The cars : The Rover SD1 Vitesse development story

Few can doubt the enormous contribution the Vitesse name had in raising the performance profile of the Rover marque in the 1980s and ‘90s. David Morgan tells the story of how it all began.

Rover SD1 Vitesse

Vitesse: Rover’s rapide transformation detailed

The early 1980s was not an exciting time for executive saloons or their image. Car manufacturers may have been turning their hand to giving enhanced performance and more assertive body styling treatments to run-of-the-mill hatchbacks – and enjoying the marketing opportunities they presented – but executive cars in comparison still maintained a somewhat sombre personality.

For British Leyland the decision to produce a very high performance version of the Rover SD1 was a breath of fresh air. Not only did it reaffirm a performance dimension to the Rover name, it also helped raise the kudos of executive saloons. For many the recipe of a stylish executive saloon wearing an evocative performance mantle and having a presence in motor sport would prove to be an alluring one.

Realising those sporting ambitions

Admittedly, when the Rover SD1 had been unveiled in 1976, thoughts of creating a very high performance derivative (VHPD) whose halo appeal would cascade down to the lesser variants, was not given serious consideration. However, that was all to change from 1979 when the Group 1 regulations for the 1980 British Saloon Car Championship (BSCC) saw the engine capacity limit being raised from 3.0-litres to 3.5-litres. BL Motorsport’s Director, John Davenport, was one of those who had been keen for the change as it would allow them to consider entering the Rover SD1 as a successor to the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, which was soon to end production.

The Group 1 regulations required cars to have an engine capacity below 3500cc, so for the BSCC Rovers their engines would have a shorter stroke to create a displacement size of 3495cc. Two Rover SD1 3500s would be prepared and managed by David Price Racing for the 1980 Tricentrol RAC BSCC season, with BL Motorsport providing technical services.

FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) regulations stipulated that only minor modifications beyond a showroom-spec car were permitted. The changes therefore centred on upgrades to the suspension, closer ratios in the gearbox, four-piston front brake callipers and minor tuning to the engine. The end result was a car that weighed 1,130kg and featured a V8 engine producing around 250bhp.

The two Triplex/Esso/Motor liveried Rovers made their debut in round one of the BSCC held at Mallory Park on 23 March 1980 driven by former Ford works driver Jeff Allam and Motor magazine’s Technical Editor Rex Greenslade. The Rover’s presence would soon be boosted from July of that year by a privateer entry for Brian Muir and Terry Watts managed by Patrick Motorsport. This brought the number of campaigning Rovers to three.

The results for that season were mixed, mainly due to engine reliability issues. However, Rex Greenslade had managed to finish second at the Silverstone race meeting and Jeff Allam first at the British Grand Prix support race at Brands Hatch. According to James Taylor’s book Rover SD1: The Full Story 1976-1986, not even a mid-season rule change which permitted the team to use an American Huffaker manifold and two-barrel Holley carburettor to increase power to 280bhp, could improve their overall finishing position.

It was only when David Price got Tom Walkinshaw of Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) involved midway through the 1980 season and he had been allowed by John Davenport to secretly test one of the motorsport SD1s, that there would be major improvements to the competitiveness of the SD1. This would be evident during the 1981 season by which time the cars were being prepared and managed by TWR, with the engines also built by TWR at their 4000 square foot factory based near Oxford.

A Very High Performance Derivative for the showroom

The drive to be competitive in motor sport in turn provided some indication of the potential which a performance SD1 could offer the driving enthusiast and would underpin the desire to produce a VHPD for the showroom. The project was initiated in April 1980 by David Clark who was the Product Development Manager for Rover Triumph working in BL Europe and Overseas Marketing.

Corresponding with the author in March 2013, David Clark disclosed that his objective was to ‘add a sporting “executive express” high performance derivative to the SD1 range. This was designed to not only overcome the staid ‘Auntie’ Rover image, but also provide a competitor to the recently-announced BMW M535i, which would be viewed as the benchmark car.’ The M535i variant had been unveiled at the 1979 Frankfurt Motor Show and arrived in British showrooms from September 1980 priced at £13,745.

At its inception the VHPD for the Rover SD1 would be referred to as the Rover Rapide, which was a name proposed by David Clark. At this stage he developed an initial feature specification based around Technical, Exterior and Interior changes. For the technical enhancements he proposed uprating the engine’s performance based upon an Engineering Development Programme, where the power target would be 200bhp. The final drive would have a limited slip differential while the suspension would be modified to improve handling. Last, but by no means least, the braking performance would be enhanced by fitting ventilated front discs and four-pot calipers which were modified Police spec.

Rover Rapide - the original Vitesse
Rover Rapide – the original Vitesse (photo: Freewheel, the Rover Sport Register club magazine)

The exterior differences were to comprise of Charcoal Grey metallic paint with red pinstriping. This was intended to complement a black finish proposed for the bumpers, door mirrors and handles, rear badge plinths, front and rear windscreen surrounds, side windows waist moulding and the drip rails. Other distinguishing features were a headlamp power wash and a zone tinted front windscreen, although the most obvious item would have been a new 15-inch Minilite alloy wheel design shod on 205/60 x 15VR Dunlop D3 or Pirelli P6 tyres.

Inside the cabin the main colour theme was Caviar which even extended to a new Motolita steering wheel. Rear seat passengers would enjoy the extra comfort of having head restraints, while those in the front sat in new Recaro seats with ‘unique’ tweed seat centre panels; a material that would also feature on the armrests and for the headlining.

To further facilitate a full evaluation and also Senior Management appraisals, David obtained an ex-company management SD1 3500. This was handed over to BL Styling Services to be resprayed in the chosen colour of Anthracite black metallic and retrimmed to the required feature specification, including fitting front and rear spoilers. Meanwhile, the powertrain and suspension modifications were carried out by BL Special Tuning at Abingdon during the second quarter of 1980. David recalls the engine was essentially the same as that developed for the TR8 rally programme and featured four twin-choke Weber carburettors which helped deliver a power output of 250bhp!

Thumbs up from senior management and the dealer network

During the summer of 1980 there were a series of reviews by representatives of the UK Dealer Network and company management. Everyone who got behind the wheel of the Rover Rapide loved it, including Austin-Morris’s Manufacturing Director Harold Musgrove, who became converted by this VHPD overnight. As a result of this feedback, in November of that year the Rover Triumph Product Planning Department was asked to undertake a formal evaluation of the project for introduction as part of the 1982 Model Year (MY) facelift range. This led to the Features List being updated and refined.

The updated Features List dated November 1980 was certainly comprehensive, with new sources of content being proposed for the Rover Rapide, which would be based on the 1982 MY 3500 SE. This included two unique metallic paint colours, rear wheel arch spats, a body colour rear spoiler and a new die cut side stripe. It was also planned that 6.5-inch x 15-inch Minilite-style alloy wheels shod on 205/60 VR tyres were to be fitted along with a bright chrome centre hub finisher with Rover motif.

Proposals for the interior included Oatmeal as the main colourway which extended to ‘Sports style’ front seats to be supplied by either Recaro or Wolfrace. The squab/centre panels would be trimmed in ribbed velvet while Oatmeal leather was to be used for the sides and borders. For the door casings there were satin finish straight grain wood inserts.

The suggested mechanical changes for the 3528cc V8 included the WL9 camshaft profile, twin-valve springs, improved valve seats, fabricated exhaust manifold, a quadruple 40 DCNF12 Weber carburettor installation and a Salisbury limited slip differential. This would be undertaken by the BL Motorsport development programme. The Motorsport developments would also extend to a new twin pipe exhaust system, likely built by Janspeed, and a rear anti-roll bar.

Solihull Design Studio delivers the style

Some of the initial ideas for the Rapide would be fed into the SD1’s main update programme for the 1982 Model Year led by Gordon Sked at the Solihull Design Studio. At that time, the Solihull Design Team also included Kevin Spindler as Head of Design for Exterior and Interior and Graham Lewis, who was responsible for the graphics, colour and trim department.

A rear spoiler and front spoiler had already been identified as key features for the Rover Rapide and would also appear on the race-spec SD1s competing in the ongoing BSCC programme. As Gordon Sked explained in November 2011, ‘Front and rear spoilers had helped improve the SD1’s drag efficiency which resulted in a significantly faster lap time being achieved during a testing session at Silverstone. Therefore they would have obvious dynamic benefits for the production car.’

Interestingly, an interview John Clancy had with Kevin Spindler in 2016 for his video ‘Rover SD1 at Forty‘, revealed that some of these aerodynamic aids had also featured on an SD1 focusing on economy. Kevin recalled that BL Cars had been approached by an oil company, possibly Shell Oil, who wanted to do an economy run with an SD1 to see what miles-per-gallon it would deliver under metered conditions. The remit allowed Rover’s stylists to add some aerodynamic aids such as a front air-dam/splitter and a smaller rear spoiler to improve the efficiency of the car. Their efforts certainly improved the SD1’s miles-per-gallon figures. Therefore when Marketing asked them to work on a high performance Rover SD1, they further developed the front air dam spoiler and created a larger rear spoiler.

During the Rapide’s gestation period several different styles of alloy wheel design were evaluated. The Design Team eventually settled on a distinctive 15-inch multi-spoke design inspired by the Borrani wire wheel used by Ferrari up until the early 1970s. As Gordon Sked confirmed, ‘The [production] wheels were part of the 3D design spec, with the Ferrari connotation involved in order to give a sporting emphasis to the vehicle.’

More recently, in May 2013, former Rover Designer Kevin Spindler disclosed to the author that the first set of multi-spoke wheels for evaluation had been purchased from BBS, who were not happy when they learnt that the eventual approved production design would look similar to theirs and was being produced by Speedline! The interior fabrics and wood grains would be the responsibility of Graham Lewis, who would also create distinctive ‘Rapide’ graphics for the lower sections of the doors. Graham also worked with John Stark in relation to the exterior colour choices, with Monza Red as one of the proposed new colours having a slight Ferrari connotation about it.

The need for performance and refinement

As the project commenced there were some reservations about the Rapide not being refined enough to deliver the right balance between high performance and an effortless executive express. A further issue recalled by Denis Chick, the former Manager, Large Car and Sports Car Planning, Jaguar Rover Triumph, when speaking in November 2002, was that at full chat the fuel economy was down into low single figures!

John Davenport proposed that twin-barrel carburettors were discounted in favour of an electronic fuel injection system which was already being used in SD1s sold in Australia to meet their stringent exhaust emission legislations. In that guise fuel injection delivered no additional engine performance although Land Rover’s Engineers knew they could work with the Lucas system whereby for the Rover Rapide, the emphasis would be on delivering more power to aid high performance. This would not only be used for the road cars and provide an interesting new technology-themed marketing opportunity, but also be homologated to meet the new Group A European rules that would come into force for the 1983 BSCC season.

The Group A regulations stipulated there was less scope for engine modifications of the race cars over the road-going car. Changes to the production engine therefore primarily focused on improving gas flow, raising the compression ratio from 9.25 to 9.75:1 and recalibrating the engine control unit. Together with Lucas L-Jetronic fuel injection these changes saw the 3.5-litre V8 producing 190bhp in the road car – an increase of 35bhp over the carburettor-fed engine. Other revisions included fitting stronger bearings in the gearbox, lowering and uprating the suspension and upgrading the steering and braking to enable the increase in performance to be exploited with greater confidence.

Playing the name game

Meanwhile, checks on the ownership of the Rapide name for the production car found that it was still owned by Aston Martin Lagonda. Despite the name having not being used by Lagonda since 1964, Aston Martin Lagonda was unwilling to relinquish the rights to use it. Austin Rover Group’s Marketing Department therefore identified the Vitesse name – the French word for speed – as a suitable alternative. As Denis Chick recalled in November 2002, ‘The Vitesse name had remained in the ‘desirability pot’ for a number of years ready for a Triumph model to use again, although such an opportunity had not occurred.’

The Vitesse name had originally been used by the Austin Motor Company as early as 1912 as one of the designations for Phaeton types of body offered on the 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40hp chassis designs. For the 20 and 30hp models, ‘Vitesse’ was also referenced with the Tourer body style up until 1916 when Austin stopped using the name.

Triumph then used the Vitesse identity from 1934 until 1936 for a tuned version of the six-cylinder Gloria and then again from 1962 for the small capacity six-cylinder version of the Herald chassis-based saloon and convertible models. The use of the name for Rover’s VHPD would not be formally adopted until after January 1982, according to the VIN Plate Information issued by the Homologation Department at Cowley.

Preparing for its photoshoot

With a planned reveal at the 1982 British Motor Show, Corporate Advertising and Promotions Manager Ian Elliott was given the task of getting the Rover Vitesse photographed for the Motor Show launch project. Writing in the June 1999 issue of Freewheel, Ian disclosed that the only vehicle resembling the final signed-off specification was the styling mock-up finished in Silverleaf metallic. This was a non-running car with iron weights placed throughout the car to act as ballast in order to achieve the one-inch lower ride height.

Featuring all the correct special trim features this car was collected from the Longbridge Styling Studio and transported to the photographic studio in Leamington Spa. In contrast the photo-shoot for the official press photos which took place in the scenic parkland of Blenheim Palace proved to be more straightforward, as the photographer had a running example to work with. This example was finished in Monza Red and for photographic purposes only displayed the registration number ABW 682Y (above and below). According to DVLA records this registration number actually belonged to a Morris Ital.

Those efforts for press and promotional purposes would be worth it however, as the announcement of this new VHPD for the Rover marque would receive plenty of encouraging editorial coverage.

Rover SD1 Vitesse

Race bred for the fast lane

Announced on Tuesday, 19 October 1982, the production-spec Rover SD1 Vitesse could be found on Stand 323 in the National Exhibition Centre. The official Motor Show Guide states that three examples were exhibited as part of a 36-car display showcasing models from across the entire Austin Rover Group (ARG) range. Based on the 3500 SE, the Vitesse’s equipment levels extended to ventilated front disc brakes with four-pot calipers, lowered suspension with spring and damper rates increased by 20 per cent and an upgraded radio/stereo cassette player with four speakers.

Front seat occupants were treated to new sports-style seats finished in Flint Grey sculptured velvet with lighter coloured Osprey plain velvet borders. On the dashboard facia and in the door casings there were satin finished straight grain wood inserts, while the regular steering wheel design now featured a ‘Vitesse’ script across the lower part of the boss. On the outside the Vitesse shared the same aerodynamic front spoiler with fog lamps as fitted to the majority of SD1 derivatives.

However, this VHPD also benefited from having rear wheel arch spats and a polyurethane tailgate spoiler which produced an additional 86lbs of downforce when travelling at 100mph or more. Collectively, these aerodynamic aids improved the Vitesse’s drag factor from 0.40 to 0.36 and enabled it to have a clamed top speed of 135mph, making it the fastest production Rover at that time. These aerodynamic aids would also be fitted to the race-spec cars competing in the British Saloon Car Championship (BSCC) as part of the homologational requirements for the Group A class.

Impressing the motoring press?

Rover SD1 Vitesse

With an on-the-road price of £14,950 the SD1 Vitesse was the most expensive derivative in the SD1’s line-up, costing £1050 more than the luxury Vanden Plas. The only optional extras available were air conditioning at £1011.13 and electric operation of the standard fit sunroof which cost £113. Sales of the Vitesse were initially available to special order only through a handful of ARG dealers who had the necessary knowledge of working with fuel injection.

Kevin Jones, who worked in the ARG press garage at that time, remembers that the fleet of press demo cars sported consecutive registration numbers from ROE 968Y – ROE 979Y (above) and were available in all of the three available exterior colours. These were Monza Red, Moonraker Blue metallic and Silverleaf metallic.

Early road-tests in print publications found areas to be critical of although most were, in general, rather enthusiastic about the Vitesse. CAR magazine in its comparison test between the Vitesse and E28-generation BMW 528i dated 17 March 1983, praised its ability to ‘corner flatly thanks to taut, lowered suspension, while the ride is comfortable though not too stiff.’ The BMW was considered to be the winner of the test because of its sharper handling in most conditions. However, the Vitesse was commended for ‘offering that little extra performance and seat of the pants feel’, which will be enjoyed by those who ‘like the idea of the old style, big-engined British sports saloon.’

In the May 1983 issue of What Car? which ran a similar group test with the BMW 528i and also a Saab 900 Turbo, it was the BMW that was considered to be the winner based on points accrued. However, the road testers went against the results of their familiar scoring system and instead declared that ‘given the Vitesse’s spectacular performance and for sheer excitement, there was no other choice for the enthusiast.’

Motor magazine’s (April 1983) twin test of the Vitesse against the BMW 528i was even more won over by the Cowley offering and concluded: ‘There’s a new champ and it’s British. The Vitesse may be a more flawed design than the BMW, but where it’s good it’s great. The Vitesse offers a driving experience that seems almost cheap at the price. If there’s such a thing as the ‘poor man’s Aston Martin’, the Vitesse is it – a truly desirable car.’

Fit for Royalty

The SD1 Vitesse was also getting an unofficial seal of approval from members of the Royal family who were spotted driving one. This included Prince Edward who was photographed by The Sun newspaper driving the ex-press demo car ROE 970Y finished in Monza Red, which had been briefly loaned to him by ARG until a more permanent lease example had become available. Even Princess Anne was seen driving a Moonraker Blue metallic example wearing her personal registration number PYP IR, named after her favourite horse.

Early print advertisements were certainly frank in their performance message, with prominent straplines being used. These included ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ and ‘Move Over or Move Out Of The Way’ for the joint launch campaign for the SD1 Vitesse and MG Metro Turbo. This was followed by ‘Race Bred for the Fast Lane’.

Entering motor sport

Rover SD1 touring cars

On race circuits the SD1 Vitesse would prove it could take on the opposition and deliver some impressive wins. Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) had been running and managing the works Rovers under contract to Austin Rover Group Motorsport since the 1981 season. The 1983 Trimoco RAC British Saloon Car Championship (BSCC) running to new Group A regulations would see the Rover SD1 in new Vitesse guise competing.

Two works Vitesses with Sanyo/ESSO sponsorship would be entered driven by regular drivers Jeff Allam and Peter Lovett. Meanwhile, a third works car was driven by newcomer Steve Soper and displayed Hepolite and Glacier sponsorship. There were also single car TWR teams competing in the French National Championship and Belgian series. Rene Metge was the driver chosen for the French National Championship, while Eddy Joosen was selected to campaign the Vitesse in the Belgian series.

The three UK-based Vitesses made their BSCC debut at Silverstone on 20 March 1983. Despite the race being hampered by heavy rain, all three cars finished and took the first three finishing positions. Similar success was enjoyed at Oulton Park, while there were further wins at Brands Hatch, Thruxton and Silverstone. The works Vitesses would also enter rounds of the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) held at the Nurburgring and Spa. Neither of the two cars entered for the Nurburgring event finished, although in the Spa 24 Hours Race the car of Jeff Allam and Peter Lovett managed to finish third.

Courting controversy

There would be further podium places in the BSCC although towards the end of the season questions were being raised relating to whether the Rovers were fully compliant with the Group A regulations. As Allan Scott, the former Manager of TWR’s Race Engine Division recalls in his 2014 book, TWR and Rover’s SD1, the eligibility protests ranged from the capacity of the Rover’s engine to its valve gear, the rear suspension and even wheels and tyres.

Allan writes that many of these protests were made by Frank Sytner who was driving a BMW 635i, with TWR then protesting over the compliance of the BMW 635is. Appeals and counter-appeals were lodged by both teams. This was followed by Tom Walkinshaw deciding to serve a writ on the Royal Automobile Club Motorsport Association (RACMSA), which he claimed was taking too long to make a decision over the allegations. As a consequence, this would delay determining who had won the 1983 BSCC until July 1984 after a court hearing had taken place.

The TWR Group A SD1 Vitesse would also be entered into rallying, making its debut at the Criterium Lucien Bianchi Rally in Belgium on 3 September 1983. Its success in rallying was mixed mainly due to the size of the SD1 proving to be a disadvantage on some of the stages with tighter turns. In addition, the cars did not receive the same amount of precedence from TWR as the BSCC and ETCC activities. However, two of the ARG Motorsport Vitesses built to Group 2 specification did enjoy success in the French Trophee Jean Francois Piot Rally, with Tony Pond finishing third overall and first in the Group 2 class.

Print advertisements were soon capitalising on the Vitesse’s various motorsport wins, with slogans such as ‘The Power of Good Breeding’ and ‘We Race, You Win’ reaffirming the confidence ARG had in its motorsport activities.

Appealing to a younger driver

Entering the SD1 Vitesse in motor sport had not only helped raise its profile, but as disclosed in Allan Scott’s book, had also assisted in lowering the average age of a Rover Vitesse driver from 45 to 35 years old. Changes to the production car for the first year would therefore be limited to making the side decals a deletable no cost option from early 1983, for those buyers who found them showy, and extending the colour range to four to include clearcoat black from April of that year.

Automatic transmission also followed to meet a growing demand from buyers. Once homologated for the Vitesse it was offered from the third quarter of 1983 as a no cost option and could also be specified with cruise control, which was a £206.34 option. The availability of automatic transmission also highlighted a growing desire from some buyers for the Vitesse’s performance and enhanced ride and handling dynamics, but with an even higher level of luxury appointments. This was addressed in May 1984 with the introduction of the 3500 Vanden Plas EFi which cost £310 more than the Vitesse and could only be specified with automatic transmission.

Receiving its first update

The SD1 Vitesse would not receive its first significant update until October 1984. In the showroom it was no longer sold as a special order only model but now as a regular production model due to the level of interest it received, so there was little need to introduce any radical changes. On the outside, the more eagle-eyed enthusiast would have spotted that the rear wheel arch spats and side decals had been discontinued. Door side protection strips, as already fitted to the Vanden Plas models, were introduced while the exterior colour Monza Red was replaced by a deeper shade called Targa Red which was a standard mainline colour.

However, the most noticeable change was the fitting of a new, deeper front air dam spoiler which was introduced as a consequence of homologation requirements for the forthcoming 1985 ETCC. This had been fitted on the works Vitesses during several races of the French National Championships towards the end of the 1984 season.

Denis Chick, who was by now a Public Affairs Executive for British Leyland Public Relations, confirms that the basic configuration for the air dam was initially a ‘cut and shut’ affair. This was undertaken by ARG Motorsport and developed further through wind tunnel testing. When it was decided to use it on the works Vitesses and also fit it to production cars for homologation purposes, the spoiler was then handed over to the Design Team to be refined while Engineering looked to turn it into a production item.

Some observers considered the new air dam spoiler to look rather brash against the SD1’s sleek profile, while some Vitesse owners subsequently found it delivered greater vulnerability when it came to negotiating sleeping policemen. However, there was no denying the significant benefits it had in reducing frontal lift at high speeds. When driven on the race track at speeds over 100mph, the level of additional downforce generated equated to the weight of a second engine over the front wheels.

Inside the cabin the most noticeable enhancement was the change of the wood inserts to gloss finish burr walnut, as already fitted to the Vanden Plas derivatives. At the same time the standard equipment specification was tweaked slightly whereby an electrically-operated sunroof was now fitted as standard. Collectively these changes for the 1985 Model Year saw the Vitesse’s on-the-road price increased slightly to £15,464.53. Motoring journalist John Simister remembers that the Targa Red show car displayed on the ARG stand at the 1984 British Motor Show and later registered as B28 OAC, became Motor magazine’s long-term test car, which he regularly got to drive.

Withdrawing from the BSCC despite podium wins.

In motorsport, the works SD1 Vitesses were still creating interest both on and off the track. For the 1984 season the Group A engines were now producing 305bhp. Seasoned rally driver Tony Pond now joined the regular team of BSSC works drivers comprising of Jeff Allam, Peter Lovett and Steve Soper, while Marc Duez and Armin Hahne were signed up for the new ETCC team. Other Vitesse drivers were Andy Rouse, who was driving a semi-works car sponsored by Industrial Control Services, and Dennis Leech as a privateer.

The Donington round of the BSCC was perhaps one of the most memorable, with Andy Rouse being the first past the chequered flag followed in succession by works drivers Steve Soper, Tony Pond and Peter Lovett.

However, its ongoing success would be cut short following the outcome of the aforementioned court hearing held in relation to the eligibility of the Rover’s rockers for the 1983 season. Allan Scott discloses in his book the proceedings of the tribunal, whose verdict would ultimately rule that the fixed adjusting screws on the Group A Rover’s rockers were illegal. This was contrary to a previous decision made by RACMSA officials who had declared them to be compliant with the rules. As a consequence of the tribunal’s ruling, ARG Motorsport decided to withdraw all their works Vitesses from competing in the remaining BSCC races held on UK race circuits. Instead, they would focus their efforts on the ETCC.

This would be a questionable decision as podium places had become a regular occurrence for the works drivers in the majority of the BSCC races. Andy Rouse would go on to win the 1984 Drivers’ Championship after the withdrawal of the works cars. In the ETCC, there had been less impressive results for the Vitesse against the might of BMW and Volvo, even though points had been accrued in the last eight of 14 races. However, in rallying Tony Pond managed to finish third overall in the Manx Rally and was winner of the Group A class.

The following year would see a greater focus on the ETCC by ARG Motorsport and TWR. For the SD1 Vitesse itself, there would be a number of interesting developments for it in motor sport and the showroom.

Focusing on the European Touring Car Championship

The 1985 season had started well for the SD1 Vitesse, with a second place finish for Tom Walkinshaw and Ron Dickson in the Pukoke stage of the Nissan Sport 500 Race held in New Zealand. By the time the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) commenced the Group A-spec engine was producing 311bhp at 7500rpm, while the works Vitesses were sporting a new red and white livery of the Bastos cigarette brand as the new main sponsor.

New signing Win Percy proved to be an important addition to the ETCC team managed by Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). At Monza he and co-driver Tom Walkinshaw finished first, followed by Jean-Louis Schlesser and Eddy Joosen in second place and Jeff Allam and Armin Hahne in third. Further wins for the works Vitesse drivers were enjoyed at Vallelunga and Donington, with regular podium places for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Jean-Louis Schlesser would win the French National Championship before the final race had taken place.

The Twin-Plenum Vitesse

The final development for the production SD1 Vitesse was the introduction of a twin side entry throttle plenum fuel injection system – informally referred to as the ‘twin-plenum’. This new evolution inlet design was done so as to provide an improved air/fuel mixture to each cylinder to help increase engine power and torque. More crucially, it would be an important enhancement to aid the Vitesse’s performance in the 1986 ETCC against increasingly competitive European opposition.

Corresponding with the author in September 2017, Allan Scott, the former Manager of TWR’s Race Engine Division, said that the twin-plenum concept had initially been his responsibility before being handed over to Lotus Engineering for type approval. This was in 1985, with Lotus also being required to undertake further development of the twin-plenum system as a production version for a limited number of road cars.

As part of the homologation requirements for the 1986 ETCC, five hundred production examples with the twin-plenum fuel-injection system had to be built. Author James Taylor refers in his book, Rover SD1: The Full Story 1976-1986, to research undertaken by the Rover SD1 Club which reveals that the twin-plenum injection Vitesse was built in two batches from June 1985.

Furthermore, upon leaving the Cowley assembly line, each car in the first batch was then transported to the Lotus Engineering works at Hethel to be fitted with the twin-plenum fuel-injection system. Examples built in the second batch from November 1985 to July 1986 had their fuel-injection system fitted at Cowley as part of their mainline build process. All examples were built in right-hand drive form only.

The twin-plenum SD1 Vitesse went on sale from November 1985 and featured the SD1’s general 1986 Model Year (MY) enhancements of additional side repeater lamps in the front wings and the radio’s aerial incorporated in the tailgate glass. The official price list dated 16 October 1985 shows the Vitesse had a recommended retail price of £16,295.50, with air conditioning continuing to be an extra cost option.

A subtle one-line reference to the twin-plenum engine was made in the official Cars sales brochure from January 1986 and stated that the Vitesse’s fuel-injected V8 engine was ‘now fitted with the motor sport developed twin throttle plenum induction system’. Beyond this there was no further publicity about the twin-plenum spec engine in ARG’s advertising. Even the ‘Leader by Nature – Paris by Lunchtime – Car by Rover’ print advertisement featuring a sideways shot of a Moonraker Blue metallic Vitesse, resisted the opportunity to extol the virtues of this engine. Instead, the image was adjusted to feature the aforementioned 1986 MY enhancements.

Officially the twin-plenum engine did not produce any more power than the regular single-throttle plenum injection system, with the main benefit being a marginal improvement in mid-range throttle response. However, some former ARG employees such as Denis Chick, who had been a Product Affairs Executive at the time, suggest that the twin-plenum specification engine was producing in the region of 210bhp, although it continued to be officially rated at 190bhp so that it didn’t need to be re-homologated.

Paris by Lunchtime - car by Rover

The WL9 cam

One feature that wasn’t fitted to the twin-plenum Vitesse was the WL9 cam. Allan Scott recalls the WL9 (Walters Leyland) cam profile was designed by Chris Walters Engineering and first used in the French Championship in 1984. The benefit of the WL9 cam was that it ‘slightly reduced the valve’s open/closed timing period in order to improve lower revolutions-per-minute power. In addition, increased acceleration of the valve enabled a small increase in valve lift within the reduced time period which lead to improved mid and upper power outputs.’

Corresponding with the author in February 2003, former ARG Motorsport Director John Davenport disclosed that the WL9 cam was developed by the Motorsport division and fitted to around twenty of the company’s own cars and a few clients’ vehicles. ARG’s Engineering Division also fitted some WL9 cams to engines for testing as assessment, but it was never accepted for full scale production. As it was not a required part of the homologation regulations for the ETCC race cars, it did not need to be fitted to the road-going cars.

The 1986 ETCC season

Rover SD1 Vitesse - ETCC

The 1986 ETCC season would be intense, with the real threat now being Volvo’s 240 Turbo with its variable boost which wasn’t governed by the Group A rules. According to Allan Scott’s book TWR and Rover’s SD1, the Group A SD1 Vitesse featuring the twin-plenum fuel-injection system, together with a compression ratio of 12.5:1 and new exhaust manifolds, was now producing 345bhp at 7300rpm.

The works Vitesses would take podium wins at Monza, Donington, Anderstop, Brno, Zolder, Jarama in Spain and Estoril in Portugal. At the Nurburgring an eligibility issue was raised in relation to the race cars not having the side rubbing strips as fitted to the road cars. In response to this, the items were duly removed from the road cars and fitted to the race cars. Works Vitesse driver Armin Hahne then went on to finish third.

However, the most spectacular result was in the one-off round at the British Grand Prix held at Brands Hatch. Here, the works Vitesses took first and second places, followed by privateer Dennis Leech in fourth, Pete Hall in fifth and Mike O’Brien in sixth place.

The works Vitesses had undoubtedly delivered their best performance yet in a four-year racing career and would have won both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ Championships in the ETCC if it hadn’t been for the new scoring system. This saw the number of selected races where both manufacturers and drivers could choose to have points removed from being increased to five races. For races where the drivers scored no points, this could work in their favour. However, for drivers such as Win Percy who had accrued points in all the races, it meant he now lost out to Roberto Ravaglia who had previously been trailing by 27 points. Not only did Ravaglia win the Drivers’ Championship, it also meant that BMW won the Manufacturers’ Championship by just three points.

Macau held on 23 November 1986 would be the last official outing for the works Vitesses. The Watson-sponsored Vitesse driven by Tom Walkinshaw finished second while team member Gianfranco Brancatelli did not finish. Allan Scott discloses in his book that there were plans to develop a further evolution model for 1987 complete with a larger engine capacity and other performance enhancements, which would have resulted in nearly 390bhp being achievable. However, this was ultimately not taken forward.

The 3.9 Vitesse (for a select few)

The availability of a 3.9-litre engine developed by Andy Rouse Engineering was never fitted to line-built Vitesses. Nevertheless, Ian Elliott, who was ARG’s Corporate Advertising and Promotions Manager at the time, remembers that a small number of these engines were specially built for senior ARG Directors and also for special clients. One such client was Noel Edmunds, who had at the time presented a lot of corporate ARG television adverts. As part of the deal he had a number of the company’s cars on loan. One day, the special 3.9-litre engine in Noel’s loan SD1 Vitesse disgraced itself by leaving a big pool of oil in the BBC Pebble Mill car park. Noel swears blind that he didn’t thrash it or anything!

End of the road for the SD1

The original intention had been to continue production of the SD1 into 1987 to help bridge the gap in the phased introduction programme for the Rover 800 Series, such as the launch of the Fastback bodystyle and corresponding Vitesse variant. However, in July 1986 production of the SD1 ended. The final Cowley-built SD1 was a twin-plenum Vitesse finished in Silverleaf metallic and registered in June 1987 as D537 PUK. It was handed over to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust (now the British Motor Museum) to become part of their collection of historic vehicles.

Figures provided by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust confirm that 3897 examples of the SD1 Vitesse had been built. From this figure just 363 examples had been specified with automatic transmission. The best year was 1983 when 1437 examples had been completed. The Vitesse’s average production amounted to just over five percent of all Cowley-built SD1s over the same period.

The last new car price list with an entry for the SD1 Vitesse was dated 18 August 1986 and shows that its recommended retail price was £17,029.29. This had remained unchanged since February of that year. New unsold examples would remain available as recently as late summer 1987, thereby attracting E-registrations.

Those unsold examples would be given an additional publicity boost in January 1987 when Prince Edward was filmed by the national media driving an SD1 Vitesse. This was in relation to the news about his decision to leave his armed forces career, with the footage showing him driving away from the Royal Marines Training Camp at Lympstone in East Devon. Registered as D393 CWK, this Silverleaf metallic example was, according to Helen Walch of the Sandringham Estate, a leased vehicle and presumably supplied directly from ARG.

A small number of SD1 Vitesses would also be acquired by the Metropolitan Police for use by the Royal Protection Squad, while several police forces are also known to have bought them. This included several examples finished in white which was a colour choice not officially offered on the Vitesse.

The SD1 Vitesse’s lasting legacy

Meanwhile, the SD1 Vitesse’s presence continued in the renamed 1987 Dunlop RAC British Touring Car Championship, thanks to a number of privateers. One of them was seasoned SD1 driver Dennis Leech, who won the third round held at Thruxton on 20 April 1987. At the end of the season Dennis finished sixth in the Drivers’ Championship – Tim Harvey, another SD1 Vitesse driver, and Toyota Corolla GT driver, Geoff Kimber-Smith, who each shared fourth place, beat him by just one point. Dennis would be the sole SD1 Vitesse driver in the 1988 Championship and took part in six rounds, with Brands Hatch being his final race.

Since the SD1 Vitesse’s introduction into motorsport from March 1983, TWR had built and managed no less than eighteen works examples on behalf of ARG Motorsport. As Allan Scott’s book attests, of these, three examples were rally cars which had campaigned in various events from 1983 until 1985 when it was superseded by the MG Metro 6R4. For the foreseeable future the renamed Rover Group would no longer see participation in motorsport as a priority for helping to raise the profile of its high performance offerings.


  1. ‘The 1985 season had started well for the SD1 Vitesse, with a second place finish for Tom Walkinshaw and Ron Dickson in the Pukoke stage of the Nissan Sport 500 Race held in New Zealand.’

    Should read Pukekohe.(Pooky-koh-he, phonetically)

    A great race, I still have my race program autographed by all the drivers.

  2. Was the spec of the 3.9-litre Vitesse roughly the same as the TVR 390SE that also used the Andy Rouse V8 or was it detuned compared to the TVR? The latter claimed an output of 275 that is generally disregarded by aficionados, with a healthy 3.9-litre used in the 390SE being capable of producing in excess of 240+ hp.

  3. Very interesting article on this lovely version of the SD1. In 1984 I attended the press launch of the Rover 200 (SD3) in Northumberland. I remember the Rover Press / PR Guy turned up in a red SD1 Vitesse.

    The BBC filmed that same car parked alongside a 200 series to contrast it with the different design of the new small Rover.

    • All that effort spent on shedding the “Auntie” image, then in came the definitive modern Auntie, the 1984 200. I appreciate that needs must, and the 200 did far better than the M-twins, but still, the schizophrenia BL foisted on the Rover brand was something it never recovered from.

      • The 200 should really have been a Triumph, but British Leyland, except for MG,,wanted to brand everything as an Austin or Rover. The thinking was the 200 was a more upmarket car than the Maestro being a saloon with better equipped lower spec models, so it would be badged as a Rover.

        • Glenn, that’s right. at the time of launch Harold Musgrove told the Press that the R200 series was aimed as an upmarket car for those in their 30s whose careers were blossoming! The later 1600cc models backed that up

          • Unlike the Triumph Acclaim, the Rover 200 was a more complete range of cars with two engine options and a sporting Vitesse option. Possibly the car was seen as a successor to the much missed Triumph Dolomite. Also, unlike the hatchback Maestro, all versions of the 200 had a five speed transmission and a higher level of equipment.

      • The initial 213 was a bit Auntie, but the 216 Vitesse certainly wasn’t! Indeed the later SD3s looked pretty sharp and had quite a good image, a 216 Vitesse was definitely considered quite sporty, the sort of car a modern day A3, 1 series, A class driver would consider.

        • My parents had two Rover 213s and the main thing they noticed was the smoothness of the engine, which added to the car’s upmarket ambitions. Certainly a 213 was a far quieter place to be than a 1.3 Maestro and vastly better than a 1.3 Escort, which by the late eighties was a noisy old nail. Then being a Honda unit, the reliability was another reason for buying.

  4. I started working at Canley in late 1981 while many interesting things were happening and many not happening…

    The 4-Weber carb car was in the Building 50 workshop but the word at the time was that being difficult to balance, they couldn’t realistically expect a BL dealer to get it right.

    There was also a silver SD1 with ‘Rapide’ sidestripes in the nearby Engineering car park. Close to it was a TR7 with the planned 81MY SD1-esque side groove in place of the rising swage. It looked so much better.

  5. While the engine limit for the BSCC/BTCC was increased to 3.5-litres in 1980 thereby allowing the Rover SD1 and others to compete, after the original 3-litre limit was imposed in 1976 to stop large American V8 cars like the 5.7-litre Chevrolet Camaro Z28 from competing in the series, cannot really see any specific car dominating the series had a 4-litre engine limit been instead introduced from 1976. .

  6. Wonderfully detailed account. An additional little bit of trivia (as mentioned in James Taylor’s book) is that the new air dam spoiler fitted from late 1984 wasn’t compatible with the front fog lights which were previously standard on Vitesse. So they were simply dropped from the specification.

  7. A cracking car. By moving to the FWD XX platform, ARG definitely lost something as the SD1 Vitesse was such a great halo model for the range

  8. An excellent car that was the fastest hatchback in the world when launched and proved the Rover SD1 was still a contender. I can remember Car magazine raving about the Vitesse for its looks, performance and almost Aston Martin like feel. It was always a personal favourite and by 1983 most of Rover’s quality issues had been beaten.

  9. Great article. Lots of additional history of the vitesse story. Amazed to see my car D393CWK mentioned. Have now found video on line of Prince Edward driving it when he left the Marines!

    • @ David Scott:

      Good to hear that D393 CWK still survives, I wondered what had happened to it. I recall seeing the footage of Prince Edward’s departure from the Royal Marines in East Devon in January 1987 – I know the A376 road which runs past the Royal Marines Training Camp very well – and it attracted national television interest as well as our then local television station TSW (Television South West) to the Training Camp. Interestingly, when Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, Westcountry Television (the successor to TSW for the westcountry television franchise) gave it a mention on their six o’clock evening regional news programme and re-showed footage from the TSW archive of Prince Edward leaving the main entrance of the Royal Marines Training Camp in his Rover 3500 Vitesse.

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