Concepts and prototypes : Rover SD1 Estate (1976-1978)

The Rover SD1 Estate is a fascinating study into how it is possible to convert a sporting fastback into a usable estate car.

It was deemed so successful in terms of concept that BL Chairman and Chief Executive, Michael Edwardes, adopted one of the two running prototypes produced, and used it as his daily runner. However, we weren’t given the opportunity to follow in his footsteps – and the car remained very much off the production plan.


Rover 3500E: the Volvo basher…

Sir Michael Edwards' Rover SD1 estate was a regular sighting in the City of London between 1977 and 1979 - and proved a popular magazine scoop of the time.
Sir Michael Edwardes’ Rover SD1 Estate was a regular sighting in the City of London between 1977 and 1979 – and proved a popular magazine scoop of the time

The story of the Rover SD1 estate car is another one of those nuggets of BL trivia that would never have escaped into the public domain had it not been for the concept’s attractiveness to Michael Edwardes in 1977. The newly-installed BL boss had spotted the SD1 hold-all in the Prototype Department and, sensing that it had done all it was going to do there, he took it on himself. The Chairman’s motor, therefore, was a suitable one-off.

It was a late, and some would say subsidiary, addition to the SD1 programme, and one that would have extended the car’s appeal to the emerging management classes that had taken the Ford Granada and Volvo estates to their collective hearts. By the time the Design Department started to examine the possibility of producing this additional SD1, finances and resources were tight – a result of the Ryder Report – and that meant outsourcing…

Once the design was finalised, Carbodies of Coventry was commissioned to produce a clay buck (right) for evaluation. That was judged a success, and Board approval was given to pursue the project further. At that point, BL took the project inhouse, and converted two SD1 saloons into estate cars: LOE 99P, registered 17 February 1976 (and now preserved at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon) and SHP 549R, registered 20 January 1977 (the one used by Michael Edwardes, and now resident in the Haynes Motor Museum).

Some questions over which SD1 was which

The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust at Gaydon has claimed that its car is the Edwardes one but, as it’s been untaxed since February 1977, it is very unlikely to be the case. According to Karen Pender’s Rover SD1 book, though, LOE is believed to have been used by Prince Charles for a while…

Interestingly, as can be seen in the photos below, these two cars have rather different tailgate treatments. SHP has a clamshell-style tailgate with rear wiper, similar to that shown on the Carbodies model, while LOE has a less stylish Volvo 240-style inset tailgate. This suggests that work may already have started on LOE before BL saw the Carbodies model, although this needs official confirmation.

The Heritage Motor Centre's SD1 estate. Note the inset tailgate...
The British Motor Museum’s SD1 Estate. Note the inset tailgate…
Haynes' SD1 estate, which sports a more attractive clamshell tailgate. Note the odd mix of wheeltrims and interior appointments. The car appears to have been retrospectively converted to Vanden Plas specification judging from the rear head restraints and side rubbing strips.
Haynes’ SD1 Estate, which sports a more attractive clamshell tailgate. Note the odd mix of wheeltrims and interior appointments. The car appears to have been retrospectively converted to Vanden Plas specification judging from the rear head restraints and side rubbing strips

The early shot of SHP as seen at the top of the page shows appealing early SD1-spec minimalism, but that was not to last. It has clearly been upgraded to Vanden Plas specification (but without the alloy wheels) at some point since then (probably at Edwardes’ behest, so as not to be left behind by the 1980 Model Year revised models), as there is no sign yet of the rear-head restraints, rubbing strips, chrome-backed door mirrors, extra badging and side-repeater indicators.

It remained taxed until November 1987. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but it looks like SHP may have had R O V E R badging on the tailgate, à la the 75 Tourer. But it now sports post-1980 style scripting and the Rover 3500E moniker for good measure.

Michael Edwards' SD1 estate - now in Vanden Plas form, and still on display at the Haynes Motor Museum in Sparkford.
Sir Michael Edwardes’ SD1 Estate – now in Vanden Plas form, and still on display at the Haynes Motor Museum in Sparkford

Terry Orchard took the four above pictures of the SD1 Estate that resides in Sparkford. He said: 'I had the good fortune to drive the SD1 Estate at the Haynes Museum test track at Sparkford in October 2008. I was invited by Classics Monthly to take my Series 1 P6 Estoura 3500 for a photo shoot of unusual estate cars. The Haynes Museum had put an MoT on the SD1 prototype. I drove it myself a few laps of the test track, getting quite a buzz being one of the first to drive it after it had spent so many years on display in the Museum.'
Terry Orchard took the four above pictures of the SD1 Estate that resides in Sparkford. He said: ‘I had the good fortune to drive the SD1 Estate at the Haynes Museum test track at Sparkford in October 2008. I was invited by Classics Monthly to take my Series 1 P6 Estoura 3500 for a photo shoot of unusual estate cars. The Haynes Museum had put an MoT on the SD1 prototype. I drove it myself a few laps of the test track, getting quite a buzz being one of the first to drive it after it had spent so many years on display in the Museum.’

As for the car itself, it disappeared from the product plans sometime around 1980 – the point in time, when it became clear that the SD1’s future shelf life would be limited, and that the potential benefit in market share would be negated by the investment costs required in order to get it into production. Moreover, with the SD1 line’s removal from Solihull and subsequent move to Cowley – and its 1982 Model Year revisions eating up vital budget needed to get the Maestro and Montego into production, it was clear that there would only be one fate for this promising car.

The good thing is that at least the two running prototypes were retained – and are still available for you to see…

Declan Berridge

Without Declan’s hard work, this site simply wouldn’t exist. An avid car enthusiast with a fleet including two ADO16s and a pair of classic Fiats, Declan’s choice of classics is second to none…

23 Comments

  1. The side repeaters look pointless on top of the wing above the front indicator.

    Maybe if they were back a bit on the wing and lower down they would look better. Is that not the point of side repeaters?

    Very elegant car. Would’ve made a nice shooting brake in production, in Vanden Plas spec – an on-road Range Rover!

  2. From pictures on the web it would appear that SHP549R has more rear overhang and more slope on the rear window than LOE99P.

  3. Perhaps if the estate had been put in to production it would have taken some sales away from Volvo. It would have been far more viable than the P6 (admittedly not factory produced but supported) which was rather lacking on estate ‘space’.

  4. A clever concept, and six cylinder versions would have eaten into the 2 to 3 litre estate market dominated by Ford and Volvo, and would have made an ideal replacement for the Triumph estates that were cancelled in 1977.

  5. Certainly NOT of “Discovery” proportions, but I’ve just noticed the somewhat Citroen’esque “two-level” raised roof.

  6. There is an interesting interview with former Rover designer Kevin Spindler about this very car which can be found on the DVD celebrating 40 years of the Rover SD1.

  7. Honestly it almost makes you cry with frustration. How could these people make so many mistakes, it’s like playing Russian Roulette with a full clip.
    I had an sd1 and the boot was so big you could almost fit another two rows of seats in it.
    Imagine if this had been made with the Vitesse TP engine – there’d have been nothing remotely like it available.
    Its probably big enough in estate to make a small fast ambulance out of it. I know a 6ft redhead can fit comfortably with the seats down so I’m pretty sure a gurney would.
    Imagine – a hatchback, estate and convertible/targa SD1. And maybe later an MPV based on the platform too – a 3.5 v8 version of the Espace, could mount the engine on a sliding tray for maintenance. For the really odd human beans – you could easily make a camper out of it, the hatch included!*
    They spent who knows how much getting the SD1 into production – so why wouldn’t you leverage the platform as much as possible. Chrysler did with the K cars and these are the people who thought merging with FIAT of all people was a great idea. The Ks eventually had estate, two different convertibles, saloon, lwb saloon, and minivans, not to mention 3 different turbo engines available, and a fourth if you were really insane (the turbo IV 225hp based off a 93hp 4). And I think there were two swb developments from the Ks – one being the Sundance – kind of like a redneck Cavalier SRi. I think there might have been a pickup even.

    *The Australians did it with camper van versions of ADO17! Although I’m thinking more C15 camper than the motorhome type.

    • The problem was, they could not build enough SD1s when they could sell them, and then when the quality issues became known, they could not sell them at a viable price, so investing in an Estate would have consumed very limited funds and little if any returns.

      The SD1 and TR7 were at heart sound cars that should have gone on to provide derivatives, but both launched woefully under developed and then badly built (when they were actually built) squandered the opportunity and market share. In the end BL simply no longer built cars in economic numbers to design and engineer its own cars.

      • Oddly enough, they never sold enough SD1s to warrant a night shift. The engineering was never “sound”……the body was terrible, full of rust traps. The exterior trim – especially the E post grille moulding – were badly fitting – so bad that E post rot was common at two years in service, because of the rain pouring inside it. The sills rotted because they were drilled AFTER they’d been injected and sealed – and the holes were outboard of the door seals! Awful.

        There is a reason why SD1 was the last car designed at Solihull……

        • In the early days of the SD1 they were being sold at a premium because their was a waiting list because of the production problems at the Solihull plant. If they could have got Solihull to function properly in that first year then they would have had a night shift.

          The SD1 was not alone in having its body shell issues in that time and I have a theory why this was so.

          In the late 60s you had previous PSF customers at Roots, Rover and Triumph setting up their own engineering teams. There must as a result have been a shortage of good people, Roots I think compensated in part by being able to access the resources in Detroit, with the first use of primitive computer simulations and CAD in design of the Avenger body shell, a first for the UK.

          However this was a few years off for Canley and Solihull and reflected in the issues with the P8 and P10 in their crash tests and the issues of course with the SD1.

  8. This may not go down well on this site, but I never liked the SD1. Yes,really! To me it looked like a child’s drawing of a car. the Daytona pastiche front end combined with clumsy detailing were joke compared to the svelte and stylish P6 and these proposed wagons didn’t improve matters.Still, each to their own I suppose.

  9. There was a big market for cars like this – and still is! Would have been a lot better without the hump on the roof. I was also going to say it would have looked better with the number plate on the tail gate rather than hung below the bumper – but then saw they had done that on SHP 549R.

    • Not sure there was, how many people rejected an SD1 because they needed the extra space of an Estate?

      Those however that bought Estates in late 70s early 80s were either price driven fleet buyers, and BL could not build SD1 at a price to match Ford, or people who wanted safe reliable and robust transport. While the SD1 had some credibility for safety it had little credibility for reliability or robustness to take on Volvo.

      • And you’d note……Volvo didn’t make a hatchback, only saloons and estates! That’s what the market demanded then – and now. Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes all knew this.

        • Volvo were known for their conservative designs and durability, and also their laudable commitment to driver and passenger safety. To me, they seemed to carry on where Rover left off in the seventies and I wonder how many Volvo buyers were ex Rover owners. Always found the six cylinder versions of the 200 series to be very refined cars and loaded with equipment that was rare at the time like air conditioning.

  10. The Volvo 240DL Estate my company had was a lovely car. 2.3 engine, heated seats, power steering and loads of space – a great motorway cruiser. It didn’t have alloys but traditional steel wheels & hub caps. Those were the days (1988-91)

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