Sterling 800 (1987 – 1991)

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Behold, the last mass-produced British car to ever be sold in the United States. As a car, the Sterling 800 is no different to its European equivalent, the Rover 800 Sterling, except for it being left-hand-drive and having a few additional changes to make it suitable for American highways, such as different lights. Following the catastrophic failure of this actually very lovely machine however, the only British cars that would ever make it across the Pond again would be the niche sports and luxury cars of Aston Martin, Lotus, Rolls Royce, the Range Rover and Bentley.

To follow the Sterling brand, you have to follow the reputation of British cars back to the 70’s and 80’s. The last British model to be successfully sold in the USA was the Rover SD1, which was sold in the States until 1981. The SD1, though a popular car in the UK, barely got off the ground in America, even though American auto critics were quick to compliment its style and performance. Reasons for the commercial failure of the SD1 in the US are open to speculation. The weak value of the American dollar against European currencies at the time rendered imports relatively expensive in comparison to home-built products. A significant rise in oil prices during 1979 led to many motorists opting for more fuel-efficient cars. Public awareness of the SD1 may have been low as the dealership network across America was small, while Rover’s expenditure on the aforementioned modifications, testing and approval for the US market left limited budget for publicity and advertising. In total, only 774 SD1’s were ever sold in the US, with those left on sale after 1981 languishing in dealerships for over a year.

In 1984, British Leyland desired a return to the lucrative American market, the primary goal and Achilles heel of their operations since the start. The various modifications British Leyland had done to classic models that had been highly successful in the USA to comply with safety regulations had made them undesirable, examples being the Jaguar E-Type, the MG Midget and the MGB. As well as this, the newer models that were created to appease the US safety legislation were designed in such a way that the safety features made them look repulsive, the Triumph TR7 and TR8 being cases in point. British Leyland management were acutely aware of the failure of the SD1 in the USA and felt that re-launching a Rover over there so soon after the company’s previous withdrawal would prove to be commercial suicide. Customers have long memories and the SD1’s reputation for unreliability and poor quality was still fresh in their minds.

sterling_825Enter Sterling, a name last given to export models of the Austin FX4 London Black Cab, these being dubbed the London Sterling. The desire was to separate itself as much from the Rover brand as possible so as to fool the American market into thinking that the car they were going to buy was in no way a Rover, but instead something far better. At the time, British Leyland had just finished development of the Rover 800, their newest top-of-the-range luxury saloon, which bore many similarities to the Honda Legend. This mixture of British luxury and Japanese reliability was intended to win the Americans over in their droves, with cars being built with greater amounts of integrity than the previous SD1.

Prior to the start of sales, British Leyland created an entirely new subsidiary known as ARCONA (Austin/Rover Cars of North America), co-owned by entrepreneur Norman Braman. This was seen by many as a silly move as it meant extra expense in paying Braman to help sell cars in the US, but also halved profits. It was noted that Japanese and other European brands such as Mercedes and BMW were happy to market the cars under American subsidiaries but retain full ownership, but at this point Rover were desperate, and called upon Braman to help promote and distribute Sterling models across the US Continent. The company’s President was Raymond Ketchledge and ARCONA based itself in Miami during 1986. Much work went on in establishing the brand long before the launch date of the European Rover 800 and, by early 1986, Ketchledge reported back to British Leyland that 135 retail outlets were coming aboard and that ARCONA would need 30,000 Sterlings in place for the product’s launch in February 1987.

With these 135 retailers under their wing, confidence was very high for the Sterling, and with the promise of Japanese reliability mixed with British luxury and ambience, it was expected that Sterling would be an avid competitor against the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Promotion was done to heavily emphasise the British aspect, with adverts drawing attention to the fact that this car was British and that was somehow a good thing in spite of the fact that most American buyers barely knew any British brands short of a Rolls Royce! Either way, the car was launched across the US at retailers in Texas, Miami, California, and the Northeastern United States, with the car marketed towards the high flying business executives of New York, Washington DC, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles. Initial forecasts were that, once the Sterling range had been rolled-out, it would account for forty per cent of Rover 800 production at the Cowley factory.

However, this was not to be, and in spite of such confidence, when the first sales sheets rolled across the boardroom table, it was apparent that Sterling had had the life pretty much beaten out of it!

A mixture of sub-standard build quality on early cars and poor performance meant that in sterling-827-1989-6its first full year, only 14,171 Sterlings were sold, some way short of initial predictions. Sterling’s troubles soon became clear, especially to management in the UK, and Graham Day was forced to try and rectify the situation. In 1989, Day made ARCONA a full subsidiary of Rover Group, and new President, Graham Morris, was charged with the task of getting Sterling back on track. ARCONA was re-named Sterling Motor Cars, Inc. and a new emphasis on quality and service was played up for all it was worth. Improving build quality helped but, unfortunately, the damage seemed to have already been inflicted. 1987 was Sterling’s best year and, from that point on, sales declined, with 8,901 sold in 1988, 5,907 in 1989 and 4,015 in 1990, barely a scratch against the 50,000+ Mercedes, BMW’s and Audi’s being sold during the same period, as well as domestic Lincoln’s and Cadillacs.

Sterling frantically attempted to stir up more interest, releasing concept pictures of what would become Rover’s R17 model 800 with new grille and reshaped body-profile to make it look more sleek and sublime. However, this was nowhere near ready for release, and the R17 wouldn’t see the light of day until 1992. Additional competition came also from the people Rover had hired to assist them, Honda, which sold American versions of their Legend known as the Acura, which were bought up in their thousands. Eventually, some hope was found in the fact that the 800 Coupé had been created specifically for the American market and had clinked very well over there. The upcoming R17 also had an extra helping of “class”, so it was felt that Sterling’s fortune could make a turn for the better. The plan was to accompany the launch of these new cars with the dropping of the Sterling badge and replace it with the Rover nameplate, essentially meaning one failed brand would be brought in to replace another failed brand which was conceived to replace a failed brand. Like a circle within a circle, a wheel within a wheel!

Additional models of the Sterling were continually conceived, including a high power Turbo Vitesse made in conjunction with Tickford Motors in similar fashion to the Ford Capri Tickford Turbo that had been created 10 years earlier. Additionally, 50 bespoke hand-finished models were also produced known as the NAS Promo 2’s, these cars being uniquely different to anything produced before. They consisted of a five-door Fastback Body in Pulsar Silver with all mouldings body coloured including door rubbing strips and bumpers. Specification also included 24 carat gold plated Sterling badges for the boot, bonnet and steering wheel, burr rosewood wood interior trim inserts, pig skin hide trimmed interior, factory fit Pioneer radio CD autochanger, factory fit car phone kit and 16in Alloy wheels.

But before any of these ideas ever came to fruition, Rover decided it had blown too much cash on this dead Duck. In August 1991, Sterling was dropped in the face of dwindling sales performance and ever rising costs, never to return to the American shores. Though the later MG F had been designed specifically for the US Market, it was simply too expensive and their reputation was too sullied to continue to maintain a presence. With that, Rover was gone, and Sterling was gone, the last mass-produced British auto product to be sold in the United States, and the end of Britain’s legacy as a major player in the world of automobiles.

Would I have bought a Sterling if I was an American in the late 1980’s looking for an executive sedan? Probably yes, not because it was British so much as what it had to offer. On its own the Rover 800 was a beautiful car despite all its production faults, being very well equipped, lavishly upholstered, strongly performing and incredibly reliable. The problem was, as with so many British products of the time, is that it was just built so poorly, and this sheer lack of wanting to build a dignified and successful machine, and instead just lazily slapping together a car in a spare few hours before rushing off to have a cup of tea with the Union. Seeing cars like the Sterling fail does, as a British person, make me bitter, because they had so much promise, but it was just done so poorly, and it wasn’t even a case of our ambition outweighing our abilities.

As Jeremy Clarkson once put it: “Never in the field of human endeavour has so much been done, so badly, by so many.”