All the cars I’ve owned : Rover Vitesse Twin Plenum

In a driving career spanning more than 30 years and 250+ cars, Keith Adams highlights some of the highs… and lows.

Here, in the fifth of the series, it’s time to recall a Rover Vitesse bought from Autocar and fettled over a happy winter.


British Bruiser back on the pace

Rover Vitesse

So, why did I buy this Rover SD1? Need you ask… I mean, look at it! But it was a long time ago and, back in November 2003, you could still buy rusty SD1s – even Twin Plenum Vitesses – for very little money. I seized the opportunity with both hands.

Cast your minds back to when MG Rover was still in business. The company was developing a V8 powered, rear-wheel drive MG-badged version of the Rover 75, and from the details that had been leaked to the press, it was fascinating. But it kept being delayed; and that spurred the then-editor of Autocar, Steve Sutcliffe, to buy the nearest thing he could: a Rover Vitesse Twin Plenum.

The magazine ran it for a few months with several staffers having some interesting moments in it. But it was never going to be a long-term project, especially as the SD1 was proving troublesome for the mag, and it was rusting away before its eyes. So, this fun project needed to go, and when a note was put in the mag, I rang in straight away asking if I could buy it.

I imagine that the guys would have been surprised that someone would be so keen to buy this rusting beauty but, as I was living and breathing Rover at the time, it seemed like the most natural thing for me to do. Before they could have second thoughts, I hot footed it down to Teddington, and we agreed on a deal. The Vitesse was mine.

What was it like?

I didn’t have it long, and I bitterly regret that now. But I kept it long enough to realise a number of things: Rover SD1s that haven’t been well looked after are going to be unreliable, they can rust with all the vigour of a 1970s Alfa Romeo, and, if you’re a shrinking violet, these are not an inconspicuous choice.

Be that as it may, it was an absolute delight to live with, and all parts were (and are) readily available from places like Rimmer Bros. A badly adjusted throttle body, blocked air filter and severely frayed throttle cable meant it was probably only delivering 75% of its available power, but it was still a hoot on damp autumn roads.

Once those problems were fixed, it was wonderful to drive throughout a particularly damp and gloomy winter. So, it was an absolute joy to live with.

Was it an enjoyable experience?

I have so many memories of it, many which were far from fun – but that’s not really the point, is it? Filling and spraying the wheel arches in my back garden over the Christmas holiday was one.

Or learning how to powerslide a car after many, many years of front-wheel drive. Or using it to commute up the M1 to work – 100 miles a day back then – and sitting with the big boys in the outside lane. Scaring them silly, too, probably.

There was the amazing soundtrack from that V8 engine, and the joy of owning a car that I stared at lovingly every time I set eyes on it. Now I’ll admit at this point in time that, although I made money on this one, I really should have kept it – especially considering their values today.

But I didn’t, not least because I already had a rather nice Midas Gold SD1 that was draining my finances rapidly. I followed my head and decided to sell it, but my heart didn’t want it to go. So, when a chap came to buy it, I didn’t wash it, set the price high for then, and decided I’d not negotiate. However, he took one go in it, and handed over the cash there and then without even trying to negotiate. When he drove off in it – I didn’t cry. That was just some dirt in my eyes.


What I did to it?

The worst bits were the rusty wheel arches and flaky door bottoms. They drew the eye, and I feared that the impression it gave people was not that of an upcoming classic, but rather a knackered old BL car…

Because of that, I made an attempt at tidying up the cosmetics. The problem with rust is that, once it takes hold, it spreads far and wide. And in the case of the Rover, this was more than true – the arches had lost much of their original shape and, once I had cut away the worst of the rot with my angle grinder, they looked more than a little secondhand.

However, it was not all bad – the spread of rust was limited to the lower extremities of the car – other vulnerable areas such as the roof, bonnet and rear wings seemed clear of rust. That led me to filling the wings and reforming the wheel arches – albeit a little amateurishly.

Well at least with all that P38 in it, the SD1 should be appreciably lighter...

After the arches were done, I pushed it into my then-100-mile daily commute and proved that the V8 could deliver reasonable fuel consumption when driven with a degree of decorum. To be fair, the average of 27mpg was certainly on the right side of acceptable.

I soon also learned about power oversteer. It was very easy to break traction in the damp inadvertently. Roundabouts and tight corners were treated with a degree of circumspection and, although the Vitesse generated high levels of lateral grip, thanks to its wide tyres and lowered suspension, it was always best to tread fully on the throttle when pointing in a straight line.

On the motorway, the Vitesse was surprisingly good – it tracked extremely straight and had that planted feel which marks out a good performance car. Obviously, the worn rear dampers didn’t help, but all in all, it is very acceptable for a 130,000-mile car built in the 1980s.

It is a shame that there has yet to be a significant snowfall in 2003/2004 - the Vitesse's front spoiler would double as a pretty effective snowplough. Significantly, the addition of that air dam and the lowered suspension give the SD1 an air of menace, and it means that quick progress can be maintained on the motorway, as slower traffic seems quite keen to dart out of its way.
A winning front view

After a few weeks of driving it, I asked my friend Brian Gunn to have a look at it, and he noticed that the accelerator action was somewhat ‘gritty’ and the throttle bodies were in desperate need for some lubrication. The cable itself was also hanging on to the accelerator pedal by a single thread!

Dodgy accelerator cable responsible for poor throttle responseAs a result, the inlet butterflies were only opening about 75%. We also changed the clogged air filter and gave it a service.

On the road, the difference was amazing. Throttle response had improved markedly, and the Vitesse felt a lot more alert as a result. Performance certainly seemed better, although how much of this was down to it no longer needing geeing along with a heavy right foot.

In the end I sold it to make way for my other SD1, but I didn’t really want to see the back of it. I half-heartedly advertised it, and when someone got in touch to view it, I could not back out. My heart really did not want the Vitesse to go – so I did not wash or prepare it in any way. However, what I did not bank on the fact that the buyer was equally as mad about cars as I was and, following a brief drive, he decided to buy it…

Bugger!

Arches done - now, only a million and one other cosmetic issues to sort!
Arches done – a million and one other cosmetic issues to sort!
Keith Adams

7 Comments

  1. From the photos at all angles in this story, the SD1 Vitesse still looks full of character and presence, despite the age, wear & tear. I remember the press launch of the Rover 200 SD3 at Northumberland in 1984, the AR Group PR man turned up in one of these and it was parked next to an SD3 for display purposes.

  2. Always wanted one, owning three Corgi models of them as a kid. My dad’s mate Copper owned one and at the time it was the beast, comfy and fast. I saw Mathewsons had a Green SD1 V8 for sale this weekend, shame no where to store it!

  3. I’ve always disliked the SD1 and I can tell you exactly from when my antipathy began. it was the long, hot summer of ’76 and I was on my way north to spend a few weeks with my cousins in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. Normally we’d have changed trains at Aberdeen and continued the journey on an Inverness bound service. On this occasion though we were being picked up to continue by road. I can’t remember why, maybe the line was closed for some reason. What I do remember is the yellow SD1 squatting on a raised platform on the station concourse. I’d never seen one in the flesh, so to speak, but I knew it was intended to replace my two favourite saloon cars, the P6 and the Innsbruck Triumph. I wasn’t happy about this, not at all. I thought it was a monstrosity and I feel much the same today. I’ll admit to a certain degree of schadenfreude when reports of disastrous build quality and unreliability started to come through. Still, each to their own, eh?

  4. A fitting tribute, Keith. Especially as the SD1 Vitesse celebrated its 40th birthday earlier this week (and yes, I definitely did raise a glass in its honour).

  5. As much as I like the P6 and the big Triumphs, by 1976 they had had their day. And BL needed two elderly, low-volume executive cars competing with each other like it needed a hole in the head. SD1 was absolutely the right way to go. To me the Series 1 cars, being modern, stylish, unencumbered by wood, leather and chrome, were a bold step into the optimistic, outward-looking world of the 1970s. It is to BL’s eternal shame and detriment that the final product, initially lauded and awarded by journalists at home and abroad turned out to be just another underachiever. Had it been built with quality to match its looks then perhaps it really could have been a rival to those pesky Germans and Swedes. The Series 2 cars went back to ‘Trad Brit’ values and better build quality but by then the damage was done. Vitesse was a worthy halo car though, showed just how good the SD1 could be. Good to see the SD1 family finally join the ranks of British classics over the last few years.

  6. Bought mine in 2005. Also Targa red with the deep chin spoiler. An 1985 Vitesse and I believe to have payed around €2500,- for it. Back then people told me I was mad paying that much for an old SD1 (mind you, back in 2005 it didn’t matter much if it was a Vitesse, 3500, vanden Plas of whatever). I held on to it for 17 years. summer 2021 people started commenting to me things like “he, you should really check how much your car has gone up in value” or they’d send me an for sale ad of another Vitesse with a 20k price tag commenting “maybe time to sell yours?”. Since I was a little boy i dreamed of owning another classic that was always out of my reach but now if I sold the Vitesse I would be able to afford that car. And so earlier this year I sold it. It was my first car and I love it for that. I was bought by someone who instantly adored it twice as much as I did so it’s good now. I got my dream car. So does the buyer of my Vitesse and the Vitesse, well it’s got the owner it deserves. 🙂

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