Sterling statesman

Steven Ward

Rover through and through
Rover through and through

What with forum member, Alex Sebbinger, having a run of bad luck buying and running an ever evolving fleet of Rover 800s, I decided to brush-up on my ‘XX’ Product Knowledge. Just lately, Alex had bought a J-plated Rover 800 Sterling, which was the last of the ‘XX’ Sterlings from fellow forum member Very Tall Brad.

To bring your PK up to speed, XX is the codename for the Rover 800 which debuted to a not very impressed UK way back in 1986. Styled by Roy Axe, designed in collaboration with Honda and built at Cowley, this car was Austin Rover’s Great White Hope. It wasn’t executed particularly well and was replaced with a facelifted car which sported a dashing chrome grille in 1991- and that model is referred to as R17 by those with more PK than social etiquette.

Anyway, back to the chase. Alex contacted me with the loosely asked question ‘would I be interested in taking this car off his hands at a knock-down price?’ I said I would give it some thought and delved into my stowage chest to find my brochures and salesman’s guides.

The car boasted the big USA spec bumpers and high compression 2.7-litre Honda engine, making this a XXc for those of you in need of a PK refresher. I was impressed – especially when I discovered that the exact brochure for the car’s Model Year uses a Sterling of exactly the same colour scheme for most of the two-page spread shots.

Does anyone remember those beautiful-to-behold large square brochures that Rover started producing in 1990? Big, glossy white, perfectly square, with a special parchment paper covering page that almost gift wrapped the pictures and text which lay inside, they had an expensive feel and were littered with critical acclaim quotations from the press. This really was the high mark for The Firm’s sales bumph and I’m the man with a collection of hard back brochures that Rover tried out in the mid 80s. Anyway, the opening page has this quotation:

With The Possible Exception Of Concorde, No Machine So Nicely Put Together Has Ever Before Come Out Of England
Car & Driver Magazine, USA Sterling Road Test

Read that, hold the heavy brochure and look at the artistic and technically revealing photos and you wonder where it all went wrong. Quote after quote is of that ilk and the technical specification reads like a NASA engineering paper.

A piece on the air-con really caught my attention. The brochure states that the ‘very sophisticated” Automatic Air Conditioning is able to change the entire cabins air every 3 minutes and, as proof of that claim, goes on to tell us: ‘There can be few more stringent critics of air conditioning than a Florida-based journalist- this is what Richard Truett said in a road test of a Sterling: ‘Something must be said about the Sterling’s air conditioning system. It is the finest one I’ve ever encountered in a car. Air is distributed throughout the cabin quickly and silently. For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I didn’t mind getting caught in one of Florida’s broiling traffic jams”. Praise indeed.’

Now, this initially made the hairs on the back of my neck stand-up on end. Could this be our Richard Truett who blogs on these very pages about his Rover Sterling and Triumphs? Surely, it must be? How apt that Rover chose to include his words in a brilliant brochure.

A compliment that Richard would unwittingly repay many times over in later years in his unstinting praises of Canley and Cowley’s ‘finest’. Then joy turned to frustration. A frustration that any Sterling salesman would know. Rover could never really get that air-con system to work reliably during the course of the 800’s long production run and ultimately cost-cut the system.

Where did it all go wrong? In promising so much and failing consistently to deliver for so long, that’s where.

Keith Adams


  1. $1500 OBO. Clean Titled 1988 British Sterling with 160 k fair car to get around town in.
    Good tires for summer and winter…
    The exterior paint, trim and interior show wear, needs minor reconditioning. It being 30 years old and it’s been sitting in the garage for 2 years; it’s going to need some mechanical repair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.