History of the 800

The Rover 800 series is an executive car introduced by the Austin Rover Group in 1986, under the Rover marque. It was also marketed as the Sterling in the United States. Co-developed with Honda, it was a close relative to the Honda Legend and the successor to the Rover SD1.

Partnership with Honda

The Rover 800 was designed as a replacement for the Rover SD1.[1] Development of the car began in 1981 as part of a venture with Honda under the “XX” codename; the corresponding Honda version was known as the Honda Legend, and was codenamed as “HX”. The development work was carried out at Rover’s Canley plant and Honda’s Tochigi development centre.

Honda and British Leyland/Rover agreed that Legends would also be built in Plant Oxford for the British market.[2]. The US-market (Acura) Legends were built in Japan.

It was finally launched on 10 July 1986, taking the place of the decade-old Rover SD1.[3]


1986 Rover 820Si (pre-R17 facelift)

Unusual UK with later-style Rover “family” grille, applied as an after-market item by the owner

At launch, the 2 litre versions of the 800 used two naturally aspirated 2.0 L 16-valve developments of British Leyland‘s stalwart O-Seriesengine, dubbed M-Series. However in 1988 an 820 Fastback (no letter after the 820 badge), with a single carburettor version of the O-Series was launched for the fleet market. The M-Series was divided into two versions; the M16e fitted to the 820e/se, with single point injection, and the M16i which was fitted to the 820i/si with multi-point injection, i.e. 4 injectors. The top 2.5 litre versions (825i & Sterling) used a Honda designed V6 unit in 2.5 L capacity. Initially, only a saloon body was offered; a liftback version – referred to as a fastback – became available in 1988.

Later, a diesel version of the car was launched in 1990 using a 2498 cc engine from Italian company VM Motori, which was related to the slightly smaller engine used in the 2400 SD Turbo model of the Rover SD1, and Range Rover Turbo D.

The Sterling badge was used in Europe and most global markets to denote the top saloon luxury version and the Vitesse badge used to denote the top fastback sporting version. The Vitesse became available at the same time as the 2675 cc Honda V6. Both of these top of the range models were initially only available in the UK with the V6. In some European markets, in particular Italy, the 2.0 litre petrol was badged as Sterling and later available (in turbo form) as Vitesse to avoid the punishing duties that made engines over 2.0 litres unviable for volume sales.

Towards the end of Mark 1 production the Vitesse had nearly as many “luxury” features as the Sterling (for example, electric front seats). There was also a brief run of just over 500 820 Turbo 16v cars using a turbocharged version of the M-Series developed with help fromTickford, leading to this model often being referred to as the “Tickford Turbo”. Utilising such enhancements as sodium-filled exhaust valves and Mahle forged pistons the car produced 180 bhp (134 kW), although there is much speculation about this figure being severely held back by the electronics as not to step on the toes of the 177 bhp (132 kW) V6-engined models as well as to preserve the reliability of the gearbox. In reality the engine was capable of 250+hp while still preserving the reliability and drivability.[citation needed]

In the United States, the car was branded as the Sterling, not a Rover and was only available with the Honda V6 petrol engines. Initial sales in America were strong, and the design was well received. However, early vehicles were soon found to have been under-developed and quality and reliability problems soon escalated to a crisis. Sales then fell as the reputation of the model deteriorated, especially as soon as J.D. Power surveys criticised initial quality and reliability publicly. This was especially damaging as at the same time, the same core vehicle, the Acura Legend was doing well in America.

Many mechanical parts for the Sterling 825/827 are still readily available as it was similar to the Acura Legend in these areas, save for braking systems. However, electrical, body, and interior parts are quite difficult to locate in the US now.

It should be noted that the 2.5 L Honda C25A V6 is a completely different engine from the Rover KV6 Engine introduced in 1996, although the two share the same nominal 2.5 L capacity and a V6 architecture.

Early build quality of the 800 was reportedly fairly poor, (J.D. Power) with trim, electrics and paintwork problems. The 800 did have a roomy and luxurious interior but this did not save the car from gaining a poor reputation from which it never really recovered. Corrosion problems in early models also marred its reputation.

By late 1988, the 2.5 L engine was enlarged to 2.7 L, the Maestro-derived instrumentation had been changed to gauges sourced from a different component-builder (losing the oil pressure gauge and voltmeter in the process) and build quality had vastly improved. A budget version of the 800, using an eight-valve (as opposed to the usual 16-valve) version of theO-Series engine was introduced. This was called M8, it differed from the O-series engine as the water pump was driven by the timing belt. Though this budget model was short-lived.

The original version of the Rover 800 was one of the most popular cars in Britain’s full-sized executive car market, which at this stage was effectively split into two strong sectors – mainstream brands such as Ford and Vauxhall, and prestige brands such as BMW and Audi. It directly competed with the likes of the Ford Granada/Scorpio and Vauxhall Carlton.[citation needed]

[edit]1992: the R17 major facelift

1997 Rover Vitesse Coupé (post-R17 facelift)

1995 Rover 825SD saloon, rear view (post-R17 facelift, but a year before minor changes including smoked rear lights)

In early 1992, the 800 was re-skinned and re-engineered under the R17 codename. This saw the re-introduction of the traditional Rover grille and more curvaceous bodywork. The scope of the design change was restricted by the need to retain the core XX structure, including the door structure design.

The redesign was a partial answer to major press and market criticism of the “folded paper” school of design and the quest for better aerodynamics that had led to many cars appearing very similar, especially from the front. The redesign found much favour and as a result the car’s sales enjoyed a renaissance, the 800 series becoming Britain’s best selling executive car in the early to mid-1990s.

Following concerted efforts to learn from the problems that had hit the early model years, especially under the more extreme United States market and climatic conditions, quality in general had improved dramatically by this stage, but the decision to leave the US market had already been taken.

The 2.0 L T16 replaces the M16 found in pre 1992 cars and comes in NASP and Turbo forms, the 2.0 L turbo was fitted to the Vitesse and the later Vitesse Sport (1994–96).


A two-door three-box coupé version was launched in early 1992, having debuted at the 1991 Motor Show.[2]

From 1992 until 1996, the Rover 800 Coupe came exclusively with the 2.7 Honda V6 engine and 16′ Rover ‘Prestige’ alloys.

This had been originally developed with the American market in mind but was never sold there, with Rover having pulled out of the US market before the Coupés launch. It was, however, sold to other export markets. Eighty percent of the interior and exterior of the 800 Coupé was finished by hand.

[edit]1996 minor facelift

1998 820 Sterling saloon (post-R17 facelift) fitted with non standard alloy wheels

Interior of 820 Sterling (with non-standard gear knob) showing passenger airbag cover where pre-1994 models had a shelf

A facelift in 1996 provided few exterior changes, the most noticeable being the painting of previously black rubbing strips on all models except the coupé and the revision of the suspension system. Grille fins became silver in colour, instead of their former black. Climate control, passive immobilisation and a passenger airbag became standard, and a 6-disc CD auto-changer was fitted to all models apart from the entry-level (“i”) model. Security technology was upgraded with a change from infra red to radio frequency for the remote door key. Wood finishes were expanded, with a coachwork line and “ROVER” on the door cards, accentuating the new, pleated seat finishes and deep pile rugs. Unusual pleated door card leather and fabric finishes capped off a comfortable interior, much of which was handmade with what Rover called “the craftsman’s touch”.

Post 1996 Vitesses were all “Sport” specification so the sport badge was dropped, also from 1996 the 2.0L T16 engines used wasted spark ignition instead of distributor. Non-sport Vitesse models have approx 180 bhp (130 kW), whilst the sport has 197 bhp (147 kW).

Although the 800 had fallen behind the opposition considerably (few mechanical changes were made, apart from the introduction of theRover KV6 Engine which replaced the Honda 2.7 V6 in 1996), it was a steady seller until 1999, when it was replaced by the Rover 75.

A Rover KV6 2.5 litre engine fitted to a 1998 Rover 800 Sterling

The Rover KV6 engine in the 800 series was hampered by reliability issues and head gasket failures. Rover at the time, with no understanding of the problems, simply replaced the engines. In many cases repair would not have been an option due to liner problems. The modified version of the KV6 fitted into the 75 is not an easy swap.

The KV6 engine was in most cases mated to a JATCO gearbox which also in some cases suffered from reliability issues. This was sometimes due to incorrect gearbox fluid changes.

The Rover 820 Vitesse in most guises suffered from problems with gearbox bearings because of the large amount of power from the 2-litre turbo engine. The bearings can be replaced with more durable steel caged bearings.


On 6 June 1990 Tony Pond completed the first ever lap of the famous TT motorcycle course on the Isle Of Man at an average of over 100 mph (160 km/h) in a car — a Rover 827 Vitesse, standard apart from safety features and racing tyres.


The 800 was a keystone of the British government’s car fleet throughout its life, following a tradition of using British-made Rover and Jaguar models. The car was also used by many British police forcesTony Blair owned an early 800 in the 1980s, and the vice-chancellor ofMiddlesex University had two — one for personal use and one for official duties.

Production figures

1986 15,609
1987 54,434
1988 48,634
1989 35,387
1990 29,460
1991 (pre-facelift) 10,007
1991 (post-facelift) 2,961
1992 28,136
1993 28,354
1994 21,802
1995 13,311
1996 11,400
1997 11,131
1998 6,500
317,306 were built in total

Model designations

Unlike many other manufacturers who used numerical model naming systems, Rover never settled on a permanent standard for the majority of their cars. However, for the following designations are an approximate guide:

  • 820 – 4-cylinder 8-valve carburetted models (Rover O8)
  • 820e – 4-cylinder 16-valve single point injected models (Rover M16e)
  • 820i – 4-cylinder 16-valve multi point injected models (Rover M16i) Came in naturally aspirated form and turbocharged (Turbocharged model fitted to later 820 Turbo)
  • 825i – pre-1988 6-cylinder models (Honda C25A)
  • 827i – post-1988 6-cylinder and US models (Honda C27A)
  • Sterling – for most markets (except North America); luxury flagship model (Honda C25A then C27A after 1988)
  • Vitesse – for most markets; sports flagship model (Honda C27A)

Following the 1992 R17 facelift, the convention was simplified to:

  • 820i/Si/SLi/sterling – 4-cylinder 16-valve multi point injected models (Rover T16) Came in naturally aspirated form and Turbocharged for the Vitesse.
  • 825D/SD – 4-cylinder diesel models (VM Motori 425)
  • 827i/Si/SLi/Sterling – 6-cylinder models (Honda C27A – Before 1996)
  • 825i/Si/SLi/Sterling – 6-cylinder models (Rover KV6 – After 1996)
  • Sterling – for most markets (except North America); luxury flagship model
  • Vitesse – for most markets; sports flagship model (Rover T16)

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