Car of the Month : December 2003
David Price recently picked-up what must surely be the nicest Series 1 Rover SD1 in the country. This mint 15,000-mile car has obviously been garaged just about all of its its life, and it shows…
Here, David tells the story of his remarkable SD1…
THE Platinum silver Rover 3500 you see here is, frankly, the best I’ve yet encountered. It was bought from a collector, who also had a Jaguar XJ220 and an Aston Martin DB7 sitting next to it in his heated, dehumidified garage – he told me he bought the SD1 because he ‘liked the shape’, and I cannot disagree. The car is known to the SD1 Club, and has been to several shows as an exhibit. It is in stunningly original and unspoiled condition, even down to the Triplex 10-20 windscreen which seems to have been lovingly removed and resealed to prevent water ingress. It has the additional benefit of factory leather trim – which was very rare on the early, pre-1980 cars – and a sliding steel sunroof – again an almost unseen feature on the first generation of SD1s. Although such a spec is pretty paltry by modern standards, it must have been a demonstrator car, or owned by BL management, to have been equipped so opulently in its day!
Even more impressive is its mechanical condition, which is startlingly good. I’m afraid that 99% of all surviving SD1s are basket cases – even the so-called ‘mint’ ones can be quite appalling under close inspection. I know this because, for my faults, I’ve had five – all of which have been better (by far) than any others I’ve seen. But this is the very best. It doesn’t feel far from a new car. The gearbox is smooth, the engine powerful, the back axle quiet, the steering direct, the brakes crisp. In fact, it’s a fascinating benchmark by which to judge the marque. Even most (allegedly) mint cars have been poorly maintained in some way or another, the result being that you drive a nice SD1 that’s been bodged. This one, however, takes you right back to the days when it left the factory.
The most striking thing about it is its smoothness. The car starts and idles gently on its choke. Then, when warm, it launches itself down the road on a sea of torque. The auto box is virtually invisible – the car is always eager to accelerate and rarely needs to go down a cog. With new rear dampers and front inserts, it’s beautifully soft and well damped. It rides dramatically better than most modern cars around town – save a Rover 75 – which kind of makes you think – considering its low speed ride was originally a subject of criticism. More striking is the fun to be had. Although a super-smooth executive express, it accelerates eagerly and – critically – offers superb handling. Although a ‘big’ car in its day, the SD1 has the feel of a ‘compact sports saloon’ these days – almost akin to a BMW 3 series Coupe (it’s barely any longer and no wider). It’s very agile, and yet stable and fast responding. Even now, that amazing power steering – with 2.5 turns lock to lock – takes some getting used to. The only thing that really lets it down by modern standards, are the brakes – which feel a tad wooden.
No further comment required…
It’s a credit to the brilliance of the original SD1 that you can get straight out of any ‘modern’ and drive it by the scruff of the neck, and enjoy it (invariably more than the modern). More interesting to me is how it compares to my 1989 XJ40 Jaguar – BL’s ‘7 series’ to the ‘5’ that was the SD1. The XJ40’s design was pretty much signed off in the year that this 3500 was made, and it was only Jaguar’s need to de-bug it and install the dreaded digital dashboard that caused the XJ40 to come out almost a decade later! As such, the two designs do bear comparison – in a sense, at least. The surprise is that the Rover is by far the more enjoyable car to drive. Whereas you’re always mindful of the Jag’s great weight and girth, the Rover feels positively sylph-like and so much more responsive. That brilliant 3.5 litre V8 feels both stronger and more bullet-proof. It’s only when you’ve knocked the Jag down 2 cogs and waited for it to spool up to its power band that the full force of its 221BHP straight six comes into the equation. On the road, at speeds under about 90MPH, the Rover feels faster and more responsive in any situation.
Rather unusually, this pre-Vanden Plas SD1 sports leather interior… hide-covered seats came late to the SD1, but the rather futuristic SD1 design took rather well to the wood and leather treatment when it was applied.
Of course, the Jag does handle superbly, but it gives a good impression of not doing so until you really take it by the scruff of the neck. The Rover, by comparison, has a far more ‘sporty’ feel with so much more feedback through the steering wheel and tyres. It’s a credit to Spen King that he could do a far more technically unsophisticated car and get better results from it all round – or nearly. You see, the one aspect in which the Jag excels is – you’ve guessed it – ride. This is superlative. I know of no car at any price or any age which rides better. It has an almost Zen-like calm, and wafts across the hardest cobble stones in a way that makes anything else – hydropneumatic Citroens notwithstanding – feel fussy and fragile. Still, the early SD1 on high profile 185HR14 rubber isn’t far off.
Looks are a matter of opinion of course, and here I think the Rover stands its ground. Women love Jags – there’s an elegance and a femininity to their styling that they recognise instantly. But the series one SD1 – unadorned by rubbing strips and nasty black plastic bumpers – is beautifully crisp and well resolved. It’s not feline in the way that a Jag is, rather it seems quite masculine – it’s quite a ‘technical looking’ car, well proportioned, each aspect of its form a product of its function. Inside, the Jag is a joy – there’s little that can beat its beautiful wood and expansive fascia – but the SD1 also has real character – it feels very much like an early seventies Italian sportscar – precisely as David Bache envisioned it. The interior isn’t elegant like the Jag, but quite striking and brilliantly practical with it – certainly a nice place to be. And as all Rover 3500 owners know – if you’re off on hols for a week across Europe, this is the only car to be in! The Jag’s boot will take a dead body all right, but not skis…
The ‘new Rover 3500’ is – as this example shows – a brilliant car. This one shows few signs of the appalling build that afflicted the 76-77 cars – it really isn’t badly put together, and has withstood the years better than many other marques of a similar vintage. The result is a brilliantly versatile and incredibly useable classic. I’d have no qualms about taking it across continents – you can get in and drive it confident in the engineering quality of that sublime V8, superb chassis and handsome (and practical) body. It’s so quiet, comfortable and stable at speed that one wonders what rival manufacturers must have thought when they first sampled one!
And finally, a personal anecdote: back in 1984, I worked as a systems analyst for a small IT company in Wantage. My Danish boss owned a 1980 Rover V8-S, and would regularly storm along the outside lane of the A34 to Banbury at 110MPH plus, with me – rather frightened – beside in the passenger seat. Now, as the owner of a ‘new old’ 3500, I can see why he felt happy doing this, day in, day out, boot full of computer gear, come rain or shine. The car never showed any signs of strain, and neither did he. I bumped into him a few years back in a BMW 740i, and we remembered ‘his Rover’ with fondness. Back in the seventies, this country got the cars just right – it was a shame we couldn’t make them consistently enough for him to be driving a Rover ‘95’ (or whatever the SD1’s modern equivalent would be) now.
The V8 engine rests snugly under the bonnet of the SD1. Without doubt, this is the unit that launched a thousand British specialist sports cars.