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Driving two kids from Portland to Austin — What could go wrong?

If you’re under a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of a car named Sterling. Launched to rave reviews in 1987, the UK-made Sterling quickly became the least reliable brand sold in the US – bottoming JD Power’s quality charts after just five models. first. Sales peaked the first year and plummeted thereafter until the importer folded the tent in 1991 and disappeared.

Sterling is now 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 US buyers. But 35 years ago, it was an updated premium sedan with smart styling and modern features. A travel computer — imagine!

Here’s the fun part: A Sterling is a first-generation Acura legend underneath. Above is another sheet of metal along with a more luxurious, traditional “British” interior. The car emerged from a collaboration between Austin Rover (the last British company Leyland to go bankrupt) and a burgeoning Japanese manufacturer called Honda. The Japanese want to expand to the UK and European markets; British people desperately need modern technology. An agreement has been made.

Few Americans know that the first generation Acura Legend, which was sold to a lot of people in the United States, was developed by Japanese and British engineers. The difficulty points of a Legend are exactly the same as those of Sterling. The British car’s powertrain is a solid 2.5-liter V-6 Honda — soon to be increased to 2.7 liters — driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. (A few Sterlings and Legends came with five-speed manual transmissions; these are rare these days.)

A stupid idea

My most extreme car ideas happen during the darkest, coldest days of winter. That’s why, on January 20th, I emailed my friend Tom Rymes with the subject line “Sterling’s Road Trip is lifelike.”

The idea was to buy a very cheap, very used Sterling 827 that one of us saw in an ad. The car was outside of Portland, Oregon. Tom’s in New Hampshire, I’m in upstate New York, but we each want to get out of the Northeast. We decided to drive the Sterling over 2500 miles to Radwood Austinscheduled for February 26.

If we’re successful, we hope to find a singular Rad fan who will appreciate this automotive unicorn vehicle — and buy it. And if the 30-year-old Anglo-Japanese hybrid breaks down, explodes, catches fire, or otherwise is “unable to proceed” (Henry Royce parlance). . . Well, it’s going to be an adventure, isn’t it?

The idea of ​​a uniform protector

One email leads to another. New ads have appeared for various Sterlings. A member of the Rover Club to whom Tom has written for advice on selling Tom his Sterling. Before long, we had a choice of four guitars from three model years.

Somewhere over the next few hours, an even better idea emerged. A Sterling will risk but make the trip in two Kids – it’s going to be much more difficult now. So we decided to do exactly that and named the project the Tour of Destiny.

Over 400,000 miles between them

We flew to Portland on Thursday, February 17. Geff, a member of the Rover Club, picked us up at the station in his 1990 Sterling 827 SL. (In the photos, the two cars are darker in color). British plastic, wood and leather from that period disintegrated long before its Japanese equivalent. Glue stains make repairs painfully visible and tripod computer screens cracked.

After breakfast in a diner, Tom signs papers and buys Geff’s car. We then dropped Geff off and headed for Yakima, Washington, to pick up Sterling number two. Tom’s car was comfortable enough to fly, and we reveled in the excellent exterior visibility of squared 1990s cars with thin pillars. The three-speed automatic transmission plus the superior automatic was an interesting return, but the Honda engine sang sweetly.

Gradually we relaxed. Until dark, when the headlights proved to have all the output of the candles behind the dirty windows. Not only are they dim, but they are unfortunately misinterpreted — both low and high beams. We had a rough night of driving over 40 miles of winding two-lane roads, but we made it through and with a day without difficulty.

The next morning, we visited Victor, selling a twin that closely resembled Tom’s, but was a 1991 model. He had bought it as a non-driver from an heiress of the owner. first, who had kept it for almost 30 years – then died. It is proven to require only a cap and rotor, plus a new battery. Victor said it caught fire shortly after months of not being used.

Somehow I forgot this was miles away. In fact, a whopping 283,000. The interior is nicer than the one in Tom’s car, but it has more problems. The automatic driver’s seat belt does not retract; the electric driver’s seat will not move back and forth; and the electric mirror does not work. The trip computer screen is too dim to be of any use. The power-adjustable seatback didn’t work at first either, but when Tom drove it the next day and pressed the buttons dozens of times, the driver’s seat fixed itself and started working – the cruise control also worked. so. My car seemed to be running fine, so I paid Victor and we drove off, in two Sterlings – wondering how the next 10 days could prove to be terrible.

John Voelker

John Voelker

Sterling Whisperer

The first stop was a tire shop because two of my tires have a date code from 2000. I was only going to change a pair because the other two are 4 years old. But the store has 16 correct 195/65R-15 tires in stock. Tom and I looked at each other, shrugged, and put on all four tires both cars — perhaps the only time a Yakima tire shop had two car wheels on a shelf side by side. Tires are not something we want to risk.

The new tires are a far cry from the flagship, but the shop has balanced the wheels as part of the deal. Then, in the parking lot of an AutoZone, we replaced the headlight bulbs, the wipers, and a few other things — and re-aimed Tom’s lights. Then we drove back to Portland.

The worst problem with my car is that both front door handles are broken. I’ve got it ready, with two replacements in the right color (one NOS, one used) in my carry-on, ordered from Dale Charles, aka “Sterling Fixer.” And on Day 3, we head to Steve Ollison, whom I dubbed “Sterling’s Whisperer” because of his vast knowledge of the orphan brand. He has an inventory of spare parts and many plants in different repair states. He fitted both door handles — they are known to be fragile. Then Geff came in with half a dozen big boxes of parts for Tom’s car, filling both of our trunks.

And we went. After Portland and Yakima, our itinerary took us to an overnight stay 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 of 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, informative host I’ve ever come across, but the vibe was tiresome just glancing at Norman Bates. I have the Marilyn Monroe Room; Tom scored the James Dean Room.

Pound Sterling at Wind Farm

John Voelker

sterlings road trip

On the road: Some bad news

Right after we left Kingman and headed to the Grand Canyon, we received bad news. Just five days before the meeting, Radwood organizers postponed the entire event until April 23, due to the threat of icy roads around Austin over the weekend. OH.

We went on, taking photos, videos and driving through stunning vistas not found anywhere else. The Four Corners region, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, includes Monument Valley, a protected wilderness landscape with dozens of mountains jutting out of the flat desert. The weather is cloudy, drizzly, sleet, blazing sun and windy almost forever. I have never seen anything like it.

Our accommodation in Gallup is the historic El Rancho Hotel, a 1930s hangout for the cast and crew of all the Hollywood Westerners filming in the area. A stereotype seems to be emerging: Tom has the Humphrey Bogart room, while I have Ida Lupino.

The ride from Gallup to Lubbock brought dire forecasts of snow, ice and disaster, along with photos of tractor-trailers wrecked on either side of the highway. We didn’t leave until noon, but we were able to sneak in to visit our friend Lange in Abilene.

British Pound in Texas

John Voelker

British pound at gas station

Eight States, 5800 Miles, and. . . Zero Breakdowns

Last Day is a long catchphrase from Lubbock to Zabcikville. Our friend Brian Zabcik (of Zabcikville of the same name) agreed to keep the cars in his warehouse. We arrived at his ranch after dark at around 8 p.m., after eight days and a total of 5,800 miles of driving (2800 miles from Portland x two cars, plus a 200-mile round trip to Yakima) . We’ve traveled through eight states, stayed at seven hotels, and visited more gas station convenience stores than we could count.

The cars returned around 25 mpg, the best we could calculate. A light oil leak in Tom’s car seems to have resolved itself; to replace it, I’ve grown half way halfway through. Both cars run fine, although my car desperately needs new shocks and alignment, and the transmission is very reluctant to shift gears. Tom’s car still throws warning lights from time to time; My car theft alarm is still unpredictable — reminding me that the British-designed electrified Sterling, unlike Acura. Sigh.

It is noteworthy, however, that none of the cars were damaged. Not once. We didn’t talk much about it at first, but then it became, “Well, today’s the day, isn’t it?” But the only time the hood lifts is for oil, washer fluid, or leak testing.

We appreciate the durability of the Honda powertrain. Plus, as Tom pointed out, after many miles on each car, anything that’s about to break could have already happened.

Watch video! Buy our car!

Color gave us an impression, if startled. You can watch our videos at Fascinating tour of destiny, including footage of some of the more dramatic landscapes we’ve come across. Alex Kalogiannis’ editorial work is truly amazing, with the jumble of random footage, stills, and grueling dubbing we threw at him every night or morning.

Want to buy a Sterling? What about two? (We’ll do a double-buy deal, trust us — and we have Good-Bad-Bad sheets on every car for serious buyers.) Come see us at Radwood. Austin a week from today, April 23. If you’re from the Austin area, you can even take them for two days. Road & Track Beyond City Limits Tour next weekend.

The Sterlings need to find their permanent home. Buy our car. Satisfied!

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