Concepts and Prototypes : Land Rover SD5 (1974-1979)

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

Land Rover SD5

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?

Styling sketch clearly shows that the Solihull stylists were looking to continue where the Land-Rover left off...
Styling sketch clearly shows that the Solihull stylists were looking to continue where the Land Rover Series 3 left off…
 Hose clean interior was a must...
Hose clean interior was a must…

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.

Land Rover SD5

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.

V8 engine and short wheelbase would have been a winning combination...

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.

Land Rover SD5
Land Rover SD5: V8 engine and short wheelbase would have been a winning combination…
Keith Adams


  1. “Cheaper to produce.” The SD5 was a missed opportunity. I’m sure the current Defender must be horribly labour intensive to produce.

  2. I hope that any production model would have been better looking than the rather home made looking version shown. It doesn’t look very substantial, either – even if it was rugged, vehicles in this market segment need to look the part, too.

  3. @Richard Moss, How does it not look robust? It’s one of the most robust looking cars I’ve seen, not bad looking too, although the front is rather too similar to the 1970 Range Rover…

  4. Looks very home-made, but then the original pre-production Range Rover looked very crude in places. So this could conceivably have scrubbed up well under the pen of David Bache.

    That said, we might not have had the first gen Disco. Again very much a ‘cobbled together’ design, but extremely well done (and the mostly bespoke interior really made that car).

  5. So,
    SD1 = 5 door hatch we all know.
    SD2 = Fiat-looking Dolly replacement (correct?)
    SD3 = Rover 200 based on Honda Ballade
    SD4 = ??
    SD5 = As this article.

    What was SD4 then?

    • the Ballade-based 200-Series was never known as SD3 in development or at the time of it’s production, the name has been applied retrospectively to differentiate it from later 200 models. Besides, the article is about development in the early 70s long before the Honda partnership began.

  6. All google delivers is Land Rover Freelander diesels for SD4, which can’t be quite right…

    Project Bravo, the SD1 facelift, would it have taken a the 4th SD code?

    Always thought the SD2 was more BX than Fiat.

    • I think sd4 was a proposed replacement for the London taxi also based on range rover components

  7. It has got a Tim Dutton look about it rather than a robust LandRover look in my view.
    I think they did the right thing to leave it as a concept.
    Great to read about all these things though.

  8. Personally I think this looks great. I’m very fond of the Series Land Rovers, but this would have brought the Land Rover right up to date in the 1980s. If they’d built them as good as they looked maybe the African market wouldn’t have been lost to the Japanese… (in my alternative rose-tinted reality, a range of BL products would still be available on every continent of course!)

  9. My Uncle, Tony Poole was one of the top stylists for land Rover and gave the name to the Range Rover. He can be seen on ‘The Land Rover Story’ by James Taylor. I have his original sketch of the SD5….

  10. It is interesting to note that SD5 along with the later Land Rover Challenger prototype were derived from either the original Range Rover and Land Rover Discovery respectively (with the latter in turn derived from the former).

    Have read SD5 featured plastic bodywork and a modular construction to allow various bodystyles from pickup, hardtop, etc. Not sure whether it would have worked or whether either SD5 or Challenger would have served as adequate replacements for the original Defender, though like of the idea of a Defender replacement during that period being something akin to a British 2-door SWB Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

    Btw regarding LCV 2/3 project, is it known what the prototype was based on and what was planned for ECV 3 that ultimately never got underway (and was was envisioned to underpin the latter)?

  11. Having driven Series II and Series III Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers for work – in the UK, in the mountains in Africa and in the outback in Australia in the 1970s – I can say that the Land Cruiser was the better make. But, as with the Land Rovers, the Land Cruiser of that era was a WUV – a Work Utility Vehicle, a curiously seldom heard expression that covers medium size vehicles intended not for those who feel the need for ‘Chelsea Tractors’, but for everyday employment transport which may include the need to go off-road, certainly off metalled roads. WUVs include Series Land Rovers and the original Defender, the original Range Rover, some Land Cruisers, Champs, real Jeeps, Mercedes G-wagons, Unimogs, the Ford F250 4WD, etc.

    What they do not include are today’s Defender and all manner of current cars (the Series Land Rovers and the original Land Rover were not ‘cars’) that happen to have four wheel drive.

    What I see here is an attempt to produce what might have been the forerunner of the Discovery and today’s Defender. Had it succeeded, it could have been made alongside Land Rovers WUVs.

    The SD5 was being considered at the time (1972-1974) when I was driving Series Land Rovers and a Land Cruiser in the mountains of Lesotho – for work, not ‘sport’. I’m sure, had it come into being, the well-heeled Jo’burgers wanting a weekend away in the Maluti Mountains would have jumped at it: a fast road vehicle with a touch of luxury, and with the ability to tackle muddy dirt roads and mountain passes after heavy rain. And BL might have kept the non-work and work markets it lost world-wide to a number of Far East motor manufacturers.

  12. I worked on the Discovery 1 launch and training materials. LR reckoned they had covered the utility and luxury 4WD before aiming at the new market of Leisure 4WD.

  13. It could have worked as an intermediate vehicle between the utilitarian Land Rover Series and the Range Rover, offering a more car like drive with better sound deadening and performance and fittings like cloth seats and a radio, but without the huge running costs of the Range Rover by using four cylinder Land Rover engines. Instead people wanting an intermediate Land Rover model had to wait until 1989 and the Discovery, which became a huge success.

  14. Another example of successful and profitable parts of the BL empire being stifled by the need to prop up loss making areas.

  15. it’s a shame this design wasn’t revisited in the early 80s for the “Stage 2” coil-spring models Ninety and One Ten, it would have modernised the Land Rover line at a time when it badly needed it against new competitors from Japan. I believe the reason so much of the Series 3 was carried over was that someone at Land Rover made the decision that the new model would be built alongside the older one for a period of time (in reality it was little more than a year) so they needed to share the chassis and basic body structure, very short-sighted given the long life the Defender went on to have, disadvantaged by its antiquated 1940s-based design and build methods. the wonders of he hindsight eh

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