Car of the Month : October 2003
October marks the third occasion on which an SD1 takes the CotM honour.
This 3528cc Series 2 Vanden Plas, as owned by John Capon continues his unerring ability of seeking out the nicest examples of any given car. After driving this superb example, Keith Adams tries to explain what it is that marks out the flawed 1970s execu-cruiser as so special…
HERE I was, sat behind the wheel of an XJ40, traversing some of the most demanding roads Devon had to offer, and I had been entirely seduced by the sheer magnificence of its chassis – it soaked, it gripped, and it soothed in equal measure. Maybe the early morning crispness had affected me, or perhaps it was the picture postcard scenery… maybe the fact that I could see everything in glorious “technicolor” 20/20 vision; either way, it was a drive I was savouring.
Why was this so? Despite the ability of the car I was driving, much of the pleasure coming my way was visual: I was enjoying the view – savouring the sight of the car ahead. The car in question was a 1984 Rover 3500 Vanden Plas, and although its owner, John Capon, wasn’t driving it at anywhere near ten-tenths, it was moving along at a fair old lick. The Daimler I was driving could easily keep pace with the Rover, and the disdain with which it handled the task of following the SD1 allowed me take in the sight of David Bache and Spen King’s car in flight, without the distraction of working too hard at driving my own car. Watching the light and shadows dancing on the Rover’s well-polished paintwork was a joy to behold, and the view of the rear was particularly good. Many modern car designers could learn a few lessons from this old Rover: on the road, you view any car as much from the rear as you do the front, and yet, many car designers seem to lose interest at this point. Bache’s team got it right here – and it works just as well nearly thirty years on.
Much has been made of the simplicity of the SD1’s chassis – the fact that it lost the P6’s sophisticated de Dion rear suspension in favour of a live axle/Watts linkage set-up was bemoaned by many at the time of its launch, and yet… on this autumn morning, all I could see was a car with well sorted suspension making light of a bit of cross country exercise.
Go on, admit it. The SD1 looks as good kicking sand in your face as it does coming at you from the front.
Still, admiring from afar is one thing; the actuality of driving the thing something else entirely. In my case, I know what to expect, as I am more than familiar with the SD1 as a breed already, but even then, I know I’ll not be disappointed, as this SD1 sports a manual gearbox, stainless steel exhaust and seriously upgraded brakes.
Getting into this late SD1 makes one realise just how much better put together the Cowley SD1s were compared with the earlier Solihull examples. Compared with my own 1978 3500, this one feels as well built as an Audi! The doors close with a satisfying clunk, the central locking makes a nice weighty sound, and all the switches feel well attached to the dashboard. When I look up, I see proper headlining, and not the sorry, baggy, material lining the roof of my own car. It’s all relative of course, as I can still insert my thumb into the panel gap between the front and rear doors. However, all this immediately gets put to the back of one’s mind when you fire the thing up… Oh yes! One turn of the key, and the V8 does no so much start, as explode into life. You almost feel like singing “Walking on Sunshine” when that Buick lump leaps into life. The morning start-up becomes an occasion with this car, and thanks to its Rimmer exhaust system, it takes a lot to stop yourself from blipping the throttle for the hell of it… who would have thought that a 1960s engine could offer up so much instant throttle response and a musical soundtrack to boot?
Then the memories come flooding back – the manual gearbox. The transmission that really works on the SD1. It may require the driver to possess thighs like a Russian shotputter to press that clutch to the floor, but this is a minor hardship when one considers that the V8 has so much torque that changing gear is an infrequent exercise. Still, the drive-off is nice – don’t keep blipping the throttle! – and that clutch is nice and progressive, meaning that the old girl can still be driven nice and smoothly. Acceleration comes in one easy, elastic river of torque – if you feel inclined, you can hustle the car from 0-60mph in 8.8 seconds, but I bet that using no more than quarter throttle travel and first, third and fifth gears, you could do the same thing in less than 12 seconds. Remarkable. Gearing is beautifully chosen too… heading for the wide and fast A30, it quickly settles into a 90mph/3000rpm cruise – the old girl has become king of the overtaking lane.
The SD1 is a real feelgood car – the panoramic view out of it is first class and as Spen King himself pointed out to me, you won’t get a better forward view than this, thanks to the slim A-pillars. Personally, I like that view forwards too, but also because of the bonnet mounted air-scoop and those curves and ridges, that seem to slope off for miles, like hills in the distance. Either way, you feel relaxed, confident and in command. The SD1 is wide and imposing, at yet, you don’t feel intimidated or dwarfed by the car… that is a feat that few others at the time had mastered. The steering helps, too… light, and beautifully geared. In day to day, give and take driving, you seldom need to wind on more than half a turn of lock, and this helps engender the car with a feeling of agility that none of its rivals could equal. Turn-in is, if anything, slightly too quick, and it pays to check yourself when manoeuvring in close proximity to any walls. SD1s tended to pick up dents in their side doors…
My personal love affair with the SD1 is well known, and it comes as no surprise that I found it very difficult handing back this one’s keys to its owner. It is a very nice SD1 indeed, and although John Capon travelled a couple of hundred miles to buy the car, it seems like money well spent, given its overall condition. Driving it re-ignited my own ambition to get myself a manual SD1, and although the automatic version works very well too, there are times that the self-shifter can be a little frustrating… of course, the best of both worlds would be to own one of each.
The animal character of this car might have been a little at odds with the Vanden Plas nameplate, but the overall package works brilliantly. One can only hope that MG Rover will re-create the car and introduce a Rover badged version of the MG ZT V8… Vitesse or Vanden Plas. I would have either. Ideally one of each!