A new vehicle concept, thirty years ago

Sam Skelton

ghost“A new vehicle concept” and the SD1: not dissimilar ideas…

I’d like to talk about Audis and BMWs in this blog. There, I’ve said it. Those who may be outraged by such talk on this site, please feel free to keep quiet. However, I have a very good reason for doing so, and it involves possibly my very favourite of all BL’s products.

Audi have recently launched their A5 Sportback and BMW the competing 5-Series GT. These cars are both, as far as I can see, pointless. The Audi A4 and BMW 5-series are already available as a saloon, or for those who want a tailgate, as estates and so, naturally, we need hatchback versions of both to plug the gap in the middle. I may, of course, be missing the plot spectacularly here – after all, German execs are not my thing. They might be aimed at someone wanting something more exclusive than an A4 or 5-Series, in which case they will achieve their aim. For about ten minutes, until everyone has them.

Alright, I’m being overly cynical. But this is because both companies, as far as I can see, cater for the markets these cars are aimed at already. The idea of a large and upmarket hatchback is one that appeals to me greatly. Which brings me nicely into the BL themed bit of the blog.

The point I’m making is this: Audi’s press release states that the Sportback is “a new vehicle concept” and “setting new trends in vehicle design”. BMW haven’t been quite so fatuous as to assume that they originated the concept of an executive hatch – their press release bangs on about a cross between a classically styled GT and a saloon car. However, in each case, it is implied that the concept is new. In 1976, Rover replaced the P6 range with the SD1 range.

This was an executive hatchback and, unlike the Audi or BMW, it can rightly claim to be a first. And it was a hit – it was upmarket, and made by a company with a history of producing good executive cars (albeit under the umbrella of BL, so quality wasn’t always quite right). It spawned many imitators, but the Rover is the one everyone remembers. It was replaced in 1986 by the 800 – available as a fastback by 1988.

The 800 was a cop-out in my opinion; offered in saloon form for those who didn’t see the appeal of a hatch – thought was even given to market the hatch as an inferior model under the name of 600. With the exception of Vauxhall’s Signum, executive hatchbacks pretty much died with the 800 in 1999. They didn’t even bother by the time the 75 came along. Since then, the genre has more or less ceased to exist. And everyone else who tried seemed to fail in this sector. How many Renault Safranes, Fiat Cromas, Ford Granada MK3s, and Citroen XMs have you seen recently?

The press, though, will love the A5 Sportback and 5-series GT, stating that a large executive hatchback is a great idea. The reason? Because the two companies doing it are the darlings of the popular motoring press: Audi and BMW. Yet I doubt the idea will take off again, because they’ve done it the wrong way. Going back to the top of the blog for a second, both cars already have an equivalent saloon and an equivalent estate and I am yet to work out quite why we need more choice than that. I mean, if neither an A4 or A4 Avant suits you, there are several other perfectly good executive saloons for similar money. If you want a medium-sized Audi, what’s wrong with the normal A4 or Avant?

Rover got it so right it was untrue by launching their new executive car with this one body style in 1976 . No choice, you took it or left it and they cleaned up. I’d even go so far as to say that, had they continued with the theme of the large executive well-appointed hatchback – preferably V8-engined and with RWD – but it needn’t even be that, Rover may well still be here.


  1. The problem is that the Press have no historical memory.

    Anyway, the SD1 is so beautifully designed that it’s still a masterpiece. BMWs are the kind of car that, after five years, seem to be from another era.

  2. I’m not sure the SD1 was the first executive hatch. The Renault 20/30 was launched in 1975 and the Lancia Gamma hatch also saw the light in 1976.

    Audi was also a contender in this market with the 100 Avant Hatch which was launched in 1977. Funny that they should be forgetting their own history in launching the A5.

    On the subject of the 5 series GT, I believe this was the result of BMW considering how to build an MPV. When I first heard that BMW would build an MPV I joked that it would probably be the least practical one on the market but that would be OK because it would get round the Nurburgring quicker than any other MPV and the Press would love it despite it’s shortcomings as a practical vehicle. Many a true word, eh?

  3. Richard,

    The Gamma was a saloon like the Beta, not a hatchback. I was wrong about the fact the Rover was the first – you’re probably right about the Renault being first but I’ve not checked to see if anything came before that. It was certainly the car that popularised the genre though.

    The 5 series GT – whatever BMW might have set out to do there is no way that it’s an MPV. It’s a tall hatchback – and so I’ve lumped it in with the A5 as part of the exec hatch renaissance. I do, however, acknowledge it is different, which is why I focused on the Audi as the basis for the SD1 comparison.

    Sam Skelton.

  4. Sam, I like the feel of your blog, but you’ve missed the main point. Rover may have grasped the concept and so boldly ran with it, but it was ulitmately executed with disdain. The quality and coherence were shocking and because of that, the brand – the all important brand of Rover -and the Fastback concept, were quietly allowed to die. It’s not what you do, but the way you do it.

  5. I also get the gist of your blog and was going to say the Lancia Gamma was a saloon not a hatch(a very handsome car though a tad flawed)but Sam beat me to it. Audi did have the 100 avant(5 dr hatch) in 1977(the saloon came out in 76)with a 5 cylinder injection engine but all said and done the Rover SD1 design has probably weathered time the best, especially in Vitesse form. At least the BMW GT and Audi sportback look far less offensive that the X6 and Q7 which just look very fat and pointless! But all is not lost, if you want a fastback style four door saloon with a thumping great big V8 and serious road presence then buy a JAGUAR XF

  6. Simon, I’ll take your point first. The XF has long been to my mind the closest you can get to a modern SD1: it’s a whole new look for the company, it seems so far to be successful, and it is a large, British, V8, RWD car. However, Jaguar missed a huge trick by sticking to the saloon format. Whilst they were busy being radical, Jaguar could quite easily have stuck a hatchback rear on like they did with the XK. If they’d done that, they could have cleaned up in this sector long before the Germans even thought about their efforts.

    Steven, I agree the quality was out by a long way. I certainly would argue that quality was one of the issues that contributed to Rover’s demise. In 1999 my father defected to Audi after thirty years of running BL cars because the quality issues on his 827 (which followed a pair of SD1s) was by nobody’s standards acceptable.

  7. @Sam Skelton
    I suppose jaguar’s reasons for not making the XF a hatch is because they are about to launch an XF estate. Which is still a shame because a XF 5 dr hatch would have killed two birds etc , however the XF still looks great on the motor way rather than the profusion of steely grey hun mobiles that litter the place. Talking of Jags I mentioned on another blog the other day I was lucky to spot a new XJ on the M40 by Gaydon on trade plates and I reckon if the economy picks up these cars are going to sell like hot cakes, in the flesh this car looks fantastic!!

  8. I suspect the new XJ is one of those cars that’s going to look superb in dark colours and rubbish in paler ones. That black D-pillar was a huge mistake in my opinion – and the back end looks heavy in silver.

  9. Mercedes was seriously evaluating a hatchback for the successor of the W116 S-class during the 70s. The W126 was quite radical in many ways, but not regarding it’s basic shape in the end – numbers sold seem to back up the right decision. Audi moved the Avant towards Estate shape after the first (imho very handsome) fastback style avant did not sell too well. If I am right, Audi was the first one to try at position the Hatchback above the saloon, as it was not available in the lower trim variations at the start.

  10. @Richard Poulter
    Can’t really say the Renault 20/30 was ever an executive car in the UK. Renault and Rover were not in the same area of the market at all, in those days Rover were up there with Jags, Mercs ets, and there were no small Rovers at all. One look at any public school parents day car park in the 70’s 80’s and you would see a lot of Rovers, Jags and Mercs, along with the odd Rolls and Bentley, And possibly one BMW. The Renault would have suffers too much form the same thing as the later big rovers did, they looked and felt too much like the rest of the ordinary lower ranges. For this reason I still maintain the 200 (great car though it is) destroyed the executive rover

  11. I agree, I always looked at the Renault 20/30 as a rival to cars such as the BL Princess range and not the Rover range. Frances answer to the Rover SD1 was probably the Citroen CX? I’ve said in the past on this site that I think the Rover 200’s should have been badged as Triumph’s to which they have more in common eg Dolly Sprint – Rover 220GTI, Toledeo – Rover 213 and for that matter Triumph 2000 – Rover 600. Rover have always made bank manager cars such as PB5 etc where as Renault have always made cars to compete with Ford or Opel. I’d love to see that Merc hatchback Alexander mentioned, if anyone can point me the right direction.

  12. Sabb 9000 anyone? Why did the 9 5 come out as a 4 door? Because hatches were perceived as mass market rep mobiles, execs had a boot. Audi and BMW are strong enough brands to try and buck this perception but now its a means to add choice with 3 variants, not close it down with one as the SD1 did.

  13. Simon: When Mercedes started the development of the W126 1972 creating a car with outstanding aerodynamics was on the top of the agenda. Bruno Sacco is cited with having gone for a fastback, at a time including a rear door, early on. Even without an aerodynamic back, the W126 was the most aerodynamic saloon car at launch. The car Mercedes showed for the ‘Auto 2000’ 30 years ago took on clues of the fastback rear again. see http://benzlog.fuenfkommasechs.de/wp-content/gallery/reiserechner/auto2000.jpg

  14. Paul,

    Using it as a means to add choice is not the way to do it – because it’s a way of being different until everybody has them. As a third model it serves no other concievable puspose. As I said in the blog, Rover got it right by making the SD1 hatch only – that way, it didn’t risk stealing sales from it’s own saloon or estate brethren, and it had no internal (Or external save the Renault) competition.

  15. I went through a Saab stage about 10 years ago I had a 9000 2.3 turbo(and a 900), it was serious bit of kit and really pi**ed off a few Audi/BMW drivers in terms of overtaking speeds. Very good on fuel for some reason and had very comfy seats but I swapped it for a XJ40 before I lost my license.@paul isaacs

  16. I dont see what the fuss is. Both BMW and Audi have produced these vehicles because they can. In engineering terms both are simple adaptations of existing products. Although the Rover SD1 etc may have pioneered the concept of a 5 door Executive many years ago, at present no one is building such a car so a niche does indeed exist. Really this idea that anything new or anything produced by a company that is succesful is no good, is the real reason why this country is now such a god foresaken s**t hole and not because Rovers are no longer built!

  17. @paul
    Rubbish, it’s becuse no one in this country wants to know about manufacturing fro the long term, prefering to invest in service industries and short term gain.. unfortunatly this falls apart when there is no industry to service as we are seeing

  18. I agree with you, these two cars are pointless but I suppose the Marketing departments at BMW and Audi thought differently. In that case, we should probably look for Mercedes to do the same thing with the new E-Class.

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