The Rearview Mirror: The World’s Worst Honda

Oh, it all looked so good on paper. Marry Japanese reliability with British design. It resulted in the Sterling 825, which this week in 1991, was killed by its manufacturer, the Rover Group, after selling nearly 35,000 copies in four years. Highly regarded for its fun-to-drive nature, the Sterling 825 proved only the British could render a Honda design so unreliable it would become nearly unsellable. 

The illusion and arrogance of empire

The 1985 Rover SD1, which was soon to be replaced by the Rover 800.

Our story starts in 1975, when British Leyland, aka the remnants of the entire British auto industry, declares bankruptcy and is nationalized. A series of CEOs wrangled with workers who seemed more dedicated to striking than working, while privatizing Jaguar, closing Triumph and trying to axe Mini. The results were tangible: Exports fell to 20% in 1984 from 40% in 1978, while domestic market share plummeted to 17% by 1986.

That year, Canadian lawyer Graham Day became CEO of British Leyland, admitting he had no idea on how to make a car. But he did know how to improve profitability, something the automaker overlooked for decades in an effort to grab market share, like General Motors, and with similar results.

Renaming British Leyland the Austin Rover Group, Day winnowed the company down to Rover and MG. He also expanded the company’s relationship with Honda, something begun a few years earlier when a rebadged Honda Ballade appeared as the Triumph Acclaim. About as British as a bottle of Saki, it earned the nickname Ronda. Day had little choice. Austin Rover Group withered under the dual onslaught of the Germans and Japanese, and so he continued the Anglo-Japanese charade, reskinning the Ballade and selling it as the Rover 200. The Honda Concerto was reborn as the Rover 400, and the Honda Legend became the Rover 800, the company’s replacement the Rover SD1 and the new hope for export sales.

Hope springs eternal

A marriage of Japan and Britain sold by a football team owner: the Sterling 825.

It’s the Rover 800 and Honda Legend, sold in the U.S. as the Acura Legend, that became the focus of Austin Rover Group’s renewed export push. The two models shared many parts, were developed side-by-side and boasted similar styling.

Honda developing the model’s V-6 and driveline while Austin Rover Group designed the frame and suspension. Underbody bits were shared, but the two automakers developed their own suspension tuning, sheet metal, interior design and electrical systems, with Austin Rover Group choosing Lucas. 

Austin Rover Group knew their reputation in the United States was tarnished. They sold the Rover 3500 for one year, 1980, and failed miserably. So they came up with a brand name that was: Sterling.

Norman Braman, a successful U.S. automobile dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who started Austin Rover Cars of North America to sell the Sterling.

But the car wouldn’t be sold by the automaker. Instead, they were sold by an independent company named Austin Rover Cars of North America (ARCONA), owned by Norman Braman, a successful U.S. automobile dealer and owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Based in Miami, Braman’s import company signed up 135 dealers prior to the car’s stateside launch in February 1987.

For Honda, then dealing with America’s “voluntary” export restraints that limited the number of Japanese cars that could be sold in the United States, the automaker could still make money selling cars through ARCONA. 

What hit showrooms was the Sterling 825, offered in S or SL trim, and powered by the Acura Legend’s 24-valve, fuel-injected, 2.5-liter V-6. Delivering 151 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque through a 5-speed manual transmission on S models or a 4-speed automatic on SL trims. As expected, the interior was trimmed in Connolly leather and burled walnut.

ARCONA stated since the Legend and Sterling were built side-by-side on the same assembly line, quality was identical. But the company didn’t tell the whole story. 

While Rover 800s and Sterling 825s were built at the company’s plant in Cowley England, alongside the Honda Legend, those Hondas were sold in Europe. Acura Legends sold in America were built in Japan, none of which used the Sterling’s notorious Lucas electrical system.

What went wrong

The Sterling’s first year was its best, with sales of 14,171 units in the U.S. and 54,000 worldwide, while Acura sold 54,713 Legends in the U.S. that same year. But Acura was backed by a car company; Sterling was being run by a car dealer, whose loyalty was moving the metal and servicing it, not building brand equity. 

The introduction of the reliable Infiniti Q45, above, and Lexus LS doomed Sterling’s future in the U.S.

Yet that wasn’t the Sterling’s major problem: poor build quality was. 

The Sterling proved so riddled with defects, a yearlong test drive in Automobile Magazine required nine trips to the dealer, which still failed to fix all of the car’s maladies. While Austin Rover Group instituted running fixes to solve the issues, it failed to prevent them from tarnishing Sterling’s image. Sales tanked, falling to 8,091 units in 1988, as the J.D. Power survey placed Acura near the top of its list for reliability, while Sterling scraped the bottom. By then, America entered a recession, never a boon for car sales. 

The company tried to entice buyers by enlarging the engine to 2.7 liters, renaming the model the 827 and offering a five-door hatchback as well as a four-door sedan. But sales continued their slide. Despite a 1990 rebate offer of $6,000, or $13,685 adjusted for inflation, ARCONA only managed to move 4,015 units as Lexus and Infiniti entered the luxury car field, while boasting exceptional quality. 

This week in 1991, Austin Rover Group axed the Sterling, ending its hopes for American success.

Back in Britain, Margaret Thatcher had enough of the car business. As she began negotiations with General Motors to buy the automaker in 1988, British Aerospace steeped in to take the company off the government’s hands, promising not to sell the company for at least five years. A little more than 60 months later, British Aerospace sold it to BMW for £800 million. The Bavarian automaker off-loaded it eight years later, keeping Mini. 

And today, Braman Motors is still selling cars, including Rolls-Royce, Bentley, BMW, Porsche — and Mini.