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The Carchive: The Rover 800 (Part III), The Fastback

Chris Haining November 7, 2013 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 10 Comments

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Welcome to this week’s third helping of Rover 800-specific awesomeness from the groaning shelves of The Carchive.

We’ve already gasped in wonderment at the 800 when freshly launched in 1986, then wept, collectively, three or four tears of nostalgia when we looked at the US-Market Sterling brochure for the same year. Today we wind forwards two years to when Rover realised that maybe their biggest car would be better if it was a different shape.

Let us begin with one of my favourite car TV commercials of all time. Please, please take the time to watch it to the end:

“Now, with the introduction of the Rover 800 Fastback Series, classic Rover qualities and a spirited, sporting style are combined in perfect harmony”

All the way through the ’80s, Rover and a number of other European brands had been united by the idea that a big, three-box saloon car would always be deemed further upmarket than a big hatchback would. The SD1 was only ever officially available as a hatchback, great looking as it was, and this was seen to serve against it and impede on its success against the likes of BMW and Mercedes. Rover wanted to move away from the SD1 in every way, and so the new car was a saloon and a saloon only.

This was a mistake. It was soon realised that, actually, the extra practicality of a hatchback was quite highly valued by anybody who used their car for more than just commuting, and furthermore some rivals (like Ford with the Granada and Scorpio) had big hatchbacks which were selling very well indeed, thank you very much. It made sense, really, for Rover to get back into that niche they abandoned, but it would be even better if they could use a name that didn’t sound cheap, cheerful and let’s-go-to-the-supermarketey, like hatchback did.

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“The Fastback expresses the energetic lifestyle of today: positive, pacey, in command…..Fastback is a car which wears its Rover badge with pride”

The name, Fastback, was well chosen. Not least because that was what it actually was, but also because the term itself (which had been used by coachbuilders and designers for years) sounded dynamic and exciting. The styling was brilliantly simple, with very few constructional changes over the saloon. There was also no attempt at emulating any other car. It was crisp, current and individual.

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“The result of the Rover designers’ skill is a sleek and slippery shape which presents minimal resistance to the air it displaces when travelling at speed (an activity which, as you will discover to your pleasure, the Fastback enjoys with eager enthusiasm).”

I discovered this very thing, to my pleasure. I once had cause to drive from Coventry to my parents house 180 miles away, at two o’clock in the morning, to pick up a pair of shoes to wear at an interview the next day. In my 820e Fastback (my first Rover, donated by the same Grandfather as my current 825) I was able to sustain an improbably high cruising speed, allowing me to cover the whole door-to-door-and-back journey in somewhere around four hours. I never did get that job, though.

The 820e was one rung from the bottom of the 800 Fastback ladder. The engine was a single-point injected version of the M16 , with 120 instead of 140 horsepower, giving a quoted top speed maximum of 120mph (I saw a touch more than that at times….). The acceleration was interesting, too. The book quotes 10.5 seconds, but the gearing was such that, if you really stretch the engine up to the red line, 60mph could be reached in second gear, saving a shift and bringing that 0-60 down to somewhere around the 9 seconds mark. My own 820e (E193GHJ, fondly remembered) looked the same as the one in this photo.

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After a while I began to “improve” my 820e. I started out by replacing the wheels with ones from a later 800, in the interest of improving the roadholding. The original wheels were plainly stupid, being 14″ in diameter and being clad with ridiculous 195/70 tyres. This was great for ride quality, but the appalling levels of flex meant cornering with more sidewall than tread in contact with the blacktop. The replacements were 205/55VR16s, which improved things immeasurably and looked great (in my opinion as a nineteen year old at the time).

Another thing I changed over the time was the stereo, this despite the below text which is one of my favourite sentences of any car brochure of ever.

“The car’s outstanding hi-fi system can cope with the intricacies of Chopin as well the power of Dire Straits”

What a fantastic way to date a brochure and typecast a buyer. By 1988, the date of the 800’s launch, Dire Straits were no longer at exactly the cutting edge of music fashion and the band had always been most likely to be appreciated by middle-aged Dads and wearers of Old Spice aftershave anyway. The funny thing is, as a nineteen year old I could regularly be caught with Brothers In Arms playing loudly through that eight-speaker Phillips system. I would move onto Chopin later on.

Below the 820e there had been launched a new bottom-of-the-range model, simply called 820, which had a mere 100hp using what was basically the old O-Series engine with an electronically controlled carburettor. But things were more interesting at the other end of the line-up. Whereas the new name at the top of the 800 saloon range was Sterling, for the flagship Fastback we became reacquainted with a name from the recent past.

“The thrusting energy of the V6 engine, the eager response of the sports suspension, the supreme confidence of the anti-lock braking system, they all combine with elegant and purposeful style to deliver the ultimate in fastback designs: the Rover Vitesse.”

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Now, I’m not even being ironic when I voice my opinion here that the 800 Vitesse is one of the best looking ordinary cars of the last thirty years. The subtle additions to the regular car; those restrained wheels, the aerofoil and that neat moulding at the rear wheelarches, make for a machine that genuinely did look capable of doing what its makers intended.

And it wasn’t just for show, either. It could deliver the goods. By the arrival of the Fastback the 2.5 litre PGM-FI Honda engine had grown to 2.7 litres, giving 177hp and far more flexibility than before. The Vitesse was therefore good for 0-60 in 7.6 seconds with 140mph flat out.

To show you how that performance could be deployed, please enjoy below what is one of my favourite videos to ever be uploaded onto Youtube.

Alas, I never had a Vitesse, and there are barely any good ones left, but I am now on my second Fastback. In the next overwhelmingly exciting episode from this special Rover 800 week, we’ll see what the 800 range had become at the end of its life.

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturer publicity materials, photographed by me. Copyright has at some point been property of Rover. You’re doing well to survive the Rover 800 onslaught this far, see if you can stick it out to the end)

  • david42

    The Sterling 827 SLi is so striking that I would buy one (if I could find one!) in spite of the utter impossibility of maintenance in the US. The powertrain is no problem, it's just… every single other thing.

  • I can't imagine making that circuit in that time. It would have taken me three days. I would have stopped at every shop just to check out what was what. Enjoying the Rover series. Thanks.

    • Cheers John; when the Longrooffan stops liking it, I will stop writing it.

  • Van_Sarockin

    The five door hatch is the swiss army knife of automotive forms. Useful in all contexts. Too bad that Rover couldn't get any traction in the US.

  • Rover1

    At the risk of annoying some people, I can state that my 820i looks just like your E did apart from the addition of OZ Racing 16" alloys and 205/50 VR16 Bridgestones. It's still the only car I've driven that hit the rev limiter in top gear,(on a long downhill deserted stretch of the Napier/Taupo Road at 2.00ish AM several years ago). Eventually I will have replaced all the faulty electrics with the more reliable later model ones and a Turbo motor from a Tomcat.
    How bad are the electricals? I am on my third instrument cluster and I know how to manually wind the electric sunroof.

    On another note, the rev limiter on Tony Pond's Vitesse had been removed. And here's a picture of an earlier Tony Pond Vitesse Rally Car, an SD1
    <img src="http://i234.photobucket.com/albums/ee173/rallyretro/Vitesse/85manx_85coi-S12-A4-12-TonyPond.jpg"width="600"&gt;

    • Interesting that it has the US spec sealed beam headlights.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    AUSFAHRT

    /snicker

  • Moveovertoaustinrovr

    Good and painful memories all at the same time. Worked for Rover after graduating on the 825D with the VM Diesel as my first full time project, and so zooming around in 820e's and i's as our departmental transport between Canley (the design HQ, now under a supermarket and squareabout as is its neighbour Matrix Churchill – the home of the Iraqi Supergun) and Cowley where they were built and Gaydon where we tested them – now the home of Aston Martin and JLR's main development facility.
    The arrival of the Vitesse, harking back to the SD1 while bringing the 2.7 Honda motor and later the Turbo 2 litres, brought a sense of progress and looked really up to date (just look at the scary lines of the Scorpio and Vauxhauls of the same years), but the awful electrical reliability of the 825, the poor build and part quality of much of its trim and hardware being ruthlessly exposed in the American market by its successful Legend half sister were all problems that pulled Rover out of the US market as the car was starting to settle down. It was a great shape and the few 5 door Sterlings (827SLis) that made it to the states always had a good reception .. until the Gremlins -and or fear of them- hit the potential customer.
    I can still remember the confused look of a Florida Turnpike toll booth operator interested by the car as we pulled up, but alarmed by the smoke and then fire coming from the front wheels as he thought about engaging us in conversation. As the smoke started to expose our most recent of half a dozen 1.0g braking from 130+, i thought we were simply all going to jail, but, no, he raised the barrier and we zoomed off to a more responsible 65-70mph to finally cool the brakes. Probably thought the paperwork might be more complicated – or that his booth was about to burn and so ruin his upcoming lunchbreak.
    So, thanks for reminding me and keep filling in the pieces with these blasts from the past.

    • You're very welcome. We'd be interested to hear more of your stories! I know Canley well; four years at Coventry University….

  • monkey_tennis

    A wonderful advertisement that I remember with affection. It was striking and very knowing: After Audi's 'Vorsprung Durch Technik' had proved the seemingly impossible — that you could sell German cars in the UK with a slogan in German! — this was a cheeky response — persuading British people out of German cars and into a British car with an advert in German!.

    Also, as an architect, the cameo by James Stirling's Stuttgart Staatgalerie made me smile every time.