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30 Years Of The Rover 800

Written by Andy Roberts

Little can seem as remote as the recent past and this is certainly true when seeing an early Rover 800 at the Classic Motor Show - a car to conjure an era of ‘yuppies’ and ‘Filofaxes’.

When the 800 replaced the SD1 on 10th July 1986, it was the first large FWD Viking badge car, a logical development given the success of the C3 series Audi 100 and the result of the first real British Leyland-Honda collaboration.

Rover 800 1The 800 began life as Project XX, which would serve as a successor to the SD1 and Honda's rival to the upmarket Nissans and Toyotas in North America. British and Japanese versions would have floor pans in common, with styling the responsibility of each firm. Japan developed the V6 engines for the more expensive versions and UK engineers developed the four-cylinder units. There was to be no V8 powered model, marking a further break with the past, and the exterior dimensions reflected the needs of Honda's domestic markets. It was no secret that without their involvement BL could not have hoped to develop a new large Rover.

Rover 800 2The British press reception to the 800 was warm, generally regarding it as efficient rather than characterful but given its predecessor’s reputation for unreliability this was just as well. US export models were even re-badged as ‘Sterling’, such was the damage inflicted on the Rover image by the SD1. In the UK, this was the name of the top of the range, a car aimed at anyone who wore red braces and industrial amounts of hair gel.

As such the blunt lines that were faintly reminiscent of a brick-shaped mobile ‘phone were wholly appropriate and the Sterling had enough fittings to justify its £19,000 price tag. Unfortunately, the traditional BL quality problems were very present on the early models and the Maestro derived instruments did not help to establish an ‘upmarket’ image.

Rover 800 4Rover persevered with their flagship, introducing a 2.7-litre engine and an attractive fastback in 1988. Three years later a facelift improved aesthetic appeal and in this form, the 800 was regularly seen as ministerial transport. Fame of a less welcome kind came when Norwich’s favourite DJ was seen driving two examples - a Vitesse that helped to end his BBC career and an 825 Sterling emblazoned with ‘Cook', ' Pass', Babtridge’ - but the Alan Partridge image did highlight one fundamental marketing problem.

Project XX was planned as a Ford Granada rival but when Jaguar became independent of the BL empire in 1984, Rover hoped that the V6 models would also compete with the XJ. Unfortunately, the Rover struggled to establish itself as aspirational transport rather than cars for local radio personalities who pioneered the ‘Sports Casual’ look, despite such desirable models as the 1992 Coupe.

Rover 800 3800 production ceased in 1999 after 317,306 examples. In recent times, too many have fallen prey to the scrappage scheme but classic interest is now definitely increasing. The 2016 Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show saw the launch of the Rover 800 Owners' Club and its chairman Alex Sebbinger, says that 'This year marked 30 years since the Rover 800 Series was launched. The culmination of events to mark this within the 800 community was the stand at the Classic Motor Show at the NEC, where three examples of Mk1 800s were put on display. The reaction to the stand and the cars was as ever positive, with many people reminiscing of how "my Dad had one" and in spite of the reputation the cars gained, many saying how they were the "best car I ever owned".

They're currently an overlooked model (due to the popularity of earlier P6 and SD1 models and relative ubiquitousness of the Rover 75 that replaced it), but it is nice to see the cars getting so much interest shown in them.' And indeed, the 800 is a car that successfully maintained the Rover brand’s profile during years of corporate upheaval.

Just do not say ‘Ah ha!’ to an owner at next year's show.


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