2nd (14.4%): Rover SD1

Launched in the 1970s, it looked set for a long run into the 1980s. Perfect in almost every way…

If ever there was a case of selective amnesia, here it is. The SD1 is loved by many, many people – particularly for its looks and the V8 rumble. Wonder if they’d feel the same if it abandoned them on the hard shoulder of the M1, as it did to many during the 1970s and 80s…

Design leader

ROVER was Britain’s Mercedes-Benz in the 1960s – a maker of forward thinking executive cars. Cars that offered quality, pace and solidity with an added dash of style. The company’s range looked pretty formidable at the end of the 1960s: the Land Rover for the farmer at the bottom, the P6 for the executive in a hurry in the middle, and the P5 for the country’s plurocrats at the top. Upcoming models promised even more future prosperity. Without doubt, the future looked bright for Rover.

Then came the 1970s. The Range Rover was launched, creating an entire new class in 1970, but already, cracks were starting to appear. These cracks would become chasms by the late 1970s, but at the time, no one would have guessed the future fate of the company. It really started to go downhill for Rover after its master (since 1966) Leyland Motors merged with BMH to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation – or trouble for short.

Sharing your showroom with Jaguar was never going to work, and two promising projects – the P9 mid-engined sports car and the P8 “Mercedes Eater” – were abandoned, because of perceived clashes with existing Jaguar models. Rover’s upward advancement was stopped in one fell swoop, but not before considerable time and money had been spent.

Thankfully, P10 was already already on the drawing board, though, and once it survived an internal design competition with Triumph to become the SD1, it seemed that Rover’s future interests could be maintained with this car and the Range Rover. Spen King had little to do with the early conception of the SD1, and in the interests of cost management, the SD1 received a rather simpler mechanical layout than the P6. Out went the de Dion rear of the P6, or the fully independent rear of the P8 in favour of a live rear axle. Its front suspension was (thankfully) changed to a Macpherson strut arrangement, which allowed for more predictable behavior there.

If the suspension layout had proven a little disappointing to Rover traditionalists, what they must have made of the styling inside and out is anyone’s guess.

Overseeing the new car’s design was David Bache, who decided that what Rover needed was another P6-style quantum leap. He soon developed a series of five-door hatchback proposals (in the day when the biggest hatch you could buy was the Austin Maxi) and ensured that these designs were all low, swoopy and highly styled. Bache never hid his admiration of Pininfarina’s work and although he shied from stating the SD1 was a Ferrari pastiche, he never denied the fact either. What he wanted to achieve was simple: a five-door supercar for executive car money.

And he managed it…

When it was launched during July 1976, the SD1 quite simply shattered the opposition. Styling-wise, the SD1 must have looked like had been beamed in from another planet, so advanced it looked. Only the Citroen CX was on the same plane at the time, and this had yet to establish itself in the UK to anyone other than the hardened base of marque enthusiasts. The 3500 quite simply, was and more practical than all the comparably priced opposition. To find a car that would live with the SD1 in a straight line, one would need to spend considerably more. Even then, none of the popular opposition could boast that hatchback rear door. For sure, it was a radically brave car for the company to produce, and it is easy to surmise that it ended up this way because of the spirit of optimism that swept through BL during the early 1970s.

So, the SD1 was a BL world beater – and for a time, the opposition truly did run scared. However, cracks soon started to appear, and it soon became sadly apparent that the reason the SD1 could be sold so cheaply was because of the quality (or lack of it) of the componentry. The interior trim was disgracefully brittle, the windows leaked from new, and worst of all, the paint finish was a complete joke. What started out as tiny stonechips soon became massive rust patches, which no doubt cost the company masses in warranty claims.

Sadly, the SD1’s USP of a low, low price, soon became eradicated by a series of swingeing price rises. The introduction of improved opposition such as the Ford Granada II and the Opel Senator, also eroded away any advantage that remained with the SD1. By 1979, the SD1 was no longer considered a jewel in the British Automotive crown, but simply another executive car, and a fast-depreciating one at that. Its fall from grace was as shocking as it was rapid, and by the turn of the 1980s, BL had real difficulty in maintaining sales.

1982 saw the revised models come on-stream, and with them, a marked increase in quality. Not only did the quality improve, but the range expanded too. The 2300/2600 models were a 1977/78 addition, but during 1982/83, came the four-cylinder 2000 base model and the diesel powered 2400 SD Turbo. However, the one that almost everyone remembers, the high-powered Vitesse model also came on stream around that time, the car that cemented the SD1’s reputation as a future classic.

Yet the Vitesse formula was not rocket science. BMW had been successfully selling high-powered mid-liners for some time, and as a result had been creating an enviable reputation for itself. Rover’s early 1980s confidence led to it creating a similarly high-powered version of the SD1, although a larger engine was never in the plan thanks to the tuneable nature of its torquey V8. The end result was an absolute stormer: 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 135mph. More than that, its lowered and stiffened suspension allowed for the most entertainingly sporting handling you could shake a stick at in the price range. The ride may have been lumpy, and the rear axle was as solid as a solid thing, but the way the Vitesse went around corners was truly magic. Not only that, but if the driver was not in the mood, it could waft as well as any comparably priced executive. The 90mph slog on the motorway with shrugged off at a 3000rpm lope.

Vitesse also did rather well at motor sport, and as a result, a legend was born. Sales of the entire SD1 range remained strong until its death in 1986, thus proving once and for all, that given an effective top of the range car, the “halo” effort works well.

The SD1 has also undergone an interesting image transformation during the years after its death. Like most BL cars of the period, the 1980s and 1990s proved tough for the SD1. Rust killed many, and the six-cylinder models generally faded thanks to their engines’ unreliability. Trade values went through the floor, and before you knew it, it was rubbished by anyone with an opinion. However, in more recent times, its image has picked up again. Memories of Vitesse ETCC victories and the beguiling nature of that rumbly V8 has meant that the SD1 has gone through an Indian Summer, and is well on its way to redemption.

Certainly, this involves selective amnesia on the part of many of those people that voted for it. The attitude seems to have been “sod the reliability, just look at that styling and sountrack”. So, just as David Bache envisaged, the SD1 was indeed the equivalent of a British five-door supercar: flawed in so many areas, but possessing a real, loveable soul.

If hearts ruled heads, the P6 would have trounced this car – but thankfully, emotion played a part in many peoples’ votes. As a result, the SD1 can justifiably be called a great car.

The Bache wedge made way for the Axe wedge, and although Roy Axe denies that he took the SD1 as a design inspiration for the 800, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the later fastback version pretty much perfectly filled the space vacated by the SD1.


Mike Duff: The car everybody wanted their dads to drive them to school in. Series 1 was pure and wedgy. But the cheesy series II was my personal favourite, especially with that vast instrument pack expanding over what seemed the full width of the dashboard.

Matt Hicks: Reason for best: (Production issues aside!) The SD1 in my opinion still looks fantastic today some 30 years after it’s design. The “Ferrari Daytona” styling works so well on this big car and from some angles it is truly stunning. The fantastic V8 and 5 speed box in this car at the time of it’s launch really made this a bang up to date ROVER, which exuded ALL the core brand values!At the time it must have been really something!


Keith Adams

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