The Rover 800 Series was a game-changer in so many ways for the Austin Rover Group. David Morgan reminisces about its importance in raising the profile of both the company and Rover marque itself.
Nice car, the Rover 800 Series – elegant, understated and with a subtle reference to its predecessor, the SD1… At the same time, it also signalled a return to a three-box body style to help reinforce Rover’s executive image. Even better, in terms of fit and finish, the standards achieved were a notable improvement over those for the SD1. A car which offered plenty of promise then?
Make no mistake, when the Austin Rover Group (ARG) unveiled the new ‘XX’ generation Rover 800 Series on 10 July 1986, no-one was left in any doubt over the enormous task it had to fulfil. The 800 Series not only had to deliver an increase in ARG’s share of the executive car market across existing territories, but also spearhead a return to the lucrative North American market.
The Rover 800 Series would also play a pivotal role in the strategy of the Rover Group’s new Chairman, J. Graham Day, to take the company’s cars upmarket and away from the aggressive pricing of mainstream manufacturers. This would focus on using the previously select Rover brand for all new saloon car projects. Together with more imaginative advertising ambitions to reaffirm the upmarket image of the new cars, this would present the opportunity to realise premium pricing opportunities.
For the British Government, the 800 Series was seen as crucial for improving the trading success of the Rover Group through a largely product-led recovery plan, so that the company could finally be steered down a confirmed pathway to privatisation.
Since 1981, ARG had reaped the benefits of building new models such as the Triumph Acclaim and its successor, the SD3 Rover 200 Series, through a licensing arrangement with the Japanese car manufacturer Honda. However, the replacement for the SD1 would be born out of an agreement under which both companies were to collaborate on a new executive car project.
The cost to ARG of undertaking this project alone would have been up to £500 million, but the collaborative deal meant it would be considerably less than that. This venture would also enable Honda to offer a bigger, more luxurious saloon above the Accord to challenge those from other Japanese manufacturers and even premium European marques.
Project ‘XX’ would be the first Rover car to be designed at the new Canley Design Studio using the latest Computer Aided Design technology. It would also be the first Rover to be designed under the direction of ARG’s new Design Director, Roy Axe, who had joined the company in early 1982. Unlike the SD1, ‘XX’ would be front-wheel drive, feature transverse engine installations, including a new Honda V6 engine, and a choice of two body styles as part of a phased introduction programme. It would also be built in both the UK and Japan.
Roy Axe undoubtedly had an interesting challenge ahead of him when it came to creating an all-new design as the SD1 still looked modern and also commanded immense presence and affection. Rather than loose all visual connection with the SD1, he carried over some of its design features such as the sloping low bonnet line and narrow belt-line groove in the body’s sides into the 800 Series. This, in turn, would also establish a template for a consistent ‘family identity’ which would be further echoed in the 1986 Rover CCV (Coupe Concept Vehicle) and 1989 ‘R8’ Rover 200 Series.
As a clean sheet design, the ‘XX’ 800 Series also embraced the emerging trend for aerodynamic body designs as epitomised by the 1982 C3 generation Audi 100. As well as having a low drag factor of 0.32, ‘XX’ drew attention to its aerodynamic stance through having an unbroken ‘glasshouse’. Roy Axe and his design team achieved this by recessing the B-pillars behind the window frames of the doors and then finishing the vertical sides of the window frames and the A and D-pillars in satin black. Together with a subtle swage line running the full length of the body’s sides whose contour was embraced into the flush-fitting door handles, the end result was an executive saloon that looked crisp and modern.
The ‘XX’ 800 Series was also considered to be a great achievement from being the result of a collaborative project. In such partnerships the financial pressures placed on each partner can often lead to compromises being made in design distinction, particularly when there is a need to share a common body structure and sometimes even body pressings. However, in this case, the Rover 800 Series maintained a significantly different presence and character to the Honda Legend by not sharing any bodyskin pressings or interior trim.
Admittedly, the 800 Series might not have created the same sensation that the SD1 did ten years earlier, but it still excelled in other areas. For example, those doors shut with a reassuring muffled ‘thunk’ due to tighter tolerances in body design. In reality, the 800’s body was actually narrower in width than that of the SD1 but, through the use of lower, more rounded surface forms for the dashboard’s fascia roll, it actually felt more spacious – even the wood panelling behind the fascia shelf provided a subtle reminder of the old Rover P6 saloon.
Under the bonnet there would be a choice of three petrol engines: a new Honda-designed 2.5-litre 24-valve V6 producing 165bhp and a home-grown 2-litre twin-cam 16-valve developed from the O-Series. This latter engine would be offered in two versions based on the type of fuel injection used. The M16e had single-point fuel injection and produced 120bhp, while the more potent 140bhp M16i had multi-point fuel injection.
In early 1986 the BBC 2 programme Top Gear was given exclusive access to ride in a heavily disguised pre-production example and they gave it an encouraging ‘thumbs up’, which undoubtedly helped to whet the appetite of potential buyers.
However, behind the scenes ARG’s management had been under considerable pressure from their Chief Executive, Harold Musgrove, to launch the 800 Series sooner rather than later. This resulted in some of the press demo cars built for the official press launch, to be held in Lausanne the following June, having pre-production quality parts such as boot seals which were inevitably not up to a production sign-off standard. While there were a few journalists who wrote about these initial quality glitches, on the whole there was plenty of positive editorial coverage for the new Rover.
Denis Chick, a former PR Manager with ARG at the time and also heavily involved with the 800’s press launch, recalls that there were very few examples fitted with the home-grown 2-litre engine available for press appraisal. This was due to driveability issues relating to poor pick up from rest and issues with the power curve. As a consequence, this delayed the availability of this engine choice by several months. Instead, the emphasis had been on the 2.5-litre Honda V6 engine found in the upper spec 825i and flagship Sterling variants. As Denis explained: ‘The V6-powered variants were a great drive and they were the versions that set the right mood and the good road tests with the media.’
The launch theme had predominantly been for the Sterling with its two-tone paint scheme for use in all the posters and publicity material. This was supported by 1000 dealer demonstration cars being built, the majority of them being the Sterling which had a showroom price of £18,794.65. The 825i cost £15,870.67. This would explain why a number of road test reports implied that the 800 Series was considered to be an ‘expensive’ car – and probably not helped by the fact that the new luxury class Jaguar XJ40 had just been announced with the entry-level XJ6 2.9 version being priced at £16,495.
The reality was that, at launch, there were four models in the line-up, starting with the 820i powered by the 2.0-litre M16i engine. With a retail price of £11,820.47, this featured electric front windows and door mirrors, central door locking, power-assisted steering and a three-band electronic tune radio/stereo cassette player with four speakers as standard. For those wanting more individuality the list of optional extras included alloy wheels (£471.99), a glass sunroof (£387.00), headlamp wash (£160.99) and black (£106.00) or clearcoat metallic (£157.00) paint.
The higher-spec 820Si version was £13,246.94 and its refinements included headlamp wash, electric rear windows, infra red central door locking, a manually operated glass sunroof and Chalkstripe velvet seat facings. The 825i was, despite its trim level designation suggesting otherwise, a higher-spec model than the 820Si and its standard equipment extended to automatic transmission, speed-sensitive power steering, an electric glass sunroof, alloy wheels, burr walnut inserts in the doors and manually reclining rear seats. The Sterling’s accoutrements included Connolly leather seats and steering wheel rim, power adjustment for the front seats and recline of the individual rear seats, air conditioning and shag-pile footwell rugs. There were no options available – even black or clearcoat metallic paint could be specified at no extra cost.
Compared to the rear-wheel drive Ford Granada and Vauxhall Carlton as the main sellers in the executive car market, the 800 Series was slightly more expensive in its pricing. However, against premium alternatives such as the Audi 100, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes Benz W124, the Rover’s pricing and specification undercut them by up to £1500.
The 800 Series’ line-up was expanded in October of that year with the arrival of the 2-litre M16e-powered 820E and 820SE priced at £10,750.29 and £12,391.05 respectively. These were formally revealed at the British International Motor Show. Together with a choice of four interior colour ways and twelve exterior body colours comprising of four solid finishes and eight metallics, the 800 Series offered a higher level of colour and trim personalising opportunities than its premium rivals.
The decision to call the flagship variant Sterling came from Sterling silver, which was known to be a British speciality. The fact that the first 2000 examples of the 800 Series to be built happened to have been finished in Silverleaf metallic probably added further prominence to the Sterling name!
The Sterling moniker would also serve as the brand name when the model went on sale in North America the following year through the Austin Rover Cars of North America (ARCONA) national sales company, run by multi-millionaire football team owner Norman Braman. Sitting on the bonnet’s leading edge was a new badge design which had taken its inspiration from the red cross of St George and also featured a ‘lion passant” in the middle as the Lion of England.
The Sterling’s launch in North America would be supported by a television advert featuring the actor Patrick Macnee, the archetypal British gent known from the TV series The Avengers. All North American-spec Sterling 825s were built on the same assembly line at Cowley as the UK cars and could be visually differentiated by their Federal specification requirements such as changes to the exterior lighting and wearing deeper bumpers. Ruched leather seat facings would also become available.
Promoted under the strapline ‘Engineering in a Finer Form’ for the home market, the 800 Series would soon receive a number of industry accolades. By 1987 it had been voted Executive Car of the Year by both What Car? and Motor magazines, while also receiving a British Design Award for the range of M16 lean burn engines. Meanwhile, the 820SE derivative would go on to secure the What Car? Executive Car of the Year title in 1988.
Even our Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was notably pleased with her test drive in a Moonraker Blue metallic example outside No. 10. She declared: ‘It’s a winner for Britain, there’s no doubt about that. I think it’s a very beautiful car – it’s a nice looking elegant car. I think it has the best seats ever designed and it’s very comfortable.’
The launch of the Sterling 825 models in North America in 1987 had also exceeded all expectations. Between February and the end of June 1987, 6381 examples had been sold through 150 dealers, helping to increase ARG’s turnover from £1,016 million to £1,313 million.
Austin Rover Group had also got some early exposure for the 800 Series in popular television and film, with examples appearing CATS Eyes driven by the actor Don Warrington, EastEnders, Howard’s Way and even briefly in the 1987 James Bond film Living Daylights (below).
At the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show came the unveiling of a dramatic looking body styling enhancement pack designed by Gordon Sked’s team in the Concept Design studio. Supplied by Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), this body styling enhancement pack sported deeper bumpers with a pair of auxiliary driving lamps in the front bumper, side sill extensions, a wrap-around bootlid spoiler and colour-coded bodyside protection strips.
The distinctive ribbings in the side strips and bumpers could clearly be cross-referenced with the lower body detailing of the stillborn Rover CCV. Even the featured wheel design used in the promotional material was the same as that showcased on the Rover CCV, although this would not be available as a production item.
With a retail price approaching £1500, the TWR exclusive body styling pack was not a cheap option although it certainly added some much needed sparkle to ARG’s largely unchanged line-up at both the Frankfurt and Motorfair ’87 Motor Shows.
The next development for the 800 Series came in February 1988 with the announcement that the 2.5-litre V6 would be replaced by a 2.7-litre version, in-line with its introduction in the Honda Legend several months previously. When compared with its predecessor the new 2.7-litre V6 offered noticeably superior mid range pulling power. The launch of this engine also coincided with the 825i trim level being renamed as the 827SLi and the lower-spec Si variant now being available with the V6 engine option. Prices ranged from £16,550 for the 827Si to £21,380 for the Sterling.
May 1988 saw the unveiling of perhaps one of the motor industry’s worst kept secrets – the launch of a five-door hatchback body style, referred to as the Fastback and taking much of its inspiration for the rear pillar rake and corresponding glass-line from the SD1. Since the launch of the 800 Series in 1986 motoring publications such as CAR Magazine had regularly run scoop stories about the Fastback undergoing production sign-off testing, although they were completely wrong in their speculation that it would be badged as the 600 Series.
The global media launch for the Fastback range took place at the Billesley Manor hotel near Stratford-upon-Avon. As Denis Chick recalled, during the event the translator for the French media group caused much laughter when he had wrongly translated 800 Fastback into 800 ‘quickbottom’!
The Fastback’s line-up largely mirrored that of the saloon range – including like-for-like trim level pricing – although there were no SLi or Sterling derivatives. Instead, there was a new entry-level 820 Fastback which had a showroom price of £11,995 and featured the 100bhp carburettor-fed 2-litre O-Series engine.
Meanwhile, sitting at the top of the Fastback range, was the Vitesse priced at £19,944 and powered by the regular 177bhp 2.7-litre Honda V6. With the Vitesse’s drag factor having been reduced to 0.30 from the addition of a lower front bib spoiler and a rear aerofoil, it was claimed to have a top speed of 140mph. Despite this it had not been conceived to have the motorsport ambitions of the SD1.
However, this did not deter rally driver Tony Pond from choosing an 827 Vitesse for his attempt to be the first person to crack the 100mph lap of the Isle of Man TT course in a car. On the 6 June 1990, two years after his first attempt at the 37.75 mile course, he set the production car record, completing the lap in 22 minutes 9.1 seconds with a record-breaking average speed of 102.195mph. This record was subsequently unbeaten for 21 years.
More in keeping with the 827 Vitesse’s main appeal was the television commercial showing it juxtaposed outside the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart designed by renowned British architect James Stirling, as a reflection of its elegant British styling. The television advert was deliberately set in the heart of the German car industry with subtle references implying that it was an aspirational alternative to the benchmark offerings from that country.
Just three years into its production life came a mid-term revision which would give the 800 Series enhanced presence through the fitting of the deeper bumpers already fitted to North America market examples. Together with subtle revisions to the exterior badging and new wheel trim designs and seat facings on the lower and mid spec models, it was brought more in-line with those introduced into the new R8 Rover 200 Series. This helped to reinforce the shared Rover design identity across these two ranges.
There would be further updates for the 1991 Model Year, announced in September 1990 at the British International Motor Show. These included the introduction of a 2.5-litre VM turbo-diesel engine, albeit for the Fastback bodystyle and in ‘SD’ trim level only, and elevating the Vitesse’s specification to the same Trim Level 7 and showroom price as that for the Sterling. This was referred to internally as the ‘Vitesse Executive’ and sales records suggest that only 427 examples were completed for the home market.
So what of the need for a more obvious sporting variant? With the Vitesse now masquerading as a Sterling in a Fastback body, Rover Group’s engineers were busy finalising a new special edition model that would feature a 180bhp turbo-charged version of the M16i engine developed in conjunction with Tickford.
Announced in March 1991, the 820 Turbo 16v was initially planned to be limited to around 500 examples offered in both bodystyles and a choice of six exterior colours. In reality, nearer 700 examples of this £23,950 high=performance variant were built. Reviews were actually mixed, with some publications such as Autocar questioning whether it made for a better car than the 827 Vitesse. However, its real purpose was to quietly prepare us for what would come later on that year with the R17 generation 800 Series in the form of a turbocharged T-Series engine for the Vitesse variant.
Production of the ‘XX’ Series ended in September 1991 with figures from Rover Cars’ press office suggesting that 201,900 examples had been built in just over five years. For the North American market, the end of ‘XX’ production would signal the withdrawal of a Rover-based car for sale in this market. Early sales had been encouraging and the saloon was joined by the Fastback version in 1989, which was launched at the Ritz Carlton at Laguna Niguel, outside Los Angeles.
At the launch there was even an announcement that a Coupe version would follow in due course. The Sterling Fastback was given further prominence when an example was driven by the character Michelle Stevens in the prime-time U.S. soap opera Dallas. However, with low customer satisfaction ratings in the highly influential JD Power surveys and poor managing of the promotion and sales of Sterling, sales were falling dramatically each year from 1988. In August 1991 this expensive re-entry into North America came to an end.
My own exposure to the Rover 800 Series actually came when my father bought a six month-old 820i in 1988 which was an ex-demonstrator from a local dealer. As the co-director of a design and engineering company producing special purpose marketing equipment to mainly the automotive industry, he naturally liked to support customers such as Austin Rover Group.
To be honest, the 820i lacked the personality and get-up-and-go enthusiasm of his previous car, an MG Montego EFi, but on a long run it was in a league of its own when it came to refinement.
In almost four and a half years of ownership it covered 118,000 miles and was well liked for its comfort and general feeling of quality. Its only downsides were a replacement heating/ventilation unit being required because the old one had failed, while those plastic cappings in the door casings where you would normally get wood inserts on the higher spec models kept rattling away because their lugs had suffered from premature fatigue.
When my father traded the 820i in with 126,000 miles showing on its odometer, its M16i engine still felt smooth and free-revving. With so few problems experienced under his ownership it came as no surprise that he chose to buy another 800 Series; this time a 1991 Model Year 827 Sterling.
As a former Rover Group management company car, the details for this particular Sterling’s specification on the dealer’s Viewdata system did not indicate that any additional options or accessory items had been fitted, and so he bought it unseen. When he arrived at the dealer in Chard to collect it, there were big grins across the faces of those in the workshop and even in the showroom for, unknown to my father, its build specification had included the optional TWR exclusive body styling enhancement pack.
The sight of that body kit may have given him a few initial doubts about his new purchase, but he quickly took a liking to it. He also found that it created plenty of positive interest from clients, including those driving more sombre premium executive cars. A friend of the family even asked whether the Rover could be used as the wedding car for his daughter’s wedding – well, it was a whole lot more interesting than a ubiquitous white Rolls Royce or an ageing Toyota Carina from the local taxi firm!
Like the 820i before it, the 827 Sterling had an appetite for getting through those heating/ventilation units – two replacement air conditioning units in three years of ownership – but that was its only failing.
I particularly liked the smooth automatic transmission with its Sport mode where you simply pulled the gearshift down to ‘S’ without having to engage the release button beforehand – and, if you wanted to engage or disengage fourth gear when in Sport mode, you simply pressed a small button located on the side of the selector lever without needing to take your eyes off the road ahead in order to find it. Simple…
Even the Lightstone leather interior was a welcome departure from the usual sea of monotonous grey found in other executive cars of that era and together with that polished burr walnut trim looked luxurious and inviting.
My only gripe was the lack of feel or weight in the steering when driving at high speeds. It was a sad day for me when it was part-exchanged for something built in Munich, having covered 100,000 miles in three years of ownership.
The Rover 800 Series might not have the drama or character of the old SD1, but in quite a few other areas it proved to be a better car. In company car circles it also started to repair some of the damage to the Rover marque’s reputation caused by its predecessor.
Too right, then, that I am raising a glass to thirty years of the ‘XX’ Rover 800 Series!
* My thanks to Denis Chick for his assistance with some of the information used in this feature.