Monday, 13 December 2010

Fleet Review;- Remembering a Rover 820e

My grandfather is a veteran of world war two; with the RCAF he flew Lancasters and Halifaxes from Eastmoor in Yorkshire. After spending the war flying “twenty thousand rivets flying in close formation” over the ack-ack heavy skies of a burning Germany, it was clear that any car he would own would have to be imbued with some kind of mechanical allure. In fact, things started well with a pre-war Jaguar SS, albeit a heavily decomposed one with mushrooms sprouting from the wooden floorboards. He would later work through various big Humbers and Vauxhalls and company Fords right up to 1990, when be bought his first Rover. The one car I have loved most in my life.

My father was rocking a Ford Cortina at the time, and when “Poppa” slid up outside our place in his ’88 Rover 800 Fastback I thought the future had arrived early. Struck by some awe, my Father and I approached the shining silver machine and stepped inside, quickly finding comfort in the brushed velvet seats, the summer rays gently toasting us through the open sunroof. Poppa started it up and the engine was a distant, almost imperceptible hum. Then he switched the Philips cassette stereo on. 
He increased the volume, and what met our ears was a recording of a Griffon engined Spitfire starting up and then taxiing to takeoff position. He proceeded to gently trickle the car forward and around the quiet roads of our estate, in perfect synchronisation with the soundtrack. Poppa is nothing if not a showman.

Fast-forward ten years. I had gone through most of my teenage years, that big, posh Rover had always been on hand to collect me from school or take me to hospital and every chance to travel in it was something to savour. For a while, as a teenager, it became “just a car”, albeit one I used to sit in just to feel it and smell it when my grandparents were away from their house. When I turned eighteen, I was driving to college every day in a Triumph Acclaim. One day, after I had mown their lawn (for pocket money) Nan and Poppa asked me how college was going, how the Triumph was, and then casually dropped into the conversation the question of “would I like their car?”

My father had recently swapped out of a Sierra and into a Mondeo V6. Poppa had been quite impressed with it and had developed a hunger for a newer, shinier car. Unknown to me he had been out and bought a two year old 825i and was offered a derisory sum for his existing car. So, rather than trading it, he decided to give it to me. I was ecstatic. I mean, really, really ecstatic.

A few days later, the ink still wet on the registration document, I pulled up outside Saras house. I had the joy of carrying three female friends to college every day as we were taking the same design diploma. Sara didn’t know quite how to take the enormous silver barge at first, but gradually the compliments began to flow. On the way home one evening, I noticed all three eighteen year olds asleep in the comfortable rear compartment, I think Sting and The Police were playing at the time. They were either supremely relaxed or bored shitless. I don’t want to know which.

As the only eighteen year old I knew with anything other than the standard-issue Nova, Fiesta or Clio, I had enormous pride in my big Rover. I fitted the 16” wheels from a Vitesse, improving the handling so much that I wondered what Rovers chassis engineers had been smoking when the decided that balloon-section 14” tyres would do the job. They didn’t, and the car used to corner with more sidewall in contact with the road than actual tread. I also whacked in a JVC stereo with 12-disc, and a pair of Alpine 6X9s on the back shelf, bypassing the original three inch Philips distorto-masters (rated at 4w). It was awesome. I knew that she wasn’t a great car, in measurable terms, but nobody needed to know that. Although not without faults and inabilities, there were certain things she just did unbelievably well. To this day I have found few cars that felt as good at 82mph. Admittedly, 83 and above was total chaos, and 81 and below it wanted to stall, but 82 was sweet. 

That car was me in metal form, or so my friends told me. If you got to know me, and then you saw my car, you’d nod in agreement. At university I became known first as the “guy with the 800”, before I was known by name. At parties, if the Rover wasn’t outside, people wanted to know why. It rapidly became the transportation of choice for my group of friends for any distance we’d need to cover, and also for late night drink runs or to take my Egyptian flatmate to visit his dealer. At one point I even managed to coax a GPS verified 128mph out of her, under cover of darkness on a motorway that will remain nameless.

As amazing as she was, the poor beast was starting to grow old by now and keeping corrosion at bay was becoming a battle. I know exactly where I was on September 11th, 2001 when the first plane struck; I was on my driveway, on summer break, painting over rust. It was starting to break out everywhere, but I did everything I could to stem the malaise.

And there were other quirks. It had an appetite for interior door handles; they were cast from some kind of brittle alloy and would snap if used too hastily. I was trapped in the car once when I had no handle and the drivers electric window failed at the same time. It just added to the character. Sometimes the car would just cut out, like it couldn’t be bothered. This happened once on a roundabout and caused a pretty spectacular traffic jam. Summoning the help of the frustrated motorists I was holding up, I pushed the car to the side of the road, reset the inertia fuel pump cut-off and the car started on the button. I had to do this on a weekly basis.

But we worked as a team, that car and me. I’d nurse it through the years and it would pay me back by only breaking down in convenient ways. Eventually, being a Rover with the M16 engine, it needed a head gasket, although this didn’t blow in a sudden, plume-of-white-smoke, brimstone kind of way, but was announced by a gradual seeping of oil and water like a friendly tap on the shoulder to remind me every now and again. My father and I stripped it down and replaced the gasket; the original had rusted away almost completely. This was the way with this car, things never seemed to fail suddenly, they’d just wear away to uselessness over time. In fact, I have to thank the Rover for my success in a job interview. They were watching me as I walked back to my car and saw me tinkering under the bonnet when she wouldn’t start. For demonstrating some kind of common sense and problem-solving wit, the job was mine. 

Five years in, after university, she was no longer as pristine as she had been in Poppa’s custody. She had various slightly different shades of Rover Silver Leaf metallic; I could never quite get a match. My ownership and occasional recklessness was taking its toll. When it snowed I had noticed her propensity for lift-off oversteer, and naturally had big fun exploiting this facility, right up until I hit a kerb, hard, shoving the front right wheel about six inches back in the wheel arch. The steering wheel was always about 30degrees out after that. Then, on Clacton sea-front, as I tried to perform an admittedly ill-advised three point turn, a Ford Escort caught me a glancing blow across the front bumper. After replacing the headlamp lens I “fixed” the bumper with duck tape. Entertainingly, the Escort came off considerably worse in the skirmish.

The scrapyards were becoming nicely filled with 800s by now, so I easily obtained a replacement bumper, in fact I scored an entire TWR style bodykit. It was slightly the wrong shade of silver so I set about respraying it and quickly rediscovered my lack of painting skills. So horrendous was my effort that I eventually never fitted it to the car. For the remainder of her life with me she wore her duck tape with pride.

Five years after being gifted this magical car I started my new job. My transport for the next two years would be an array of completely gratis BMWs, and the Rover was sidelined, but no matter; she was to be my project car. Or that was the plan, anyway. I had long harboured the desire to create an insane and hugely inappropriate Rover 800 track-day monster with Ford Scorpio-cribbed four-wheel drive and V6 power. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Determined to not to let go, I spent fortunes on keeping the car taxed, MOT’d and insured, despite the fact that in its final year it only covered seven miles.

Finally, at the request of my parents, and with a mercurially heavy heart, the Rover was listed on eBay. It sold for the embarrassing sum of £46. I had tears in my eyes when the man came and towed her away. Allegedly he was restoring another 800, so I held onto a faint glimmer of hope that mine might stay on the road. But in my heart I knew that the hidden rust rampaging quietly behind the bumpers would consume her in the end.

Ten years have passed since I first took the keys to the silver dream machine, a car I have loved like no other in my driving career. Today, Poppa, who once controlled the roar of Merlins and Herculi, is now nearing the end of his driving career. That immaculate 825i in his garage that he pampers and waxes at every opportunity, will need to go to a good home. Maybe, before too long, I will eschew a good car and find myself in a Rover 800 once more.


  1. Great read! I'd love to link this to my hatchback blog if you're okay with that.