Rover 800 (1986 – 1998)

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This was meant to take on the world this was, but sadly it didn’t get very far! The Rover 800 had so many possibilities, so many variants could have been derived from it, but unfortunately the management was once again very quick to nip this beautiful car in the bud, and the Rover 800 would join that long line of ‘what-could-have-been’ motors that seem to pave British motoring history.

The origin of the Rover 800 goes back to the late 1970’s, when nationalised British car manufacturer and all around general failure British Leyland was absolutely desperate to fix its seemingly endless list of problems. The company had now garnered a reputation for creating some of the worst, most outdated cars of all time, the likes of the Morris Marina, the Austin Allegro and the Triumph TR7 being derided in both critical and customer reviews. A mixture of strike action by uncontrollable Trade Unions led by the infamous Red Robbo had meant that cars were only put together for a few hours per day on a three day week. As such, reliability was atrocious on a biblical scale, be it mechanical, cosmetic or electrical.

As such, in 1979, British Leyland began talks with Japanese car manufacturer Honda to try and help improve the reliability of their machines. The pioneer of this brave new deal was the Triumph Acclaim of 1980, BL’s first reliable car and not a bad little runabout. Basically a rebadged Honda Ballade, the Acclaim wasn’t meant to set the world ablaze, but it certainly helped get the company back onto people’s driveways, selling reasonably well thanks to its reliable mechanics (even if rust was something of an issue). As such, BL decided that from now on it would give its fleet a complete overhaul, basing their new models on Japanese equivalents. From 1984, the Rover 200 arrived on the scene, again, a rebadged Honda Ballade, while the Maestro and the Montego ranges also took on several tips from their Japanese counterparts, though they were primarily based on British underpinnings.

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An early Rover 800.

The Rover 800 however spawned quite early on, in 1981 to be exact. Following the catastrophic failure of the Rover SD1 in the American market, which only sold 774 cars before Rover removed itself from the USA altogether, the company was desperate to get another foothold across the pond. As such, the new project, dubbed project XX, would be the icing on the cake in terms of British Leyland’s fleet overhaul, a smooth and sophisticated executive saloon to conquer the world. However, plans were pushed back after the launch of the Montego and the Maestro, and thus project XX wouldn’t see the light of day again until about 1984.

Still in production and suffering from a severe case of being long-in-the-tooth, the Rover SD1 was now coming up on 10 years old, and though a sublime car in terms of style and performance, it was now struggling in sales. Rover really needed to replace this golden oldie, and thus project XX was back on. In the usual fashion, Honda was consulted, and it was decided that the car would be based on that company’s own executive saloon, the Honda Legend. Jointly developed at Rover’s Cowley plant and Honda’s Tochigi development centre, both cars shared the same core structure and floorplan, but they each had their own unique exterior bodywork and interior. Under the agreement, Honda would supply the V6 petrol engine, both automatic and manual transmissions and the chassis design, whilst BL would provide the 4-cylinder petrol engine and much of the electrical systems. The agreement also included that UK-market Honda Legends would be built at the Cowley Plant, and the presence of the Legend in the UK would be smaller than that of the Rover 800, with profits from the 800 shared between the two companies.

Launched on July 10th, 1986, the Rover 800 was welcomed with warm reviews regarding its

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Styling of the 800 may have been boxy, but it somehow suited the image the car wanted to give.

design, its style, its performance and its reliability. Though driving performance was pretty much the same as the Honda Legend, what put the Rover above its Japanese counterpart was its sheer internal elegance and beauty, combined with a differing external design that borrowed cues from the outgoing SD1. The 800 also provided the company with some much-needed optimism, especially following the gradual breakup of British Leyland by the Thatcher Government between 1980 and 1986.

Following her election in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a no nonsense attitude to the striking unions, and the best form of defence was attack. To shave millions from the deficit, she reduced government spending on nationalised companies such as British Airways, British Coal Board, British Steel and British Leyland by selling them to private ownership. For British Leyland, the slow breakup of the company started with the sale of Leyland Trucks and Buses to DAF of Holland and Volvo, respectively. 1984 saw Jaguar made independent and later bought by Ford, but when rumours circulated that the remains of British Leyland would be sold to foreign ownership, share prices crashed, and the company was privatised and put into the hands of British Aerospace on the strict understanding that the company could not be sold again for four years. With this move, British Leyland was renamed Rover Group, the Austin badge being dropped, and the only remaining brands left being the eponymous Rover and sporty MG.

During this tumultuous period, many of Rover and MG’s projects had to be scrapped in light of turbulent share prices and income, these projects including the Austin AR16 family car range (based largely off the Rover 800) and the MG EX-E supercar. The Rover 800 however was the first model to be released by the company following privatisation, and doing well initially in terms of sales, hopes were high that the Rover 800 would herald the end of the company’s troubled spell under British Leyland. The Rover 800 was planned to spearhead multiple Rover ventures, including a return to the US-market in the form of the Sterling, and a coupe concept to beat the world, the sublime Rover CCV.

However, British Leyland may have been gone, but their management and its incompetence remained. Rather than taking the formation of Rover Group as a golden opportunity to clean up the company’s act, to the management it was business as usual, and the Rover 800 began to suffer as a consequence. A lack of proper quality control and a cost-cutting attitude meant that despite all the Japanese reliability that had been layered on these machines in the design stage, the cars were still highly unreliable when they left the factory.

Perhaps the biggest sentiment to the 800’s failure was the Sterling in America. The Sterling had been named as such due to Rover’s reputation being tarnished by the failure of the unreliable SD1. Initial sales were very promising with the Sterling, a simple design with oodles of luxury that was price competitive with family sedan’s such as the Ford LTD and the Chevy Caprice. However, once the problems with reliability and quality began to rear their heads, sales plummeted and the Sterling very quickly fell short of its sales quota, only selling 14,000 of the forecast 30,000 cars per annum. Sales dropped year by year until eventually the Sterling brand was axed in 1991.

With the death of the Sterling came the death of the CCV, a luxury motor that had already won over investors in both Europe and the USA. The fantastic design that had wooed the American market and was ready to go on sale across the States was axed unceremoniously in 1987, and with it any attempt to try and capture the American market ever again.

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The post R-17 Rover 800, including a new grille to try and return the company to its glory days.

In 1991, Rover Group, seeing their sales were still tumbling, and with unreliable callbacks to British Leyland like the Maestro and Montego still on sale, the company decided to have yet another shakeup to try and refresh its image. The project, dubbed R17, went back to the company’s roots of grand old England, and the Rover 800 was the first to feel its touch. The R17 facelift saw the 800’s angular lines smoothed with revised light-clusters, a low-smooth body, and the addition of a grille, attempting to harp back to the likes of the luxurious Rover P5 of the 1960’s. Engines were also updated, with the previous M16 Honda engine being replaced by a crisp 2.0L T16, which gave the car some good performance. The car was also made available in a set of additional ranges, including a coupe and the sport Vitesse, complete with a higher performance engine.

Early reviews of the R17 800 were favourable, many critics lauding its design changes and luxurious interior, especially given its price competitiveness against comparable machines such as the Vauxhall Omega and the Ford Mondeo. Even Jeremy Clarkson, a man who fervently hated Rover and everything it stood for, couldn’t help but give it a good review on Top Gear. However, motoring critics were quick to point out the fact that by this time Honda was really starting to sell heavily in the UK and Europe, and people now asked themselves why they’d want to buy the Rover 800, a near carbon-copy of the Honda Legend, for twice the price but equal performance. Wood and leather furnishings are very nice, but not all motorists are interested in that, some are just interested in a reliable and practical machine to run around in.

As such, the Rover 800’s sales domestically were very good, it becoming the best-selling car in the UK for 1992, but in Europe not so much. Though Rover 800’s did make it across the Channel, the BMW 5-Series and other contemporary European models had the market sown up clean, and the Rover 800 never truly made an impact internationally. On average, the car sold well in the early 1990’s, but as time went on the car’s place in the market fell to just over 10,000 per year by 1995. Rover needed another shake-up, and the Rover 75 did just that.

In 1994, Rover Group was sold to BMW, and their brave new star to get the company back in the good books of the motoring public was the Rover 75, an executive saloon to beat the world. With this new face in the company’s showrooms, the Rover 800 and its 10 year old design was put out to grass following its launch in 1998. Selling only around 6,500 cars in its final full year of production, the Rover 800 finished sales in 1999 and disappeared, the last relic of the British Leyland/Honda tie up from the 1980’s.

Today the Rover 800 finds itself under a mixed reception. While some argue that it was the last true Rover before the BMW buyout, others will fervently deride it as a Honda with a Rover badge, a humiliation of a Rover, and truly the point where the company lost its identity. I personally believe it to be a magnificent car, a car with purpose, a car with promise, but none of those promises fulfilled. It could have truly been the face of a new Rover in the late 1980’s, and could have returned the company to the front line of the motoring world, at least in Britain. But sadly, management incompetence won again for the British motor industry, and the Rover 800 ended its days a lukewarm reminder that we really didn’t know a good thing until it was gone.