Japanese cars have a reputation for appliance-like reliability, but are often criticized (fairly or not) for lacking character. Character is a quality of which British cars have rarely been short, but dependability is quite another matter. In the early eighties, Honda and Rover decided to collaborate on two shared-platform luxury cars that promised to bridge that gap: the 1986–1990 Honda / Acura Legend and 1986–1999 Rover 800 (a.k.a. Sterling 800). The long and complicated story of how that project came about and what became of it is our subject in this installment of Ate Up With Motor.
The British Leyland Motor Corporation — successively known as British Leyland, Austin-Rover Group, and finally Rover Group — was born in 1968 through the merger of BMC (Austin, Morris, MG, Jaguar, et al) and Leyland Motors (which among other things owned Triumph and Rover). Despite controlling a huge slice of the British market and a host of prestigious marques, the new corporation staggered through the early seventies, shedding market share and nearly collapsing before its 1975 nationalization.
British Leyland was still far from healthy by the late seventies. Storied brands were abandoned or left to rot because they were deemed low priorities or because BL simply didn’t have the money to keep them competitive. Build quality, never a strong point, sank to a low ebb while new products were delayed or canceled. New models that did appear seemed to have either come out of the oven too soon or else not soon enough.
One of British Leyland’s numerous product development headaches in this period was the Rover SD1. Launched in 1976, the SD1 was a charismatic executive car offering an appealing blend of performance and luxury, but it was hampered by persistent reliability woes and various minor design deficiencies, some of which were never really corrected.
As had become all too common, BL lacked the resources to develop a credible successor. By 1980–1981, the likeliest options were to re-skin the existing car (a project codenamed Bravo) or else replace it with a stretched version of the forthcoming Montego. Both plans smacked of desperation and it’s hard to envision either finding much success in the ferociously competitive executive car market of the mid-eighties. BL needed a better alternative.
Similar concerns had already led British Leyland to an agreement with Honda to produce licensed versions of the Honda Ballade (a restyled version of the Civic sedan). In the fall of 1981, Edwardes suggested to Honda president Kiyoshi Kawashima that BL and Honda collaborate on a new executive car, which would give the British the benefits of Honda’s technological expertise while ensuring that BL didn’t have to foot the entire bill.
According to Edwardes, Kawashima was initially hesitant, but Honda directors had already been contemplating such a move. The Honda Civic had been very successful, completing Honda’s recovery from a difficult period in the early seventies, and the Accord was doing extremely well in both the U.S. and Japan. Honda had recently added a second JDM sales network and was gradually expanding its offerings. A larger, more expensive model was a logical next step.
However, as Honda’s directors were well aware, the company’s automotive success to date had been based entirely on smaller cars. The four-door Accord, introduced in late 1977, had edged into the Toyota Carina/Nissan Stanza class, but Honda had nothing to offer in the larger, more prestigious segment represented by the popular Toyota Mark II/Chaser/Cressida and Nissan Laurel, much less a big luxury car like the Toyota Crown or Nissan Cedric/Gloria.
Another consideration was the North American export market. Honda’s annual U.S. sales were rapidly approaching 400,000 units, more than 40% of the company’s total automotive volume, but the new Voluntary Restraint Agreement (VRA) between Japanese automakers and the Reagan administration would be a barrier to future growth until Honda could get its factory in Ohio online. In the meantime, Honda needed to focus on products that could sell for higher prices.
If Honda were to develop a bigger car, it made sense to collaborate with a partner more familiar with larger vehicles. As clever as Honda’s engineers were, they had no practical experience with the structural engineering of big executive cars; most of Honda’s water-cooled production models to that point had been essentially scaled-up or scaled-down versions of the original Civic. BL’s body engineering knowledge would be a definite asset and if nothing else, few companies knew more than British Leyland about what not to do in the executive class.
That November, Honda and British Leyland signed a letter of intent to jointly develop a new platform for two executive sedans codenamed XX and HX. That deal would be followed in 1983 by a production agreement for Austin Rover — as British Leyland was officially renamed in May 1982 — to build HX sedans for European sale and Honda to assemble “XX” Rovers for sale in Asia.
BRITAIN VS. JAPAN
There’s a common misconception that the XX — known in production as the Rover 800 — was a made-over or even badge-engineered Honda design. In fact, the project was jointly financed by both companies and developed collaboratively by engineers and designers who at some points worked side by side. While the HX and XX did have considerable commonality, the production cars were actually less alike than originally planned, sharing no exterior panels. Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that Honda was the more dominant partner and where there were disagreements, Honda got their way more often than not.
There was no disagreement about the cars’ drivetrain layout, which would use a front engine and front-wheel drive. This was not solely Honda’s idea; even if the XX deal had never happened, the only way Rover seriously envisioned retaining rear-wheel drive for its flagship was in the form of a carryover SD1 platform, and then only as a cost-saving measure. The general feeling in the late seventies and early eighties was that FF layouts were the way of the future, so many automakers were investing heavily in FWD. Most executive cars of the time were still RWD, but the success of Audi had demonstrated that FF cars could be competitive in that segment.
The real disagreements began with the new cars’ intended market position. British Leyland officials insisted early on that the XX not challenge Jaguar, which at the time was BL’s senior brand. Honda reluctantly accepted that dictum and development continued along those lines, but in mid-1984, after the HX and XX designs were more or less final, Jaguar regained its independence and Rover decided the XX needed to become a Jaguar XJ6 rival after all. That would be more easily said than done.
Another point of contention concerned the dimensions of the shared platform. Honda wanted to sell the HX in the Japanese domestic market, where automobile taxes and fees are based on size, weight, and engine displacement. For the HX to have any chance of commercial viability in Japan, the cheaper versions needed to stay within the small car (“5-number”) class, which meant a maximum width of 66.9 inches (1,700 mm), a maximum overall length of 185 inches (4,700 mm), and an engine displacement not exceeding 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.).
Like most other Japanese automakers in that class, Honda planned to straddle the line: Cheaper grades would be in the small car class with a smaller engine, shorter bumpers, and narrower fenders, while higher trim levels (and export cars) would fall into the more expensive ordinary car (“3-number”) class. However, that strategy required the inner body shell — which the HX and XX were to share — to be narrower than Austin Rover designers and engineers would have preferred from either a styling or packaging standpoint.
The vagaries of Japanese tax law were hardly of Honda’s making, but a more philosophical dispute arose over suspension design. Honda’s seventies cars had all used MacPherson struts, but by the early eighties, Honda was becoming enamored of double wishbones, which would be used both front and rear on the new Accord and Vigor (chassis code E-CA), slated to bow a few months before the HX. Naturally, Honda wanted to use the same layout for the flagship HX, arguing that the superior geometry of double wishbones would provide more precise handling and a more comfortable ride while allowing a lower hood line and smaller frontal area.
Austin Rover engineers (excepting those at Jaguar) were less enamored of double wishbones, maintaining that the theoretical advantages were not worth the tradeoffs. The British wanted to use struts and a beam axle, which A-R felt would provide perfectly adequate handling and better packaging at lower cost. Struts would mean a higher hood line, but would also provide greater wheel travel for a better ride on rough surfaces.
The difficulty with that approach, from Honda’s perspective, was that greater wheel travel requires firmer damping to maintain body control. Honda engineers also argued that struts suffered a high level of initial friction that made them inherently harsher than double wishbones over small bumps. Those were compromises to which Europeans were accustomed, but that many American and Japanese buyers perceived as too hard. The head of Honda’s R&D organization, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, later explained to the press that he’d deliberately sought to avoid giving the HX the stiff-legged feel of high-end German sedans.
The eventual compromise was to use double wishbones up front and struts in back. The front suspension was much like the Accord’s: an anti-roll bar, a lower control arm triangulated by a radius rod, an upper wishbone connected to a curved steering knuckle extension (which Honda called a twisted upper arm), and a strut-like coil-over shock absorber mounted between the inner fender and the lower control arm. In back, the coil spring was divorced from the strut and mounted on the lower control arm, which was triangulated by a trailing link and fitted with a rear anti-roll bar. Honda specified special reduced-friction rear dampers while the Rover used progressive-rate springs and, on senior models, BOGE Nivomat self-leveling struts like those offered on some Rover SD1 models.