David Morgan tells us why the Rover SD1 has such a special place in his heart.
I will admit it: no other car from the British Leyland stable has commanded such a high level of affection from me as the Rover SD1. Those sleek, avant-garde lines unashamedly influenced by the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 and Maserati Indy still ooze drama 40 years on, while its shape takes a more restrained nod towards the 1965 Rover-BRM Le Mans race car – even those tail lamp clusters have Mercedes Benz-style fluted lenses to help keep them clean.
This subtle cross-reference with Mercedes-Benz is perhaps no surprise given that British Leyland’s senior managers had never hidden the fact that Rover was their preferred company to take on the might of Mercedes-Benz, starting with the stillborn Rover P8 luxury saloon.
In essence, the SD1 represented a bold move forward that rightly or wrongly did not maintain an obvious link to the Rover Company’s illustrious past, but instead became more submerged in changing trends in the executive market. While the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 three-box saloons were still selling in healthy numbers in the early 1970s, there was growing confirmation amongst mainly French manufacturers of a desire to move to hatchback body styles.
The first of these was the Citroën CX, which was launched in 1974, and would enjoy a production life of 17 years, resulting in almost 1.2 million examples built in hatchback and estate forms. This was followed a year later by the Renault 20 and 30 model which saw over 700,000 examples being built up until its demise in 1984. Even Audi got in on the act from 1976 with the C2 generation 100 Avant, followed by Saab with the 900 in 1978. Trollhattan’s effort was particularly successful with the three and five-door 900 hatchback accounting for over half of the 908,000 examples built over a fifteen year production life.
Impressive though these figures were it was the likes of the Mercedes Benz W123 Series and Volvo 240/260 saloons that would go on to sell in bigger numbers – 2.4 million W123 saloons and almost 1.5 million 240/260 four-door saloons. The addition of an estate bodystyle further broadened their appeal.
Admittedly, both Rover and Triumph had previously experienced limited sales success with their respective P6 Estoura and 2000/2500 estate models. This was not helped by the fact they involved complex conversion build or body panel pressing arrangements with external contractors such as FLM Panelcraft Ltd and Carbodies Ltd. As a consequence, this likely made them too expensive and specialised in their appeal to achieve their true sales potential. However, there was the prospect of a regular mainline-built estate variant based on the SD1 and offering genuine load-lugging abilities…
Announced on 30 June 1976, the SD1’s executive ambitions were prominently emphasised when it came to exterior colours. Whereas the P6 had indulged in a mid-life fetish for racy hues such as Paprika and Avocado, the SD1’s colour range was more reserved and upmarket. Early publicity shots tended to feature elegant paint colours such as Midas (gold metallic), Platinum (silver metallic) and Richelieu (dark red).
However, climb inside, and the SD1’s stylish interior lacked the executive niceties of wood trim and chrome detailing as found in its P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 forebears. Admittedly, it was still a nice place to be, but loyal Rover buyers liked luxury appointments and they would ultimately have to wait a further three years before there was a return to those traditional gestures.
Well equipped though the SD1 was in 3500 form, there was still an options list offering additional features to enhance practicality and safety. This comprised of electric windows (£99.45), automatic transmission (£149.76), rear seat belts (£35.10), passenger door mirror (£19.89), Dunlop Denovo tyres (£91.26) and alloy wheels at £175.50.
With a list price of £4750.26 in standard spec form the SD1 3500 was, going by Autocar’s new car prices, over £1700 less than a BMW 528 and over £1000 cheaper than the Mercedes Benz 250 and Volvo 264 DL. When compared with other executive hatchbacks, the Citroen CX in 2400 Pallas form was just £44 cheaper than the Rover while the Renault 30TS was £152 cheaper.
Early road tests of the SD1 3500 were highly favourable, with Autocar praising its level of standard equipment and improved performance and economy over the outgoing P6 3500. Motor were as equally impressed, giving it a full five stars for its new 77mm gearbox and handling. Meanwhile, performance, handling and roadholding found much favour with roadtesters from CAR Magazine. Even when the SD1 was pitched against ten other rivals in a group test conducted by Autocar later on that year, each road-tester still placed it in their individual top-three choice against the Jaguar XJ 3.4, Peugeot 604, Renault 30 and BMW 528.
The SD1 3500’s impressive ride, handling and all-round comfort, together with strong performance and excellent practicality resulted in it being voted Car of the Year 1977. It also won the Don Safety Trophy in the same year for the number of safety initiatives incorporated into its design. Other awards quickly followed and included the AA Gold Medal for its major contribution to ‘safety, comfort, economy, enjoyment and advancement of motoring’. Meanwhile, for those into towing it was voted Tow Car of the Year in 1978. Praise indeed for a British car in such a short space of time. Even Roger Moore drove one!
Promotion of the SD1 was extensive and stretched to appearances in popular television programmes such as the New Avengers and The Professionals. In most cases it was usually the same Tumeric example loaned to the production companies although, as with other BL models, there were issues with how long the cars could be borrowed for. This meant that continuity of use became affected. As a result, production companies would seek alternative arrangements with other car manufacturers such as Ford, which relished the chance for free product placement in popular television programmes.
By the late 1970s, the SD1’s popularity had been enhanced with the availability of the 2.3 (PE146) and 2.6-litre (PE166) straight-six engines from October 1977 and the introduction of the high-spec V8S variant in 1979. As the first Rover saloon to cost in excess of £10,000, the V8S offered features such as front and rear head restraints, alloy wheels and air conditioning as standard, while leather seat facings had now become available as an option.
Customers also approved of the change of the bonnet badge from the skeletal design back to the traditional acrylic rendition last seen on the P6. Despite being finely finished in stainless-effect metal and actually very expensive to make, the skeletal design was widely considered to be ‘cheap-looking’. Rover’s Designers therefore reverted to a more traditional acrylic badge with Eurostyle ‘ROVER’ lettering on its heading for the 1979 SD1 range.
More luxury in the form of a flagship Vanden Plas derivative arrived in 1980 complete with leather seats and automatic transmission as standard. However, no amount of luxury could save the SD1 from being a poor seller in the North American market due to the now familiar problems of poor quality and reliability issues, while hatchbacks were generally not perceived as having the same degree of status as a conventional saloon.
As a result, it was withdrawn from the North American market in 1981 having been on sale for just one year. Interestingly, North America was actually one of Saab’s most successful export markets for sales of the 900, even in hatchback form, despite it being limited to a four-cylinder engine.
One of the most important milestones in the SD1’s production life undoubtedly came in January 1982 when the facelifted model was unveiled. With much of this revision programme having been overseen by Gordon Sked in the Solihull design studio, the message about its upmarket executive ambitions could not have been made any clearer. While design critics might argue that some of the SD1’s design purity was lost with the additional chrome detailing and new side trim for the exterior, it nevertheless met the objective of raising the presence of the SD1 against newer and highly competent offerings such as the E28 BMW 5-Series and Volvo 740.
The desire to improve the SD1’s export success and popularity in the lucrative company car market also took a major step forward with the introduction of the 2.4-litre VM turbo-diesel engine and the 2-litre O-Series engine for a new entry level 2000 variant. But for me the icing on the cake came in October 1982 with the introduction of the Vitesse.
Priced at £14,950 and initially built to order only, the Vitesse boasted a Lucas L-Jetronic fuel-injected V8 engine producing 190bhp. Together with the cosmetic enhancements of multi-spoke alloy wheels inspired by the Borrani aluminium rimmed wire wheels found on classic Ferraris, and even the availability of a Ferrari-resembling shade of red paint called Monza Red, the Vitesse provided some extra performance car appeal to the SD1’s image.
By March 1983, the Rover Vitesse was battling it out on race circuits against the likes of the BMW 635 CSi and Opel Monza in the Touring Car series and receiving favourable coverage in the motor sport sections of print publications.
As a young lad in the mid-1980s with an avid interest in cars, it was the sight of a Rover Vitesse parked up in the East Devon town where I lived that sparked my own personal passion for the SD1. Even the Vitesse name – French for speed – sounded as exotic as the car looked. Regular trips to the local Austin Rover dealer to get the latest copy of the Today’s Cars sales brochure (the successor to the Austin-Morris-MG-Rover-Triumph and Cars brochure titles) were inevitable. With each issue changes in colour, trim and specification to all SD1s, but particularly the Vitesse model, were always noted. The arrival of a poster for my bedroom wall featuring a side-on shot of an SD1 Vitesse finished in Moonraker Blue metallic soon gave marching orders to a white Lamborghini Countach and Cyndi Lauper.
Back to the adult world and, in May 1984, the Vitesse’s dynamic enhancements, together with the highest level of luxury available, were introduced into a new flagship 3500 Vanden Plas EFi. While this latest addition offered leather seats, automatic transmission, detachable head restraint cushions and air conditioning as standard, the regular Vanden Plas trim level with its familiar carburettor-fed V8 engine could also be specified with the 2.6-litre straight-six engine. Only the 2000 and 2400SD Turbo engine choices continued to be offered with one trim level.
Now entering its twilight years and with there being regular press coverage that the replacement ‘XX’ model – the Rover 800 Series – was due for a 1986 launch, the SD1 still managed to find a place in popular television. Examples appearing on television included a 3500 Vanden Plas EFi finished in Opporto Red metallic which was used in the BBC series Blot on the Landscape. Meanwhile, in the new prime time soap opera EastEnders, an early example finished in Brazilia Brown was used by the character Dennis Watts, only to be replaced in 1986 by a new 2600 Vanden Plas in Silverleaf metallic. Before then a pre-facelift 2600S finished in Pharaoh Gold metallic had appeared in the 1981 video for the music track Don’t You Want Me by the Human League.
The last hurrah for the SD1 was essentially the Vitesse with twin throttle plenums which went on sale from November 1985 priced at £17,029.29.
By July 1986, the final Rover SD1, a Vitesse twin plenum finished in Silverleaf metallic, rolled off the assembly line at Cowley. This model was retained for the British Motor Heritage collection. However, some models such as the 2000, 2400 SD Turbo and 3500 Vanden Plas EFi had actually been discontinued the previous year. According to figures held at the British Motor Museum, total UK production for the SD1 was 303,345 examples.
Even after the launch of the Rover 800 Series, sales literature continued to promote the availability of new old stock variants of the SD1 such as the 2300 and 2600 Vanden Plas. For unsold examples of the Vitesse variant it got unexpected exposure in the news in January 1987 when Prince Edward was filmed leaving the Royal Marines Training Camp at Lympstone in East Devon, behind the wheel of a Silverleaf example, having just quit a career with the Royal Marines. The final batch of new old stock SD1s was registered in the autumn of 1987 on E registrations, some of these were under Austin Rover’s Management Company Car Plan.
So, did the Rover SD1 really miss the mark by being an executive hatchback rather than a saloon, or was it more down to other factors such as its familiar issues of poor quality and supply not meeting initial demand that hampered its success?
Sales of the Saab 900, Citroën CX and Renault 20 and 30 confirm that there was a healthy demand for an executive hatchback, particularly in central Europe, with their success continuing into the 1990s. Even the replacement Citroën XM and Renault 25 were well received and enjoyed their greatest success in central Europe, while the third-generation Ford Granada hatchback sold particularly well in the UK.
However, in the case of Citroën with the CX, they also recognised early on the growing popularity of genuine load-lugging estates to supplement their sales and deliver greater economies of scale on the production line. This approach also worked well for both Mercedes Benz and Volvo, with nearly 200,000 W123 estates being built between 1976 and 1985 and almost one million Volvo 240/260 estates from 1974 until 1993 to add to the more impressive sales of the saloon bodystyle.
Perhaps one of BL’s less obvious early mistakes with the SD1 was not having the commitment (or financial ability) to take their own estate bodystyle into production. Instead, annual sales forecasts for the Rover SD1 were predicted to be higher than those for the P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 combined; a prediction that would prove to be wildly over-optimistic.
Ironically, today, Citroën and Renault cannot deliver a viable business case for producing another executive hatchback. In contrast, premium German manufacturers such as Audi and BMW, which now offer a greater number of body styles based on a core body structure, have kick-started interest in executive class hatchbacks once again through the A7 Sportback and 5 Series Gran Turismo.
The popularity of these variants is unlikely to translate into higher demand than their saloon and estate counterparts. Nevertheless, they do continue the implied spirit of the Rover SD1 by offering a premium-badged car with greater practicality and style than a conventional three-box saloon, even if they ultimately lack the character and forward-looking ethos of the SD1.
So, raise a glass to 40 years of the Rover SD1 and long may it continue to be affectionately remembered as the car that dared to be different in so many ways.