The Rover 800 development story tells an interesting tale. It relates to how the first-generation 800 emerged as the result of an ambitious programme to produce new Rover- and Honda-badged executive cars…
However, the Japanese and British teams disagreed in so many areas that very little ended up being shared between the two cars in the end, thus re-shaping future projects.
Rover 800: Honda saves the day
The Rover SD1 was undoubtedly the finest car to emerge from BL during those dark years of the 1970s but, along the way, it had suffered from certain problems which had eroded the appeal of the car as a whole. As explained in the Rover SD1 story, it never really fulfilled its potential on the market, failing to sell in the numbers that the highly-regarded Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 had done during the 1960s and ’70s.
BL had surrendered a large proportion of its executive-class market share to the products of up-market importers such as BMW and Volvo, as well as mass-produced rivals such as the Ford Granada and Vauxhall Carlton. This loss of share was an inevitable side effect of the failing fortunes of the corporation as a whole but, despite these troubles, the reputation of the SD1 as a car was still good with potential customers.
Rover SD1 replacement: first thoughts
Of course by 1979, when the issue of producing a replacement for the car raised its head, the image of the Rover SD1 was at its lowest point and, because of this, the new car was seen as an essential ingredient of the future corporate plan. In the last days of the JRT division, Rover-Triumph produced a corporate plan that pointed to a replacement for the SD1, codenamed the Rover Bravo.
Because of the budgetary squeeze that BL was enduring at the time, the initial plans drawn up for the Bravo were based on a comprehensive re-skin of the Rover SD1, offering both four and five-door packages, and an engine range that encompassed the 2-litre O-series engine, 2.6-litre PE146/166 straight-six and the venerable 3.5-litre Rover V8. When BL Cars was reshuffled in 1980, following the disbanding of JRT – the Light-Medium division revised this plan accordingly. BL Cars produced a list of upcoming cars for their revised product plan; all referred to as the LM range of cars.
Beyond the well-known LM10 and LM11 development programmes, and more mysteriously for BL watchers, there were models that were referred to in the corporate plan as the LM12, LM14 and LM15 – the company touted these as the cars that would be making up the rest of the future model range. The make-up of these cars would change from year to year but, essentially, the LM12 was to be a coupé version of the LM10/LM11, the LM14 was mocked-up as a hatchback version of the Montego (full-sized, in a similar vein to the later Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier) and the LM15 was to be a full-size executive car to replace the Rover SD1.
From Bravo to LM15 – the plan crystallises
Unlike the Rover Bravo, which was a re-skin of the SD1, the LM15 was based on the LM11 Montego, stretched in size accordingly. This plan made a certain degree of sense when viewed in the context of the current opposition, but planners and designers within BL knew that a new wave of executive cars from the company’s rivals were on the horizon.
How much of an advance over the current crop these cars would prove to be was some something that designers such as Gordon Sked were very interested to find out. In September 1981, Sked attended the Frankfurt Motor Show, a task that, as a Senior Designer within BL, he would be expected to undertake, but he was actually there on a fact-finding mission.
Gordon Sked was in Frankfurt to get a feel for what the company’s rivals would be introducing onto the marketplace over the next year or so. As Gordon Sked observed in 1986, the class of ‘81 was, ‘a little aged and due for replacement, so our knowledge of what might be coming was the key.’
An aerodynamic future in design
Sked came back from Frankfurt having seen the Ford Probe III, as well as the Opel Tech-1 and it was very obvious to him that, from the look of these concept cars, the Europeans would be moving towards a more aerodynamic body style. This was only part of the story: the recently launched mark two BMW 5 Series demonstrated that mechanical and electronic sophistication were already moving forwards in leaps and bounds.
Quite rightly, the company knew at this early stage of LM15 development that a re-body of the upcoming Montego would not be enough to produce a car that would be able to compete effectively against what was in the pipeline from the company’s rivals. Ray Horrocks and Mark Snowdon soon surmised that the only way that Austin Rover would be able to develop a more sophisticated car was with help from Honda, who possessed the resources and ambition to produce an entirely new large car.
Discussions with Honda, therefore, started following the Frankfurt expedition in September and, along with the licence-built Ballade arrangement; the matter of executive cars was discussed. Snowdon found that Honda were not only highly accommodating, but very keen to collaborate with Austin Rover because at the time Honda’s largest engined car in export markets was the 1602cc Accord model and they wanted to expand their presence in the USA, a country that loves the big car.
Three stages of Rover 800 (XX) design
Japan and Britain unite
Discussions became more serious, intentions became firm plans and, as a result, in November 1981, the Austin Rover-Honda XX letter of intent was signed between the two companies. However, the Austin Rover design team had not waited for the green light: they had already started work on executive car concepts following their first meeting with Honda in September and their thoughts turned to more aerodynamic solutions.
This sentiment is reflected in Roy Axe’s statement that, ‘the question was whether we wanted to jump into that pot, steer clear of it, or take account of it; in the end, we decided to take account of it.’ The Director of Design’s reasoning was soon put into action when the design team at the new Axe studios at Canley started to draw their concepts for the new car.
So, Austin Rover’s intention was for the design to reflect aerodynamic thinking but, at the same time, given the high regard the SD1 was still held in, any new car produced by the Canley team should bear more than a passing resemblance to its progenitor. The XX external designer Gordon Sked was quite vocal in his admiration for David Bache’s design. At the launch of the new car in July 1986, he opined, ‘Looks have never been a problem for the SD1. Even after 10 years, it is still quite a handsome car, beautifully proportioned.’
Combining new-world aero with SD1 impact
So, a look was conceived and, by July 1982, the Canley Design Studio had produced their first full-sized clay model. The first XX clay model produced was recognisably a Rover 800, carrying styling themes that would make it through to production, such as the top/bottom contrasting colour scheme and blackened A, B and C-posts, which gave the car the appearance of having an uninterrupted glasshouse and its floating roof.
Despite the proclamation made by Roy Axe that the new car would not be a slave to aerodynamics, the first incarnation of the XX was a rather characterless looking aero car with its smooth, featureless barrel shaped flanks and partially covered rear wheels. It did, however, attain an excellent aerodynamic performance when tested at the MIRA wind tunnel, achieving a co-efficient of drag measured at Cd 0.27.
Elements of the SD1 were added to the initial XX design to give the basic shape rather more character – and these can be seen in the swage lines along the flanks (treated in a rather fussier way than on the SD1), the ribbed rear lamp lenses and the long, slim headlamps which bracketed a droop-snooted, grille-less nose. Roy Axe was also quite determined to ensure that the style of the XX could be transferred onto future Rovers as he believed that, in order for a model range to be successful, there needed to be an element of a family look.
Losing the fastback and going saloon
One surprising decision taken very early in the design stages was that unlike the Rover SD1, the new car would be a three-box saloon, rather than a hatchback. It may have seemed that this was an illogical decision for the company to take but, given that the XX was designed very much with a wider range of export markets than the SD1, it was felt that the more traditional layout was a more prestigious option especially in image conscious markets, such as Germany and the USA, where Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz ruled the roost.
The need to share a platform with Honda also led to some design compromises and the main one that Austin Rover Engineers wished that they had not been saddled with was the need to build the car within a width stipulated by the Japanese.
One major contribution to the feeling of space in any car is the width of its passenger cabin and, because Japanese taxation laws demanded a narrower car, Austin Rover fought a losing battle with Honda to make the new car more commodious than the SD1. This initial difference of opinion between the two companies did make Austin Rover’s interior stylists shift their focus and re-examine the ambience of the interior – and the end result is one of this controversial car’s greatest assets.
Anglo-Japanese collaboration – a quick start
Collaborative work between the Japanese and British engineering teams was soon underway and although the Japanese were taken aback by the fact that the British team had already produced a model in time for their first meeting, it did not sour relations between the two companies. Soon XX and HX (the codename for the Japanese version of the car) models were being prepared side by side at Canley and an excellent working relationship was soon struck up between both parties.
This did not stop Honda exerting pressure on Austin Rover to fill out the sides of the new car because the XX and HX would have to share chassis pick-up points. The Japanese felt that the Citroënesque tapering plan view that was so good aerodynamically (and subsequently would appear on the Mercedes-Benz 190) did not give the car enough road presence and so, the new Rover would have its dimensions subtlely altered.
Variance on styling was inevitable but, whereas the initial agreement of November 1981 stipulated that the two cars would only have unique styling in the areas of front and rear overhangs, the actuality was that both Honda and Austin Rover found this to be an unworkable arrangement and, because of this, entirely unique HX and XX styling proposals soon evolved – which happily left Rover and Honda with their own, very different cars.
Project XX takes shape rapidly
Because Honda had no interest in producing a four-cylinder HX, structural differences between the two cars also soon became apparent; whereas Austin Rover felt a that a 2.0-litre version of the XX was essential to the cars success in the UK and Europe, its body needed to be engineered in order to accept the Roland Bertodo-designed M-Series engine as well as the Honda-built 2.5-litre V6 engine, thus adding further complication.
In terms of XX engines and because the V8 used in the Rover SD1 was so deeply unfashionable at the time, no real thought was put into employing this engine in the XX, which is a shame, given the less than suitable power and torque characteristics of the Honda V6 used in XX when it eventually appeared.
By November 1982, the next version of the XX (referred to as DEV 2) was produced as a full-sized glass fibre and clay styling buck. BL management flew this model out to Japan for evaluation by both companies’ top brass and, although Axe and Sked were both happy with the detailing of the car, they still felt unhappy about the overall proportioning of the car. Both men agreed that further work was required and as Sked put it, DEV 2 looked, ‘a bit too soft, its size perception was worrying us slightly.’ The goal posts moved quickly and it did not take long for DEV 3, the final version of the XX, to appear some six months later.
Honda and Rover begin to diverge
Both teams were now designing pretty much their own cars, but the continued to work together – and Honda did benefit from the arrangement in much the same way that Austin Rover did. The HX was by far the largest car the company had ever designed and the company benefited immensely from BL’s body engineering expertise.
This meant that both companies did gain a lot from the whole programme, a fact that sometimes BL watchers did not always fully acknowledge, when discussing Honda. Because the two cars were in danger of becoming too far diverged from each other, the design and engineering of both cars were once again brought closer together at Canley during January 1983 in order to strictly maintain commonality in the two programmes.
This step did bear fruit and, although both teams felt that their engineering teams’ creative impulses were being reined in, it did mean that what was left of the programme would be conducted as a strictly joint venture.
Last-minute dimension changes work for Rover
One benefit of this change in tack was that when news from Japan was received that the dimensions of the Honda V6 differed to those that had been originally forwarded to the XX and HX teams, both Honda and Austin Rover Engineers could move quickly by working together to rectify the situation. The newly-sized V6 would force a 9mm increase in the wheel track dimensions of both cars and it was Gordon Sked who took this set-back on board and turned it into an advantage by putting back some of the barrel sidedness of the original DEV 1 prototype.
Honda, on the other hand, took the easy way out and simply added wheel arch blisters reminiscent of those on the Audi URquattro to the existing body – hardly a fitting appendage for an executive car! Either way, Honda held their hands up for this uncommon error, and financially compensated Austin Rover for the trouble they had caused the British company. Be that as it may, Honda allegedly used the situation to their advantage according to one insider: ‘But I was told that they took advantage of their foreknowledge to pull the HX launch well ahead of XX.’
Of very real interest, however, was the four-cylinder engine being developed by Austin Rover, because it used the rather unimpressive O-Series unit as its starting point. Unlike the SD1, which relied on a range of physically large, torquey engines, the XX would make do with a highly-tuned version of an in-line 4-cylinder engine developed in two states of tune to replace those used in the Rover 2300 and 2600 models. Austin Rover would rely on Honda to produce a top of the range engine befitting of the task of replacing the much-loved V8 in the Rover 3500 – initially Honda failed in that task.
Rover 800: new engines
Roland Bertodo tasked with producing new versions of the O-Series engine – the higher-powered version of the two would need to be able to extract at least 70bhp per litre (to put that into perspective, the standard O-Series engine managed 46bhp/litre). This was an extraordinarily tall order for his team to meet, given the fact that the O-Series engine in single carburettor 2.0-litre form delivered 93bhp at 4900rpm.
Given that these objectives were tough enough to meet, there was also the ongoing issue of emissions regulations and how the new engines would be designed to meet them. This required the new engine to be of lean-burn configuration in order to meet upcoming emission regulations, whilst still being able to produce enough power and torque to propel this large bodied saloon in an effortless way demanded by executive car buyers.
Needless to say, Bertodo realised that his team needed to design a twin-cam 16-valve cylinder head for the engine and also do away with carburettor induction, replacing it with fuel injection in both versions of the engine. In order to meet power, economy and mixture expectations, particular attention was paid to the design of the combustion chambers – and here, Bertodo went back to the future, borrowing the design of the 1973 Triumph Dolomite Sprint.
Back to the future – Sprint tech for the 1980s
According to Bertodo, ‘Triumph people stumbled on the fact that it (the pent-roof combustion chamber design) gave very good economy, but they didn’t quite know why. We sat down at BL technology and devised flow rigs…. to discover why it was the best chamber. It gave the best combination of power, economy and low emission under lean burn conditions.’ So, whether traditionalists liked the Rover 800 or not, Spen King had his hand in at least one aspect of its design. The lower-powered 2.0-litre engine called the M16e (and M16i in 138bhp form) was also unusual in being offered with single-point fuel injection, which was a real rarity back in 1986.
This system effectively worked as an electronic carburettor, the fuel injector being mounted on the throttle body, which meant that a single injector, electronically controlled could be used to fuel all four cylinders. In this form, the engine still developed a healthy 118bhp at 5600rpm. Actually, the M16 engine was quite a remarkable achievement, given the humble starting point and less than generous development budget given to the team.
This is especially apparent when compared to the original Honda V6 engine, which was also supplied in two states of tune, but tellingly it was the engine’s torque figures which gave the game away: 163lb ft at 4000rpm for the automatic version and 160lb ft at a scarcely believable 5000rpm for the manual version. The engine itself was sweet and smooth but, unlike the V8-powered Rover 3500, which could double as a tree stump puller, the V6 versions of the XX would need to be revved in a most un-executive way to extract serious performance from. Rover and Honda were well aware of the deficiencies of this engine before it even reached production and worked feverishly on improving it, but the sales appeal of the V6 Rovers was certainly compromised by this initial version.
New chassis and suspension set-up
In terms of chassis configuration, Austin Rover and Honda were miles apart in what they thought was needed in order to produce a worthy chassis. Honda were lifelong advocates of the double wishbone school of suspension design, whereas Austin Rover wanted to cook up something more conventional, in order to free up much needed interior space.
However, Honda won this argument, but there was a certain amount of animated discussion involved in reaching this decision. Verdon Morris was Austin Rover’s Head of Chassis Engineering at the time and oversaw the troubled chassis development of the XX and his take on the situation was this: ‘Certain meetings of minds were necessary to accommodate the compromises each company had to make to agree on the design of an executive car. Honda wanted technical excellence only, but Austin Rover wanted a good interior package as well.’
Because of Honda’s insistence that the car would have a low scuttle which led to a low bonnet line, traditional McPherson struts would not fit, so a complex and expensive double wishbone arrangement was settled on, but in true Honda tradition, there was only a limited amount of wheel travel available.
Compromised ride quality
Because of this, as far as Austin Rover were concerned, ride quality was compromised from the beginning and, as a result, this aspect of the car was at variance to how it might have been, had the British designed it. As it was, careful development of this layout by Rover did pay dividends and, although this so-called collaborative deal ended up being more of a meeting of minds than anyone may have expected back in November 1981, the end result was certainly an improvement over the traditional layout of the SD1.
Once the main development of the car was completed, the decision was made to develop a hatchback version of the car – and, because Gordon Sked’s design possessed a low and flat beltline, the conversion to this format would prove to be a rather straightforward process.
Marketing the car would prove to be a more sensitive issue, being juggled repeatedly by the marketing department after the appointment of Graham Day in May 1986. However, the five-door version would not prove to be the only variation of the XX: unlike the SD1 before it, the new executive car was created very much with the US market in mind and because extensive market research undertaken in the run up to the US launch of the car unearthed the fact that the Americans wanted a Personal version of the car – in other words, a two door coupé – the design team at Canley started work on such a car.
The first fruits of this labour would be shown to the world in April 1986, with the unveiling of the Rover CCV (Coupé Concept Vehicle, above), which acted as a showcase for the talents of the Austin Rover design team. The car dropped less than subtle hints to the world’s press about the upcoming new Rover and also demonstrated that the company was seriously evaluating the idea of producing a new, big coupé.
The Canley design team, headed by Roy Axe, had also successfully produced a car that managed to make the automotive community as a whole, sit up and take notice of the company. Much was made of the fact that if the car gained a favourable reception, it would be put into limited production – in truth, that decision had already been made, the existence of the car being used as a carrot with which to lure American dealers to join the ARCONA (Austin Rover Cars Of North America) dealer network.
Rover 800: Cowley’s brave new world
On 15 September 1985, Austin Rover Managing Director Harold Musgrove discussed Project XX at the Frankfurt Motor Show. ‘This car will challenge the best Germany has to offer — clinic results in Europe and North America have been emphatic in that opinion. We have to tailor our cars to suit individual export markets. In the case of Germany, that has meant spending considerable time and resources on meeting the emission regulations — whether we approve of them or not.
‘But our range of compliant cars benefit both the consumer and the environment. But we have other advantages. Austin Rover products are not dependent upon the availability of lead-free fuel – essential if a catalyst is fitted – at present stocked by just about 10 per cent of the fuel stations in Germany and difficult to obtain elsewhere, so that, in effect, catalysts are placing travel restrictions on one of the most outwardly mobile populations in Continental Europe.
‘Catalysts are expensive to buy and maintain and their fitment inevitably means loss of fuel efficiency. It true that with current technology, catalysts will be required to meet the low emission levels for large cars but, in the longer term, Austin Rover is developing new lean-burn technology which will result in significant advances in emission performance and fuel efficiency.’
Why Honda launched before Rover
In October Mark Snowdon, Austin Rover’s Managing Director of Product Development, commented on why the similar Honda legend was announced earlier: ‘In their working with suppliers and their provision of prototype material, Honda were somewhat quicker, and gained a little ground.
‘Then came a need to make some design modifications at a fairly late stage – nothing unusual – but this resulted in a small delay. We also have a wider model range and we want to put a good part of it into the market place at once. Which leads me to the fourth and by far the most significant factor – a different way of launching cars.
‘This is not just a difference between Honda and ourselves but one between Japan and Europe. In Japan, it is common to announce a car not only before dealers have received stocks but before the press has seen it and even before production has begun. In Europe, the normal method is somewhat different and we shall stick to our usual approach of full dealer and press previews and establishing a good stock of cars in dealers hands before launch day.’
Poor sales for Austin Rover in 1985
The run up to the launch of the new car was traumatic, to say the least. 1986 had begun with the release of the overall UK sales figures for 1985 and it made grim reading for BL. 1985 Was the first full year all Austin Rover’s new generation of family cars, Metro, Maestro and Montego had all been on sale, the culmination of Sir Michael Edwardes’ recovery plan – except there was no recovery to be seen despite all the taxpayers’ money injected into BL. In an expanding market, BL achieved a miserable 17 per cent share, only narrowly ahead of Vauxhall and its impressive new range of front-wheel-drive cars.
The Metro was starting to fade saleswise against the revised five-speed Ford Fiesta, and the Maestro and Montego were actually selling less than the cars they replaced at the start of their production lives, the Allegro and Marina. In short, 1985 had been a disaster for BL, and the bad news continued into the following year.
By February 1986 it was revealed that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Government was trying to sell Land Rover to General Motors and Austin Rover to Ford which resulted in an almighty political furore and there was a quick climbdown. This was the time of the Westland Affair when two cabinet ministers resigned, and the Government was accused of backing American big business against the national interest.
Losses for Austin Rover compound misery in the Midlands
In April, it was revealed that BL had lost £39.5m over the preceding financial year, Austin Rover alone lost £6m compared to £26m in 1984. This was little comfort to the Government which was determined to privatise the huge car, bus and lorry making company. However, the Directors claimed that their operating losses were still ‘significantly’ better than the year before, when BL lost £66.5m. Sales were up 14 per cent worldwide — 479,500 vehicles a year.
Austin Rover’s accumulated losses had now reached £966m since the Government stepped in to save the company in 1974. The Government’s frustration with BL came to a head on 1 May 1986 when it fired the Chairman, Sir Austin Bide, and the Chief Executive Officer, Ray Horrocks, and appointed Canadian Graham Day as Chairman. On 8 July 1986, the Board of BL decided to change the name of the combine to Rover Group PLC, the name of its prestige marque, although Rover saloons were no longer made at the old Rover company’s plant at Solihull, but at the Morris Motors factory at Cowley.
Back to the Rover 800: In an extravagant pre-launch promotional campaign, unmatched in recent memory, Austin Rover flew some 3500 dealers, fleet buyers and their wives, along with journalists to Switzerland to test drive the fuel-injected cars in the Alps for a weekend. In addition, police chiefs throughout Britain were flown to Switzerland to test drive the car, and 60 Members of Parliament and hundreds of foreign journalists were flown to scenic Northumberland, England, to try the car.
The Rover 800 is finally launched
On 10 July 1986, the Rover 800 was finally launched to the public. The importance of the new car was not lost on senior Austin Rover executives. Ashley Farmer, commented at the time: ‘In 1980, the launch of the Metro signalled this companies recovery. It was a car for survival. Today, the Rover 800 is equally important.’ Harold Musgrove repeated the corporate mantra: ‘I cannot over-emphasize just how important this car is, not only to the company but to the country. Where the Metro was the car for our survival, the Rover 800 is the car for our future prosperity.’
On launch day The Guardian published this: ‘A tour round the Rover 800/Legend production facilities reveals an environment more reminiscent of the slightly antiseptic Japanese car plant than of the dark and forbidding British car production dungeons of yore.
‘Television screens and notice boards punctuate the brightly whitewashed factories; relaxation and smoking areas, with gaudy plastic chairs and tables abound ; hissing robots are more evident than snarling shop stewards. But says Andy Barr, Austin Rover production director, the changes which the group has brought into play for the Rover 800 production have not been drawn directly from Japan.
‘Nor indeed, insists Barr have they been employed because of the pressures of the Honda collaborative venture. Rather Austin Rover has implemented a wide ranging series of environmental training and participation schemes whose broad objectives are improvements in quality and productivity, to allow the group to meet international competitive challenges from a stronger position. Its new practices will not be confined to the Rover 800 tracks but will be spread throughout the groups plants. Barr admits, however, that the instigation of the Rover 800 with its new assembly line provided the group with an ideal opportunity to install new techniques.’
Andy Barr – Production Director – on the Rover 800
‘We did not just lift a stack of practices directly from Honda or Datsun,’ Barr explained. Instead, he and fellow Austin Rover executives embarked on a world-wide series of visits, studying the methods of West German and US car manufacturers as well as Japanese, to evolve their own system of improved working practices. “One thing we wanted to do was to change employees attitudes so that their aspirations became the same as the company’s,” Barr says.
‘The most positive of the methods they sifted from other car manufacturers were presented to the management consultancy firm, PA to write up and produce as a working programme. Training, of course, was an early area for treatment and workers on the Rover 800 line have undergone a three week training programme, many times more extensive than ever previously attempted within the group. The efficacy of the training programme, while still to be judged in qualitative terms, has already proved its worth at more than one level as far as worker involvement is concerned.
‘When we transferred some extra workers onto the 800 line, the people already there complained bitterly,’ Barr related with some satisfaction. They haven’t been trained, they said, they aren’t competent enough to do the 800.’
Video: Rover 800 introduction and development
Cowley and the 800 – up-to date production
Andy Barr had another recent tale to illustrate the changing workforce attitudes on the Rover 800 assembly lines: a large group of component suppliers visited Cowley the other week for the mandatory tour of the new robotised lines. ‘The difference was,’ says Barr, ‘that this time workers were rushing up to the suppliers and eagerly asking them what they thought of the new car, whether they liked it – I’ve never seen such a change in attitude.’
‘This change of mood is central in the light of the intensified Japanese relationship. The Japanese executives who will be much in evidence when Legend production comes on regular stream will expect to talk to the Cowley workforce as they are able to in Tokyo, and overcome, in some instances, a lack of linguistic commonality. Applicants for jobs at Austin Rover are now invited to undertake a two-day assessment course, over a weekend, in company with their families.
‘It’s not just that we weed people out and decide whether we want to employ them,’ Barr explained. ‘It’s important that the whole family gets involved in the decision and decides whether they want to work with us. We’re not pretending to be taking on the Japanese employment for life concept although at Cowley, maybe by default, we have a surprising number of fathers and sons employee situations.’
Rover 800: What the papers said
As with the Rover 3500 before it in 1976, the existence of this car was widely known about in the media – apart from anything else, the XX had been referred to in corporate plans since 1982 and was often mentioned in the running battles that Austin Rover management had to endure during their frequent visits to the Parliamentary Select Committees concerning company finances.
The configuration of the car was also familiar following the press launch of the HX, or Honda Legend as it was called, in December 1985. Because of much speculative reporting in the media (many of these leaks being from semi-official sources), even the shape of the car came as little surprise.
Some journalists did pour scorn on the new car, but they were notably in the minority – CAR Magazine was one such organ that reported its disappointment with the new car, announcing it as the, ‘Bland Rover’. It did guardedly praise the car for its British engines, but had this to say of the V6 models. ‘On the evidence of drives of the 800… Honda’s biggest contribution to the 800 – the engine – seems to be a poor one. The new 2.5-litre V6, despite technical novelties is woefully short of mid-range torque, making it an ill-bred engine for executive car use.’ That did not stop the magazine criticising the M16-engined versions, too. ‘The twin problems with the M16, in its more powerful multi-point injection guise, are that it’s not particularly refined, nor is it especially lively.’
CAR Magazine on the 800: ‘Bland Rover’
CAR Magazine continued: ‘As with the 2.5-litre V6, it’s short of mid-range pulling power, so must be revved hard to deliver real urge. Maximum torque comes in at an absurdly high 4500rpm, but above 4000rpm the M16 does provide reasonable performance.’
It has to be said that the M16 engine reflected the sea change in engine design that swept through the industry, starting in the 1980s and continuing through the ’90s – the advanced M16 having precipitated a whole scale industry move to the 16-valve/twin-camshaft formula. Rover simply anticipated this trend for cleaner, more powerful, more economical engines: by the mid-’90s, just about every petrol-powered executive saloon was powered by a multi-valve 2.0-litre.
Handling and ride also received mixed reviews from CAR: ‘At low speed the ride – although good – also leaves something to be desired. It’s firm, and won’t soak up holes that, say, a Granada would take in its stride. Overall, the underdamping comes as a surprising failure, considering the chassis excellence of ARG’s Montego and Maestro.’ Austin Rover claimed at the time that there was much British involvement in the suspension design, but the shortcomings of the Rover 800 demonstrated that, in this respect, they had been led by Honda – and were left to tune their design.
It wasn’t all negative, though
If CAR Magazine appeared to be rather unmoved by the new car, the rather pro-BL Motor magazine reflected on the new car’s undoubted strengths. After testing the Sterling model and putting it up against class rivals, it summed the new car up rather positively. ‘We can be forgiven for viewing the BMW and Mercedes as ambitious targets for the Sterling but in this company the 5 Series is an endearing but ageing machine.
‘The Mercedes does too many things well to be a pushover for the Rover, but simply to trail the three-pointed star is a superb achievement… As it is, the newcomer has done everything expected of it and more.’ If this counted as a qualified recommendation, their summation of the 820Si highlighted Rover’s folly in pushing the Sterling model as hard as it did at the start of its life. ‘On the roads of Northumberland, the 16-valve Rover won us over conclusively. We can’t think of a better 2.0-litre executive car.’
Rover 800 soon becomes a best seller
Despite these mixed press reviews, the Rover 800 was generally greeted with enthusiasm from the press and public, but soon the launch of the car was soured by the fact that, just like with the Rover 3500 during 1976, people who actually wanted to buy the new car were denied the opportunity because of limited supplies. Austin Rover had made available 1000 Rover 800s (the majority of them being Silver Sterling models) across the dealer network, but when one considers that, at the time, there were still 1400 ARG dealers in the UK, it would mean that a lot of people would go away disappointed.
Many people pointed the finger of blame for this at Austin Rover Chairman Harold Musgrove and his case was not helped in September 1986 when his division’s half year financial results were revealed. At the same period the year before, Austin Rover had made modest profit of £600,000, now it had lost £60m. On 22 September, Graham Day took decisive action. He announced that Harold Musgrove was taking early retirement.
This was a sad end to Musgrove’s career, which began as an Austin apprentice in 1945, and it was his dynamism that had galvanised the development of the Metro, but perhaps his allegedly abrasive management style had antagonised the workforce and led to fractious industrial relations, particularly at Cowley in 1983/85. Also looking for new employment was Mark Snowdon, Austin Rover’s Managing Director of Product Development, and one of the architects of the BL/Honda link and by definition the Rover 800.
A flawed launch, though
Also, the initial range comprised of just two cars, the Rover Sterling and the Rover 825i – the notable absentees from this list were the M16-powered cars that would not become generally available until later that year. There was a genuine reason for the delay in the lower-powered model: it was just an unfortunate victim of last minute changes that had to be effected in order to avoid fouling homologation ruling. This was a shame because the Rover 800 was an exceptionally promising car – and any setback could prove difficult to overcome later in the life of the car.
As it was, the 820 versions arrived on the scene some months later and the range began to look rather viable. Trouble was afoot though – and it came in the form of the one-time bedfellow: Jaguar.
Because Rover had launched the V6-powered 825 versions first, the marketing emphasis was placed with a certain lack of subtlety right at the top of the range, at the expense of the bread and butter models. When Jaguar launched the new XJ6 in October 1986, they very cannily marketed their car as a range of models and made great play of the fact that their entry-level Jaguar XJ6, the 2.9-litre version cost significantly less money than the new Rover Sterling.
In the minds of buyers, the new Rover 800 was the high-profile Sterling model – and that meant a luxury leather-lined £20,000 car! Rover had gaffed – and, although the astute marketing men employed by the re-focussed company headed by Graham Day quickly rectified this situation, it was a situation that did take time to put right in the minds of buyers.
Poor supply hampers sales; strikes on the wane
David Benson, writing in the Daily Express on 26 September, took an alternate slant to the poor availability of the Rover 800: ‘And things are looking up on the productivity front. As Chairman Graham Day says, industrial relations performance has been excellent across the Rover Group, with 99.8% of working time dispute-free. The factories at Longbridge and Cowley are now among the most modern in the world and are turning out cars equal in quality to any in the world. Productivity in these plants compares with the best in Europe.
The problem of quality has, however, contributed to some of the disaster in the Austin Rover division this year. The long-awaited Rover 800 range was brought in nine months late. It has achieved a production rate of only 500 per week, although the factory has a capacity for 1500 a week. It was also deliberately overpriced at its launch in July, to depress sales until the line got up to capacity.’
Elsewhere in the same issue, Paul Potts was more vitriolic on BL/Rover’s prospects: ‘When Mrs Thatcher test drove the new Rover in Downing Street, she was impressed by the car’s design, smooth handling and comfort — but not by the price. The Prime Minister later told friends that, much as she liked the blue Rover, it was too expensive for her and her husband Denis.
‘So if the millionaire Thatcher family is not prepared to cough up £19,000 for a top-of-the-range car on which the Rover Group is building its future, who will? The question was being asked more urgently yesterday after the latest Rover Group horror story unfolded before the company’s main investors — the taxpayers.’
Austin Rover’s finances: still perilous
‘At first glance, the £70m half-year operating losses appear just another poor year for the nation’s number one albatross. But the truth is that Britain’s last remaining motor company is broke, totally dependent on Government cash and in real danger of complete collapse. Over the past 10 years the former British Leyland, turned Rover Group, has burned £2.3bn of taxpayers’ money. On top of that there are £1.5bn of loans underwritten by the various governments, which are again the ultimate responsibility of the taxpayer.’
It was this kind of mindset that Graham Day, now personally running Austin Rover, had to placate. On 4 October, however, there was more bad news for Rover. Just as sales of the Rover 800 were beginning to take off after a slow start, the Birmingham factory of Lucas had been unable to supply enough headlamps and rear lights due to a pay strike.
Production at the Cowley, Oxford, factory had to be halted at the moment when Austin Rover bosses were planning to introduce a night shift to boost output. By 8 October production of all Austin Rover cars was at a complete standstill and the company began to look for alternate suppliers.
Making an impression
Despite these setbacks, the ambitiously priced Rover 800 quickly became a well-established member of the executive car class, being adopted by the management and executives of the UK and Europe, alike. Production at Cowley was brisk but, because of the failure of ARCONA to establish the Sterling brand in the USA, sales of the federalised Rover 800 were modest to say the least.
Because ARCONA decided not to involve themselves in the rampant price war going on in the USA (at the behest of Graham Day) at the time, the car failed to sell – and, when reliability and quality niggles were highlighted by JD Power (famously, leather that could turn green in strong sunlight), the Sterling cars were destined for an unglamorous death in the USA.
These fortunes on the other side of the Atlantic were in sharp contrast to those in the UK, where the Rover 800 was going from strength to strength. In February 1988, the new, improved Honda V6 engine was announced, curing many of ills of its 2.5-litre predecessor.
The revised engine had been bored out to 2.7-litres and, in the process, gained a much flatter torque curve and slightly more peak power. The driving experience was transformed – and, when the fastback version of the Rover 800 was brought onto the market place shortly afterwards, a bespoilered version of the 2.7-litre fastback was given the Vitesse badge, resurrecting memories of the much-loved SD1 Vitesse.
Changing the fastback strategy
The fastback model was an interesting example of how in the brave new world of the new and streamlined Graham Day-run Rover Group, the Marketing Department was getting a fair say in deciding how model variations were being presented to the public.
In 1986, when plans for the five-door version of the 800 were in their infancy, the company had decided that this model would be sold at a lower price than the saloon, as hatchbacks were seen as a more utilitarian breed of car than the saloon. To sell this concept, they had decided that the car should receive the Rover 600 nameplate and be sold with less equipment and at a lower price.
However, following market research into the minds of potential Rover 800 buyers, Kevin Morley discovered that customers did not perceive the hatchback as being in any way inferior to the saloon – and they reacted negatively to the 600 badge. The range was re-jigged and would be marketed as the 800 Fastback, although this name would not be seen on the car itself, its badging remaining identical to the saloon model. The fastback range did sire a new entry-level model – the carburettor-fed O-Series powered, Rover 820 – a true replacement for the Rover 2000…
Slow sales in the USA
In late October 1989, it was announced that a slump in demand for Rover 800 and Sterling cars had forced the lay off of 1800 workers at the Cowley plant. Production lines stopped for three separate weeks in November, December and January. But workers would still be paid. David Benson, writing in the Daily Express, explained the reason for this: ‘The Rover 800 with the Sterling and the Fastback topping the range is a superbly engineered and styled car which should have given Rover big slice of the executive car market, particularly with fleet buyers in the UK.
‘But it hasn’t — mainly because it is perceived as costing the same as a Jaguar, even though you can buy a basic 800 for as little as £13,396. This is a problem that is slowly being overcome. But it is in North America, where there was talk of selling 30,000 cars a year, that the sales performance has been so disappointing.
‘Sadly, sales there have averaged barely 10,000 a year since its introduction two and a half years ago. Meanwhile, the Rover 800 line at Cowley has been turning out only 900 cars a week where it could produce double that. So what has gone wrong? In America, the Rover launch has been little short of a disaster. The Sterling arrived nearly a year later than its Honda-built sister, the Legend, and missed out on the end of the US boom in European executive cars. The market took a downturn which has hit everyone including Mercedes Benz, Saab, Jaguar and Volvo. As part of a new five-year plan, Rover has promised dealers in the USA that next year the 1991 models will be in dealerships in time for the main buying season.’
Conclusion: Rover 800 re-establishes the marque as an executive player
So, was the Rover 800 a failure? Patently not – for a start, more Rover 800s were produced in total than the much-lauded Rover SD1. Unlike the SD1, which always had ambitious sales targets that it failed to live up to, the Rover 800 performed reasonably well, sold in fair numbers and was generally liked by the people who would come to buy and use the car. After some initial quality problems, the 800 also proved reliable and fleet of foot. So, what went wrong? Why is it that Rover never really managed to capitalise on the early desirability of this car?
In 1988 and 1989, the Rover 800 proved to be nigh on unbeatable in its class, but because Rover made the decision to thoroughly facelift the 800 during 1988, rather than developing an entirely new car, it would appear that soon after the launch of the R17 and R18 versions of the car, it became apparent that the design was now too elderly to compete effectively with younger, fresher cars. Was this the fault of Rover? Probably not – given a free hand Rover would like to have joined Honda in developing a new car based on the 1992 Legend.
Rover, in reality, had no choice – they were given enough financial resources to very effectively facelift the original car, but as executive buyers became increasingly badge conscious, what was perceived, as a chrome-fronted XX simply would not do. And that is a real shame. Under BMW, the masters of the executive car, the replacement for the 800, which would be developed in co-operation with the Germans was surely going to be an unbridled success – wasn’t it?
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
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