Think the idea of a new-age Land Rover Defender came along with Gerry McGovern’s smooth reboot? Think again…
British Leyland’s Specialist Division had a very convincing crack at it back in the early 1970s and Keith Adams pieces together what we know.
Rover SD5: New age Land Rover
For all those who thought that the only Specialist Division prototypes produced were the Rover SD1 and Triumph SD2, here’s something of a treat for you. During the early 1970s, BL management investigated the possibility of replacing its long-lived Land Rover.
The project was handed over to the Specialist Division, which was asked to come up with a low-cost, easy to produce off-roader that would ultimately replace the Land Rover Series models. The project was codenamed SD5 (leaving us to wonder what SD3 and SD4 were), and the plan was to develop a model which would carry on the Land Rover name into the 1980s and beyond.
The project was instigated in 1974 and was conceived as a modular vehicle available in a couple of wheelbases with a variety of open and closed bodystyles that mirrored what Land Rover offered with the Series 3. So, short- and long-wheelbase models were sketched, as well as a pick-up to complement the ‘estate’-bodied models in passenger and commercial forms.
What did the Land Rover SD5 look like?
Replacing the Land Rover Series 3 was always going to be a challenge, but if any Design Team was going to make a successful job of it, that would be the Solihull studio under the leadership of David Bache. The brilliant Series 3 redesign had been handled by the same team, and its proposed replacement was set to move forward Land Rover into the 1980s.
A number of styling schemes were developed, but the utilitarian version (below) emerged as the favourite – and, although it was quite basic in its design, it was undeniably good looking, with plenty of the firm’s DNA flowing through its veins.
Having said that, there’s an undeniable whiff of Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen here, but this predated that car by several years, and any similarity was purely coincidental. Another car that looked similar was the Fiat Nuova Campagnola, which was launched in 1974 and was the mainstay of Italy’s military market. Clearly, there’s only so much differentiation you can make between utilitarian vehicles.
How far did the SD5 get?
Out of the two wheelbases, it was the shorter model that made the transition from paper to full-size model. The short-wheelbase SD5 was created as a full-sized mockup that housed the engine and had a functional interior and was created for management to see what it looked like and how it was packaged in the metal.
The photograph of the buck (below) clearly demonstrates that the new car ticked all of the Series 3 boxes and would have been very effective with Rover V8 power under the bonnet (as is the case in the pictures). The wheelbase was similar to the Series 3’s 88in, which ensured it was going to be just as good off-road than the original car.
What happened to the SD5?
According to an article published in Land Rover Owner magazine in March 1995, the full-sized mock-up (below) was shown to BL management on 23 September 1975 alongside a Series 3 and a Range Rover for comparative purposes. It was greeted positively, but a firm commitment to continue with the project was not forthcoming.
However, in the event, this development came along just as BL was undergoing an existential crisis following the Government bailout earlier that year. The Specialist Division’s design and engineering autonomy would be reduced and the company concentrated on its most important projects – getting the SD1, keeping the SD2 flame alive, and getting the LC10 project underway.
As Solihull still had a waiting list for the Land Rover Series 3 and Range Rover, the SD5 fell down the list of priorities, as cleaning up the mess in the middle of the range was considered way more urgent. The inevitable happened, funding for the project was a no-go in the cost-constrained Ryder Report era, and Land Rover’s next major development would have to wait for the Stage One V8, launched (for export only) in 1979.
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