Collaborative Applause Part Two

The applause falls short.

1986 Rover 800. Image: cargurus

Honda’s Legend was brought to market late in 1985, stealing some of ARG’s thunder. Mark Snowdon, Managing Director of Product Development countered this move with an acceptance that Honda were a little faster to button everything up; “late stage modifications, we have a wider model range and we have different ways of launching cars to our Japanese colleagues.” A foil which did little to mask his chagrin. One of those late stage modifications being the M16 engines, which were not fully ready. 800s at launch instead making do with the Honda 2.5 litre engine. The M16 became available later in the year.

Neither car had been a secret. No camouflage wraps or exclusive spy shots in the mid-80’s. Five (or so) long years had passed from Sked’s reconnoitre in Frankfurt to British launch date (10th July 1986), two days after the company rebranded to Rover Group PLC. Whatever their name, the current financial and political situation was far from rosy. Sales were up but losses remained huge, in the tens of millions.

One contributory factor must be the 800’s launch package; Rover paid return airfare where Swiss roads were subjected to a 3,500 complement of journalists, Chief Constables and fleet managers (and wives supposedly) for a weekend jolly. Northumberland was similarly invaded by British MPs and hundreds more foreign journalists, all eager to sample the new executive order.

Rover Group CEO, Harold Musgrove stipulated how important the new car was; “Metro was our survival, the 800 is our future prosperity.Engineering in a finer form from the Viking Longship. Both Musgrove and Snowdon were gone soon into the 800’s sales life.

The Rover 800 saloon: Cowley built, front wheel drive with either five speed manual or automatic four, was a sizeable beast. 4,882 mm long, wheelbase measuring 2,761. At the Japanese specified 1,730 wide, the 800’s height was 1,393. British component input was measured at some 87%. Italian firm VM Motori (now part of FCA) provided an oil burning, 2.5 litre, 118bhp (200 ft/Lb) lump which sold until the 800’s demise.

Image: klassikierweb

In the main, the 800 was favourably looked upon; UK’s Car magazine however cast more of a dim light upon proceedings. The engines in particular came under heavy fire, “the 2.5 V6 woefully short of mid-range torque making this an ill-bred executive car.” Along with equal praise for the four cylinder, “being neither refined nor especially lively.” The final crack of the artillery barrage landing with a “Bland Rover” front page spread.

Motor had altogether different views after their Northumberland sortie. “We can’t think of a better two litre, 16 valve car. Gives both Mercedes and BMW something to think about.” Unanimous praise was meted out for the interior; comfortable, supportive seating with a modern outlook whilst maintaining some British characteristic charm. The dashboard, instruments backlit in red was a Richard Hamblin effort.

February 1988 witnessed a revised and improved V6 variant; now bored out to 2.7 litres, offering a flatter torque curve with more power. In addition, the Fastback (often, incorrectly referred to as lift back) shape and return of the Vitesse badge brought faint echoes of those halcyon SD-1 days. For Rover, now under BAe ownership, profits became paramount, a facelift alongside the forever-delayed coupé were mooted.

Project code R17 gave Sked the chance to modernise the 800’s rather austere looks but a contentious door issue would cause irritation. Andy Barr, Rover’s Director of Manufacturing Operations had a reputation of ruling by fear according to workers. Barr, with cost implications in mind, retained the old XX door dies which had become worn, shouting down dissenters to the impending R17’s production.

Sked also suffered agony over incorporating a new grille for R17. The Sibling 600 was first given this treatment; when shown in car clinics, the realisation that the new 800 would, after countless iterations end up with a solution that “looked more right than all those others.” Other R17 treats included modifications to the M16 engines, increasing power and torque.

January 1992 saw Rover uniquely offer their executive car in three guises: saloon, fastback and finally, the party frock Coupé. Time nor tide waited for Rover – prices had risen markedly; nearly £31,000 for the V6 automatic coupé placing this agreeably handsome two door firmly in Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes territory, a matter the 800 proved sadly ineffective at.

The heavily revised R17 800. Image: autodata1.com

Overall sales started off well; 500 per week (in a factory with triple capacity) shifting 15,609 from launch in 1986, a peak the following year of 54,434 with a steady decline over the car’s twelve year lifetime. British sales remained strong enough to ruffle the Granada’s tiara for some eight years.

America however proved a tougher nut to crack. With competition from Acura’s Legend having a year’s head start already, Rover set up ARCONA: Austin Rover Cars Of North America selling not Rovers (a tarnished name in the US by then) but Sterling. Initial sales were reasonable (30,000 per year planned) but quality issues soon reared their ugly heads; poor fitting and brittle trim, electrical issues, rusting, leather that (allegedly) would turn green in the sunshine.

Honda’s longer stateside presence paid dividends whilst ARCONA limped on until, rather ironically just before the coupé was launched. Designed with the American market in mind, pulling the coupé before its tyres rolled onto American tarmac utterly destroyed what was left of Sterling’s business case, to say nothing of its reputation.

In total, Cowley built 317,306 examples up to the close of play in January 1999. Saddled by an old design, even with a (to these eyes) wonderful refresh with the R17, the competition was too strong. Having but pinpricked the American market helped not at all. Production issues, changes of ownership, a badge losing weight; three aspects (with dozens more) that led the Gordon Sked design briefly tabling head position before being unceremoniously ousted for the simple act of not doing its job correctly.

Editor’s note: To correct a misconception by the author in the original text, reference to the M16 engine delay has been amended to reflect more accurate information. The O-Series option was introduced as an entry level model in 1988.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

21 thoughts on “Collaborative Applause Part Two”

  1. I owned a 1997 800 Vitesse Coupe; I thought it was a handsome beast, it had the best paintwork I’ve ever seen on a “volume” car, and the leather and (red) carpets were superb quality and looked great, but while decently powerful the engine was as rough as ten bears with an idle gearstick wobble like an old transit. Riddled with faults and poor durability as it aged, I think everything that could die did die between 100k and 120k miles.

    £31k for an 827 coupe in 1992? No thanks.

    1. The 827 was slightly different gravy to the Vitesse- for one it had the Honda V6 which, if never the most torquey engine, was turbine smooth and more reliable. I am not saying it was worth the asking, but it was a nicer car.

  2. The sales numbers are comparable to the Citroen XM and I can’t remember the latter being considered a particular sales success.

    1. For whats its worth, it was the most successful Rover ever in terms of sales (if not much else) according to a recent piece in Autocar. That surprised me, as I would have guessed that the R8 200/400 would have taken that honour.

    2. That can’t be right – it must have been the R8 200/ 400.

  3. I suspect David’s experience with his 800 coupé described above was depressingly typical. There was always a disappointing lack of the heft one expects in a large car with the 800, an element of flimsiness, both physical and visual, that somehow undermined it.

    For me, the R17 facelift merely exacerbated the ‘long and narrow’ look forced upon the car by Honda’s stipulation regarding width. The decision retain the existing door pressings even though the presses were worn out was, if true, heroically dumb.

  4. I don’t recall the ‘O’ Series being available at launch? I do recall the M16e not being ready (the single-point injection version) though. I also recall that the ‘O’ was introduced when the Fastback was launched, because there was much ‘foot-in-mouth’ fodder spoken about how the ‘O’ was a great choice for the 800 because of its low down torque characteristics, something the M16 was criticised about from the off. I could be wrong, though, that’s all from memory and it was a long time ago.

    Further, from memory, when the R17 was launched, the mods to the M16, which partly fixed the issue of low down torque, were considered significant and meaningful enough for Rover to change the engine’s identity to T-series (I think there was a link to an article about the both in the footnotes to Part 1 of this series.

    I was never a fan of the R17 – my favourite 800s were the late facelifts of the original version which wore the more protruding-profiled bumpers which originally appeared on US Sterlings.

    Of course, the coupé was a tragedy given how wonderfully elegant and advanced the CCV looked … one of the reasons it was never productionised in this form was that it clinicked badly in the US, hence the eventual redesign which never made it to its target market. What with the story about reusing the original doors on the R17, you couldn’t make these things up, could you?

    1. SV: I suspect you may be correct as regards the O-Series/M16e. I’ll ask Andrew to double check his police work and if so, I’ll amend accordingly.

      Speaking of the entry level 800, the inimitable LJKS had this to say in July 1988, having damned the 827 Vitesse with faint praise – (Legend was nicer). “Duty impels me to report that I also drove the 820E, which was painfully dull and would go fast only if it were dropped from a great height. Whatever its bodily shape, if anyone describes it to you as a fastback, you may retort that fast back is how it should be returned whence it came. That car is nonsense – it has to work hard even to idle.”

      So Leonard, you liked it then?

    2. Eóin; priceless comments, thanks. Made me laugh – I do recall that the 820E had a reputation for lacking the puff to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

  5. The inconsistent panel gaps around the headlights and indicators of what was presumably a press car in that first photograph are shocking.

    I remember CAR Magazine’s coverage of the 800’s launch. I think the cover headline was something like “England Expects…but Austin Rover Fails to Deliver”.

  6. What’s so interesting to me is the way the revised 800 and the contemporary Scorpio Saloon took on the same (more conservative)styling cues around the rear of the glasshouse, losing the wraparound feel and going for a solid painted c pillar. In a tight cropped picture you’d be hard put to tell the difference between the two cars.

  7. I still think the coupe is a very elegant car and well appointed, apart from the cheap sun visors I mentioned in Andrew’s previous article. Apart from the likes of Rolls and Bentley, I don’t remember seeing contrasting coloured piping to the leather seats in any other brand. It certainly looked the part and gave it an air of opulence. Pity the quality of the rest of the car let it down. Great article Andrew, thank you.

  8. My awareness of this car is marginal compared to the necessary existence of the Omega and Scorpio. Even the 605 and XM seem more meaningful competitors in the market Rover played in. Rover had the quality of a mass market brand and lacked the ability to exceed the expectations of Mercedes and Jaguar buyers. Really, if you wanted a well-rounded and affordable big car, Ford and Opel´s effors were better; if you wanted something a slice higher, Rover could not match the cheery opulence of Jaguar or Mercedes´ bullet-resistant austerity. Vauxhall´s marketing arm consistently shot Vauxhall´s selling foot with their abysmal slogans. Rover´s “Above all it´s a Rover” was memorable far worse: snobbery and deceit in a few syllables.

    1. “Above all it’s a Rover” combined with organising an overseas “jolly” at exorbitant cost tells me all I need to know about the Company and how wrong their principles, or lack of them, really were.
      Another really interesting article though Andrew so many thanks.

  9. A very enjoyable pair of articles, thank you.

    The 800 is one of those cars my estimation of which, at least in terms of its visual design, has changed a lot over the years. I have come to appreciate the sharply-creased original far more as time has gone by and it has aged (to my eyes at least) gracefully, particularly in fastback form. The facelift was a skilful exercise, though I have difficulty seeing past the compromise of the doors on the 4 and 5-door versions. The coupé is a delight.

  10. Thank you for the article, Andrew – lots to think about.

    I believe that the extensive launch, including inviting MPs, was justified. They wanted to get press, fleet buyers and those funding Rover at the time (taxpayers, via the government) on side. At the time of the 800’s launch, Rover was in big financial trouble, with other newly-launched car ranges not doing well. I’d argue that, in the grand scheme of things, a solid launch would be a worth while investment to generate a good impression for the 800 and shore-up support for the wider company.

    What was less good was the fact that they hadn’t built up much stock and had over-priced the first cars to try to suppress demand. Supply problems were then further exacerbated by shortages from suppliers; and then – this is genius – Jaguar chose to launch a new, cheaper model of the XJ6, priced well below the top-of-the-range 800 at the same time.

    It’s odd – a lot of bad decisions appear to have been taken due to stubborn and unapproachable managers; equally, there appeared to be no one actually knocking heads together for the good of the wider firm.

    Richard Hamblin was mentioned as being involved in the dashboard design – his work is worth investigating further.

    1. Charles: Harold Musgrove was definitely a man who was more than capable of knocking heads together. Perhaps a little too adept? Certainly, his robust approach failed to chime with Car’s journalists at the time, as can be evinced by the tone of reporting around the time of the 800’s launch, which sounded a petulant and snide note upon reflection.

      From what I can gather, his predecessor, Ray Horrocks, (who replaced Sir Michael Edwardes as BL CEO in 1982) did much to inflame a long-standing distrust between BL itself and Jaguar. Horrocks (according to Sir John Egan’s account), attempted to railroad Jaguar into launching XJ40 in early 1984, when it was far from fully-developed. He was also very keen to ensure that the car would not step on the 800’s toes in the marketplace. However, matters became further complicated by the fact that Jaguar was sundered from BL’s influence by the 1984 floatation on the stock market and subsequent period of independence, allowing them to do as they saw fit – one of those actions being to compete directly on price with top of the range 800s.

      I get a strong impression that the Rover was introduced a little too hurriedly in 1986, perhaps in the knowledge that the XJ6 was to be announced that Autumn and by then, ARG/Rover Group management knew what Egan and co were planning. Perhaps, had there been more of an environment of trust between both entities, it might have been possible for them to have reached some form of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ prior to the parting of the ways, but by then, all trust was gone.

      In Egan’s memoir, published a couple of years ago, he speaks warmly of Edwardes (who he rated highly), with some respect for Musgrove (who was a man of his word, it seems), but is scathing about about Horrocks, who I must say, comes out of it all very poorly indeed.

      On the subject of the 800 and its reception, I worked for an Irish leasing company, circa-1988/90 and not only were Rover 800s not a popular choice, prospective user-choosers were actively discouraged from selecting one; the proposed monthly payments usually sufficient to stop any fleet manager in their tracks. Any who did succumb, did not repeat the experiment. Like their predecessor, they did not wear well. Also like their predecessor (and many of its stablemates), Rover got on top of the quality issues later, but the damage was done early.

    2. I agree with that – also re the other Richard, Richard Woolley who is, I believe, still at Land Rover.

    3. Very interesting, thank you, Eóin. I had forgotten about Jaguar’s stock market flotation. It seems very odd, now – they would have been far too small to compete on their own.

      It sounds as if John Egan’s memoir is worth tracking down. I’ll have to get myself a copy.

      S.V. – yes, I agree re Richard Woolley. There are quite a few interesting characters. You’ve got to admit that what the British car industry lacked in more traditional values, it more than made up for in subsequent entertainment value.

  11. An advert referencing the “House of Cards” TV political drama. Like nails down a blackboard…

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