Blog : Raise a glass to… 25 years of the Rover 800 (R17)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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_coupe_4

The early-1990s was a promising period for Rover Cars. 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. Too right there was plenty to raise a glass or two at…

The trouble was that the Rover Group was not making large enough profits year-on-year or receiving significant investment from parent company British Aerospace to fund new, clean-sheet model programmes. Nor could it expect all their new model ambitions to be mirrored by those of their collaborative partner Honda. Collectively, this meant having to prolong the production life of existing models with innovative updates.

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.

R17 takes shape under Sked

rover-800

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

rover_vitesse_sedan_1

Announced on 12 November 1991, the R17 800 Series was 2.7-inches 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.

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 accoutrements 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

rover_800_7

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.

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 16-inch 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 Coupé makes a splash

rover_800_coupe_5

Rover’s product planners were also looking to instil more of the prestige of the P5 Coupe into the forthcoming two-door 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).

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

rover_800_vitesse_sport_1

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 17-inch 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 17-inch 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 Startins 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 final facelift

rover_800_4

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.

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.

rover_800_turbo_coupe

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.

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 Cars 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 bodystyles 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.

Whether you remember the R17 800 series for appealing derivatives such as the Vitesse Sport, its sumptuous interiors or as the model which gave Rover its visual presence back through the re-launch of a traditional radiator grille, join me in saluting 25 years of the R17 Rover 800 Series!

Further reading…

The cars : Rover 800 Coupé

In-house designs : Rover CCV

Startins/MacNeillie Regency

Coleman Milne Rover Vanden Plas

*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.

14 Comments

  1. The R17 was one of the best refreshes done on an existing vehicle by any manufacturer, to be honest I was never really that keen on the original 800 but the R17 was by any standards a fine looking car with a cracking interior. The Coupe should have sold much better than it did it was bad luck that Sterling did not last longer in the US,but to sum up a great job done with slender resources.

  2. I had one of the last Vitesse’s, registered in early 99. A real Q car, with the torsen diff allowing you to play with the power round bends and roundabouts. All 800’s had the same speedo graduated to 150mph and on one occasion in Germany, I found it would ‘wind itself off the clock’ with the needle nearly vertical at around 155 ! Yes, it had that old speedo error as many cars did then, but it was darn quick as well as being fairly economical. My pals called it ‘a geriatric in reeboks’!

    Bought from my leasing company by my pal it ended up with 140k on it. S606KOH is sorely missed

  3. I really like the R17 800 and even though they were refreshing an old design it was aimed to produce a modern car (like the spirit behind it’s predecessor the SD1 ). Whilst the 75 was a fine car, the retro element limited it’s market appeal. I’d loved to have seen an 800 replacement with some design cues from the SD1 but with the build, modernity and crispness of a big modern Audi.

    I need to wait until I own a dedicated barn before I consider an 800, as already have 4 R8 400s… but it would otherwise be on my list.

  4. When I was growing up there was (and still is the same) Mk1 827si in the family. My Father had his H reg Granada company car replaced with an black M-reg 820si (or sli?). Until I sat inside I had not realized it was essentially the same interior as my mothers Mk1. (Just slightly different colour shade of grey interior. Being a passenger and even at a young age I could tell it wasn’t shifty like the old Granada 2.9 or the 827. But the Mk2 was a decent enough car and was better built. Unfortunately my Dad had a few engine issues and the year after (1996) the Mk2 Rover 820 was replaced by a rather gainly and ugly looking Ford Scorpio (with the infamous bug-eye headlamps. I think it was the 2.3 Ultima). Despite the looks that car was a few leagues ahead of the Rover. Akin to being a German executive car without the badge. That didn’t last that long and was replaced with an Omega.
    The 800’s endured in my mind and I kept the family Mk1 827 we had from new and I still have it.
    I still use a 1992 827 manual coupe as a semi regular runner and project and I enjoy it. Reminds me of my 90’s childhood times. Is this sad? Or a Good thing?
    Anyway the cars seem to be going up in value at long last!

  5. A very effective facelift, but it shows the problem Rover faced in replacing its range if Honda weren’t interested, No way could Rover afford an all new replacement on sales of 30000/40000 a year

    If BMW hadn’t come along, what would Rover have done in the mid 90s? Adapt the latest Honda/Acura Legend? Was that the one with the longitudinal engine?

  6. Yes indeed a very effective facelift.
    I have high regard for both cars esspecially the mk1 Sterling with its sharp lines and to this day one of the finest interiors especially at night, lit up with fibre optics.
    The few things i dislike about the R17 facelifts was the awkwardness of the rear styling of the fastback, the loss of the walnut strip on the airbag dash and finally that it furthered the blind alkey of going retro that would lead to the beautiful but outta fashion at launch Rover 75
    The car was a top seller in its class consistently, but also sadly, at the bottom of the reliabilty charts. I understand the former, but not the later

  7. The 800 is quite comparable to the Ford Granada because they were launched at a similar time in the late 80’s. Though bearing in mind the Granada had already earned a very strong rock solid reputation for dependability and ruggedness. Rover had to go to some degree to rebuild a similar image after the Mk1 200.
    Both the 800 and Granada had a similar production run. The Granada was comprehensively facelifted into the plush, well built reliable car it should have been when the Granada name was ditched in favour of just ‘Scorpio’ and the ‘Ultima’ was like the answer to the Mk2 Rover 825 Sterling. The Ghia name was still in use as well.
    Actually the Ford was a much better spec car, bigger and very well priced on the market. The estate version was decent for space and looks. The styling image of the Scorpio went against Ford. When my Dad had his Scorpio, my uncle mocked him about the ‘bugeye’ front end.
    Toward the mid 90’s the Rover image was viewed more favourably but unfortunately the reliability of the new KV6 2.5 knocked Rover backward among customers after only a short while.
    The irony of both cars, is that neither had the truest, respective replacement models for the intended executive market.

  8. I would love a coupe 800 but always wonder why they didn’t do an estate. Another question is that maybe the bigger Honda V6 3.2 would have been better than Rovers efforts.

  9. An effective facelift that gave the car more presence, elegance and made it look bigger and tougher (amazing what a solid rear C pillar can do). Memories of these in the news as ministerial transport, where they looked right at home.

    The coupe derivative was a stunning mini-Bentley.

    Rover seemed to have talent for getting the most from a base car, the R8 spun off the good looking tourer and tomcat, the awkward Honda Domani became the classier 400/45 HH-R which eventually became the Impreza-style ZS.

  10. Maybe I am alone, but I preferred the style of the original 800, especially in facelifted guise, when it received the extended bumpers from the US Sterling model. The Coupe was a big let down after the hope provided by the CCV. The retro-isation of the 800 was a short term move that never had anywhere to move on towards stylistically.

  11. Early build quality of the 827 Coupe was much higher overall compared to the 825 Coupe of 1996. The preproduction Coupe had the highest quality of any standard production Coupe models.
    Cost cutting of Coupe versions started around 1996. The chrome metal front grill was replaced with a plastic imitation. The grade of leather used was not as supple and the leather handbrake was deleted in favour of molded plastic from base models. The thicker sound deadening was removed from under the dashboard.
    On the other hand, Rover advertised the 1996 825 saloon version as more enhanced and benefiting from better door seals and sound proof materials.
    So maybe the coupe was not given the same attention in the quality department toward the end of production? However, there were more interior scheme combinations to choose from with the 820 and 825 Coupe.

  12. It’s sad to see how rare the 800 has become in recent years, whereas it’s still quite easy to see early model 75s and even the 600. I know the KV6 had reliability issues that will have seen most of these scrapped as being uneconomical to repair, but the other models were quite reliable if well maintained and the bodies weren’t particularly rustprone. Maybe the second generation 800, the favoured car of John Major, just wasn’t fashionable enough to save.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.