It seemed like a simple task at the time: pick up my SD1 from the spray shop, drive it home and spend the rest of the weekend polishing it. You know what they say about all the best laid plans, and all that…
The day had indeed been planned. Get up early on Saturday morning, pick up my mate Brian, and tootle off to Devon to pick up the car (didn’t I say it was all the way down there, and that I live in Northamptonshire?), get in it, drive it back… and be home in time for tea. Simple. Smart. Saturday entertainment.
You always know when things are going to go badly, as the day tends to start with a set-back, which sets the tone. Today would not disappoint.
In my case, the set-back came in the form of a phone call from she-who-must-be-obeyed at around 9:00am. It was to say that I had picked up the wrong keys to my trusty 400 Tourer – the ones that didn’t have the keys to the fuel cap on. Bugger. Looking at the gauge, it was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to get to Devon and back to Northamptonshire via London on what was in there (less than quarter left). No problems, Brian was with me, and he is a dab-hand at sorting out problemettes like this. We stopped at a petrol station, borrowed a hammer and screwdriver (very accommodating of them, considering!) hacked the cap off and filled up. Better late than never, we thought.
Then there was the closure of the A303. Ho-hum…
Still, we managed to get to Devon for late lunch, where we met up with John Capon (car sprayer and raconteur extrordinaire). We went to collect my car from his garage, and when I clapped eyes on it again (after months apart), it was love re-kindled. Ahhh… the SD1. What a car. And what a spray job! As was expected, John had sprayed the car a treat. He may have described it as “very reasonable”, but to us mere mortals, it looked stunning… The morning’s unpleasantnesses were well and truly past.
Or so I thought.
Before I brought the car down to Devon, it had been suffering from an irritating habit: for no reason, it would cut-out. Intermittently. Sometimes never, sometimes regularly. Still, with this in mind, Brian had brought along his soldering iron and some wire… problems with simple electrics are easily solved. No black boxes here, just good ol’ fashioned wires and relays. Sure enough the SD1 didn’t disappoint; when fired up, it would run and then stop… so Brian went about diagnosing.
And diagnosing… and prodding and poking with a multi-meter. No joy… it was obvious something around the distributor wasn’t happy, but could the fault be replicated? Could it heck! In the end, several modules were by-passed (hot-wired sounds particularly dodgy), and it seemed to be running sweetly again. So off we went…
With the A303 closed, it was off to the M5 for a long run back to London. The sinuous Devon back-road that led us to the M5 got me reacquainted with the SD1 – unlike my previous Vitesse, it wasn’t really that quick. It was balanced though; the beautifully geared steering, solid, well-damped ride and commanding view out made it a joy to pilot. Resorting to clichés, it seemed to shrink around me… and that inspired confidence. Not bad for a car engineered in the early 1970s. Oh, and there was the matter of that engine: that torque… and the noise. Lovely.
Pre-motorway fill-up and off we go… Stormed onto the M5, passed a truck and – splutter – it died on me. Pull on to the hard shoulder. Try and re-start. Nothing. Bollocks. Decide to cut our losses and call the recovery people… get the bugger trailered home, where we have the luxury of tools, warmth and Google Groups. Just before the recovery man turns up, I try and re-start it. ARRRGH! Yep, you guessed it. First time. Recovery man turns up, I explain the situation, he has a prod and cannot find any fault. Before he goes off, I pay him his £40 (thanks, Footman James, for not explaining that one!) and decide to press on. If the car dies again, I cannot afford the £400 to get it recovered to London (whether I can claim it back or not), and I’m stuck.
…to the whole world, we must look
like a pair of old dodderers,
reinforcing the tired old cliché
about Rover drivers.
We decide that due to the randomness of the fault, it would not be prudent to use any other lane on the motorway except the inside lane. If it cuts out when overtaking on a busy motorway… well, the consequences do not bear thinking about. So, off we trundle. Me on the inside lane, Brian following behind in the Rover Tourer. We catch up a Tesco truck – damn! He’s stuck at 50mph and we’re heading for the hills. I bite the bullet and quickly pass. Just after we tuck in, yep… it dies again. I slip it into neutral, and try to re-start. Churn, churn, churn, nothing. We’re grinding to a halt now. Tesco truck overtakes, the hard shoulder beckons. I pull over, and as the speed drops to 30mph, it re-starts. Yahoo! We accelerate again, me in the stricken SD1, Brian in tow. To the whole world, we must look like a pair of old dodderers, reinforcing the tired old cliché about Rover drivers.
We catch the Tesco truck again, and not once do I consider passing again. My nerves are on edge, waiting for the car to cut out again… which it does, over and over again. The marker boards for London are counting down slowly: 167 miles, 150 miles, 135 miles… each new sign seems about an hour apart. It should have been relaxing; trust me, it wasn’t. Unable to pass, re-starting on the fly, mixing it with holiday traffic, worrying about whether it will die for good… I was not a happy bunny.
After what seems like hours, we take our first stop just after Bristol. We’ve been motoring at no more than 50mph, and yet I’ve used half a tank of fuel… Not good. See an AA man, and ask if I can join. I can’t. On we go… traffic is now very light (who wants to be on the M4 at 9:00pm on a Saturday?) and we pick up the pace (Yippee! A lack of trucks…). At 70mph, it runs more happily, and the cutting out has now stopped. Still decide not to pass, but as the miles pass, I feel my confidence in the car returning – perhaps the fault has fixed itself. We stop again at Reading, and I feel better. London is now in sight, and the car’s running well.
Well, actually it isn’t. We get going and the cutting out has returned with a vengeance. At least now, it seems to re-start easily enough without stopping (what must this be doing to the autobox?) We carry on, the slowness of the trip, is really now sapping my will to live – I’m concentrating so hard on maintaining space around me, whilst tensing myself for the inevitable cut-out, that it is physically wearing me out. No 130mph stormer across France was ever this demanding. Still, we got round the M25, and down the M1. Never has Staples Corner looked so welcoming. We had made it.
I left the SD1 with Brian (his healing hands will have it right again), jumped in the Tourer and motored home. 70mph on the motorway in an R8 was paradise on Earth compared with the previous FIVE hours of torture.
A subsequent autopsy has pointed to it being the Lucas OPUS distributor (Prince of Darkness strikes again!), and a modern replacement has been ordered from V8 gurus, RPi Engineering. Will a nicely running SD1 banish the memories of this Saturday from Hell? Of course it will! SD1s – you gotta love ‘em.
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.