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A Sterling Effort

By Richard Truett

Cutting a dash stateside, Richard Truett's new Sterling 827 looks fantastic...

THE initial euphoria of sourcing a very clean, though electrically challenged, 1990 Rover (Sterling) 827 SLi this past weekend on the cheap on eBay is quickly wearing off. I have learned in the last few days why these cars have almost completely disappeared from American roads: Spares and service are nearly non-existent. There is no organized support for the 800 any more in the USA. As for spares, what is available are the engine, brake and suspension parts shared with Honda That's pretty much it. As for service, it's a crap-shoot. Since most garages haven't seen more than one or two 800s this century, the quality of the repairs is going to be anyone's guess.

I find it very strange that you can pick up a phone and within seconds order everything for a Triumph TR6 that you could imagine. And I do mean everything from a complete replacement frame right down to a sun visor clip. Yet you can't even buy a window lift motor, the windscreen trim or a headlight assembly for the Rover 800. I know from the speaking with the seller that my car will need a new windscreen. Based on some quick research there is just one available in my part of the country. But there's a catch. I can have it installed -- provided that the old plastic trim can be removed in one piece. If it breaks, I'm in trouble. There are no replacements to be had. There aren't even any cars to be picked apart at breakers. They've nearly all perished, apparently.

"Though it may not work perfectly all the time the way its creators intended, the 800 has a soul... "

The Rover 800 story in the USA is a brief and sad one. Things started off well enough at launch in 1987 with some 14,000 cars sold the first year. But quirky electrics, leather that turned green in the sunshine, parts that fell off, speedometers that quit working, and broken air con units doomed the British half of the Rover-Honda joint venture. One soon-to-be former parts dealer told me today: "We only carry the few parts that interchange with the Honda, but those don't ever break. Only the British parts did." Rover withdrew its cars from the USA three times, in 1971, 1981 and 1991. With its classics looks, the 1971 Rover 3500 is becoming somewhat collectible on this side of the pond. Prices for clean used or nicely restored models are hovering in the $4000 range. The SD1 has a growing following, albeit a small one. Those are changing hands for $1500 to $3000 or so. Many people buy the 3500s only to strip out the drivetrain for TR8 or V8 MG conversions. The 800, of which nearly 40,000 were sold in the USA from 1987-91 is the least loved of all the post-war Rovers sent to America. And it is apparently going to have the worst survival record. It isn't the car's styling that did it in. It certainly isn't the Honda power train. What is it then? The same thing as it ever was with BL products: Quality. Or lack of it. Rover never did quite understand that quality is the price of admission into the American market. Most of our cities don't have public transportation, and so the cars we buy are our lifelines to the world. If they break, we don't get to work on time, etc. And we get angry. Be that as it may, this is a big world. I am determined to find the spare parts I need to bring my 1990 SLi back to good health. In fact, I love such challenges. The Internet has made these adventures much easier than they used to be. So, if I have to track down and buy used spares from breakers in the UK, Australia or wherever else the 800 was sold, that's only a few keystrokes away. And it's worth it. Because at the end of the day, the 800 fastback is a damn fine looking car, isn't it? Though it may not work perfectly all the time the way its creators intended, the 800 has a soul. And it has character, something the Japanese have never been able to copy.

Stay tuned for more updates. My car is due to be delivered to me here in dreary old Detroit from the warm coziness of southern California -- where it has lived since new -- in about two weeks. I'll report on what shape the car is really in. Being an eBay car, it could, and probably does, have more problems than a calculous book. I will let you know how things are going as I sort out the intermittent speedometer, the faulty headlights, broken air con, broken rear window lift, cracked windscreen, paralyzed electric seat motor and whatever else I find. I'll be doing the repair work myself. This will be the most technically complex car I have ever attempted to fix. The way I see it just two outcomes are possible. I will be completely successful and I will end up with the nicest Rover 827 fastback in the USA. Or I will morph into a drooling lunatic who looks and sounds exactly like Carl Childers from the classic movie Sling Blade.

The car has not moved an inch closer to my driveway and already the outflow of cash from my bank account has started. Through the miracle (some might say curse) of eBay, I have found most of the spares I think I might need to bring my Rover 827 back up to roadworthiness. At this moment, junkyard buzzards in Trenton, New Jersey are picking apart a red 1991 Rover 827 SLi that had been junked for no other reason than its brakes failed. Several vital electrical organs, the windscreen and trim, and the right rear window regulator are being 'harvested' from that red Rover so that mine might live, all for the agreeable sum of $460, shipping included. Thanks to eBay UK, several other parts have been located and bought and now are winging their way across the Atlantic via Parcel Force. These include a Haynes manual, a full and proper set of Rover badges to replace the faded Sterling badges and some minor switchgear. My challenge, then, is going to be fixing the Rover myself, no easy feat.

"We only carry the few parts that interchange with the Honda, but those don't ever break. Only the British parts did."

I have never carried out specialized electrical repairs on computerized high tech modern cars. Though I have mastered Triumph technology on TRs 4 through 8, the Dolly Sprint, 2500S and Stag, these cars are as modern as Noah's Ark compared to the Rover 827. Based on what I have been reading on various Rover 800 forums, many of the 827's electrical gremlins come down to broken connections, poor soldering here and there and faulty minor bits, such as switches and relays. We'll see if this holds true for my car. Two days after Christmas, a car transporter is scheduled to pick up my silver Rover in Southern California and, one week later, deposit it on my frozen driveway in Detroit, Michigan. Waiting for it will be me, several boxes of spares and a warm, cozy garage. Once ensconced inside, the first thing I plan to do is make the badge change, as if wearing the proper Viking ship badges and nameplate might rally my Rover's spirits and encourage it to allow the reparations to go easily and quickly. Of course, I know this is not going to happen, and I am girding for what will probably be a titanic battle. We are on a collision course, that Rover and me. I am the kind of person who can't stand mechanical imperfection and can't sleep at night if so much as one bolt isn't torqued down to exact factory specifications. So this project could end up causing unbelievable stress and angst in the months ahead. But the payoff that will make it all worth it is this: I could end up with perfectly reliable classic Rover -- if such a thing is possible.




Update - 29 Dec 2007

With a bunch of second-hand spares and a repair manual, Richard Truett is ready to attack the myriad electrical problems of his 1990 Sterling 827 SLi. COULD at least some versions of the Rover 800 be on their way to classic status? While the Sterling certainly isn't loved in the USA, and has almost completely vanished from America's roads, I find it is a different story across the water. I didn't know this three weeks ago when I bought my Sterling 827 SLi, but there are vibrant and helpful owners groups, several forums and at least two clubs that cater to 800 owners. And some have been very kind with repair advice for me. That none of these entities is U.S.-based is not a major concern. The Internet has shrunk the world so much that when it comes to communication it seems there is little difference between being in another country and another room.

For example, Richard Moss of WWW.Rover800.co.uk club has been very kind in pointing me in the right direction to solving my car's headlight problem. I've also been exploring the Rover 800 club's excellent forums. So, I feel that when my car arrives in a week or so, I can get right to work and get it roadworthy. Several others have written to AROnline with tips on where I might find spares in the USA. That is greatly appreciated. Earlier this year, I finished some minor restoration work on my Dolomite Sprint and concluded building my TR7 Sprint. That meant the daily deliveries of parts by the UPS, Fed Ex and DHL men stopped. Until recently, those guys must have felt that I had either come to my senses and bought a reliable Japanese car or that I was incarcerated for some infraction of the law. But in the last week, we've all gotten re-acquainted. In fact, just yesterday, DHL and UPS were lined up in front of my house, one with a big box of parts from a dead Sterling in New Jersey, the other with several small packets from the UK. Indeed, stockists and breakers in the UK who specialize in 800s are going to be my lifeline for the 827. So far, good second-hand spares have been easy to find and very affordable. My job between now and when the car arrives is to read cover-to-cover the Haynes manual that just arrived from the UK, I am starting to feel very good about the road ahead. But more than that, I am proud to help keep the Rover banner flying over here.


Update - 13 Jan 2008

The car arrives in Detroit atop an open carrier. It left Santa Cruz, California Monday night and travelled 2700 miles in five days up there collecting a gnarly array of bugs and bird crap along the way. WHENEVER you buy a car sight unseen on eBay, or anywhere else on the Internet, you are gambling, pure and simple. I was reminded of that today when I took possession of the rare US spec 1990 Sterling 827 SLi fastback (Rover Vitesse) that I bought around Christmas time. Numerous intolerable delays in California where the car was located, combined with an incompetent shipping company in Arizona, had me pacing liked a caged cougar all week. But today the sleek silver Rover finally landed in my driveway, absolutely filthy from its long 2700 mile ride atop an open car carrier. But I am so happy it is here. I last set my bum on a Rover 800 seat in the mid '90s -- too long a time. Does any car's interior smell quite as nice as a Rover's? Anyway, cosmetically and electrically, there are no surprises. I knew about the broken windscreen, the headlights stuck on main beams, the inoperative speedometer and a few other issues. It's true what you hear about Californian cars. I have bought three classic from California and they've all been extremely well preserved. The Rover is no exception. It looks fine for an 18-year old car. But there are a few surprises. The idle is rough and the revs bounce around at low speeds, as if there is a vacuum leak somewhere. The S3 light in the instrument pack blinks whenever the car is driven faster than about 40mph, and I smell oil fumes. The motor mounts may be worn. That said, the car drives well. The transmission shifts smoothly and the engine pulls strongly and emits a lovely hum.

Here it is coming down from the carrier, and into my ownership. There are no weird noises and no smoke coming from the exhaust. The brakes seem fine and the tyres have plenty of tread left. To welcome the Rover into my world, I treated her to a full tank of premium gasoline and a thorough scrubdown at a local car wash. In the weeks since I bought the Rover, I have been collecting good used spares. Just before dark, I tried for a quick fix for the headlight problem by swapping the two headlight relays in the engine bay. Of course, that didn't work. But I knew going in that nursing the Rover back to health was going to be a struggle. And in that regard, she didn't let me down. Just before bed tonight I re-read the owners’ manual and, knowing that I would not get to sleep until I took the car for another few orbits around the block, slipped behind the wheel and sat there for a while before easing noiselessly out of the driveway. There's an S4 switch on the console that controls the timing of the shifts, giving the driver a choice between sporty or normal. I pressed that button a few times and noticed it felt stiff, as if it hadn't budged in years. Guess what: Now the speedometer is working and the S3 light is no longer blinking.

And so my Rover adventure begins...

My 2005 Ford Mustang is now sharing garage space with its distant English cousin.


Update - 20 Jan 2008

IT'S 18 degrees F out today, but that didn't keep me from getting started on the first big repair job on Project SLi, curing the faulty headlight system. Specifically, the problem is this: The main beams come on with the ignition and can't be turned off. The dip beams don't work. The headlight switch turns on the sidelights, but is otherwise inoperative. I've read the repair manuals. I've combed through the Rover club forums. I've exchanged messages via e-mail with Rover 800 technical experts in the UK. Likely, something buried deep under the dash called a headlight changeover relay has packed up. I was feeling pretty confident about making this repair -- until I read right here about Keith Adams' adventures trying to sort the electrical gremlins in his old Rover 800 Coupe. After reading Keith's account, I decided I would try everything I could to avoid removing the fuse box under the driver's side dash. It's a pig of a job, made even tougher with fingers numbed from the cold. So, using spares I bought weeks ago from the dead Sterling in the New Jersey junkyard, I changed the light switch on the column, the two relays in the engine bay and the dim/dip relay behind the right headlight -- all to no avail. That interior fuse box was going to have to come out to provide access to the bank of relays where the headlight changeover unit lives. I came inside and thawed out. An hour later, I began the struggle with the interior fuse box. After about 45 minutes, and several cuts, nicks and scrapes, the box was free. Thanks to Nick, an eBay seller in the UK who trades under the name Austingarages, a brand new headlight changeover relay is winging its way across the Atlantic at this very moment. Several Rover 800s must be suffering the same malady because the bidding heated up at the end. And that new relay cost me £40. Of course, there is no other car, Rover or otherwise, that uses the same part, so there was no chance of buying a new unit Stateside. So then, in a few days, when the new relay arrives, all will be ready to go back together. If the headlights still don't work, the next step will be tracing individual wires looking for shorts, and checking the earth connections. And if that's on tap, it'll have to wait until spring. In other developments: I've started shopping for a new windscreen to replace the badly cracked original Triplex. In previous posts you've heard me mention that getting someone to work on a Rover 827 here in the states is a bit of challenge. Well, now I can show you what I mean. Here is the verbatim text of a conversation I had yesterday with a manager of a big nationally known business that replaces windscreens:
Me: Can you sell me a new windshield for a 1990 Sterling 827
Him: Who makes that?
Me: Rover. It's kind of like an Honda Legend. Pretty much the same car, but with style. The windshield is just bonded into place, nothing special.
Him: Yes, we can get that windshield But I've never done one before. I don't want to start on yours.


Update - 30 Jan 2008

So my new £40 headlight relay came from the UK today. A secretary put it on my desk at lunch. I finished up work as early as I could, raced home and struggled in the rain, in the cold, in the dark to install it in Project SLi. Once it is in, I button everything up, hit the ignition switch and turn on the lights and everything is working perfectly. Hallelujah. Now I can take the car on a real drive, more than just around the block. I put the tools away move my trusty old Nissan banger out of the way and prepare for a good, long drive in the Sterling. I hit the key and then just like before, the main beams come on and won't switch off. I am astounded. Bugger. I think that's the proper British term for a situation like this. Now I am, really at a crossroads. It is possible, I suppose, that I took out an old bad part and put in a new bad part. In any case, this messes up everything. The car is scheduled for its new windscreen later in the week. It has to be mobile. So, the Sterling is not going to behave without a fight, even though I secretly hoped it would. I was so convinced the new relay would cure the headlight problem. But this car doesn't know me yet. If its a fight it wants, a fight it will get. However, right now I need a few days sooth my bruised ego and to plot my next move. Some Rover expert somewhere will know what I need to do next. So, back to the various Rover forums I go...


Update - 3 February

My sterling 827 fastback wasn't the only Rover Group product in for a new windscreen today at John R Auto Glass, a small family run business in the suburbs of Detroit. An older Land Rover Disco from the late 1990s pulled into the next bay over from my car to have its screen replaced. Not a good day for Triplex in Detroit, I guess. Despite the ongoing troubles with the headlights, good things are happening. Yesterday, when I came home from work, I reached into the mailbox and pulled from it a brown envelope from ARO reader Kelvin Lambert of Swansea. Lambert must have seen my address in the photo of an earlier blog entry. He sent me a set of CDs with the factory repair manuals and a heartfelt note. To wit: "I just can't explain what white witchcraft is used to build these machines from the Midlands. Maybe there's something in the organic components, something in the weave of the cloth, or the tanning of the leather hide or wood treatment. But it gets into your head, and you fall in love them. Mass-produced they were, but somehow there's a soul in every one. "I have missed the Rover Group. "I have missed working with the cars. "I miss the best of British engineering. "I have no idea if its new Chinese owners on the other side of the world can build souls into their products. Time will tell." Right on, Kelvin. The world is poorer for Rover's passing. But as long as there are people determined to keep the flag flying, Rover will have a home among the classics, and that's no bad thing. In any case, the new screen is in. The proprietor of John R Auto Glass, a man appropriately named Bob Fender, Jr, was more than happy to put the new screen in my car. And it cost only $286, a bargain. Now I have to wait until warmer weather before I can have a look at some earth connections under the dash to see if one bad one is causing the headlight troubles. I know now that the new headlight relay I installed that I bought from Nick at Austingarages on eBay UK was a good one. Yesterday, Nick saw the recent blog entry here of my relay installation and dropped me a note to say that he tested it before he sent it.


Update 10, February

I SOMEHOW forgot the first rule of electrical repairs on a Rover product: Always check the connections nearest the switch of the troublesome circuit. Had I done that right away on Project SLi's headlights, I would have saved quite a bit of time, money and angst. Two AROnline readers, Nick from Austingarages, and Kelvin Lambert of Swansea, pointed me in the right direction by telling me to look at the interfaces between the headlight switch and wiring harness, which Rover calls a header joint. So, I started the car and jiggled the header joint under the steering column. And just like that the nagging, annoying and worrisome headlight problems that have tortured me since I bought the car disappeared. To ensure the lights stay fixed, I disconnected the joint and cleaned the contacts. Problem solved. So, with the new windscreen in and the headlights now fully operational, I have ticked off my list two of the car's more serious problems. But I am not ready to declare her roadworthy just yet. During extensive test driving over the last few days, a few new problems surfaced. First, the anti-lock brake warning light on the dash made an unwelcome appearance. The brakes are still fully functional, but the anti-lock feature is down. It's probably some sort of electrical connection problem. The unit used in the Rover 827 is a tried-and-true Bosch system that is known to be virtually unbreakable. On my first fast trip on the highway, I discovered a nasty front end vibration at around 80 mph. It gets worse when the brakes are used, pointing, perhaps, to warped brake rotors. I also found that the air con tensioner pulley somehow snapped off the front of the engine. One last e-mail to the owner of the scrapyard in New Jersey where the dead red Rover 827 fastback is located, resulted in a good used pulley on my doorstep a few days later. Next on my repair list, however, is the funky speedometer, which doesn't work 95 percent of the time. Looking down on the back of the gearbox where the speedometer sensor is located, I see evidence of questionable repair work. Sometime in the last 18 years, this part, also called a speed pulse transducer, may have failed. Someone snipped off the plastic connector from the car's wiring loom and used cheap plastic connectors to attach a replacement speed sensor. The repair may have been done like this because the replacement speed sensor came from a Honda Legend instead of a Rover. The Honda sensor, I have learned, has a different type of connector. Still, I was feeling good enough about the 827 to take it to work for the first time the other day. And when I approached my company's gated security barrier, which requires me to wave my electronic keycard against the reader, I discovered the driver's window doesn't work. In fact, none of the windows would go up or down. But that was an easy fix: I discovered two burned out fuses, that once changed, rendered the windows fully operational. Project SLi, I feel, is a good car that just needs someone with a little patience to track down various problems and put them right. As with the headlights, most of the maladies are probably due to bad connections. With an extended cold streak of bitter, snowy winter weather here -- it'll be below freezing for at least the next week -- I have decided to take Project SLi to a garage that specializes in foreign cars. She'll get a complete tune-up at the very least. I hope to have the speedometer repaired and a few other minor niggles taken care of. At first, the garage didn't want to work on the Project SLi, but then I whipped out my secret weapon: A Rover Fast Check Diagnostic system that I bought on eBay UK. This will eliminate expensive guesswork and quickly tell the technicians what's wrong. Since easily obtained Honda parts can cure the erratic idle and somewhat rough running, these repairs should be a breeze. I have noticed that Rover Fast Check systems are frequently available on eBay. This may be the secret to owning a Rover 800 here in the States and having professional technicians carry out repairs. Hopefully, it won't be long now before the 827 joins my fleet as a regular daily driver.


Update - 17 February

PROJECT SLi has been absent from my driveway for the past week, but a lot has been happening. This may be a foolhardy thing, but when I left Project SLi at a foreign car repair shop seven days ago, I gave the owner a long list of items to check and these instructions: Check over everything and replace anything that looks suspect. Essentially I gave him a blank check. But the garage has a very good reputation and I don't fear being ripped off. Also, because I plan to keep the car for at least five years, I don't want to have to deal with any major problems once this first sorting of troubles is over with. Not long after the technicians opened the bonnet, the calls started. I learned the Project SLi needs:
- New motor mounts
- A new transmission mount
- A new 'dogleg' rear engine stabiliser assembly
- New timing belt
- Rocker cover gaskets
- Various and sundry seals and O-rings near the oil filter housing

The engine parts, from Honda, were no problem to obtain. Not so for the engine and gearbox mounts. "I wouldn't even know where to look for those," said Wayne, the owner of the repair shop. I called an auto parts store that deals with only foreign cars and learned that there is no listing for motor mounts for any Sterling or Rover car from any vendors in the States. Luckily, I found out about a man named Dale Charles who lives in a place called Bainbridge, Pennsylvania. Some years ago, Charles bought out all the remaining Rover 800 spares in the USA. He has some 60,000 NOS parts. He goes by the name Sterlingfixer on various Internet forums. You can e-mail Dale Charles at Sterlingfixer@juno.com.Sometime in the future, I am going to have to interview Mr Charles and find out why he's so devoted to the Rover 800. If you own a Sterling in the USA, sooner or later, you will deal with Mr Charles. And that's not a bad thing. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the car. He is very friendly and helpful with technical details. And his prices are reasonable. Anyway, he had the mounts and stabiliser assembly in stock. After an exchange of about £200, the parts were on their way to the repair shop. Turns out the Rover Fast Check system I bought was of no use. "This thing is so archaic that it would take forever to go through all the steps to check each system," Wayne told me. Whatever, as long as the car runs well, I couldn’t care less how it gets fixed. While the car is in sick bay, I'm having the transmission fluid changed, the new speedometer sensor installed, the air con pulley put back on and a few other things taken care of. Most of this work I could have done myself were it not for the cold weather. And it has been miserably cold. On the day I drove Project SLi to the repair shop, it was -2 degrees. The doors had frozen shut and the lock cylinders also were frozen. I snapped off the plastic part of the key trying to open the door. Looking beyond the mechanical aspects of sorting the car, there are a couple of cosmetic things that are annoying me. The most serious are the headlight lenses which have started to fog up from the inside making the car look like it has cataracts. No matter because eBay France had listed a pair of new units. For less than £100 I had them deposited on my doorstep in a week. I would have bought them in the UK, but one vendor wanted £85 just for shipping! The passenger side sun visor has a small vanity light in it, but that light has broken apart. Again, no major problem. £30 spent with Mr. Charles got me a new one. But of all the Rover-related things that happened this week, none made me happier than the personalised license plate that I got from the State of Michigan. I chose the car's original development code, RoverXX. All it costs to register the car with those letters is an extra £15 per year. Not many people here in the States will know what RoverXX means, but it suits the car well. If everything goes according to plan, when I retrieve Project SLi from the repair shop in a few days, all that will be left for me to sort in the spring are the anti-lock brake warning light, a vibration in the front suspension, an errant seat switch and a malfunctioning passenger side mirror. But since when does anything go according to plan when you own a Rover? That's one reason we love them so, isn't it?


Update - 24 February

Worn out rubber parts were one reason Project SLi was not much fun to drive. Now, thanks to a major engine service and all new mounts for the motor and gearbox, Project SLi is running smoothly and feeling tight. OWNING a Rover here in the United States has always been an expensive proposition. I got a graphic reminder of that yesterday when the repair garage called and said I could come and pick up Project SLi. I spent more this week for repairs than I paid for the car. And I am still not done. The technicians discovered that Project SLi's radiator has a minor (for now) leak and that the air con system needs a new condenser. They told me that after I was handed the bill for £780. My total outlay for this car is now well north of £3000 -- this is sheer craziness. The Rover is not worth even half that much in the USA. And it never will be, no matter how nice I make it. Reminding me of his Polish SD1 restoration and trying to cheer me up, Keith Adams, said: "We don't do this for financial reasons." Indeed we don't. Of course, I know it makes no sense spending so much money on the Rover. But the thing is... ever since I bought the car on Christmas, I have been happier than I have been in a very long time. I am really having a lot of fun bringing Project SLi back to health. I could not do this for any other company's vehicles. And that makes me wonder what is it about Rover Group products that elicits normally sane men to do things like spend small fortunes on worn out cars? What's in Rover's DNA that causes people to act this way? I'm still facing at least another £650 to pay for the new radiator and condenser, and a new set of tyres, four new struts and four new disc brake rotors and pads. After that, it's down to a couple of bad switches that'll need replacing. And then, I should be done for a while. Yes, those final repairs will be completed, even if it means having to share with Frankie, my intreprid dachshund, a few dinners from his dog food can. Really, I should not complain too much. It was my own impatience and restlessness that caused me to pay so much for this round of repairs. I could have done much of the work myself had I waited a few more weeks for warmer weather to arrive. But I wanted to drive the Rover right away. Well, I certainly can do that now. The repairs were not just expensive, they were extensive. It's the law here that old, broken and worn out parts must be returned along with the car. When I paid the repair bill, I was handed a huge box of bad parts. Looking at those, it's easy to see why Project SLi ran poorly and felt worn out. One of the motor mounts had split in two, and several other rubber parts in the engine and transmission mounting system had perished. The engine itself needed quite a bit of work. The original Honda timing belt was still on the engine after 18 years and more than 100,000 miles. Thanks to a major and comprehensive tune-up, new gaskets for the rockers and intake, the new timing belt and several other repairs, Project SLi is running almost normally now. There's still a bit of hunting at idle when she's cold. Perhaps the EICV circuit needs to be checked. A new speed sensor has the speedometer and all the computerized functions on the dash working properly now. The technicians changed the fluid in the transmission. Although they didn't touch the anti-lock brake system, the warning light extinguished itself today on a long test drive, and now the system is working normally. I am now sitting here looking out the front window at Project SLi resting peacefully in the driveway. If a car could have a grin on its grille, Project SLi would be smiling broadly today. Somewhere in one of its ECUs, Project SLi, no doubt, has detected all its new parts and it knows now its future is secure.


Update - 1 March

I'VE just spent my first solid week behind the wheel of Project SLi commuting 32 miles per day to and from work on the mean streets of Detroit. Despite the snow and ice, the eternal greyness, the lousy drivers, traffic jams, construction delays, potholes the size of moon craters and other petty annoyances, I've enjoyed every minute of driving Project SLi this week. There were no nasty surprises and everything worked just as it should. Now that most of the serious mechanical and electrical problems are fixed, the car is a pleasure to drive. Project SLi is everything I'd hoped it would be. And it's everything I remember the Sterling being nearly 20 years ago when I bought my first one. Which is to say: It's a damn fine car with plenty of character -- and a few foibles here and there. I'm not kidding myself, though. I know that, like a gorgeous woman, this is going to be an expensive relationship. Project SLi will be somewhat unpredictable and it will require high maintenance. What's ahead for me now is some preventative maintenance that exposes a serious flaw in my character, one that has cost me dearly: I can't stand mechanical imperfection of any kind, and so anything suspect gets replaced on my vehicles. Most people would drive Project SLi and say she is just fine now. But I know it can be better. So this week, I tracked down and ordered the rest of the parts needed to bring Project SLi up to excellent standards. Although we don't have any sort of government-required vehicle inspection program in Michigan, I keep my cars in top condition. I like to think that my classics would sail through the MoT if we had one. To that end, I've inflicted even more pain on my already battered saving account by buying new four brake rotors, four struts, two rebuilt front brake calipers, front and rear brake pads, a new coolant temperature sensor, a new electronic idle control valve and two new tailgate struts. After that, it's new tyres. From eBay UK Rover breakers, I tracked down the last two electrical items needed, good used switch packs for power seats and windows. The front rotors were found on a shelf in a warehouse in here in Detroit. Judging by the thick layer of dust on the boxes, these rotors probably haven't not budged an inch this century. They are nice, high quality European-made Brembo rotors, not the latest cheap made in China crap you get on the Internet. The new pair of rebuilt front calipers came courtesy of eBay from a company that liquidates overstocked merchandise. I paid £10 each, a steal. The struts were a special order item from the auto parts store that deals only with foreign cars. As soon as the temperature rises into the 40-degree F range, I will begin the last of the mechanical repairs. And after that, Project SLi is just a respray away from being one of the finest surviving Rover 800s in North America. Depending on my finances, that also may be on the cards later in the year. But for now, I am going to savour my time with the car.



Update - 8 March

I HAVE been driving Project SLi these last two weeks with the radio off most of the time so that I could hear the engine's lovely hum and feel its velvety smooth thrust. Spending quality seat time in Project SLi has brought back a flood lot of memories. Here's one I remember vividly: Around 1985 or '86. I was in a shopping mall in Daytona Beach, Florida. Wandering by the book store, I noticed CAR magazine's cover. It was a close-up shot of a Rover 800 bonnet, a Union Jack and the words: "England Expects. But Austin Rover Struggles to Deliver." I think I still have that exact magazine somewhere. Anyway, I bought that issue and sat on a bench reading it for a good hour, deaf and blind to the world around me. I had followed RoverXX development as well as an American could in the days before the Internet. That afternoon was a pivotal moment in my life. I knew that if the Rover 800 came to America and succeeded, new models of the cars I really wanted, MGs and maybe even Triumphs, wouldn't be far behind. I was convinced that there was no way the Rover 800 could fail. Its refined and unbreakable Honda drivetrain and British style would be -- had to be -- an unbeatable combination. But CAR was saying otherwise, that the 800 might not be good enough. I didn't want to believe that. In the end, though, I guess CAR was right. Still, the Rover 800 will always be special to me. Not only did I follow its development, but I lived through its life and quick American death closer than most: Back in the 1990s, I was a motoring writer in Florida. That gave me have easy access to Rover's Miami-based operations. I got to know Graham Morris, who came over after Rover bought out Sterling's original distributor. He took charge of the business and worked his ass off whipping it into shape and getting dealers psyched up about what was coming. Morris needed only a good quality product and a decent economy to turn things around. He didn't get either. Driving Project SLi this week brought to mind another favorite memory from long ago: I got to meet Roy Axe, chief designer for the 800. I learned through Sterling's Miami office that Axe would be on holiday in Florida around the time of a big classic British car show. I invited Roy to attend. He accepted, and drove to Orlando from, I think, Sarasota, with his wife in a gorgeous bright red Sterling saloon. For a good hour we walked around the show and talked about British cars, old and new. I don't know how often Axe attended classic car shows in those days, but he seemed genuinely excited to be there, as if he were visiting old friends. In a sense, maybe he was. We walked over to a green 1966 Sunbeam Tiger. Axe, soft-spoken, eloquent and the consummate gentleman, pointed out the hinged lock covers on the door handles and said he designed those. Anyway, in the middle of the recession in 1991, Rover killed the Sterling. And it was lights out for Rover cars in North America. Getting reacquainted with the 800 after all these year rekindled some old frustrations I had forgotten about. One is the realization that Rover was so damn close with the 800. If only a few things had gone better, Rover's history would be very different, and you might not be here reading this now. In America, if the Sterling had been as reliable as its Honda Legend sibling -- and it should have been -- Rover surely would have followed it up with smaller Rovers, possibly the 600. Then the MGF would have arrived, and the American market would have gobbled up every one of them. The USA might have even seen hotted up MG hatches and saloons, which could have kept Rover's factories humming. The Rover 75, looking like a baby Bentley, would have been a massive hit for Rover in the States. Of that, I am convinced. And would BMW have been able to take over a profitable and growing Rover? Maybe not. I hate to say it, but I think the American failure of the 800 started or maybe accelerated the toppling of the dominoes that led directly to Rover's 2005 demise. But all that is ancient history now. And as I drive my 827 SLi, it depresses me to think of such things. So for the time being, the radio in Project SLi stays on. I don't want to drift back into the past and again and wonder what might have been had the 800 lived up to its potential.


This is the end of the road for regular updates on Project SLi. She's returned to regular service now. In the future I will be carrying out regular maintenance and making a few upgrades here and there of normal wear items, so I won't bore you with the details of replacing struts and brakes and whatnot. However, under consideration for ARO is a 'Running Reports' section, where Project SLi will hopefully have a parking space. And there probably will be blog entries from time to time with tales of the Rover fastback's life in America's Motor City. I just have to say thanks to all who sent repair advice and encouraging comments and offered to help me get my Rover back on the road these last two months. We all know there is something special about Rover Group products, some indefinable quality that brings out the best in people. That was proved again by all the help I got from ARO readers.


Running report: 8 April

Out with the factory fitted Monroe shocks, which say Austin Rover on the casing, and in with the new KYB struts. The originals went the distance, 18 years and 105,000 miles. Behind the scenes, you couldn't ask for a cleaner car. Its California life shows. There's isn't a spec of rust to be found. DETROIT -- It's a good thing cars can't think and talk. Because if they could, I'd be getting an earful from my Ford Mustang. It would want to know why it's lost its job as being my main mode of transport to an old British car. If you've followed the saga of Project SLi from the start in December when I purchased it on eBay sort of by accident (I didn't really want it, so I submitted an offer so low it was bound to be refused. But it wasn't. And so it became mine) than you know that the car needed a lot of work, got it, and now is back on the road. I've been using the Sterling everyday for more than a solid month. The improvements/repairs/upgrades are still coming, but at a much slower pace. That's because the list of things broken and worn out is nearly exhausted. But this is not to say that all is well. I'm discovering that the car seems to be possessed by spirits -- at least in the electrical system -- that render things wildly unpredictable. The electric seat adjustments may work or they may not. Same for the mirrors and driver's side window. It's as if there is a rolling brownout that migrates from one place to another. What can you do when the fuses, relays and switches are all good? You can just live with the minor annoyances of no action sometimes when a button is pressed. I am, it seems, resigned to that fate. The major things -- engine, transmission, brakes, suspension -- are all functioning nearly perfectly. I changed the fast idle valve and temperature sensor and cleaned the schmootz out of the EICV valve. It still takes a little too long for the idle to come down during warm up, but it eventually gets there. I recently made a 300 mile trip in one day in the car. She ran flawlessly. Fuel mileage on the highway was an agreeable 26.0 MPG (American gallons). The front end shakes are gone, thanks to new front brake rotors and pads. I've added a set of refurbished alloy wheels from a 1991 SLi. These are the style of wheels with the small center caps and Rover logo, and a new set of tires. On the first warm day of Spring, I was under the car, naturally, changing the rear struts, rear brake rotors and pads. That made a huge difference. The old shocks were the originals and were completely worn out. I've also been watching eBay like a hawk. I picked off a factory rebuilt air con compressor and a new air con condenser for almost nothing. In about a month, the temperature in grody old Detroit should be in the 70s most days. That's when I plan to get the air con system working. Since buying the car, I've put around 1400 miles on the odometer. Despite the minor electrical glitches, they've been joyous miles for the most part. The SLi gets compliments or questions almost every time I take it out. As for the Mustang, it'll get used enough to keep the battery charged. Lately I've been contemplating a little badge engineering. The Sterling badges are off and the proper Rover badges are on. The old Sterling badges, are in fact, winging their way to Blighty right now. They're headed to ARO reader, 14-year old Scott Fisher, of Maidstone, Kent. But now I have the STERLING and 827 SLi on the boot to deal with.