I’ve bought a lot of unexceptional classics in the last couple of months, but the hardest to explain is my Rover 820 Sterling. What I’ve bought is a very late example of a car that was out of date almost before the mid term facelift was conceived. It also has the small engine and an automatic gearbox, and while it has such niceties as walnut and leather, it really wasn’t a match when new for a 5 series or an E class – or even an Omega.
So it wasn’t exactly the best car on the road, even when new. But here’s the rub – I like it.
It’s not just me either. I’ve spoken to my mate Craig, who has an unmanageably large fleet of old tat floating around car parks in various parts of England including three or four 800s at any given time. He’s just chucked away his modern BMW company car in favour of an equivalent allowance and has bought a couple of 15 year old execs to replace it. He reckons 800s appeal to the soul. ‘It’s a bit like football, isn’t it? Even if your team fails every match, you keep putting yourself through the agony because it’s all support for the cause. You know it’s futile and you know it hurts, but we’re British! We’ve always liked supporting the underdog.’
He’s right. There’s something about a slightly poor car that makes it infinitely more endearing than one which was outstanding when new – it’s why events like the Festival of the Unexceptional work so well. Flaws are what make an old car almost human – we bond with our motors in a way that we simply can’t bond with our toasters or our fridges. It’s no longer a machine, it’s a part of us. We make a conscious decision when we buy an old car to forego perfection in favour of something with soul – its faults personify it, and strengthen our bond – we choose based on what we are prepared to forgive, and sell based on what we can’t forget.
That’s why I secretly like my Sterling. I don’t care that it doesn’t ride as nicely, handle as sweetly, or outperform its competition. I have a similarly specced Citroen XM, which runs rings around the dear old dowager – and by 1998 the E39 5 series was showing stablemates Rover just what to do in the medium executive class. But that misses the point. Because from another angle it makes perfect sense.
Take a look at the Mk 2 Rover 800 in more detail. Walnut and leather, tasteful interior colours, a softer body with a sculpted bonnet and a rounded six-light profile. It wasn’t meant to be the best in the market, it was meant to sell in a market Rover hadn’t grasped before: America. While Austin Rover’s American venture ended badly owing to the failure of the MK 1 800 on American soil, the basic design principles stand up. When the Americans buy British, they want wood, leather, a sense of occasion – they want a Jaguar or a Rolls-Royce. And so Rover’s attempt at targeting the car toward a more traditional clientele resulted in a car that resembled the Jaguar XJ6 more closely than Browns Lane might have liked. As luck has it, I also have a Jaguar Sovereign on my fleet, so I can draw a direct comparison between the two.
The Jaguar has a peculiarity, in that you instinctively drive it in a more relaxed and serene manner than most cars. It’s not that it can’t be driven enthusiastically – it just doesn’t feel right, and it would rather you settled down a bit. And the only other car I’ve noticed this particular trait in is my dear old Sterling. While it might have been poor when judged against its competition, judge it against its inspiration and suddenly it all falls into place. Stop trying to compare it to its real-world competition and look at what Rover was actually trying to do, and suddenly everything slots into place quite neatly.
Yes, my Sterling has a slightly crashy ride, yes, it manages to float in the bends despite this, and yes, it feels out of date when judged alongside its contemporaries. But these are flaws you can live with, when the overall experience still feels like a luxury car twenty years on, and when it could be compared to cars costing twice the price when new.
Don’t believe me? Go and try a good one. Because who said crap cars actually had to be crap?