Time capsule: driving the 19,000-mile Rover 800 found in a bush
When you hear about a 1989 Rover 827 Si that’s been stuck in a bush for several years, what’s your reaction? “That’s a shame,” perhaps. Perhaps you couldn’t care less about one of the last Rover models. Or maybe you’re feeling uncharitable and think it should stay there.
It probably isn’t “I must save it.” Neither was Chris Pollitt’s position, to be fair. And yet, save it he has. “I got emailed by the owner and, you know, he’s like, do you want it?” he explains. “And I said, no. And then I bought it. Not sure what happened there.”
Pollitt, to be fair, is a serial Rover 800 owner. This is his fourth; sitting in his garage as we chat in his cosy living room is a second-generation 800 Vitesse, a car very special to him for sentimental reasons.
“I’m not really a Rover 800 enthusiast per se. I just happen to own one,” he says. “And as people who own enthusiast cars will know all too well, when you own one, people then make it their duty to tell you when they see another one, as if you want another.
“So, someone on Twitter said, I've seen this Rover 827, do you want it? So, I said no, because I've already got one. But it turns out the owner’s a nice chap, and the car is in a bush and I have a natural propensity to buy cars in bushes, rather than from forecourts, like where normal people buy cars from.”
The car in question was also just a little bit of a rarity. The 800 is only just beginning to be considered and rated as a classic car; years spent in the doldrums of bangerdom – with a reputation not helped by its status as Alan Partridge’s most famous conveyance – means immaculate, low-mileage examples are few and far between. And that explains why Pollitt felt compelled to save this one.
“The car was in Portsmouth and I had a job to do down that way,” he says. “So I thought I’d have a look. It was indeed in a bush. And I looked in the window… and it had 19,017 miles on it. When I started to look around, I had more and more reason to believe the mileage to be genuine.”
Fit only for scrap?
As it turned out, the car had only been in a bush for the last four years. Before that, it had been in a garage since 2000 when its former owner had, for reasons known only to himself, simply stopped driving it. When he passed away, his son had come to clear his estate and had had interest from scrap merchants – but didn’t want that to be its fate.
“He only wanted a few hundred pounds for the car,” Pollitt says. “At that price, it doesn’t matter what happens. I was going to have some fun either way.”
The rescue of the Rover would also make perfect fodder for Pollitt’s day job – as head of editorial for classic car classifieds website carandclassic.com, he’s also the presenter of the site’s YouTube videos. And so it was that he returned to the car armed with a recovery truck (and a camera in tow) only a few weeks later.
“Nature had devoured it somewhat,” Pollitt remembers. “It had vines literally growing in and out of the wheel. You know how old men put cable ties on wheel trims, to hold them on? This just had a vine growing through the wheel, then through the wheel trim, then back through the wheel.
“But once we’d pulled it out, you opened the doors and they were gleaming. With the exception of the headlining, which has dropped, which is because Rover used Pritt Stick to hold it up, the interior was mint. A bit mouldy, but you kind of expect that from four years sitting outside. And it was just surface, so it wasn’t anything hideous.
Surprisingly fine fettle
“We lifted the boot carpet – mint. Down the sides of the car – mint. No rust. We pulled it out onto the grass and I got underneath and I stuck my phone under there and took a lot of pictures. Just unbelievably straight and solid. I was like, that's it. It’s worth doing. We'll get it back to Bristol. Let's have a go.
“Then we got it up on the ramp. We jetwashed it first. Not in any pursuit of detailing it or anything. Just to get nature off it before I took it to the workshop. Yeah, I’m not checking all the filters while I’ve got to have a fight with a spider. I don’t get paid enough for that.
“So we got all the spiders out of it, ran a vacuum over it, and it just got better and better. And from there it’s been a joy to work on.”
This isn’t a royal ‘we’, by the way; Pollitt has been ably assisted by fellow old car nut, and mechanic of more years than he’d care to mention, Reuben Paget. His experience with countless Austin Rover Group cars over the years proved invaluable.
“I’ve known Reuben for probably six or seven years. Someone I met on Twitter, but it just so happens he lived around the corner from me. And he works in a garage and so he MOT-tested my cars and he helped me, a combination of technical advisor and enthusiastic motivator.
“I’m not a mechanic, but I will always have a go. At the same time, because I’m not a mechanic, I will get annoyed quite easily and I’ll just want to down tools. There’s nothing on the car I couldn’t have done myself, other than the timing belt, which I wouldn’t touch. But all the work I could do, I’d still be doing it now if I was doing it on my own.”
In fact, the work that needed doing was not extensive. The car has had a full service, plus new shock absorbers, rear brakes, exhaust and timing belt, as well as several bits of trim.
“The biggest problem we had is getting hold of parts,” Pollitt says. “Parts are a nightmare. Anything 800-specific is a nightmare. You’ll get people on the internet saying ‘Oh, it’s just the same as a Mk1 Honda Legend’ – try finding a Mk1 Honda Legend, I dare you!
“The Mk2 [R17 Rover 800 from 1991-99] was a completely different car in many ways. And pattern parts are rubbish. The first shock absorbers I bought for the front were pattern parts and they were, bizarrely, too long. So they locked the suspension up.
“The rear brakes were a bit of a pig, too. Fronts are easy – just bought all-new stuff. £30 a go for the calipers. But you can’t get the rear calipers, so we had to rebuild them. Stuff like that is frustrating. When you think about it, it’s bizarre. If you’re making the fronts, why aren’t you making the rears?
“Bizarrely, for a car made in Cowley on the edge of Oxford, mechanical parts were easier to get from America, where the 800 was sold under the Sterling brand. I got a water pump, timing belt, all the tensioners, distributor cap, rotor arm, all for £70. If I’d tried to get all that here in the UK, it would have been about £300.”
Pollitt and Paget had originally set themselves the goal of getting the car back to its former glory in time for the Classic Motor Show at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, where it had been allotted a display space. But it almost didn’t happen.
Pollitt recalls: “As soon as I got the car, I bought a brand new battery, put it in, and the first thing I did was an MOT list. The horn worked. The lights worked. It was fine. Then we did all this work on it. As a finishing touch we had the car detailed and it was due to go through its MOT the next day. But… the night before, we checked again and the horn didn’t work. The washers had stopped working. As had the headlights.
“We changed the horn and the washer, so it got them working. But the headlights still didn’t work. It turned out the fault was with a dim-dip relay under the dash, with dry joints. New ones don’t exist. It needs a proper repair, really. But when we put some pressure on it, it closed those dry joints and it worked.
“Finally it was ready. But then the guy that was going to MOT it went off sick for two weeks. So everything went out of the window.
“I couldn’t find anywhere else that would take the car at that short notice. Fortunately, through Twitter, I got hold of someone in Bath who could do it. This is on a Wednesday and the car had to be at the NEC the next day for the show. But it passed with no advisories. And the next day, it was at the NEC.”
Now that he’s rescued the car and got it running again, Pollitt hasn’t the space to keep it. Fortunately, it’s going to a new home as part of a private collection, where it will be cherished and maintained to within an inch of its life – and should never see a bush again.
What’s it like to drive?
And that’s where we’d draw the story to a close. Except for one thing: Pollitt has asked if I’d like to drive this rather special “modern classic”. He doesn’t need to do so twice.
The phrase “time warp” is used far too much in classic car adverts these days. But climbing into the 827 really makes you feel as though you’d just done so outside a Rover showroom in 1989.
It still has its new-car smell; the interior is attractive, too. Dated, yes, but pleasant to look at and far more intuitively laid out than many modern cars.
The 800 was always criticised in its time for being a bit too narrow – a characteristic imposed by the dimensions of the Honda Legend on which it was based. And yes, we are sitting more close together than we would be in, say, a Ford Granada/Scorpio or a Vauxhall Carlton. But the large windows and slim pillars mean the interior is light and airy, so it doesn’t feel cramped.
On the road, it’s a delight. It’s not quite what you’d expect, though. You might imagine a wallowy barge, but in fact the 800 feels stiffer than its contemporary rivals; it might even have been considered too firm in period, although in comparison with modern cars it feels supple and well-damped.
What’s more, this extra tautness lends the 800 a poise that’s unexpected. True, it doesn’t have what you’d call dynamic appeal, but it handles neatly, turning in accurately and with a lovely, linear response to the steering wheel.
The V6 engine is the best part, though; smooth, crisp and gutsy, with a lovely baritone burble that permeates the interior even when you’re only pootling along. And on a chilly morning I’m grateful that the climate control system belts toasty warm air over cold toes.
Cars such as this are worth saving – there’s no doubt. And it’s a good thing there was at least one person daft enough to want to drag it out of a bush and bring it back to life, because without Pollitt’s efforts it would almost certainly be a pile of parts by now.
Yet here it is – running, driving and proudly standing almost as a museum piece, recalling a time when it felt as though the remnants of British Leyland were finally about to come good. It’s a delight to spend time with, and deserves to live again. Thank goodness it will.