By on February 3, 2012

The first thing we need to make clear when talking about the Sterling 827 is that it is not a Honda. It’s a Rover. Rover!
Well, OK, it’s really a Rover-ized Acura Legend, built in England with Lucas Electrics and legendary British build quality. Run away!
Surprisingly large numbers of Sterlings were sold in America, but almost all of them got crushed during the 1990s. This is the first example I’ve seen in a junkyard (in this case, in California) for at least a decade.
The interior is full of crypto-luxurious (and non-Honda-ish) touches such as this slotted sunroof screen.
The word “Honda” does not appear in any obvious locations on the engine, but we all know what “PGM-FI” means.

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53 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1990 Sterling 827 SL...”

  • avatar

    This car clearly demonstrates that a British automobile with Japanese quality can find acceptance within the US market, a British automobile with British quality cannot.

    It looked like a winning combination, but ended up as the nightmare everyone hoped wouldn’t happen. Once the Sterling started having problems, buyers headed for the hills. The last thing this car needed was to remind the Market about the shortcomings of British quality. Once it started to do so – the end was quick.

    And it seemed that ROVER knew it too. They didn’t even try to do a second act once the first act turned ugly. It was as though ROVER agreed with the perception that British cars aren’t any good.

    Worse, the resale value of these cars was horrific. Sterling buyers needed to have loved their cars because they became worthless by the time the payments ended.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m reluctant to revive the “Are European Cars Really More Reliable In Europe Than In North America?” debate but before I read this piece on my phone, I was reading an article (admitedly, in a car mag aimed at home mechanics) about a 250,000 mile example of a two litre Rover 800. These things didn’t all die by the side of the road in the first couple of years.

      My only other experience of these was when my Uncle bought one during the Rover dealer’s “Buy One, Get One Free” promotion in the winter of 1999. He chose to take one at half the listed price. I don’t think anyone was desperate enough to take two of them away at the same time.

  • avatar

    Seems to me it’s next phase of life is justified. The crusher.

  • avatar

    The Sterling was the first Honda I know of to get name-checked in a popular rap song, Nice & Smooth’s Sometimes I Rhyme Slow. Nice Tracy Chapman sample, too.

  • avatar

    I didn’t even know these cars existed. So where would one of these have been purchased in 1990? Would it be at a Land Rover dealership? Seems like it probably wasn’t sold at your local Acura/Honda dealer. Very interesting find (and I learned something new).

  • avatar

    It’s such a shame. Here was a car that promised so much – English luxury with Japanese engineering and – presumably – build quality. However, it was the “presumably” that proved to be a problem. It turned out that British Leyland couldn’t even make a Honda properly. Too bad, because the five-door fastback 827 that came along later was a really striking-looking car.

    • 0 avatar

      I loved the look of the 5 door 827. That was quite sleek.

      Every once in a while one of these pops up on eBay; some poor soul has taken the time to fix some of the more glaring electrical problems themselves. Would be a classy cruiser, but the lack of non-Legend parts availability and the nagging fear that the Leyland ghosts would still be in the car are enough to have me shelve the idea of buying one.

    • 0 avatar

      When I look at the 827 5door, I think 6000SUX from Robocop.

  • avatar

    Can someone elaborate on how much this car came from Honda and how much from Rover? Because my parents owned an ’87 Legend that was fantastic. How much of this Sterling shared Honda design/parts? Were they assembled in different factories?

    I’m sure it’s true, but it’s still hard to understand how a car related to that old Legend could be so horrific.

    • 0 avatar

      Platform, drivetrain and most of the suspension was Honda. Body, interior and electrics were Rover. It was the latter that killed.

      I still remember the Car & Driver review of the car. They liked it. A more comfortable Acura, British drawing room comfort with Honda performance.

      And suddenly, during the test, while on the road at speed, the electrics went dead. Completely. For about two seconds. And then came back on, never to fail again while C&D had the car.

      The final verdict was, “Really, really nice car. I dare you to trust it. British Leyland is still alive.”

      • 0 avatar

        Hard to imagine that even with Honda taking care of those crucial components, British Leyland still managed to mess up their contribution.

        And this is why the car mag reviews are so limited. A car can easily be “really, really nice” during a daylong road test, but a nightmare to own.

    • 0 avatar

      The Rover and the Legend were designed in parallel on the same platform …

    • 0 avatar

      It was a joint development. I believe the powertrain was pure Honda, and there were certain things Honda insisted on (including double wishbone front suspension, rather than struts), but Rover had a lot to do with it. I second the other recommendation for Keith Adams’ history on Austin Rover Online.

  • avatar

    I wonder if somebody swiped the badge on the front of the hood and slapped it on their Acura.

    DCI Tom Barnaby drove a newer model Rover similar to these in Midsomer Murders. I think Rover was paying for product placement in that show because as soon as the company was defunct, he was driving a Jag and there were lots of other Fords in the show when Ford still owned Jaguar.

  • avatar

    I rented some of these while commuting back and forth to England. After the second big problem, I started asking for something else. On the surface, they seemed like nice cars.

    The worst failure was the one that would shift from first gear into something approaching neutral when starting out briskly across an intersection or entering a traffic circle. I had to turn off the engine and restart to get it to move. That one left me sitting in the middle of intersections several times before I could get it back to the car agency.

  • avatar

    Corner plastic whatevers missing on the front end. Check.

    A co-worker bought one, the drivers side plastic went missing after a couple of weeks.

    I remember there was a dealer near where I worked. Another co-worker (who ended up with the same vintage Legend) looked these over when they first came out. Sat behind the wheel and I forget what part but something broke off. The sales guy wasn’t fazed in the least.

    I also remember when these came out the English CAR magazine did a big story on these. The head sales guy in the USA was a real tool. Basically, we aren’t going to sell in certain places in the US where we don’t want to be, because people in those places aren’t the right kind of people.

    Those people should consider themselves lucky.

  • avatar

    The horror, the HORROR! These cars were the living representation of evil, IMHO. They were so beautiful. They promised so much: the relibility of a Japanese car with the elegance of a British car. And not -just any- Japanese car – the Legend which was perhaps Honda’s finest car ever. A silky smooth modern fuel-injected six, to be combined with English butter-soft leather. Yes, to dreamers like me this was affordable ‘pace and grace’. It was surely the (sorry about this) triumphant herald of the return of the king, Jaguar. The success of this car was going to bring the Brits back in all their (never-really-was) splendor. Forget failures like the TR-7 and the Stag. Forget that the last Rover to touch these shores looked (and ran) like a Frenchman’s nightmare caused by too many garlic’d snails washed down with cheap red. Forget the the latest Jaguars were as reliable as your brother-in-law’s loan repayments.

    This was going to be the millenium, ten years early with East finally meeting West and taking the best of both.

    I watched the whole tragedy play out, close-up. A consultant worked with us from 90 to 93. He first appeared at our shop in a (honest!) tweed jacket smoking a pipe, and of course, driving a silver Sterling. At first he was quietly, smugly proud of that car which apparently wafted him effortlessly the 70 miles from his office to our place swaddled in soft leather, soft music, and pipe smoke. Then he was casual, noting that every car need a few repairs. Then he turned defensive. Finally, it was hate. At the end of the 3rd year, the Sterling was gone, replaced by an Oldsmobile, Ike jacket, and marlboros.

    Ruined that man I tell you.

  • avatar

    My neighbor had a red one in the mid 90’s. I remember being very intrigued at the concept of british luxury applied to a Legend. My friend had a Legend and it was much more Honda than luxury on the inside. I assumed these Sterlings must be good cars. Why they couldn’t just throw some padded leather and polished wood on top of the Legend’s electronics is beyond me.

  • avatar

    Would have been interesting if Honda had bought Rover and just let Rover do the styling and interior but leave everything else to Honda. Rover could have been Hondas British Acura

  • avatar

    Like most weird, arcane failed marketing experiments, I wrote something about Sterling a while back.

    Because I’m weird like that.

    These cars were total duds when new, but today they have that hipster appeal, I think they’re very neat.

  • avatar

    I admit that this is a completely unfamiliar vehicle to me. Not a huge surprise, as I was only a few years old when the Sterling came to these shores. The slotted sunroof screen is a real oddity in my mind. Wouldn’t this create a somewhat distracting “tiger striping” of sunlight on everything?

  • avatar

    Junkyards in the UK are littered with these cars and their rebadged Honda ilk. No one is shedding a tear. Nothing to see here, move along.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine bought one of these when he landed his first real job out of college, in sales for IBM. Fortunately he proved to be much better at selling computers than choosing cars.

  • avatar

    You can have a car with British character and Japanese reliability. Look at what Mazda’s been doing for over two decades with the Miata.

    This Sterling, on the other hand, wasn’t so successful (and for good reason)…

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, but there’s one crucial difference. Mazda managed to put in the British character without actually having any British input. Otherwise, we’d have seen stationary, smoking Miatas all over the place with their hoods up.

  • avatar

    If you ever find one in the junkyard with the front corner lights intact, grab em. The lenses always fall off and I’ve sold my fair share of these lights on eBay.

  • avatar
    Jetstar 88

    Looks a little bit like a SD1, but with none of the redeeming qualities.
    On another note, I saw another 1990-era failure at the junkyard a few days ago-a Hyundai Excel.

    • 0 avatar

      I had that Hyundai Excel. Car was reliable after I fixed what the previous owner had broken. Something about that car evoked hatred in me… LOL! I’ve owned dozens of cars and driven many dozens more expensive and dirt cheap and liked them all better than that Excel.

  • avatar

    A boss of mine had one, 89 I think. Being an Anglophile, he was thrilled to find something that felt English and was as trouble free as a high end Japanese car. It took about a year and a half to regret his decision. The two big problems were the front end lights either falling off or pointing in odd directions. And electrical gremlins. During high humidity (about 300 days a year in North Florida) it would just fritz out, especially after bouncing over speed bumps.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    How do you take a reliable Honda C27 and make it a POS? Put it into a POS. I haven’t driven one of these, probably because they’re all gone around here. Then again, the last of the “clean” G1 Legends around here are starting to rot back into the ground, but so long as you don’t abuse the auto trannies they’re reliable beaters.

  • avatar

    Around three years ago, I was looking for a turbo diesel wagon, and as a cheapskate, I was a bit unhappy about the prices for a VW Passat, Volvo V70, BMW 320d etc, and bought a 2003-model Rover 75 tourer for £1700 off eBay (about $3000) just after Rover died as a company. The car was six years old, had 70k on the clock, a full dealer service history and a duff clutch cylinder. Aside from the clutch assembly, which I replaced early on, the car has been good as gold for the last three years. I tend to swap cars out quite a lot, but the Rover has been the keeper out of them all. It’s been all over Europe, gets around 33 to the US gallon round town and is just one of the best motorway cars I’ve ever had, comfy, roomy, quiet, torquey and slow-ish (won’t go above 110 without a good hill, so safer on the licence).
    The car was designed in the BMW era and makes a much better case for Rover as a manufacturer than the Sterling, which really was lousy…

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Gordon

      Actually the 800 was pretty much Rover’s last bad car. The 200/400 series was an astonishingly good car, by far the best in class. That is the tragedy of the whole thing. They only go down the gurgler after getting their act together.

  • avatar

    Oh, look, a late 960/S90! Save the window switches, inner taillamps and door handles!

    …Nah, seriously, though, I just can’t manage to feel too sad about the Sterling. It’s pretty, and it’d make a fantastic LeMon, but anything this modern and this British… well, it’d better be a bit more special.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    A friend of mine owned one of these for a few years in the early 1990’s. He later traded it for a Miata.

  • avatar

    They are gorgeous cars, and terrible to own. A HS friend had one in the early 90s and even my decrepit old 76 Chevelle was way more reliable than his 4 year old Sterling.

    Having said that I’d love a 5 door 827.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    In the eighties I had worked with a guy who had an odd choice in cars. He must have weighed at least 375 pounds yet he drove an M.G. Midget and a Hondamatic motorcycle, a small one , maybe 400cc if that.He got another job , moved to Houston,I transferred out of town , got fired and we both wound up working again together, in the early nineties.True to form he now drove a Sterling ,loved it. And I thought it was pretty nice inside but the exterior looked like my wife’s 1990 Camry. Soon he was having problems and traded it in. A few years later she wrecked the Camry and for some reason a Sterling and a Merkur hatchback were my top choices for a replacement. I don’t know what I was thinking but luckily the only Merkur I found looked like it had been in a flood and missing pieces were sitting on the grungy upholstery. I called some two bit dealer who had a Sterling advertised who claimed when I told him that I wanted the hatchback only that’s what it was . When I got there luckily it was the sedan, so I passed though he kept dropping the price and for some reason bought the wife a used Saturn wagon.

  • avatar

    We had one of these that had all of its windows blown out in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They replaced them with 4 different window colors, presumably from donor cars.
    We had it for a while, but it was going through an ECU every couple of months, so we had to move on.
    One funny quirk; the cruise control “resume” function would open the throttle 100%, when it was working.

  • avatar

    I’ll have to admit that I always sort of liked the looks of the hatchback 827SLi, but knew these were horribly unreliable. I also thought the interior, while sumptuous, was very rectilinear and looked dated rather quickly.

    I satisfied my desire for a largish, fastback 5-door car by going with a Merkur Scorpio. RWD, great chassis and equally sumptuous interior that still looks reasonably contemporary today. Surprisingly reliable too – much more so than these cars could ever hope for.

  • avatar

    These things were awful. Noted for leather seats turning a completely different color and you could count on the odmeter to break withi a year or two.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Wonder what happened to the dealers who bought franchises for these turkeys. I remember when I was living in Denver there was a stand alone Sterling dealer there if I’m not mistaken. As I recall there were very few cars for sale at the dealership which I think was on the east side of Denver or possibly Aurora. Also don’t remember how much if any TV or whatever advertising there was but certainly I saw them in car magazines.

  • avatar

    These Rhondas were built in all sizes for many years then the BMW versions took over with no real improvement many of the Civic size Rhondas were fitted with Peugeot diesel engines the bigger o nes with Perkins diesels some with BMW diesels then the whole company evaporated god help anyone with a Rover now who wants parts There was even a RWD model with Ford V8 power. The Chinese are building them again but Ive yet to see one

  • avatar

    After owning (well, me and my finance company) a small piece of authentic Rover, a three thousand five, P6. I can tell you even at this stage of the game it was not a complete english car. It’s all alloy V8 courtesy of Buick, which went onto power other british makes in various guises and the legendary in its own lunch box, Leyland Australia’s P76, and its different engineering made a mockery of reliability. The Honda connection was designed to bring about British pukka with Japanese reliability. Unfortunatly most people saw it as another Honda, for better or worse, and definitely NOT a Rover. The last “true” Rover sedan was the SD1 3500 and even that was a hatchback. Sorry Honda was saddled with these blights.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Why in the love of all that is rational did they use Lucas electrics? What could they have possibly been thinking??

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      That they preferred to avoid industrial action? If you think the UAW is bad, at least they never shut down the entire country.. British unions tend to collude to make everyone’s life miserable, though Thatcher did yeoman’s work in smashing the most egregious of them all, the NUM.. For a fun look at British unionism, check out _I’m All Right Jack_, starring Peter Sellers..

  • avatar

    These are quite “common” Switzerland – no joke. Every few months of or so you’ll see a handful of these in various places across the country. Just last week I saw two on the same day in great condition. They really still look good to this day.

    Alas, the quality problems cannot be denied. The Rover 827 is to Honda and Rover what the Alfa Romeo Arna was to Alfa and Nissan!

  • avatar

    My family’s had half-a-dozen Sterlings over a decade from about 1996 to 2008 or so. In 2004, I bought beautiful a one-owner 1990 Oxford Special Edition 827sl with 72,000 miles on it. Over the following 5 or so years that I owned it, I just about doubled the mileage on it and it proved to be a generally reliable car. I think by 1990 Rover had gotten many of the bugs worked out and perhaps they paid a little more attention to details in the Oxford Editions.

    The problems I had with it included very cheap and flaky power window switches (especially the back ones), electric door locks that randomly locked and unlocked, a dodgy alarm system, and a loose connection in the headlight wiring. Mechanically, it needed an exhaust system replaced, used rack & pinion (from an Acura Legend), rear struts, routine timing belt & water pump replacement, tie rod end, rear wheel bearing, etc. The only time it left me stranded was when the distributor seized up without notice- not a Rover part.

    Over the 5 years I had it, I amassed quite a stockpile of spare Sterling parts including many replacement electronic modules, sunvisors, front corner lights, and radiator overflow tanks salvaged from a number of other Sterlings found at the self-service junkyards.

    My family had several Acura Legends during that time as well and I thought my Sterling compared favorably to them in terms of overall reliability. My biggest complaint was probably that the driver’s seat sat too high and despite the multiple adjustments, my hair always brushed against the ceiling. I enjoyed driving a unique car and got regular questions and comments on it.

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