Driving Two Sterlings from Portland to Austin—What Could Go Wrong?
If you’re below a certain age, you may never have heard of a car called Sterling. Launched to positive reviews in 1987, the U.K.-built Sterling quickly became the least reliable brand sold in the U.S.—landing at the bottom of J.D. Power’s quality ratings after just its first model year. Sales peaked that first year and plummeted thereafter until the importer folded its tents in 1991 and vanished.
Sterling is now only a historical footnote, the last attempt by the chronically troubled British car industry to sell anything cheaper than Range Rovers, Bentleys, and Aston Martins to U.S. buyers. But 35 years ago, it was an up-to-date premium sedan with smart styling and modern features. A trip computer—imagine!
Here’s the cool part: A Sterling is a first-generation Acura Legend underneath. On top was different sheetmetal plus a more traditional, luxuriously “British” interior. The car had emerged from a partnership between Austin Rover (the last of the bankrupt British Leyland) and an up-and-coming Japanese maker named Honda. The Japanese wanted a way to expand in U.K. and European markets; the Brits desperately needed modern technology. A deal was struck.
Few Americans know that the first-generation Acura Legend, sold to great acclaim in the States, was jointly developed by Japanese and British engineers. The hard points of a Legend are identical to those of a Sterling. The British car’s powertrain was the rock-solid Honda 2.5-liter V-6—soon enlarged to 2.7 liters—driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. (A few Sterlings and Legends arrived with a five-speed manual gearbox; they’re very rare today.)
A Stupid Idea
My most extreme car ideas happen during the darkest, coldest days of winter. That’s why, on January 20, I emailed my friend Tom Rymes with the subject line “Epically Idiotic Sterling Road Trip.”
The idea was to buy a very cheap, very used Sterling 827 that one of us had seen in an ad. The car was outside Portland, Oregon. Tom is in New Hampshire, I’m in upstate New York, but each of us was itching to get out of the Northeast. We decided to try to drive the Sterling more than 2500 miles to Radwood Austin, slated for February 26.
If we made it, we hoped to find that singular Rad fan who would appreciate this automotive unicorn—and buy it. And if the 30-year-old Anglo-Japanese mongrel broke down, blew up, caught fire, or otherwise “failed to proceed” (to use the words of Henry Royce) . . . well, it would have been an adventure, right?
An Even Stupider Idea
One email led to another. New ads appeared for different Sterlings. A Rover Club member Tom had written for advice offered to sell Tom his Sterling. Soon, we had a choice of four Sterlings from three model years.
Somewhere in the wee hours, an even better idea surfaced. One Sterling would be risky but doing the trip in two Sterlings—now that would be far more challenging. So, we decided to do exactly that and dubbed the project Tempting Fate Tours.
More Than 400,000 Miles between Them
We flew to Portland on Thursday, February 17. Geff, the Rover Club member, picked us up at the terminal in his 1990 Sterling 827 SL. (In the photos, it’s the darker of the two cars.) The interior of his 160,000-mile sedan was a bit battered. British plastics, wood, and leather from that period disintegrated long before their Japanese equivalents. Globs of glue made the repairs painfully visible, and the trip-computer screen was cracked.
Over breakfast in a diner, Tom signed the papers and bought Geff’s car. We then dropped Geff off and headed toward Yakima, Washington, to collect Sterling number two. Tom’s car cruised comfortably enough, and we reveled in the superb outward visibility of square 1990s cars with slim pillars. The three-speed-plus-overdrive automatic was a pleasant throwback, but the Honda engine sang sweetly.
Gradually we relaxed. Until dark, when the headlights proved to have all the output of candle stubs behind dirty windows. Not only were they dim, but they were also grievously misaimed—both low- and high-beams. We had a tough night drive on 40 miles of twisty two-lane roads, but we made it, and with a trouble-free day under our belts.
The next morning, we visited Victor, selling a near twin to Tom’s car, but a 1991 model. He’d bought it as a non-runner from an heir of the first owner, who had kept it almost 30 years—then died. It proved to need only a cap and rotor, plus a new battery. Victor said it fired right up after months of sitting unused.
I’d somehow forgotten this one had more miles. A whopping 283,000, in fact. The interior was nicer than the one in Tom’s car, but it had more issues. The automatic driver’s seatbelt didn’t retract; the power driver’s seat wouldn’t move back and forth; and the power mirrors didn’t work. The trip-computer display was so faded it was useless. Initially, the power seatbacks didn’t work either, but when Tom drove it the next day and pressed the buttons dozens of times, the driver’s seatback fixed itself and started to work—as did the cruise control. My car seemed to drive OK, so I paid Victor and we drove away, in two Sterlings—wondering just how terrible the next 10 days might prove.
The Sterling Whisperer
The first stop was the tire shop since two of my tires had date codes from 2000. I’d only planned to replace the one pair, as the other two were four years old. But the shop had 16 of the correct 195/65R-15 tires in stock. Tom and I looked at each other, shrugged, and replaced all four tires on both cars—probably the only time a Yakima tire shop had two Sterlings on side-by-side racks. Tires just weren’t something we wanted to risk.
The new tires were far from top of the line, but the shop balanced the wheels as part of the deal. Then, in the parking lot of an AutoZone, we replaced headlight bulbs, wiper blades, and some other stuff—and re-aimed Tom’s lights. Then we drove back to Portland.
The worst problem with my car was that both front door handles were broken. I was prepared, with two replacements in the right color (one NOS, one used) in my luggage, ordered from Dale Charles, a.k.a. the “Sterling Fixer.” And on Day 3, we headed for Steve Ollison, whom I dubbed “the Sterling Whisperer” for his vast knowledge of the orphaned brand. He had stocks of spare parts and multiple Sterlings in various states of repair. He installed both door handles—they’re known to be fragile. Then Geff arrived with half a dozen large boxes of spare parts for Tom’s car that filled both our trunks.
And away we went. After Portland and Yakima, our journey took us to overnight stays in Medford, Oregon; Fresno, California; Kingman, Arizona (“the heart of Route 66”); Gallup, New Mexico; Lubbock, Texas; and finally, Zabcikville, Texas, about 90 minutes outside Austin.
Kingman, Arizona, calls itself the Heart of Historic Route 66, complete with a museum, but the pandemic years haven’t been kind to it. The 1930s El Trovatore Motel had the most informative, garrulous host I’ve ever met, but the vibe was tired kitsch with just a dash of Norman Bates. I got the Marilyn Monroe Room; Tom scored the James Dean Room.
En Route: Some Bad News
Shortly after we left Kingman, and headed for the Grand Canyon, we got bad news. Just five days ahead of the meet, the Radwood organizers had postponed the entire event until April 23, due to the threat of icy roads around Austin over the weekend. Oh.
We carried on, taking pictures, filming video, and driving through stunning scenery not found anywhere else. The Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet, includes Monument Valley, the protected wild landscape with dozens of mesas jutting out of flat desert. The weather included clouds, drizzle, sleet, bright sun, and almost perpetual wind. I’d never seen anything like it.
Our lodging in Gallup was the historic El Rancho Hotel, a 1930s hangout for the cast and crew of all the Hollywood westerns shot in the area. A pattern seemed to be emerging: Tom got the Humphrey Bogart room, while I had Ida Lupino.
The leg from Gallup to Lubbock brought dire forecasts of snow, ice, and catastrophe, along with photos of tractor-trailers wrecked at the sides of highways. We didn’t leave until noon, but we were able to sneak in a visit to our friend Lange in Abilene.
Eight States, 5800 Miles, and . . . Zero Breakdowns
The last day was one long slog from Lubbock to Zabcikville. Our friend, Brian Zabcik, (of the eponymous Zabcikville) had agreed to store the cars in his barn. We arrived at his farmhouse after dark at about 8 pm, after eight days and 5800 total miles of driving (2800 miles from Portland x two cars, plus one 200-mile roundtrip to Yakima). We’d been through eight states, stayed at seven hotels, and visited more gas-station convenience stores than we could count.
The cars returned roughly 25 mpg, as best we could calculate. A slight oil leak in Tom’s car seemingly solved itself; to replace it, mine developed one halfway through. Both cars ran well, though my car badly needed new shocks and alignment, and the transmission was very reluctant to downshift. Tom’s car still throws occasional warning lights; my car’s theft alarm remains unpredictable—reminders that the Sterling has British-designed electrics, unlike the Acura. Sigh.
Still, remarkably, neither car broke down. Not once. We didn’t talk about it much at first, but then it became, “Well, today’s the day, huh?” But the only time the hoods went up was to put in oil, washer fluid, or check for leaks.
We chalk that up to the durability of the Honda powertrain. Plus, as Tom pointed out, after that many miles on each car, anything that was going to break probably had done so already.
Watch the Videos! Buy Our Cars!
Color us impressed, if startled. You can see our videos at Tempting Fate Tours, including footage of some of the more visually striking scenery we passed through. Alex Kalogiannis’s editing work is truly superb, given the mess of random footage, still images, and exhausted voiceovers we threw at him each night or morning.
Wanna buy a Sterling? How about two? (We’ll do a deal on a double purchase, trust us—and we have Good-Bad-Ugly sheets on each car for serious buyers.) Come see us at Radwood Austin a week from today, on April 23. If you’re from the Austin area, you could even take them on the two-day Road & Track Beyond City Limits tour the very next weekend.
The Sterlings need to find their forever homes. Buy our cars. Please!
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