Archive : Rover SD1 launch in British Leyland Mirror

To celebrate the launch of the Rover 3500 SD1, the British Leyland Mirror turned over its entire editorial content to this vitally important new car. Enjoy all 32 pages.

Images scanned by Alex Sebbinger.

(Click on thumbnail below to see full sized image)


Keith Adams


  1. It really must have looked quite something in 1976. Interesting, when you think about how different the 75 was, and yet kept that same Rover DNA.

  2. I remember the newspaper and the huge reaction the car received.

    I remember dad trying to get a discount on one (fat chance!) and the reaction we got when it first arrived, having fought to get our hands on one. The reaction then would be about the same as turning up in a Veyron today!

    On a much sadder note, look at all those, many long gone, UK companies supplying parts for the car who have been blackmailed into taking all that advertising space.

    If you’re not familiar with blackmail advertising, it goes something like this: “We’ve been passed your name by ??? Ltd. We understand you’re an important supplier of theirs and we’re running a 32 page editorial about them. As a valued customer of theirs, I am sure that they would would like to see your name supporting them in this feature. Would you like to take a whole page, or a 2 page spread?”

  3. Beyond awesome! I was only 4 when the SD1 came out, so I can’t unfortunately remember the fuss the motoring press made at the time, but I was 15 when the Vitesse version came out, and I remember well Car magazine’s conclusion that the humble SD1 was a ‘5-door Aston’……still quite simply one of the most stunning British cars of the last 40 years…….

  4. And how did the staff react to this story of pride? Slope off on strike at every available opportunity, the indolent, confrontational sods.

    Yes, I remember the massive playground kudos too when Dad turned up in his gleaming white 3500 (near-identical to Keith’s). It didn’t gleam for long, though; it needed a full respray after only 2 years and had all the usual faults: leaking windscreen and water-filled glove boxes, dubious electrics…

    But, boy, was it gorgeous and, boy, did it shift; I miss it to this day, 35 years on.

  5. More than a touch of irony here then…

    Without getting into politics, you have to chuckle at the parallels that can be drawn between the Daily Mirror, and the ideologies that scuppered the SD1, and ultimately, the whole company.

  6. This is great archive material – thanks Keith! – but also an irritating reminder of how the BL publicity machine sold this car by lying to its workforce as well as to potential customers.

    The near-hysterical ‘bigging up’ of Rover’s brand values of quality and reliability might have been appropriate to describe every previous Rover but, with regard to the SD1, was so insincere that surely it must have contravened the Trades Descriptions Act. In fact, to this day I am surprised that no disgruntled customers ever sued BL for being sold a quality product when what was delivered to them was a car thrown together to Austin-Morris standards of quality.

    I still have the SD1 1978 sales brochure, entitled ‘The Birth of a New Tradition’. It boasts that ‘as a new Rover proceeds down the assembly line, it is subjected to an average of 700 quality-control checks’. One only had to look at the yawning panel gaps at the B-pillar, the misaligned doors and, when it rained, the sopping wet boot carpet to know that no meaningful quality control checks took place, at least in the early years of production.

    The brochure waxes lyrical about Solihull’s plant and control systems which ‘are designed to produce cars which conform to the quality standard approved by NATO in the requisitioning of all their equipment’. On that basis, if the Soviets had ever got their hands on an SD1, the UK probably would have been invaded before the end of the Seventies.

    Great play is made of the thermoplastic paint application which comprises ‘four high-gloss top coats..and four separate preparation and priming processes which ensure a durable quality finish’. Durable for how long? All four wheel-arches of my father’s 1978 model year Rover 2600, bought new, were completely rusty after just two years.

    Then there’s the claim in the brochure that the new six-cylinder engines had been ‘rigorously tested over hundreds of hours and many thousands of miles’ and that they had been designed ‘for reliability’. I seem to recall that Arthur Daley was more honest than this when flogging dodgy second-hand motors on his forecourt in south London.

    35 years on and I’m still angered by the deceitful way BL persuaded people to part with quite a lot of money for a supposedly quality car that turned out to be so shoddy that most early ones were languishing in scrapyards after only five years.

    A truly beautiful car, then, let down by third-rate execution. They say you should never meet your heroes and I wonder if this is true of the SD1. It seems to me that reading the brochures, lusting after the exotic lines from afar, suspending one’s disbelief at the lies about quality and reliability, and dreaming of how great the SD1 could have been to own if it had been built to the same standard as its P5 and P6 predecessors, is way more satisfying (and considerably cheaper) than actually owning one.

  7. Speak volumes about BL’s Marketing & engineering team. Shame the management & workforce weren’t up to scratch otherwise the company would be a major player on the global stage today notwithstanding JLR.

  8. @Craig
    The early ones really were built to P6 standard, by that I mean the ’76/’77 cars (I have an unrestored ’76 single strap example, which suffers none of the normal SD1 build issues), after that however when the trade unions struck. The 2600 engine is relaible, but only when the camshaft oil feed pipe is reinstated after the accounts had it removed prior to production, an very good example of why accountants should NEVER be allowed any where near engineering decisions

  9. @Ford Prefect

    It’s all well and good blaming accountants for interfering in engineering matters but, quite honestly, the conversation would have been along the lines of:

    Accounts: “We need to reduce costs, what can we take out?”

    Engineers: “Well the camshaft oilfeed pipe could come out”

  10. @11, Colm

    I remember our 3500 had Pirelli Cinturatos, Dunlop supplied the Denovo runflats (option at extra cost) and I’m guessing Michelin and Avon supplied tyres for the 2300 and 2600.

    Yours, nerdily…

  11. As one of the folk responsible for some of the launch hype so roundly condemned here, especially by ‘Craig’, I would like to point out that at launch, we didn’t know that these problems would occur, and most of the claims were made in perfectly good faith. And even if you did have any doubts about something, you are hardly likely to publicise them, are you?

    Some detail points:
    The Leyland Mirror was nothing to do with the Daily Mirror, it was a purely in-house production (and a prize-winning one, by the way!)

    The final P6 cars were painted and assembled in the SD1 plant, Sadly, it is not true that P6 had a spotless reputation – one of my first introductions to the delights of media scrutiny as a PRO was dealing with the flak when the AA ‘awarded’ its ‘Square Wheel Award’ to a P6B 3500.

    Don’t know what all that stuff about 2300/2600 camshaft oil feed pipes being deleted is about, probably yet another old wives’ tale. The problem was that is was necessary to restrict the flow of oil into the cam bearings, (you can’t have the head flooded with oil) so the engineers came up with what they considered to be a clever little restrictor device. I was very specifically asked to feature this gizmo in the 2300/2600 press launch presentation and literature, so they must have been proud of it.

    I’m absolutely sure it worked OK in testing, but testing can never quite replicate real life service and circumstances. In real life, that restrictor could get blocked, whether by dirty oil or stray RTV sealant fragments, with inevitable results.

    Regarding Quality control, I often talked to the late Brigadier Charles Maple, the ex-Army man who was brought into BL to install the NATO quality system (05-21) within the company. He was quite indignant about some of the things that went on at Solihull – he said that he had personally coralled some early SD1s as unsatisfactory, only to find that , as soon as his back was turned, the cars were released for despatch. Production people in those days didn’t get any brownie points at all for restricting output, you see…

  12. @9, Ours was one of the very, very first SD1’s and I can assure you that it was as badly built as it was good looking. We’re not talking about the odd rattle (though it had plenty of those!), we’re talking about serious stuff like, when it was only a few months old and while leaving a motorway, it jettisoned all of it’s power steering hardware over the slip road; the steering simply locked up.

  13. We’ve added a lot of the BL Mirror stuff to the SD1 development story.
    I reckon Solihull was under pressure to produce the SD1 in volume at a time when the managing director of Leyland cars was ex -BLMC finance director Derek Whittaker and the mananging director of British Leyland Ltd was ex- BLMC finance director Alex Park. The workforce refused to adopt a nightshift and strikes at outside suppliers would have reduced the window of opportunity to produce the cars in sufficient volume to satisfy demand, so corners were quite clearly cut to get the cars out of the factory.
    I know a fellow sub-postmaster called Martin who worked as a foreman on the P6 and SD1 lines from 1968, before going to Cowley with the SD1. I will ask him about these matters.

  14. @ Ian Elliott

    Forgive me for giving the impression that I was blaming those who wrote the sales brochures and internal corporate newspapers of ‘lying’ about the shoddy quality of the SD1. I have no doubt that you, and they, were acting in good faith, based on the information about the quality-control processes that was passed to you.

    But my point is that senior managers – such as British Leyland UK MD Alex Park and Leyland Cars MD Derek Whittaker – knew the truth of the SD1’s poor build quality yet they allowed sales brochures proclaiming exactly the opposite to continue to be printed some two years after the launch. I am angered that they showed such utter contempt for the company’s customers and for the company’s prospects beyond the very short-term.

    And by 1978, these managers most certainly knew all about the quality problems because of all of the warranty claims being submitted by dealerships which were sucking money out of the company.

    If that were not enough, the motoring press had also highlighted the build problems: Autocar featured a long-term test report of 11,900 miles in which they commented that ‘the most disappointing feature about the car was the sad lack of quality control’ and that ‘the general fit and finish was also poor’.

    It drew specific attention to the gap between the windscreen and A-pillars ‘which allowed in rain and draughts’ and bemoaned the ‘cheap-sounding clang with which the doors shut – most inappropriate for a car of this class’.

    Car magazine commented on the cheap plastic fittings on the SD1: ‘The latest bit to go on our car is the plastic cowling under the drivers seat which just fell to bits…’

    So, who was to blame for all of this? Surely it was Messrs Park and Whittaker.

    Even if they couldn’t supply enough cars to match demand, why did they choose to flush Rover’s brand values down the pan by bypassing the very NATO-standard quality controls that they themselves had initiated in the first place? (I bet Brigadier Charles Maple must have felt like a right spare part when the cars that he had been employed to quality-audit were loaded onto transporters and whisked through the factory gates as soon as his back was turned.)

    Why specify and procure such appallingly cheap plastics in the cabin and not apply the bare minimum of sound insulation to the doors and bonnet to stop them clanging?

    Why have so few production engineers available to ‘translate’ Spencer King’s design into a car that could be built to a consistent standard?

    Why over-staff the factory which hugely increased costs, then give new assembly workers only one day’s induction and subsequently expect them to produce cars with doors that fitted properly?

    I appreciate that the trades unions were obstructive but that crucial management decision to produce the maximum number of cars, at the cheapest unit cost, while paying mere lip service to quality, was monumentally short-termist and foolish.

    Yes, Park and Whittaker were ex-directors of Finance at BLMC, which explains perhaps their fixation with the numbers and making immediate profits, but where were their general-management skills? After all, they had been appointed as general managers so they were supposed to have these aptitudes.

    Any fool knows that customer confidence, whether buying a new car or a new kettle, is what drives sales and that customer confidence is based on a brand’s reputation, which is based for the most part on its design and its track record of quality and reliability.

    So, why did Park and Whittaker believe that there was anything worthwhile to be gained by discarding the Rover marque’s brand values of quality and reliability which it had taken so many decades to establish?

    @ Ford Prefect

    It’s heartening (if confusing!) that your very-early SD1 was well-built. I wonder if it might have been specially ‘prepped’ before delivery to a senior manager or a valued stakeholder.

    I ask this because, when I attended the Pride of Longbridge event about four years ago, I chatted to the owner of pristine, unmolested, P-registered Rover SD1 3500 in Midas (gold). He kindly allowed me to sit in it and described how its first owner had been none other than Derek Whittaker (!). After I had climbed out and was saying good-bye, I noticed that the front doors, even with the windows wound down, shut with a ‘thud’ rather than the familiar ‘clang’ that had bedevilled my father’s 1978 model-year car and the one that Autocar tested. Seriously…

  15. SD1 was launched on the Wednesday of my last A level week and was a major distraction, probably accounting for the Grade E I got in French. I remember turning over the pages of the morning paper at home and being thrilled by those very same ads – Tomorrow’s Car Today!

  16. The SD1 sums up mid-70s BL. Great design, lousy quality. If only it had been built to 70s VW standards it would have been a world beater.

  17. It was the only real shining light of BL at that difficult time and as history tells us was marred by shoddy build, shoddy management and shoddy unions. The press loved it – and compared to the apathetic views on the 18/22/Princess, Maxi and Marina of previous years there was initial scope for optimism at BL.

    I read somewhere (was it on these pages or Dominic Sandbrook??) that even Ted Heath gave his ministerial one back and reverted to the old P5 because the glass fell out of the window soon after delivery.

    I saw a special Autocar report on the SD1 and an interview with David Bache. He had to interrupt the interview to take a phone call about ‘the Queen’s new SD1’. Did she ever have one? I know she had a late model P5.

  18. Interesting stories on the SD1. There had been many bad cars on the market at that time… Though I am German… I decided to buy an SD 1. OK, its a 84 Vitesse and not one of the first cars. But to be honest: in 1976 all our “quality” Volkswagens tended to corrode away in just 2-3 years, some of them did not even manage to pass the first MOT after 2 years of first registration. And all of them looked (and still look) shitty!!! Still up to now they are just boring in design and technology… nothing to be proud of. The SD1 probably did not come up for all of it´s expectations, but even after more than 35 years of it´s launch it is a car that looks extremely well and modern even to today´s standards(especially the Series 2 models). An all time classic, no Volkswagen or Audi will ever be. At least JLR survived in the bad play…

  19. Ah the days when component suppliers like Triplex, Laycock, GKN and Bork and Beck queued up to offer their congratulations on the launch of whatever new vehicle used their parts. Don’t see similar salutations from the likes of ZF or Bosch these days. Worth noting that GKN – a very British company synonymous with the British Leyland days remains an automotive engineering power house doing significant business with all the German manufacturers.

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