A Dream Realised

Sam Skelton

Polski-Rover at Pride of Longbridge
Polski-Rover at Pride of Longbridge

My very first memory, earlier even than family events such as holidays and birthdays, is of my father’s old SD1 Vanden Plas. A V8 automatic Series 2 in Moonraker metallic, it imprinted itself firmly upon first my young retinas and later my developing mind. I am sure that this car is responsible for my love not only of British Leyland, but of cars in general. Since these memories, maybe from the age of four, I have longed to drive an SD1 V8. And I didn’t think my chance would come until I was at an age when I could insure one.

I tried doing so. On the Skelton ‘Cars I talked of Buying’ list there is an SD1. A Vanden Plas EFi that was being sold locally by a friend. I was close to enquiring before I got an insurance quotation. Suffice it to say I was given a miserably expensive quote and so thought that losing my SD1 virginity would have to wait – that or I’d have to start with a smaller engined version. However, I’d reckoned without Keith Adams.

Keith is, as I’m sure readers of the site know, a huge British Leyland fan, who has recently had his V8 Series 1 restored in Poland. He’s also a generous and big-hearted chap, who knew of my reasons for loving SD1s. I was discussing SD1s with him last year and he commented “Play your cards right, and you can have a go in mine when it comes back.” And so it was that on the 17th April 2010 I found myself behind the wheel of a V8 Rover, about to realise the ambition of some thirteen and a half years.

The first thing to strike me as I closed the door was that it’s a wide car. A very wide car. My mother had commented that upon passing her test and getting straight into an SD1 2300, it felt like an airliner – such was the feeling of width in the cabin. I mocked her when she first told me, but she wasn’t far off the mark – the handbrake was a fair way over to my left, as was the gearstick. I turned the key and felt a slight shiver down my spine as the big Buick V8 burbled into life. In gear, and off we went.

So what’s it like? I’d append ‘on the road’ but I was in Cofton Park. Well, first impressions were favourable. Looking down the creased and sculptured bonnet, which I had long admired from all angles but this, I felt that the SD1 disproved the old adage that one should never meet one’s heroes. It’s very much my kind of car. Big, quite lazy, yet with the feeling that had I put my foot down it would have gone like a scalded cat. The steering was assisted to the point of feeling easy, yet retaining plenty of feel – and I also relished my first go with a quartic wheel. There was only really one fly in the ointment – Keith mentioned that there was a screeching fan bearing, which seemed at it’s worst when letting in the clutch. Having not driven a manual any great distance since passing my driving test (I’m a convert to the lazy life an automatic brings), there was the constant nagging question in the back of my head – was the noise my lack of competence or the bearing?

Pulling back up beside Keith, I switched off the rumbling V8, and emerged from the Pendelican powerhouse a far happier man. As I shook his hand, I thanked him for helping me realise an almost lifelong dream. Would I have one? As a hobby car, of course I would. Like a shot. But as a daily, I don’t think I’d dare to. I’d forever be hoping that tomorrow wasn’t to be the day that the V8 rumble became somehow ordinary, or the day upon which I stopped feeling childishly thrilled at the thought I had my own SD1. Given the fond memories I associate with them, I’d rather the magic remained.

Don’t let that stop you, though…

1 Comment

  1. I suppose that insurance in the UK must be absurdly expensive and climbs in price rapidly upon passing the most basic of cars. I drive a fairly quick car here in the US (a Cadillac SLS), and it’s not much more expensive to insure than the slower one which I had before.

    You mention worrying about getting so used to the V8 sound such that it becomes less appreciated. I don’t think you’d find that would happen. My car has a V8 and I’ve had it for about a year. I wish that it were a bit louder even, but I find myself taking in the V8 exhaust noises nearly constantly even today. When I can spare the money for it, perhaps I’ll have some louder mufflers put on the car, but the muted sound is still unmistakable in its character.

    The far more intoxicating effect of a V8 is the easy power that you hinted at. By today’s standards, I’d imagine that the full-throttle performance of even a V8 SD1 wouldn’t be considered very fast. Full-throttle only tells part of the story. V8s often make a lot of torque at low RPM, which makes it feel brisk and satisfying around town, even if you never go fast and shift early every time.

    My car seldom exceeds 3,000 RPM, but it never feels slow. A V8’s acceleration isn’t always so much brisk as it is inevitable. You might be able to find all manner of 1.8s that are quicker than the SD1 that would still somehow feel weaker in town. Having 4 people in the car does a lot less to flatten the performance of a V8 car, too.

    According to its trip computer, my car averages 22.4 UK MPGs (with an automatic). The piper must be paid, but I consider that an acceptable number for such a powerful and heavy car. I’d imagine that a V8 SD1 would not match that number, but shouldn’t be far off.

    Like my car and the countless other American V8s that made the type so popular here, the SD1 with V8 should drive very little different with a full load than the typical 4-cyl car. I’m sure that’s a part of why diesels are so popular in Europe… the diesel makes it feel faster around town than it really is and handles the load of 4 passengers better.

    I have a lot of affection for the SD1 and I’d like to have one sometime. I’d doubt there are more than 100 or so left here. I think of it as a lot like an Oldsmobile Cutlass that was better looking and somehow built by a lot of folks who never owned a Cutlass. Our family certainly had a few Cutlasses, including one with the “plum-coloured vulgarlour upholstery” that Clarkson spoke ill of in his SD1. The SD1 is a very American car in its size and execution, with Italianate styling that should’ve sold well here had its reputation not preceded it.

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