Blog : Steering sensitivities

Steven Ward


Keith Adams’ recent disappointment with the Rover 800 Series after a very revealing drive came as no surprise to me. One aspect of ‘Heritage’ that passed from the Rover SD1 to the 800 Series was a lack of dimensional accuracy of the body and sub-assemblies. This was despite Harold Musgrove vehemently thumping the table when he told audiences of how the 800 Series’ Body-In-White engineering was better than that of its closest rival – Audi’s 100.

Lessons, we were told, had been learned from the SD1’s lack of quality.

Sadly, while he genuinely believed his own rhetoric, Musgrove was badly let down by his less-than-diligent Engineers. This failing only came to light when one northern Police force started making serious complaints to ARG. They stated that their fleet of 800s would crest a hill and go one way, and then land the opposite way when they were driven with gusto.

In engineering terms this is known as ‘bump-steer’ but it can also feel like torque-steer to the uninitiated. Following on from ARG’s protracted legal battle with the Police Federation over the Metro fuel filler debacle, a hands-on Chassis Engineer was dispatched to experience the Traffic Officers’ concerns and resolve the problem.

En-route North and having an inkling what the issue was, the Engineer called in on ARG’s supplier of subframes in County Durham. Here he saw the 800’s simple subframe being assembled from pressings in a process which could, at best, be described as flawed and which lead to wildly varying tolerances. He held an impromptu meeting with the Managers to ask why it was not being assembled to ARG’s precise dimensional accuracy.

The engineering firm retorted bluntly that, if they knew what the dimensions were and the tolerances to which they should manufacture them to, then they’d do their best. At this point, it was discovered that a steering rack could sit some 7mm higher on one side of the subframe compared to the other side. Understandably, this affected the way the cars drove. However, this inaccuracy wouldn’t be picked-up on a 4-wheel alignment check or the like.

Shocked that this seeming lackadaisical supplier had never seen a set of blueprints from which to work to, the Chassis Engineer returned to Longbridge to find the paperwork and sort the issue out. Eventually, it transpired that nobody had actually laid down what the dimensions were – the blueprints were blank.

Only a prototype part had been dispatched to the supplier at the pilot build stage with the question: ‘How cheap can you make this?’

‘Cheap enough,’ was the reply and hence the contract was signed without further ado. Unbelievably, the tooling for the assembly wasn’t much more than a series of clamps to hold the pressings in place while they were welded by hand. This meant that, even when the specification was laid down, consistently achieving it wasn’t a realistic goal.

That, then, is why some 800 Series cars can feel quite unpleasant to drive, while only a precious few drive as well as they should. However, ARG wasn’t that stupid and ensured that any Press Cars were always hand-fettled to ride and steer right. Sadly, fastidious attention to detail, proper  money for tooling and suppliers chosen on quality not cost was never a luxury BL, ARG or Rover Group could ever afford.

If you naively think the Nylon Tie 800 Series was the only model affected then, sadly, you’d be wrong. Nor was this lack of blueprint definition limited to body or chassis departments. I could give more examples, but I feel I’ve highlighted enough to be going on with.

This unintentionally negligent engineering  practice continued right up until the bitter end of production at Longbridge. Colloquially known as ‘Birmingham Engineering,’ this make-do approach only ceased when the last TF was nailed together.


Keith Adams


  1. In my days of working for car dealerships I drove a number of early 820s and was alway dissapointed with the way they drove, rating not much better than Nissan Blubirds and no match for cars like the Mazda 626. I was always surprised how my view differed so drastically from the motoring press which always rated them quite highly. I was also surprised how much better the Honda Legend was to drive when they were both supposed to be basically the same car. This article explains a lot.
    Another thing I remember about them is that the batteries would go flat- and for some inexplicable reason caused the windows to slowly go down.

    As a slight aside- I remember one winter Saturday morning I had a rather pleasant couple booked in for a test drive in a nearly new 820. As I was feeling a little the worse for wear- I just handed them the keys and sent them out on their own, having had to jump start the car that morning- and putting in about enough petrol to extinguish the fuel light. As the day wore on I became inreasingly concerned by the fact they had not returned and as darkeness fell I prepared to explain to my sales manager the reason for the gap in the used car line up where an £18,000 car had once been. Only a matter of minutes before the dealership was due to close for the evening the black 820 rolled onto the forcourt and the couple emerged unloading bags and bags of Christmas shopping. Overwhelmed with relief that they had actually returned I was even more surprised when they actually wanted to buy the car.

    • I suppose the Honda Legend subframe could be fitted to an 800? If so, I wonder why Rover didn’t fit one? probably cost I imagine 😀

  2. I wish I was surprised but then when I think about it, you realise there were good reasons why this was the case.

    It’s clear that at its inception British Leyland’s Body in white engineering was not all it should have been, torsional rigidity issues of the Stag (which resulted in the T-Bar), poor crash protection of the P8, and later the well recorded issues that gave us the bulbous Allegro and dimensionally challenged SD1, but everything else was behind the curve in terms of accuracy, complexity and weight and as this article shows it continued to be the case in the subsequent decades.

    However it then poses the question that how this could be given Pressed Steel dominance in the UK industry until the mid 60’s?

    I believe that one of the places to look for the cause of the problem, was at the Roots Group, Roots body in white engineering and had been handled by Pressed Steel up to and including the Arrow (Hunter etc) and the pressing and assembly work for the Arrow continuing until the Arrow was moved to Linwood to pressed and assembled alongside the Imp. However in the late 60’s Roots were to engineer the Avenger, a car which body engineering was world class and reflected in it being both significantly lighter yet also significantly better in crash protection that the Arrow body which had been engineered less than half a decade earlier. Whilst its true Roots benefitted from an injection of knowhow and state of the art computer design tools from Chrysler in the US, the Avengers body was engineered in the UK by a predominantly UK team in a business that had just a few years earlier lacked these skills. This skilled team must have come from somewhere and so it seems logical that thanks to attractive salaries and packages provided by Chryslers investment in Roots from the mid 60’s they were able to attract the best and brightest and that would have included a good number from Pressed Steel.

    Another factor was then the ongoing decline of British Leyland, I had dealings with Leyland in the mid and late 80’s and it was clear to me that this was a dying company, a business full of managers promoted to one step beyond their competence and then hanging on till they could collect their pension, knowing full well that they had no hope to attract anything like their BL package in the market. With the business shrinking around them they were able to offer few attractive opportunities for new blood and given the poor brand image few were eager to add the BL brand to their CV either given the choice. The end result was that the business was failing to attract enough talent into its ranks to compensate for the fact that those who could had left to greener pastures and those that were left, were there because they had no choice. So in the Mid 80’s Harold Musgrove may have liked to think that lessons had been learnt from the SD1 debacle, but simple reality was that there was nobody to teach these lessons in the organisation, the simply did things the way they did on the 800 as they had done on the SD1 etc because they did not know any better.

    • As an old PSF body engineer, I must correct you! None of the cars you mention were PSF programs: The Stag was by the same Canley guys that did the Dolomites. The SD1 body was designed at Solihull (and was dreadful!). The Allegro body was designed at Longbridge (although, the trim and hardware was handled by PSF at Cowley).

      • I was not saying they were PSF bodies, but the skill pool was not big and Canley and Solihull were PSF customers with the 2000 and P6 and so had to have obtained these skills from a small pool which included PSF (key driver in the Leyland takeover) at the same time Roots would have been in the market.

    • Interesting, isn’t it? I think it is safe to say that e.g. the ADO17 (aka 1800) body engineering was first class for the early 60s – robust, rust resistent, even good in a crash for the period. The Maxi shared a lot of these qualities, despite receiving a huge tailgate. If the less robust, less well made feel of later cars may not only be down to weight savings in the end.

  3. Personally I always thought the steering was one of the redeeming features on both the 800 and the SD1. Must have driven good ones!

  4. It’s a pretty typical story of BL corner cutting, but the line about “hand fettling the press cars” has a certain similarity with the Volkswagen diesel scandal that’s going on at the moment.

    • Anyone who thinks that press cars from any manufacturer are sent straight to the press without some form of ‘fettling’ presumably hasn’t worked for many car manufacturers. I worked for/with three during the 90’s and early 00’s, one of whom was Rover, and all three diligently ‘prepared’ press launch vehicles prior to handing them over!

  5. Great that the list of articles we could also look at, at the foot of this piece happens to include Keith’s piece from way back about Tony Pond lapping the IOM TT circuit in a Rover 827 Vitesse. Amazing video, too. Thanks for the prompt. Makes you wonder how hand fettled the front end was on that car! Hopefully the steering was OK!!!

    Interesting too Stephen’s reference to “Birmingham Engineering”. When I worked in the Black Country many years ago, I remember learning that a Blackheath screwdriver was what the rest of us would recognise as a ….. hammer.

    • Yes, isn’t there a piece of often used archive footage of a BL worker using a hammer on a Maxi whilst it was going down the production line?

    • My Uncle worked at Longbridge from the 60’s to it’s demise and one of the funniest stories he told me was how he witnessed an ‘engineer’ fettling the rear doors of a Clubman estate… The car was jacked up via the rear door (or something like that) then a block of wood was used and a great big Birmingham screwdriver (Hammer to you and me) whacked the door shut, thereby solving the misalignment problem 😀

      No wonder we haven’t got a British owned car industry nowadays 😀

  6. Given Steven’s (sorry mis-spelt before) mention of cars being nailed together at Longbridge, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see a hammer in use on the production line?

  7. I remember seeing something similar on the Maestro floor-pan jig. One pressing would drop down onto another pressing and there would be an overlap where they were welded up together.

    The top pressing didn’t always drop into correct alignment with the bottom pressing so there was a guy employed to stand on the jig and literally kick the top pressing into place with the heel of his boot if it was ‘off’.

    While I was watching him I’d say one in ten came down misaligned, and of these he missed (or mis-kicked) at least one in very five…

    • Poor steering on a P38 is more likely to be worn bushes. Considering they are 2 tonnes and on beam axles, they steer well. But then I think SD1’s steer well…

  8. Hammers are handy tools – it was quite common to see poorly fitting Discovery/Range Rover door window frames being “corrected” by putting a hammer handle between the frame and B or C post and the door being pushed almost shut…

  9. The poor body alignment continued well into the 2000s with LandRover as I can attest from having worked on several Disco 2s. Front wings, even obtained new from LR often required some judicious “fettling” with a wrecking bar and the odd wooden wedge to make them match up with the holes in the body. As for the door shut lines, the less said the better other than the gaps were about 3 times wider than any other car I have worked on.

    There was never any issue with a Disco 2 floating — they would leak and sink almost immediately such were the panel gaps. On one I owned my right ear always got cold until I spent a happy hour or two tweaking the door alignment and seals.

    And as for MGs……. I still shudder at the thought of trying to get the correct panel alignment on Midgets.

  10. Corrective techniques were commonplace in most car makers as the late Russell Bulgin noted in his article about the gronk bar used by Toyota staff to get doors to fit as their cars went down the line.

  11. How cheap can you make this? sums up the problem with British industry. The many great products that British designers and engineers created with sod all money shows that the talent was available.

    The problem was cost cutting managers and owners that refused to invest. While the British company used ancient jigs and hand welding. The Germans and Japanese invested in more modern ways of working.

    More expensive initially, but in the end it led to higher quality and lower production costs.

    • I think one of the best, most correct comments made. The quality, alignment, tolerance issues were more a result of low investment, shortage of funds, old tooling as opposed to poor engineering, bad worker attitude, a supposed “Birmingham Factor”.

      Regarding the subframe supplier in County Durham. Presumably selected very much on cost grounds. Why on earth did they not say to ARG “We don’t have the drawings, we don’t know the dimensions”. Incredible !! Ok, maybe ARG can be partly blamed but for the supplier to produce without exact specifications is unbelievable!!!!

      • Maybe another day I’ll blog this further, but it wasn’t unusual for a partially finished concept to be handed to the supplier to finish off on the basis that they’ll be making it. And it needs to work in real life as opposed to a on a drawing board. Again, a lack of engineers and resources prevented concepts and ideas from being wholly finished before being put into production.

        Funding for Tooling was always an issue, as there was no real funding. The supplier in County Durham did an exceptional job given the costs involved. How can you make a world class product when the required investment for necessary tooling isn’t available and the required cost per unit prevents skilled tradesmen from honing their craft into a career in the manufacturing process?

        • ” but it wasn’t unusual for a partially finished concept to be handed to the supplier to finish off on the basis that they’ll be making it. ”

          I see your point, Steven. However, I still find it incredible that a supplier remarks ‘well, if we knew the dimensions, tolerances you wanted’. I spent ten years working for my Uncle’s business which manufactured industrial nameplates, labels and signs. They used to do the chemical etching on Bentley sill tread plates. As with everything else, there was a precise drawing on file which the customer had to approve. The firm was far from Blue Chip but it still managed this!

  12. These must have been the 1986-87 era of 800s, which also had build quality issues, as the revised model that came out in 1988 was a better car to drive and far better made. Once sorted, the 800 was a fine executive car and the revised 1991 model, beloved of John Major, really looked the part and the Fastback resembled the SD1.

    • That wasn’t the case Glenn.

      However, I did bump into the nice Mr Major outside The Ritz as he exited his personal, late model 825 saloon finished in Oxford Blue. That must have been in the autumn of 1997.

      A true gentleman and the last decent Prime Minister.

      • Much was made of his successor, Mr Blair, attending the funeral of Lady Diana in a “mere” Vauxhall – albeit a top spec Omega rather than a 1 litre Corsa.

  13. Some old wives’ tales amongst this lot – don’t believe every story you are told! Ironic this, because the current day best-practice, as espoused by Honda, is that you DO give the major responsibility for component design and manufacturing technique to the supplier – because they usually know a lot more about it than you do. They should certainly be involved in the design and specification process from the beginning. Furthermore, they SHOULD carry out final inspection themselves, it should never be necessary for a car maker to inspect incoming components – a grossly inefficient and wasteful way of working.

    While working for Rover I drove dozens of 800s (not press cars) and never had any steering issues, or any other issues come to that – until I foolishly allowed a dealer to grind the front brake discs in situ on one car, which knackered the ABS sensors – very expensive. Much cheaper to have new discs.

    Talking about fitting new panels to cars – the worst experience I ever had was changing the front wings on a Morris Minor – the front or back would bolt up, but not both together…

    • “Furthermore, they SHOULD carry out final inspection themselves, it should never be necessary for a car maker to inspect incoming components – a grossly inefficient and wasteful way of working.”

      Well that maybe practice for most of the industry but most of the japanese manufacturers and GM have been caught by this recently with airbag and brake issues!

      I know that Ford employed several contractors to do periodic testing on supplies from outside manufacturers back about 11 or 12 years ago, as they did not trust the suppliers.

    • Indeed the Toyota Kanban/Kaizen system encouraged anybody on the assembly line to “stop the line” to address any defect found, empowering the employees rather than encouraging a “that’ll do rightly” attitude.

  14. Apropos comments about Land Rover panel gaps – they are so large because the separate chassis flexes A LOT. They could easily tighten up the gaps, then panels would rub each other.
    Notice how the move to a monocoque has seen a huge reduction in panel gaps…..


    • “Notice how the move to a monocoque has seen a huge reduction in panel gaps”

      Also notice hpw body pressings have improved

      I was examining the fit and finish of the body panels of a new £5995 Dacia Sandero.
      In the next bay an 07 plate Mercedes.
      The Dacia exhibited similar or better panel fit to the expensive Mercedes

    • One steering issue I’ve heard with the 800 was the racks wearing out around 100K & being a hassle to replace.

  15. This is interesting, slightly funny and worrying at the same time.

    Without sounding like Mr Smug, I must have a good one. A few serial 800 owners/drivers have driven mine, and have commented on how nice and well sorted it is. I’ve not done anything special to it. It’s also an old Rover Group manager’s car, so is it possible that mine was hand tinkered with before leaving the factory?

  16. How interesting to read the comments relating to lack of investment in tooling, I experienced exactly the same when working for British Aerospace back in the 1980’s assembling components for the Tornado Aircraft. Tooling had tape over holes with “Do not Drill” written and when I challenged a Foreman on the poor quality tooling he simply said “You are a Skilled Fitter – Fit it” !!!!

  17. The worst think I found about the 800 Steering was the Honda speed sensitive set up on the V6’s. It was atrocious. Too light at speed, but if you slowed down quickly you could catch it out and have heavy steering for a couple of seconds until it realised that it needed to give you more assistance.

  18. Quite confused by this whole piece. I assume the Police would be using the 825 (Honda not KV6) and 827 engined cars, bearing in mind the reputation of the 2 litre cars for being relatively underpowered. Now the Honda engines came from Honda in Japan presumably together with the speed sensitive Honda Steering and the Honda gearbox. Why on earth would they not come attached to a Honda sourced subframe? It would cost more to bolt the bits to a UK sourced subframe than to just get the whole lot bolted together from one supplier surely? Love to know where you get the information from.
    As to the comments from Tony Evans about the Land Rover body panels this is fairly normal in the industry I would imagine, the best panels would go on the line to fit perfectly (quickly and easily) and any that needed a little fettling would go as dealer spares where the dealer would have more time to fettle them. Why scrap something that will do the job?
    Just saying like!

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