Review : Rover Vitesse Twin Plenum

Keith Adams has a long-standing love affair with the Rover SD1, but the Vitesse is something else again.

Here, he drives a rather special example… and wonders whether it really was better to have loved and lost.


Rover Vitesse: So nearly brilliant

The Rover SD1 Vitesse has long been a hero car for AROnlineIt represents British Leyland at its absolute best and worst, combining gorgeous looks and thunderous performance with flaky build quality and questionable reliability at best.

However, considering its launch took place in late 1982, the passage of time has changed that picture considerably. All that most people see these days are a dramatic looking fastback with a cool and roomy interior that’s complemented by one of the best ever automotive soundtracks to bless a volume-produced car to emerge from the United Kingdom.

Maybe that’s why good examples easily make more than £20,000, and even projects will set you back  more than £10k. That’s quite a journey from when I bought myself a Rover Vitesse Twin Plenum back in 2003 for comfortably less than £1000. Wonder what happened to that car and, most importantly, I do still question whether I did the right thing by selling it in the first place.

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

Behind the wheel, not looking back

Anyway, now’s not the time to consider such things. I’m at the Great British Car Journey in Derbyshire to try out the museum’s low mileage example. It’s a Moonraker Blue Twin Plenum with an uncommonly low mileage and, as such, is still one of my dream cars. Just 500 were built in this spec, having been developed in association with Lotus, and for homologation purposes, the Twin Plenum is a bit of a unicorn.

Jumping in and settling behind the wheel, it shocks me just how comfortable I feel in it, and how muscle memory kicks in when it comes to firing it up, and getting underway. But before that, a quick poke around the interior reminds me how usable the SD1 is. Although its design felt tired and outdated by the mid-1980s, right now, I can’t help but love the long, slim bank of instruments and widescreen view forward that’s framed by pencil-thin A-pillars and a low roofline. Items such as the trip computer and arcing instrument graphics are an actual event.

This might have been an executive express when new, but it feels downright sporty right now – and, after the SUV I’ve driven to the museum in, a proper and welcome palette cleanser.

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

What’s it like to drive?

It might look good inside and out, but I’m hoping it goes as well as I remember. I’m probably way too biased to form a rational opinion, but let’s just say that the Vitesse Plenum is a wonderful thing, and driving it takes years off me. I fire it up for the first time – not quite stone cold, but certainly not up to temperature – and it barks into life, and settles into a purposeful, if lumpy, idle.

I can’t help it, but I just have to blip the throttle. Yes, call me a child if you like, but the rush of noise from the exhaust is exhilarating – and it’s easy to understand why I have so many overwhelmingly happy memories of driving these cars.

Settling behind the oversized steering wheel, and coaxing the heavy shifter into first comes back to me so naturally, while letting up the meaty clutch pedal and feeling its biting point takes me back to a more mechanical age. Again, this car was no great shakes in this department back then – soundtrack aside – but, in an increasingly anaesthetised world where it’s so difficult to get any mechanical interaction with your car, this is a revelation.

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

Once underway, my smile widens. The LT77 gearbox’s change action is a little recalcitrant, but being slow and deliberate with the changes rewards with some very nice upshifts. I know it’ll free up as it warms up, so there’s no need to panic here. Besides, even when relatively cold, it’s still a nice and deliberate transmission to use.

Once the oil temperature picks up and the roads widen, it’s time to give it some more beans, and the acceleration that ensues is both instant and linear. The power of this Vitesse, which thanks to being low mileage and a Twin Plenum, should easily top 200bhp (they weren’t officially any different to the Single Plenum’s 190bhp), and so it proves.

Delivery is agreeably muscular and it pulls the transmission’s interstellar gear ratios effortlessly, if not with any sense of urgency. For excitement, I remember to hold on to the gears and rev it out towards the red line. That’s much better…

Maximum speed? Not in Derbyshire, but 135mph was where this was at – and enough to make it one of the quicker cars in its day. That speed is also aided by the car’s undeniable road presence, even today. Other road users love, and maybe fear, it a little. That’s good to know if you’re cracking on and need to make an important dinner date.

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

What’ll she do, Mister?

For a mid-1980s executive car, plenty. I imagine on a lengthy stretch of autobahn, an Audi 200 Turbo will leave this behind, but the more brick-like BMW 528i would be fair game. For those who believe that such things matter, 0-60mph comes up in around 7.5 seconds (I decided not to try for a time as the car’s owner Richard Usher is alongside). It’s enough for me right now, and I’m in my happy place.

Straight-line speed is one thing, but how this brute handles is more important. The good news is that it’s just as good as I remember. The light steering is highly geared, telegraphing an agility that belies this car’s size (although it doesn’t feel much larger than a modern GTI). Cornering is flat and responsive, and just as the younger me will attest, you can really throw this car into bends, and get into tail out antics, if that’s your thing. In short, it’s a playful oversized, rear-wheel-drive hot hatch, and I love it.

And it’s at this moment I realise that, although the Rover has a special place in my heart, and I might be a little biased, it really is absolutely brilliant to drive. Great fun. Being rational for a second as one must, that gearchange never really did free up as I’d hoped, the performance would massively benefit from a close-ratio gearbox, and I reckon the brakes probably aren’t up to the job, lacking the reassuring pedal feel of a BMW 528i. But these are details, right?

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

Conclusion

Nostalgia is a powerful emotional trigger, and it’s probably not allowing me to see things as clearly as I normally do when I jump into a classic car. The good thing is, this is an old car that you can use every day if you can afford the fuel, and you’re confident it’s been fully rustproofed. It’s tractable and smooth around town as well as on the open road, there’s plenty of room inside, and people really do love it.

Obviously, a spell in this car has inflamed my passion for the Rover SD1 as a breed, and the Vitesse Twin Plenum in particular. It’s such a great all-rounder, and that speaks volumes for the excellence of the original design, even if the product was compromised and was never fully developed in the way it should have been. Despite that, right now, it makes the perfect performance classic, and I need to have a serious chat with my Bank Manager.

There was a Rover Vitesse advert that ran in the motoring press that sums up this car perfectly. Its tagline reads: ‘Leader by nature, Paris by lunchtime…’ I can’t think of a more emotive way of making that journey right now. Why the hell did I sell mine?

You can can have a go in this car yourself. Visit Drive Dad’s Car to see how to get behind the wheel of the iconic Rover Vitesse.

Rover SD1 Vitesse Twin Plenum

Keith Adams

17 Comments

  1. I personally had 2 SDI which I loved. The first was a 3.5 V8 manual, the second a 3.5 V8 Auto. Both towed my 15 ft caravan with ease and we completed many long journeys in great comfort. Working in experimental I also had the chance to drive several prototype and development cars including the first Vitesse which was equipped with 4 twin choke Webber carbs. This was magnicent both in terms of performance and sound track. My lasting experience of the fastest was a tuned Vitesse which we took to Germany for high speed prop shaft temperature measurements. It was Sunday morning which was quite on the Autobahn. As the car was to be tested at 150mph we had a full roll cage and we had racing overalls and crash hats. I was in the back recording temperatures and speed on the data logger, David my driver suddenly said we are being caught! We were doing a constant 150, when the Mercedes sports came alongside, the nattily dressed German driver looked at us and the car and then accelerated hard into the distance. We were god smacked!

  2. Seeing this, and the BMW comparisons in the article, does make me wonder if ARG went down the right road with the FWD 800, when the Rover V8 made such a great halo car, something the Honda V6 and KV6 800s never quite managed.

  3. I don’t agree with you Keith on the gearing, inter-stellar ass you put it was spot on, it was so impressive, how I never lost my licence was more by luck than judgement. The one change I made was a small Mountney steering wheel, which made it into a friendly chuckable go kart. God I loved that car!

  4. I drove this exact vehicle about 6 weeks ago, and I must say I was very disappointed. Perhaps I was expecting too much, I’m not sure. While I couldn’t deny the comfort on offer, it was certainly suffering in the mechanical department, bogging down severely on anything over light application of the accelerator and sounding like it was missing one one cyclinder as well as quite a hefty exhaust blow near the front. Perhaps I caught it on a bad day.

    Aside from that, I couldn’t help but think how the SD1 must have been something else at its launch. Even at the lower power rating running on SU’s, the V8 burble and sleek looks must have been something else completely.

    Ironically this is the first comment I’ve made on here. It’s bittersweet too, as I’ve only gained an appreciation for BL tin in the last 10 years, but before then, going back to the late 2000’s I had a very good friend called Dean Thornhill who was a big part of the Maestro owners club and he tried many times to convert me. The excitement of helping him collect an Oct 80 base spec metro didn’t excite me, but I was little bit more excitable on the 1.3S and VP500. Sadly he’s no longer here, but last year when I spotted a V reg pre production metro on a driveway I shed a tear of happy memories.

    • Yes I’ve driven that very car as well and thought it was a bag of bolts! The driving position with the massive steering wheel was uncomfortable, the gear change hopeless and the car rode the circuit at the museum with a cacophony of clonks and bangs. Am I being too hard on an old car? – Well the 1982 Cortina I also drove there felt like a new car, tight as a drum and very refined around the circuit.

      • Something interesting – The museum man who sat in the passenger seat as I drove the Rover blamed the poor gear change on its gearbox being derived from the Maxi’s – surely that cant be right can it? I can certainly believe that the development engineers used the Maxi as a benchmark for shift quality!

        • As the LT77 gearbox was for RWD, and the Maxi was FWD and in the sump of the E Series I don’t think are anyway related!

          • That’s exactly what I thought – there are examples of car makers using common transmission platforms for in line and transaxle applications though – Ford’s MT75/MTX75 for example. They of course are end on gearboxes rather than under engine.

  5. Take a look at the website of Nutley Sports & Prestige they have just sold a similar car in red for over £30k.
    The car is a complete nut and bolt rebuild, labour of love job. Some lucky buyer will probably own the best in existence?

  6. I just couldn’t help smiling as Keith put the car through its paces and described it’s demeanor. I love these. I had a U.S. spec SD1 in 1989, a 1980 model, and though its quality was deplorable, that car was at home on the highway. It just gobbled up the miles in a such a relaxed way. Then 8 years ago, I imported to Detroit a 1985 2600S. Oh my, what a motor. So smooth and refined. Again, the car was lacking in certain areas, but such a joy to drive. As Keith says, the SD1 was BL at it best and worst.

  7. I owned a SD1 3500 V8 auto. I loved it. Pulling a caravan I use to out accelerate other cars away from the traffic lights. Lent it to a now former friend who wrote it off and offered me £150 in compensation. Wish i could buy another one.

  8. I’m fortunate to own a V8, although on carbs rather than a TP. It’s certainly very different to my other two cars, a 90s runabout and a big modern car.

    The SD1 is achingly attractive in the metal and, when it’s in good mechanical fettle, curiously great to drive. It’s very different to any car I’ve owned in the last 20 years. It’s floaty, yet chuckable but probably best just to waft around with a smile. I don’t have a problem with the big steering wheel – just a feature of the age it came from – and the steering is surprisingly direct anyway.

    Mine has served as a daily classic for a few years and was reliable during this time. There’s always a bit of apprehension in the back of my mind but, to give it its due, it’s only broken down once in 10,000 miles and that was in the early days after taking ownership. After putting right its history of fixes (surely pre-internet with mechanics doing their best), it’s been reliable.

    I think a problem with SD1s is that they deteriorate due to BL’s cost cutting. It’s possible to fix, renovate and tighten things up, especially trim like door cards, but this is where a lot of effort goes. I suspect anything that isn’t made with shaped compressed cardboard will weather time better.

    I’d recommend one anyway, especially if you’re relatively mechanically minded and can invest some time sprucing it up.

  9. I can feel another visit to Drive Dad’s Car coming on (I drove their XJS a couple of years ago) – the SD1 Vitesse is one of my bucket list cars!

  10. Must admit, if I had one I would rework it as a replica of one of the SD1 rally cars, and then enter some classic gravel rallies with it!

    I always wondered if the V64V engine would fit, so that a SD1 would come into the under 3 litre natural aspirated Group N class to run alongside the likes of the Sierra XR4X4??

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