Essay : Rover SD1 – The case for the Prosecution

The year 2021 sees the 45th anniversary of the launch of the Rover SD1, the great white hope for British Leyland and all who sailed in her.

After years of running AROnline and being privy to the expert opinions of many insiders, Keith Adams reckons this beautiful executive fastback was just the product the Corporation didn’t need in its weakened state brought on by the failure of the Austin Allegro.

Rover SD1: how it helped kill British Leyland

Ah, yes the Rover SD1, a popular and iconic car that’s now seen as a mainstream and desirable classic car. It’s been lauded by AROnline many, many times over the years as the greatest car to come out of BLMC, and probably the one that most of us reading this would like to own. Now, however, I’m talking about it as a contributing factor for the fall of British Leyland during the 1970s. What gives? Well, please bear with me, and I’ll try to explain.

Firstly, it’s best to start with a little context. As we all know, in 1968 British Leyland was formed out of the merger between Leyland Motor Corporation and British Motor Holdings (essentially the British Motor Corporation plus Jaguar). Each of those constituent parts had been formed out of other mergers – on the BMC side, these included Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley, Riley, Vanden Plas and Jaguar; while Leyland Motors incorporated Rover and Triumph.

There were also trucks, buses, tractors, military vehicles and, er, fridges in this coming together of marques. Alongside that was the body builder Pressed Steel Fisher, which was also the conglomeration of a number of companies. In other words, between 1952 and 1968 more than a dozen marques and 60 factories were crashed into each other to form one single, super car manufacturing giant. No wonder there was confusion.

Then there was the issue of selling those cars – and this where it gets interesting because within BMC, both the Austin and the Nuffield Group of car dealers were still very powerful and separate entities going into the formation of BLMC, despite having been merged in 1952. And what do Dealer Networks need? Cars to sell. And did it matter that many towns had more than one dealer from each side of the fence competing for the same buyers – and who ultimately worked for the same paymasters. As for Rover and Triumph, the constituent parts of Leyland Motors, they too were still competing with each other via separate dealers, often with similarly-priced cars.

British Leyland: competing with itself

So, the group was ripe for rationalisation. The Dealer Networks needed slimming down, as did the factories. However, most importantly, so did the myriad of competing marques. From the comfort of having the benefit of 50 years’ of hindsight, that’s a most easy and obvious conclusion to make. But, in 1968, BLMC’s figurehead and overall leader, Donald Stokes, was in an unenviable position.

He would have struggled to understand even the most basic concept of knowing where to begin. He grew up industrially in the Leyland machine and, truth be told, that’s all he’ll have known. We’ll come on to where that left him in terms of product in a minute, but if the state of the factories was anything to go from, making BLMC work would have been overwhelming for just about anyone. In 2001, he said, ‘Longbridge was clapped out. Everything was clapped out. It had just carried on after the war. It was very peculiar – the place had grown like Topsy. There was a foundry in the middle of the works! In one factory I remember seeing machines that had been there since 1914 – it was quite unbelievable.’

Did he rationalise? It would appear not. ‘You had to try to get a new culture going in the place. First of all Austin and Morris were scarcely speaking to each other. You had to break this down as quickly as you could. These were minor things. You couldn’t let it go on. If you did, it would just get worse. We were trying to drag them out of the past. You had to go in and say who was boss.’ It would seem that he might well have wanted to bang heads together, but either didn’t have the strength of will to follow through on this wish, or he had his hands tied by Government, the unions and possibly a lack of resolve to make cuts.

‘I thought we could run an industry and keep people employed,’ he said. ‘I didn’t reckon it was my job to get rid of people – I wasn’t brought up in that tradition. I suppose that’s one of my many faults. We couldn’t afford to cut back on our model range, because if you stopped making the cars you didn’t make any money. We had to make the money to pay for the pressing plants and so on to make all those platforms. We were completely undercapitalised.’

Really, what BLMC really needed was a Carlos Tavares-style figure with clear focus and balls of steel. Instead, it had Donald Stokes, and he was patently not that man.

New models needed

This would imply that all of the mess was happening at Austin-Morris, but the situation was far from rosy at Rover-Triumph. In 1968, both marques looked to be in good shape. Their product lines consisted of the 1300/Dolomite family, the Triumph and Rover 2000s and the larger V8 Rovers. On the Triumph side were the still popular and profitable sports car lines, while Rover had the Land Rover. Future models were in development, although not nearly enough of them. The main source of Rover/Triumph crossover was in the highly profitable 2.0-litre class.

So, as the BLMC merger continued to bed in, the issue of product was addressed, and with some urgency. Austin-Morris, ably led by ex-Leyland men George Turnbull and engineered by Harry Webster would concentrate on tidying up the range, and delineating Austin and Morris. The plan was for Austin to produce front-wheel-drive family cars, and Morris to make more conservative rear-wheel-drive models – that policy was evidenced by the appearance of the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina. Triumph would produce premium mid-market cars, while Rover would slot in to the executive car market between Triumph and Jaguar. Sounds logical now, but it took BLMC’s Board a great deal of time and money to make this decision. And all the while, sales were slipping due to lost production, stronger opposition and an increasing lack of competitiveness.

We’ll come back to the holes in that wider plan an a later essay, I’m sure, but needless to say a stronger Management Team would never have signed off the Austin-Morris 18/22-series/Princess or continued with the smaller-engined Triumphs or Austin Maxi on that basis – but they did.

Rover SD1: a good plan, surely?

A P10 crash testing at MIRA, the last step immediately before production

Yes, absolutely… The Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6 were both well into middle age by the time of the formation of BLMC and, in a more conventional situation, the replacements for both would have been well underway, as they would soon be badly needed. As it was, the Triumph Puma was still to get off the drawing board, while the Rover P8 was shifting around on its axis. Pre-BLMC, it was to be a P6 replacement (among other things), but post-merger in 1969, Rover started work on the P10 (above) while the P8 morphed into something else entirely. Even before the Rover SD1 programme was signed off in 1971, it therefore found itself in an uncomfortable position. Resources had been spent on both Rover’s and Triumph’s projects, with the P8 almost making production. These had been canned with the arrival of the SD1 (via the short-lived RT1 project) and, in the case of the P8, it had been costly. BLMC needed to pay £2 million in cancellation fees, while the press reported that it had cost at least £3 million to develop. You can bet it had actually been a whole lot more than that.

With the Rover P8 and Triumph Puma gone and the P10 now morphed into the more cost-constrained SD1, this sub-Jaguar project began to take shape. And as it was going to be an expensive project, the resources for the programmes to replace the Morris Marina and Triumph Dolomite, known as the ADO77 and Triumph SD2, were limited. Moreover, they were being squeezed all the time post-1972, when BLMC’s profitability and sales fell off a cliff due to loss of production through industrial action, and a less-than-competitive Austin-Morris range.

By 1974 and towards the end of BLMC’s financial independence, the squeeze was very much on spending on future models across the board. The ADO74 supermini was canned, and ultimately so were the Triumph SD2 and ADO77 Marina-replacement (before being briefly merged into the TM-1 project). They would make way for the Rover SD1 project, as it was the most developed within the Corporation (the Princess and Triumph TR7 were much closer to launch and were funded by the first wave of post-1968 expenditure), despite having the potential to sell more and have much wider commercial appeal. So, because of this decision, the Morris Marina stayed in production until 1980 (1984 if you count the Morris Ital) taking its maker’s name with it, while the Triumph Dolomite stayed around until the arrival of the Acclaim – which also saw off its maker’s name.

It all comes at great cost

With pretty much all of BLMC’s resources behind it, and in a period of austerity post-Government bailout, the SD1 just had to succeed. Overall cost of the project had come in at a cool £95 million. As well as being built on an all-new platform in a brand-new £31 million factory in Solihull, the hopes and dreams of Rover-Triumph, Austin-Morris and ultimately BLMC as a whole lay on it. Much of the five-door hatchback SD1’s DNA was inherited from the Rover P10 project, but its six-cylinder PE166 engines and LT77 transmission came from Triumph, so it was very much a joint effort. It was engineered by Spen King’s team and styled by David Bache’s Designers, as with the P6, but interior quality had been dropped considerably in order to distance even the top V8-powered SD1 from Jaguar’s position at the top of the range.

It was planned as a volume-selling executive car. The new factory at Solihull was geared up to produce up to 150,000 SD1s a year and operate on a three-shift system – which, given the combined sales of the Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6, was still something of a stretch, even in the boom years of the early 1970s. But until recession that followed the 1973/74 Energy Crisis, sales of cars in this class were booming, and BLMC’s management would have seen a great opportunity to clean up with the SD1. And in development, confidence must have been high – this was a great-looking car that was intelligently engineered, and showed how progressive a company its maker was.

Except that the Rover SD1’s potential buyers weren’t so progressive. In a market that preferred three-box saloons, the hatchback was nothing if not daring – and, although it wasn’t alone in this market sector in offering a hatchback, rivals such as the Audi 100 Avant would be sold alongside saloon counterparts. Perhaps the fifth door should have been used on the Princess instead. The market for big estate cars was also healthy and profitable at the time of the SD1’s launch, and we know that an SD1 Estate (below) was in development, but the money ran out to launch it. So, instead of offering a saloon and an estate, Rover sold a hatch that didn’t quite fit the bill for either set of buyers.

Not enough quality or quantity

Even as the first SD1s went on sale, the factory building them went on strike – and, as a consequence, the company never stood a chance of meeting the huge early demand for its exciting new car. It was receiving praise and awards from all quarters, but unless you were prepared to negotiate paying a premium from your dealer (which got many retailers into trouble), you faced a very long wait for one. Then there was the late arrival of the six-cylinder models, which also stunted demand in Europe as well as the UK – regular supplies of the 2600 didn’t really arrive until 1977, while if you wanted a 2300, you’d have to wait until 1978. And that’s not even taking into account of the lack of a 2.0-litre model until the 1982 facelift.

By the time production was ramped up at Solihull, the shine had long since worn off the SD1, and tales of reliability issues and sub-standard build quality were widely being circulated in the press. Autocar reported on its Rover 3500 automatic long-term test car: ‘The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection. Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.’ And that would have been an example specially prepared by the press garage.

Peter Grant, one time Production Manager at Solihull added: ‘I was at a dance at the Civic Centre in Solihull and a senior Director of British Leyland came up to me and said, “You Rover people are all the same. You worry about quality. We want quantity. We’ve got to get this SD1 turned out in quantity.” Morale was very, very bad. We had sensible middle-aged people. They didn’t want to be sworn at or screamed at and threatened with the sack if they didn’t decide this that or the other. The Plant Director was despairing of the quality of the cars that were going into sales. It had to be seen to be believed.’

Things improved in 1979, but then the second Energy Crisis happened and another recession inevitably followed, once again killing demand for large executive cars. Would BL have been in better shape in the late 1970s with a modern Marina, decent Dolomite and shiny new supermini to sell? Absolutely…

Conclusion: lack of sales, lack of profit, lack of success

As much as we love the Rover SD1, it’s clear it was a failure for BLMC, despite all those awards, that clever interior, fabulous interior and intelligent use of the Rover V8 engine. Had BL been in a healthy position, it could have stood having a poor-selling halo product, but it wasn’t – the combined sales of the Marina and Allegro were poor compared with the 1100/1300 they replaced, and the Maxi was selling a fraction of the numbers it should have been.

With 303,405 sold during its ten-year production run, it pales into insignificance compared with rival executive cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz W123, Ford Granada or Audi 100. Even the Citroën CX comfortably outsold it with more than a million units shifted. The company had thrown in just about everything it had so, not only did the SD1 need to be profitable, it needed to sell in big numbers – although it ended up meeting the former goal, in no way did it meet the latter.

That’s why the SD1 was a failure. It cost an absolute fortune to develop, demanded a new factory in which to build it and, as a result, by the time the money started pouring in from those early sales, BLMC had long since needed a financial bail-out from the Government in the wake of the 1973 Energy Crisis. Most damagingly, the SD1’s failure to sell and score huge profits meant that BLMC no longer had enough money to develop the much-needed replacements for the Triumph Dolomite, Morris Marina and many others – in other words, it haemorrhaged funds just when they were needed most.

In February 1978, Michael Edwardes said to a dealer conference: ‘the Rover SD1 range summed up what was best and worst in British Leyland. The cars themselves are runaway winners and the envy of many in the motor business. We spent £95m developing the car and building a brand new factory, the most modern in Europe, in which to produce it. And what happens? We have some of the worst production and quality problems in the whole company, customers are literally banging on showroom doors to get delivery. After six months they lost interest, and we alienate the customers. This is what I mean by a death wish.’

When people blithely say that the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina were the death of British Leyland, point them in the direction of this essay. They holed the vessel beneath the waterline – perhaps fatally – but their failure wasn’t the Corporation’s only undoing. No, the ambitious Rover SD1 has a huge part to play in the death of British Leyland – it might not have single-handedly killed BL, but it was misguided (no matter how well intentioned) and cost the Corporation dearly.

Keith Adams


  1. Thank s for this Keith

    However I think you pick the wrong “criminal”

    By the time the SD1 arrived, it was game over for British Leyland, because the failure of the Allegro in the market and in particular the European market to replace the ADO16, meant that despite the optimism of the Ryder plan which the SD1 was seen as a crucial part of, BMC European dealer network had effectively ceased to exist. They simply could not have sold the volumes to compete with the major European manufacturers in terms of economies of scale, because they had no one to do the selling.

    I liken the Allegro very much to the Peugeot 205, had the 205 not been a success PSA would not have survived as an independent manufacturer. The same was true of the Allegro, had it built on top of the success of the ADO16 in the way the 205 did on the 104, it would have grown the European dealer network and thus driven more volume, of more profitable products (how many more 405, 306 were sold in the UK because of the fact that the 205 kept former Roots, Chrysler, Talbot dealers alive in the early 80s?).

    However as we know the Allegro, did the opposite. Why though?

    The answer in my eyes is the Marina, the decision to proceed with this ahead of the Allegro took resources and investment that would have been better spent building a “world class” product to replace the ADO16. I also note the rushed decision on the Marina, made without understanding the dilapidated state of much of the tooling that it relied on that turned it from a parts bin special into a car that cost twice the price of the Allegro to bring to production.

    • Oh, the Allegro was an unforgivable stumble from a team that thought it could do no wrong. And I won’t defend it, as it was a belly flop after the brilliant ADO16. Same with the Marina, although as I have said many times, had it been replaced in 1976/77, history would have been much kinder to it. But both the Allegro and Marina made money for the company, and sold relatively well, built in existing factories, without anywhere near the investment that the SD1 consumed.

      The killer for the SD1 is that is sucked so much money and resource at a time of great hardship that we were left without a replacement for the Marina and Dolomite – or Mini for that matter. That’s its legacy for me. Shame, because I adore the SD1…

      • Sorry Keith, but I think you miss my point.

        The point I make though, is that neither the SD1, or a Marina replacement, Dolly etc could have saved British Leyland, it was at the time of the Ryder plan being put in place, already dead as a major volume car manufacturer, because it no longer had the sales channels to sell the volumes necessary to compete with VW, Renault, Fiat etc even if it factories had had the product and the willingness to build them.

        Had in 73, the Allegro been another ADO16, or a Peugeot 205 or a Golf or Renault 5 ie changed the markets mind on what it wanted and along with it their brands perception then, British Leyland could be with us today. But it was at best OK, and so with it went British Leyland’s last chance to retain its position as a major volume car manufacturer.

        I am also not having a go at the Marina in itself. I can see why Leyland wanted to build the Marina, it was exactly the car the UK dealers were crying out for, as they were trying to fight the Cortina mk2 with a decade old reheat of a very mediocre Austin. The dealers must have been pointing at the Roots group’s Arrow since its launch in 66, and saying that this shows you can fight Ford very effectively with a fresh reheat of mediocre 1950s oily bits.

        But what I hold against the Marina in part, was that whilst it delivered a profit on its manufacturing, it never had a hope in hell of recovering its investment in its intended shelf life of just 4 years, because of the investment needed to retool and expand production for its outdated components, because the tooling for them was already at the end of its life. In addition it had would have little appeal on the continent, being not robust enough for the Scandinavian market who appreciated simplicity, and simply not good enough for anywhere else to take to it in large quantities.

        But most of all it distracted the Austin and Morris design teams, when they should have been focusing the big issue, replacing their best selling car the Ado16.

        So whilst I would agree with you, the SD1 was an over ambitious project that the company could not afford, it did not kill British Leyland. The body was already dead, although still a little warm when it arrived on the scene, however it did along with the Princess and TR7 weigh the body down and with the subsequent drip feeding of cash to just keep it going (compared with the French and German rescue packages, that had stated objectives of their manufacturers becoming global players at the time) throwing the body in the River.

      • I’m not sure the team thought they could do no wrong, seeing that since the ADO16 they’d launched flop after flop, Landcrab, 3 Litre and Maxi and as a result been forced into a humiliating merger with Leyland!

        I would agree that the sheer cost of the SD1 project was a massive reason for the collapse of so many other projects, but if the Allegro for example had been more successful, then maybe BL wouldn’t have been in that desperate a position in the first place

    • I suppose I should also say I’m not saying the SD1 killed BL singlehandedly. Of course not. As it says above, ‘When people blithely say that the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina were the death of British Leyland, point them in the direction of this essay. The SD1 might not have single-handedly killed BL, but it played a massive part in its downfall.’

  2. I’d go along with much of what Graham says. Unlike the Marina, which was essentially a twenty-year-old car upon its launch in 1971, the SD1 at least “hid” its aspects of older technology quite effectively. In terms of its internal and external visual appeal to customers and (perception of) quality, the Rover garnered admiration that the Marina was never designed to achieve.

    Where the SD1 failed was not in its design or technology but in the workforce’s attitude, lack of experience (and training?) at Solihull and management’s own “quantity before quality” mantra. That the SD1 came in for so much criticism less than a year after its launch is perhaps more a reflection of how high it had set expectations when jounalists first swooned over it in June 1976. As far as I know there was no such excited anticipation of the “grey porridge” Marina – and the Allegro was perhaps (unfairly) judged to be yet another BL practical joke.

    The SD1 may have sapped BL’s finances further (or rather its sales performance fell short of profit dependencies) but I believe it was largely a victim rather than a villain.

    • I am not sure the workers were entirely to blame. When British workers were put in japanese plants, the quality shot up. That wasn’t just due to better management but better production design. The article on the development of the SD1 talks about this, not enough thought was put into putting it together.

      If something is difficult to assemble, you will got a poor quality product, when you try to mass produce it.

      • I think it’s been mentioned elsewhere that many at BL were surprised at how well the Acclaim fitted together, and many of workers normally allocationed to a production line didn’t have much to do.

  3. Anyone with a spark upstairs at BL would have seen the Marina as the basis of the next Triumph, small Rover and spent the extra to make a seriously good floorpan/chassis with front struts and a well located coil spring rear axle. The Maxi was a spark of genius – it only had one competitor, the ‘forrin innit’ Renault 16. Pity it took 2 years to make it any good. Period road tests of the 1750 outline how good it was.

    • Had the SD1 been better made, better rustproofed and the workforce not gone on strike, the car could have been a huge success and probably enabled British Leyland to invest more in its smaller cars. When launched in 1976, almost every car magazine across Europe raved about the car, praising its radical styling and excellent driving experience, and sales could have been huge across Europe as the SD1 looked far more exciting than its rivals. Instead we all know what happened and the SD1 never lived up to expectations and buyers exasperated with poor quality went elsewhere.

    • I think that’s exactly right. Rationalization came too late. Instead money was spread out over a whole range of products all which suffered as a result. I believe the maxi and the Marina had near enough the same wheelbase. Couldn;’t they have reengineered the maxi tto take rear wheel drive and dressed it up in marina clothing. Why stick the 1800 in there and not the 1500, 1750 e series. It’s almost as Leyland management wanted the Marina and the Allegro to fail

  4. For me the culprits are Montego and Maestro. Good as the car were they failed to hit their target market. And sold less well than the Allegro or Marina. These cars failed because A. they were initially less reliable than the their predecessors and b because they were visually styled so badly. Yes we’ve come to love them, but only in same way we love the maxi, allegro and landcrab

    • British Leyland’s market share had stopped declining in the early eighties and had the Maestro and Montego been more reliable, the company’s market share could have gone up to 25%. There was a lot of goodwill towards the company in the early eighties as products like the Austin Metro and Triumph Acclaim were good cars and the endless strikes had largely fizzled out. Motoring pundits were quite favourable towards the Maestro when it was introduced, praising its large interior, decent handling, good ride and huge range of models. Had it been better made, it could have been a massive success.

      • Glenn, the problem was that it was 25% of the UK market, the only market Austin Rover had any presence of note by then. Without a European dealer network, they would never be able to sell the volumes of Maestro / Montego to compete with there European rivals.

        BMC thanks to the Mini and Ado16 had had a substantial European network despite the high tariffs they faced into the Common Market, but the failure of the Ado17, to effectively refresh the Mini, the failure of the Maxi and finally to replace the Ado16 with the Allegro killed it.

        The Ryder plan’s failure to address this issue, both to resolve the product issues and secure a continental dealer network, meant the plan was pure “pie in the Sky”. The truth is that when the Government signed off the investment for the Maestro and Montego, they had (according to Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs), already decided that Austin Rover was dead and it was just done to buy time to establish alternative employment.

        • The Mini still had a considerable following in France and diesel Rover SD1s sold briskly in Italy, but it wasn’t enough as the company’s other models were almost ignored in Europe.Austin Rover was becoming largely a parochial British company.

          • Depends where you view it from, from Longbridge when you selling next to nothing on the continent the Mini sales looked good, but from France, it was in reality a car that had a niche following in Paris, in part because of stylish expats like Charlotte Rampling being seen in their Mini’s. It was however useful foot in, the Metro in its early days had a little boom in Paris as the dealer offered a competitive trade in on old Mini’s for a new Metro.

            The SD1 diesel again sold well in Italy when viewed from the UK, helped by having an Italian engine, but this is relative to a time when the SD1 was selling slowly in the UK and had no traction anywhere else other than Italy, and sales do not look so good when you look at the sales Audi and Mercedes were making with their oil burners in the Italian market.

  5. **** Apologies, if any comments have been lost, the site’s been down and I had to restore from an old backup, and repaired a number of database tables ****

  6. Having written about Rover Triumph in depth for this site, I agree in part with what Keith says.
    The £95 million BLMC spent on the Rover SD1 helped push the company into the arms of the government in December 1974. But at the time all UK car manufacturers were losing money thanks to the Three Day Week at the beginning of the year. Although the energy crisis affected all vehicle manufacturers worldwide, the Three Day Week only hurt those with plants in Britain.
    Where I think the Rover SD was critical in the fortunes of British Leyland was that it demonstrated that the company was incapable of designing and manufacturing even its premium priced vehicles to the expected standard.
    This was because on the formation of British Leyland in 1968 the new management led by Sir Donald Stokes looked on Ford of Britain as the ideal model for the new national automotive champion. Finance director John Barber, who had been Ford UK’s deputy director of finance, actively recruited many cost control experts with a remit to cut manufacturing costs on the companies new models. The upshot of all this was that from the ADO28 Marina onwards, all British Leyland cars were hideously compromised. British Leyland cars got their reputation for poor quality and unreliability, because these features were excised at the design stage. It was a deliberate management sanctioned policy meant to increase profitability per car and took their existing customers continued patronage for granted. It might have worked in a Britain still locked out of the Common Market with imported cars subject to 30% trade tariff, but in the post 1973 world it led to disaster. Because of this policy of deliberately degrading engineering integrity and using the cheapest possible components was in force from the outset, I believe British Leyland was doomed from the very beginning. The mindset in the UK that the Ford of Britain way was the correct path was challenged by the like of Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen in the 1970’s. That it was possible to make high technology cars and make sustainable profits.
    UK motor industry analysts were so insular in the 1970’s, and so focussed on the UK sales charts, that they did not pay much attention to what Europeans as a whole were buying. Ford of Britain’s core UK market was the fleet buyers and they cultivated their custom very well. It enabled them to weather the Japanese assault on the UK market. The Escort and Cortina were the fleet buyers default choice. They were addicted to these cars like an alcoholic is to booze. One can go on Youtube and watch the 1982 BBC arena programme “The Secret Life of The Ford Cortina.”
    One scene has the Thorn EMI sales reps in their car park, all with Cortina’s. Even in 1982 the Cortina was an outdated dinosaur by European standards, but the fleet buyers kept on purchasing them. One suspects that had Ford kept it in production a few more years, it probably would have still topped the sales charts. It took a lot sales incentives by GM and its front wheel drive Cavalier to finally get the fleet buyers to finally accept front wheel drive. The success of Ford in selling to the fleet buyers blinded the British Leyland management as to what was really happening in the European car market. Everybody was so obsessed with toppling the Cortina from its perch, what was happening in the rest of Europe was ignored. In terms of design ethos Britain became isolated from the rest of Europe. In the UK the mantra was to design a cheaper to manufacture car, on the continent the philosophy was to design a better car. No wonder that after 1973 the European imports flooded in.
    This then was why the Rover SD1 failed. It was designed to a price and used cheap and nasty components in its manufacture by an under trained workforce. All this penny pinching was in my opinion, unnecessary, such was the praise and demand for the car on launch. The SD1 should and could have sold a lot better had the bean counters not undermined it from the outset. Sales in Britain were handed on a plate to the Ford Granada while on the continent BMW benefited. The vast difference in retail price between the SD1 and equivalent BMW models speaks volumes.
    As to whether the Ford of Britain way was the right way? Well, not much remains of Ford of Britain either.
    The Rover SD1 was the car that demonstrated that British Leyland was doomed.

    • I agree Ian, but also add that this focus on the UK market meant that little thought seemed to be given to supporting BMC’s continental dealer network. A few years ago I read in the MG club magazine an interesting article by the director of BMC’s importer to France.

      They had despite the tariffs done well with the Mini and Ado16 and got by well enough despite the lack of new metal that they could sell, with the Ado17 being too big and expensive and the Maxi not moving the game forward. But he knew it was over when he was shown the Marina, telling Stokes that there was no market in France for “cars built like old Opels”. He had, if I recall correctly, gone by the time the Allegro arrived, and it was not be until the Metro was launched, would there be an Austin Rover car offered which appealed to the mainstream French market, by which time I doubt there was more than a handful of dealers left in the whole country to sell them.

      But without a continental dealer network, the Ryder Plan and the later M cars could never have achieved their required sales volumes to make the company viable.

      • But then France isn’t the only market in Europe, and with the Maxi, Allegro and then the Princess, it’s not as if there was a shortage of eccentric FWD cars to sell in France as well!

        Fiat had the RWD 124 and 125, and replaced them with the equally RWD and boxy 131 and 132. Ford in Germany and Opel produced conventional RWD saloons, so there was plenty of potential continental demand for a Marina type vehicle.

        • I did not see Innocenti jumping on the chance to licence the Marina and or import it and sell it against Fiat with a 30% import tax did they.

          There was not a substantial dealer network in Germany to sell anything, and the word Leyland does not work in German, the only market the Princess could have got traction.

          The only market that saw RWD as a virtue other than the UK was Scandinavia, they like the Morris Oxford, because it was tough, but the Marina was not robust enough to appeal to them.

          The Maxi whatever language you spoke lacked appeal and the Allegro was the final nail of what remained of the BMC continental dealer network and took Innocenti with it.

      • I recall my godfather, who worked for GM in Luton, telling me that the Cortina sold because it was what the market wanted. Well it might have been what a handful of British fleet buyers wanted, but was it what the rest of the world wanted?

        • Indeed it was what the UK market wanted, but prioritising British fleet buyers undermined Ford of Europe. No self respecting German, French or Italian buyer would be seen dead in such a crude, poorly developed car. Abandoning the Cortina for the Sierra aimed to create a product with pan European appeal – and it succeeded even if it was a hard ell in the UK initially

    • Don’t forget the onward march of Japanese cars among private buyers. Near me, two brothers set up a Datsun franchise in a village in 1970 and by 1975 were selling so many cars to the villagers and people around them, they had to build a new showroom. I’d so locally, after British Leyland, Ford and Vauxhall, Datsun was the most common make of car by the late seventies. Then another dealer took on a Toyota franchise to add to his Chrysler business and sales were so good, he had to build another showroom. The Japanese were giving buyers who didn’t have the luxury of a company car what they wanted, well equipped cars that didn’t break down that were cheap to buy.

      • It is true to say the Japanese also gave the dealers what they wanted, the cars were at the dealer sale or return so they could sell off the floor and yet not have money tied up in stock. In addition the importers could tell them what was on the ship’s and when it would be landed, where as UK factories with frequent stoppages could not guarantee delivery.

        This helped them build a good dealer network and of course they were entering the market just as British Leyland finally got round to rationalizing its dealer network and thus suddenly released a whole load of sites into the hands of the European and Japanese competitors.

  7. That says it all Glenn. I bought my first Datsun Cherry in 1979 from our local dealer who added the franchise to an existing Chrysler one, then I think Datsun sales began exceeding Chryslers. Sadly they closed in 1981 after being taken over.

    However another local garage selling Used cars then became Datsun (Nissan) dealers and remained so for over 35 years.

    • Datsun gave buyers what they wanted, reliable cars with high equipment levels at low prices. Yes magazines like Car moaned about the boring driving experience and the chintzy styling, but Joe Public would sooner have a cheap, reliable car than something that might not start on a cold morning, or break down on the M6.

  8. The SD1 was a shed. It’s a big mistake to feed rubbish quality to executive buyers – they will shout loud and long about what a rubbish product it is. They made the same mistake with the 800 – a lovely looking car, but very badly made. The sad thing is, my 216GSi was a great car; but 200 buyers are less influential than 800 buyers.

  9. The SD1 didn’t kill British Leyland, assuming it was ever possible to save that monster of a company; the real villain is the Allegro. The 1100 range had been a big seller for years and the Allegro was not only meant to replicate that success but succeed in Europe, now we had access to those markets.

    The tragic thing is, they got so much right. No really they did, ignore all that worse car of all time c**p. It had proven A-series mechanicals and despite the fact the E-series turned out to be a bit a white elephant, it was a sound enough engine. Hydragas gave an excellent ride and unlike most of cars of the time, the Allegro was resistant to the tin worm.

    Two things killed it. No hatchback, which was ridiculous with that shape and the pig ugly styling. How that car ever made it into production, with that body, is beyond me. If only they had hired an Italian design house to style it, instead of Harris Mann. I know Mann has disowned it but, as I understand it, the design he tout as his Allegro is actually a proposed re-skin of AD016 and his wedge designs were never going to work with the tall E-series engine.

    One thing the SD1 does show is the danger of combining all the British motoring eggs in one basket. If Triumph and Rover had been separate, then there would have been two British makes in the market and the failure of one would have been less of a disaster.

  10. To blame the SD1 for British Leyland’s downfall is a little unfair as whatever all new mass market car was going to come after the Princess- SD1 SD2 or Marina replacement would have used up all available resources and would have ended up being shoddily assembled in a strife torn factory. Also the need to keep both the unions and government happy by maintaining unnecessary workforce levels was always going to make it difficult to make profitable vehicles.

    Economies of scale should have dictated that SD1 used modified (Roverised) E6 engines- in a similar way to Lancia used modified FIAT twin cam engines. It must surely be cheaper to increase production of an existing and tested unit than designing something all new. Power outputs would have been similar and six cylinder versions would have been available from launch rather than over a year later. Only near bankrupt BL would choose to build a third line of straight sixes whilst manufacturers such as Peugeot, Renault and Volvo realised the only way to justify six cylinder power was to pull resourses. Had the Rover six been pulled it may have left sufficient funds for SD2.

    Another failing was not to have a 2 litre available early in SD1s life. Rover practically invented the 2 litre executive car which was, for tax reasons in particular was where the company car market peaked for most users. An eight valve Triumph slant 4 may have struggled to propel the Rover’s weight, but in a market where appearance matters it would have most likely done well in the company car park.

    A final anomaly was the decision to keep both the Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6 in production after the SD1 launch.

    • I assume the lack of a 2 litre SD1 was because the planning started before the energy crises put fuel prices up & made larger engined cars attractive, & BL didn’t want to lose 2 litre Princess sales by having an overlap.

      • The energy crisis was in 73/74, so there was plenty of time to adapt SD1 for the slant 4 considering the 6 cylinder cars didn’t arrive until 1977!

        This worrying about cannibalising other models is counter productive, Ford were happy to offer small engined Granadas alongside 2L and 2.3L Cortinas

    • Had the SD1 received a modified E6 from the outset, could a case be made for the 2.2-litre engine being reduced to 2.0-litres (a displacement it was originally conceived at in 6-cylinder form) though tuned to 2.2-litre E6+ power levels thereby creating an early yet adequate entry into the 2-litre segment?

      • IMO a modified 2-litre E6 SD1 putting out 110-118+ hp would be preferable to the 105 hp 2-litre Triumph Slant-Four SD1, additionally the 2-litre E6 in terms of cylinders and displacement also links such an SD1 to the Triumph 2000 inline-6.

        A 2-litre SD1 does not have to be strictly limited to just 4-cylinders.

        • Don’t know really: on the one hand, a small six could be an attractive base model for a prestige range, perhaps adding some welcome cachet.
          On the other hand, a Slant Four would broaden the appeal, as it would probably be cheaper to buy and to run. It would also make a completer range: 2 litre Four, 2,5 (or there about) Six and 3,5 litre V8.
          Finally, both the 2 litre Slant Four and 2,6 E6 were readily available (though as you know, my preferred scenario would have been a 1,6 E4 and 2,4 E6).

          • The Triumph Slant-4 makes more sense in powering smaller lighter cars like the Dolomite and TR7, etc. Whereas a modified 2-litre E6 (in place of the 2.2 E6) on top of adding some cachet would also be related to larger 2.4-2.6-litre variants, providing the torque necessary to power the larger SD1 compared to a 2-litre 4-cylinder of which the Triumph Slant-4 was one of number of potential options.

            Compared to the other ways the E-Series 4/6-cylinder could have been improved in better circumstances from its conception (and it seems to be agreed the engine had a lot of unrealised potential), the above seems to be very feasible given the E6 was originally conceived as a 2-litre even if a related 1.3-litre E-Series 4-cylinder is unneeded (short of the latter displacing nearer to 1340cc and thus in fact slotting above the 1275cc A-Series).

            Both ADO17 and ADO71 could have potentially benefited from a 2-litre E6 in the post-fuel crisis environmental that penalized cars with engines over 2-litres in certain countries.

    • I totally agree with Spyder. The SD1, even had it been well built, was aimed at a market that didn’t exist. Name the 5 door executive hatchback? It took Audi half a century to get people into the A5

      And who buys a V8 in Europe? The 6 cylinder versions arrived too late and should have been powered by the e series for economies of scale

      BL needed a direct conventional four door rover 2000 replacement with independent suspension powered by the e-series. Get Pinin to style it and it would sell all over Europe.

    • Spyder, you hit the nail on the head. Why on earth were there so many different engines in use?

      B, E, O series and Triumph slant 4 engines all around 1.7 – 2.0L.

      Triumph, Rover and E series 6 cylinders around 2.2 – 2.6 plus, of course the Triumph/Rover V8 childishness.

      The O series could (should) have done everything from 1.6 to 2.0 L and the E6 everything above that. Aussie built cars used E6s in Marinas!

      Economy of scale

      • @ Richard Moss, the E6 was quite a recent engine when the SD1 was launched and had a reputation for smoothness that would have suited the SD1. All that was needed was a bored out version for the 2600, which was used in the South African version, and the 2200 for the entry level model. Instead money was blown on two new and unreliable engines that were never used in other models.

  11. Comment lost in crash:
    An interesting and accurate summary I think. Two key observations in the piece indicate the reasons for failure of the business. The leadership thought it was their primary role to keep people in jobs – political interference probably didn’t help with this either. Carefree investment like SD1 would not have been that easy if the business leaders had to get investment from banks or shareholders. In my experience, these two issues prevailed until 2000 and resulted in the slow death of an industry.
    For the record: businesses exist to make a profit, investors invest in businesses to get a return on their investment.
    Huge amounts of capital was wasted on the SD1 plant at Solihull. The strain of managing a new product into a new plant drained senior management resources. SD1 spent all the cash and distracted the management – other product suffered accordingly.

    • The problem for the 75 was BMW. In the late 90’s the fashion was for drivers cars and no-one wanted to be seen in an old mans car. Of course both of these were ridiculous. The vast majority of drivers are mediocre, they couldn’t tell oversteer from understeer. This includes those that buy high powered beemers and other Germany machinery. In the real world ride quality is far more important.

      As for not wanting to buy old man cars, who else would drive a large car? I saw an old episode of Top Gear, when they were reviewing rep mobiles in that class. All the men they interviewed about them said they didn’t want to be seen in an old man’s car and everyone one of those men had a beer gut and a receding hairline.

      BMW were never going to let Rover build a drivers car with up to date styling, that would compete with 3 and the 5 series. So Rover were screwed.

      • The difficulty there is how do you define “an old man’s car”…and also when does a young man become an old man ? I’ll bet those men with beer guts and receding hair weren’t as old as they might first appear. They’d think of themselves as young, but in the eyes of others, they’d be considered old. So which car should they be driving ?

        And when it comes to brand names….I’ve always thought Morris and Austin were old men’s cars (and I’m old enough to remember when there were lots of both on the roads !)

  12. A great essay that certainly puts a different perspective on things and explains the cryptic references to the damage done by Spen Kings SD1 made on other pages. Strikes me that BL lost all grip on reality when developing the SD1, if the car had been built in an existing plant (Canley down the 2000/2500lines?), had a 2 litre engine from the start (Slant 4 Dolomite/TR7 motor), used an existing straight 6 engine (E Series 2.6) and been available with more than one body style then up front cost would have been saved and amortised across far greater volumes. Would still have absorbed funds that could have been used for a Super-Mini/Marina replacement etc, but at least it would have had a sporting chance of selling in decent numbers – and making greater profits than those other potential projects.

  13. I think the SD1 just sums up the whole of BL / BMC – poor management, not enough development staff and a rebellious workforce. The SD1 didn’t really have a chance when John Barber decreed it should be a Granada competitor instead of aiming at the Germans and Jaguar. The car was cheapened because of this. The 6 cylinder engines have been proven to be good motors years later, much like the Triumph V8 – again lack of development – also why develop a whole new engine? People have said that the numbers estimated for Allegro and Princess sales would have taken up all E series production – but it does not mean that this could have been expanded on other sites other than Cofton Hackett – in fact the new 6 cylinder was so different from the Triumph 6 the expenses of new production lines was made anyway. The SD1 might not have killed BL – it was doomed from the start due to it’s lack of leadership – but it probably did put the final nail in – what Sir Michael Edwards did was create a smaller leaner business which again missed the mark because of poor management (M series cars following Harris design which were smoother and more fitting with 80s styling/models developed properly instead of appearing to be better later on in run). It was only under Graham that the business seem to focus in the right direction (with Honda help) until BAE stepped in and asset stripped it. BMW never really had a chance because of this lack of investment when the company was making money.

    • Don’t quite understand why Barber’s decision to make SD1 a Granada-competitor should mean making it cheap and awful. My dad drove two Granada’s and a Scorpio (before moving to Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable). The Granada’s were great cars, value for money yes, but not at all cheap and awful.
      In this respect I always consider SD1 more of a Triumph 2000/2500 successor – pragmatic and efficiently engineered – rather than a pre-SD1 Rover as those used to be overengineered.

      • I agree that the SD1 feels more like a Triumph than a Rover. Indeed in my dream scenario, if Jaguar hadn’t been part of the same group BL would have produced TWO exec cars, a Triumph SD1 (including a slant 4 engined version) and a related but more conservative and solid Rover saloon, a modern P5 to target Mercedes and indeed the likes of Volvo who sold loads of 240s in the UK.

      • The Granada in both Mark 1 and Mark 2 form was a good car and light years ahead of the Zephyr/ Zodiac it replaced. Also the Mark 2 was a very well made and reliable car and in Ghia form took on some of the Rover features such as wood dashboards and door cappings that were absent from earlly SD1s. By keeping the Granada’s German assembly quiet for a few years, buyers were convinced they were buying British and praising the British Granada’s quality over the Rover SD1 until they had a look in the engine bay and saw the Made in West Germany plate.

  14. Keith’s original article & just about all subsequent contributions have degrees of validity; one thing that has been missed is the affect of Exchange Rates; reviewing data over the last 30 years the Deutsche Mark or Euro exchange rates have always favoured imports; I don’t think any predominantly UK based automotive business can compete when they need to find up to 30% savings in all areas of the design & production to be competitive. The outcome of this is development budgets are slashed leading to models living too long and quality frequently takes a back seat. Land Rover has survived because a premium price is charged, although the reality is still frequently quality / reliability is an issue. Other manufacturers’ outside the UK also make poorly executed models, through the 70’s & 80’s just about all French & Italian cars had quality / durability issues that were at least the equal of BL products, whilst more recently think about the original Mercedes “A” Class or first generation Audi TT whose handling characteristics were both significantly flawed.

    • The exchange rates between the Dollar and Pound in the early 1980s were death-knell for the MG & triumph sports cars as they were barely breaking even in the USA when all the importation costs were taken into consideration.

      • @ Richardpd, a major recession in America that started in 1980 and lasted well into 1982 didn’t help the sales of imported cars that were more expensive than American cars and costly to maintain due to imported parts. Then there was the energy crisis that didn’t help cars like the TR8. A big shame as the TR8 was just right for America at any other time than the start of the eighties, a V8 sports car that could compete really well against the Chevtolet Corvette.

        • That’s true, at least one book I have argues the TR-8 should have been launched a lot earlier 1978 if not 1975,

    • Isn’t it possible to argue that almost any BL car launched between about 1965 and 1985 was sufficiently flawed to have blood on its hands? Many (1800, Maxi, Marina, Allegro) could be argued to have dealt a mortal blow to BL. And whilst SD1 undoubtedly caused a lot of grief, what, in practical terms was the alternative to what was done? Would it have been possible, for instance, to produce an SD1 successor, in much greater numbers, on the P6 line? Or would you have ended up with assembly of one car in two places (weren’t the big Triumphs at least partly assembled at Speke?), or a lot of moving components around on flatbeds? Or even two models – surely that was just what the formation of BL was supposed to overcome? My view is that (a) the big new factory was probably unavoidable given anticipated volumes for SD1 and the age/ condition/ capacities of the P6/ Triumph 2000 production facilities (b) the design – perhaps a saloon/ estate might have fared better – but the fastback shape probably didn’t do any harm in itself – and as an SD1 owner I’ve always found it a boon (c) the engines perhaps were a mistake – the v8 was good, but using E6 would have been cheaper – though there may have been other factors (e.g. upcoming emissions regulations within the anticipated life of the 6 cylinder engine which meant a new engine was sensible). Surely, though, either the Triumph slant 4 could have been used or the P6 2.2?

      However, I think the big thing was building SD1. What could have been done to build it better? SD1 quality was abominable – I remember them having that reputation in a way that things like Granadas just didn’t. They broke down and they rusted quickly. I mean, windscreens that “let rain and wind in”? I know car design has come a long way from the late 70s, but that sort of thing was unacceptable then too!

      • @ Julian Robinson, before the SD1, Rover was like a British Volvo, producing conservative and solidly built cars that were very popular with middle class buyers. Indeed at the start of the seventies, Rover and Triumph more or less had the 2-3 litre market to themselves. as the Ford Zephyr/ Zodiac had failed and was a nasty, underpowered car in smaller engined form and imported executive cars were still rare and expensive. Also,,the end of the big Humbers in 1967 had removed another domestic rival
        Yet by 1977, the big Triumphs had gone, Ford’s Granada was a vastly better car than the Zephyr and selling in huge numbers, German and Swedish executive cars were growing in popularity, and the SD1 soon developed a terrible reputation that the Rover brand took years to recover from. I could imagine some fiftysomething company executive who was a staunch Rover man and always singing the company’s praises becoming very angry with his SD1 when it broke down or something else fell off. Next up, he’d probably order a V6 Granada or take a visit to a Volvo or Audi dealership.

        • I think probably the Volvo 240 range was one of the best, rugged and reliable cars of all time for Executives or others. My company had a 1988 240 DL Estate and it always felt safe and solid whether as a driver or passenger. It had the 2.3 engine – not fastest acceleration but could cruise at higher speeds all day.

  15. They should’ve launched the Leyland P76 instead, and directed funds into a replacement / re-she’ll for Allegro and creating a better Cortina rival, perhaps by replacing the Marina with a larger model.

  16. Another thing, anyone trading in a Rover 2200 P6 with its wood and leather interior would have a nasty surprise if they opted for one of the early Rover 2300s. Apart from the reliability and quality issues, the car was about as welcoming as a Marina inside, with acres of cheap plastic across the dashboard, cheap looking cloth seats and an uninspiring four speed transmission instead of the five speeder found in the 2600 and 3500. Also for a so called premium product, the 2300 was no better equipped than a mid range Princess and lacked a rev counter and tinted glass to cut costs.

    • I’ve got the feeling some other details like a boot carpet wern’t standard on a 2300.

      I guess when the 2000 was added to the range the 2300 needed to be smartened up.

  17. I agree a car like the SD1 2300 should have had 5 speeds and a rev counter even in those days. Although the 1988 2.3 Volvo 240 only had 4 speeds as well.

    • When the energy crisis and the recession arrived at the end of the seventies, Rover began to upspec the 2300 to similar levels to the 2600. Also Rover purists finally got their wish when the 3500 Vanden Plas was launched in 1980 with wood and leather. Rover’s thinking when they launched the SD1 and eliminated the tradiitional interior, although maybe cost might have been a factor, was their European rivals had more minimal interiors and using velour seats and high quality plastics on the 3500 was in keeping with cars like the Mercedes 280 SE.

      • Glenn – I guess the smaller engined SD1 Rover 2000 had similar spec to the 2300. One of our clients had such a Rover. When seen driving up the road you couldn’t tell what spec it was, so it looked like a 3500 at a distance.

        I remember the 3500 S too, (not sure if it was a model below the VDp)

        • The 2000 came out in 1982 and was seen by Austin Rover as the revival of a famous Rover name from the seventies and as an entry model. I was a passenger in one a few times and it seemed to go OK and was quite well equipped for the time and not as stark as the original 2300. Also the O series was a dependable engine compared with the sixes, although by 1982 Rover was doing its best to make these reliable.

  18. Amongst many of the SD1’s issues and resultant failure on the market, one that stands out would have to be how much of a departure its styling (no matter how attractive) and fastback hatchback bodystyle was compared to the models it replaced. What was needed instead was a more linear evolution of the P6 with cues of the stillborn P8 and Range Rover.

    The progressive Ferrari-inspired SD1 styling language would have been better off applied on RWD Austin(-Morris) and MG models, like say on ADO77 and any related derivatives had they appeared sooner. Making ADO77 in terms of exterior somewhat like the mk1 Vauxhall Cavalier and Opel Manta B, whose styling models and other prototypes also embraced a similar Ferrari-inspired theme.

  19. I don’t think the article is accusing the SD1 of being a bad car, but that it absorbed virtually all the companies development resources at a time when money was badly needed to deal with underperforming models across the range, most notably the Allegro. Having put everything they had on the SD1 red when the ball landed on black they where well and truly stuffed

  20. What people haven’t really stated is how in this market segment build quality and the perception of how a door shuts, how a switch or button feels or how the controls feel is even more critical – that showroom experience and the sense that a customer is encouraged to put a considerable sum down (or make a user chooser company car decision) based on that feel and drive/passenger experience. Their rivals at least from the continent had that in spades – The interiors of Audis, Volvos and Mercedes all felt well screwed together with well chosen materials. Doors shut with a reassuring clunk. Even the Granada was well screwed together.

    • I agree with Brian, back then, a sign of a quality car was when the doors shut with a satisying clunk, not some metallic clang like a cheap hatchback. Rovers used to be known for the quality of the wood and leather in the interior, which was always a sign of a quality British car, but the SD1 had dumped this in favour of velour and plastic that reduced the car’s appeal. Anyone swapping a P6 for a 2300 would soon notice the difference with the cheap fabric on the seats and nasty looking plastic dashboard with its basic instruments.

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