Raise a glass to : 40 years of the Rover SD1 – Part One

Tomorrow’s car today… Ian Nicholls reminds us just how important the Rover SD1 was at launch, 40 years ago – not just for its maker, but for the economy as a whole.


Many British Leyland cars had the term ‘make or break’ applied to them, but perhaps it only really applied to two vehicles, the Austin Allegro and the Rover SD1. The Allegro was supposed to replace the best-selling 1100/1300 series and expand Austin Morris sales into the Common Market, which Britain joined in 1973. Its catastrophic failure – and it was catastrophic – reduced its maker to a bit-part player in the European car market, with only the ageing and fading Mini achieving any real sales success.

This was compounded by the relative failure of the stylish 18-22/Princess series, which should have reached parts of Europe the outgoing Landcrab could not reach. The consequence of all this was that Austin Morris was now a busted flush that had shot its bolt. Much taxpayer money would be expended in the decade ahead in trying to resurrect Austin Morris but, in truth, after 1975 it was a forlorn hope.

British Leyland’s hopes now lay with what had been those bastions of quality, the division formerly known as Rover Triumph. In 1974, the Rover Triumph division had hoped to produce 470,000 vehicles per annum by 1978. These would comprise of the Rover SD1, Triumph SD2, Triumph TR7/8 and Triumph Lynx. In the early 1960s, Triumph had publicly boasted of introducing quality controls in its Canley plant, but it appears the quality of TR7s emerging from its Speke plant from 1975 were atrocious.

It was not a good start for the new generation of Rover Triumph models. To compound this, during 1975, British Leyland was bailed out by the Government, Rover Triumph was abolished and came under the jurisdiction of Leyland Cars. The Labour Government had awarded big pay rises to public sector workers, which sent inflation spiralling. British Leyland workers increasingly felt the pinch and therefore strike action in pursuit of pay parity with other public sector workers increased to record levels.

By the end of 1975, Leyland Cars had run out of money and had to dip into funds intended for capital investment. Economies had to be made, and the Triumph SD2 (below) was canned. Instead, Leyland Cars merged the Dolomite replacement programme with the planned Morris Marina successor, the ADO77, resulting in a new project, TM1.

Triumph SD2

By the summer of 1976, this too had bitten the dust to be replaced by the LC10/LM11, which finally emerged as the Austin Montego in 1984, but it never bore the Triumph badge. The Rover Triumph expansion plan was already falling apart. At the same time, the individual boards of the British Leyland constituent companies had been swept away to be replaced by the Leyland Cars organisation fronted by Derek Whittaker and his deputy, Richard Perry.

The Rover SD1 was the last car designed by the original Rover company design team, minus Peter Wilks, who had died in 1972. However, unlike the outgoing Rover P6, it was designed with input from British Leyland’s team of ex-Ford cost controllers and its production would be overseen by ex-BMC men, of which Richard Perry was the most senior. This was a recipe for disaster.

The Rover SD1 was designed with the emphasis on cost rather than quality, and produced with the focus on quantity over quality. When seen in this light, the SD1 could be looked on as a premium-priced car designed using methods more suitable for the Ford Cortina, a stylish body masking its less advanced mechanical features. It makes an interesting comparison with the later Rover 75 where BMW had to encourage the design team to use the best solutions, not the cheapest. This, in turn, reveals the contrasting design philosophy of both Ford and BMW.

The world the Rover SD1 was launched into was very different from today.

The new Prime Minister was James Callaghan, who found himself trying to get to grips with double digit inflation, strikes and an imminent financial crisis which would see Britain having to obtain an International Monetary Fund loan before the year was out. The Trade and Industry Secretary was Eric Varley, the man to whom British Leyland was ultimately answerable. Unlike his predecessor in the post, Tony Benn, Eric Varley did not believe the British Leyland shop stewards knew better than the management on how to run the company and had no intention of replacing funds squandered through strike action with an extra tranche of taxpayer cash.

British Leyland would have to survive on the funds allocated to it by the 1975 Ryder Report (below) – not a penny more, not a penny less. If the company ran out of money, then it would have to sort out its own mess, which is why the Triumph SD2 met its demise. Eric Varley also had the unenviable task of trying to ramp up British car production, a task not made any easier by the actions of Ford and Vauxhall/GM, which were now importing vehicles from their continental plants to feed the British market instead of increasing their UK production – all this was courtesy of the Common Market.


Many of us like to remember summers past through rose-tinted spectacles – in our flawed memory banks the summers were always better. Well, in the case of 1976, it really was true! The sun shone so much that the Government declared a drought and appointed the Minister of Sport, Dennis Howell, as a temporary Drought Minister to monitor water consumption.

And the mention of sport leads me to the cricket test series between England and the visiting West Indies team. At a time of simmering racial tension, the likes of Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts delivered a stunning riposte to any notion of white supremacy as they defeated the home side with some brilliant cricket.

In this look back at an era of cheese cloth shirts, it would be great to recall a marvellous musical soundtrack, except there wasn’t a marvellous musical soundtrack. Okay, that is an exaggeration, there were a few good tunes released in 1976, The Boys Are Back In Town, by Thin Lizzy was one of them, but there was not a lot one hears on modern day BBC Radio 2.

1976 was in musical terms the fag end of the 1960s. The creative process that had begun in 1963 with The Beatles had run its course. The UK singles chart was bereft of inspiration and excitement, whilst the major acts focussed on the album charts. The album market had expanded greatly in the early 1970s as artists used it as the format for their musical statement. However, by 1976 many of the major recording acts were drug addled, complacent and had lost their creative spark, which did not stop their devoted fans from lapping up their latest releases.

A case in point is the 1976 album Black And Blue by The Rolling Stones. Although it sold well, it was simply not a patch on previous offerings such as Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. What is more the music scene was dominated by 1960s veterans.

Even relative newcomers like Rod Stewart, Elton John and David Bowie had started their careers in the 1960s, there were no artists teenagers in Britain could relate to. In a sense this musical malaise could be attributed to The Beatles. Their pioneering of multi-track recording had encouraged other lesser artists to think in terms of grandiose artistic statements on vinyl. The Beatles had the talent to get away with it, with other artists it came across as over produced and overblown.

While recording artists strove toward making the greatest album of all time and the music industry looked for the next Beatles, something was stirring in the pub and club scene, a back to basics approach that would be branded Punk and New Wave by the media. Contrary to popular myth, the Punk and New Wave scene did not impact on British culture until 1977. Yes, The Damned cut their first single in 1976 and the Sex Pistols swore on live TV, but they arguably had less cultural impact than The Wurzels, who topped the British singles chart for two weeks in June 1976, shortly before the launch of the Rover SD1.

And that is not forgetting other chart toppers that year such as Brotherhood Of Man (below) and Demis Roussos. So that is my review of 1976, a year of sun, economic crisis and naff music played by Radio 1 DJs. All my degenerate ramblings are in reality an excuse to upload articles from the British Leyland Mirror staff newspaper marking the launch of the Rover SD1 on 30 June 1976.

Was it really 40 years ago?


Brotherhood of Man

Keith Adams


  1. 1976 was when disco started to catch on over here after a couple of years of really bad plastic soul. Surely songs like Love Hangover and Love To Love You Baby, which was banned by Radio 1, are a total contrast to things like The Wurzels. Also Queen were at their creative peak, Thin Lizzy( mentioned above) were producing their finest music, ABBA were dominating the top of the charts, and the ELO were making inroads into the charts. However, there was some absolute dross like Brotherhood of Man, CJ Mc Call( No Charge) and Pussycat to make you want to cry.
    Incidentally punk was never that big a deal in the late seventies, regardless of what retired NME journalists tell you, vastly more people were into disco and conventional rock acts like Queen. However, it did clear out some of the worst excesses of prog rcok, sent flares packing by 1978 and paved the way for Two Rone and post punk.

    • I seem to have acquired most of ABBA’s output on vinyl.
      I think a lot of the problem with the UK music scene in 1976 was that since 1967 BBC Radio 1 had held a monopoly on what the public actually heard. They were able to filter out anything that was remotely rebellious. This was in contrast to the USA, where if the listener didn’t like what they were hearing they changed station.

  2. Glenn
    Your memory banks are at fault.
    CW McCall charted with ‘Convoy’.
    It was J.J Barrie who topped the charts with ‘No Charge’.
    They were still both bloody awful……..

  3. I remember the SD1 when they were launched, and they looked dramatic and impressive. At the time I assumed they must be pretty good because they were a Rover; this was the time before the realities became known.

    I’ve never been in one and I’ve never driven one. Did I actually miss anything worthwhile ?

    • The Rover SD1 is a great car, particularly in V8 form. It was let down by lamentable build quality, and even now it is difficult to fathom out what went wrong.
      Was it the basic design that was faulty, the bought in components, or were quality controls ignored at plant level in order to get the cars out and into the showrooms?

      • ‘basic design that was faulty, the bought in components, or were quality controls ignored at plant level in order to get the cars out and into the showrooms’

        Or all of this?

  4. @ Ian Nicholls, my thoughts exactly, the SD1 was excellent in so many respects, faster and cheaper than its rivals from Mercedes and Jaguar, a radical new hatchback design, the V8 soundtrack and a fantastic driving experience. It was so sad when this fine car was let down by endless strikes, woeful quality and flaking paintwork. Had British Leyland got the SD1 right, then it would have cleared up across Europe, as the market was certainly ready for it, and really given the Germans a fright.

    • Your point is deeply flawed, as was the SD1 concept. There was no market interest in an executive hatchback. There never has been. The market that the SD1 was aimed at demanded 3 box saloons and estates. This is still true, although the estate has morphed into the prestige SUV in most cases.
      It was a car that should never have got anywhere near production.

      If you want to understand why BL died, look no further than Spen King’s SD1.

      • If there was no market interest in an executive hatchback, why was there a waiting list for the SD1 at launch? In fact following the launch the waiting list disappeared over the horizon. It was only the poor build quality that killed the orders combined with a striking workforce.
        Had the quality been up there with the best and the workforce compliant it would have been a great success.

      • The hottest luxury car in the world today, the Tesla Model S, is a hatchback, and the general growth in prestige cars is in SUVs, which typically have roof-to-bumper tailgates.

        I would agree that utility is second to style and image in this case. In the case of fastbacks like the SD1 and the Citroen CX, the stubby deck behind the window makes the load space difficult to access unless the window lifts up with the deck panel. You can see the alternative in the CX, which isn’t a hatch.

        • You should be wary of the hype surrounding Tesla. They sell about 15,500 cars a year. The World’s car industry makes around 60 million cars a year. Tesla is hardly hot! They are interesting products nevertheless. If only they could pull their build quality and materials up to normal standards they might do better.

          Oh, and make a profit.

          • Tesla reported about 50,000 Model S sales in 2015, and reports deliveries of about 2000 per month. Note that Tesla is a public company, and therefore has a legal duty to accurately report sales, even if its plans for the future seem fanciful.

            For purposes of this discussion, Tesla Motors’ financial viability is irrelevant to the actual design of the expensive and prestigious Tesla Model S, which is a futuristic fastback with a hatchback.

        • Tesla have fitted their SUV with gullwing doors.
          We know owners of electric vehicles suffer range anxiety.
          We also know gullwing doors are heavy and impose a fuel penality.
          What Tesla seems to have achieved then. is the equivalent of a a Diesel engine which is not economical.
          Or a sexy sports coupe which is as ugly as a people carrier ( looking at you Renault)
          In only it’s second model then; Tesla have gone the Engineering dead end route.
          Such as Hydragas Suspension.. Gearboxes in Sumps.. square steering wheels..
          in fairness to BL they launched many cars whereas as stated Tesla are only on their second model.
          Not cool.
          How the motoring press have failed to pick up on this point is beyond me.
          Tesla has a charmed existence.
          I suppose in Tesla defence they don’t see their future as a car company,
          Their aim is to sell powerpacks into homes which are then recharged by Solar electricity.
          With Peak oil, carbon dioxide concerns etc this may be seen as a morally correct stance.

          • Perhaps you and Kev should adjourn to http://www.teslatruth.com to compare notes on the silly and doomed Tesla Motors. Also, the UK has several Tesla storefronts where you can arrange a ride in the popular, prestigious, and expensive Tesla Model S and study its fastback styling and hatchback. It’s rather like an SD1, you know.

  5. The SD1 was an interesting mix of conventional & radical, being a large hatchback when BL had shied away from them with the Allegro & Princess.

    As for music, while punk didn’t go as mainstream as often thought, it did at least shake things up to phase out the worst of prog & glam, & help ease through many new wave acts they were due to become big in the next few years.

    • BL didn’t ‘shy away’ from an ADO71 hatchback. It was a deliberate decision forced by Spen King’s fear that such a product would take sales from SD1/2.

  6. Another big problem with the SD1 was that it sold very few numbers in critical export markets like the USA due the poor quality of assembly for years of BL related or for that matter all UK made cars, as well as increasing safety and pollution controls with their costs.

    • US emissions and safety regulations weren’t uniquely imposed on BL products. It did put BL in a bad position when attempting to financially justify such features for its relatively small US sales compared to other manufacturers.

      They also had the bad luck of selling the 1980 SD1 and TR8 into a weak US market in a recession year. Other sports models like Corvette, Firebird, Mustang, and 280ZX dropped about half their sales from 1979 to 1980, and stayed down until about 1983.

      • The hottest new car in the US for 1980 was the Chevrolet Citation hatchback. The Chevrolet and similar Pontiac hatchback significantly outsold the conventional Buick and Oldsmobile 4-doors. Citation sold about 800,000 units in its first 18 months.

  7. People have brought up many of the problems which held back the Rover SD1.

    Though BL was in no position to bring it to production, it might have helped the Rover SD1 had it received the Rover V8-derived all-alloy 2.0/2.2 16v fuel-injected Rover Slant-4 in place of the underpowered 2.0 O-Series and 2.3 Inline-6 so as to maintain its exclusivity.

    Along with more bodystyles such as a 4-door saloon (to indirectly replace the shelved P8), 5-door Estate and 3-door Coupe, would also include an uprated 2.6 as well as a bored-out version of the Inline-6 or Rover V8 below the 2.8-litre limit in certain markets, know that Land Rover at one point considered a 2.8 version of the Rover V8 for the Range Rover.

    • Forgot to add that had Triumph not been part of the equation it might have been possible to develop an all-alloy V6 based on the Rover V8 for use in the SD1, such an engine was already under consideration at Land Rover in 2.2 V6 as well as in Australia in 3.3 V6 forms, while the related 3.8 Buick V6 Turbo was already capable of 235-276 hp with the latter figure considered to be significantly underestimated (actual output being 300+ hp).

      • I did wonder if GM had any clause on BL developing a V6 version of the V8, considering they kept the V6 design.

        • Doubt it would have been a problem provided the Rover V6 was limited to just Rovers and Land / Range Rovers as opposed to powering more mainstream cars in UK/Europe/US.

          While GM did offer both the non-alloy Buick V6 and all-alloy 215 Buick V8 to Rover, the Buick V6 being intended for Land Rovers though it seems Rover did look at developing an all-alloy V6 with BL Australia looking at a 3.3 V6 version of the 4.4 Rover V8 that powered a Marina.

          Apparently for the P8 saloon project Rover planned to develop a 4.0/4.4 Rover V8 with fuel-injection and 32-valve quad-cam as well as a related 16v Twin-Cam fuel-injected 2.2 Slant-Four for the P10 project aka SD1 producing around 145-170 hp.

          Along with the Project Iceberg Rover V8 diesel, a 2.2 Slant-Four diesel was also looked at for Land Rovers.

          So essentially it appears Rover were planning on developing a related family of Petrol and Diesel engines from a Slant-Four to a V8, which was largely discarded when Rover joined Leyland later British Leyland.

  8. The SD1 is a stunning looking car.

    Whether it’s a good ROVER, I’m not so sure.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure the SD1 is particularly a make or break car. The Maestro/Montego was far more significant, as the failure of those models ended any chance Austin Rover had of being a truly independent volume manufacturer.

    • The M-cars were the nails in the coffin of the company. The damage was done years before when ADO77 was cancelled. If this had gone ahead, we would have had a chance to stay in the volume markets and export too. As it was, after SD1, there simply wasn’t enough money left.

  9. The writing was on the wall since BL management decided to devaluate Rover, because they were anxious that it would be competition to Jaguar.
    Right. Some people, that were selected to run the giant car maker that BL was those days, were being paid fat wages to turn up with ideas about devaluation of a marque.
    -“Ah, what have we just bought here?”
    – “Well, it’s called Rover, it’s a company with healthy profits, expanding market share, loyal customers, assosiated with quality products, and exciting new models in the pipeline.”
    -“Yes, yes, yes, i can see all these, but i am rather worried, about something else. What if it hurts Jaguar sales? We have to do something about it, don’t we?”
    -“Do what?”
    -“Well, what if we devaluated Rover, don’t allow them to bring the new projects to the market, mess about with the P6 replacement, and make it cheaper than the XJ6.”
    – “Well, i suppose we can always give it a try”.

    And according to the history they succeeded. The SD1 was underspecified in various areas, resulting in the dissapointment of the new owners. While the P6 earned Rover more loyal customers, the SD1 made quite a lot of them to run away. I would never blame the engineers, but the BL management these days was criminaly stupid.
    Despite all that, i always liked the style of the SD1, and i would like to add one next to my P6 sometime in the future.

    • Replace Jaguar with BMW and history repeats itself, sadly. And this time there was no safety net.

  10. I never understand that having got the styling (for once at BL) right with the SD1, they went and styled the awful looking SD2.

    Surely logic would have meant that you scaled down the SD1 styling into something more compact and cheaper to build you would end up with something like a RWD 5 door Cavalier Mk2, which exploited the looks of the SD1.

    Also feel the SD1 should have been called a Triumph, as it always struck me as being more a continuation of the Triumph 2000 / 2500 rather than the more complex and (at launch) forward looking P6.

  11. I would argue that chronologically the second make-or-break car was the TR7. Like the Allegro it was a catastrophic failure although differing in its intended market which was North America. The SD1 was the third make-or-break car and also a catastrophic failure in North America and relative failure elsewhere (namely Europe).

    My father had an S Reg 2600 from new and I vividly remember the paint blistering with rust underneath after a year or two. The other thing – which I can still hear even now almost 40 years on – is the metallic clicking from the exhaust as it cooled down after a run. Was this the designer’s intention or just another example of poor build quality ?

    Great styling and general concept ruined by terrible quality.

    • How can the biggest selling TR of all time be a failure? Yes it was a different car, and should have been a convertible and had the V8 from the start but we are looking at that with hindsight. At the time convertables were looking like they were being outlawed and during its development we had the fuel crisis which saw even Americans look to smaller engines.

      • I don’t think the lack of the convertible hurt it much at introduction in the US. The sport market was almost entirely coupe, and the US enjoyed the dramatic styling. Unfortunately, like the SD1, those early cars didn’t earn the TR7 any friends in the States.

        “Speke? No! EVIL!”

        Even if the cars had been good experiences, the US sales of sport models like Corvette and Mustang fell down by half in 1980, and stayed down for about three years. It was the kind of recession that kills weak companies with poor products. It effectively bankrupted American Motors, which owned Jeep. They were scooped up by Renault as an American beach head.

  12. I well remember the launch of the SD1 3500 in 1976, when our local BL dealer had one on display (in Brown!). Despite not being Hi tech, it did look very modern compared to much of the opposition back then (especially as it was a 5 door Exec Hatchback), when 4 doors were the norm.

    Significantly different to the legendary P6 too – for better or worse.

    Having said that, the choice of engines in later years and the appealing “Vitesse” made it more desirable. Seeing the picture of Keith’s white SD1 makes me like it more now than perhaps I did back then.

  13. These cars look as stunning now as they did 40 years ago and great fun to drive.The v8 was so smooth and much more refined than the unit in the p6.The inline six was nearly as good,but sadly another engine with a head gasket problem.

    In racing it was proven that the basic design was right and when BMW assumed that Rover
    would enter the 1988 season they decided not enter for fear of being thrashed.

  14. I have an SD1 and a P6, and am currently using the SD1 to commute to work – about 25 miles each way. I think on the whole it remains a pretty usable car. What is often not said, also, is that whilst the P6 is theoretically more technically advanced than the SD1, it feels a lot more old fashioned to drive – 4 gears, not 5, smaller cabin, noticeable wander in crosswinds. The SD1, on the other hand, feels much like my 8 year old Saab 9-5, if a little noisier and (a lot!) thirstier. So I like SD1s a lot.

    Kev – I’m interested in your comment – is the drift of what you say that the SD1 cost so much to develop that it used up all the development money, which could have been better used on other things, then failed in the market so never amortised its costs and permanently hobbled BL? What would you have done instead?

  15. @ Julian Robinson, brilliant and durable the P6 might have been, but by 1976 it was 13 years old and showing its age in terms of styling and refinement. The SD1, while initally only available as a V8, was a radical new design with far more space for passengers and luggage, five speeds instead of four to improve fuel economy and refinement( although autos always sold better due to the car being a V8), and for all purists weren’t pleased, wood and leather were ditched in favour of a more progressive interior with upmarket plastics and velour seats. It was rather like Jaguar moving from the sixties retro of the X Type to the XE, a totally new start that is seeming to work, just as the SD1 soon developed a waiting list in Europe, where the P6 didn’t fare too well due to EEC tariffs until 1973 and an ageing design.
    When the six cylinder Rovers arrived in late 1977, the British executive car marketed had compacted. Ford had moved the Granada to Germany, Triumph had stopped making the 2000/2500 to make way for the new Rovers, and Vauxhall only offered the rarely seen VX2300GLS, which was on its last legs. Rover were therefore in a position to exploit their position as Britain’s mass producer of sub 3 litre executive cars and like the V8, road testers were impressed by the refinement and economy of the six cylinder SD1s. However, these developed a terrible reputation for engine problems and market share was lost to Ford, Volvo and Audi.

  16. The hatchback hardly mattered, because it looked like a 5-door Ferrari Daytona. The 5-speed box was available years ahead of that in the Senator or Granada. But boy, were SD1’s troublesome. V8’s ate the synchromesh on first gear, sixes had heavy tappets which stripped the timing belts prematurely, and all models had power steering problems. The brake servos often fell in half, but if they didn’t, the car was so light at the back that it would easily swap ends under braking. Add in at least an average helping of rust – despite the throughflow-ventilated sills – and it is no surprise that many SD1’s were scrapped after about 8 years. All the same, I’ve always fancied a Janspeed 3500 twin turbo. No wimpy Vitesse for me, unless someone’s giving one away… pity they never made the estate.

  17. contd, I still see plenty of immaculate 11-17 year old Rover 75s on the road now, a testament to the car’s build quality. The SD1, brilliant as it was as a driver’s car, tended to have such awful build quality and reliability issues in its early years that most had gone by their tenth birthday. By the mid nineties they’d become a rare sight and you’d have to be quite brave to own one by then.

  18. Simply, the SD1 would have been a winner if the build quality had been anywhere near decent. A lot of money could have been saved if, instead of developing the 2.3 / 2.6 OHC, the existing Triumph 2500 /6 engine had been tweaked. As it was, a superb car was killed by the twin BL diseases of poor quality and strikes.

    I still find the SD1 highly attractive and desirable, but just know that I could not cope with the rust.

  19. @ Tony Evans, the car could have been a winner, as all the reviews were excellent, but it was ruined by strikes, poor quality and an arrogant management that denied the SD1 was badly made until well into the production run.
    It must say something about the SD1’s terrible quality that early examples had almost vanished by the late eighties, while Volvos of the same era were still running reliably with almost no rust and Mark 1 Granadas were still seen. A bloody shame, the SD1 was a fantastic car that was ruined by its strike prone workforce and useless quality control.

    • I well remember the reviews, and can even recall the first one that I saw, to the extent of going up to it and peering in the side windows to get a look at the interior. At that time a Rover was well out of my finanacial reach, as I was driving a 1972 Triumph 1500, but I always had a hankering for a flying banana.

      Unfortunately, I can equally recall the rampaging rust, especially in the lower door and sill sections, the interior fittings that would simply fall off, the door handles that broke, and playing “find the rainwater leaks” [plural] on a 4 year old example.

      The 2600 S6 was nearly as quick as the V8 but quite a number suffered cam problems, again mostly down to shoddy build rather than any real defect with the engine design.

      IIRC ‘P’ and ‘R’ reg Volvos had disastrous rust issues and I know two people who had their cars fully resprayed by Volvo after rust appeared in 12-18 months. The later ones were much better and yes, far more reliable and long lived than any SD1.

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