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Project Car SOTU: Rover 800 gives Sterling service

Chris Haining September 10, 2018 Project Car SOTU 11 Comments

“Relax, it’s a Rover”. That was the defunct British firm’s late ’90s advertising strapline, and I could never have credited it with being so prophetic. I mean, we all know that cars from the brand’s twilight era weren’t exactly geared towards exuberance at the wheel, so the the fact that the strapline could be interpreted as a driving instruction comes as no real surprise. On the other hand, though, they’ve never been world famous for reliability, have they?

This thought has been foremost in my mind ever since I took the key to my ’97 825 Si Fastback, a car which I initially accepted from my Grandfather out of sentimentality more than anything, but which I have since bonded with far more than I could ever possibly have imagined. That comes in spite of the car’s long, long list of shortcomings, or ‘character traits’ as I prefer to think of them. Not so very long ago, I wrote in fear that my summer driving plans might have written cheques that the Rover’s mechanical complexity would have trouble to cash.

I shouldn’t have forgotten to relax.

My other car is an Audi A4. I once christened it Project Audinary when I had ambitions of turning it into some wildly turbo-boosted Q-Ship, but these plans changed when I realised three important things. Firstly, that it was quite outrageously reliable. Secondly, that the stock 1.8-litre turbocharged engine actually has enough power to make overtaking a cinch and my local backroads entertaining, but thirdly — and most importantly— that I had nothing like the funds required to build a super-boosted AEB engine while keeping the Rover in the conditions to which it had become accustomed.

So, the Audi was demoted to ‘just a car’ status, while the Rover became pride of the fleet, purely because it was the underdog. The Rover 800 is quite rightly regarded as a bit of a low-point for the once proud brand, and many would say that my version, which combines the most mechanically complex engine the firm ever put its name to with a manual gearbox that had no place in a ‘luxury’ car, is the worst version of all.

In fact, its reputation precedes it. On a recent trip to the other side of London, my arrival was met with two chaps looking on in mild disbelief. They approached me and one said “you don’t see many of those around”. My answer to his follow-up enquiry as to which engine it had was met with a sharp intake of breath between gritted teeth. It’s the KV6, a 2.5-litre, quad-cam, 24v V6 that incorporates many design features of the famously head-gasket weak ‘K Series’ engine, and garnishes them with three cambelts and seriously restricted access to the three rearmost spark plugs. It’s an engine that seems to have certain folk twitching at its mere mention, and is dismissed as one of the very worst engines of all time by its critics.

So, when the Audi’s exhaust flexi-pipe failed at the least opportune moment possible, and the Rover was pushed into front-line service, my bowels felt a little uneasy. Particularly because almost 2,000 miles of journeying dominated my calender for the following three weeks. The first block of miles, the trip from home to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and back, was a good warm-up session for the main event, and shrugged the 300-mile round trip off as if it were nothing. Confidence boosted, my wife, the Rover and I set off for Orkney, the archipelago just beyond the northernmost tip of Scotland — with 692 miles to cover before we caught our first ferry.

We’ll cut a long story short here, because John O’ Groats, Kirkwall, Stromness and the remote northern isle of Sanday, came and went and the Rover performed with unstinting dependability. As the miles on the approach journey ebbed away, I became less nervous of the fact that the week’s endeavour would make up a fairly considerable chunk of the car’s 84,000 elapsed miles, which have accrued rather gradually over the 21 years since it rolled off the production line.

The air-conditioning blew cold, the CD-changer treated our ears with tunes quite unbecoming of a Rover, and outside-lane motorway speeds were easily sustained, without the engine temperature gauge moving from halfway up the dial — and unlike that of the Audi, I know that the Rover’s gauge actually works. And, once totted up, based on fill-to-fill mileage measurements, the 2.5-litre engine returned an average of 34.8mpg. The only note of disappointment is that the driver’s backrest stitching is coming apart, which is actually heartbreaking given the interior’s otherwise mint condition.

So that was it. There are no other big travelling plans in the Rover’s immediate future, and it’ll probably go into its usual winter storage before November falls, lest its rust-prone flanks be exposed to British road salt. There are a few blebs of the orange cancer bubbling the surface in the usual places, so I’ll want to get on top of that while the car’s in a nicely ventilated garage. And then, next year, the Rover will be close to hand whenever I want a contrast from the anodyne, responsive, well-sorted cars of today.

Postscript: The Audi

It seems remiss to give the Audi such short shrift: it too has been close to faultless this year. I documented the failure of its plastic side window mechanism guides earlier this year, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only fixed the driver’s side window thus far. But the right hand window actually had failed, while the passenger side is in the process of failing. Most recently, the Audi has made an 800 mile tour of Cornwall, and the only niggle is that the sender for the coolant temperature gauge has failed. Seems to happen about every three years.

It also seems to be losing coolant more quickly than it used to. I hope, I really hope, it’s a leak. I can deal with leaks.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)

  • Dabidoh_Sambone

    The stitching on my 300SD seats was starting to go as well, though the leather was still in good nick. Solution? Put a dot of superglue at the point of the last unbroken stitch in the thread to prevent further disintegration. Works well!

  • Note to self: Don’t offer to buy Chris’ Rover even after it becomes 25 years old, as the pattern “1 letter followed by 3 numbers and 3 letters” is invalid for Washington personalized plates. I’m afraid that’s a deal-breaker.



    • Ah, so you’re stuck with pre ’83! I sometimes wonder about US plate formats. I know that, in Florida, my family has rented an NEP81J and an LQA49H, which would equate to a ’71 and a ’70 respectively in the UK. (Chevy Lumina and Ford Contour, since you ask)

      • The short version is that US plate formats don’t mean anything unless they do. Most states have (mostly) chosen a pattern, such as three letters followed by three numbers, worked through that pattern sequentially, then selected another pattern and so forth. In some states for some periods the county has been encoded into the registration, in some states cars and trucks receive different patterns, in some states blah, blah, blah… Generally, however, the pattern itself has no special meaning.

        All sorts of exceptions, however, exist for government vehicles, for HAM radio operators, and for pretty much for any group with enough clout to persuade that particular state’s legislature to set aside a series for their exclusive use.

        US plates are (mostly) not permanently assigned to a specific vehicle. In some states the plates must be surrendered when the vehicle is sold and a different plate will be assigned when the new owner applies for a title and registration. In other states the plate remains with the vehicle when sold unless the new owner requests new plates. In yet other states the former owner may remove the plates at the time of sale and put them on a different vehicle. In some states more than one of these options may be possible. Also, most states have changed their procedures repeatedly over the years.

        For a while Washington required everyone (with, of course, exceptions…) to get different plates every seven years by claiming that the plates were significantly less reflective after that much time, although the Department of Licensing would make a new set of plates bearing the old number for an additional fee if the owner wanted to “keep” it. Now everyone is expected to replace their plates whenever it is felt the old plates have worn out, again with a new number unless one is prepared to pay extra to keep the old number.

        I’ve decided to be stubborn about my British-market cars by keeping the British registration number whenever possible. So far I’m four for four.

        • Gotcha. Thanks. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised that we still have a system that advertises a car’s age when very few other nations do so. Since 2001 we’ve had a twice-yearly plate number change on 1 March and 1 Sept, and that’s reduced the previous annual ‘rush’ among those who ‘must’ have the latest registration number, but I feel that’s become an increasingly old fashioned notion.

          And re. HAM operator vanity plates; I fear that I can’t secure my own M6XKR call without an appropriate Jaguar to attach it to.

          • The standards and requirements for HAM plates here vary by state (surprise!), with Texas, for example, being perfectly happy to issue plates with the same number for simultaneous use on more than one vehicle:


            My wife doesn’t want her call sign on her car, however, because it then becomes all too easy for anyone to look up one’s mailing address and so forth.

            • PaulE

              I’ve always preferred to run without call sign plates on my cars, even if they’ve been festooned with antennas, in those rare instances I’ve chosen to install radios. Anonymity, and all that… I’ve usually not kept a car long enough to justify a permanent ham radio installation, anyway.

          • Vairship

            ” I fear that I can’t secure my own M6XKR call without an appropriate Jaguar to attach it to.
            You could always attach it to a Ford Mondeo, that’s sort of a Jaguar…. [Runs and hides]

  • Thanks for the report, I had the feeling that your project car definition was broader than Merriam Webster’s…
    “I can deal with leaks” – good news is, a blown head gasket is a leak, technically…

    • Yep. “Project” essentially equates to “keep it running”.

      • Sjalabais

        In this context, Greg’s new car is the true outlier.