The Rover 800 Story

As with all cars, the development of its successor usually starts not long after the cars launch.  So 3 years into its life, talks on the SD1's successor started in 1979 with a project known as the Rover Bravo, which was to be a heavily re-skinned version of the current SD1, but taking on recent developments in styling and handling where necessary.  But with various pressures coming onto the company from their Government overlords, changes as always were coming into the company plans for future car development.

Bravo was quietly dropped from the plans and a new range of cars proposed, codenamed LM10, LM 11, LM12, LM14 and LM15.  LM 10 and LM11 became the Maestro and Montego, LM12 was to be a coupé version of the LM10/LM11, with LM14 being a htchback version similar to what the Sierra and Cavalier became, though this was before anyone outside of their respective companies knew of their existance.  LM15 became the SD1's replacement, based upon a streatched version of the LM11 floorpan and chassis arrangements.  But a visit by Gordon Sked, who was to be in charge of the new executive cars design to the motoring shows of 1981 showed that these plans were not going to be enough to keep up with the next generation of cars on the horizon, so new plans were needed and fast.

As the plans for the Honda collaboration with the Triumph Acclaim were going well, Rover approached Honda to see of they were open to a collaboration on a larger executive car, though at the time Honda's largest car was a 1600 mid range car so hopes were not high that the company would want to do this.  As it turned out, Honda jumped at the proposal as they wanted to develop a larger executive car and had the resources Rover needed in exchange for the expertees in design that Honda needed.  Both companies had the ambition to create the new car, with a version for each company using common parts, and in November 1981 the agreement to work on this was signed.

Designing the future

Gordon Sked was in charge of designing the new car from Rover's point of view, common points were noted and built into the designs, though Rover started before all the technical details were finalised.

From the first initial designs and clay models, the eventual Rover 800 design cue's were already there, showing clearly where Rover wanted the product direction to go.  Unlike the SD1, the new car was to have a more traditional 3 box saloon design as part of the range but Gordon Sked also wanted to pay homage to David Bache's SD1 design.

By the time of the first engineering meeting between Rover and Honda, Rover's design team had designed and created a full scale mock up of the design they wanted to persue, which surprised the engineers at Honda as they had not started on such things and were trying to get the chassis and suspension geomatry right before building the car to go on top.  However the design was complementory to the work already done, requiring only small changes to get things to fit neatly.

There was one sticking point though, with the SD1 still held in high regard with potential purchasers, Rover wanted to accomodate a similar width to the car, but Japan's taxation rules meant that the car would not be as accomodating as the SD1, however this made the interior designers focus more on the overall ambiance and produce an internal package almost unrivalled in the cars market segment.

After the second prototype was finished (And shown to the Japanese), Gordon Sked felt the proportioning was wrong, among the changes made in Japan was a subtle re-styling which also brought in a few more design cue's from the SD1.

This was to be the final design change, the next problem though was the suspension and engine packages.  Honda preferred their traditional double wishbone setup while Rover preferred McPherson struts to maximise interior space and comfort, however the low scuttle of the 800's design would not allow for this.  A compromise was made of sorts, though it was still a Honda inspired double wishbone setup with some re-engineering by Rover to make it all fit better.  Also Honda had no intention of marketing a 4 cylinder engined version of the car so Rover had to engineer a solution to mount their 4 cylinder engine yet still accomodate the Honda V6 engine for the upper range models, an engine neither Honda or Rover had access to as it was not yet completed.

The 2 litre 4 cylinder engine was to be based on the well proven O series block, but to get the power required AND meet strict new emission rules, a new dual cam head would be needed and the SU carburettor's would have to go, replaced ith a single point injection design that injected the fuel straight into the inlet manifold but also incorporated tapered cylinder heads, which as Triumph had accidentally discovered in the early 1970's. produced a better power output in lean burn engines.

There was however a problem.  Honda had got the dimentions of their 2.7 litre V6 engine wrong, meaning some re-engineering for both companies on their respective cars.  Rover were compensated for the additional costs incurred by the mistake which meant the front wheel tracking increased.  Rover made the design more barrel like to accomodate the extra width, while Honda blessed the Legend with wheel arch extensions like the Audi Quattro had, which was fine for a sports car, but not appropriate for an executive saloon.

If that were the only problem, things would be smooth from that point, but the V6 was brought in as a successor to Rover's 3.5 litre V8 and as the Honda engine was going to be used (thirsty V8's were now no longer in vouge), no thought had gone into putting the V8 into the new car. Which as it turned out was a shame as the V6 engine had very little torque and poor power output and economy for its size.  Much work was done to improve the engine before launch but both companies knew it was going to fall short of the mark on launch day...

The new car is launched...

To get the car noticed, no expence was spared.  before being publicly unveiled, motoring journalists, dealership managers and Police were flown to Switzerland with their wives to test drive the new car and put it through its paces.  The cars they had access to were all 2.7 litre V6 models, which may explain why on returning, many Police forces bought up all the 3500 SD1's they could get.  Yes the car was comfortable, yes it ticked most of the boxes but where it counted for some the new car fell short, namely space (You could get a lot of traffic cones in the boot of an SD1), power (The 2.7 litre V6 was no match for the 3.5 litre V8) and interior room (2 police officers either side of a suspect in the back of an SD1 with room to spare!).

Still, they wouldn't make the same mistakes launching the Rover 800 that they made with the SD1...  1986 could not be like 1976 surely...

Launch day...  The reviews had been ok at best, criticising aspects of the 2.7 litre engine as had already happened with the Honda Legend months earlier.  Tours of the factory facilites showed that a lot of investment had gone into the new car, but overall in the press it was felt that the new car was a bit of a disappointment considering much of the car had been known about for the previous 4 years.  Despite the mixed reviews the car sold well... Or it would have done if there were cars to sell.

1000 cars were made available to 1400 dealers, all of them were 827 models with the Honda V6 engine and it would be weeks before more cars were available.  Despite proudly boasting that the new car could take on the best that continental Europe could produce, there were no cars available for your money.  Worse than that, the only car you could get (If you were lucky) was the top of the range models allowing Jaguar to advertise their new executive car as cheaper than the new Rover.  That newer cheaper models were soon to be available was at that point lost on the public concious, as far as they were concerned, the new Rover was more expensive than a Jaguar! (Even if the Jaguar was a 'Low end' model whle the Rover was top of the range).

One thing that was commented on was the interior ambiance.  Despite being more restrictive than the SD1, in part because of width stipulations imposed and also because of the suspension setups, the interior was roomy and comfortable, arguably better than that of the Honda Legend.

Comparisons between the Legend and the 827 were commonplace in the media, in part because the Legend had been released months earlier and because it was well known by now that the cars shared a common platform.  The joint development process though had not been smooth and the different styling meant that there were few common parts between the cars.  This shaped future collaborations between the two companies and not always for the better as far as Rover were concerned.

The 2 litre M16 based cars soon appeared and sales did start to pick up, however the initial marketing blunder still left the wrong impression in terms of cost.  For a short time a cheaper version of the 820 was made available using an SU carburettor system, essentially making it a car powered by a modified O series engine of the older Rover 2000 SD1, though this was a whoefully underpowered car, even compared to the SD1 using a single carburettor rather than dual setup of the Rover 2000.  Also fuel economy was worse than the single point injection M16 engines, making this the shortest lived of all the Rover 800 series models.

Outside the motoring world, the British Government were increasingly keen to offload what was now known as the Rover Group to anyone interested.  There were talks of selling Land Rover to Ford and Rover to General Motors but a furor about the Government favouring foreign companies over British ones (Which came to a head with the Westgate affair) put a stop to the talks and forced a Government re-think where Rover were concerned.  As to whether this was a good or bad thing for Rover in the long run is open to debate, but not long after this, the Rover Group was sold to British Aerospace (BaE).

Honda reworked the V6 engine amid the critisism and did some good work with it.  The capacity was reduced from 2.7 litres to 2.5 litres, but torque and power output improved, as did its efficiencey.  This engine replaced the 2.7 V6 throughout the ranges of both the Rover 800 and the Honda Legend, whch showed that there was still continuous deveopment going on with the cars.

Rover had the 800 in the showrooms, now it was time to look at bringing back the hatchback...

Enter the Fastback...

In many people's eyes, the saloon version of the 800 was no real replacement for the SD1 and Rover knew this.  Initially the car was to be cheaper than the saloon and badged as the Rover 600 series, which was put into the mix with customer clinics.  This idea was carried forward right through the hatchbacks development, though things would turn out quite differently.

Initial ideas were drawn up and full size models produced of the new car, initially the rear glassline was to swoop upward at the rear to give the car a clear lineage to the SD1 and initial mock ups were shown on SD1 alloys, however the final design kept a more level glassline, distancing the car from its predessessor.

In customer clinics, the car was well recieved, though the pricing and name caused some confusion.  The car was percieved as a step up from the saloon by most, so placing it lower in the range did not make sense.  Also if the car was to be cheaper, why was the 800 so expensive?  Rover had no ready answers to these questions and marketing saw what the public were getting at.  As a result the car became a member of the 800 series and was priced accordingly on launch.

The Fastback as it became known, was well recieved and warmly welcomed by fleet buyers.  Despite the group as a whole losing market share (Dropping to 17% in 1986, the point when Rover's recovery plan with the Maestro and Montegi should have started to take effect, but were actually selling in fewer numbers than the cars they replaced!), there was some optimism behind the new range which would carry over into the R8 200/400 series (But that's another story).

Now it was time to look at the 800's successor.  Honda's product cycle meant a new car every 5 years so hopes were high for getting access to the next version of the Legend, but finances were tighter than ever now BaE were in charge, and they were more intersted in wringing every penny out of the current range than developing a new car while the current range was selling.  Finances were not released for a new car but some money was allocated for a facelift of the existing car.

R18, the next generation 800...

So what would the new Rover look like?  Designs were put forward but cost was always an issue.  Rover wanted to give the revised car a fighting chance in a changing market but with the money available, this was going to be difficult.  One stipulation to save money was that the new car must use the same door pressings and tooling as the old car.  It was argued that this was a false economy as the dies were worn and would need replacing, wiping out any cost savings of using the old doors, but these arguments were overruled.  Also as BaE were looking to sell Rover and the agreements for the 800 deal were about to lapse, the Honda V6 would no longer be available for the new car.  Thankfully as part of a new engine development, Rover had its own replacement, the KV6.

One thing the 800 lacked was presence on the road.  To improve this, Rover fitted the bumper design used for the US Sterling version of the 800, which gave the new car what it needed.  Elsewhere the Rover 600 was almost complete and used a traditional Rover style grille on the front.  Even though the re-styled 800 was almost complete, the front of the car was altered to also incorporate the new grille.  Even though the 600 was the first car designed to have this, the new 800 would be the first car released with this feature...

The new Rover 800 series...

The 'New' car was launched and included the saloon, fastback and coupé, all of which recieved the new more rounded styling, new bumpers and bonnet grille.  No one seemed to notice or care that the doors were pretty much exactly the same, though to be fair, the interior was also unchanged.  The changes also made the fastback varients of the car appear more of a sucessor to the SD1 then the original 800 series did on launch back in 1986. 

A new Sterling Sports package was put together with stiffened suspension, recaro seats, turbocharged engine and low profile tyres on 17" alloys.  It used a 2 litre turbocharged T series engine and alongside this, revised diesel engines were also introduced.  The first revision of the KV6 was brought into the range along with changes to the M16 engines.  Even though the changes were subtle in the new car, it did improve the overall look, even if it was based upon a rapidly aging floorpan.

While the car hit the spot in terms of looks and won some good reviews (Especially as the whole range was available to buy rather than coming out in dribs and drabs), road tests against its newer competitors did show up its weaknesses in handling and suspension.  Rover did not have much leeway to carry out many improvements in that regard due to the design restrictions at the beginning of the project, but did what they could with the setup.

The Sterling Sports was phased out after a couple of years, one thing to note with these models is the fuel tanks are different to the rest of the range and replacements can be expensive, assuming you can track one down in the first place. This in turn has made these particular models rare as problems with the fuel tank can mean writing off the car.

The KV6 proved to be problematic with issues around the cylinder heads, the thread bolts, oil flow and gaskets started to surface.  The problems were fixed over time but the engine was eventually reworked for the successor to the 800, which allowed for more room within the engine bay as it was to have a higher scuttle line (But thats a story for later).

With the new model lines in place, the 800 series was left in relative peace to live out the rest of its days while around it, the whole world changed.  The Rover 620 was launched, the new Theta Rover 400 was launched and a new supermini in the form of the Rover 200 was launched, all this while BaE disposed of Rover by selling it to BMW, much to the disgust of Honda, who refused to work with Rovers new owners beyond supplying parts for already agreed contracts.

With the Legend now revised and on a new platform, the 800 was alone in its setup, increasing the cost of building it, this in turn hastened BMW's decision to replace the car as soon as possible, bringing about the last true Rover to be developed...

Our thanks to AROnline for providing background information & some of the images for this article.