Car of the Month : December 2006

We believe in value for money at, and where better to get it than in this month’s CoTM – a Rover SD1 with twice as many cylinders as your common or garden road car.

And this one’s a little bit special. The article, due to appear in the late-lamented Retro Cars magazine, focuses on a nicely tuned and presented 4.6-litre SD1, as owned by Julian Reynolds from Norfolk.

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Moonraker blue, cross spoke alloys and clear indicators mean this SD1 is timelessly handsome. Biased? Us? Never!

OKAY we admit it – when it comes to Rover SD1s, we’re more than a little biased here . There’s nothing finer than a gentle cruise, windows down in BL’s finest V8 powered wedge, listening to the music from that exhaust, and enjoying life’s luxuries. But one thing that’s not so hot with the SD1 is that in standard form it doesn’t go quite as well as it sounds – and that five-door supercar style promises a spectacular dynamic experience that the comfort-tuned suspension never quite manages to deliver.

Despite that, the SD1 is a remarkably timeless car – and one with a rapidly growing cult following. It’s one of the cheaper V8-powered classic saloons you can buy today. Yes, you could slide into some serious V8 powered BMW or Mercedes-Benz action for under a grand, but well, let’s face it, they don’t quite have that muscular mix of style, class and assured presence that a good SD1 possesses.

However, it’s entirely possible to have your cake and eat it – all you need is an SD1 Vitesse, a step-by-step guide on how to upgrade it, and in very little time after a bit of expense, you could have the perfect five-door hotrod. In many ways, a suitably upgraded SD1 Vitesse is the car BL should have built in the 1980s. Perhaps if it had, Rover might be in better shape today.

Certainly, that’s the opinion of Julian Reynolds, the owner of the Moonraker Blue Vitesse that captivated us the moment we first clapped eyes on it. Looking wonderfully stock on its 15-inch cross spoke alloys, and made suitably timeless by the addition of clear indicators and side repeaters, the prehensile beauty of this car remains just as strong today as it did at the time of the original car’s launch, some thirty years ago.

‘I remember being a kid, and seeing these cars, and thinking how wonderful they look – to the point of pressing my nose to the window and being impressed by that 140mph. Details mattered like this in the late 1970s,” he laughed. Of course, the styling isn’t the only seductive quality. ‘There was the rumble of that V8 engine – there was nothing else like it on the roads back then,” Julian recalled.

We have to agree – and even though the standard car put out a relatively anemic 155bhp and breathed through an induction and exhaust system that did its best to stifle the V8’s wonderful music, there was more than enough there in the BL executive to set it well apart from its cylindrically challenged rivals. The 1982 Vitesse did plenty to redress the balance, upping the stakes to 190bhp, enough to make it king of the early 1980s hill. For many SD1 owners today, even that is not enough – and a thriving tuning business has built around the need to make the SD1 realise its potential.

Julian might appear to be a BL nut to the core – as the ‘flying plughole’ tee shirt he’s wearing clearly demonstrates – and his choice of SD1 clearly comes as no surprise. However, as well as appreciating the finer things in life, Julian has developed a taste for fast cars after dabbling with the dark side of Vauxhall and Nissan.

‘Before falling in love with the idea of owning an SD1, I owned a Vauxhall Calibra and a Nissan Skyline – both of which I thought were great cars. However, getting online a few years back re-kindled my childhood appreciation of the big Rover, and I soon found myself idly searching for one on eBay,” he said. One factor that clearly re-ignited Julian’s SD1 fetish was its timelessness – and that V8 engine.

‘I found the perfect car on eBay, and decided I wanted it there and then – and even though Moonraker Blue wasn’t my first choice of colour, I’m glad I took the plunge for this one – as I’ve never looked back,” Julian grinned.

The car in question is pretty stunning even by SD1 standards. The standard look hides a raft of improvements and modifications that transform Julian’s car into something pretty special. What lies under the bonnet is where most of the interest lies – and even a cursory glance reveals that a great amount of time and effort went into the upgrade programme.

Although the stiff-block Range Rover 4.6-litre engine fitted with RPI Engineering Stage three heads, Piper 285 cam, and high rev lifters look almost identical to the standard power unit (red rocker covers aside), the detailing gives the game away. Bright blue Magnecor plug leads, and plenum inlet pipes work well, and the foam induction kit give the engine bay a lift…

It might look good, but it’s how this car goes that really impresses. When Julian fires up his car for the first time, it barks into life, and settles into a purposeful, if lumpy, idle. Every time he blips the throttle, the rush of noise from the exhaust is intoxicating – and it’s easy to understand why he seems to have an uncontrollable desire to make ‘Bullitt’ noises with the Vitesse.

Sitting inside, the standard theme continues with only a shirt-button Astrali steering wheel and a modern car stereo spoiling the 1985 illusion – however, you won’t get much time to admire the fine interior once underway. Julian’s obviously very used to his SD1, and threads it skillfully through the narrow lanes of Norfolk in search of some serious driving action.

Once the oil temperature picks up and the roads widen, Julian opens the floodgates, and the acceleration that ensues is both instant and violent. The power delivery of this Vitesse, which Julian reckons is putting out around 300bhp, is peakier than the torque-heavy fare of the standard model. Given the ultra-long gearing of the standard ‘box, you can hold onto the intermediate gears for what seems like an eternity, and as Julian recalls, ‘…I saw well over 150mph on a recent rip to Germany.” We can believe it.

Given the power to weight ratio, a 0-60mph time of 6 seconds seems easily achievable, and the more important 0-100mph sprint would be in the order of about 16 seconds. Julian intended to pit his Vitesse against the clock at Santa Pod recently at the Recent Retro Classics Show, but a last minute mechanical problem scuppered his plans.

Straightline speed is one thing, but what sets this car apart from many other tuned SD1s is that the handling and brakes have been improved to match the uprated performance. Uprated Bilstein magnesium coil-overs, fitted with 350lbs springs, and polyurethane bushes all round up front, and AVO dampers at the rear mean a much more tight and controlled ride.

Cornering is flat and responsive, and because the standard steering is so well geared, and the wheel so small, you can really throw this car into bends without too many worries. Given there’s around 300bhp to play with, tail out antics are there for the taking. Julian’s more than happy to demonstrate – and as it’s a damp day, it takes a tickle on the throttle and a flick of his wrists to get the rear end all playful.

There’s more to it than that – we asked Julian if there’s a Limited Slip Differential due to the ridiculously controllable slide. ‘The seller told me it had one fitted, and it’s pretty obvious there is,” he grinned. ‘It also lays elevens whenever you gun it from the lights. But that’s part of the fun.”

We don’t doubt it – and up and running on Norfolk’s open road, it’s obvious that the Rover causes plenty of attention from other motorists. I reckon it’s down to the classic styling, and the contemporary pace, something that Julian agrees with. ‘You’d be surprised at the number of times boy racers in all kinds of cars assume that just because it’s a Rover at the lights, it’ll be going slowly when it pulls away. You should see the looks on their faces…”

There’s no mistaking Julian’s passion for his car, and we can understand why. ‘My Skyline was seriously quick, but it couldn’t measure up to my Rover. There’s just something about the style and the music from that V8 that none of my previous cars come to matching…”

The good thing is, this is a retro classic that you can use every day. The engine may be putting out around 300bhp, but it’s still tractable and smooth around town as well as on the open road. There’s plenty of room inside, too – and if you needed to justify owning a car like this to a lived one, that ample boot and rear seat should help matters considerably.

Obviously a spell in Julian’s car has merely inflamed our passion for the Rover SD1, and the fact that it’s such a great all-rounder speaks volumes for the brilliance of the original design. In many ways, it makes the perfect performance classic. It’s a rational choice on many levels, but truth be told, none of that really matters when you’re out cruising. Julian may need to sell his car in the future, but one suspects if there’s a way of keeping it, he will. These old Rovers certainly have a way of weaving their magic…

There was a Rover Vitesse advert that ran in the motoring press that sums up Justin’s executive express perfectly. Its tagline reads: ‘London for breakfast, Paris by lunch…” We can’t think of a better way of making that journey.


Rover SD1 Vitesse specifications, owned by Julian Reynolds

Standard SD1 Vitesse body without modifications, aside from additional brake cooling ducts in the front air dam, clear (Series one) indicators with chrome bulbs and smoked side repeaters, brake lights now carry a dual filament bulb holder to allow an extra side light bulb.

Range Rover 4.6-litre stiff block and Stage Three heads from RPI Engineering, Piper 285 cam, high rev lifters,

Jaguar XJ6 airflow meter, heat dissipating block to keep air cooler in plenum chamber, flowed intake manifold, polished out to size of gaskets, Rimmer sports exhaust system with tubular manifolds, covered in heat wrap.

Standard Rover LT77 five-speed transmission, AP green spot clutch kit, stainless braided line, Silicon brake fluid

Front: Bilstein magnesium coil-overs, fitted with 350lbs springs, polyurethane bushes all round
Rear: Uprated standard Vitesse height springs with AVO dampers.

Front: Jaguar XJ-S HE calipers and discs, Mintex 1144 pads, stainless brake hoses, and Castrol SRF silicon fluid.
Rear: Discs especially drilled from a standard BMW E34 5-Series disc. Calipers are from the Rover 820, with a lever welded on for handbrake cable, and the pads are also standard Rover 820 fitment.

Wheels And Tyres
Standard 15-inch Rover Vitesse alloys with 195/60×15 road tyres

Astrali Black leather steering wheel, Sony 4-inch speakers, Kenwood CD player with remote control

Custom made aluminium radiator with twin Kenlowe fans, and a thermo switch from a Ford Fiesta.

Ignition System
Range rover platinum plugs, 8mm Magnecor HT leads, Mallory Unilite distributor, MSD high voltage coil

High power fuel pump, Jaguar XJ6 injectors, FSE adjustable fuel pressure regulator

Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Yes, these callow youths don’t know class when they see it. I was at a traffic light North East of Birmingham, when a spotty youth in a Fiat Punto fancied his chances against my X-type 2.2D. The badge on his front wing declared 70bhp, and his engine made awful rattling noises, which soon receded behind me as I pulled away from him…

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