Rover SD1 (1977 – 1986)

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The Rover SD1, there’s nothing much you can really say about it that hasn’t already been said. Often considered the last ‘true’ Rover, the SD1 was built in a time when the company was facing a painful decline under the weight of industrial tensions and economic pressure, and would end garnering a mixed reception at the time, but has since become a true cult classic.

The SD1’s history truly goes back to the formation of British Leyland in 1968, where at the encouragement of then Minister of Technology, the late Tony Benn, British Motor Holdings, owner of Morris, Austin, Austin-Healey, Jaguar/Daimler, Rover and a slew of other small car manufacturers, merged with the Leyland Motor Group, builder of many fine trucks and buses as well as being owner of the Triumph brand. The intention of this company was to create a utopian British General Motors, a selection of market beating brands to win over the UK and European motoring scene, as well as the American one at that. Sadly, what resulted was industrial turmoil the likes of which had never been witnessed before, with each company being in rivalry with one another, and Soviet funded Unions causing mass-strikes and sabotage to the company.

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The sporty Rover SD1 Vitesse.

At the time of the merger, Rover produced two family cars outside of its subsidiary Land Rover, these being the legendary Rover P5, and the equally as popular Rover P6. Both these cars had a strong image with the British public, but were starting to show their age, the P5 debuting in 1958, and the P6 in 1963. As such, Rover began considerations for a new car in 1969, this being dubbed project P10. In 1971, David Bache, Rover’s Chief Designer, was tasked with styling this new car, and following his tradition of looking to the future rather than what was current, he set his sights on Maranello, where Ferrari’s GTB/4 Daytona, was being lauded for its beautifully crisp design and styling. Taking cues from the streamlined sports car, the SD1 was to incorporate the same general look, with a long streamlined body, wrap-around headlights and anything else that made it look less like an Executive Saloon and more like a sports car.

Mechanically, the SD1 was built for simplicity, a problem that had been highlighted on the previous P6, which was comparatively complex and difficult. Whilst suspension was altered from the previous model, the SD1’s biggest party piece was its engine, the fantastically reliable Rover V8, which had proven its worth in the P5, P6, and the then-new Range Rover. The car was therefore fitted with a 3.5L version of the engine, giving this car some extra performance grunt over the competition, matching its streamlined style.

To build the SD1, Rover decided to built at a cost of £31 million a new production line at their Solihull Works, with the intention of building initially 1,500 cars per week, but this being later increased to 3,000 cars per week to improve competitiveness. Ideas were also toyed with as to additional versions of the car, the only other variation being an Estate version that consisted of two prototypes, distinguished from one another by their differing tailgate design. These cars sadly never went into production but both have been preserved, one being the private transport of British Leyland Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes during the late 1970’s.

Eventually the SD1 was launched to critical and customer acclaim in July 1976, being

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The Rover SD1 was a favourite among the police forces of the UK, wearing their distinctive ‘Jam Sandwich’ livery.

praised specifically for its crisp, beautiful styling combined with raw and reliable power. With the SD1 now in full swing, the previous P6 was retired in 1977, together with the Triumph 2000, which, since the merger of 1968, had been in direct competition with the P6 as a 4-door family saloon, one prime example of British Leyland’s flawed creation. The SD1 on the other hand continued to garner universal praise, and won the 1977 European Car of the Year Award, the only British Leyland car to do this.

But problems soon came quick and thick for the SD1, as the industrial relations and hopeless build quality of British Leyland soon reared their ugly head. Strike Cars were especially unreliable, suffering from faulty electrics, poor engines, unfinished interiors, panels that fell off, and, most problematic, the demon rust. The SD1 was, like most BL products, a sad victim of this as none of the contemporary rust agents were used to save on costs. The result was that your new and shiny SD1 would probably have started rusting on the way home from the showroom, but would most likely breakdown before it disintegrated completely. Rover’s saviour was starting to turn sour as sales began to fall, combined also with a fuel crisis in 1979 that made driver’s aware of this new word

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US Market SD1’s were distinguishable by their altered light clusters.

known as ‘fuel economy’.

In 1981, Rover attempted to improve the breed with a proposed facelift for the 1982 model year, which included the movement of production from the new Solihull factory to take up the former production lines for the Princess at the Morris factory in Cowley. Over 5 months the move was carried out, with the last SD1’s leaving Solihull in November 1981, with the result of the new £31 million factory and 800 workers being made redundant. The factory however has thankfully seen resumed use, first for the construction of Maestro’s, and later the Land Rover Discovery and Freelander.

As for the SD1, a new facelift altered the cosmetic appearance and added a few extra toys. This was followed in September 1982 by the debut of the SD1 Turbo, and, that December, the Rover SD1 Vitesse, a performance version with an updated 190hp engine to compete with the likes of the SAAB 900 Turbo and the BMW 528i. The Vitesse allowed the SD1 to take part in a variety of motor racing events, and reaped victory after victory between 1983 and 1986. The performance capabilities of both the Vitesse and the standard SD1 also made the car an ideal tool for the Police, with the Metropolitan and West Midlands Police Forces acquiring a large number for use as patrol cars, usually on the motorways. In fact it was one of these cars that carried out the ‘Liver Run’ on the 8th May, 1987, where a donor organ was transported from London Stansted Airport to the Cromwell Hospital in Central London, a distance of 27 miles, in under 30 minutes

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Rover experimented with estate versions of the SD1, but never went beyond two prototypes.

through London traffic, resulting in the full recovery of the patient after a successful operation.

However, in 1980, the ailing British Leyland signed a deal with Honda to help produce reliable cars, this being proven by the Triumph Acclaim and the Rover 200, both of which were just badge-engineered versions of the Honda Ballade. The reliability of these cars resulted in a company policy change, whereby all new Rover cars would be based or designed to similar standards as Honda machines. With this in mind, the SD1 was now somewhat redundant in this field, and would solider on until June 1986 whereupon it was replaced after 303,000 cars by the Rover 800, which took many design cues from the Honda Legend.

Time has sadly not been kind to the SD1, as the endemic rust and reliability problems have seen these cars reduced down to only 373 known examples in the UK, making it one of the most endangered cars in the world. But that doesn’t mean the SD1 still isn’t popular, if anything it has become one of the most desirable cult classics in history, thanks to its reliabile powerplant and timeless design. It’s appearances in modern media are beyond numbers, including being shown in the New Avengers, Blott on the Landscape, Nuns on the Run, and, quite possibly its most famous on-screen performance, its role in the music video for the 1981 hit single ‘Don’t you want me’ by the Human League, which I can’t help but get stuck in my head whenever I see an SD1 roll by!