Featuring five-door supercar styling, and some of the nicest engine notes to grace an executive car, the Rover SD1 has a place in the hearts of many car enthusiasts today.
However, when it was new, poor build quality, flaky paint, and the poor image of its builder meant that its sales potential went unfulfilled in the UK. A lost opportunity if ever there was one…
DURING the 1960s, Rover had enjoyed considerable success with the P6. This car, along with the Triumph 2000 had basically created the template for the middle management car: larger and more plush than family man’s Morris or Ford, but not as grand as the director’s Daimler. In the prosperity of the ’60s, these two cars had carved up this new market between themselves and had both been profitable ventures for Leyland. Both cars had been developed throughout their lives, the Triumph receiving a new and more aggressive Michelotti face and an up-gunned 2.5-litre engine; the Rover most successfully receiving the ex-Buick 3528cc V8 engine, in the process becoming a car loved by the pushy young executive and the Police alike.
As Rover and Triumph were now part of Leyland cars, it seemed logical that both cars would need to be replaced by a single car. Devising the best plan to achieve this, however, was not so straightforward. Rover and Triumph still operated separate management structures, possessed separate drawing offices and were still fiercely competitive with each other. As detailed in The Whole Story, the merger was taking its toll on management, so the engineers and product designers were pretty much left to get on with things themselves.
Rover had been quietly working on some interesting projects, such as the P6BS supercar and the P8, intended to replace the P5 saloon, so oft-used as ministerial transport. Triumph were busying themselves with the gorgeous Stag and working on rationalizing the Toledo/1300 range. Development of a replacement for Rover’s P6 and Triumph’s 2500 only got underway in 1969, with each division working on its own model.
BLMC’s executive car is a Rover…
Initial briefing for a P6 replacement, codenamed P10, began at Solihull in March 1969. What tends to be overlooked in the telling of the SD1 story is that the management structure that gave birth to the car and the factory that was to build it was not the same as the one that oversaw its eventual launch and production. The Rover Car Company was still very much independent in 1969. At its head was chairman Sir George Farmer, who in April that year was appointed to the BLMC board. Managing director was William Martin-Hurst, the man who discovered the iconic V8 engine for Rover.
Martin-Hurst retired in October 1969 to be replaced by another veteran Rover loyalist, A.B. Smith, although christened Bernard, he preferred to be known by his initials. Production director was Bernard Jackman, another devoted long standing employee. Technical director was Peter Wilks, the man who had coordinated the P6 project, as well as being the nephew of Spencer and Maurice Wilks, the two brothers that had built the Rover brand into to a highly respected purveyor of upmarket cars. The ascent of Rover had been very much a family affair, but now the Wilks family was relinquishing control as age took its toll.
Maurice Wilks had died in 1963 on the eve of the P6’s launch when he was the company’s technical director and his elder brother Spencer had retired in 1967 when Rover was absorbed by Leyland. William Martin-Hurst was their brother in law. Peter Wilks had succeeded his uncle Maurice as Rover technical director in 1964 and following the formation of British Leyland, Spen King, one of the P6 design team, nephew of Maurice and Spencer Wilks and cousin of Peter, was dispatched to become technical director of Triumph at Canley. Various configurations for the new P10 model were studied on paper including front- or rear-wheel drive.
Work by Rover began in earnest following the launch of the Range Rover in March 1970, and the new car rapidly took shape. In June 1970 P10 package drawings were passed to Rover’s styling department headed by David Bache. By that time a decision had been taken that the new Rover should be a mechanically conventional, front engined, rear wheel drive saloon using an up-rated version of the existing light-alloy V8 engine.
As with the P6, David Bache did not want a contemporary design; when it came to his new car, he wanted something that was ahead of the game, and with the P10, he decided very early in the development phase that he wanted a hatchback configuration, and that he wanted the Rover to look exclusive. Since the early 1960s he felt sure the hatchback, a saloon with a rear opening door was the concept people were beginning to want. It could give them an exciting shape with flexibility, practicality and generous living space
While David Bache worked on Rover’s model, initially to be called the P10, Triumph’s design team worked on a Michelotti-styled scheme – codenamed Puma – in consultation with William Towns, presumably with input from Spen King. Basically, this internal competition was brought to a close when the BLMC board met at Solihull on 9 February 1971 to see both the Rover P10 and Triumph Puma proposals, with a view to the deciding which was the better of the two cars. And then go on to become the new large Rover/Triumph saloon.
David Bache had produced six scale clay models, five hatchbacks and a notchback for consideration by the board. Triumph’s Puma was thought to be too conventional in style by the board which included Rover chairman Sir George Farmer, former Triumph boss George Turnbull, Jaguar chairman and stylist Sir William Lyons, finance director John Barber and chairman Lord Stokes. In this ‘head to head’ competition, Rover’s car was adjudged to be superior by the British Leyland Board, so development resources were exclusively directed to David Bache’s design.
This result proved to be a happy coincidence, as there was already a feeling that the new large car should be marketed only as a Rover. After all, Triumph’s range at this time consisted of smaller cars (later to be umbrella’d under the Dolomite name) and the slightly cheaper of the two ranges in the 2-litre class (Triumph 2000/2500). Thus, it was decided that a smaller car could be developed in the future to replace the Toledo/Dolomite, and badged as a Triumph. It was at this point in the development of the car that the P10 was renamed RT1 (denoting Rover-Triumph), to signify that this was a car that integrated both Triumph and Rover engineering.
SD1 is born…
By late spring 1971 Jaguar, Rover and Triumph were grouped together under the Specialist Division banner because of this internal re-organization within British Leyland, the project was given a new name: SD1 (for Specialist Division). At this early stage of development, it was obvious that the new car would use the ex-Buick V8 engine that had provided service in the P5B and P6B models and would have gone into service in the P8 model.
Extensive work had already taken place on this power unit in order to produce the required power output for the larger P8 model and it was logical not to allow this work to go to waste. Obviously, now that Jaguar occupied a unique and prestigious niche right at the top of the Specialist Division, there would be no requirement for the 4.4-litre version of the V8 engine to be used, but even that did not go to waste, finding its way into the Leyland-Australia P76 model as well as the Australian version of the BMC/BLMC Terrier truck.
In July 1971 and after much engineering development work, the SD1 had reached the full-scale model stage and when Management viewed the project, they were very impressed with the designs that were being mooted. It was at this point that the styling was yet to be finalised by Bache, but the British Leyland board gave the SD1 the green light for production on the strength of what they had seen so far.
Not only had David Bache been working towards the five-door hatchback that the SD1 eventually became, but he also pushed forwards on a wilder proposal, which incorporated gull-wing doors – a concept that he believed was a viable one, but which his colleagues around him were not so sure of. The gull-wing idea was dropped on cost grounds, but not before full-sized models of his idea had been built. In later years, when he was in the position of head of Product styling for BL, he attended a designers’ conference, where he was still keenly trying to sell the concept to anyone that would listen.
It was at the end of July 1971 that Rover technical director Peter Wilks was forced to retire due to ill health. He was to die the following year at the early age of 52 years. Spen King duly returned to Solihull to replace his cousin as Rover technical director and project P10/RT1/SD1 became his baby.
Engineering the new car
A consequence of the Mini pricing fiasco, in which a cutting edge design was allegedly sold at a loss, resulted in British Leyland bringing in Ford-style cost control methods. No doubt this was instigated by BLMC finance director John Barber, who was himself ex-blue oval. The SD1, unlike the P6 would be designed and built to a price as BLMC’s bean counters tried to reduce cost.
One thing was very evident on the Engineering front for the new car; the range of engines available for the new car was very limited. Obviously, the V8 engine was settled, but the question of what to power the smaller engined versions that would be required to directly replace the Rover 2200/Triumph 2500 model was still unanswered. The then Current 2-Litre Rover engine was considered less suitable for use in a ’70s executive car, being as it was by that time, a rather unrefined unit, so it was deemed that the six-cylinder Triumph engine would be used.
As events transpired, the plan to add a overhead camshaft head to this unit was dropped when it became obvious that the straight six required more extensive development – and so, a practically new engine was developed in its place, the Triumph unit acting merely as a starting point. As it happened, this would prove to be an excellent marketing ploy, as Executive car buyers were becoming increasingly demanding in their tastes nothing less than six cylinders in their wagons would do.
No consideration was given to using the Austin-Morris E6 engine, as the spirit of rationalization had not yet entirely taken hold at BLMC – whether it was a suitable engine anyway was debatable because in twin-carburettor form, it produced only 110bhp. However, in an in-line application, the ‘1750’ stroke could be applied to the E6, giving 2622cc. This is what was used in the South African built SD1, as well as in some of the Australian P76 and Marina models. An engineer who went out for the SA launch admitted that the 2.6-litre E6 was much smoother and livelier than the ‘Triumph’ SD1 engine.
Because the make up of the PE166 six-cylinder engines was finalised well after development on the SD1 had started, it was decided that the new car would be launched in Two phases: The V8 engined model coming first with the six-cylinder models following later – as and when the new engines came on stream. This strategy thereby gave the SD1 two bites of the cherry as far as publicity was concerned, effectively allowing two new product-launches.
While the issue of engines was being decided, development on the SD1 continued apace and Bache continued his work on the SD1’s styling. In November 1971, a further full-size clay model of the SD1, looking remarkably like the finished article, was presented to the British Leyland board. Bache had changed the look of the RT1 because he felt it too angular and he evolved the shape by making it more curvaceous, to become the SD1 as we know it today.
Looking at the development programme, it would now appear that the definitive SD1 shape was complete by December 1971 and yet, it would take a further eighteen months for the styling to be finally signed off by the BL Board. That shows that already, there was a lack of pace in the development of the car at this vitally important stage of its conception. The industry norm was for the car to take 30 months to reach production from this point in 1971 – it actually took 54 months – had the Rover SD1 arrived on the market in 1974, it would surely have made even more of an impact than it finally did.
‘Four-door’ Maserati – Bache’s masterpiece
Bache maintained that designers will come up with broadly similar cars for their intended markets given similar environmental stimuli and resources, and was bourne out the fact that in the mid-1970s, we were presented with the Rover SD1, Citroën CX, Lancia Gamma and Renault 20/30 – all six-light, fastback designs with wedge-shaped bodies and good attention to aerodynamic detail. There was also the matter of the 1967 Pininfarina BMC 1800, which undoubtedly had a fair influence on these cars.
When speaking in an interview with Car magazine in 1982, Bache actually cited the Ferrari 250LM and 365GTB/4 Daytona as the major influences on the SD1 – and this can certainly be seen in the style around the front end of the car; the headlights and indicators are practically a facsimile of the classic Ferrari’s. Another feature that the SD1 shared with the Daytona was its side swage lines, which managed to add practical as well as aesthetic benefits to the SD1: dirt kicked up from the road was caught in the side creases and the upper flanks would therefore remain relatively clean – there would be no mucky hands when pulling the door handles of the SD1!
In 1976 David Bache told the British Leyland Mirror, the in house newspaper, about the SD1’s style: ‘The word “elegant” describes the styling philosophy behind the new Rover. The problems were to provide a car which had impact and identity, good aerodynamics in all respects, low drag to assist quiet effortless high speed travel, near neutral lift conditions and a centre of pressure optimised to aid straight line movement and stability in cross winds, and, at the same time, a design generally acceptable and hopefully timeless.
‘All this had to be combined in a shape which would accommodate the increased space needs of people today, more living accommodation and more load carrying space, provided in such a manner that the balance could be adjusted to suit the requirements of any particular movement. This has been realised in a sculptural shape which conforms to the almost automatic European solution of five door hatchback, yet with its own strong identity. Its long continuous lines are designed to increase the impression of size.
‘The muscle is provide by the overall poise of the vehicle, the heavy wheel opening eyebrows and the impressive wheels, whether in cast aluminium or the standard stainless finishers. The overall effect is to provide no impression of size and mass while actually the car is only marginally larger, five inches longer and less than four inches wider than the 2000.
‘As with the original Rover 2000 every attempt has been made to produce a classical, sculptural form devoid of applied ornamentation. The exterior graphics are limited only to the new Viking Prow graphic symbol on the bonnet and the twin name and capacity plaques on the rear. This is a car close to my own heart, the concept I feel many other people, people who wanted a fifth door facility but who wouldn’t be seen dead in a shooting brake. The rest of the world has tended towards the same idea.’
With the exterior styling of the SD1 settled, Bache worked on the interior, which like the body styling was also a complete departure from the P6. He moved to a more ‘industrial’ design, forgoing the wood and leather ambience of the P6 in favour of an almost stark, Germanic style. The dashboard and steering wheel were textured from soft-feel plastics, a move which in itself was ahead of its time. The design of the dashboard was cleverly made symmetrical in order to facilitate the assembly of both left- and right-hand drive cars.
Throughout the interior, clever touches abounded: fully-adjustable steering column, ample small storage areas including nifty under-dashboard lockers, folding rear seats, a removable parcel shelf and internally adjustable door mirrors, to name but a few of these features. All taken for granted in this day and age, but back in 1976, a great leap forward in interior ergonomics. Bache reasoned that he could make a feature out of the fact that the instrument cluster was a unit incorporated as part of this symmetrical dashboard. It wasn’t styled, as such, but was simply designed as a box with instruments in it, parked on top of the dashboard in front of the driver.
Chassis and engine – tried and tested
Spen King, who was now in overall charge of technical development of the group’s new models, would oversee the development of the new car, thereby re-uniting the King-Bache partnership that had produced the Rover P6. King was an engineer that would shun high complexity for the sake of it, preferring a well-developed conventional solution, if one were available – and nowhere was this more evident than in the mechanical set-up of the SD1.
Budget constraints partially dictated this, but King himself explained that there were other considerations: ‘costs certainly played a part in the decision, but also kept the back wheels upright all the time, which was a good thing. And while I was away, they had done comparative testing with the live axle and the deDion suspension – and they reckoned it was good. Afterwards, we did comparisons between SD1 and Jaguar and actually bearing in mind the cost and so forth, the SD1 was just as good. I remember that we did a long trip in France in icy weather against Mercedes-Benz 450 and SD1 showed up extremely well.’
Back in 1976 Spen King responded to criticism that the SD1 was not as advanced as the P6: ‘Some people may well compare the new Rover with the old 2000 series and say that it is not so technical in its specification. This is absolutely true and it is quite deliberate. With the 2000, in an age when people set great store by impressive specification, engineers enjoyed themselves using quite complex solutions to achieve the design requirements. On this car we had to use much more subtly and more intensive development to get equally impressive results from a simpler design which would offer easier servicing, better reliability and generally better cost-effectiveness.
‘On all aspects of our design work we had to remember the need to get the quality and safety we wanted without excessive weight or cost which would affect performance, economy and value. It wasn’t an easy job, but we are pleased with the results.’
The existing Rover V8 Buick engine was mildly warmed over, with its rev limit being upped, slightly giving a small, but useful rise in power (Up to 155bhp at 5250rpm from 143bhp at 5000rpm) and also an improvement in driveability through freer breathing and new extractor effect exhaust manifolds, and the change in the torque characteristics (maximum torque being delivered at 1950rpm, as opposed to 2700rpm).
When Rover bought the rights to the V8 Buick engine in the mid-’60s, it can’t have known just how far-sighted that decision was – this light and infinitely tuneable engine was used 2004 in Land Rover’s products. Through careful development, this sound design was easily capable of keeping up with more modern power units, and it was still going strong into the 21st century
A new Triumph designed Five-speed gearbox was also developed for the SD1 – which was proposed at the time to be first of a family of new gearboxes for use across the Leyland range. The SD1 version was called the LT77 gearbox in-house (because the shaft centre dimension was 77mm) and was first shown in the TR7 rally car, a few months before the launch of the SD1. The design of this gearbox was modular, in as much as different versions of this gearbox could be used for different applications. As it happens, Jaguar was a recipient of this ‘box for the XJ6 4.2 in 1979, but the proposed 66mm version that was to appear in the ADO77 and the SD2 never materialised when it became clear that the money had run out to produce these cars.
The new transmission would be manufactured at the Rover plant at Pengam, Cardiff, which the company had been persuaded to set up by the Government in the early 1960s in order to alleviate local unemployment.
In terms of suspension for the SD1, there was a departure in store: Whereas the P6 used DeDion rear suspension to great effect, this system was rejected for the SD1 on the grounds of cost and complexity. King maintained that a live rear axle (in this case, a torque-tube type design) would be able to do the job equally as well as any of the esoteric independent systems used in the SD1’s rivals. Careful location and development, concentrated on the bushing for the rear axle were incorporated at the rear – and at the front, industry-standard McPherson struts were employed, as opposed to the horizontal coils used in its predecessor. This may have seen like a retrograde step in terms of technology, but Spen King considered the McPherson strut arrangement to be far less liable to suffer from the effects of camber changes than the double wishbone arrangement in the P6 and, therefore, a more stable solution in emergency manoeuvres.
One major advance for Rover was the adoption of the Burmann Power assisted steering system for the SD1. This was a conventional PAS system, but unlike others of the time, which traditionally retained standard gearing, the advantage of power assistance was put to great use. King decided that much higher gearing could be used than standard, so the SD1 ended-up with gearing equating to 2.7 turns of the wheel from lock to lock. At this point in time, only Citroën with its DIRAVI system had engineered Power steering to be so directly geared. Development engineers loved this system and it was noted that unlike the Citroën set-up, people new to the SD1 needed much less acclimatisation drive the Rover, although the ‘sneeze factor’ was still somewhat overwhelming for some. It was very conventional it its feel, even though its directness and, therefore, responsiveness were vastly better than its rivals could offer.
Confidence leads to a new factory
Having forced Rover and Triumph to work together to produce the SD1 and SD2, British Leyland decided to formalise the arrangement and officially merge the two firms in March 1972 as Rover-Triumph under the chairmanship of Sir George Farmer. The new organisation had a 12-man board consisting of seven from Rover and five from Triumph.
Such was the optimistic mood in the early ’70s, no doubt fuelled on by the promise of anticipated huge sales figures furnished by the sales networks, Rover managed to secure finance in November 1972 from British Leyland’s management to build a new factory at the Solihull site, solely to build the new car. The original target had been to build 1500 SD1s a week, but BLMC finance director John Barber managed to convince the company’s board to double this target to 3000 cars a week, equating to 150,000 cars a year.
Initial thoughts were to build P10/RT1/SD1 in North Block, site of P6 manufacture, but this would have required a new paint plant. BLMC managed to secure the requisite Government permission to build on a 64 acre site adjacent to the existing Rover plant. This £31million investment, although, endowed with good intention did prove to be a major problem for British Leyland, with a poor Labour relations record, resulting a huge amount of lost days due to industrial action. Lauded as a state of the art factory in 1976, the car producing plant was put on ice as a consequence of the great rationalisation of the Company in 1982.
In May 1973 Sir George Farmer retired from Rover-Triumph and BLMC to be replaced by Bill Davis, a former BMC man, as managing director of Rover Triumph. Bill Davis’s tenure was short-lived as following George Turnbull’s sudden resignation from British Leyland in September 1973, he was promoted to the firm’s main board as director of production, a similar position to the one he had occupied at BMC. The new boss of Rover-Triumph was now Bernard Jackman. Motor magazine interviewed Mr Jackman in February 1974.
The Rover-Triumph boss emphasised the importance of quality: ‘There was a tendency at one time for production and manufacturing considerations at Rover to override quality and things that we would stop going out now used to get out, but we have really clamped down on that over the past few years and stopped it… Quality and design are a completely integrated thing. If you have a poor design, no matter what you do on the line or how good your facilities are you will still turn out a poor product. It is not possible for fellows on the assembly line to make good the deficiencies of bad design. In the Rover organisation as a whole quality therefore begins in engineering.’
Bernard Jackman also spoke of Rover-Triumph’s ambitious expansion programme over the next four years. They would be spending something like £200million on Rover-Triumph, around £550 million a year.
‘By 1978 we are due to be producing about 470,000 vehicles a year, compared with around 230,000 we built in 1973. If the present industrial crisis goes on for some time, obviously we’ll have to stretch our capital spending over six years instead of four to four and a half years because the money won’t be there in the quantity I have been talking about. But expand we shall. I am determined that when another upturn in sales comes in a years or two’s time when Britain should be in a much better position than we are now for energy we shall not at that time be caught without an outstanding range of models to sell, or without the means to build them in quantity. We are very flattered at Rover-Triumph that the British Leyland Corporation have the confidence in us to invest this amount of money. Certainly they have given us a far bigger share of the total cake than I dared hoped for a couple of years ago.’
Of the new plant at Solihull, he said: ‘It is wonderful to begin in a green field site with a new assembly plant and a new paint shop, and we are determined it is going to be the best for our size of output. When the new plant comes into operation, we shall stop making cars in the north factory and move to these Range Rover assembly and some Land-Rover operations which will give us the elbow room to put up Land-Rover and Range Rover production very considerably.’
Looking beyond the then current problems, Bernard Jackman concluded: ‘But if we can get our new models out despite the energy crisis and the fuel economy drive we are really sitting on a pot of gold. We have got the right range of models in Rover-Triumph, the best range in any sector of the corporation. Austin Morris have much bigger outputs, but they cannot command the profit margins on their low priced cars that we can on a more specialist grade of car.
‘The opportunities are there if only I can persuade everybody, particularly those on the shop floor, that it is right and proper to stay at work. I see it as my job to make sure that there is no failure in communications. Product policy for the future, the vehicles you design and the associated problems are relatively easy to control for you are dealing with inanimate things, but people are a totally different subject. They are unpredictable. But I think the important thing is confidence. Everybody has got to feel that they are being told the truth, that they are not being conned and there is no ulterior motive. If I can’t succeed with that sort of philosophy then I don’t think anybody else can.’
But Bernard Jackman’s vision for Rover-Triumph was about to hit the rocks. Although like Jaguar, Rover was profitable, it was saddled to the lame Austin Morris group which ultimately brought the whole British Leyland edifice crashing down in flames in December 1974. The Government agreed to step in and prop up British Leyland while Sir Don Ryder investigated what was to be done about the ailing concern.
In the interregnum before the Ryder report was released, another Rover veteran, A.B. Smith, now chairman of the company retired. The question needs to be asked, was the Ryder report a genuine attempt at solving British Leyland’s problems or a made to order fudge designed to please the politicians that commissioned it, like the Widgery Report into the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings?
The British Leyland shop stewards demanded total nationalization, with workers directors occupying one third of the board and the rest of the seats going to government representatives and union approved management specialists. Left wing Labour MP’s blamed the management for lack of investment and demanded worker participation in the running of the company. Ryder promptly delivered the latter, and removed a whole strata of management to form the more centralised Leyland Cars under former BLMC finance director Derek Whittaker.
Like Geoffrey Robinson over at Jaguar, Bernard Jackman found his position was abolished and his services were no longer required. Instead of dealing with the root cause of British Leyland’s problems, which was the volume car Austin-Morris division, Ryder instigated a clean sweep of management which removed competent and incompetent alike. People like Bernard Jackman had a track record of success. His removal, with another four years of working life ahead of him, resulted in the destiny of Rover being put in the hands of the Solihull plant director whose hands were tied by the dictats of the more remote Leyland Cars management team.
Unfortunately Rover did not have anyone with the Bob Knight-like resolve and fortitude to fight their corner that Jaguar had.
In the Months leading up to the launch, the SD1 was put through many customer clinics and the feedback was excellent. When lined up against such rivals as the Audi 100, Rover’s own P6 and Volvo 164, people adjudged that the SD1 was a much more expensive car – comparing it favourably with the Jaguar XJ6. This should have spurred Rover on to price the 3500 at a higher level than these immediate rivals, but as we can see, this is not the case – Rover faced a political situation within the Specialist Division of British Leyland and it was decided to pitch the Rover at a price level comfortably below the basic XJ6, the 3.4 Series Two model in order to avoid internecine competition.
The existence of the upcoming SD1 was possibly the worst kept secret in the history of the British Motor industry up to that point and yet it still did not lessen the impact of the car’s launch, when it finally came in July 1976. The press were ecstatic, raving about the car’s styling, the way it performed and how quite simply the car felt so right. The press lauded the SD1 for many aspects but what they particularly liked was its strong, torquey performance which combined with its high gearing making it a very relaxed car to drive indeed. The charismatic V8 added charm to the package.
The new Viking is launched
As Motor magazine surmised after a brief drive at launch, the Rover 3500 was indeed an excellent driver’s car, ‘On the open road, where the Rover excels, visibility is good and despite their blinkered appearance, the lights are powerful enough to let you exploit the roadholding on twisty roads at night. Only the premature squeal of the 195/70 HR14 Pirellis, which start making a fuss long before they reach their high adhesion limit, curb one’s enthusiasm. Whether these fatter tyres and the ornate alloy wheels are worth the extra cost we shall only be able to judge after driving on standard 185/70 HR14 tyres.’
This brickbat aside – and that was a reflection of the current state of the art in tyre technology, the performance of the (suspiciously quick) pre-production car impressed. ‘Until the oil pressure takes up the slack in the hydraulic tappets, the engine sounds clattery for a couple of seconds after a cold start. Thereafter, its turbine smooth and feels a lot more vigorous than the previous 3500, especially at the top end. It revs willingly, but not quietly (who wants quiet when the noise was so good?) to the red line at 6000rpm, though such is the low and mid-range torque that you can keep well below 4000rpm and still cover the ground very quickly and quietly. We took no proper performance figures but our stopwatch registered 7.8s for an impromptu squirt from rest to 60mph against the uncorrected speedometer, and Rover claim a top speed of 125mph which we see no reason to doubt.’
The above table demonstrates how the SD1 set the cat among the pigeons in the executive car market – those rivals that matched the new big Rover were slower and generally less economical – those that matched the car’s performance and economy were considerably more expensive. Autocar magazine summed up the new car in quite succinct terms, ‘It is hard to be over-enthusiastic about the new 3500; on every score, its qualities justify any kind of enthusiasm. I would have been hard to predict, especially looking at the bald paper specification, just how well the car would perform, handle and ride.
‘Add to that the spaciousness and aerodynamic efficiency of the body, and the attention paid to ensuring that the car will last, and it is easy to see why all competitors are casting worried glances, not only at the car but also at its price. If the 3500 will be built in sufficient numbers, if the quality can be maintained along with the price, and if the ground is not cut from under its wheels by ill-advised legislation, the new 3500 should be one of the successes of the decade.’
Unfortunately, as we shall see, all of these provisos that were raised by the magazine’s conclusions concerning build volumes and quality of the product eventually became fact.
As demonstrated by Autocar, the V8 actually proved to be quite economical in this application because overdrive gear ratios meant that during motorway cruising, for example, the engine was only turning 2500rpm at 70mph and therefore, was never stressed. Of course, the V8 liked a drink when pressed, but to make very reasonable progress, one never really had to work it hard.
Not only was the transmission’s set of overdriven ratios lauded, but also the gear change of the new 77mm gearbox came in for fulsome praise. Motor magazine again: ‘And what a Transmission! A middleweight, ultra-smooth clutch, five perfect gear ratios and, best of all, an outstanding change. Not since driving a Spridget do I recall being able to say that of a car from the Leyland stable. The slick, quick, positive shifts and the car’s excellent performance go a long way to making the new Rover a real driver’s car. Its handling emphasises the point.’
The 3500 was also praised for its good ride and handling and the quick steering made it feel smaller and more responsive than it actually was. ‘Steering response is exceptionally quick and precise: not quite so high geared as that of the Citroën CX which is positively twitchy until you get used to it, but much quicker than, say, a Jaguar XJ-S’s. When I got back into the 3.4 its steering felt decidedly vague and unresponsive after the sensitivity I’d quickly adjusted to in the 3500.’
Praised to the hilt
What this all meant was that the 3500 appealed to the same pushy young execs that fell for the P6B’s charms. This time though, the 3500 was also a commodious car, something the P6 never was, but not only for passengers, but for luggage too – the hatchback configuration afforded practicality that rivals such as the Ford Granada had no hope of matching. Because of this almost universal acclaim, bouquets being bestowed on the Rover in the UK and Europe, alike, the Rover became the recipient of some quite prestigious rewards.
All this praise culminated in the 3500 being awarded the Don Safety award and also the European car of the Year for 1977 – something that a British Leyland car had not achieved since the BMC 1800 in 1964.
Customers agreed with the press and the 3500 was very soon so oversubscribed that people were queuing to buy the car – and worse, some dealers were actually selling delivery mileage examples at a premium over the list price – something that British Leyland had never experienced before. Rover had priced the 3500 at £4750, which at the time, brought it into direct competition with such cars as the Citroën CX, Volvo 144 and Audi 100, all cars with 4-cylinder engines and cars that could not hope to go as well as the V8 engined Rover. Only the V6 Ford Granada 3000 was in the same league at that price point, but that was a vastly more conventional looking car than the Rover and lacked its showroom appeal.
After the kicking that the public and the media had given British Leyland over the Allegro, Princess and Marina, this was genuinely good news for the Company, but as usual, trouble lurked, not far away. Rover had committed the cardinal sin of not making enough examples to satisfy the demand for the new car. The target had been to have 2700 cars in the dealers at launch, but only 1400 were actually available. No-one within British Leyland had expected the rush to buy the new car, but at the same time, the P6B was a very successful car and the SD1 was so right in design and execution that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that people were going to be clamouring for the new car.
The actual launch was 30 June 1976 and in traditional British Leyland fashion, a dispute arose in the factory producing the new model over a raffle of five of the new 3500s involving assembly workers. Non-assembly workers objected and many staged a 24-hour strike. The raffle for five of the new £4750 Rovers was a bid to encourage Solihull workers to boost production to a scheduled 500 week. But it was condemned as ‘ludicrous and divisive’ by transport workers union district official Mr Sam Robinson.
‘It’s just a case of being lucky for some. Workers who have been left out of the draw are absolutely steamed up… I can understand the men thinking this scheme is unreasonable. Everyone has contributed to the success of the car, the lads on the chassis, those on engines and transmissions and the women on carburettors.’ Leyland Cars was still able to have a car in every dealers showroom, two cars in the main distributor showrooms and fulfil advance orders from car hire fleets. A spokesman said: ‘As of tonight we have completed more than 3000 cars for delivery.’
After only 12 hours in the showrooms, one car had already been sold by British Car Auctions as second hand at £600 over the list price. Then, a week later, a two-hour stoppage occurred involving 1770 workers, who complained of excessive heat in the factory. On 5th August, two workers were disciplined for poor punctuality resulting in a walkout by 300 paintshop workers – and this which halted SD1 production at Solihull for 24 hours.
On 13 October 1976, The Times reported: ‘Leyland Cars’ new Rover 3500 is proving so successful that more workers are being recruited and hundreds transferred from existing jobs to treble output within three months. A further sharp increase is planned for early next year with the introduction of night shift working. At Rover Solihull, 330 new workers are being taken on to ‘activate’ a second Rover 3500 assembly line in the £31m plant built specially for the new car, launched four months ago.
‘A further 500 workers will be progressively transferred from the Rover 2200 assembly line in the older works adjoining. With the two lines operating, production will increase from 400 cars a week to around 1200. Talks are under way with the unions for introduction of a night shift on the No 1 assembly line early next year and on the Number 2 line later. No production targets are available for the completed programme, but 2000 cars a week could be within range by next summer. Leyland management has been much criticized by its dealers for not taking earlier steps to increase output of what most regard as the most promising executive car since the Jaguar XJ6. So great is demand that dealers are quoting six months’ delay in delivery. The shortage has created a black market, with the Rovers changing hands at up to £1250 above the recommended retail price of £4750.’
By January 1977, British Leyland was warning shop stewards at its Castle Bromwich body plant that repeated failure to meet output targets was preventing Leyland Cars’ benefiting from the Car of the Year award for the Rover SD1. A Leyland executive said at the time: ‘It is damned frustrating to say the least. Here we are with the first British car ever to win the award [sic] and we are still turning it out in penny numbers. The competition must be laughing all the way to the bank.’
Production of bodies for the 125mph saloon was as much as 50 per cent below target, although they were set by agreement with shop stewards. Nearly eight months after the car was launched, the assembly factory at Solihull was turning out fewer than 400 cars a week, mainly because of Castle Bromwich’s failure to supply enough bodies.
Derek Whittaker, managing director of Leyland Cars, ordered a strong line in talks with shop stewards at Castle Bromwich. With overseas sales going begging, and a six-month waiting list on the home market, Mr Whittaker was coming under increasing pressure to get the car out at any cost. The new Solihull assembly plant was limping along with two assembly lines manned to produce close to 900 cars a week. Leyland Cars hoped to introduce a night shift at Solihull to boost production to 1400 cars a week and their ultimate goal was 2000 a week. While all this was going on, a delivery drivers strike which lasted two weeks resulted in a stockpile of SD1’s at Solihull. By February 1977 a series of stoppages at the Castle Bromwich body plant brought SD1 production to a halt along with several other British Leyland cars.
The situation was also exacerbated by the BL-wide tool-makers strike in the early months of 1977, which began as soon as Castle Bromwich resumed normal working – domestic supplies were drastically cut, but more disastrously when the SD1 was put on sale in the EEC in March 1977, riding high on the good publicity from the CoTY award and generally excellent press reports, the dealers had no stock which to sell. Derek Whittaker appealed to the sensibilities of the rogue workers, who he said, were costing the company profits – big profits – by not allowing the company to build the car that people across Europe so patently wanted to buy. Again, the company had shot themselves in the foot – all the good pre-launch publicity in the EEC amounted to nothing as people soon associated BL with strikes and non-production.
By 27 June 1977, SD1 production was again at a standstill, following a walkout by twelve tool-fitters. Once this dispute was resolved, there was more bad news for Leyland Cars: 4000 men employed at Leyland’s Rover plant at Solihull rejected company plans to introduce a night shift because they claimed night working disrupted family life and caused health problems. They rejected management’s argument that night-shift working was essential if Leyland was to exploit the tremendous demand for the then European Car of the Year, the Rover 3500 executive saloon.
Shop stewards at Solihull mounted a strong campaign against re-introduction of night working after an interval of two years and circulated a pamphlet claiming that men working nights had to give half their lives to the company. Not only were the hours unsociable, but the disruption to normal routine led to family problems, digestive complaints and even affected men’s eyesight, the pamphlet said.
By October, SD1 production was again halted, this time the cause was a six-week strike by 57 axle assemblers at Triumph’s Radford factory.
Doubts set in
Rover launched the 2300 and 2600 models in late 1977, finally laying to rest the P6 and Triumph 2500 models after their long and distinguished service. As explained before, these inline six cylinder engines were very loosely based on the old Triumph straight six, but with changes to the cylinder heads, new cylinder blocks, crankshafts, carburetion and just about everything else, thereby bringing them up to date.
In the 2 November 1977 edition of The Guardian newspaper, Victor Keegan wrote about the Rover SD1 plant under the headline, ‘WHY SUPER ROVER CAN’T DELIVER THE GOODS’. After dealing with problems caused by disputes at outside suppliers which had resulted in a stockpile of some 2000 incomplete cars, at one stage it had been as high as 2700, he went on to discuss the plants problems which had seen it operating at only 35 % of its potential capacity.
‘The plant has a theoretical through-put capacity of 3000 cars a week, though this would involve another model like the Triumph Dolomite being put through one of the tracks. In the first six months of the year weekly output only once nudged even 800. A third line was opened in June, and when the effects of holidays and the strike of small tool fitters ended output reached nearly 1100 a week in part of August and was over 1000 in September, when a combination of one week’s holiday and the Radford dispute halted the assembly lines. Some workers — not the main shop stewards — have called for an inquiry into the stockpile of unfinished cars.
‘Management and shop stewards admit that problems associated with the £6.2m paint shop (with a total conveyor length of 4.1 miles) have been a major constraint on output. It was built to treat ‘perfect’ bodies from the Castle Bromwich body plant which never came up to standard and the resultant imperfections were aggravated by the special thermoplastic paint used, which shows up minute flaws in the body. These imperfections have had to be rectified off the assembly line, thereby slowing down the production rate. Within the next few months it is hoped to have an on-line correction unit installed.
‘Advantage has been taken of the Radford lay-off to install a facility at the end of the assembly line which moves at the rate of 15 to 16 cars an hour. The problem with the paint plant was superimposed on the first major constraint on Rover output — the inability of the Castle Bromwich works to supply enough bodies. This has now been largely overcome because the body plant is on a two-shift system. If the paint shop constraint is beaten the management claim that there will be only one major internal (mechanical) constraint, the necessity either to stop the tracks to do ‘sniff’ tests on emission rates from exhausts to meet recent legislation or else to do it afterwards. Steps have been taken in the last few weeks to reduce this problem.
‘There is little doubt that morale is at a low ebb in the plant, particularly on the shop floor. Workers complain of mismanagement — like the troubles over the paint plant — and claim that management, in a dash to get the various launches of the new range out on time, took on far too much labour relative to the work available. There are constant complaints of ‘green’ labour.
‘As one shop steward said: “They will have a one-day induction course,and then in two to three days become experienced operators. It’s one thing to learn the job in five minutes, but another to hold it at a rate of 15 to 16 vehicles an hour. You can’t expect quality immediately because there is a learning curve.”
‘Surprisingly, to anyone brought up on an I’m All Right Jack image of British industry, shop stewards also complain of the lack of industrial engineers and a consequent lack of standard times to assess work practices — a problem which is only now beginning to be tackled. Stewards say that even when the plant is producing cars, there is a surplus of labour, and point out that men doing little get accustomed to it and that will make it more difficult to persuade them to do the job they were employed to do when they have come to regard their present pace as the norm. Workers are clearly affected by morale throughout the company. There is also criticism of the frequency of management changes at the plant.
‘One worker commented: “It’s like the First World War, the change of generals is so great”
‘Against this background the incidence of labour disputes as such is surprisingly small. Both sides refer to one or two “silly” disputes plus a genuine one over safety which disrupted output at the beginning of the year. To that extent there may be some hope that the troubles of the plant, considerable though they are, may be transitional, even if many of the mistakes look eminently avoidable with the benefit of hindsight.
‘It hardly smacks of good management to run down the old Rover plant, making hundreds of skilled men redundant, only to be forced to employ “green” labour a couple of years later. Then again, part of the problem may simply be a transition from the individual craft tradition of the former Rover plant to the faster cycle times of the new assembly line. And the future? Management is hoping that over the next few months output can be stepped up to 1500 cars a week and onwards towards 2000 next year if negotiations with the unions on matters like speeding the tracks up (for example through having slip reliefs during tea breaks to avoid stopping the assembly line are successful. Beyond 1800 to 2000 units a week will need an alternative or night shift. Workers have been resisting this so far, not because of the so called “sex at night” reports but because they are wary about the prospects of the other Leyland model which would have to be put through the Rover tracks as well to justify working at something approaching full capacity.
‘Management is wary about attempting to run the plant producing only Rovers, since they believe that output of up to 3600 Rovers a week would be testing the world market too much even for such a widely acclaimed car as the 3500 and its family. If management is right in believing that it is well on the way to removing internal bottlenecks then its hopes of a breakthrough in production levels could not only prove right too but could also lead to the mopping up of the surplus labour in the plant. Of itself this could do wonders for the flagging morale. The trouble is that the Rover plant is still part of a wider accident-prone world in which supplier disputes, the detailed negotiations over the Leyland incentive package and a thousand and one other things could easily bring fresh problems. But until Rover, with its shiny new factory, overcomes its difficulties, how can anyone expect the Government to regard new investment as a panacea for Leyland’s problems?’
On 26 November 1977 The Times reported: ‘Leyland Cars is spending £16m to expand production of the new six-cylinder engine which powers the recently launched Rover 2300 and 2600 saloons. The announcement yesterday follows agreement with shop stewards at Rover Solihull raising weekly output of the range from 1100 to 1800. The stewards’ refusal to introduce a night shift has been restricting production of Leyland’s best-selling executive range. Now, under a compromise deal just concluded, they will operate a two-shift system (6am to 2pm and 2pm to 10pm) in areas where there are bottlenecks. At the same time, a third assembly line, originally in. tended for the Dolomite when it is moved from Coventry to Solihull, has been switched to Rover production.
‘Manufacture of the new engines is centred on plants at Pengam, Cardiff, and Canley, Coventry. At Canley a new £2m transfer line is on order from KTM, which will raise capacity for the new engines to 1600 a week. Together with existing production of the V8 engine which powers the Rover 3500, this will give Leyland sufficient engines for up to 3000 Rovers a week.’
The new models were warmly received by the press, especially the 2600 model, being viewed as a car that could do 95% of what the V8 engined model could do, but at a lower cost. Production of the new engines was slow to build up and again BL were left with the situation of not being able to supply the cars that customers wanted. It was not until the spring of 1978 that one could actually obtain a 2300 without wait: that was an unforgivable crime for the company to commit yet again. There was demand for the 2300 and 2600 models and the factory at Solihull was not producing enough to satisfy this demand.
In January 1978, SD1 production was again halted for 24 hours after six inspectors walked out in protest at the colour of their overalls (they were issued with brown overalls when they wanted white), and 40 other inspectors struck in sympathy. The tale of woe continued when at the end of the month it was reported that 2500 SD1s were stockpiled at the Solihull factory because of a shortage of components and exhaust emission testing equipment.
A spokesman said: ‘This is a continually moving stockpile. Several hundred cars a week are being cleared as the missing parts become available. The problem is that we have doubled Rover production in the past year, and component suppliers cannot keep up with us. It is a choice between laying off workers at Rover, or turning out part completed cars. Motorists are queuing up to get Rovers.’
In early 1978, following the arrival of Michael Edwardes, Derek Whittaker resigned from Leyland Cars, which was about to be broken up into smaller, more manageable units. Rover now found itself part of Jaguar-Rover-Triumph fronted by William Pratt-Thompson. In March the old title of Rover-Triumph was revived, now headed by Jeff Herbert, who was recruited from outside British Leyland.
In April 1978, production was halted for ten days in a dispute involving foremen and supervisors who had to provide cover for the staggered shifts intended to boost weekly production to 1800 cars per week. In June, a strike involving eighty drivers shut down the Solihull factory and cost BL some 3000 Rover cars in lost production. By now the Solihull factory was only operating at half its intended capacity of 140,000 cars per year and some industry observers took the view that the Rover SD1 was only marginally profitable for its manufacturer. By November 1978, it was reported that output was now 1500 per week, components shortages prevented the target of 1800 per week from being attained. 1978 Turned out to be the peak year of SD1 production, with 54,462 emerging from the factory.
But things went downhill rapidly for Rover with build problems rearing their ugly head again and reports filtering back rapidly from unhappy customers of tales of woe concerning their cars reliability. These centred mainly on the electrical system, but beyond that, there were innumerable paintwork and fit/finish problems reported too – it seemed that the products of new assembly lines at Solihull were not subject to any meaningful quality control methods.
With hindsight it can be seen that with a long waiting list for the SD1, the Rover car plant was under pressure from Derek Whittaker and his Leyland Cars management team to satisfy this demand and quite clearly corners were cut to get the cars out of Solihull to meet production targets. Even when the factory was working normally, there was no guarantee of maximum output because of disputes at outside suppliers and the poor supply and quality of bodies from Castle Bromwich.
The only other car Leyland could shift easily in the showrooms at the time was the humble Mini, and there was next to no profit in that. This was why the SD1 was so vital to British Leyland.
Derek Whittaker was in turn answerable to Alex Park, the British Leyland managing director. Both men had done time as BLMC’s financial directors after John Barber’s elevation to deputy chairman and probably saw the SD1 in terms of numbers made and profit and loss figures.
Peter Grant, one time production manager at Solihull recalled: ‘I was at a dance at the Civic Centre in Solihull and a senior director of British Leyland came up to me and said, ‘You Rover people are all the same. You worry about quality. We want quantity. We’ve got to get this SD1 turned out in quantity’… Morale was very, very bad. We had sensible middle aged people. They didn’t want to be sworn at or screamed at and threatened with the sack if they didn’t decide this that or the other. The plant director was despairing of the quality of the cars that were going into sales. It had to be seen to be believed.’
Inspectors found themselves being overruled by under pressure managers and defective cars were then sent on to dealers to be sorted out, if at all.
Autocar magazine reported on its Rover 3500 automatic, which it ran for a year and 11,900 miles: ‘The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection. Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.’
The weekly also disliked ‘the sadly cheap sounding clang with which the doors shut – most inappropriate for a car of this class.’
Car magazine ran a similar specification SD1 for 20,000 miles. The vehicle suffered from numerous defects. The magazine added: ‘The finish in the boot annoys us to; it is carpeted, but looks more like a DIY job than something stemming from Britain’s most modern car factory…The latest bit to go on our car is the plastic cowling under the drivers seat which just fell to bits… It needs and deserves to have silly things like the wind noise eliminated, it should have a more appealing dashboard and better instrumentation, the feeble plastic bits should be replaced by good quality fittings and the cabin would benefit from more attractive upholstery.’
Autocar also ran a 2600 automatic. One of its journalists wrote: ‘Little things saddened me; the way the fascia and instrument binnacle covering PVC material is crudely creased and stuck down at corners, the doors shut at a certain tinnyness not found on cars that cost half as much… Without a partial respray the bodywork would now be very tatty. Rattling noises from the hatchback area indicate a degree of poor breeding in a car of such good looks and distinguished pedigree.’
The abolition of Leyland Cars and the resurrection of Rover-Triumph seems to have done little for the SD1’s reputation. The sheen of a successful launch was so tarnished by these problems – and being a British Leyland product, these problems were highly newsworthy, so public perception of just how fine a car the 3500 was, were soon changed from admiration of an excellent car to disdain for an unreliable one.
Soon the dealers were marking down the trade-in values of the 3500 and the unreliable reputation that the car quickly gained had stuck. As Lancia in the UK will tell you, once you get a bad reputation in the UK, it stays with you for years.
Buyers remained faithful to the 3500 and the range of 2300/2600 started to sell reasonably well, with the 2600 especially doing well on the continent. But 1979 Got off to a bad start when on February 13th Rover car production at Solihull was disrupted by a walk-out of 50 material handlers. A company spokesman said that the men refused to move from one section to another to cover for absentees. Assembly workers had been redeployed to avoid lay-offs.
The second oil crisis of 1979 affected the Rover range along with all other large cars, but sales held-up relatively well and the arrival of the smaller engined cars meant that Rover could change the marketing emphasis of the SD1, pushing the 2300 and 2600 models, making sure that customers were well aware that there was a path for former 3500 buyers to downgrade to.
1979 also brought the first changes to the SD1 range, with the addition of the V8-S model. This was the first attempt by Rover to move the model further upmarket in an attempt to expand the range’s sales potential. The V8-S basically included all options available to the 3500 model as standard, with the addition of such toys as air conditioning and electric sunroof. In effect, this was a test-bed for the North American version of the 3500, which then undergoing preparation work in readiness of its launch the following year.
Despite this, sales continued to fall in line with all other large cars due to the global recession that was now biting very hard. In early August 1979 Jaguar-Rover-Triumph announced cutbacks to SD1 production and the Solihull workforce. JRT said that the SD1 plant was not operating at anything like the efficiency it should and that management was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to unacceptable manning levels. The factory had been producing 1150 cars a week on three assembly lines which had a theoretical capacity of about 1800. One track would now be mothballed and production concentrated on the remaining two with the company hoping to lift output to the new capacity level of 1250 cars a week.
The unions were told that 1445 hourly-paid jobs would go out of 4500 — if possible by natural wastage. JRT said that the third assembly track was never intended for the Rover but for the Triumph Dolomite, which was to have been transferred from Coventry. This scheme was dropped and Rover production had ‘spilled over’ onto the third line because the required output, was not forthcoming from the other two.
Ironically very soon after the announcement of the cutbacks, Motor magazine in its 4 August 1979 issue published an interview with Rover Triumph’s then 37-year old managing director, Jeff Herbert. Mr Herbert was asked if he found the production rate of the SD1 disappointing. ‘No not at all.’ he said. ‘The plant was originally laid down for two models, and then there was a plan to build the Dolomite there as well as the SD1. Now, for various reasons, we have just the one model in there.
‘We do not intend to expand to rapidly in the immediate future; instead we want to consolidate our present position for a while. We expect to sell about 35,000 SD1s in the UK this year. We are in the luxury sector of the market, and with our cars selling in the £6000-£9000 price band, we hold just under 40% of that market. It’s a very important sector, including everything from Granadas to BMWs; to capture much more than our share, you’d have to work very hard indeed.’
Herbert firmly rejected the suggestion that their were major problems in design, production and quality control of the SD1: ‘For a start, I don’t like to label problems in that way. If you have a problem, it doesn’t make any difference what its origin is: it’s a management problem, and it’s down to management to put things right. Our reliability record is very good. When you consider that we had a brand new car being built in a brand new factory by a largely new workforce (almost the only carry over from the previous models was the V8 engine), you’re bound to experience some difficulties. It’s only when you have hundreds of thousands of customer miles under your belt that you can find out what’s required and it’s the rate at which things are put right that distinguishes a good manufacturer from a bad one.’
‘We had no more problems than any other manufacturer introducing a totally new model. Perhaps at Leyland Cars we didn’t do things quickly enough in the past, but the great emphasis when the management changed was on the recognition that we had to react quickly. None of the problems we suffered were major reliability defects; they were just silly, niggling, customer irritating ones. An example of that was the rear carpets. Not every manufacturer bothers to carpet the boot area, and in the SD1 it’s not just any old carpet, but high quality Axminster. The mistake that was made was that it was just glued in place, and after a few thousand miles it would pull free. So now we pin it down and the problem is solved.
‘There’s a sort of domino effect with reliability problems. Once one or two faults have appeared, the customer grows suspicious and looks for more. On virtually any car, if you look hard enough, you can find something wrong. We are producing better, more reliable Rovers than ever before. I know this from audit information which is measured on a weekly basis. We are auditing five times as many cars this year as we did last year. We are putting more time and energy into improving quality and reliability than ever before.
‘It’s an unforgiving, tremendously competitive industry. You cannot hope to succeed merely by being as good as everyone else. The auto industry is a complex business, and car purchase is a highly emotional event. When you have a large percentage of the market, other companies don’t just sit back and let you get on with it. So we have to be better than everyone else: that’s what the Rover and Triumph names have meant historically, and we intend to keep it that way.
‘The amount of time my senior executives and I spend following up reliability features to improve the vehicles would surprise a lot of people. My philosophy is to have a ‘better than’ organisation, and this must run right through the company from the management down to the shop floor.’
Herbert was also proud of the Solihull plant’s record of labour relations: ‘Maintaining good relations between the employer and the employee is a major role of the management. You must remember that our workforce was largely new to the company, and in many cases to the industry. We had about 1500-2000 working on the old Rover, and now we have over 4000. That’s quite a lot of recruitment in a short space of time. A year ago, more than half the workforce had less than 12 months’ experience. In the early years of building a new product in a new factory with a new workforce, there are bound to be difficulties. All your problems get picked up and publicised, and usually they are blown up out of all proportion.
‘In the course of the last year there have been major improvements in the way the plant makes cars, and manufacturing efficiency has seen phenomenal advances. At the same time, the work force has settled down and realised that the management is working hard and that it has a vital role to play in the prosperity of the company.’
Herbert went on to say: ‘The initial investment on the SD1 was about £95 million, which seemed a large amount of money at the time; already it looks like a bargain and don’t forget that that figure includes building an enormous new factory, possibly the last great car plant to be built in Britain. It would cost an awful lot more to do the same again. We don’t need to change the product every year – we’re not in the boutique sector of the market. We have a different marketing concept.’
When asked why there was no night shift at the SD1 plant, Mr Herbert stated: ‘At present, there is not the capacity for it. Everyone seems to ask that question, but the answer is simply that at present it wouldn’t be justified. It’s not true to say that the work force is opposed to it. A couple of years ago there was a sensationalised story about the sex problem; it was suggested that the workers were opposed to operating a night shift because it would interfere with their sex lives. However, I am sure that if and when we explain that a night shift is necessary, the workers will co-operate. Anyway, the Land Rover plant has a night shift and so does the V8 engine plant, and even certain parts of Solihull which have to be kept going round the clock.’
Commenting on the 1979 energy crisis, Rover Triumph’s MD added; ‘The V8 is one of the most economical engines in the luxury market, and its combination of economy and performance has the beating of many two-litre rivals; it is one of the greatest assets of BL cars.’
Then on 17 August, SD1 production was again brought to halt when 120 men went on strike because they were not being paid for putting on and taking off their overalls and 2400 men were laid-off. The dispute was resolved the next day.
The expansion of the range continued into 1980 with the release of the even more lavish Vanden Plas model, to replace the V8-S, offering even more interior opulence – having every possible optional extra included as standard. Further running improvements were made across the range, and the array of models was expanded and build quality was considerably tightened-up As the company’s car sales continued to their downturn (1979 marked the first time that the group’s share of the market dropped below 20%) BL was in the midst of serious cash crises.
In December 1979 BL announced a cutback in SD1 production when 4000 men were laid-off for three weeks because of unsold stocks of cars. A BL spokesman said: ‘The cutback in production is being forced on us by the effects of rising fuel prices and uncertainty about future market requirements. Every other manufacturer of larger cars is affected in the same way. For instance Ford Cologne stopped Granada production for six weeks out of the last 13.’
Asked to comment on reports that BL had at least 10,000 Rovers stockpiled and more being added every day he said: ‘Ten thousand is not a panic figure. We sold over 3000 in October alone. There has not been a collapse in demand for Rovers. We are just being careful taking steps in time to reduce our inventory and protect our cash flow. You only have to look at the sky-high interest rates to see the logic in that. We are saving several million pounds.’
The stockpile of unsold cars caused another long term problem for BL. Despite extensive ant-corrosion treatment, the condition of these cars inevitably deteriorated over time as they were exposed to the elements. When these vehicles eventually found owners, they only tarnished the Rover brand further.
Then, in February 1980 a strike by 70 gearbox assemblers at BL Cardiff stopped production of Rover saloons at Solihull and TR7 sports cars at Coventry, but by then the restriction on the companies ability to supply the market had perhaps ceased to matter. Also in 1980 the newly independent Jaguar took control of the Castle Bromwich body plant and Rover SD1 bodyshells now came from the former PSF plant at Cowley.
As part of rationalisation plans, the SD1 was joined at its Solihull plant by the Triumph TR7 to use up some of its spare capacity. In the spring of 1980, BL’s cash flow problems resulted in heavy discounting of up to £2000 on SD1 models. A far cry from the time when there was a waiting list for the model. During March and April 1980 the entire SD1 workforce was laid off for four weeks in order to reduce stockpiles of the car. In April 1980 BL successfully imposed new pay and working conditions on its workforce, despite vocal opposition from shop stewards. But the companies victory only came after a struggle with the Transport and General Workers Union, and Solihull was one of the plants shut down by strike action for a week.
Solihull’s public image had been severely tarnished during this period by another story relating to the neighbouring Land Rover plant when employees had been caught sleeping, complete with bedding, on the nightshift. The subsequent unfair dismissal tribunals exposed a culture of lax discipline where even security guards slept and production targets we met by cutting corners at the expense of both safety and quality, to which local managers turned a blind eye. This provided comedians and satirists with plenty of material and to the public at large, the difference between the SD1 and Land Rover plants was minimal. And was this sort of thing going on in the Rover saloon plant?
In July it was revealed that Rover-Triumph boss Jeff Herbert was leaving his post for pastures new. If his interview with Motor magazine was anything to go by, Mr Herbert was as detached from the reality at Solihull as his Leyland Cars predecessors.
The battle with the TGWU did nothing for sales and in August 1980 the SD1 plant went over to a four day week and then in September, BL announced that it was shutting down one of the three car assembly line with 450 redundancies. On 14 January 1981, SD1 production was halted because of a dispute on the assembly line. About 1500 men stopped work because they claimed that not enough time was being allowed for them to complete certain tasks. Then in mid April production was halted for another three days in protest at the disciplining of a colleague. The dispute began when one man refused a management order to switch to another job.
With the company losing £1m a day, BL and its chairman Sir Michael Edwardes finally lost patience with the Solihull Rover SD1 plant. In May 1981, it was announced that the five-year old factory would be mothballed by June 1982, with the loss of 2000 jobs. Only recently the company had spent £1.5m on the paint shop and many thousands more on reorganization to prepare for a facelifted SD1 due for launch in January 1982. Production of the SD1 was to be transferred to the former Morris Motors factory at Cowley.
In July 1981, it was revealed that the forthcoming facelifted Rover SD1 would be produced simultaneously at Solihull and Cowley for at least five months to avoid a repetition of the costly interruption that followed the TR7’s move from Speke to Canley, Coventry. TR7 production was at a standstill for nine months when Speke employees fought the plant’s closure and refused to co-operate in moving machinery.
During the fortnight when Solihull was closed for its summer holiday, some machinery was dismantled and taken by lorry to Cowley.
A project team headed by a manufacturing director was set up at Cowley to oversee the move and to start training operatives. No new labour was recruited because the Rover was to be assembled alongside the Princess on the track that was used for the Maxi, which ceased production on 8 July 1981. Maxi workers, who had been retained on short time, were retrained to assemble the more complex Rover. BL wanted to send groups of them to work alongside their opposite numbers at Solihull, but managers acknowledged that this could lead to friction. Doubts about Cowley’s ability to build a prestige car such as the Rover to acceptable standards were dismissed by executives. They pointed out that the Honda-designed Triumph Acclaim was produced on an adjoining line and was attaining, and in some respects exceeding, the highest Japanese quality standards.
A Cowley executive said: ‘The Japanese had the same initial worries about quality but they are now delighted with our product; in fact they agree we have shown them a thing or two. Rover traditionalists should have no fears. Quality throughout BL has improved enormously. Now with our new paint plant and the fact that Rover bodies will only have to move from one part of the factory to another instead of making the long road journey from here to Solihull with the possibility of damage, they will get a better Rover than ever before.’
The strike riddled-Solihull factory was wound down during 1981, and at great expense in late 1981, SD1 production was moved over to Cowley as the firm regrouped. The Solihull SD1 plant finally closed its doors in April 1982, when the final 800 workers joined the dole queue. Besides costs and industrial relations issues, a part of rationale for the move to Cowley was that it permitted body shell build and painting to be done on the same site as final assembly. This was a much more efficient, lower cost and better-quality approach to final production. The shells for Solihull were produced in Castle Bromwich and then shipped by rail, because Rover had not been allowed by the local authority to add a body plant to the SD1 project.
The whole saga of the Rover SD1 at Solihull suggests that BL was fighting a losing battle to stay in existence. The car itself was brilliant, perhaps one of the greatest British cars ever, but as one wag remarked, if it had been built anywhere else in the world it would have been an outstanding success. The Solihull plant cost £30m when new with an estimated capacity to produce 140,000 cars per year; it never got anywhere that figure. The post Ryder report era introduced ‘industrial democracy’, which enabled the Solihull shop stewards who had no stake in British Leyland to veto changes to working practices, and the introduction of a night shift to satisfy demand for the big Rover at its zenith.
Among the SD1 workforce there seems to have been no sense of urgency or understanding of the commercial reality facing them. As a consequence the SD1 failed to generate the profits it should have made. Perhaps because of this corners were cut in an effort to boost production and quality suffered. But management were also at fault for emphasizing quantity over quality, which only served to tarnish the Rover brand. Many of the SD1’s reliability issues were blamed on Lucas, but it is claimed that BL management put pressure on Lucas to cut costs with a resultant effect on quality.
The effective removal of the old Rover management, courtesy of the Ryder Report, disposed of people who cared about the brand and had the experience to sort out problems. Had Solihull built the SD1 properly, it was indeed possible that the market could have taken 3000 cars a week, the basic car was that good, but as is recorded above, it was not to be.
This was not the end for the Solihull SD1 plant. BL announced in November 1983 that it was closing nine outlying Land Rover plants with the loss of 1560 jobs and transferring their production facilities to the former SD1 plant during 1985/86.
When production started at the new plant, it would appear as a face-lifted model, although the first few revised models were, in fact, built in Solihull. In 1981, with Metro successfully launched and the LM10 (Maestro) nearing production, modified versions of existing cars across the BL range started to appear – first was the Ital, then the Acclaim (built under licence) then this revised version of the Rover SD1. Changes range-wide included cosmetic improvements, the rear window was enlarged to improve visibility when reversing, a new instrument panel was incorporated and a slightly tidied-up front-end styling treatment. The facelift also marked the first appearance of wood veneer inside an SD1.
Rover 2000, Diesel – things looking up
Along with these further interior and exterior revisions, came the rebirth of an evocative name from the past: The Rover 2000.
What BL created with this clever piece of parts bin engineering was a moderately successful attempt at an entry-level model. Under the bonnet, where previously large, multi-cylinder engines resided, a dainty twin carburettor version of the 1994cc O-Series engine, which it has to be said, looked almost lost in the engine bay. The Rover 2000 was a better performer than its modest 104bhp and large body would have lead one to expect: Topping 105mph and completing the 0-60 dash in about 13 seconds. It was, however, a culture shock to drive one though, if you had previously driven the effortless 3500 or 2600 models. To get the best out of one, being in the right gear ratio at the right time was an absolute must.
Importantly, the SD1’s build quality and rust resistance improved markedly at this point in time – no longer would you see new Rovers sat on the hard shoulder of the Motorway, bonnet up and the driver looking in, a mixture of rage and exasperation on their face. Trade-in values were low, and had remained so since 1977/78, as the trade viewed the SD1 as an unreliable long-shot. Problems with the early ones were legion – paint, trim and electrical fragility were commonplace, but also the 2600 and 2300 suffered from camshaft failures, due to poor design. These new models came at a time, when the SD1âs image was at a low ebb, and sales did pick up slightly as a result of the bargain priced (£5-7million) face-lift, and the lift in quality. The group as a whole also posted increased sales in 1981 and 1982, as the new cars, which offered far more buyer appeal started to appear
Further SD1 variations came thick and fast as British Leyland continued to develop the car. Late in 1982 came the SD Turbo model, a 2393cc Turbo Diesel engine as donated by VM of Italy slotted under the bonnet, which gave a handy 90bhp. Hardly a rocket ship, but as diesels circa 1982 went, it was not a bad piece of kit. Top speed was over 100mph, which made it one of Europe’s fastest oil burners. Unfortunately, like the similarly powered turbo diesel Range Rovers, it did suffer from a distinct lack of bottom end torque and did not go on to sell in particularly large numbers in the UK, but it did do well, particularly in France and Italy – the markets that it was designed for.
‘Poor man’s Aston-Martin’
What Rover watchers had been waiting for though, appeared in October 1982; a higher powered development of the V8 version: The Vitesse.
For a long time, Rover had watched the rise and rise of BMW in Europe with some envy. They had built a solid reputation for building cars with sporting appeal – something that the 3500 also had, but as market researchers attested, customers were unaware of. Rover wanted a piece of this action, reasoning correctly that if they could create a High Image flagship, this halo effect would trickle its way down the range and give sales a useful fillip.
So, in the lead-up to the launch of the revised range, Rover started work on a higher-powered version of the SD1, which would be unashamedly marketed at as a sports model. Development was centred on incorporating Lucas fuel injection, freer breathing and most importantly, a handy hike in power (up to 190bhp from 155bhp). Of course this increase in power was easily achieved, due to the almost infinitely tuneable nature of the ex-Buick V8 engine. At the 1982 British Motor Show in Birmingham the car was launched in a blaze of sporting fervour (along with the MG Metro Turbo) using the former Triumph go faster moniker, Vitesse, signifying BL’s renewed interest in fast cars.
Originally, the name was going to be something different. John Batchelor recalls: ‘Back in 1981, I was working at Canley where the High Performance Derivative (HPD) of the SD1 was under development. In addition to deciding what induction system to use (the four twin-choke Webers sounded wonderful but were a mite awkward to keep in tune), they also had to choose a name. Aston Martin was approached for the possible use of the ‘Rapide’ name, but declined to allow its use, and an alternative in-house name chosen instead. Rover had got as far as producing ‘Rapide’ strobe side decals for styling reviews.’
It was, indeed, pitched as an overtly sporting 3500, with body stripes, lowered suspension, bigger wheels and extra aerodynamic spoilers creating a very favourable impression. The advent of the Vitesse signalled a new confidence at Rover and in a short period of time, it was developed to run in the British and European Touring Car cups, with a great degree of success. As a road car, it also proved popular, being favourably compared with rivals such as the BMW 528i and Saab 900 Turbo, being described by Motor Magazine in April 1983 as a, ‘Poor man’s Aston-Martin’.
Autocar magazine came way impressed by the Vitesse and gave the car an enthusiastic review, summing up the car thus, ‘Enthusiastic drivers are likely to relish the stiffly sprung Rover’s handling and acceleration response, if not some slightly agricultural aspects of its ride. It may lack the overall sophistication of some of its peers, yet we ended up liking the car almost for this very reason. It has a distinctly “animal” character all of its own.’
In the end…
The image of the SD1 took a mild recovery, but age slowly took its toll as new and sophisticated rivals such as the Audi 100, Saab 9000 and Mercedes-Benz W124 started to appear. Austin Rover continued to fight the SD1’s cause, by introducing new variants, which is unusual so late into a model’s cycle: the Vanden Plas trim level became a range of cars with the introduction of the 2600 Vanden Plas and Vitesse-tuned Vanden Plas EFi in 1984.
The introduction of further Vanden Plas versions opened up the pleasures of leather and wood to a far wider audience. The EFi model, particularly, was an excellent piece of parts bin model creation, marrying up the 190bhp Vitesse engine with the automatic transmission and leather interior expected of the Vanden Plas model… This would prove to be an effective (if pricey) luxo-cruiser aimed directly at the Audi/BMW/Jaguar market. Because of the attention paid to it by Austin Rover, SD1 sales did hold up well all the way through to the car’s demise and in June 1986, the Rover 800 replaced it.
One interesting anecdote is that the Metropolitan Police force loved the SD1 so much (fast, simple and a boot roomy enough to hold lots of traffic cones) it actually stockpiled a number of them for patrol car use and continued to bringing them into commission up until 1989!
In retrospect the SD1 showed that there was still real strength in depth in terms of design and Engineering within BL, but unfortunately the car was dogged with poor build quality, which gave it a reputation that lived with it until the end. Had BL built the car to a higher standard, not hamstrung it with self-destructing Sixes, launched it as a full range of cars and made enough of them at the start, it is not inconceivable to think that the Specialist Division of British Leyland could have been a success in its own right.
The one time chairman of BL Cars, Ray Horrocks, later observed: ‘When the SD1 was designed back in the early 1970’s there were not enough production engineers alongside the design engineers. It was built by engineers for engineers, so the car was productionised as it went down the line. There wasn’t enough development done of the car which reflected the lack of testing facilities then available to the company. When you launch a new model, there are a number of things you aim to avoid. They are putting it into production at a new plant, with a new paintshop and with a new engine and transmission. The SD1, particularly in its six cylinder form, suffered from all these shortcomings.’
So was the Rover SD1 a success? 303,345 were built in ten years, an average of of 30,000 a year, Approximately 329,066 P6 models were built in fourteen years, an average of 23,500 per year. At first glance the SD1 was a success. But it must be remembered that the SD1 replaced not only the P6 but the Triumph 2000/2500 range of which some 316,962 were manufactured. The combined P6/Triumph executive saloon total is 646,028, an average of over 46,000 per year. When seen in this respect, the SD1 quite clearly failed, with former Rover and Triumph customers defecting to the Ford Granada in Britain and more ominously for BL’s future, BMW on the continent. Although SD1 production did recover from the low of 1980, with Cowley producing 33,455 in 1983, alarmingly it slumped to 20,379 in 1984 and 15916 in 1985 at a time of rapid expansion in the UK car market.
Clearly buyers were going elsewhere for their executive cars as the world emerged from a deep recession. Many of the big Rover’s reliability issues were never truly solved, consequently many fleet buyers must have been worried about re-sale values and it was public knowledge that the Anglo-Japanese Project XX was in the pipeline to replace the SD1. At a time of a vicious price cutting war in the UK car market, Ford were able to offer fleet buyers an appealing value for money package in their Escort, Sierra and Granada range. This was at a time when BL’s UK market share resolutely refused to budge above 20% however the company reshuffled its range with new models and facelifts, suggesting that its customer base was now the diehard, buy British clientele who would not contemplate going elsewhere.
The tragedy of the SD1 story is that the goodwill built up by the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 was squandered and eroded away and the pace in the executive car market would be set by BMW. Somehow BL had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
The sad fact is that both Jaguar and Rover’s cars were built so poorly only served to tarnish the image of these great marques, especially overseas: at Jaguar the chairman from 1980-1989, John Egan, and then Ford saved that company during the ’80s and ’90s, but MG Rover went down the pan. Throughout the late-’70s and into the ’80s, the speculative media constantly made calls for BL to drop the Austin-Morris part of the Company and concentrate solely on Rover, Jaguar and the sports cars.
As unsavoury as this notion appeared at the time, it was probably the only option…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.