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)
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?”
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.