Rover SD1@ 40 : Spen King – Super, simply super SD1

As part of our Rover SD1 at 40 special, here’s what Leyland Cars’ Director of Engineering and Product Planning, Spen King, had to say on the subject. This article is taken from the British Leyland Mirror, 30 June 1976.

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Spen King (second from left) outlines the engineering philosophy behind the Rover 3500

The one word, simplicity, encapsulates the engineering philosophy of the new Rover 3500, a philosophy conceived by Spen King, Leyland Cars’ Director of Engineering and Product Planning. The car is the second, new-generation Rover for which Spen King and his team have been responsible. The first was the 2000 series.

Yet, despite the different approach, comparitive complexity in the 2000, refined simplicity in the 3500, the new car is solidly in the finest Rover tradition. But that tradition has not prevented the team’s engineering philosophy from evolving quite radically in some areas.

Said Spen King: ‘We have learned a great deal about design and development, particularly with regard to the fundamental engineering axiom that the best solution to a design problem is the simplest, all other factors being equal. The key to that statement is: how do you get the other factors to be equal, or how do you achieve extremely high standards of performance without using complex or costly mechanisms or structures?

‘We found the answer in a strictly disciplined development and refinement programme. This meant, then, that we consciously avoided over-complicated structures. We minimised the number of components in the suspension. We simplified all design aspects as far as possible and then we refined and refined again until we have what we believe is a superb end product.

‘It is easy to appreciate the economic sense of this approach. It minimises tooling charges, cuts production costs and reduces the number working and hence wearing parts of the car, thus reducing the frequency and cost of service replacements.’

Using advanced computer techniques the Engineering Team evolved an integral construction body which surpasses any previous designs in terms of safety and integrity but which is simpler to produce than its predecessors. Long-term durability was the next priority. A tremendous amount of engineering time was invested in all aspects of anti-corrosion protection, even to the extent of force ventilating some of the box sections to prevent a build up of corrosive damp, as well as the use of zinc coated panels.

One of the cars biggest surprises is the simplicity of the suspension layout with MacPherson struts at the front and a new variation on the live-axle theme at the rear.

Added Spen King: ‘By using very carefully developed geometry and self-levelling rear damper units, we think we have achieved a better combination of ride and handling than in any other product in the new Rover’s class.’

The superb light-alloy V8 engine is familiar to everyone with an interest in the motor car. It has established a fine reputation for power and reliability. But the Engineers decided to improve it even further. It is now a freer revving unit going up to a maximum 6000rpm from the original 5200rpm with a consequent extension of the power and torque curve.

He said: ‘Some people may well compare the new Rover with the old 2000 series and say that it is not so technical in its specification. This is absolutely true and it is quite deliberate. With the 2000, in an age when people set great store by impressive specification, Engineers enjoyed themselves using quite complex solutions to achieve the design requirements. On this car we had to use much more subtly and more intensive development to get equally impressive results from a simpler design which would offer easier servicing, better reliability and generally better cost-effectiveness.’

On all aspects of our design work we had to remember the need to get the quality and safety we wanted without excessive weight or cost which would affect performance, economy and value. It wasn’t an easy job, but we are pleased with the results.’


Keith Adams


  1. I really like the SD1 and have had a soft spot for it since virtually the day it was launched.
    However, it’s sad to see the spin that Spen King had to put on the cost cutting on the running gear of the SD1, especially after the sophistication of the P6. The styling may have been years ahead, but much of what lay beneath was pure 1950’s! A live rear axle? What were the bean counters thinking?!

    • Later in life, King was unapologetic about the simplified engineering of the SD1. It worked fine, just like the pushrods in the V8. History says King was right; the SD1’s commercial problems were related to quality, not design.

      • I invite you to visit the SD1 rust traps in the sills and E-posts, the incredibly poor design of the door seals, especially around the hatch, or the shockingly poor design of the dash assembly mountings.

        All of these points and more, were entirely due to poor engineering. The fact that the build quality at Solihull was hopeless just compounds the issues – you can’t polish a turd!

        • You’ve made your point, I think : You don’t like its design features. Personally, having had one for 4 years, 1979-1983 , I don’t remember a single problem with door/hatch seals, and for the life of me I cannot see anything wrong with the dash mountings . I do remember a problem with the wheelarch in the C post area , which did appear to be a design fault, but otherwise I thought the design was splendid, including the rear axle with its Nivomat struts – certainly, from the ride quality – and the really taut handling – you would never have guessed that it had a solid axle

          • I have never owned an SD1, but do recall when travelling in the back of them that their was an annoying whistle, which I was told at the time was belived to be caused by the rain gutters, I note I never heard a similar whistle in the back of an Alpine, even in the later less tappety series two with the 5 speed, which were quiet even when cruising at 85.

        • None of those are related to decisions like using a live rear axle instead of the P6’s deDion.

          If you’re saying that the SD1 was a failure because BL could screw up a cup of coffee, much less a car, that’s a defensible position. That doesn’t have anything to do with avoiding novelties that can be matched with mature technology, except to reinforce BL’s good judgment of simply attempting to build a desirable car instead of unnecessarily complicating the task with technology for technology’s sake. It’s hard enough just to make a car that starts every morning and doesn’t immediately rust to bits.

  2. Interesting comment by Spen King suggesting that by the mid 70s customers had lost interest in technology and that they had in effect dumbed down the product. Hard to imagine any manufacturer standing up and saying that at the launch of a new car today.

  3. Just shows how bad a decade the 70s was! It may have had some great music and good looking cars but most of them fell apart or rusted away. Shame as the SD1 was probably one of the best looking cars of the 70s but I always thought it should have carried the Triumph badge as it was so sporting looking.

  4. The P6 was too complex, the SD1 too simple. One extreme to another. What was beginning to matter by the 1970’s was design for assembly, and therefore quality. You design a car to be easy and quick to build right – unless you are BL.

  5. @ Ken Strachan, the P6 was a fine car in the sixties and early seventies, but by the mid seventies was a bit old fashioned compared to something like the Ford Granada, which looked quite radical and in 3000 GXL form was a very nice car to drive and be driven in. The SD1 had to rip up the rule book, just as the original P6 had done against extremely staid and ponderous to drive big saloons, and do something different. A five door hatchback with masses of space, offering 125 mph flat out and an average of 26 mpg, when most of its rivals would struggle to better 120 mph and were lucky to see 20 mpg in everyday driving, with a price lower than Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar and plenty of standard equipment, was a huge achievement.
    We all know the SD1 was derailed by strikes, poor quality and an arrogant management that wouldn’t listen to customer complaints, but it still is a fantastic achievement. When the Vitesse arrived in 1982, offering 135 mph performance, the flawed Rover seemed even better.

  6. The problem was that the Rover should have sold at a higher price, but Jag were adamant that they were the top dog in the group and so it was priced closer to the mainstream exec cars instead of the luxury barge it should have been. Again BL had underpriced a top product and so therefore loss what was profit.

  7. @ daveh, I think pricing the SD1 closer to cars like the Ford Granada was an attempt to increase sales as Jaguar were in decline by 1976 with reliability issue and the high fuel consumption of their cars. Also the six cylinder cars were aimed more at the Granada, whose engine topped out at 2.8 litres, and were more economical as well. The Volvo 244 was another major competitor by the late seventies, but while this was a reliable and very durable car, the six cylinder Rovers were better to drive and more economical and more radically styled. However, Volvo proved to be a strong rival to Rover as many disgruntled owners switched brands as Volvo seemed to have similar values to the Rovers of old: durability, reliability, comfort, a conservative design and well equipped interiors.

  8. The Rover SD1 should have thrashed the Ford Granada, but because BL cocked it up they instead strengthened Ford. Tony Benn had argued that propping up BL would act as an import stopper, instead it became a reason to buy foreign cars.

  9. @ Ian Nicholls, once the six cylinder SD1s arrived, the 1977 Granada had direct competition from Rover. Yet these proved to be even more troublesome than the V8 cars, being notorious for chewing head gaskets and leaking oil, and the Granada, which was a reliable car which was easy to maintain and very nice in V6 form, started to overtake the SD1 in the sales charts. Also by the time the SD1 was refreshed in 1982, more affluent private buyers were becoming more likely to buy German and Swedish alternatives, which were generally very well made and reliable.

  10. @ Ian Nicholls, there was an embarassing incident for Rover when Jim Callaghan was given an SD1 as his official car in 1976 and the windows jammed. After that, Callaghan reverted to using his old Rover P5B, a car which was so good it was used by Margaret Thatcher until 1982, when she replaced it with an armoured Jaguar( another slap in the face for the SD1). Also the SD1 was shown up again during the 1983 election when a second hand one was the official transport for Michael Foot, and the car refused to start in front of the television cameras. Yet improved second generation SD1s became popular cars for cabinet ministers and the Rover link continued until 1997 as John Major was very fond of his 800s.

  11. lovey looking car but i recall our sd1 with multiple issues with the auto trans requiring a trip to the deal once every 6 weeks or so. the electrics packed up on a frequent basis and the air con rarely worked. we lamented getting the higher spec model with electric windows as these frequently failed so did the central locking.

  12. The only car that could out run a Rover 3500,Jag V-12 would bea BMW under 130MPG,over that would would be a American,Pontiac,TRANSAM

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