Blog : Rover SD1 – the Australian perspective

Igor Spajic

When my stepfather bought a new Rover SD1 3500SE in 1982 (among the last Series 1s), it was still car-of-the-future stuff – alloy V8, EFI, hatchback, etc. It was impressive, but I couldn’t help wondering why the auto was only a three-speed, when those backward Americans all had four-speed autos (with overdrive) by then.

The Rover V8s revved freely, so always excelled when coupled to the five-speed manual as opposed to the three-speed Borg Warner auto. Virtually all Australian-spec SD1s were automatics, with the US-Federal-spec low compression ratio V8 engines and Lucas L-Jetronic, for a rousing (in that dismal time) 144bhp.

We could have stood a higher compression ratio but, apparently, Australia was used as a testbed for the American mechanicals, which raised the ire of those motoring journalists who spotted this.

Driven for a decade…

I’ve inherited the Rover and have driven it for a decade now as an everyday car. It’s only ever failed when the high-beam current melted the headlamp switch (upgraded relays solved this). Seals and gaskets leak over time and are replaced as necessary. Window lift rocker switch contacts were cleaned and everything works fine.

A new air-con dryer unit is needed (hard to find) and a relay just quit in the central locking. Some incipient rust in the door bottoms was drowned with Waxoyl until I can do a decent repair, and weather and Australian sun has blemished the metallic colour on the roof.

However, the engine and auto are still running (the car’s reaching 215,000km) and the interior cloth and plastics are in excellent shape.

Foibles are to be expected at this age

These are merely the foibles of a high-mileage car that’s over 35 years old. If it had some major weaknesses, they would have shown up ages ago. The original Pioneer radio-cassette deck failed long before the Rover’s own electricals.

In summary, I’d agree that:

  1. The design process took too long to complete (1971-75)
  2. Management in-fighting and turmoil led to 1) above with the loss of Rover men and ascendancy of BL men and bean counters
  3. Labour’s sense of entitlement, couldn’t care less about quality control
  4. Management’s blind eye to quality lapses
  5. Interference from Government (you can’t expand your factory here, build one over there instead to solve local unemployment, here’s a big bailout, sorry – no more bailouts, etc.)
  6. External industrial actions of suppliers.

The legacy of the Rover SD1? In any parking lot today, the SD1 is lower and sleeker than anything else – and, with the load-carrying ability of a hatchback, it’s eminently practical. An executive hatchback? You bet!

So I’d say the SD1 is a great design spoiled by indifferent build for too long after launch. Or maybe think of a Ferrari 365 Daytona with four fewer cylinders, 200 less bhp, but two extra doors. Wouldn’t you have one?

But before I go…

How my family ended up with this SD1

My stepfather was a bit of an Anglophile where cars were concerned. He had a 1967 Jaguar E-type 2+2, ’64 Jaguar Mk2 automatic (on which I learnt to drive) and a ’78 Triumph 2500TC (also great to learn on). He sold the Mark II and bought a new – or nearly-new – SD1.

Here’s why it was nearly-new: it was purchased for an elderly gentleman as a surprise gift and replacement for his Austin Princess limousine. He drove the Rover for a week but returned it to the dealer to go back to his limousine. He must have missed the leather and timber inside, and possibly the majestic bulk of the thing.

Does that say anything about traditional Rover owners of the time? I don’t know, but the SD1 found many new owners from outside of the traditional Rover buyers’ group. Before that, many P6Bs of the 1970s found favour with officers of the Australian armed forces. I suppose the junior ranks and enlisted men drove Japanese cars or Holden Toranas…

Certainly, SD1s sold reasonably well in the Australian luxury car market from 1980-85, taking into account the recession of 1981-83. A win at Bathurst Touring Car races didn’t hurt either and remember when bank accounts actually gave you interest?

The time I lost all the lights (main light switch) except the blinkers, in the bush at night, is a tale for another occasion.

Keith Adams
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  1. Interesting post about the SD1 in Oz and it’s sales down under,but isn’t there an elephant in the room,what about the Leyland P76,designed and built in Australia specifically for the Australian market. In many ways it followed the development followed the same route,the development was overlong, it was developed on a shoestring and was underdeveloped when it hit the market in summer 1973 then less than eighteen months later pulled from the market and the factories in Australia closed down. Still you can’t fault Leyland Australia’s chutzpah in foisting a British built product on to the Australian market over continuing with the home produced product.

  2. I had relatives in Australia in the eighties who said British luxury cars like the SD1 and Jaguar XJ6 sold well, often to ex pats and people who wanted something different and more upmarket than a big Australian Ford. Id suppose by the early eighties a lot of reliability demons on both cars had been beaten and Australians were more willing to embrace the old country’s products again.

    • Yes they sold pretty well at that time, but the real trump card was the Range Rover, as all the bankers had 40 acre hobby farms which allowed them to write off the Range Rover as a tax deduction, hence the term “Pitt street farmer “

      • I can imagine the Range Rover being popular with wealthy people in rural areas and being a lot nicer to drive than a Holden ute.
        I was over in Aus in 2006 and the Mini seemed to have a big following, and you saw the occasional Jaguar X Type and Range Rover. Big Aussie cars like Holden and Ford V8s were comfortable, reliable buses, but didn’t have the same class as a Jaguar and cost more to run.

        • The earlier Range Rovers did not have a particularly good reputation in Australia, though more recent models have been well received.
          The market was not ready for luxury vehicles like this at the time. People who bought off roaders needed durability and reliability over comfort and handling. The RR suffered from Leylands poor reputation for this and in remote areas a breakdown could be lethal. Plus the alloy block on the V8 had a reputation for cracking when driving through water.Toyota ended up owning the serious off-roader market due to its quality.
          As for people who lived close enough to town who would be inclined to buy a luxury 4wd at the time, many still preferred the Ford Fairlane sedan with the Country Pack suspension or similar cars.
          It wasn’t until the late 1980s that luxury off-roader started to make major inroads to this market.

  3. Several years ago I read somewhere that back in the early days, the Australians had a saying “If you want to go into the outback you could use a Range Rover; but if you want to return from the outback you’d take a Toyota”.

  4. When I was still in the UK as a kid, my dream was an SD1 3500. In 1995 in Aus I made on mine. It was a silver 3500SE S2 & in the two years I owned it, I could barely afford to drive it due to the continual niggles & repairs. It drove very nicely though, although the brakes were always a concern.
    Oddities included the sunroof sticking open just as drizzle started; it closed after multiple button stabs. The rear wiper didn’t like being switched on when reversing, but as soon as ‘D’ was selected & I didn’t need it as much, it worked..
    Power wasn’t great, but compared to the local Aussie stuff it seemed quite good for its capacity. It was the ambience & vibe that was magical though. Like s many others, I just wish it had been built properly.
    My later 2003 Discovery V8 (bought in 2014) was similar with the amount of niggles. My only other Brit car, a cheap MG ZT-T which had the biggest mileage, was by far the most reliable (although the thermostat leaked, but still got me home that day).

    • The problem after 1981 wasn’t so much breakdowns and flaking paint, which had been mostly beaten, but petty, unacceptable faults with electrical components and trim defects that were largely absent on German and Swedish luxury cars. You could probably feel confident that your late model SD1 wouldn’t be prone to breakdowns as much as seventies cars, or rust developing quickly, but such annoying faults as a jamming sunroof when the rain was starting and weird behaviour with electrical components and loose trim were still common. Meanwhile the owner of a Mercedes W123 would be confident all the components on his car would work and the trim would be rock solid, although it has to be said electrical gizmos weren’t as common on their cars.

  5. I remember a Wheels mag review in about 1984. They commented that it had the most inaccurate speedo they’d ever encountered. At an indicated 135km/h it’s actual speed was 100km/h. I don’t remember one ever winning Bathurst. You might be thinking of the V12 XJ/S. They dusted off the former cars that were replaced with the SD1’s in the European Touring Car Championship that had been in a motoring museum for a year and sent them down to Australia and ended up winning the Bathurst 1000 race.

    • They won their class at Bathurst – when Group A was being previewed in 1984, beating a BMW 635, I think Colin Bond was in there as well in his GTV6

  6. It would still be a dream to own a late model Sd1, I much prefer the look of the Mk2 facelift. My dad had one for about a year in ’86-’87, an ’83 Opaline green metallic 2600SE with brown cloth interior, I just LOVED that car but the fuel bills even on the 2.6 six were horrendous and he changed it for a VW Golf diesel when he moved jobs and had a longer commute to work.
    A Targa red 3500 Vitesse or Vanden Plas would find a welcome place in my garage!

    • Unusual, as the SD1 was always praised for its economy relative to its rivals. I do remember the Mercedes 280 E being particularly thirsty, with 20 mpg being the best you could expect, while a Rover 2600 could do 25-30 mpg.

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