limited-run performance variation for the range, one that would complement the existing 2.7-litre Vitesse model. Interestingly, the Vitesse version of the Rover 800 (R17) was intended to be a turbocharged version of the upcoming T16 engine, allowing the V6 models to take their rightful place at the luxury end of the 800 range.
There may be some question as to who dealt with the engineering of the new car, but the styling was something else. In order to differentiate the new car from its more humble brethren, it was decided to adopt some of the Canley-designed Roversport bodykit (strips and sill mouldings; the biggest parts of the bodykit were the front and rear bumpers, which were not used). Many of these extras were available to any Rover 800 owner as dealer fit options, but there were detail differences.
‘The bodykit was very limited; it was only body-colour for the complete front and rear bumpers, including the add-on subternasal spoiler that was normally black. Plus, sill mouldings and the grooved side rubbing strips from the regular 800 bodykit. Plus blacked-in air intake and those lovely Roversport five-spoke 16-inch alloys,’ is how one member of the Marketing Department described it…
Getting 180hp from 2.0 litres
However, the turbocharged 800 needed to have its power capped: it is believed that marketing had a say in the final power output of the M16 Turbo: ‘The request from marketing was to not hinder V6 sales therefore the performance should be similar to the 2.7-litre Honda V6, hence the performance was limited to 180bhp deliberately.’
This view, provided by Engineering, was also backed up by Marketing: ‘There may have been an element of not spoiling the party for the V6 by keeping the power down, but there was also, very definitely, a torque restraint at that stage, and it needed the Torsen differential to help with minimising torque steer if the power went above 180bhp.’
The turbocharger installation, posed many interesting questions: ‘This was to some extent a dry run for the engine/transmission package for the forthcoming R17 Vitesse. The Engineers had to set the boost ‘cut-off’ at 180bhp because they did not have the uprated PG1 gearbox and Torsen differential at their disposal. If the power curve had not been truncated by the electronics, it could have gone stratospheric; probably 250-300bhp.’
Very interesting, through a Rover 800 chassis, for sure, but there would have been lasting implications: ‘The torque would have just lunched the gearbox. Even with the uprated box (in the later Vitesse Sport model), they still had to saw the mountain off at 200bhp.’
Tickford steps in
Once the package was defined and developed, Tickford was commissioned simply to process the final detail development and carry out low-volume component build. It echoed an earlier collaborative agreement between the two companies with the MG Maestro Turbo, although in this case, final assembly took took place in Cowley.
The marketing people knew that the 820 Turbo 16V was going to be a short run special, as the existence of the R17 was well-known. Launch date was 26 March 1991, with the R17 following that autumn. Marketing was encouraged to play up the Tickford connection.
One insider said: ‘There was an eight-sheet marketing brief, dated 18 March 1991, which gives some interesting background. It actually talks about publicly exploiting the sporting association of Tickford, and the press release which followed says: “The development of the turbo installation was carried out for Rover under contract by Tickford”.’
The on-the-road price in both body styles was £23,950. That compared with the 827 Vitesse, which weighed in at £27,995. It was offered in a choice of six exterior colours: Black, Flame Red, White Diamond, Quicksilver metallic, Caribbean Blue pearlescent and Nightfire Red pearlescent.
As well as the turbo installation being unique to this car, the engine management system was too. Martin Haggett, a former Rover Group Development Engineer recalled: ‘I should say something about the engine management, unlike the T16 engine in the R17, which had the in-house MEMS engine controller, the earlier M16 in XX had Lucas fuel and ignition controllers.
‘But to achieve the ignition timing settings that they needed Tickford fitted the Rover-designed ERIC (Electronically Regulated Ignition and Carburetion) from the 1989 Montego in place of the AB17 unit that had been used on naturally aspirated M16 engines. The fuel ECU was a four-cylinder version of the 14CUX that was used on the Land Rover V8 for many years.’
Driving a development version proved interesting for Martin. He said: ‘I was working in the Engine Management Systems Department at Gaydon in the early 1990s and my particular XX Turbo was a white saloon with black leather seats and, of course, the standard body kit, all of which meant it was christened the pimpmobile. I preferred the spacing of the gear ratios to those of the later R17 turbos and, in my opinion, the XX had the better ride and handling balance.
‘The car was mostly trouble-free, the turbo outlet to downpipe fixings tended to work loose, but were easily tightened once you knew this, the throttle potentiometer worked loose on the way back from the Belgian Grand Prix and there were some cold drivability glitches. I guess this was the penalty for having the project delivered in time to be part of the run out strategy for the XX. I always understood that the reason for contracting the project to Tickford was that mainstream Engineering’s normal development timeframe didn’t fit with Sales and Marketing’s needs.’
In the end, 563 examples were built, of which, many ended up in the hands of BAe executives (BAe/Rover company cars being the biggest source of UK Rover 800 registrations at the time), and, sadly, only a handful survive today.
Rover 820 Turbo 16V specifications
- Garrett T25 turbo (with different ratios to standard 200/400/600/800 T16 turbos)
- Sodium-filled exhaust valves
- Large diameter downpipe/elbow
- Front mount oil cooler
- Lower compression pistons over standard M16
- Different size top ring
- Different inlet cam
- ‘Tickford Turbo’ on ECU under seat
- Socketed EEPROM for fueling map
- Lucas hotwire injection/ignition system (twin ECU, 1 fuel, 1 ignition) not MEMS
- V6 front brakes (285mm front discs)
- Early ABS (four-way fully independent, not three-way as on later 800s/200s/400s)
- Higher pressure fuel pump (5.5bar output, reg’d to 3.0-3.2bar, delivery rate 120litres/hour) than T16 turbo setup (4.3bar output reg’d to 2.8 to 3.2 bar, 73litres/hour) lower boost than T16 turbo (0.34bar regulated)
- Non-sequential injection, no cam sensor compared to T16
- Shorter steering rack (2.97 turns to lock, same as Mk2 turbos according to Haynes, better than 3.12 non-turbo models)
With thanks to the usual suspects and Scott Woodcock for helping with this article