Retrospective: Sterling Motor Cars

Brands in the US come and go, seemingly with the changing of the seasons. The fact is we have a fairly volatile marketplace - much more prone to fluctuations of consumer needs and wants seemingly on a day-to-day basis than most other markets.  When gas is cheap, we buy p

Brands in the US come and go, seemingly with the changing of the seasons. The fact is we have a fairly volatile marketplace - much more prone to fluctuations of consumer needs and wants seemingly on a day-to-day basis than most other markets.  When gas is cheap, we buy pickups with 6.0L 400bhp V8's.  When it's expensive, we buy every Prius and Jetta diesel we can get our hands on.  We're a fickle market.

So it's always a huge gamble launching a new brand in the States.  Sometimes it goes very well - see Malcolm Bricklin's experiment of selling funny little Japanese runabouts in the US in the late sixties, quirky two stroke things called Subarus.  Mitsubishi took a big gamble when they entered the US market under their own name in 1982, having previously only manufactured captive imports that were sold under Chrysler brand names in the US.  Lexus, Infiniti and Acura were all a huge risk; no one really knew if US consumers would bite on the idea of Japanese luxury.

1986-1990 Acura/Honda Legend

More often than not, though, it doesn't work out.  Malcolm Bricklin tried his hand at importing a new brand to the US in 1985.  However, what he was importing were copies of old Fiats made by communist labor in Yugoslavia; the American reaction to the poorly built Yugo was as to be expected.  After all, how many other brands do you hear jokes about like "Why do Yugos have heated rear windows?  To keep your hands warm while you push."  Daihatsu's brief foray into the US market was met with a collective sigh of indifference.  The products were extremely well built, but tiny, underpowered, and overpriced.  No dice.  Even the big three had their share of failures in the market, despite their massive financial presence here.  See: GM's Geo division, Chrysler's Eagle sub-brand, and Ford's (admittedly awesome) attempt at importing European Fords during the 80's, Merkur.

One of the most epic failures in the US market has to be Sterling, though.  Chances are, you might not have even heard of Sterling - and I can't say I blame you.  Sterling had an interesting, if brief history in the US - fraught with problems and setbacks, ultimately leading to failure and retreat.  Read on if your curiosity is piqued.

Sterling 825 Brochure Picture

Sterling was the name that Rover chose to re-enter the US Market under.  After going to great expense to Federalize and import the SD1 large saloon to the US in 1980, the Solihull-assembled Rover quickly acquired a reputation for nasty build quality, and total US sales were less than 800 units.  They left shortly thereafter.  It's hardly surprising they decided to create a new name for their re-entry into the US market in 1987.

Rover took a new approach to importation, going to lengths to distance themselves from the US operation.  A new group was set up, called ARCONA (which stood for Austin Rover Cars of North America.)  Oddly enough, ARCONA was owned by Norman Braman, a wealthy dealership franchise owner in the US.  The cars were to be distributed through 135 independent dealerships, with sales mostly concentrated in import-heavy areas like New England, Texas, Califonia, etc.

The first Sterlings arrived on our shores in 1987, and they were only offered in one form: the 825 sedan, in S or SL trim.  Power came from Honda's then-new 2.5L V6, shared with the then-new Acura Legend.  Power was 170bhp at 6,000 rpm, with 160lb-ft of torque (217nM) at 5,000 rpm - perfectly adequate luxury sedan numbers for the time.  All cars came standard with a full real-wood interior; upscale SL models had standard ABS as well as electric Connolly Leather seats.

Sterling 827 Engine

The 825 shared lots of components with the Honda/Acura Legend, but it had a feel all it's own.  Being related to the top-shelf Honda meant the 800 got some pretty cool components, like the double-wishbone front suspension design - far superior to typical MacPherson struts, but more expensive to produce.  The 800's in general were a little more sporting to drive than the Legend, and they were certainly more interesting to look at.

Initial sales were quite strong.  The promise of the combination of Japanese reliability and refinement with traditional British luxury and class was admittedly quite appealing, and in 1987 the Sterling 825 found 14,171 buyers.  Things started rolling downhill from there, though.

Sterling 827 Interior

For one thing, the assembly quality was atrocious.  Sterlings were rife with small problems, like electrical system issues and interior trim problems, as well as issues with paint quality and an absurd propensity for corrosion.  While the mechanically almost-identical Honda/Acura Legend sat atop the JD Powers quality surveys in the US, Sterling quickly earned it's place at the bottom.

To their credit, Rover at least tried to rectify the issues that plagued the Sterling line.  1988 saw the introduction of the updated, torqueier 2.7L Honda V6, with 177bhp and 168lb-ft at a lower 4500 rpms.  This addressed one of the early complaints of the 800 line, which was that the Honda-designed engines were too peaky for their intended purpose of luxury transportion.  The car was renamed the 827 to reflect the change in displacement, and Sterling introduced the attractive 5-door hatchback variant to the US market for 1988.

Sterling 827 SLi

Despite improvements to driving dynamics and build quality, the Sterling sold about as well as a space heater in the Sahara desert.  Sales dropped to 8901 units in 1988, and again to 5907 in 1989.  The damage the early Sterlings caused was irreversible.  In 1989, ARCONA was disbanded and Sterling was brought back under control of the Rover group, lead by Graham Morris.  An emphasis was put on reliability and ease of service, but it didn't stop the downhill slide.  Sterling only managed to shift 4015 units in 1990.

There were big plans for the Sterling brand in the US.  The CCV concept car pictured below, which debuted in 1986, was intended for the US Market and did very well in consumer clinics.  To drum up interest, Morris circulated the photo of the Sterling Coupe almost 3 years before it's debut.  The updated 800, called the R17, was designed with US interests in mind - it was classier and more luxurious, with more engine options and a nicer interior.  The truth was that it was all too little, too late.  Rover couldn't afford to maintain a presence in North America, and officially withdrew from the US market in 1991.


It's a shame.  Rover had anticipated that around 40% of 800 sales would be in the US market, but even in the best year Sterling had in the US (1987), that was wildly optimistic.  The cute mid-engined MGF roadster was designed with the US market in mind, but thanks to the failure of Sterling it never saw the light of day on these shores either.  It's rather ironic when you consider how the 800's twin fared in the US.  Honda created a new brand to sell luxury cars in America, and it's still going strong more than 2 decades later.  Rover tried, using the same parts, and failed miserably.

And just as quickly as it started, it was over.  Sterling only lasted 4 years in the US market, and Rover left for the third time in 20 years. No wonder they didn't try again.

As for Sterlings today?  Well, most of them have made their way to their final resting place in junkyards, sidelined by mechanical failures and a complete lack of parts availability in the states.  The Honda parts - most of the greasy bits - stand the test of time quite well, as you'd expect.  The V6's are prone to noisy tappets and since they are interference engines with timing belts, that requires consideration.  The ones that are still running are cherished by (all four) Rover nuts in the US, like this mint 1990 827SLi owned by Richard Truett in Detroit, as featured on Austin Rover Online.


The truth though, is that Sterling is just another page - and a short one at that - in the history of brands that've come and gone in the US market.  What it really is, is a shining example of how not to launch a new brand in the US.  It proves that even if the idea looks good on paper, we're very picky here in the States.  Who knows what would've happened to Rover if they'd successfully re-established a presence in the US market?  They might've made enough money to develop truly competitive vehicles in the 90's, and they might not be based in China and called Roewe now.

Thanks to Austin Rover Online for many of these photos, as well as providing valuable insight into the case of Sterling.


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