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Throwback Thursday: Sterling Motor Cars

In the late 1980s, the British company, Rover Group, wanted to come back into the United States automotive market. To get a foothold, they worked out a collaboration with Acura and formed Sterling Motor Cars. That collaboration would yield a British luxury car built on an Acura Legend platform to be sold in the United States. But, as with any new manufacturer in the United States, consumer adoption of the British brand did not go as planned. 

A silver, four door British Sterling sedan sits in a dusk setting.
Sterling 825 | Sterling via Hemmings

The British Sterling history

Born out of that collaboration, in 1987, the Sterling brand would become a reality in the United States and start selling their sedan. In 1988, the Sterling 800 series was also available as a hatchback. By 1990, a special edition run of 300 series cars was added to the portfolio of products. But, by then, the handwriting was already on the wall. 

The Acura Legend collaboration

The 800 series was built on the Acura Legend platform and engine as a base for their vehicles. Sterling would then add their own interior, including Lucas gauges, leather surfaces, and real wood trim pieces for the dash. The exterior would receive a two-tone paint scheme. 

A white Acura Legend coupe sits before rolling hills.
Acura Legend coupe | Acura

Sterling sales

The first year of the Sterling seemed to start nicely, with over 14,000 units sold. But, build quality problems would rear their ugly head. Although the engine was a reliable piece, the rest of the car did poorly in the JD Power Initial Quality surveys of the time. So, the American consumer held back purchases of the young brand each of the following years. Although quality improved over time, the damage was already done. 

Competition to the British brand

By 1991, the Lexus and Infinity luxury brands had also been launched. They proved to be the nail in the coffin for the already hurting Sterling brand. Sterling would close up shop with less than 3,000 units sold that year. Rover has not attempted to return to the United States since. 

The vehicles are so rare now that even Hagerty does not provide Sterling as an option in their valuation tool, and eBay Motors does not have the brand in its list of manufacturers. So, after a little investigating, the sale of a Sterling turned up on bringatriler.com. That sale was back in 2017. It was a white hatchback model that sold for $4,005. This particular unit has had the rear trunk badge replaced by a Rover badge where there used to be a Sterling. The Seller’s video is below.

Overall, the collaboration between Acura and Rover seemed like a good idea. Both companies using the same platform would save them in the economies of scale. However, while the Acura Legend would go on to do well in sales and in quality surveys, the Sterling 800 series would not. In fact, the two companies would be strikingly different in sales and build quality. It seems that Sterling adding their own British luxury touches to the buildout of the platform would only come back to hurt them in the end.