I was there : US testing of the Rover 800

The top picture shows the three of us driving from Timmins to Kapuskasing, Ontario in Canada on ice that was 2in thick with snow on top, and a space-saver on. We were there to test the Rover 800 away from the prying eyes of scoop photographers, as well as put meaningful miles on to our pre-production test car.

As can be seen from the images, the 800 is wearing panels to disguise its looks, with a fastback rear end and squared-off front including non-production quad headlights.

Fellow engineer Robin and I drove about 2500 miles from Kapuskasing via Detroit to visit an Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMC) Lab. This was run by United Technologies who built part of the Shuttle, and they gave us VIP passes to watch the shuttle take-off. Then we’d drive to Miami for more EMC testing under high power FM transmittors to check the car radio was not overloaded (it was).

On the way to the test, I realised we would pass Greenville – the biggest Broadcast Transmitters on the planet – so I thought we should try and get in. Arriving at security we were turned away, which was a disappointment. The guard said that, in order to get in, we needed clearance from the Pentagon… so I asked if he had name/number, which he duly gave us!

With the number in hand, we drove to a gas station and I called the Pentagon on its pay phone. Amazingly, they gave us access, and I’d blagged my way in! We got back to the security gate, and sure enough, we had been authorised!

The guys in the TX were only too happy to help (naturally we took them out in the car on the miles of private road) and said they could set up frequency sweeps with 500kW, anything we wanted.

The photos show some runs we did under the feeders and in front of the curtain arrays, the only fault was the heater blower (turned off!) was being driven in tune with some broadcast.

The engine management and ABS were fine in the test. With that completed, we then took the bonnet off completely (no pics that I can find) and did a few high speed runs and emergency stops.

Then onto Miami, we arrived two days before the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster. The take-off was cancelled twice because of bad weather (it was freezing), so the picture of the car is the day before. On the day of the launch it was even colder, but they were under pressure by the media I guess.

On the day of the first shuttle cancellation we had a bit of time to kill so we decided to drive to Naples on the Gulf. There was very little traffic, so I was flat out redline in fifth (this was a rare manual transmission car!) – that’s more than 140mph –  and down a slip road comes a police car to give chase.

He was hopping mad, gun out and aggressive – ‘nobody does 70mph in my state,’ he cried! Eventually, he calmed down and I got a fine on the spot. I asked how he had timed us, he pointed in the sky and it was a spotter plane – he must have thought the pilot had worked it out wrong and halved it!

The picture with the rear camo off was actually late afternoon after the space shuttle disaster and, understandably, we didn’t feel like doing much. I wanted to try a different aerial so we bought one locally and fitted it outside the motel. Over the next days we drove back to New York to get the car air freighted back to the UK, testing successfully completed.

Arthur Monks
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    • I was there too and thought then the 800 was a good car and drove beautifully and the Vitesses’ were crazy quick. I was a contract test driver for MG Rover and Land Rover in the 90’s and remember well one night shift in the small hours and the road empty deciding to see what it had got, seeing 155mph, thats when you realise what appears to be straight road is not so!
      As for the well recorded problems that remarkably were never noted by the press that BMW, Audi, VW etc also suffered from!!!I can tell you one of the reasons faults/niggles wernt ironed out is because the Rover employed, unionised buggers from Longbridge didnt do the tests properly on track or on the road.
      There were any number of combinations of roads and routes in a ten hour shift to be covered in various tests and any time it involved being near a motorway the said drivers would whack on the required miles up and down the motorway then sleep the rest of the shift in the car.
      Unions and inept management, all part and parcel of the demise of the British car industry sad but true.

      • Unions are an important protection from greedy employers and I don’t understand the link here, if people weren’t doing their jobs properly that’s on the management. Yes some of the Longbridge union leaders put politics before the staff they represented but that’s not relevant here.

  1. Arthur: I recall a Motor Magazine article that detailed the tests the 800 went through. I was 100 percent confident that with such extensive and punishing testing, Rover would catch any problems before launch. So, I can’t tell you how shocked I was when those 1st Sterling 825s suffered from so very many maladies.
    — The air conditioners constantly broke
    — The front sidelights (turn signals) fell off
    — Speedometers broke
    — Leather turned green
    — Windscreen trim shrunk and dropped off
    — Myriad of electrical problems

    The first 800 I bought was an ’89 fastback. The interior lights would not turn off. The air con, of course, wouldn’t keep its charge, and the speedometer was upgraded to the ’90-91 Denso unit in a factory kit.
    How is it that none of these issues surfaced during testing? And if they did, why were no changes made?

    • Those fails look more like building/QC than test related. Just yesterday watched on YouTube the BBC1 special on the Jaguat XJ40 development trials witch looks pretty similar (even the cami panelling looks almost the same!) and still the production car had loads of electric gremlins and improper interior furnishings and overal lack on quality problems

    • I was responsible for Aerodynamics development and then for some of the interior trim and hardware after Job 1.
      My only complete breakdown was in 1987 I took a Rover 820 to France on the hovercraft and the immobiliser would not switch off when the car was inside the hovercraft. The deck hands told me it was to do with EM radiation from the turbogenerators on the Hovercrafts gas turbine engines, and was quite common on all makes. They pushed the car off the vessel and the remote control worked wwhen the car was about 20m away, immobiliser deactivated and off we went. I spoke to a contact in Electrics who said ” we haven’t tried that one, we’ll send a car down to measure the frequency and stenght of the signal” And they did!

  2. If only they had launched the 800 with that quad headlamp front end… It had followon identity from the better versions of the P6, and looked much more aggressive than the odd single square headlamp front end the 800 got stuck with.

  3. Sitting in the traffic waiting to get into Morrisons yesterday, my mood was lightened by seeing a red J reg Rover 800 fastback- last of the original model- on the other side of the road. It was like being back in the nineties again as the 800 is so rare now.

  4. Thanks for your Memories. It is a shame that Rover couldn’t build it right from the top, as Honda proved with the Legend it could have given the company the shot it needed. I have to agree I like the twin headlight front, but it does remind me of an 80s skyline!

  5. Interesting article, but as Richard Truett’s experience shows, what was the point of all that testing in the USA. The car was full of faults. Why were they not exposed by the testing?

    It always seemed to be the case that cars were tested in the arctic, and the desert, and were presumably fine, but back in the UK where is is never minus 50 or plus 50, they just never worked properly.

    Gorka is also right about the XJ40. My father had one in 1987, following the 1986 launch. One day he was driving home and the brake failure picture appeared on the information screen and sure enough, he had next to no brakes and had to crawl home.

    Jaguar eventually realised that the brake fluid was eating the plastic reservoir and the particles that were being dissolved were blocking the brake lines. They modified the part to a metal reservoir and the problem was solved. Why was that not picked up in the millions of miles of testing, no doubt in the arctic and desert, but was discovered by my father on his commute home in the UK on an average UK day?

  6. Reading this brought home memories of my father’s 1991 Model Year 827 Sterling. In the three years he owned it which saw him racking up 100,000 miles, the air conditioning unit was not the most reliable. On a hot summer’s day it would suddenly throw out hot air only. The local dealer investigated this and after discussions with Longbridge, were advised to fit a replacement air conditioning unit. The first replacement unit was covered under warranty, but the second one required about fifteen months later, wasn’t covered under a warranty. Apart from that and some minor corrosion issues near the fuel filler flap and on the corner of the bootlid, it was a very reliable car and much missed when it was replaced by something from Munich.

    A similar issue was found on his first 800 Series, an ex-demonstrator 820i, where again there was an issue with the heating/ventilation control unit. Corrosion was also present on the A’ pillar above the upper door hinge and also on the sills, despite it being only four years old when he eventually sold it. Thankfully the corrosion issues were much improved for the 1991 Model Year cars.

    However, one wonders whether all these issues would have been identified by this type of test programme.

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