The handful of people I know from car-related activities will probably have twigged that new things generally put me off. Heavier, cost-reduced, simplified or over-complex, if I like something in the first place, I don’t want it to be messed with.
So it’s probably unsurprising that my first SD1 was something of a disappointment. Having rather liked my beaten-up Rover P6B; a manual 3500S that was a true banger-era runabout; one of those cars that at 25 years old, felt much older and much more exotic than the 1990s material littering the roads then, the SD1 V8-S replacement I had for a couple of days ‘on trial” from my dealer friend was a crushing disappointment. Wheezy, underpowered, unrefined, it contributed nothing beyond ensuring the SD1 would remain firmly off my radar despite a fondness for V8s and ‘70s chic.
When Keith’s accidental spelunking incident struck him immobile – or at least, unable to safely operate heavy machinery for a prolonged period, a comment about the Polski-Rover being left outdoors and a suggestion that people might want to take it for a spin whilst he couldn’t got the inevitable deluge of responses. Naturally, I played my ace card – the clean, spacious garage that currently provides a home for Keith’s former Ro80 and a 1995 Rover 114 Cabriolet that I have distinctly mixed feelings about.
It’s also home to a Raleigh Chopper and an ancient garage radio with LW & SW bands as well as FM; none of your newfangled DAB in here – ideal for whiling away the evenings working on the car whilst listening to Radio Luxembourg.
Oh… yeah. Well, Absolute and The Light Programme will have to do then.
First, Keith’s mate Phil took the SD1 for a spin, getting the absolute best of the weather. Some people have all the luck, including getting to run about in the Rover during the same weekend they collect a C4 Corvette AND have a daftly-painted “General Lee-xus” LS400 to play with. Phil very kindly sorted the logistics of getting me to the Rover 60-odd miles away, and this is where my story with the car of tomorrow, today, begins.
The first thing that strikes you after a decade of 21st century car design is not the bulk of Rover’s SD1 – it’s the height. Careless use of the door on my small Citroën will most likely take out your eye – on the SD1, it’s more likely to result in a bruised nipple; at only 1.35m tall, the SD1 is simply very low. We’ve forgotten how low cars used to be – a distant memory of glancing across the roof of my Vauxhall VX2300 Estate and thinking how low that was, prompts a quick search, and yes – even a Mazda RX8 is only of a comparable height, not the stunningly low machine it seems now. Even a Rover 75 is 1.43m tall, whilst the ‘tiny” C3 daily is just shy of 1.5m. The styling emphasises the car’s low, sleek proportions; it’s under 1.8m wide, but feels immense inside.
Proper BL reliability makes itself known on the first drive. After a cup of tea and the required prodding of the Corvette (I’m not jealous), Phil hands me the keys, tells me where the nearest petrol station is, and I fire up the Rover. ‘Wait! I left things in the boot!”.
Switch off the car, unlock the boot, restart.
The Rover’s completely dead. Perhaps the battery, but it was very sudden; from a healthy enough start to no interior lights? Seems a bit harsh…
A loose wire on the battery is diagnosed, and tightened by Phil’s son, and a mystery tie-down strap appears to be serving as a holistic battery clamp – I fiddle with it until it seems secure. And we’re off!
After stopping for petrol, and thoroughly prepared for the ‘can anyone give me a push” moment, the gleaming white Rover thankfully starts on the third attempt, and slips onto the A14 confidently. There’s light rain, and I switch on the headlights and temptingly yellow foglights for a small time. Looking properly cool as I cruise past the HGVs in twilight rain justifies a bit of naughtiness.
Only a bit. Foglights dutifully switched off, the car settles into a nice 65mph cruise, and there’s time for contemplation in the radioless silence for an hour or so drive back.
My history with big cars of the era has been quite limited. XJ6s, Audis, a Rover P6B, I suppose a Passat almost counts as competition, Citroën CXs by the bucketload, a clearly knackered SD1 and the aforementioned FE Victors & most of a Ventora, plus a couple of Americans. I’ve driven old Granadas, but Fords are Fords – a Granada or an Escort, they’re sort of scale versions of each other. Oh, and the Ro80 – more on that later though. The SD1 is certainly interesting.
Take away the immediacy of my last P6B comparison – and perhaps, add rose-tinted glasses after a decade of soulless modern cars – and the relative serenity of the big SD1 is soothing, welcome. When I do choose to pass something, the right-hand indicator (how I miss those) is comfortable, the power effortless, though I don’t drift into the modern-style 80-90 cruise that Corsas and Puntos are travelling at. Perhaps we’re all too fast, too angry, too pressured. The steady glow of the instruments, with that cooling flow of air from the ingeniously placed central face vent, makes for a very comfortable place to be.
Rover’s well-weighted steering is a pleasant compromise between direct unassisted, CX-lightness and modern, detached systems. The full range of adjustment is one of those things you just forget old cars offered. I remember being equally amazed to find a reach adjustable steering column on my ’68 Sunbeam Alpine (even if it was stuck so firmly, it couldn’t be adjusted, it was a stunningly clever idea).
In fact, the interior styling is really quite impressive – it’s the material and substance of it which falls over, and the SD1 is far from unique in that; ’70s interiors are rarely stylish and robust, you get one or the other (and sometimes, neither). Whilst many aspects of the early SD1 are appealing, the facelifted interior with more sophisticated centre console, and a bit of wood, is an improvement in my opinion. Even if they did delete the vent from the instruments.
The silence is mostly an absence of technology, as the SD1’s wind noise is excessively loud around 70, and the engine can be disappointingly refined for a V8. Where you want a bark, there’s mostly a muffled growl or no real noise at all, whilst the doppler-effect of fences and an open window makes you want to hear more of the soundtrack on the overrun. Comedy moments are discovered, as the window winders – clearly designed to make you absolutely certain to get an up-spec model when you come back – are positioned perfectly to catch your hand on the door and the seat, and the wipers traverse the screen with all the speed of Jaguar’s 1970s product development.
And it’s Jaguar that occupies my mind as the last bits of the A14 and M1 are despatched.
Rover’s executive car jumped ship, in my opinion, and the marketers weren’t paying attention. As we look back at our modern counterparts, the P6’s successor is undoubtedly the 75; the harsh ride of the ZT 260 aside, it’s a perfect spiritual replacement. And one could argue that the 75 and the S-type merged, crossed paths, as the XJ moved upmarket. But the SD1 feels like it has a direct successor now, in the shape of Jaguar’s XF; low slung, stylish inside for the era, the SD1 and the XF feel above all as if they project the same manner and attitude. moreso now the XJ is more like a 21st Century 420G than a true descendant of the svelte, low-slung XJ6. At the risk of being lynched, the Rover 800 always felt to me like a replacement for the Princess/Ambassador; replacing a four and six cylinder FWD range of saloon & hatchback models with a four and six cylinder range of slightly upmarket and better-designed FWD saloons and hatchbacks.
As I approach home, the day’s errands and the 21st Century catch up with me. Departing the M69 for a series of roundabouts and surprising amounts of traffic, the phones ring incessantly from the camera bag and dashboard, traffic lights all want to be red, and the veil of isolation slips away. The Rover, unaware of the chaos, purrs into the driveway and waits, 1970s-executive style, for the garage to open before taking up temporary residence beside the NSU and facing a decidedly sidelined 114 Cabrio. As the doors rattle shut, and I hastily jump into the modern car for a “run” to London, the SD1 has definitely been redeemed in my eyes – the one I drove 10 years ago was a bad example, and there are definitely areas of improvement over the P6B, not least in terms of economy.
To Be Continued…