Collaborative Applause – Part One

Rover’s baked Alaska.

1986 Rover 800. Image: rover-club.fr

Pity the poor car designer forty years hence. A CAD drove a Jaguar. Engines powered cars, not searches, whilst rivals were (almost) willing to explain their plans. Such was the case when BL chief designer, Gordon Sked moseyed through the 1981 Frankfurt motor show – to gain an understanding of what the opposition were up to.

Realising curves, swoops and sophisticated electronics had become de rigueur, he reported to his Canley masters that BL had to change tack if they wanted to not only continue but perhaps even steal a march on the rising, German tide.

Quickly realising the all new Montego, even re-bodied would be no match to the autobahn-stormers, CEO, Ray Horrocks and Product Chief, Mark Snowdon were keen to have Honda on board from the crack of the starting pistol. Snowdon, to his delight found Honda highly receptive to the collaborative proposal; a large bodied and engined executive vehicle for European and American soil. Progress was swift; November 1981 saw the ink dry on the joint Austin Rover/ Honda Project XX contract.

Prior to the handshakes, Canley’s design studio had jumped the gun by creating sketches which were then revealed to the Honda representatives. Citing the recently facelifted SD1 from the pen of David Bache as chief progenitor, Sked had by summer ‘82 a full size clay model of the XX (known as DEV1) for display. Those elements include the flankside swage line, slim headlights, ribbed rear lights and grill-less nose. No bones were made about the shape – most definitely a three box saloon, a pugilistic commercial decision thrown directly at German car sales in both Europe and the States.

Trust, alongside dynamics are crucial for such international collaborations; Honda and Austin Rover were getting along just fine until the width dimension came into play. Japanese taxation favours narrower vehicles. AR wanted a wider car making for a cosseting interior; a compromise leading to a sea-change over the available space, for the cars greater good.

Now named HX (Honda) and XX (Rover), that initial agreement limited styling changes to both front and rear overhangs. The stylists won out; whilst mechanically almost identical, what became the 800 and Legend looked completely different. However, complications occurred under that long bonnet.

Rover was adamant about installing the Roland Bertodo M16 2-litre four cylinder engine that would guarantee pan-European acceptance. Honda (or rather Acura, their American brethren) had eyes only for their 2.5 litre V6. Matters of tessellation reached crisis point when it was revealed the Honda V6 was in fact larger than when first measured.

Nine millimetres extra metal gave rise to the Japanese to apply wheel arch blisters; the Coventry based crew taking the opportunity to flesh out the proportions. Sked’s barrelled side work from DEV1 led to DEV2 in the autumn of ‘82. Honda not only came clean with their measuring error, but compensated Canley for their trouble. Harmony was regained.

DEV2 was flown out to Minato for a combined Japanese and British top brass approval meeting. Both Axe and Sked were justifiably unhappy with the details, DEV2 overall dimensions were “too soft, troubling us” according to Sked. Dubbed DEV3, this revised glass fibre and clay full size mock-up became the definitive article after six more months toil.

Canley design studio. (c) Shado.co.uk

Returning to the engine bay, Honda’s silky smooth V6 was a decidedly non-executive high revving engine. 5000 rpm with the manual gearbox for 160 foot pounds does not a mellifluous ride, make. It would take almost five years of development to correct.

Director of Powertrain Engineering, Roland Bertodo and team, with limited funding were charged with developing at least 70 horsepower per litre*. The previous O-series engine with a single carburettor could shift 46bhp/litre. To cope with ever stricter emission standards, a two litre, twin-cam 16 valve fuel injection set up was developed, complemented by some decade old technology.

Triumph’s engineers had found the pent-roof combustion chamber design gave excellent fuel economy, power and emissions, but were unsure why. Bertodo took up the development mantle of Triumph’s endeavours resulting in effective lean burn running; the M16e managing 118bhp at a still high 5,600 rpm, the M16i offered 138bhp at 6,000.

Time, as is it’s wont, moved to 1983 where we find another block to stumble over – chassis set up. Rover’s gaze was to tradition, allowing for interior space. The Japanese demanded (and won) the argument for double wishbones at excessive cost. It was noted by Rover’s head of chassis engineering, Verdon Morris that certain “meetings of minds” were necessary to thrash out the compromise between technical purity (Honda) and Rover’s more pragmatic, package-driven approach.

Speculation as to what Rover could have achieved singularly still ring today. Regardless, without the input from Minato, not only would the 800 been a totally different car but could have easily have foundered before seeing the light of day. One can sense the teeth being gnashed, egos bruised and foreheads slapped but collaboratively chipping away, both companies heralded an alternative executive class car to take on the Granada/ Scorpio, Carlton et al.

1986 Rover 800 publicity still. Image: favcars

With the HX/XX development phases all but done, a decision was made sometime in 1984 to look into a hatchback version. Sked’s low, flat belt line of the saloon made the job (for such a talented team) relatively straightforward. Meanwhile, a longing for lucrative American sales, saw market research there pinning the tail of the donkey as a two door coupé; the Turin show in April 1986 the launch pad of CCV, Rover’s elegantly conceived Concept Coupé Vehicle.

In part two we look at the 800 saloon’s launch, along with reaction and evolution.

* We recommend this fine piece on the ARG’s M and T-series engine.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

38 thoughts on “Collaborative Applause – Part One”

  1. I once test drove a couple of 800 coupes when I was looking for something to replace my 230CE. They were both the later Rover engined V6’s. Although they looked and drove well, I was left a little disappointing by the quality of some of the interior. They’d obviously raided their parts bin for some of it. What I couldn’t accept, and became the deciding factor not to buy at the time, was the cheap sun visors which were exactly the same as the Maestro. I’d expected something a little better in what was their flagship car. I gave to admit though, a colleague had the Vitesse Coupe with the 2 litre turbo engine. It drove like stink and was the first car I went in that produced over 200 bhp.

  2. The rear corner has the orange field of the lamps interfering with radius between the side and rear of the car. Above the lamp is the bodyside crease. In summary, the 800 is an early version of the problem with live with today, a mass of features hanging in the air.
    These days nobody uses stately mansionettes for background scenery. It´s usually a grey minimalist suburban home with a vast expanse of grey brick paving. The b&w image at the start of this article is very nostalgia-inducing, isn´t it?

  3. Good morning Andrew and thank you for a nice reminder of the 800, in which so much hope was invested back in the day. To my mind, the 800 was another of those 1980’s ‘nearly right’ Austin Rover cars, like the Maestro and Montego, with many good qualities but let down by the missing final 10% of product development that would have made it great.

    I remember when I first saw one in the metal and thinking there was almost a childish naivety to the design: all those sharp horizontal crease lines along the flanks, which certainly made it look long and low, but somehow robbed it of the visual heft one expected in a large saloon.

    The multiple creases were more apparent in reality than in any single photo, but the photo above shows them reasonably well. There’s one immediately below the DLO, a second running through the door handles, then that deep scallop immediately above the side rubbing strip. It’s the one running through the door handles that is really superfluous, I think, and the car would have looked better without it.

    In fairness, the lack of visual heft was partly a result of Honda’s preference for a low bonnet and waistline, as can be seen in the HX Legend:

    Whatever the 800 needed to distinguish it from the Legend, it wasn’t design details to make it look even lower!

    1. I won´t call the Legend a particularly delectable car either. It is more sensible – almost industrial-looking. The crease at the base of the C-pillar doesn´t work too well. Rover did that better. The rest is okay and I´d give the Honda the nod.
      Did anyone notice the very Citroen-esque tape drawing on the wall in the background in the photo montage? Did Rover really spend even a week running that one up?

  4. When they facelifted the 800 and added the grille they moved the side rubbing strip up to conceal the scallop, but there was nothing they could do about the crease through the door handles as they decided to retain the existing doors:

    1. Taking a longer view, what all these different phases of Rover´s fight for survival indicate is that that it was a hopeless case from the moment it was swallowed into BMC/BL. The cars it made on its own were underdeveloped and the cars whose development was borrowed were compromised in lots of other ways. Wasn´t it all a huge waste of resources? And also, I have to ask, why did other medium-sized countries in the world make a better job of producing cars? France, Italy and Germany managed at least one succesful domestic manufacturer – France has two major groups. Germany has three. Indicative of something-or-other is the way GM and Ford have gradually backed out of the UK as a base for manufacturing and design. JLR is the last man-standing and you could say only just (alas for Jaguar).

    2. The facelift is awful, isn’t it – look at how the ‘lamps miss-align with the grille and the indicators next to them. In addition, the wheelbase looks too short and it also looks under-wheeled.

  5. Is this story reminiscent of all the wasted effort expended in turning the good Mondeo into the much-loved X-Type? How much effort did Rover really save? The Honda Legend was a good enough car and the Rover had to be good enough and different. Was the trouble worth it?

    1. I think that’s a really good challenge. If you look at the later Mk1 Rover 200 (and its facelift), these were very similar to the Honda they were based on, with just changes to the front and rear and the odd detail. These were, in my view, surprisingly successful models, often outperforming the home-grown Maestro and Montego in the UK sales league. The public seemed to understand that a lot of the underlying components, engineering and design were that of Honda and liked the idea of accessing the underlying promise of better reliability with the more tastefully trimmed interiors of the Rovers over the Honda. The fact that they looked a bit awkward, didn’t seem to matter that much.

  6. What I have never fully understood is whether BL (Michael Edwardes, if you want to believe that MDs/ CEOs carry the can for such things) saw the hook-up with Honda as a target for their strategic business and operating model (i.e. they would partner with them on every aspect of the business – and so every model in the range – for the future), or, as more tactical partner whom they would leverage for a period until they got themselves fully solvent and viable in the long term and/ or selectively chose models for co-development? Most evidence seems to point to the former, although the collaboration seemed to become ever-more pervasive as time went by.

    It’s an important point when considering Richard’s excellent thought above about why BL bothered styling its own car in full. BL, or at least factions within it, clearly wanted to retain core capability to be able to design and engineer models for the future, and so did what it could to retain control and mandate to do so. Hence, Sked, Axe, Bertodo, et al were fighting hard to maintain design and engineering input into XX and its successors. There’s a really nice interview with Richard Woolley on AROnline which really brings this to life on the later 600 and 400 series cars. One of the apparent oversights in the due diligence by BMW when it bought Rover Group was about the depth and effectiveness of its ability to design and engineer a whole new model – again, interviews of those involved in the development of the ‘new’ MINI highlight that, time and time again, the Rover team laid claim to undertaking aspects of the development, only to have to go cao in hand to Munich for help.

    Overall, one gets the sense that BL/ Rover ended up in the worst of both worlds – dependent on Honda in reality, but in not strategically recognising it, carrying ineffective and inefficient cost in over-inflated design and engineering to be a profitable and therefore sustainable as it could and should have been. That’s a cold, hard assessment, but probably correct.

  7. One of the (many) problems for Austin Rover in the 1980’s was the lack of any consistent design theme running through its range of cars. Each one seemed to be designed from scratch with no reference to other models in the range. This made their showrooms look like a jumble sale of confusing and overlapping models. This was partly a legacy issue with cars like the Ital and Ambassador, but AR had the chance to start afresh with the Metro, Maestro and Montego and completely messed it up. It might have mattered less if each had been outstandingly attractive in its own right, but that was far from the case.

    Another missed opportunity was this abandoned proposal for a Montego facelift, to bring its appearance into line with the 800:

    It’s not difficult this style being scaled down somewhat for an attractive Maestro reskin as well.

    1. Daniel, I think that would have qualified for one of your ‘clever’ reskins which I know you enjoy. It is a pity they didn’t go this far with the eventual production facelift, which retained – erm – the new grille shown on the photo you provide.

    2. Indeed. Getting rid of the concave indentation along the flanks and going for a more conventional rear quarter treatment did wonders for it. It’s rather more sophisticated looking design than the 800.

  8. Even though he’s portrayed as the man who ‘saved’ Rover (Group) design among certain circles, I’m yet to be impressed with Roy Axe’s work. The ’80s output was quite business-like, with little or none of the awkwardness of a great many ’70s BL designs, but I find it very difficult indeed to detect much charisma either. Processes may have been considerably updated (and budgets increased), but the results hardly ended up being products to conquer the world.

    I don’t know when the lionising of Rover Group design began and whether this was an effort by management (given Musgrove had been the one who gave Bache the boot) or enthusiasts, retroactively – but to me at least, the 800 was never as brilliant as the Maestro/Montego were said to be terribly, stylistically.

    1. Agree – and, with retrospect – looking at his previous portfolio with Chrysler/ Talbot, that should not be that surprised. The likes of the Alpine, Horizon and Solara were all neat and correct but hardly characterful or approaching anything like sophisticated. You can see the lineage between these cars and the 800 in particular, but also the later R8 200/ 400 too.

    2. If Axe was determined to ‘improve’ the Montego before launch, he might have done better to look back to this early prototype:

      In fairness, reverting to something like this would have required more extensive changes than either time or budget allowed. Of course, this prototype is a bit dull and needs refinement, but sometimes the conventional approach is conventional for a good reason, i.e. it works!

  9. Thank you Andrew, this is why I love DTW, an appraisal of yet another of my favourite cars. However Daniel O’ has spoilt it a bit for me, as I’ll never be able to un-see that side crease. Does it exist as a talent statement, as it adds nothing to the appearance; the crease is incorporated into the door handles so both the handles need to be in perfect alignment otherwise it would look rubbish. ARG flaunting that they’d sorted build quality enough to get a fiddly detail spot on 8,000 times a week or whatever? Style wise it is more accomplished than the Legend, in memory the 800 always looked 3 or 4 years more modern than the Legend, which is almost a whole generation in Honda terms. Seeing them above the gap is less pronounced than I remembered.

    This leads logically to whether or not they needed so much inhouse styling capability. There always seemed to be a sense that Rover was perpetually for sale even on the occasions when it wasn’t. Maintaining styling and powertrain development presumably acted as a dowry for potential suitors.

    BTW no one did parking in front of a castle better than Rover, under MG Rover I think they even ended up owning one, h’mmn. Of course their press people never realised that people who live in stately homes always park round the back…

    1. Hi Richard. By way of atonement, I have taken a steam-iron to the Rover 800 for you. Original vs smoothed out versions below:


      I think the issue wasn’t just the number of creases on the 800’s bodysides, but that every one was a double ‘stepped’ crease with an intermediate horizontal surface which caught the light and (over)emphasised it. It’s similar to the sort of thing that VW are over-indulging in at present, to the detriment of their designs.

    2. Spot on, yes. VW has double creases, as if to make the actual line on the car as thick as it seems on the drawing. Peugeot are doing it too – making creases that look like the reflection on a drawing. I call this literalism in design. It´s tiresome. The 800 looks vastly better with single creases rather than stepped ones.

    3. Hi Daniel, I really like the ironing out of the creases you did. The car does work a lot better now. What really bugs me, though, with the side profile of the 800 is its six-light nature. The window behind the rear passenger door seems almost vestigial; it seems like a complete waste of glass – and, quite possibly, money.

    4. Hi Konstantinos. I agree about that rear quarter window. It looks too narrow to serve any practical purpose and, together with the excess of creases along the flanks, it makes the design look insubstantial. Perhaps Rover was desperate to make look as different as possible from the Legend?

      Here’s a four-light 800:

      Better?

    5. Daniel: This is interesting. Your initial proposal (with rear quarter window) lent the 800 a slight Audi’s C3 100/200 feeling to the flanks, but this treatment feels more timeless. I think the side crease requires a bit more definition, but overall it is so much cleaner. The more formal C-pillar also suits the car and serves to further differentiate it. It looks a more substantial car now.

    6. Daniel’s modification would seem to leave the rear side glass as it was, still absent the rear quarter glass which the Honda had, perhaps for functional reasons. Did the glass drop down all the way in the 800? It could be possible, as this memorable anecdote about Harley Earl, related by Irv Rybicki suggests:

      “The problem became how do you drop the glass in the four-door sedan if it doesn’t have a pillar and get by the locks and door releases? Fisher Body said it was impossible­-you couldn’t build a car like that. So Earl went to our body engi­neering group, and we had a German chap there who spoke with a heavy German accent–he was the leader of the band. His name was Freddy Walther. He sat down with a group, and they worked out this articulated glass drop. It dropped at the back, and the nose dropped in and cleared the door. We put a working mockup together, and Earl, with a big smile, invited the Fisher people over. He said, “I want to show you how impossible that is. Demonstrate Freddy.” And there it was.”

      I think that no car maker bothered with such expensive pedantry once air conditioning became de rigueur, or did they?

    7. Good morning Eóin and gooddog. Yes, the broader C-pillar does add sone visual weight and substance to the side profile. I actually lengthened the rear door a little to make the trailing edge of the rear side window more inclined. This was necessary to stop the C-pillar looking too triangular in shape. The rear door would need a fixed quarter light (or sail panel) to allow the window to wind down fully.

      On the owner hand, how often do people drive around with the side glasses wound down fully these days? Only the driver’s window really needs to do so, to facilitate payment of tolls and obtaining car park tickets etc.

      One of the first cars I noticed where the rear door glass didn’t wind down fully was the Audi 80 B2:

      My now brother-in-law bought one new back in the early 1980’s and we were surprised to discover this. It was the right decision on Audi’s part as cars with a fixed quarter window and a third light behind the door often look rather cluttered in that area. Here’s a particularly egregious example of this trait, the Daewoo Espero:

  10. I have a soft spot for the 800. In 1989, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my mom bought a French magazine (back then, unsold issues were shipped to Brazil to be sold 6 months later, for the price of a Brazilian magazine).

    None of us knew a word of French, and I had less than elementary knowledge of English. My mom called me and said, “look at this beautiful car”. It was a two-page ad for a Rover 827i Sterling (of course I remember the exact name of the car) and it looked astonishing to me.

    Fast forward to the demise of Rover and how Top Gear jokes about it. I thought, “what? the brand that did that beautiful 827i Sterling was nothing but a joke and it filed for bankruptcy?”

    I can’t say I’m brokenhearted to find out that the 800 series was not a legend of its own (pun intended) but it was one of the cars that opened my eyes to whatever the rest of the world had back then. One year after that French magazine, the ban on car imports to Brazil was lifted and Rover had a brief stint bringing cars to Brazil. I know of a single 800 here, probably brought by a diplomat. It was up for sale some years ago and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the ad. But the car had no title, no papers, so I would never be able to re-register it, unless I paid 10 or 15 times the asking price for the 800.

  11. Apologies for going a bit off topic, but I’ve been wondering if the Montego could have been rescued by a more conventional DLO:

    Hmm, I’m not sure. The scalloped sides still spoil it for me. Oddly though, they seem less detrimental on the estate:

    1. The scalloped sides are what lends it its character, for better or worse…

    2. The concave surface is one identifiable feature whereas the double creases don´t aggregate in the same way. One tends to read them as an indeterminate set of lines.

  12. Thank you for the great article, Andrew.

    Ford had a go at the country pile association with the mk1 Granada (6 minutes in to the film). I think they were pushing it, to be honest.

    I recall that Car magazine criticized the 800 for having a very flat roof; an odd thing to pick up on, but hard to unsee, once it’s been pointed out.

    One sad thing, as shown by the facelift studies, above, is that Rover Group’s styling really hit its stride but, as ever, there was no money to implement it. The same goes for their engineering – they had some good ideas, especially in the B and C segments. I suppose it comes down to how many chances a company deserves, or can get.

    As regards Honda’s relationship, that worked well, but I think they recognized Rover’s weakness and could be quite tough partners. Nothing compared to the BMW situation, of course.

    1. The narrator´s accent is remarkable. It has a cut-glass crispness verging on exaggeration (to modern ears). There´s also the 30-a-day rasp. These days, at least in Denmark, male voice-overs are made to sound incredibly bass-heavy so as to capture that sound of deep resonance. They even do it for live studio discusssions so it sounds as if one is listening to 100 metre tall giants from 20 metres distance. I hate it.

    2. I see what you mean – that is irritating.

      The man in the Ford ad definitely had a “professional voiceover artist’s” voice.

    3. Yes, that is exactly the kind of voice-over that is unavoidable in Denmark. They even make female voices sound bassy. I have synæsthesia so that bassy voice makes me visualise wobbly screens between me and the speaker. It is as big a clichée as lens flare. I am afraid to say the Danish media is a tiny world and very short on originality.
      The Ford voice-over chap sounded like an ideal representative of post-war RP. There was a springiness in some of the sounds that people describe as “plumminess”. It´s great fun to listen to. Since then upper class voices have adopted a more laid-back sound, borrowing from Estuary English. The vowels are much the same but the consonents more casually enunciated.

    4. Richard, do you see lights with sound? I recall there was the story of a musician, I think it was, who used to go to concerts and assumed that they dimmed the lights at the start of the performance so that everyone could see the light show which he experienced when he heard music. He didn’t realise he was one of the few people who experienced this.

  13. I never liked the blacked-out A posts on the 800. They always looked back-to-front compared to the Granada/Scorpio with its body-coloured A posts and blacked-out D posts.

  14. What disappointed about these European and UK mid-market cars was lack of torque at low rpm. This prevented most from being the relaxing and refined drive they ought to have been. That issue and lack of reliability (which lead to overly expensive service/repair) undermined them. Very few provided any USP, outstanding attribute or character. Hard to be a great in the absence of those. The Rover didn’t provide much that was different from the rest really. It needed to.

    What is nice about the Rover 800 is how from some angles the side glass almost appears flush- almost, but not quite. Mazda went to quite a bit of trouble to achieve something close to flush mounted glass. The ’87 Mazda 626 (a.k.a. Ford Telstar) featured plastic “buttons” fitted to strategic holes in the side window glass. The “buttons” were part of an assembly which rode in tracks in the doors (in a conventional system the window glass would have been held captive in the tracks). This was a feature from 1987 until as late as 1993. Audi did much the same thing in the C100 sedan. I recall there was some dispute about IP and invention between the two companies in regards to this window mounting system. Anyway, the stated goal seems to have been to get in a few extra points of drag reduction. Since that time both car makers moved away from trying to get to flush glass, probably as it was too expensive for the supposed reduction in drag it provided (as well as the reduction in lateral stability that sneaks up on you if you get too fixated in your drag reduction pursuits- both Audi and Ford have been bit by this).

    On the 800 flush glass would look good. It would suit it. Clever Rover got a similar look without the mechanical elaboration in part by the tint of their window glass and in part by the treatment of the B and C pillars.

    The 800 has good and bland about it- a curious mix. It needed t be outstanding or different (in a good way).

  15. I rather like the horizontal character lines on the original Rover 800(I’m a sucker for horizontal character lines 🙂 ) and I think the overall design is clean and well-proportioned, but ultimately I prefer the Honda Legend. In fact, I think the 1st gen Legend is a great design; honest, beautifully proportioned, and very dynamic thanks to the low hood and beltline and of course those fender flares.

    The Rover 800 was called the Sterling in the US and promised Japanese reliability and British style, but unfortunately, it actually gained a reputation for unreliability and huge depreciation. The Legend, on the other hand, was a great success in the US and helped establish the Acura brand there. Of course, as it so often happens in the car world, every succeeding generation of the Legend or whatever the big Acura ended up being called, was bigger, more bloated, less dynamic, and uglier.

  16. I have driven an 800, looked ok apart from the weak front-end (pre-facelift) and the interior was very cosy.
    There is no point trying to tweak the looks of the 800 – or the Montego for that matter. What held them back was that folk did not trust the brand. They wanted a reliable car, that could be quickly fixed if anything did ever go wrong, and that would have a good resale value when they wanted to change it. British Leyland no longer met these requirements.
    I’m not suggesting that the brands folk do trust are actually worthy of that trust…..

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