Our Cars : Vitessing to distraction

Given a budget of well under a thousand pounds, what would you buy to deliver a ride to driving happiness; a nice, sensible 10-year-old Rover 214, Renault Clio or Toyota Corolla…

Or perhaps a fire-breathing, 210bhp Rover Vitesse? QED.

One thing about buying a car that has appeared in the press is that you are bound to be able to pick up some stunning photographs. The previous owners of the car, AUTOCAR magazine managed to successfully capture the Rover's menace on London's mean streets under the cover of the night.
One thing about buying a car that has appeared in the press is that you are bound to be able to pick up some stunning photographs. The previous owners of the car, AUTOCAR magazine managed to successfully capture the Rover’s menace on London’s mean streets under the cover of the night.

I GUESS it was karma really. I’ve been a reader of AUTOCAR magazine since 1978, and as a result, the mag feels as much a part of my life as my job, my home or even my dearly beloved girlfriend. Perhaps. In fact, if I think about it, I have been a reader of the mag longer than I’ve been with my missus…. If you, the reader, think that’s a little scary, imagine how she feels! The other problem with Autocar is that it’s a weekly, and I keep every issue of it, and as a result, my “collection” (or “bonfire fodder” as she-who-must-be-obeyed calls it) has grown to epic proportions. The weighty fire hazard has yet to grow to the point where it needs its own room, but it is only a matter of time. After all, do the kids really need a room each?

That being the case, when I discovered that the magazine staffers had decided to buy an example of one of my favourite (real world) cars, the Rover SD1, I was intrigued. After all, I can understand where they were coming from: the development of the MG ZT V8 had been such that it seemed as though its launch was never going to happen. And, like most of us, the idea of a V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive, British executive saloon was seriously whetting their appetites… Editor Steve Sutcliffe decided that he could not wait, so the magazine purchased a late twin-plenum Vitesse (the ZT V8’s predecessor, after all) with a view to running it for a bit, having a few laughs, and seeing how it compared with the new MG when the magazine finally got its hands on one.

For a while, that is exactly what they did… Chas Hallett was the car’s keeper, but in the magazine’s first report on the car, it was clear that all the staffers who drove it found it to be a great deal of fun… However, the idea of running an SD1 is always a more appealing prospect than the actuality, given the car’s thirst and its propensity to go wrong with a depressing regularity. Trust me, I know… my own 1978 SD1 has been well-maintained and garaged most of its life, but going on any lengthy journey would still require crossed fingers and a blessing from the gods. Not because the V8 engine is troublesome, but simply because the electrics overseeing it can be tempermental… In the case of Autocar’s Vitesse, it was more simple than that, thankfully: the brakes needed looking at. Initially, that seemed simple enough; just a matter of changing pads and discs. However, this soon turned into something more serious – said consumables were replaced, but the the system’s callipers and backplates were finished and needed replacing, too. The reality of Vitesse ownership reared its head and Autocar didn’t like it; the Vitesse could easily become something of a money-pit.

A second story that highlighted these “issues” was published in the magazine, accompanied by a picture of a rather glum-looking Chas Hallett sat by his Vitesse, which was perched on ramps. So, reality was souring the Vitesse experience…

Given that, it was inevitable that the magazine would decide to sell… thereby cutting its losses. And karma being what it is, I decided that it should be me who takes over the running of the car. I travelled to Autocar’s offices in Teddington and pitched an offer to Chas Hallett… Given that it did not look particlularly shiny on the day – there were four rusty arches to contend with, three frilly door bottoms and there was a can of oil on the back seat – it should have been easy for me to walk away. The omens weren’t good, after all. However, I have SD1s in my blood, and even from fifty paces, the Targa Red Vitesse, nestling on its lowered suspension and bigger wheels looked magnificent, and I melted in a moment. Of course I was going to have it. No matter what. An offer was made, a deal was done – and I arranged to pick it up later.

Travelling from the site of my mis-deed, I remember thinking, ‘what have I done?’ It was a mad decision to make, but given my habit of backing losers (my fleet includes a couple of Rover 800s and a dead Citroën BX, for goodness sake) it seemed only right to continue the habit of a lifetime. Perhaps it would be different this time. Perhaps not…

Running Reports

10 November 2003

Still, it was a very good start. When I went over to Teddington pick up the car, I met with Richard Bremner, Steve Cropley and Chas Hallett, and it came as something of a relief to realise that I am not the only person in the world afflicted with CHD (Compulsive Heap-purchasing Disorder). Bremner owns an Allegro; and in my book, that makes him alright…

The good vibes continued. For one, it started first time – and when it fires up, the twin-plenum Vitesse sounds absolutely awesome; you are greeted by a wonderfully resonant, deep-chested rumble, which absolutely begs you to give the throttle a blip or two. Do that, and you are not disappointed. The only problem you have here is stopping yourself giving the throttle a shove just a for a laugh. I controlled myself… for a while.

Compared with my standard 3500 Series 1, sitting in this Vitesse is accompanied by a real sense of occasion. For a start, you sit lower in quite heavily bolstered seats, and the view ahead is very pleasing – you cannot miss the air intake and the curve of the bonnet beyond. This frames the bottom of the shallow windscreen to achieve an interesting widescreen view of the road ahead. The lower driving position and high centre console provide a sporting driving position which belies the Vitesse’s executive-car origins. Being a Series 2, the set-top-box – I mean, instrument binnacle – stretches more than half the width of the car, presenting the driver with a long line of dials and switches. The effect is somewhat akin to sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise… Some love it, some hate it – but at least the interior cannot be accused of being bland.

The same can be said for the driving experience.

Negotiating London’s traffic soon has you focusing on the meaty clutch and heftily weighted gear-change, and although it is not so bad as to make city driving a chore, the Vitesse could never be accused of being a lightweight. In the city crawl, though, it is very easy to treat it as a one-gear car; if you’re in a 30mph zone, leave the car in second. It pulls away from rest quickly enough, and yet the tall gearing does not leave the engine screaming for mercy as it would in more “mortal” cars. It might not be that easy to see out of, and the SD1’s body is on the wide side, but this never seems to be too much of a problem, because for some reason (and I cannot think what) most other cars seem to leave you plenty of room…

Mind you, it is obvious that the Vitesse was not built for city driving, and once you venture out onto the open road, it really seems to come alive. It traverses motorways with a real sense of authority – 90mph registers 3000rpm on the horribly calibrated rev counter, but does the SD1 struggle with such inter-stellar gearing? Not a chance. It might not accelerate with any sense of urgency at motorway speeds in top, but it does pull well. It pays to remember that fourth gear is the real barnstormer though, and in this gear, the Vitesse will see off most moderns… However, the real joy in using more revs is the wonderful NASCAR-style wail that that accompanies the ride. Without a shadow of a doubt, the melodious V8 back-beat is addictive – and, thankfully, one that can be called upon from just 2,500rpm.

Steering is correctly geared at 2.5 turns from lock to lock, and once you leave the motorway, it proves to be an excellent tool with which to conduct the Vitesse. The lower ride height and tighter suspension settings mean that corners can be attacked with real confidence – the turn-in is sharp and accurate, and unlike the standard SD1, there seems to be zero-slackness in the chassis. Grip levels are also surprising; I was expecting oversteer without provocation, but certainly in the dry, this is not the case – one had to deliberately abuse the big Rover’s throttle to kick its tail out. All that means that ride quality is compromised, especially over potholes and sharp ridges, but on the whole, it seems like a worthwhile price to pay. Across some of Northamptonshire’s better A-roads, the Vitesse was a wonderful driver’s car; and that came as something of a surprise to me, given the fact that the original car was not at all bad – especially when one considers its less-than-sophisticated rear suspension set-up.

Performance was also impressive. The bare figures read well – 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds, 0-100 in 20 seconds, and a top speed of around 140mph. There are many “hot” hatchbacks out there that are just as quick – in fact, I own one: a Citroën BX 16Valve. But having said that, none of them would hope to live with the Rover’s instant on-tap surge of torque. There is no need to wait for the revs to rise, it just goes when you want it to. Remember what it was like when you first pushed down the plunger on your very first Scalextric? That’s the Vitesse experience – but for grown-ups. :o)

The Vitesse is a great car to drive, but does this one have any faults? Oh yes! The rear dampers are shot, the brakes are constantly squealing (which should adjust out), the water temperature light comes on at random intervals (temperature is always OK), the rust is more widespread than the pictures would have you believe…. and that’s about it. Not bad, when you think what you are getting for the money – and if nothing else, the grin factor alone makes it all worthwhile. The first time I floored it with my girlfriend aboard, she shrieked (a good thing, I think). And if that isn’t a good start, I don’t know what is!

Soon, I will be getting busy with the Isopon P38, sandpaper and a rattle-can… Oh, and then it will be going for track day torture… Bliss.

16 November 2003

The problem with SD1 Vitesses – especially those in bright red – is that they tend to attract rather a lot of attention. Given the state of the wheelarches, it seemed only right to make them look presentable. Half-way through the repair, and they look like an odd 1980s add-on… white wheelarch extensions? Shurely shome mishtake!

Considering the Vitesse is an addition to the Adams household, and one that in theory shouldn’t be racking up the miles, it is getting more use than is strictly desirable. Why would using it be a bad thing? I mean, thanks to its prodigious torque, I have been able to begin re-learning the art of “roundabout power-oversteer”; and it continues to pleasure me both aurally and sensually, thanks to that tuneful V8 and its uncorrupted, direct steering. The downside is that it doesn’t look that good on the outside; rotten wheelarches and flaky door bottoms tend to draw the eye, and I fear that the impression it gives people is not that of an upcoming classic, but rather a knackered old BL car…

Because of that, I have been attempting to tidy up the cosmetics. The problem with rust is that once it takes hold, it spreads far and wide. And in the case of the Rover, this is more than true – the arches had lost much of their original shape, and once I had cut away the worst of the rot with my angle grinder, they were looking more than a little second-hand. In fact, there was not a great deal of them left at all… However, it was not all bad – the spread of rust seems to have progressed little further than the lower extremities of the car; other vulnerable areas such as the roof, bonnet and rear wings seem to be thankfully clear of rust. Because of this, I have decided to fill the wings and re-form the wheelarches – we shall see how successful I am, but looking at the photos of them in raw form, I think the wings won’t look too bad. From a distance. In the dark. With one eye closed…

Well at least with all that P38 in it, the SD1 should be appreciably lighter...
Well at least with all that P38 in it, the SD1 should be appreciably lighter…

I do wonder about my sanity, when it comes to keeping the car; according to the dashboard-mounted computer, it is delivering an average fuel consumption of 16.4 mpg…

11 December 2003

All quiet on the Vitesse front, I’m afraid. Due to the fact that I bought the car without a V5, and it was undergoing a cherished number plate transfer, I have not actually been able to drive it legally on the road since I bought it. That has given me time to work on those flaky arches, and thanks to my efforts, they are beginning to look as Mr Bache intended. The downside is that spraying time is at a minimum at the moment, thanks to the weather and the impending approach of Christmas, so it will be a couple more weeks before I will have an all-red car again!

Anticipation, however, is immense. The sight of that car sat on my drive invokes pangs of desire on a daily basis, and I keep looking at Donington Park’s website and its track day schedule. The 28th December is looking very tempting – even more so if there is the promise of rain!

01 January 2004

I spoke too soon… just after the last update, and almost miraculously, it has to be said, the remaining DVLA paperwork for the Vitesse landed on my door mat. And what a relief, too! Given that I could now purchase a set of number plates for it (no longer would my Vitesse be known as “ETY 108”, as it now sports a rather anonymous C-Plate) and tax the thing, I was away. Well, yes – but being something of a vain driver, there was still the small matter of those fetching primer coloured wheel arches…

Mind you, having grubby arches could not diminish the Vitesse’s hold over me, and as a result, I could not stop myself from jumping in it and using it for my 100-mile commute to work once in a while. Well, be honest: it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? So, the Vitesse and I became best buddies as we plied the A14/M1 – leaving an Optimax haze in our wake. There was some science in the decision to take the commuting route (so I keep telling myself), and that was to prove to myself that a well-tuned 1960s V8 could deliver reasonable fuel consumption was driven with a degree of decorum. And to be fair, the average of 27mpg between Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, although not great, was certainly on the right side of acceptable. However, the proviso that it would be driven with a degree of decorum was only just adhered to: the sound of the mighty V8 under acceleration between 2000 and 4000rpm was almost spine-tingling. And yes it has been said before, but the noise is so reminiscent of that classic film, “Bullit”, that you can almost picture yourself in the lead role of fast lane hero, banishing those Audi 1.9TDI drivers back to the middle lane, where they belong.

And of course, there was the small matter of power oversteer. OK, it’s not a subject that I am intimately familiar with, having owned a string of almost exclusively front driven cars since I passed my test, but I do have some experience from my formative motoring years. Anyway, because the Vitesse delivers its torque in a wave from just above idle speed, it is very easy to inadvertently break traction in the damp. Roundabouts and tight corners are now treated with a degree of circumspection, and although the Vitesse does generate high levels of lateral grip, thanks to its wide tyres and lowered suspension, it is wise to remember the old rule that if you must mash the throttle, then do so when the car is pointing in a straight line. Again, I hope that this is not painting a negative picture of the Vitesse; nothing could be further from the truth – it is all good fun as long as one remembers to respect that throttle pedal…

On the motorway, the Vitesse is surprisingly good – it tracks extremely straight and has that “planted” feel that a good performance car should possess. Obviously, the worn rear dampers mar what could be a very restful experience, but given that the motorways it traverses are mainly flat, it does not ruffle too many feathers. The other surprise that it springs is that it is quiet – I don’t mean 21st century Jaguar quiet, but it is very acceptable for a 130,000-mile car built in the 1980s. There is some wind rustle around the A-posts, but that’s really it. There is very little mechanical noise when holding a constant speed, thanks to that ultra-high gearing, but the engine does intrude when accelerating. But having said that, I don’t really care about that because it sounds so good.

It is a shame that there has yet to be a significant snowfall in 2003/2004 - the Vitesse's front spoiler would double as a pretty effective snowplough. Significantly, the addition of that air dam and the lowered suspension give the SD1 an air of menace, and it means that quick progress can be maintained on the motorway, as slower traffic seems quite keen to dart out of its way.
It is a shame that there has yet to be a significant snowfall in 2003/2004 – the Vitesse’s front spoiler would double as a pretty effective snowplough. Significantly, the addition of that air dam and the lowered suspension give the SD1 an air of menace, and it means that quick progress can be maintained on the motorway, as slower traffic seems quite keen to dart out of its way.

So while the rest of the world was tucking into their turkey sandwiches over the Christmas week, I – certified nutcake – was out in my back garden, spraying those dratted arches, wanting to make them pretty for the M1 catwalk. And despite the intermittent rain and bitter cold, I did get them finished. Speaking of Christmas – there were also plenty of opportunities to drive this SD1 on deserted roads… any committed petrolhead will tell you that Christmas day is a great time to seek out a familiar and challenging road and then let rip. And that is what the Vitesse and I did. So whilst you, the reader, were probably at home listening to the Queen’s speech, I was out on the A509 discovering just how crisp the Vitesse’s turn-in actually is, and how it really is a sharp driver’s tool, given the right set of circumstances.

There’s still much to do though – the engine is losing tune, and sometime in the next few weeks, it will be going down to London to see Rover Guru Brian Gunn in order to re-gain that lost sparkle in a much needed full service. Let’s hope he enjoys fault finding on it as much as I enjoy driving it… I suspect not.

Arches done - now, only a million and one other cosmetic issues to sort!
Arches done – now, only a million and one other cosmetic issues to sort!

06 January 2004

The trouble with owning a fun-to-drive car is that you end up inventing excuses to take it out for a long drive. For instance, I tell my partner that I need to move the car from the drive at the front of the house, around to the rear… and end up taking it for a B-Road blast. This is all well and good, but it does play havok with the bank balance… However, it does mean that any problems with the car get picked up rather sooner than they would with some pampered, cherished classic.

…and little problems are now being found… At my last update, I hinted that the Vitesse was losing tune. Given my lack of major mechanical knowledge (changing my own plugs once resulted in a £700 bill) I asked various friends what it would be that could be causing it. Brian Gunn came up with the theory that it had an air-leak, and this could have all sorts of negative effects on the Vitesse’s clean running. When I checked, and sure as eggs are eggs, there was a loud whistling emanating from the plenum area.

Plenum removed, the eight air inlet trumpets make for a fantastic sight

The decision was an easy one… time for a service. And time to take it to someone that knows what they’re doing. So, I took the car down to London to see Brian Gunn in order to restore the Vitesse to its former glory. (Again on the trip down the M1, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes seemed more than willing to move out of its way.)

The first thing “we” did was remove the plenum and clear the leaks… Brian noticed that the accelerator action was somewhat “gritty” and found that the throttle bodies were in desperate need for some lubrication. The throttle cable itself was also cause for concern: and after removing it, we found that it was hanging on to the accelerator pedal by a single thread! So, one major reason that the throttle action was so poor was that the throttle cable had knitted itself into the footwell carpet. It’s a good thing that a single strand of Austin-Rover throttle cable can stand so much abuse.

The other fascinating side effect of the poorly serviced throttle bodies and knackered accelerator cable was that when the throttle was floored, the inlet butterflies were only opening about 75 per cent. In other words, I had yet to experience full power… Another fault affecting performance was the clogged air filter – so effective at drawing in air was this little tubular Hoover, that the filter housing appeared to contain half a tree.

Dodgy accelerator cable responsible for poor throttle response

We also binned the existing Austin-Rover stereo (an original fitment – what am I bid for it?) and replaced it with a Rover head unit that didn’t contain valves and the facility to play 8-track cartridges.

On the road, the difference was amazing. Throttle response had improved markedly, and the Vitesse felt a lot more alert as a result. Performance certainly seemed better, although how much of this was down to it no longer needing geeing along with a heavy right foot. Motorway travel was also improved due to the fact that the driver’s right leg was no longer receiving a work out from that set-in-concrete accelerator. Around roundabouts and emerging from slow corners, adjustability was vastly improved, and the onset of power-oversteer could be much more effectively controlled. And trust me, with 200-or-so brake horse power and no traction “nannies”, this is very important.

Fun it definitely is – fast though; I’m not so sure… Even after the mini-service, the Vitesse still feels a little asthmatic over about 4700rpm (although I think the tachometer is under-reading), and by the way “Mr. Baseball Cap” driving a Sierra RS Cosworth could pull away after carving me up on a blind bend, there’s still some room for improvement. Having said that, I bet the Vitesse is more fun to drive than the turboed Ford… As they say, “speed isn’t everything” (well, drivers of slow cars do.)

19 January 2004. Conclusions…

Thanks to the nomadic tendencies of its owner, the Vitesse has moved on. A great perspective of its achievements was gained in a weekend spent driving two of its successors.

1982 Vitesse being put through its paces... had mine been in this condition, I'd have kept it. Mind you, it would have cost more than it did!
1982 Vitesse being put through its paces… had mine been in this condition, I’d have kept it. Mind you, it would have cost more than it did!

It was one of the hardest decisions in my adult life… keep, sell, restore, smoke, race? What to do with the Vitesse? After all, I have been raving about the car ever since I sat behind the wheel: the driving position, the view through the windscreen, the width, the downright dramatic style… THAT ENGINE NOTE. How could I possibly sell it?

How indeed. Sadly, I have been somewhat spoiled by the condition of my 1978 SD1, and as a result, every time I looked at the ex-AUTOCAR Vitesse, my critical mind was finding more and more things to complain about. The rust on the doors, the rust on the tailgate, the rust under the bonnet. Yes, I knew what I was letting myself in for when I bought it, and made a pragmatic decision at the time… run it for a few months, have a few laughs, sell it on… Pragmatism is all well and good when it comes to choosing a white good such as a cooker or Toyota Corolla, but it is not much use when the item in question is a red Rover, that tugs the heart strings every time I looked at it.

I tried to find ways of justifying keeping it. I could use it as a trackday car; afterall, it has a stronger engine than my current “weekend car”, a Citroen BX 16V, and would probably prove more reliable (and that’s saying something, considering that we are talking about a 1985 Austin-Rover car with Lucas electronics). Plus with rear wheel drive and a low-roll chassis set-up, the chances were that it would perform very well. Anticipating “drifting” it around Donington’s Melbourne hairpin had me getting all dewey-eyed… Then reality kicked in: would it be fair to torture such a magnificent beast in such a profound way?

Then there was the restoration option. My good friend Alexander Boucke planted the seed of an idea into my mind. Why not drive it to Poland and get it restored there? A good restoration involving pael changes and a re-spray should cost no more than about 1500 Euros. It was certainly something to think about. After all, it would make a great story. I deliberated, re-deliberated, and then deliberated some more. And decided against… I suspect that unless I received an EU grant or talk Jeremy Clarkson into paying for it, the economics would not stack up.

It was going nowhere. I put the car up for sale on this site. Received some enquiries. Took it down again. One such enquiry came from an enthusiast from Cheshire, who decided that the rusty, crusty and trusy Vitesse was just his bag. Before I had changed my mind about it, I agreed for him to come and have a look… Now a real dilema. I knew in my heart of hearts, it had to go, but at the same time, I did not really want to see the back of it. I could not back out; I am a man of my word, so the viewing was not cancelled. My heart really did not want the Vitesse to go – so I did not wash it, or prepare it in any way (rule one broken straight away). However, I did not bank on the fact that the buyer was equally as mad about cars as I was, and following a brief drive, he decided to buy it…

I was no longer a Vitesse owner!

Thanks to Brian Gunn for the service.

Keith Adams

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