Rover 800 Sterling Coupe | Spotted

More than the sum of its parts…

By John Howell / Thursday, 2 February 2023 / Loading comments

There are times when you look at an old car and just know. You know it won’t be that good to drive because, in all honesty, it wasn’t that great even when it was new, and time will have done it no favours. But even knowing all that, old cars can be like any addictive substance. They’re just another drug, drawing you in. You know it’s wrong, you know you should ‘Just say no,’ like Zammo told you, but you just have to try it… Here’s an example of that addictive compulsion for me: the Rover 800 Sterling Coupe.

This all started when I was about 11 years of age. My friend’s dad worked for an Austin Rover dealer and whenever he and his family would come over to visit, they’d always arrive in a new Austin Rover. And while the adults sat in my parents’ living room, discussing boring stuff like Perestroika, my mate, my brother and I would grab the keys and sit in the car. This was always exciting for me. At the time, our family wheels was a Hillman Hunter estate, which was so basic it had a pump-action windscreen washer. So sitting in a new car, with luxuries like electric windows, a sunroof and even back-lit dials, was just marvellous.

Two cars stand out from those experiences. One was a Montego Mayfair, which I remember specifically for its sumptuous velour upholstery, but the most special of all was the Rover 800 Sterling. Oh my God, sitting in that thing at night, with the ignition on, bathed in the orange glow of its dials – all six of them, including a voltmeter and oil pressure gauge – was something from a different world. 

Either side of the instruments was a bank of switches. The left ones were dedicated to automatic climate control – yes, automatic climate control. The Hunter, by comparison, had a two-speed fan and an optional heated rear window. In the centre console were more wonders. A Phillips digital stereo with pre-set buttons and an auto reverse cassette deck. My Genesis Invisible Touch album had never sounded so good as it did played through that, let me tell you. I can even recall the large volume control, which had lots of illuminated dots around its circumference. They served no real purpose, of course, but boy did they look good.

Below the stereo was something even more amazing. It was like something out of Knight Rider: the ‘system control centre’. This gave you a top-view diagram of the car and told you about the state of the lights and whether a door was ajar, and next to that was the multi-function trip computer – a flipping computer in a car that monitored the engine’s performance; it just blew my mind. I haven’t even mentioned the luxuriousness of it, because that was almost secondary. It was still a dramatic uplift over the Hunter’s cold, stiff vinyl seats, mind. The Rover 800 had soft leather with all the burr walnut trimmings.

I can describe all this to you now because it left such an impression on me at the time. It’s chiefly why I’m ensorcelled by this 800 Coupe – but there’s another reason. I still think it looks great. Obviously, this is the face-lifted version, with the chrome grille and revised dashboard – I liked the new grille but I always thought the analogue clock and those two buttons, which replaced the ‘system control centre,’ was a bit ordinary. I still wouldn’t say no, though. The piped leather and acres of wood still do it for me.

Of course, I know it will be crap. I drove an 820i Fastback automatic when it was just a few years old and that was terrible. Horrible steering, useless gearbox, gruff four-pot and a lumpy ride. Maybe this car’s V6 would sort the engine noise out, but I cannot see it being a panacea for all the 800’s ills. And yet, as I stare at this car knowing all that, I still want it, because it reminds me of my youth. Of happy days when electric windows and back-lit dials would be all that was needed to wow me. That’s why I love old cars, even the crap ones, because like a piece of music, they bring all the happy memories instantly flooding back. 

Specification | Rover 800 Coupe 

Engine: 2,494cc, V6, naturally aspirated
Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 173 @ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 160 @ 5,000rpm
CO2: N/A
MPG: 30-ish (NEDC)
Recorded mileage: 48,000
Year registered: 1999
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £6,999

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