Bridging the Gap: The Honda / Acura Legend and Rover 800

GO AND STOP

Along with their basic platform, the HX and XX would share a new Honda-designed, fuel-injected V-6. The open-deck, die-cast aluminum block had a 90-degree bank angle, which reduced engine height but required offset crank pins to provide even firing intervals. As was becoming customary Honda practice in this era, the heads had pentroof combustion chambers and four valves per cylinder. Unlike many early four-valve engines, Honda used only one belt-driven camshaft per bank, actuating the intake valves via rocker arms and the exhaust valves via short horizontal pushrods. Hydraulic lash adjusters eliminated the need for the routine valve adjustments required by most contemporary Honda fours.

Although the “C” block V-6 would be quite reliable in service, it was Honda’s first engine of this type and its development was troublesome. Durability problems prompted extensive redesign work in the summer of 1984 and the resulting increases in the engine’s exterior dimensions required last-minute styling changes for both the HX and XX. (We assume this was particularly galling to Austin Rover designers already frustrated by the earlier arguments about overall width, although Honda did pay for the additional work.)

1986 Rover 825 Sterling - Honda C25A engine © 2013 Tim Hunter (with permission)

The 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) Honda C25A V-6 was widely criticized for lackluster low-speed torque, in part because it lacked the three-mode, dual-runner intake manifold fitted to the smaller C20A and later C27A engines. Japanese, North American, and Australian versions of the C25A engine had catalytic converters to meet local emissions standards, but markets like the U.K. (where unleaded gasoline was not widely available until a few years later) received a uncatalyzed C25A2 version with a higher compression ratio (9.6:1 versus 9.0:1 for catalyzed cars) and a bit more power. (Photo: “1986 Rover 825 Sterling 1990 Rover 827 Vitesse” © 2013 Tim Hunter; used with permission)

Honda had no interest in offering the HX with either a four-cylinder engine or a diesel, which Austin Rover would have eagerly supplied. Big Japanese cars did offer fours and/or diesels in the home market, but they went mainly to fleet buyers; the prestige market demanded six cylinders even for 5-number cars. To that end, Honda created two versions of the V-6: a 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) C20A for the cheaper 5-number JDM grades and a 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A for 3-number and export cars. Save for bore and stroke, the two engines were very similar, but the C20A added a computer-controlled dual-runner intake manifold to boost low-end torque.

Senior Rovers would share the C25A, but the European market also demanded cheaper four-cylinder options. To that end, Austin Rover developed the M16 engine, a new DOHC, 16-valve version of the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series four (itself a distant descendant of the old BMC B-series engine). With its iron block, the twin-cam M16 was only 35 lb (16 kg) lighter than the all-aluminum C25A.

All five-speed Rovers had Honda-designed gearboxes, but four-cylinder automatic cars had a four-speed ZF transmission while V-6 Rovers shared the new four-speed Honda automatic. The latter was an unusual two-shaft, constant-mesh transmission — more like an automated four-speed manual with a torque converter than a conventional planetary-gear automatic — with torque converter lockup in all gears but first to reduce slippage. Equal-length halfshafts were specified to reduce torque steer.

Both cars would have four-wheel disc brakes. In Japan, senior HX grades would use Honda’s peculiar two-channel antilock braking system, also available on some non-U.S. Accords and Preludes, but Austin Rover rejected that system, which had been roundly criticized in the British press for allowing one front wheel to lock if the other was still turning, and opted instead for a four-channel Bosch system. Honda, whose directors were philosophically resistant to licensing other companies’ technology unless absolutely necessary, decided not to offer ABS on export cars until the company’s new three-channel system was ready.

HONDA LEGEND

Due to supplier difficulties in the U.K., the HX bowed some seven months before the Rover version, debuting at the 1985 Tokyo auto show. The new sedan, which Honda boldly christened “Legend,” went on sale through the new Japanese-market Honda Clio network on November 23.

At launch, the JDM Honda Legend was available in three grades. The cheaper 5-number V6Zi and V6Gi (chassis code E-KA1) had the C20A engine, rated at 145 PS JIS (107 kW) and 123 lb-ft (168 N-m) of torque. The top-spec, 3-number V6Xi (E-KA2) had the C25A, which in Japan was rated at 165 PS (121 kW) and 156 lb-ft (211 N-m) of torque. Starting prices ranged from ¥2,480,000 to ¥3,135,000 (equivalent to about $12,000 to $16,000), which put the Legend in same realm as a six-cylinder Nissan Cedric or Toyota Crown. (For comparison, the most expensive JDM Accord listed for around ¥2 million at that point.) A stripped-down Legend V6Mi price-leader was added about a year after launch.

1986 Honda Legend 2.5 Xi (KA2) sedan © 2014 Rainmaker47 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

An early KA2 Legend V6Xi in Honda’s collection. JDM Legends had a little more brightwork than export cars — note the chrome stripe through the front bumper — and used one-piece headlights and a different grille than early Acura-badged cars. (Photo: “Honda Legend Honda Collection Hall” © 2014 Rainmaker47; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Honda recognized that they were not going to crack the stratified Japanese luxury market overnight and, unlike Toyota and Nissan rivals, the Legend would not have taxi and fleet sales to bolster sales volume. Initial sales target was a modest 1,500 units a month, and even that proved optimistic.

Japanese auto magazines like Jikayousha praised the JDM Legend for its impressively smooth engines, but even the 2.5-liter version had no surplus of torque and the Legend was heavy enough to make the smaller C20A feel gutless, particularly with the automatic that Japanese luxury car buyers preferred. Moreover, the Legend’s exterior styling was on the bland side and the cabin, though ergonomically excellent, seemed spartan and down-market next to the plush velour interiors of rivals like the Toyota Crown Royal Saloon. While the sleek, sophisticated new Accord and Vigor were standouts in their class, the Legend seemed too cautious for its own good.

THE BIRTH OF ACURA

Honda probably recognized that the Legend’s best hopes lay in the U.S., where the new model debuted in early 1986. In Japan, Honda was an upstart; in Europe, a foreign interloper. In the U.S., it was now a serious player. The latest Accord and Civic had been ecstatically received and the VRA restrictions had boosted transaction prices to enviable levels. Honda executives had some trepidation about offering a model as large or expensive as the Legend, but Honda could hardly have asked for a better moment to try.

Nonetheless, the executives of American Honda identified several potential flies in the ointment. The first and most obvious was brand credibility. American buyers liked Hondas, but it was still unclear if the goodwill Honda had developed in that realm would translate into higher price classes.

A second issue was the danger of demoting the Accord to second banana in the U.S. lineup. Even in Japan, where larger dimensions and a six-cylinder engine were enough to put a car into a distinctly different class, the Legend was perceived as being a little too similar to the Accord. That risk was particularly acute in the U.S., where the Legend was smaller than some cheaper domestic family sedans. American Honda was concerned that dealers would shift emphasis away from the company’s most popular model to a more expensive car that would not (and could) not sell in the same numbers.

1988–89 Acura Integra three-door front 3q © 2012 IFCAR (PD)

The first-generation Legend was accompanied in Acura showrooms by the compact Integra, a sporty four-cylinder hatchback sold in Japan as the Honda Quint Integra. The North American Integra was a solid commercial and critical success, although it was far from an obvious companion for the bigger, softer, and generally milder Legend. This U.S. car is actually a late (1988–1989) example, distinguishable by its restyled front airdam. (Photo: “1st Acura Integra — 03-31-2012” © 2012 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

A third concern was the size of Honda’s dealer network. Honda then had around 800 U.S. dealers, which wasn’t enough for the kind of volume the company was after. The simplest way to add more dealers without stepping on existing franchise holders’ toes was to set up a new dealer network with its own products. Honda and most other Japanese automakers had done that repeatedly in the home market, but in Japan, each network was clearly identified as a Honda channel (Honda Verno, Honda Clio, and so on). American Honda officials warned that the new U.S. network and its products should not carry the Honda name, which would do little to mitigate the brand credibility issues — not to mention courting trouble with local franchise laws.

Honda’s Japanese directors were resistant to this line of reasoning in no small part because they feared Soichiro Honda’s reaction. The company’s retired founder had little if any actual authority by then, but Soichiro was both outspoken and fearless, so failing to secure his blessing would have been imprudent as well as disrespectful. Fortunately, Soichiro responded with surprising equanimity, so Honda’s senior executive conceded the point.

The result was a new division called Acura, which opened its first 60 dealerships in March 1986. They initially had two products: the Legend sedan and the Integra, a sporty hatchback based on the Civic platform.

ACURA LEGEND

The first Acura Legend sedan was similar to the JDM Legend V6Xi, differing mostly in trim and equipment details (and of course having left-hand drive). The sole engine was the 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A1, which in U.S. form had SAE net ratings of 151 hp (113 kW) and 154 lb-ft (209 N-m) of torque.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan front © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

Export versions of the Legend were the same size as the “3-number” Japanese-market V6Xi, which was 68.1 inches (1,735 mm) wide and 54.7 inches (1,390 mm) high. The JDM “5-number” cars were the same height, but had a 0.4-inch (10mm) narrower track and narrower fenders that trimmed overall width to 66.7 inches (1,695 mm), just under the 66.9-inch (1,700mm) limit of the small car tax class. Note the two-piece headlamps, which were specific to early North American cars, as was the grille. Legends in other markets had one-piece halogen lights, which were added to Acura Legends for 1989. (Photo: “IMG_0332” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

The Legend’s starting price with manual transmission and destination charge was $2 shy of the $20,000 mark, making the Legend the most expensive Japanese car ever offered in the U.S. As was Honda’s U.S. practice, there were no factory options; even Legends with automatic transmission were listed as separate models.

Despite its Acura badge, boxy flared fenders, rectangular grille, and exposed halogen headlights, the Legend was unmistakably a Honda and bore a clear stylistic relationship to the Accord. The Legend drove like the contemporary Accord, too. Ultimate handling limits were nothing special, but road manners were quite polished despite the soft springs. The Legend also had a plush ride at legal speeds, although rough pavement showed up the relatively flaccid damping and the fact that the suspension provided less wheel travel than some European rivals. The Legend’s biggest dynamic flaw was the speed-sensitive power steering, which was over-light at low speeds and then weighted up in abrupt, noticeable steps.

With the slick five-speed gearbox, most U.S. testers bettered Honda’s official 9.2-second 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) time by a half-second or so and equaled or exceeded the claimed 126 mph (203 km/h) top speed, competitive for the time. Even with manual transmission, however, the C25A didn’t have a lot of grunt at lower engine speeds. The added multiplication of the automatic’s torque converter helped, but Legends with automatic were notably slower than manually shifted cars; Honda quoted 10.2 seconds for the automatic Legend’s 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) sprint. Testers found the automatic Legend could nearly equal the manually shifted car’s unrestricted top speed, but, as on the contemporary Accord, the automatic tended to be both indecisive and jerky.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan side © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

All first-generation Legends (and early Rover 800s) rode a 108.7-inch (2,760mm) wheelbase. Export and 3-number Legends were 189.4 inches (4,810 mm) long, but the 5-number JDM cars, with shorter bumpers, were only 184.7 inches (4,690 mm) overall, again for tax classification reasons. Note the gap between the front wheel and the wheelhouse: In stock form, the Legend had 7.1 inches (180 mm) of front wheel travel, about an inch (25 mm) less than an E28 5-Series BMW and 1.7 inches (40 mm) less than the E32 7-Series released in mid-1986. Although the Legend was often criticized for its lack of suspension travel, the owner of this car later elected to lower it about 2 inches (51 mm) for autocross duty. (Photo: “IMG_0334” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

Even so, most U.S. critics were pleased with the Legend, if not quite as rapturous as they had been about the new Accord. Some complained that the Legend wasn’t much fun to drive, but reviewers generally respected that Honda had deliberately chosen a middle ground between American and European luxury car standards. The Legend couldn’t match the performance, solidity, or snob appeal of a Mercedes 300E or BMW 535i, but in the U.S., the Acura was more than $10,000 cheaper than either. Its most direct rivals were the Audi 5000, Saab 9000, and Volvo 700-Series, against which the Acura could offer a six-cylinder engine (something that at that time only the Volvo 760 could match) and Honda-style quality and reliability in a class not noted for trouble-free ownership experiences.

The Legend had also obvious appeal to Honda owners. Had it been introduced five years earlier, it might have greeted with puzzlement, but now there were people lining up to pay full list price or more for a $13,000 Accord and some of those buyers were more than happy to spend still more for a bigger, fancier version. Acura sold around 25,000 Legends in 1986, almost 55,000 in 1987, and more than 70,000 in 1988. However, while officials boasted of strong conquest sales, we can’t help thinking that Honda could have sold nearly as many Legends if they’d been branded as super deluxe V-6 Accords.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan rear © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

The North American Acura Legend received only very minor cosmetic changes throughout its life. This is actually a 1988 Acura Legend, retaining the rear strut suspension and original exterior, but with the new 2.7-liter (163 cu. in.) C27A1 V-6. Starting in 1988, Acura Legends were offered in several trim levels with different standard equipment, in keeping with American Honda’s no-factory-options policy; the LS was the top trim level, with leather upholstery and Honda’s three-channel ABS. One easy way to identify North American Legends, at least from the rear, is the center high-mounted stop light (CHMSL), added to meet a new U.S. safety requirement. (Photo: “IMG_0358” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

32 Comments

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  1. The British version of the Honda Ballade you referred to was the last car marketed as a Triumph, sold in the UK as the Triumph Acclaim. Later editions were rebadged as Rovers two hundred series cars.

    Roger.

    1. I had talked about the Acclaim in the Ballade/CRX article earlier this year (which even includes a picture of it), so I didn’t want to belabor the point, but I did add a clarification to the Rover 213 caption for the benefit of those joining us late. The reason I cited the Rover 200 rather than the Ballade as the antecedent of the 800 is that the 200 had a bit more Rover content, including the 1.6-liter engines, whereas the Acclaim was really just a Ballade with new badges and whatever minor changes Rover had to make for local type approval.

  2. Another great article. I love my 2005 RL, which was one of the most brilliant (the SH-AWD in the RLs is amazing for dry cornering and not bad in wet/snow), yet bland and poorly marketed vehicles ever (towards the end of its like it was barely selling hundreds of cars a year in the whole US). Still see more older Legends than RLs here in the states.

    Such a shame Honda chose not to give everyone what they wanted (or thought they needed) in a V8 and RWD, but they also didn’t try to really explain how a V6 (and a relatively high performing one in 2005) and AWD (with unique RWD bias as needed) could be a better solution.

    1. The AWD RL wasn’t a bad car and in some ways it was kind of handsome, but it smacked too much of trying to talk a nightclub bouncer into letting you into the posh nightclub after he’s already said no.

      It’s not that RWD vs. FWD (or even AWD, except for certain types of really high-performance car) makes that much of a difference to the way most people drive or that anyone really needs a V-8. (Even with the 5-Series and E-Class, the large majority are sold with sixes or fours.) But that class is all about perception, particularly when you don’t have pedigree to fall back on.

  3. Outside the scope of the article, but when the British government was looking to off-load Rover Group, Ford was the first company that stepped forward to buy. But, the government was aware of the potential public relations problem of selling Britain’s largest automaker to a foreign firm and was under pressure to find a British buyer. British Aerospace had no interest at all in getting into the automotive business, but as a defense contractor heavily dependent on government contracts, they could be “persuaded” into taking the company off the government’s hands.

    By then, Rover had a relatively modern and competitive model range and was making money, but BAe was unwilling to make any significant investment in the business and kind of starved it. When they were looking to sell in 1994, they tried to interest Honda, but the most Honda was willing to do was raise their stake from 20% to 40% and BAe wanted to dispose of the whole thing. So, BMW it became.

    For their part, Ford went on to buy Jaguar instead and was later able to grab Land Rover when BMW broke up the Rover Group.

    1. I think Rover Group ended up spending much of its later existence as a sort of perpetual white elephant. Each of its successive owners recognized (or at least hoped) that it had value, but saw that value as either notional or hypothetical: “This will certainly be worth a lot to someone, somewhere, following some reversal of fortune we would rather not have to pay for.” BAe is often criticized for not investing more in development, but the same could be said of BMW. Other than the MINI — a saga in itself — the main additions were the 75, which began as a BMW castoff, and the MGF, which I assume must have been largely done by the time the BMW deal was closed. There was the KV6, but that was a derivative of an existing Rover engine and something that, as I understand it, Rover only hadn’t built previously because it was simpler to use the Honda V-6.

      I’m honestly not sure what Ford would have had to gain by buying Rover at that time other than some of the shuttered brands (which it’s not easy to envision Ford actually reviving). Of course, they later bought Land Rover, but the high-end SUV market wasn’t yet looking as gold-plated as it did a decade or so later. As much hindsight-driven criticism as the acquisition of Jaguar has since received, the original rationale isn’t hard to grasp. Rover, though… hmmm.

      1. In the ’80s, Ford was coveting a European prestige brand of its own due to the success of the Germans, and to a lesser extent the Swedes, in the US, and the Rover brand, though tarnished, still had some upscale equity in it at that point. Plus, it could potentially be had for cheap. The courting of Rover, the acquisition of Jaguar, and the creation of Merkur all stemmed from the same desire to appeal to a different sort of customer than Lincoln-Mercury was chasing.

        A final bit of irony is that the Sterling name was created partly to avoid any connections with Rover’s past bad reputation in the US, but soon developed such a poor image itself that Rover Group was seriously considering dropping Sterling in favor of Rover for 1992. By then, the Range Rover had been launched here and had been favorably received, helping to remove some of the name’s taint.

        The MGF and Rover 75 were both supposedly developed with US sales in mind, but BMW’s fears of internecine competition followed by the loss of the Land Rover dealer network in 2000 prevented that from ever happening. I believe there were some images of 75 styling clays that showed US-spec reflectors and lights in place.

        1. The idea of getting a premium brand to take over the niche of the Granada would have made some sense for Ford, since (as is mentioned in the text) the high-end Germans essentially devoured the “big, non-premium exec” niche. Whether replacing the 800 and Granada with a what presumably would have been essentially a new Granada with a Rover badge would have worked commercially is an interesting question, although I don’t think it would have done Rover’s image any more harm than was done by slapping the Rover badge on the Metro. (Creating a premium supermini is one thing, but the Metro was past its sell-by at that point.)

          The confusing bit is what Ford would have done with the rest of Rover Group. Ford certainly had no need of Austin or Morris and while the MG badge obviously had (and still has) some cachet, it’s hard to envision Ford doing anything with it or reviving Triumph or Riley.

          I heard rumors of Rover bringing the MGF to the U.S., which would have made a modicum of sense were the timing right (of which I’m not so sure). MG and the pre-TR7 Triumph sports cars were about the only BL products that consistently sold well here. (American buyers didn’t know what to make of the big Triumph sedans and to the extent that there was a market for the P6, it was torpedoed by reliability problems.) I think the decision not to try to federalize the 75 was the correct one. Americans would have perceived the 75 as underpowered, and since it would have had to vie with Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, any reliability or service weaknesses would have been fatal in very short order. (The American luxury buyer mindset is that if you’re not getting a brag-worthy German or Italian brand, it had better be bulletproof and the dealers had better offer lavish VIP treatment.)

          1. And as to the Rover, 75 or an MG variant, they really needed a more robust engine than the KV6 which came to the USA in the Freelander and had significant engine reliability issues.

  4. I recognise that white Sterling badged as a Rover; it was at last April’s Queen’s English show in Los Angeles – and I have to give the owner full credit for persistence, obstinance, and perseverance.

    Rover (in its many incarnations) was a company that never figured out how it should capitalise on the engineering virtues of its vehicles through superior build quality, and this shows in the progression of their models from the P6 to the SD1 through to the 800-series – they just couldn’t make the cars <b>work</b>, at least not consistently – even when Honda was giving more than just assistance at the start of the end.

    In many ways, it pains me to say this because I am the past owner of a Rover P6. It was a great car, and mine was clearly built on a good day because it was incredibly reliable and a fantastic driver. But I also grew up with Rover at the end of the P6 era, through the SD1 into the 200-, 400-, and 800-series cars, as well as into the twilight days with the 100/Metro, and 45 and 75.

    With a bit more effort, Rover could have been where BMW is now, instead of ultimately being a part of them – and then nothing except a phonetic variation of the name in China. But no matter how much brilliance may shine through from time to time, if you can’t learn from history’s mistakes you will be doomed to repeat them.

  5. Stirling. I was excited as all get out when the car first arrived. Japanese reliability coupled with British class.

    To this day I still remember the one page Car and Driver review of the 825. They were reasonably impressed . . . . . . and then in the middle of the test drive, the electrics suddenly cut out (completely) and a second or so later, came back on again. Never to happen again, of course. While C&D had enough class not to start making Lucas jokes, the did make this incident the closing couple of paragraphs in the review.

    And my though upon reaching the end was, “It’s dead Jim.”

  6. Very interesting article. Good to read about the Japanese market products. Inevitably some errors creep in and where it says “Four-cylinder Rovers had either an Austin Rover-supplied five-speed gearbox…” although this is true it gives the wrong impression. The PG1 manual box, although built by Austin-Rover was a Honda design manufactured under license.

    A work colleague bought, new, one of the last Legends sold in the UK in 2009. Honda had to discount the price of the new car to the level of a well-used car to shift them. Given that this was during the financial crisis just after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers the timing wasn’t great and the price cut understandable.

    1. Thanks for the note on the manual gearbox. I double-checked and you’re quite right (I’d misread my own notes on that point). I’ve amended the text.

  7. This article was well worth the wait, especially in terms of filling in the blanks relating to the Legend. I didn’t know there was one with a smaller engine available on the Japanese market. I remember when the turbo version came out; “Car’s” comment after testing it was “Not as good as we had hoped”.
    Despite the technological advances in the latest model (I much prefer names rather than the alphanumeric thing everyone is doing these days), I don’t think enough is done to market the RL and I am surprised it hasn’t been dropped entirely.

    1. Did CAR at some point test the Japanese-market Wing Turbo Legend? Or did you mean the Rover Vitesse turbo? I haven’t read their test of the latter, although their reaction to the 220TC was quite harsh and they were never especially fond of the 800 in any form.

      I think the dilemma for the RLX now is that while some of its technology is impressive, most modern big executive cars could do double duty as a rolling display room for a consumer electronics chain. What Honda desperately needs is some compelling reason for a buyer to choose the RLX over, say, an Audi A6. Unfortunately, I don’t know how willing Honda is to sink more money into that platform (especially since I think the current RLX is now limited to North America). Given its sales, I can’t exactly blame them, but at present it seems likely that the RLX will just fade out, probably without replacement.

  8. The test of the Legend Wing Turbo was more of a driving impression than a full test in the “Newcomers” section of either the January or March 1989 issue of “Car”. Of course that was when Honda was on a high after having dominated F1 in 1988 with Senna and Prost and the McLaren Honda team. The January issue cover was a feature on the Cizeta-Moroder V16T (which was hailed as the new Lamborghini Countach), while the March issue was headlined “Japan Shows Europe How to Build Sports Cars”, which dealt with the Acura NSX, Mazda Miata and the 1990 Nissan 300ZX. Hope this helps.

    1. Thanks — that does help. I keep hoping that at some point I’ll find either factory performance figures or a Japanese road test with same. I’ve seen several driving impressions, but they don’t offer any factory or measured figures. The gist I’m getting from the impressions is that the V6Ti felt a bit like some later turbodiesel cars: somewhat lethargic off-idle and then robust mid-range. (The C20A actually claimed a bit more torque than the 2.7-liter normally aspirated engine and the torque peak was 1,000 rpm lower.) I suspect one of the reasons for only offering the turbo with automatic was to try to use the torque converter to bolster low-RPM response.

      I can certainly understand why Western automotive writers would be a little disappointed; one might initially assume “Legend turbo” would be a sportier edition, which really wasn’t the point. Most of these engines were driven by the desire to maximize performance within the bounds of the five-number class, which produced some fascinating solutions. During that era, Toyota simultaneously offered plain SOHC, cooking or performance-oriented DOHC 24-valve, twin-turbocharged, and supercharged versions of its 2-liter 1G engine — in some lines, you could take your choice!

  9. In the early 90’s there was a used Rover 800 sitting in the company carpark, which I drove a couple of times. Lovely interior, quite nice to drive, and it would have been even better if it ran on all four cylinders.Finding someone willing to work on a BL engine was proving difficult for the owner, who had already found a replacement car. I can recall long-term tests of the 800 in the 80’s commenting that the reason the electric windows sometimes ceased working was because the relay fell out of its’ intended location! In later years I was a real fan of the Rover 600, but when I found someone to let me drive one, there was no clutch pedal – just a metal spike to which the pedal had once been ( poorly) welded.
    As a true Brit, I have only bought Japanese-built cars for the last 20 years or so.

  10. Been watching Season 6 of the detective series George Gently.

    There is an eye catching blue 1964 Rover 2000 (P6) driven by George, featured in the shows. P6s were very stylish and Rover’s follow up SDI model despite it’s build issues was still an eye catcher. There were long waiting lists for these cars when they were introduced.

    Then we have the 800 and Sterling, “115% sized Accord”. Bland and anonymous. White bread. Only the fastback Vitesse looked decent.

    Rover and Triumph should have stayed well away from BMC.

    1. Certainly, I don’t think there are many (any?) people now who would argue that Leyland merging with BMC was a good idea — certainly not as far as Rover and Triumph were concerned. Of course, the point of the merger was that the government was understandably worried about BMC collapsing or ending up foreign-owned, fates the marriage didn’t so much prevent as protract.

      How well Rover and Triumph would have fared sans BMC is an interesting and difficult question. They would still have had a tough road after the U.K. entered the Common Market, which put the P6 and 2000/2500 into more direct competition with BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, and neither Rover nor Triumph had had much luck in the U.S. market beyond the TR and Spitfire. It would have been a tough road in any case.

      I think it’s important to emphasize that Rover’s alternatives as regards an SD1 replacement/successor were not encouraging. Whatever one thinks of the 800, it’s hard to argue that a thinly veiled SD1 re-skin (still with live axle but probably minus V-8) or a 115% Montego with a V-6 engine would have been better…

      1. Leyland motors needed some lower priced models below their Herald and Triumph 1300 (another interesting car that started off FWD and became RWD).

        Tony Benn and the UK Government of the time brokered the Leyland deal, when Leyland found out how much BMC was really worth they wanted to back out. Not a merger of equals. BMC was already in a big mess.

        The tie up killed a lot of new Rover models that the tooling was already purchased and done.

        There is no doubt that Rover needed Honda , just a shame the cars were so bland.

        The Rover P6 was one of the stars of the Movie Gattaca, along with an Avanti and a Citroen DS. Iconic vehicles. Not so the 800.

        1. Yeah, I know the merger did for the Rover P8 and the revival of Alvis as an automaker. (I think they kept making armored fighting vehicles for some time afterward.) I’ve never been sure exactly how serious Rover was about the P6BS mid-engine car; whether Rover- or Alvis-badged, it just seems like an unlikely idea.

          Honestly, I don’t know how much sense it would have made for Leyland to get into a lower-priced market than the 1300/Toledo/Dolomite. There was certainly more money to be made from those and the bigger sedans, and going lower just meant clashing with Ford, Vauxhall, Austin, and later the Japanese, the French, and the Germans. I think one of the various problems hampering BL was that they desperately wanted mass-market, low-priced cars even at the expense of the posher brands; the former were obviously more politically desirable, but significantly harder to achieve than it would have been to sustain/salvage the latter.

          Icons are a tricky thing. It’s difficult to create one on purpose (and trying too hard at it is a good way to become a joke) and if you have a few, they can handcuff you to your past whether you want them to or not. There are quite a few automakers who’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to iconic themes because any deviation from them elicits cries of outrage from loyalists while failing to convince anyone who finds the look dated or trite. It’s all the more difficult if you’re trying to make it in a class that has already become disinclined to take you seriously…

          1. Speaking of jokes, I remember a car book that described the Sterling this way: “If it was trying any harder to be British, it would be Madonna!”

    2. (This does remind me that I still want to do the Rover P5…)

      1. This site is great, please do something on the P5 , when you put the P5 and P6 alongside each other it’s difficult to believe they came from the same company. The P4 and P5 is definitely “Aunty Rover”.

        Without BMH, who knows what could have happened but Leyland , Rover, Triumph might have become the UKs own BMW.

        And in 1968 BMW was a niche player.

        1. That’s true, although by 1968, BMW was already more successful in the U.S. market than Rover (and certainly far more than the Triumph sedans, which never sold well in the States). Leyland certainly had a head start insofar as Rover and Triumph had well-established credentials in the British 2-liter prestige class, which those two marques essentially owned until around the mid-70s, and because prior to Britain’s entry to the ECE, BMW (and Mercedes) was more expensive than domestic rivals. The price of a 2002 in the U.K. would get you a Triumph 2.5 PI, which otherwise would be more comparable to a BMW 2500 in size and performance. The erosion of that price advantage was a major challenge for Triumph and Rover, compounded by the reliability problems and lower assembly quality. (The early SD1 3500 was really quite cheap for what it offered, but I think its problems ended up becoming a de facto advertisement for buying German.)

  11. The T series was not all aluminium. Like the M16 before it, it was a cast iron (O-series derived) block, and an aluminium head. In fact the T16 was a development of the M16.

    1. You’re right about the block material — that was a bit of confusion on my part and I’ve amended the text. Regarding the design, my impression was that while the T16 was designed to share some of the tooling of the M16 (derived, as you note, from the older O-series, which I think in turn had its roots in the ancient BMC B-series), the block and head architecture owed a lot to the much newer K-series and was to some extent a K-series/M16 hybrid.

  12. A very good article on the Honda side. However, there is, in my opinion, much more comprehensive information on the Austin/Rover O, M and T series engines at AROnline.co.uk.

    Also some reasonable criticism of the Honda approach to things, which has always seemed overly idiosyncratic to me, relying on things like Double A arms good, McPherson strut bad, 60/40 weight distribution ideal for FWD and other maxims that are more opinion than fact. Rather like BMW’s cuurrent insistence that 500cc is the ideal cylinder volume which has zero engineering basis I’m aware of. Why not 397.5 cc?

    I find that reading aronline’s numerous articles on the whole BL saga gives a good understanding of all the troubles, financial, political, personalities than the usual “once over lightly approach” of most magazines and books. You can read all the sagas on Rover, Triumph, Jaguar as well as Austin and Morris.

    I mention this aronline resource because I see only one reference to it in your source list.

    1. I’m a great admirer of AROnline’s and would certainly recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about the labyrinthine saga of British Leyland/Austin Rover/Rover Group. In this case, I delved into a lot of what I’m reasonably sure were AROnline’s original sources, including the many contemporary reports in the British press on the development of the XX and Austin-Rover’s ongoing travails in that period. The BL/AR saga is obviously very complex and there’s a lot of stuff that’s really beyond the scope of this article, which was already straining the limits of reasonable length. (As it is, it’s more than 12,000 words and left me asking myself difficult questions like, “Is anyone really going to care this much?”)

      I strongly disagree that this article is Honda-centric. Considering the circumstances of their development, I think the 800 and first-generation Legend really have to be considered together. The Rover side is much better-documented in English-language sources, but English-language sources are often hazy on why Honda was insistent on certain things, such as the width issue. I’ve also noticed over the years that British sources in general tend to take a decidedly chauvinistic attitude toward all things Japanese. Particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, British reviewers might praise a Japanese car’s gearbox or perhaps the engine, but beyond that, kind words are rare unless the reviewers have reason to think the car was developed in Europe (which is a fascinating contrast with the almost fetishistic admiration American reviewers had for Japanese cars in the ’80s).

      I’ve read the criticisms from Austin Rover engineers, some of which I’m inclined to take with a grain of salt. It’s not that I think Honda is above criticism, because I don’t, but a distinction must be drawn between quality of execution and differences of priority or approach. I don’t subscribe to the common car buff assumption that sophisticated = good / unsophisticated = crap; the well-considered application of a comparatively rustic principle may well be superior to the indifferent execution of a new and brilliant idea. However, I don’t think anyone would deny that certain technologies do have specific, quantifiable advantages. The eternal question of all production engineering is whether those advantages (which may be incremental) are worth the tradeoffs involved. Those questions have been raised about MacPherson struts versus double wishbones, live axles versus independent rear suspension, and overhead cams versus pushrods, and the answers are not always clear cut. For instance, the idea that 60/40 weight distribution is ideal is not necessarily an ill-founded one, but whether that ideal was worth the expensive contortions Honda went through to achieve it with the company’s longitudinal-engineed FWD cars is quite another matter.

      As for the cylinder volume issue, that particular maxim is not original to BMW, although the way I’ve usually heard it applied is to say that 500 cc is really the MAXIMUM desirable swept area of a single cylinder, beyond which combustion roughness and other drawbacks begin to outweigh the additional potential power. I’m not an engineer and so am not really equipped to comment on the theoretical foundation of that idea, although I can think of various examples of production engines that are sweet and smooth at around 500cc/cylinder that become noticeably less so above that threshold. On the other hand, some engines are noticeably smoother than others of similar displacement and there are certainly engines that are sweeter at 600cc/cylinder than rivals are at 400cc/cylinder. All else is not necessarily equal, in other words.

  13. Fascinating and well written story, but please fix the photos–most do not match their legends (eg, showing a Sterling badge but talking about a Legend, showing a coupe and talking about a sedan…).

    1. Adam,

      I’m concerned about the photo issue you mention, which I’m not seeing. I was tinkering with the photos early today to address a technical issue with the ALT tags, but I don’t think that should have caused the captions to be assigned to the wrong photos. May I ask which OS and browser you’re using? I checked the page in all the browsers available to me and didn’t see the problem you’re describing, but if you’re using a tablet or mobile device, I don’t have a way to test that behavior myself. Feel free to send me a note via the Contact Form and I’ll see if I can sort it out. (It’s conceivable that something very stupid happened as a result of my editing the tags, but if so, I can’t see what…)

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