Guide Rover SD1
The Ferrari-inspired executive hatchback which fired the imagination and took Rover from the BL era to the Honda generation. Words: Paul Wager.
DATABASE: ROVER SD1
Facts, figures and history on the car which brought Ferrari style to the executive class.
The SD1 is something of an enigma. Although in fact much less advanced technically than the P6 it replaced, the car traded on its Daytona-inspired good lacks and hatchback versatility, further bolstered by the ‘halo’ appeal of the range-topping V8 engine to become a success for Rover. And this was despite being born in the darkest days of the industrial unrest which dogged the BL years.
It even managed to win the coveted Car Of The Year award in the year after launch but in true BL fashion its success was hampered in the early stages by the firm struggling to meet demand: in 1976 the Rover/Triumph market share went from the 2.3 per cent of the previous year to just 1.6 per cent, purely because of the shortfall in supply.
Despite this, the car was very much a success, with the SD1 eventually selling in much larger numbers than the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 models it effectively replaced. The SD1 would last just 10 years but in that time would carve an almost unique niche for itself in the marketplace, its hatchback practicality matched only by the Renault 20/30 and Audi 100 Avant – both slow sellers in the days when both brands still had something of the taint of ‘funny foreign car’ about them.
Key to its appeal – apart from David Bache’s inspired styling – was the option of V8 power which among European competition made it unique. Only Mercedes-Benz could offer a V8 engine in an executive car but it was both vastly more expensive than the Rover and was a pretty staid-looking three-box saloon against the SD1’s coupe-like style.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the design came from our own police forces, several of which allegedly bought and stockpiled a quantity of SD1s when its replacement by the 800-Series was announced. It speaks volumes about the capacity of the Rover that its eventual replacement on our motorways was the Volvo estate.
The SD1 was also a stronger seller in Europe than the firm’s previous large cars, a move which was further assisted by the tax-efficient 2-litre petrol and the turbodiesel options. Oh and it was pretty handy in BTCC guise, too.
The development of the SD1 is irretrievably bound up in the events which created British Leyland in 1968 and which brought Rover and Triumph into the same fold. They were rather obviously in-house competitors and when the time came to replace theRover P6andTriumph 2000, management had a tricky decision to make.
The easy solution would have been to replace the pair with another two separate models, but economics dictated that significant parts sharing would have been required and it was said that BL boss Donald Stokes had by then formed the opinion that the slavish badge engineering which had previously been traditional in the firm was the wrong direction.
Developing only one large car would leave a big gap in the market between the workaday Marina and the prestige of Jaguar though, meaning that the eventual decision was to develop two cars: one to replace the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 and then a slightly smaller model to sit just below it.
Since the Rover badge had traditionally been the more upmarket, it was the natural fit for the bigger car, while the Triumph name was earmarked for the smaller model which would effectively replace the Dolomite.
Since the organisation of British Leyland had placed Jaguar, Rover and Triumph in the so-called Specialist Division, the first project bore the codename SD1 (‘Special Division, number one’) and the second car was given the code SD2. Not, as the cars are so often described in classified ads, as Rover SDi…
The question of who would be responsible for the design and engineering of the new car was less clear-cut however and both Rover and Triumph teams were invited to submit proposals.
The Triumph design was codenamed Puma and when you see its slightly odd appearance suggesting a reverse-raked rear screen in the Anglia/Consul Classic mould, it’s easy to see why Rover’s P10 proposal (this being before the ‘SD’ tag was attached) won the day.
The choice of powerplants for the car was a slightly more pragmatic business, complicated by the need to offer a wide range of engines in order to cover all three previous cars, from 2 litres up to 3.5 litres.
The Rover four-cylinder OHC unit from the P6 was apparently considered but judged to be insufficiently refined and at the limit of its development, making the straight-six Triumph unit a more natural choice.
Although it’s often accepted wisdom that the SD1’s six-cylinder powerplants were simply an update of the Triumph engine, that’s not quite the case. Rather, the Triumph engine was used as inspiration for a new family of engines known as ‘PE166’ which were similar to the old Standard-derived unit but which added an overhead camshaft and other updates.
In hindsight it may seem odd that the engineers didn’t take the opportunity to standardise on a six-cylinder layout and borrow the XK engine from Jaguar but this was already ageing by then and Jaguar itself was working on the AJ6 replacement.
The Jaguar unit would also have lacked the sheer bravado of a V8 engine and so there was never much doubt that the range-topping SD1 would employ the 3.5-litre unit familiar from the P6 3500 models. It proved to be a fortunate decision, since when the SD1 was launched in June 1976, the six-cylinder engines still weren’t ready and the car was available in V8 form only.
Not that this harmed the press reaction at all: the carburetted pushrod V8 may have been old tech in an age of injection and twin camshafts but it delivered the goods nicely, complete with a soundtrack unlike anything else in the market at the time. In that most ’70s Triton metallic green with the gold wheels of the V8 S, the SD1 looked superb and many were won by its styling alone.
The appeal of which, it has to be said, didn’t end with the outside. David Bache’s team worked their magic nicely inside too, the minimalist shelf-like dashboard apeing the theme begun with the P6 and enabling much commonality between left and right-hand drive versions.
The SD1 got off to a respectable if not blistering start with 6816 cars shifted in just half a year during 1976, the total rising to 12,374 for the year 1977. After the six-cylinder 2300 and 2600 arrived in November 1977, the full-year figures for 1978 tell a more positive story: the car found 31,669 buyers.
Away from the sales figures, the car was well received by the press and was awarded the Car Of The Year for 1977.
The launch line-up was limited to the Rover 3500, with the six-pot cars from 1977 available as 2300/2300 S and the 2600 offered only as 2600 S. In 1979, the sporting V8 S was added to the range, essentially offering all the optional extras for the 3500 as standard, plus air conditioning and electric sunroof.
The V8 S would itself be replaced in 1980 by the Vanden Plas model, with the regular 3500 renamed as 3500SE, which revived an old BL name and majored on luxury, but through no fault of the car’s design, sales were stagnating.
A global recession was biting and in 1979 BL was forced to lay off workers as unsold SD1s were stockpiled. Adding to the problems was the dire cashflow situation at BL which was shuffling slowly down the path which would lead to nationalisation.
This, together with industrial relations issues at the Solihull plant – itself constructed specifically for the car – were behind Michael Edwardes’ decision to mothball the plant and transfer production to the Morris facility at Cowley. The Solihull plant would eventually absorb smaller Land Rover plants during the mid ’80s. The move to Cowley gave Rover an opportunity to facelift the car and the first updated models would arrive in 1981, featuring a larger rear window, new instrument cluster and restyled front end as well as other cosmetic improvements including revised badging. The post-facelift cars were also the first to receive wood-effect veneer inside, which was something Bache’s industrial-style design had deliberately avoided.
Alongside the facelift cars, a new entry-level model was added in the shape of the 2-litre Rover 2000. This used the newly-developed O-Series engine rated at 104 bhp and although it lacked the excitement of the sixes and V8, it was respectable enough and appealed to tax-conscious company buyers both here and across Europe attracted by the sub 2-litre banding.
It may seem odd today to have no diesel in the range but back in the early ’80s the black pump was still very much the preserve of the HGV and taxi operator, meaning Rover was surprisingly forward-looking when it unveiled the SD Turbo in April 1982. It was powered by an Italian-made VM powerplant, which had been chosen as one of the few units to offer petrol-like performance – by the standards of the time, that is. As a measure of how forward of the game Rover was, the Autocar road test of the SD Turbo comments that the diesel pump has to be shared with trucks. The same testers also commented that the SD Turbo was “The fleetest diesel-engined car we have tested so far.”
With only 90 bhp, it was no rocket ship, but its 142lbf.ft torque helped it along and in truth it was intended for the European market where it was well received.
The big news for performance fans though came in 1982, when visitors to that year’s Motor Show at the NEC saw the Rover Vitesse proudly displayed. An attempt to chase the upmarket sports saloons produced most obviously by BMW, the Vitesse took the V8-engined 3500 and added lowered suspension, bigger alloy wheels and spoilers, plus a useful power boost thanks to the addition of Lucas-built Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection which extracted 190 bhp from the long-serving V8 alongside revised valves, modified exhaust and a compression boost from 9.35:1 to 9.75:1. Reaction to the Vitesse was universally favourable, even hardbitten magazine road testers forgiving the car’s relative lack of sophistication in the face of its sheer character which the soulless Germans couldn’t match. “Responsive and agile, yet predictable and viceless,” commented Motor’s testers, who pointed out that the chassis set-up was biased towards safe understeer but that the tail could be provoked at will.
The Vitesse built on the SD1’s success in the 1981/82 BTCC championship and the car enjoyed a 14 per cent sales boost for 1982 in a time when large cars were hard to shift. The Vitesse was also good value, retailing at £14,950 when the BMW 528i E12 was £16,175. Those Motor testers were also satisfied with the car’s quality, suggesting that the move to Cowley had improved matters over the early cars which were well known for their problems.
The newly discovered sales impetus was built upon with the addition of the Vanden Plas trim level to the 2600 in 1984, with the famous badge also applied to the V8-engined cars to create the Vanden Plas EFi – essentially the Vitesse powertrain without the uprated suspension or spoilers but with leather and automatic box.
In 1985, the range was slimmed down to just 2300 and 2600 Vanden Plas plus the Vitesse, now modified with flush-fitting colour-coded front air dam and the side graphics deleted. In November 1985 the Vitesse was equipped with twin throttle bodies in order to homologate the setup for racing, these being known as the ‘Twin Plenum’ models. Production of the SD1 would continue until 1986, when the Rover 800-Series was launched as its replacement. Just 2870 cars left the Cowley plant in that year, but the sales figure of 15,916 for the last full year of production in 1985 says much about the enduring appeal of the design which was by then a decade old.
The P6 had been a groundbreaking design with its base-frame construction to which the outer panels were attached, plus its unusual cranked front suspension layout and De Dion rear end.
When it came to the SD1 though, its style may have looked fresh and modern but a renewed pragmatism was setting in at BL which recognised that technical innovation wasn’t always what buyers wanted.
Accordingly, the SD1 employed a thoroughly conventional layout: MacPherson struts were used at the front, with a longitudinal powerplant driving a coil-sprung live rear axle through the LT77 manual gearbox or three-speed Borg-Warner automatic. This was located by a Watts linkage and torque tube and although some road tests did comment on the SD1’s less relaxed ride compare to the (usually French) competition, it did the car no harm at all. The conventional layout and monocoque bodyshell were also usefully cheaper to manufacture than the P6.
One quirky feature of the SD1 was the high-geared steering which made full use of the standard power assistance to offer a very responsive set-up. Road testers commented that driving an SD1 for the first time was like climbing into aCitroën SM.
Rover went all-out to prepare for the production of the new cars, establishing a brand new facility on its Solihull site for the car, known as the East Works which constituted a huge proportion of BL’s capital expenditure in the mid-1970s. Plans had originally called for the car to be built in the old P6 facility known as North Block, but the requirement for a brand new paint plant made an all-new facility attractive and so £31m in investment was secured for what was intended as a ‘state of the art’ factory.
Part of the thinking behind the move was that the existing production line could be used to boost Land Rover and Range Rover production. Ironically, it was also felt that a new factory would result in improved quality, something which sadly didn’t happen with early cars. After production was transferred to Cowley in 1982, the plant would remain ‘mothballed’ until it was revived for production of the Freelander in 1997.
In total the 1.5 million square foot facility came to some £85m, as Rover proudly mentioned in its 1977 brochure.
Assembly would move from Solihull to Cowley in 1982. Stylist David Bache would later admit to being influenced by the Ferrari Daytona. Hatchback versatilty made the car nearly unique in the market.
The Italian-made VM diesel provided pedestrian performance but like the 2000, it extended the car’s appeal to European buyers.
Halo model for the SD1 was the fuel-injected Vitesse, good for 190bhp in later twin plenum form.
The six-cylinder 2600 proved to be the most popular seller but is less common today.
Delays with the six-cylinder engines saw the SD1 launched with only V8 power.
SD1 bodyshells were constructed by Pressed Steel at Castle Bromwich, now a Jaguar plant.
The 2-litre Rover 2000 was a late addition to the range but proved popular in Europe.
- 1976 8654
- 1977 26409
- 1978 54355
- 1979 46097
- 1980 25214
- 1981 32024
- 1982 31757
- 1983 32926
- 1984 19947
- 1985 15916
- 1986 2870
- CKD 14,376
- TOTAL 303,345
DID YOU KNOW...
- The Vitesse sat one inch lower than the regular SD1s.
- In 1984 the SD1 Vitesse won the British Saloon Car Drivers’ Championship and the Scottish Rally Championship.
- Adverts in the ’70s used the strapline ‘Tomorrow, wouldn’t you rather be in a Rover?’, later replaced by ‘Driving is believing’ for the 1980s.
- The Vanden Plas used proper Connolly leather.
- From 1985 to 1988 the SD1 was produced by Standard Motor Products Company in Madras as the Standard 2000, using the old four-cylinder Vanguard engine. Some years after production ended, the surplus body panels ended up back in the UK at Rimmer Bros.
- The SD Turbo gained hydraulic engine mounts, stiffer front springs, oil cooler, extra soundproofing, a heavier-duty clutch and 0.77:1 final drive.
- An estate version of the SD1 was considered and Carbodies constructed a prototype which was used by BL chairman Michael Edwardes before being added to the Gaydon collection. A prototype estate also exists in the Haynes collection.
- The Vitesse was originally to be named Rapide until Aston Martin declined to release the name, but side stripes with the name had already been made up for prototype viewings.
- Rover had no idea how popular the Vitesse would be and it was initially listed as a special order-only model.
- In theory the swage lines in the side panels will trap dirt thrown up from the road, keeping door handles clean.
- David Bache also showed a version of the SD1 concept with gullwing doors.
- The transmissions were produced at a plant near Cardiff and trucked up to Solihull.
- Dunlop’s then newly developed Denovo run-flat tyres were optional on early 3500s.
- Rover claimed that all SD1s were produced to the quality standard demanded by NATO when requisitioning equipment.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SD2?
The SD1 should in theory have been followed by an SD2 – the car which would have replaced the Triumph Dolomite as a smaller but still upmarket model. The technical layout was to be similar with MacPherson struts at the front and live rear axle with Triumph’s slant-four (as used in the TR7) as a powerplant, the idea of a four-cylinder version of the ‘PE166’ 2300/2600 unit having been sidelined.
The SD2 was given the corporate green light in 1973 and got as far as the running prototype stage with David Bache scaling down his SD1 to suit the smaller model. Badged as a Triumph, the car was to have been produced as an entry-level 1.5, 1.7, 2-litre twin-carb and a 2-litre 16-valve using the Dolomite Sprint engine. A launch date was even set for October 1977.
Ultimately the collapse of BL in 1974 and the Ryder Report’s recommendations for a rationalised product range saw the SD2 project cancelled by 1975.
- MODEL 2000 2300 2600 3500 VITESSE VdP EFi 2400 SD
- ENGINE 1994cc 2351cc 2479cc 3528cc 3528cc 3528cc 2479cc
- MAX POWER (BHP) 100/5250 123/5500 136/5000 152/5250 190/5280 190/5280 90/4000
- MAX TORQUE (LBF.FT) 120/3250 134/4000 152/3750 198/2500 220/4000 220/4000 142/2350
- TRANSMISSION 5sp man 4sp man 5sp man 5sp man / 3sp auto 5sp man 5sp man 5sp man
- SUSPENSION Front, MacPherson struts. Rear, semi-trailing arms and solid axle. Rear self-levelling from 2600 up
- BRAKES disc/drum
- LENGTH (MM) 4690
- WIDTH (MM) 1770
- HEIGHT (MM) 1380
- KERB WEIGHT (KG) 1331 1365 1390 1356 1440 1431 1524
- MAX SPEED (MPH) 104 114 116 126 (man) 136 130 102
- 0-62 MPH (SECS) 12.5 11.5 10.3 8.6 (man) 7.9 8.1 14.3