BASE! How low could they go?
It may have a cult following today but it’s fair to say that the Rover 800 never really got off to the best of starts back in 1986. Despite it having clean cut lines and a silhouette like no other large Rover before it, early models lacked the quality and robustness of rivals. It was on a hiding to nothing from the outset mainly because it bore no similarity to the SD1 2000-3500 range, and yet its predecessor was met with the same indifference when that was launched 10 years earlier.
The Carlton and Senator were cars seemingly hewn from German granite and the Granada, even though it emulated a bloated Sierra, oozed user friendliness and the unstoppable might of Henry’s marketing henchmen. As the mid 80s progressed, Ford and GM shifted into overdrive leaving a lost and bewildered Austin Rover behind, licking its wounds in the service station car park and still struggling to come to terms with the sales of the Montego and Maestro not meeting their initial projections.
It was not so much about the cars, more to do with the marketing, and if the latter is effective, you can do no wrong – see the horrendous to drive but massively successful MK5 Escort for proof. The 800 did have some innovative power units in its favour, like the 2.0-litre M16 (nowhere as bad as some people may have you believe) and the impressive Honda sourced V6.
But with Pinto-engined Granadas and GM Family 2 powered Carltons doing battle in the sales team car park, what Rover really lacked was a car that looked like one of the execs, but could be built (and sold) on a shoestring. The answer came in 1988, when Rover decided to get serious about the fleet market and introduce a five-door 800, the Fastback.
Austin Rover made the decision to offer their own base model poverty special from the Fastback’s launch in May 1988 – no badge or special trim name, just known as the plain old 820 and available only in the five-door body style. I once heard a rumour from a man based at the long demolished Canley Metrology Centre that this was only really done to keep the O-Series/PG1 gearbox combination viable, owing to the unexpected slowness of carb-fed 2.0-litre Montego model sales. Whether this is true will always remain a mystery, but it sounds plausible either way, whatever the truth may be, the base 800 was a bit… erm… well rubbish really.
“O” what a shame:
The M16, thanks to a twin-cam head, developed its power with some ability to rev, if rather vocally, especially in multi-point injection form and the C25 Honda unit was a true journey shrinker, even more so when the 827 appeared with greater low-down torque. They were good engines for their time, lively, easily matching their rivals for power and fuel efficiency and generally good to drive.
But in the poor old plain 820, with just 100bhp and a single SU-HiF44 carburettor, the O-Series unit had all the traits that it had in the Montego – only amplified due to the Fastback’s additional weight and volume. Without a crossflow cylinder head and coupled with its long stroke, the base 820 was reluctant to rev high when required. Driven very hard, the cabin would drum and thrum with boomy noise and high frequency vibrations, while not really making much progress.
Even the Granada with its ancient Pinto unit had the luxury of half decent engine and gearbox mountings, while the Carlton had newer 1.8 or 2.0-litre OHC engines. Under the bonnet, the 800 failed to impress, looking like the aforementioned 2.0 Montego (or worse, Ital). But it was costlier and more difficult to service, too, owing to the lack of hydraulic tappets, setting them correctly (if you had access to the special clamping tool) required the timing belt to be disturbed each time. There was little point to the engine other than to hit that magic fleet price point of sub £12,000, as the injected versions used no more fuel but gave much better performance.
All the minor quality improvements for ’88, such as the simplified (and far more reliable) dash dials and improved rustproofing, went some way towards lifting the shaky reputation the 800 had gained and enough for it to remain moderately successful until the R17 facelift, but this base spec entry model failed to make the grade. Standard trim included a mid-line Philips wireless (with digital search, no less), a single plank of wood, electric front windows and that was really about it. The 820 sold in very few numbers and was deleted from the range almost as quickly as it came – leaving the much better (albeit visually barely different) 820e to compete with the junior execs.
But was the base 820 that awful? Well, even though Ford had their own fleet special low powered vehicles, they weren’t constantly being scrutinised and criticised by the motoring scribblers. Rover quite rightly wanted a slice of the cake but their credibility was always seen way below par, not so much in retail sales, but fleet sales – and the company car market was very important. Both GM and Ford, along with other credible European makes, had the muscle and deep pockets to slog it out price wise in a pricing war that had been rumbling away since the mid 1980s.
Austin Rover tried their hardest to show the public they were making an engineering and product led comeback, but in reliability terms, the 800 range had hardly shown Volvo or VW records of dependability when first launched. Quite simply, the 820 was underpowered, underwhelming and under refined in a class where much more is expected – as the saying goes “there’s no second chance for a first impression”. As you can guess, it sold in penny numbers, suffered terrible residual values and faded away to the point that nowadays it’s almost the forgotten Rover 800. It didn’t do much for the rest of the range either, because in plusher trim levels the 800 was really a very nice car.
But the O-Series 820 was very late to a party it probably shouldn’t have been invited to in the first place. The fleet market rapidly moved towards multivalve twin cam units and even Ford saw fit to delete the Pinto by late 1989. Perhaps if Rover had made more of the single-point injection 820e as its base model and reduced the price accordingly, it may not have incurred the wrath of the motoring press that was unleashed on its carb-fed O-Series powered sibling, but once again, Rover had tried to follow the leader (Granada) and had fallen short by a country mile.
Bodystyle: 5 door Fastback only
Engine:1998cc 8v “O” series with single SU HiF44 Carb and programmed Lucas ignition
Transmission: 5sp Manual Rover PG1/T5 gearbox – no auto option
Max Power: 100BHP
Produced: 1988 – 1990 by Austin Rover Group Cowley