I’ve just been an idiot, and added to my already-expansive Unexceptional classic collection by buying a Rover 820 Sterling. In the last few months I’ve been on a fair few crap car collection missions, but this is possibly the hardest to explain. What I’ve bought is a very late example of a car that was out of date almost before the mid-term facelift was conceived.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 isn’t a match for a 5 series or an E class- or even an Omega.
So it’s crap. 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 allowance and has bought a couple of 15-year-old execs to replace it. ‘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.’
There’s something about a crap car that makes it infinitely more endearing than one which was actually competent when new – it’s why events like the Festival of the Unexceptional work so well, and it taps into what I was saying about Jon Burgess’s Volvo with the dead head gasket– we never want to give up on an old shonker until we know there really is no hope any more. 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.
I find it hard to believe that anyone with a hint of passion for older cars could fail to understand this. Cars that work are harder to love – the Lexus LS400 has a tiny presence on the classic car scene for a reason, and it’s because vehicles that are flawless are treated as tools. We make a conscious decision when we buy an old car to forego the faults 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. Even the smaller 75 upstaged the 800 when launched.
And yes, this one has issues, but they’re sortable issues and they certainly aren’t enough to consign the thing to the scrapheap. Yes, the radiator’s kippered, yes, it has a dinged wing, and yes, it has typical Rover 800 electrics. But its co-owner Alex has had it at his house for a week and already the rad and the fusebox are sorted. And he’s utterly fallen for the car too; after several bad experiences with 800s I sense it’s going to be a bit of an effort to prise the keys to this one out of his grasp.
It might seem odd to the man in his grey 2016 5 series that two grown men are fighting over the keys to a car which wasn’t up to scratch even when new. But 5 series man will never understand. Neither do we – but we don’t care. Crap cars are fun, and fun’s what life’s about.