The applause falls short.
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.
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.
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.