Marques : Sterling

Sterling was created by Austin-Rover in the mid 1980s in order to ease Rover’s return to the USA.

There might have been a sound reasoning behind the decision to create such a “British” marque, but poor marketing decisions and a lack of product quality killed Sterling dead before it ever had a chance to establish itself…

A potted history

Rather uniquely in BMC>Rover history, the Sterling marque was nothing more than a marketing creation. The idea came about in 1984, when the plans for exporting the upcoming Rover 800 model were being formulated. Austin-Rover management were acutely aware of the failure of the SD1 in the USA and felt that re-launching a Rover over there so soon after the company’s previous withdrawal would prove to be commercial suicide. Customers have long memories and the SD1’s reputation for unreliability and poor quality was still fresh in their minds.

As a result of this, it was decided that the only way forward would be to create a brand new marque and then launch the 800 as the first product of the “new” company. After all, the Rover 800 had been co-developed with Honda and the level of technology and quality were going to be several orders of magnitude better than the Solihull SD1s that had made the Atlantic crossing a few years previously.

Management settled upon the rather grandiose title of Sterling (a name used previously on FX4s exported to the USA under the banner, “London Sterling”) – a very British name it has to be said – and set about re-establishing a dealer network and local management structure specifically matched to the unique needs of the USA.

In the end, a new entity called ARCONA (Austin Rover Cars of North America) was set up and, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, ARCONA was not a wholly owned subsidiary of Austin Rover, but a separate company owned by mega-dealer Norman Braman. The company’s President was Raymond Ketchledge and ARCONA based itself in Miami during 1986. Much work went on in establishing the brand long before the launch date of the European Rover 800 and, by early 1986, Ketchledge reported back to Austin Rover that 135 retail outlets were coming aboard and that ARCONA would need 30,000 Sterlings in place for the product’s launch in February 1987.

Initial confidence was very high and, given the promise of Japanese reliability and British interior ambience, the Sterling was hoped to be a huge success. Initial forecasts were that, once the Sterling range had been rolled-out, it would account for forty per cent of Rover 800 production at Cowley. Marketing would be concentrated in the states where imports accounted for a higher proportion of sales, such as Miami, Texas, California and the North-Eastern states. Without doubt, Sterling would be going for the jugular of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

However, Sterling soon had the stuffing knocked out of it, thanks to the sub-standard build quality of those early cars. Sterling soon received a hammering on the J.D. Power surveys, which mean so much over there. In its first full year of trading, 14,171 Sterlings were sold – some way short of initial predictions. Sterling’s troubles soon became clear, especially to management in the UK, and Graham Day was forced to try and rectify the situation.

In 1989, ARCONA was brought back “in-house” by Graham Day and a new President, Graham Morris, was charged with the task of getting Sterling back on track. ARCONA was re-named Sterling Motor Cars, Inc. and a new emphasis on quality and service was played up for all it was worth. Improving build quality helped but, unfortunately, the damage seemed to have already been inflicted. 1987 was Sterling’s best year and, from that point on, sales declined (1988: 8901 sold, 1989: 5907).

Morris worked hard on turning things around, even going as far as releasing a picture of the upcoming 800 Coupé some three years before its launch, in order to gee-up dealers and their customers. However, it did not work: 1990 sales were a paltry 4015 and it was clear that Sterling was dying on its feet. It must have been galling for Rover to see this – after all, Honda created the Acura marque to sell Legends over there and that was going from strength to strength.

Still, there was some hope – the (Richard Woolley/David Saddington) 800 Coupé had been created specifically for the American market and had clinicked very well over there. The upcoming R17 also had an extra helping of “class”, so it was felt that Sterling’s fortune could make a turn for the better. The plan was to accompany the launch of these new cars with the dropping of the Sterling badge… and replace it with the Rover nameplate. Talk about a reversal of fortunes! There was some logic in this decision: the huge success of the Range Rover in the USA (launched there in the 1980s) had gone some way to restoring the prestige of Rover.

Nick Chung added: ‘It is evident that ARCONA tried to re-invigorate customer showroom traffic in the summer of 1990 by ordering 50 bespoke hand finished ‘NAS Promo 2″ cars from Cowley. Theese cars was uniquely different to anything produced before. They consisted of a five-door Fastback Body in Pulsar Silver with all mouldings body coloured including door rubbing strips and bumpers. Specification also included 24 carat gold plated Sterling badges for boot, hood and steering wheel, burr rosewood wood interior trim inserts, pig skin hide trimmed interior, factory fit Pioneer radio CD autochanger, factory fit car phone kit and 16in Alloy wheels (later used on the Tickford Turbo Vitesse XX run out models)’

However, it was all too little, too late…

In August 1991, Rover made the decision to pull out of the USA… for the third time in twenty years. Poor sales made the decision inevitable and, even though the 800 Coupé and MGF had both been conceived primarily with the US market in mind, the company could no longer afford to maintain a presence over there. Rover Group’s Chief Executive, George Simpson, accompanied the announcement with this short but sweet statement: “It is best for the group as a whole to concentrate future resources on developing other markets.”

And with that, Sterling was dead.

Graham Morris released this picture to the press three years prior to its actual launch: a desperate move to re-invigorate interest in Sterling? (Picture: CAR Magazine)

Sterling models

1987-1988 The first Sterlings launched in the US were federalised versions of the Honda-powered 800 2.5 V6. More…
1988-1991 Along with the 1987 Honda Legend and 1988 Rover 800 V6, the Sterling was treated to an engine upgrade – torque and driveability were improved.


Spotted in New England by Mike Duff, October 2004

“So there I am, on vacation in New England, America-shire, rummaging for change to make a ‘phone call when what must be the rarest vehicle in the Continental United States turns up and stops right next to me – an immaculate Sterling 827SLi. Its owner headed off into the Chinese restaurant you can see in the background, I lay in wait and asked her about the car when she got back. Not at all sinister, honest.

It has been in her family for five years although she doesn’t know how old it was when they bought it (for a ‘bargain price). They’re completely happy with it – although she was unaware it was actually British. The interior is as well preserved as the outside – full leather seats, autobox and aircon that still works. No dashboard distortion, either – although up in Boston, Mass that’s less of a problem than in the deep south.

The only obvious difference seems to be the daytime running headlights and extra marker lights on the rear bumper. I was taken by just how like an SD1 the glasshouse looks when viewed up close with that silver strip all the way around. Is it just that I’ve not seen an original 800 for so long I’ve forgotten what they looked like?”

Keith Adams


  1. 10/14/2011 I also have the identical black 800 SLi The car is off the road at this point and it needs some work but like you say the car is rare and some day will restore it. At this point the parts are almost none exsistent.There’s only one guy in the states that has parts.

  2. The Rover is quite based on a Honda Legend. The Rover 200/25
    and the sedan 45 based on the Honda Civic. The 75 is the last model build in cooperation with BMW.

  3. Mike please add this to the Sterling story….
    It is evident that ARCONA tried to re-invigorate customer showroom traffic in the summer of 1990 by ordering 50 bespoke hand finished “NAS Promo 2″ cars from Cowley.
    The spec on these cars was uniquely different to anything produced before. It consisted of a 5-Door Fastback Body in Pulsar Silver with all mouldings body coloured including door rubbing strips and bumpers. Spec also included 24 carat gold plated Sterling badges for trunk, hood & steering wheel, burr rosewood wood interior trim inserts, pig skin hide trimmed interior, factory fit Pioneer radio CD autochanger, factory fit car phone kit and 16” Alloy wheels (later used on the Tickford Turbo Vitesse XX run out models)

  4. @ Nick Chung:

    This is an interesting edition for the NAS Sterling range as some of the features you refer to, such as the 16-inch 5-spoke Rover-Sport alloy wheels and particularly the colour-coded bodyside mouldings and bumper inset mouldings were used for the runout XX Rover 800 Series models in the UK market from the summer of 1991. Some runout models also featured the 15-inch ‘Prestige’ alloy wheel design as normally fitted to the 1991 MY SLi derivatives.

    The Rover-Sport alloy wheels you refer to were fitted on the limited edition Rover 820 Turbo as standard but were an extra cost option on pre-runout models, including the Vitesse. For the 1991 Model Year, the 827 Vitesse derivative (now a Trim Level 7) had the same 15-inch ‘Spoked’ wheel design as also fitted to the Rover 827 Sterling derivative.

    Sorry if all this sounds confusing!

  5. @ David 3500:

    That’s not confusing just pleased that more of the jigsaw puzzle is gradually being pieced together. My friend Tank had a white Fastback J-Plate 820 Turbo back in 1995 that had said wheels.
    Have a particular interest in the North American Spec cars as was involved working at Cowley in Production Engineering ’87-’90, these are now very rare although recently have seen adverts for a re-imported Sterling 827S and SD1 3500 NADA for sale!

  6. There’s no doubting that the Sterling did not go as planned, since the original goal was 50,000 sales per year, but no one writes about how the Honda Legend failed in Europe. You could argue about the choice of dealers, who were mostly used to selling Cadillacs and also why more wasn’t done with the Range Rover link, as the two operations were completely separate.
    Sterling launched too early in the US, but no one would ever say “no” to Harold Musgrove, unless they wanted to be sacked. The later 2.7 engine was way better than the 2.5, but with the mis-match between production and demand, it took a while to get rid of the early cars.
    I’ve heard from several sources and personal experience of talking to people in the US that the Sterling appealed to African-Americans, but I’m not aware of them ever being targeted by ARCONA’s or Sterling’s marketing.

  7. I live only about mile from what was a Sterling dealer in Passaic, New Jersey, it used to be what still is part of a Honda dealership site (now mainly it’s used showroom, storage, shops, parts). I recall the sign for the Sterling brand outside of it and it seemed to be up for several years after the brand folded.
    I think Honda’s Acura brand, launched mainly for the USA market initially with the Legend in about 1988, didn’t help much either.

  8. I did read that in some cars the leather used to turn green in the heat and the aircon used to die in very hot weather, hardly the kind of car that would do well in the 110 degree heat that can occur in Florida. However, a royal shame as product placement in series like Dynasty had done wonders for Jaguar and Range Rover and it would have been nice if better quality on the Sterling range could have seen these do as well.

    • Quote: “However, a royal shame as product placement in series like Dynasty had done wonders for Jaguar and Range Rover and it would have been nice if better quality on the Sterling range could have seen these do as well.”

      A good point. However, in 1990/1, a Sterling 827 SLI Fastback did briefly appear in the television series Dallas driven by a secondary character called Michelle Stevens. From memory I think she was Bobby Ewing’s sister-in-law; he had married April Stevens (who ultimately got killed by assassins before the end of the same series). I seem to recall the Sterling was finished in White Diamond or Pulsar Silver.

  9. ” Initial confidence was very high and, given the promise of Japanese reliability and British interior ambience, the Sterling was hoped to be a huge success. ”

    Yes, and it really should have been. Sterling’s Honda link should have way overcome any negative associations with SD1 (assuming the punters were that informed). The Japanese reliability coupled with British ambience could have been boom time in the states. If only the initial quality had been fine……Were Sterlings not given extra, rigorous quality checks before hitting the very particular US market?

    A possible 40% of output – talk about a missed opportunity!!

  10. The USA may be the largest car market in the world, but it is simply too competitive on price and customer expectatations for companies without a large war chest of money and production engineers ie Toyota/Honda/Nissan.

    The likes of a lame ducks such as Rover/Renault/Fiat who struggled even in their domestic price protected markets, (recall the import quota for Japanese cars) trying to face up to USA customers was bound to end in tears.

  11. At the time of the Sterling, the USA had woken up and was looking into an abyss at to how the Japanese were dominant in so many areas of product quality control in motor vehicles and consumers electronics, etc etc and were asking how this is the case. Amidst the soul searching, overnight there were many songs being sung by the genuine people such as W Edwards Deming and the usual bunch of imposters such as Tom Peters about business process re-engineering, many eyes looked towards the Japanese manufacturing methods lean production, the Toyota system, etc.

    The Massuchusetts Inst Tech investigated the operation of assembly plants of various European, USA and Japanese cars plants on behalf of US Govt. Their ideas were published in a book “the Machine Which Changed the World”

    It must have been a nightmare for Rover, their cars subject to so much scrutiny, while attempting to be be a player in the new market

  12. The Rover 800/Sterling wasn’t distinctive or different enough to be able to survive the early quality glitches, whereas the Range Rover had and (still has!) desirability that rivals can’t deliver, and so can survive Land Rover’s previous quality control issues…

    • In a trip to California in the late 80s met a freind of friend who had just purchased a Jeep, I asked him about buying a Range Rover, his reply was all too common, from owners and non-owners, the appalling unreliability of Range Rover vehicles

  13. Toyota used the Lean Kanban system to good effect – all employees are empowered, process improvements at all levels are welcome, any defects stop the line immediately.

    Such an efficient system that it is now used by many software companies.

    The US Quota system, the “Chicken Tax” introduced for VW vans, is now working to the detriment of Ford – Transits imported to the US have to be imported as passenger vehicles and converted to vans.

  14. #14 and it was unknown to the West until the 1980s, Toyota had been refining their lean production methods for more than 30 years by then

  15. Would there still be a Rover if they had developed lean production as with Toyota?

    Another event for Toyota, Porsche heading for bankruptcy in the early 1990s, their cars too costly to manufacture, the white knights to the rescue? Toyota engineers, this is how you should be assembling your cars, Porsche saved!

  16. I heard that lean production took many years of trial & error, as in the early days the production lines were shut down too often & this affected the output levels.

    • that is correct,in lean production, if there is a problem the line is stopped, the full attention of the line diverts to examination and resolution of the problem, then the line restarts.

      The short-term loss is output, in the long-term stoppages decline as problems are eliminated one by one, the end result low defect products and the elimination of rework at the end of the assembly line

  17. Having had the joys if driving various vehicles out in the states I suspect you are being a little unfair on the poor 800’s.

    Given the fact I had the joys of – in order – a little hyundai automatic with a box of neutrals & a handgun on the drivers seat (loaded and chambered), A Plymouth mini-van that had a pull to the left so bad that the only thing that stopped the victory roll was the lack of wings and a Ford LTD ’77 that needed topping up with water every 300 yards, and then when the Radiator was replaced promptly spat out its water pump – I might strongly suggest that its not so much the cars weakness as the owners not understanding the concept of something called maintainence. Add to that the average Floridian (when he isnt shooting black female car accident victims in the face) thinks common or garden 20w50 is good enough for anything up to and including a Silverplate B-29 (and if it still rattles, just add sawdust) and you begin to realise that anything with a K series will have about the same chance of coming back alive as a soldier on Omaha beach..
    So far as I can tell there are two types of owner in the US – ones that lavish care on their vehicles to the point that after 300 years even that little Hyundai would still be going strong with its original engine…


    – ones that absentmindedly re-enact the ‘what gear are you in?’ scene from Dogma (a brilliant film, but that part is painful for anyone with even a molecule of mechanical sympathy) – and then blame the car. I’m talking about the sort of people who would fill an Alfa Romeo Selespeed with liquidized hamburger cheese as lubricant on the basis that ‘its oily too’ and then sue.. or drain and refill their brand new Dodge Ram with tap water instead of that newfangled antifreeze…. in Alaska and then sue (assuming they didnt die of hypothermia walking home through that nice bracing blizzard).

  18. @ Jemma, while British cars have often had a bad reputation, America churned out some real rubbish in the late seventies and early eighties as they desperately tried to take on the Japanese. Also emissions controls and the hated 55 mph speed limit reduced once fine American sports cars like the Mustang to something that had all the go of a Morris Marina and the so called economy cars like the Chevrolet Citation were dreadful, so the intended market bought Japanese instead.

  19. Any chance on some features on American cars, which do have a cult following over here? Obviously the energy crisis era cars are mostly a no go area( no power and sometimes terrible quality), but in the main the States have made some very good cars.
    My nominations would be the Ford Mustang, the American Capri that was a huge success in its first incarnation, the Cadillac Eldorado from the early seventies, an American answer to the Rolls Royce with an even bigger engine, the Dodge Viper, an 8 litre V10 beast loved by Clarkson, and the Chrysler K series, a decent compact that took on the Japanese in the early eighties and saved Chrysler from bankrputcy.

  20. The GM J platform as used for the Mk2 Cavalier, was used as the basis of many cars in the 1980’s.

    The Chrysler K platform was used for the first minivans, beloved by so many American families.

    • Yes..But Matra managed to get the Renault Espace into pilot production a few weeks ahead of the Chryslers so the Espace can rightfully claim to be the world’s first minivan

  21. @ Richard, the J plaform also spawned the infamous Cavalier sized Cadillac Cimarron, I know Cadillac had to downsize, but this was ridiculous, along with the diesel Fleetwood, in a country where diesel cars were almost non existent, not forgetting the disastrous modular V8-6-4 engine that was a reliability nightmare that almost brought Cadillac down in 1981. ( Everyone over here knows about the near death of Jaguar around the same time, but Cadillac nearly came a cropper due to these disasters).
    However, I think Chrysler at the time was the most forward thinking of the big three. Sensibly using a government bailout to develop a range of compact cars with 2.2 litre engines( small by American standards and actually quite economical),the aggressively priced and competitive K cars were just what America needed at the time. Also the K cars, which sold 300,000 models on their first year on the market, saved Chrysler from bankruptcy and set Detroit on the road to recovery. Indeed Chrysler was like British Leyland at the start of the eighties, almost bankrupt and producing a dated and unattractive range of cars, but managed to pull itself round by making cars people wanted to buy and by 1985 was making a profit.

  22. I’ve heard of the Cadillac Cimarron, it certainly raised some eyebrows when it was launched.

    Was the Neon based on the K cars, or was it a later generation platform?

  23. It’s a bit subjective. What were considered great cars in the US were considered complete turkeys over here and vice versa. Remember the AMC Pacer? This was imported into the UK and converted into RHD along with the Cadillac Seville and Chevrolet Caprice. Mike McCarthy did a road test of it for Motor magazine where it did very poorly – slow, thirsty, badly packaged and not particularly cheap – he latterly said it was the worst car he had driven. However it did well in the US where it scored well in these areas.

  24. “what must be the rarest vehicle in the Continental United States turns up and stops right next to me – an immaculate Sterling 827SLi.”

    Alongside the single Austin Maxi owned in the US..

  25. I have a feeling the Sterling brand would have been a long term success had ARG waited until the Coupe was fully developed before launching the brand here..The MGF could have been launched alongside it and the two pronged attack of the 800 executive car and the MGF sports car could have led to the launch of the smaller Rovers into the US..

  26. So I know I’m late to the party..where.does my 1989 sterling 827s fit into this’s a 4 door power seats but power windows and sunroof…as far as I can tell it’s the base sports version..and the least ordered..if just over 5k were many would be 827s..I’m guessing not many…is there anywhere to find out how many are left of our cars

  27. I can understand the British connection of using the Sterling brand but I wonder if anyone at Rover knew that previously it had been the name of a US truck manufacturer (which in turn was revived in the late 90’s)?

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