Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fleet Review;- The Grand Unveiling of the Official Car of RoadworkUK

Were this a proper website, surely every car manufacturer represented in the land would be tripping over themselves to furnish me with a long-term demonstrator, in the hope of this leading to praise gushing from these pages. As this is instead an amateur, update-when-it-suits-me type of operation, and is of course fiercely independent and won’t be lead by the corporate might of any organisation, I have to go it alone.

So, with no delivery-mileage Maserati glinting at me from the driveway, here, with great ceremony, is the newly adopted official car of RoadworkUK.

This is the first car I’ve ever taken on for reasons of love alone. As I recounted here, I had an 800 before. It was during my university days and it came to me from Poppa, my Grandfather. And now, ten years later, it’s just a little bit of history repeating.

Poppa has recently had to give up driving. Well, it was either that or try to find a car with a Braille speedometer. It’s sad that sight problems should have led him to hang up his driving gloves permanently, maybe all those wartime hours peering into the gloom from the flight-engineer’s chair in a Halifax bomber have finally caught up with him. Nonetheless, it sadly came to pass that, recently, he drove his beloved Rover into his garage for the last time.

If you’ve read about my Audi, you’ll know that I already have a car, and one which has served me so well I’m loathe to get rid of it. Yet when it transpired that the Rover was heading for redundancy, I clearly had to implement some kind of plan

My Nanna said I could keep it or sell it, whatever I wanted, she didn’t care; although it was obvious that she secretly did. To sell the car would be morally wrong. Just as well, then that the Rover is worth hardly virtually no money; the Glass’s guide trade value on the Rover is £145. It’s worth more than that in mixed metals, for goodness sake.

Further jeopardising any money-raising antics was the fact that we had no record of the car ever having had a cambelt change. Now, this is a 1997 Rover 825, which means the infamous KV6 engine; four camshafts, 24 valves between them. It also means three separate cambelts; one on the “front”, two relay belts on the “back”, and about a million hours of workshop time chargeable by your friendly Rover main agent.

A Rover 825, or a Rover 75 for that matter, with a necessary cambelt change looming fast, is a virtually valueless commodity. Nan had mentioned offering the car to our local used car dealership; the one that used to do all the servicing for it. I suggested that would be the worst possible course of action because it’s highly unlikely that the garage would even go to the trouble of doing the cambelt in the hope of selling it to a customer who may never materialise; they’d just scrap it and have done with it. 

Fortunately, I’m a gullible soul, and one who enjoys a challenge, and so it was decided that I would do my best to tackle the cambelt myself. Key to this decision was learning that the operation costs about £600 when you pay somebody else to do it. I paid £170 in parts, but I have yet to bill myself for the labour incurred.

It was a bastard of a job, requiring big hunks of engine to be removed, and difficult without ferret dexterity and about five hands. My sausage fingers are ill-suited to tasks like these, but after some struggle, and with a lot of aid from my Dad, the job was finished and cautiously started for the first time.

Fingers crossed, but as I write this it seems things have gone according to plan. The car has covered a hundred miles since the operation, with no hint of trouble. There is an occasional ticking from cold, but that sounds every bit like a sticking tappet and disappears with a few revs. Certainly, and I say this with my fingers massaging whole pieces of furniture, let alone just touching wood; I have seen no evidence of a major cock-up.

So, how does it drive? Well, it doesn’t actually handle badly, per se; it’s not dangerous, but it’s not in the least bit sporting. If you hurl it into a corner too hard you’ll hear howls of protest from the 65-section rubber, and it all gets a little chaotic. It’ll actually grip OK, and you’re unlikely to crash, you’ll just learn not to do it again. However you cut it, this is not a car to get into a race in.

That’s not to say it isn’t quick enough. The V6 has 175hp, not billions by todays standards, but enough to beat most photocopier salesmen away from the lights. And, it has to be said, it sounds glorious. When I drove the XJ6 the other day I mentioned a woofle from the exhaust. Well, the Rover has a warble. It’s a sound that wouldn’t be out of place issuing from the back of an Alfa-Romeo; it makes me want to wind the glass down and find a tunnel or two to hear it in second gear.

Oh yeah, that’s something; this 825 is a manual. Not a great many of them were, the V6 seems to have been more commonly spec’d with a slushbox, especially in Sterling trim. Mine isn’t a Sterling, it’s an Si. This means I forgo the leather, the cruise control and the electric seats. But I’d sooner go without all that if it means I can stir the gearbox myself.

As ‘boxes go, it’s a slow-witted old thing that rewards gentle, unhurried operation with smooth, accurate gearshifts. The clutch is progressive and well weighted but has a lot of pedal travel. The ‘box itself has quite a long throw, so the recipe as a whole doesn’t encourage spirited shifting.

Once up to speed a 75 mph cruise occurs just shy of 3000rpm. I can’t say whether it’s economical or not, I need to cover enough miles to take the tank from brim to brim before I can report any meaningful numbers. However, it’s a pleasant place to sit at a reasonable motorway pace but not especially quiet by todays standards. In fact, it probably isn’t even by the standards of 1997.

This, I think, brings me back to why I love this car. In road tests in the late ‘90s, it was something of an underdog. The German competition, together with the Swedes, probably even the French, were at the top of their game, leaving poor old Rover to do their best with a product range that had been developed a decade and a half ago. Talk about fighting with one arm tied behind your back, this was like attending the Olympics in a strait-jacket.

The 800 was annihilated; the competition had far more technology at its disposal. Most were faster, comfier, quieter, more economical and generally better in countless other areas. And, back then, that mattered a whole lot. Today, though, it’s totally irrelevant. This car is highly unlikely to be driven back-to-back against a BMW 5-series any time soon; so all such comparisons are meaningless. Better now to re-evaluate the Rover in terms of how it feels today.

It actually feels brilliant. Not through being good, but from feeling refreshingly different. That dashboard, an evolution of the ‘80s original, has (to quote the Mighty Boosh) elements of the past mixed with elements of the future. The anachronistic dials with their exposed screw heads, are juxtaposed with the sophisticated climate-control system and its LCD readout. The odometer still has rotating drums, at a time where all the rivals were using electronic displays. There is no trip-computer. 

There is, though, plushness. Planks of actual, varnished wood abound. The seat facings feel closer to velvet than velour and are replete with contrasting piping. The door grab-handles are swathed in leather. It’s like some bizarre miniature ‘80s Bentley would be after a draconian cost-cutting session.

And the different-ness continues with the basic architecture of the car. In silhouette the windscreen rises at an almost Saab 900 angle, at a time where body profiles were becoming far more fluid. The shoulder-line is unfashionably low and the glass area is huge, but this all leads to the interior being bathed in light and having none of the dour, depressing feel of so many ‘90s interiors.

In styling terms, the 800 looks like it comes from another era; which, of course, it does. Again, it’s a peculiar blend of old-school Rule-Britannia heartstring-pulling, and 1980’s cutting edge. I’ve decided to do all I can to convince people to see it as retro-futurist. The whole car reminds me of The Time Machine in the film version of HG Wells’ classic; The Rover 800 is a piece of multi-valve, quad cam Victoriana.

The 800 feels so totally different to any other car I’ve driven recently, that I forget all about what it actually is. I forget that it’s a fifteen year old machine with fifty-six thousand miles on the clock. It’s so dated as to become almost timeless. If this car was brand new, I’d probably fall head over heels in love with it. It doesn’t feel like a mere car, it feels more like a yacht. It wallows, it floats, it pitches, it rolls. But it feels interesting.

I can’t make any plausible claim to the Rover being A Good Car, but travelling to work this morning, sitting at 75mph, the KV6 humming gamely away, the air-conditioning set just-so, listening to DAB radio while sitting on a comfortable pew, I couldn’t help thinking that I had beaten the system.

I was following a guy in a BMW 630i. Lovely car, that, but about sixty grand for a well spec’d one. And he was stuck in the same traffic and probably not experiencing any more comfort than I was. Literally the only thing he had that I didn’t, at that precise moment in time, was image. If the strangers surrounding us looked at him, they saw a young guy in a flash car.

If they looked at me, they’d probably be very confused. This is, definitely, an old mans car. I’ve even placed a tartan travel-blanket on the rear shelf to reinforce the stereotype. I love the irony of me, a chap still clinging on to his ‘twenties (actual elapsed age: 30 years and three months…) driving such a car. I love that it’s quite fast and makes a nice noise. I love that every single feature on it still works. I love that in pure, harsh, financial terms, it’s only “worth” £145.

But, most of all, I love the fact that it’s completely zero-reading in terms of aspiration. It belongs to no cult, no clique, no scene. It’s the polar opposite of all that’s wrong with todays’ image-led, competitive marketplace. I intend to keep it looking tidy, of course, but I love the idea of driving a car that doesn’t conform at all to any kind of manufactured image. It’s not even anti-cool. It’s just a big, old Rover that is obviously loved.

When a car gets to this age, it becomes something that either looks well cared for and lasts for ever, or is neglected and spirals towards an inevitable death. For a car to be this age and in such good shape is indicative of the pride that Poppa had in it. That pride is now shared by me and, I hope, obvious to the rest of the world.

All I ask from it, and I appreciate that it’s a big ask, is to be reliable. In the next fortnight I am planning to put the old girl into front-line service, whisking me to work in the mornings, and then easing me home at night while soothing my furrowed brow. And then, as a reward, it gets to come on holiday; a round trip in and around Cornwall, probably accruing 900 or so miles in the space of a week. If it can do all this without completely disintegrating, then it has proven itself.

And then it will deserve to live forever.