All the cars I’ve owned : Rover 820 Si

In a driving career spanning more than 30 years and 250+ cars, Keith Adams highlights some of the highs… and lows.

Here, in part seven of the series, he recalls a Rover 800 bought in 2002 with super-low miles on the clock – which he let go far too cheaply.

The one that got away…

Rover 820 Si (1986)

I’ve always loved a Rover 800. And I’ve always had a thing about launch-spec models, so buying this one was a no-brainer. It was about as original as you were going to find, and probably one of the very earliest off the line.

The advert for this 1986 Rover 820 Si was forwarded to me by an understanding friend – I had a just a single telephone conversation with the vendor and asked the usual set of qualifying questions. The result was that I agreed to buy it, sight unseen for £700. That’s a familiar story in my tragically sad life of buying (and sometimes selling) cars.

When I turned up to collect the car from a posh part of Solihull, I knew that it was a good one – 37,000 miles on the clock, mint outward appearance, all the original dealer stickers and plates, and an interior that was completely unmarked. What was lovely was that the seller was a fan of AROnline (well, and had lovely things to say about it…

How good was it?

Opening the bonnet and having a poke backed up that opinion – the engine bay was bone dry (these four-cylinder M-Series engines are prone to leak), and there were no signs of a troubled existence. All the fuse covers were clean, the oil was golden, and it just looked lovely. The seller, winked and said to me, ‘I had a funny feeling you’d buy this one’ – who knew I’d be that predictable.

It’s fair to say that these early Rover 800s were far from reliable or well-built. A couple of miles down the road from picking it up, I knew this one might be a challenge – firstly, the indicators were only working intermittently, while the engine seemed incapable of running consistently. It was constantly hunting at idle, surging and flat spotting when on the move, and generally running with all the grace of a drunken giraffe.

Not to worry, by the time I’d made it home, I’d learned to drive around its issues, while totting up a lengthening mental note of things that needed doing. Mechanically, it was easy to work on, but electrically, it was a nightmare. As it happened, I did end up fixing the issues – one-by-one. Non-functioning electric windows were cured by changing the switch pack, the indicators were fixed by removal and replacing, while other random electrical issues were cured by resoldering the main relays.

The running issues were more of a trouble, and I don’t think I ever really nailed the erratic idling and cutting out – and this was in the day when my local garage wasn’t equipped to work on the 800’s MEMS system with any degree of confidence. This was also months before I hooked up with Rover-engineering genius Brian Gunn and several years before I met Mike Humble… I reckon either would have had it running as sweet as a nut without breaking a sweat.

How did it go?

As much as it might look like I’m painting a negative picture of this car, I did really, really like it – when it was running right. I did take it to a number of classic car events, where I was greeted with open arms (not bad considering it was less than 20 years old at the time). I even took it to the 2003 BMC/BL Rally in Peterborough, which was something of an improvement after taking my Audi A6 the previous year.

The steering and handling were excellent, and it always felt smaller on the road than its ample dimensions would have you believe, thanks to its (award-winning) PCF steering set-up.

The gearchange, too, was an absolute joy – and probably the nicest PG1 I had the pleasure of using. It was reasonably quick, quiet on the motorway, and my partner, who ended up using it as her daily driver (I know, I know) rarely had cause for complaint. She even nicknamed it the ‘Purple Montego’.

But off it went…

However, I never got it running right, and the constant niggles and failures gradually wore me down to such a degree that I ended up giving it to a fellow enthusiast on the proviso that if he decided to get rid of it, I’d have first refusal. Sadly, I never heard from him nor the car again. Boy, I’d love to have it now – however badly it ran!

My favourite memory is driving it to interview the man who designed it, Roy Axe. On his creation, I can’t help but smile at the memory of him saying, ‘I love the way the 800 looked, but the quality control and reliability were lousy, weren’t they?’

Yes, they were, Roy…

Rover 820 Si

Keith Adams


  1. Did you ever get it to a proper franchised dealer to have them try and identify the poor running?

    Back in the 80s I almost got suckered into having an 820 as my company car; the reliability issues were by then coming to light so I went for a 2.9 V6 Granada instead, which did 70K miles over 2 years without issue.

    A sensible choice, given that in my business-segment there was also a bit of a stigma to being seen driving the product of a nationalised industry.

  2. I loved my 1991 820si manual in BRG. Me and it spent half of the mid 90’s on the M1 together. What a car, what times, what memories.

  3. They were very underrated cars and my dad bought an 820i finished in Strata Grey as his company car in early 1988, which was a 6-month old ex-demonstrator with 7,000 miles under its belt. Over the next four years he would add a further 119,000 miles to the odometer and it proved to be a very reliable car. Even in the last week he owned it before trading it in against a 2-year-old, ex-Rover Group management 827 Sterling with the TWR body styling enhancement pack, the 820i’s M16i engine felt as if it had covered just 30,000 miles.

    The downsides of this example? Admittedly, there one or two. For starters the heater control unit needed replacing because it wouldn’t deliver cold air (my dad experienced the same problem on the 827 Sterling that replaced the 820i and that one had air conditioning too). Then there was the annoying paint flaking on the lower sides of the sills within the first six months of ownership which rapidly turned into surface rust. No amount of rubbing down, treating and then painting over seemed to address the issue. The top corners of both front doors would also catch the leading edge of the rear doors when opened or closed, which eventually created minor rust spots, suggesting their alignment needed adjusting. Oh, and those plastic insert garnishes in the doors where you would get wood inserts on the higher spec models broke off from their mounting pins and would vibrate every time you shut the doors. This was clearly a known problem as later versions of the ‘XX’ 800 Series did not have the plastic insert trim.

    Yes, the attention to fit and finish had room for improvement and corrosion protection should have been much better in those early days. But the rest of the car did impress, especially the comfy seats, the reliability of the electrics and the eager performance of the M16i engine. Even the dealer it was serviced at delivered a first rate service. No wonder my father had no hesitation in buying another ‘XX’ 800 Series.

  4. It came good in 1988 when all the build quality issues were addressed and a better V6 was offered. From then on, there was no real reason not to buy an 800 as the 2 litre models( barring the O series) were powerful and reasonably economical, while the 2.7 V6 was whisper quiet and an excellent car for high speed journeys. Also the 1988 Vitesse even looked like an SD1 from a distance and was just as capable as the old car.

    • I’ve got to stop you there: the build quality issues were never fully addressed and that was unforgivable.

  5. I remember that one. We gave it a good polish the night before Peterborough – driving a white BX16v to collect it. But I also remember that the cam belt was still the first and on its last legs… (in autumn, the year before)
    I drove up in my ’87 Maestro 1.3 – also a fine car in principle, if it would have been better build. There were no electrical niggles on the Maestro though…

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