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

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.

1989 Sterling 827SLi five-door Rover decklid badge © 2014 Aaron Severson


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.

1970 MGB roadster British Leyland fender badge © 2010 Aaron Severson

From 1968 until the early eighties, British Leyland encompassed much of the British motor industry, including not only automakers but also truck and bus manufacturers and a variety of automotive suppliers. (author photo)

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.

1985 Rover SD1 Vanden Plas front 3q © 2011 AlfvanBeem (PD CC0 1.0 - modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Borrowing its name from the coachbuilder Austin had acquired after the war, the Vanden Plas was the Rover SD1’s top trim level. By the end of the line, the Vanden Plas was available with the 2,597 cc (159 cu. in.) OHC six as well as the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) aluminum V-8 in either carbureted or fuel-injected forms. The SD1 was longer and wider than the later Rover 800 — 186.1 inches (4,730 mm) long and 69.6 inches (1,770mm) wide on a 110.8-inch (2,810mm) wheelbase — and was offered only as a five-door, a somewhat daring choice for the late seventies. (Photo: “1985 Rover Vanden Plas” © 2011 AlfvanBeem; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified (obscured numberplate) 2014 by Aaron Severson)

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.


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.

1983–85 Rover 213 side © 1985/2007/2010 Charles01 (PD)

While the Rover 800 was created as an SD1 successor, its closest conceptual predecessor was the 1983 Rover 200, an entry-level Rover based on the second-generation Honda Ballade sedan and using a mixture of Rover and Honda components. The Rover 213, which replaced the similar Triumph Acclaim (based on the previous-generation Ballade), shared the Civic 1300’s 1,342 cc (82 cu. in.) OHC engine while the more powerful 216 had a Rover engine. (Photo: “Rover 213 Jesus Lane” © 1985, 2007, 2010 Charles01 (taken 1985, modified 2007 and 2010 by the photographer); released into the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

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 also allowing a lower hood line and smaller frontal area.

1988 Honda Accord (CA) sedan front 3q © 2007 IFCAR (PD - modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The new CA Honda Accord and Vigor, launched in June 1985, won great critical acclaim for their technical sophistication, including four-wheel double wishbone suspension and, in some markets, four-wheel wheel disc brakes with ABS. North American Accords of this generation all had popup headlights and 1,955 cc (119 cu. in.) SOHC engines, but European cars and some late JDM sedans had fixed halogen lights and a variety of other engine options, including a 16-valve, twin-cam B20A shared with the contemporary Prelude. (Photo: “1988-Honda-Accord-Sedan” © 2007 IFCAR; released into the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified (reduced glare) 2014 by Aaron Severson)

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.


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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.


    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

    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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