Rover’s baked Alaska.
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.
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.
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.