Tomorrow’s car, today

As for the car, with its excellent performance it was entered in competitive motor sport as well as being used widely by the British police. The SD1 may be considered to be the last real Rover, despite suffering from flaws that made it rather lower in quality than its forebears.

Pausing to talk about the Rover brand is difficult for anyone; the emblem of the Viking ship represents the epitome of English style: refined, precious, different from everything else. Considering how strong the image was in the past, the brand having been founded in 1904, raises the obvious question: why it has not survived to the present day?

Many of the answers are to be found in the early seventies when Rover was, like many other British marques, absorbed by British Leyland, going on to constitute, together with the Triumph and Jaguar marques, the Specialist Division. The P6 model, in production since 1963, had been an incredible success and, with its lines created by designer David Bache, who was deeply linked to the brand for which he had created a luxury car, was safe and had outstanding performance, capable of capturing the instant attention of customers and also becoming the Car of the Year, 1964.

In the mid-seventies it was becoming increasingly pressing to provide a successor, the new model being given the code name SD1 (Specialist Division Model No. 1). The design of the new model turned out to be a complete departure from the old style: it was sinuous, modern and combined elegance, luxury and even practicality perfectly. In fact the two-volume bodywork, similar to that of the Lancia Gamma, turned out much more harmonious than the latter and was a bigger hit with customers.

The nose was, as David Bache himself admitted, inspired by the Ferrari Daytona, but apart from that the car was entirely different from any other. Bache’s genius had struck again, following the revolutionary 1970 Range Rover, with the SD1 being the most beautiful result of his career and the best in his time at Rover. Precisely because its non-conformist lines, British Leyland chose to advertise it as “Tomorrow’s car, today”.

The car retained classical mechanicals: longitudinal engine and rear wheel drive, MacPherson strut front suspension by Triumph and rigid rear axle with coil springs. The range included engines of various displacements, both petrol and diesel. The petrol 2000 and 2300, proposed in cheaper versions, undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the SD1 but did not fit well with its luxurious image, as the Turbo Diesel VM engine version also didn’t. In 1977 the jury chose the SD1 as Car of the Year, the last time Rover won the award. In 1980, with modified headlights and bumpers, it started to be exported to the USA as the Rover 3500 V8, where it received positive reviews by the press but failed to sell in any numbers. In 1981 the SD1 received unfortunate fame as the multiple motorcycle racing champion Mike Hailwood was driving one when he was hit be a truck, killing him and his daughter, Michelle, with only his son, David, surviving.

As for the car, with its excellent performance it was entered in competitive motor sport as well as being used widely by the British police. The SD1 may be considered to be the last real Rover, despite suffering from flaws that made it rather lower in quality than its forebears; as far as quality was concerned some of the finishes and materials used in the first series (1977 – 82) were not in keeping with the marque, leading many to regret the loss of the P6. This was remedied in 1982 when the design was facelifted and the quality was improved markedly; it was, however, perhaps too late. At the time of the facelift production was moved from Solihull to the former Triumph (originally Morris) factory in Cowley. The dashboard and upholstery were new in the interior, whilst external changes were made to the headlights and bumpers, which became more enveloping but made the car appear less sporty.

In 1987 the SD1 ceased production, being replaced by the Rover 800, the result of collaboration with Honda. After that Rover lost more and more ground by ownership passing first to British Aerospace then to BMW, who bought it in 1994 with the sole intention of concentrating on the Mini brand but suffered massive losses with it and off-loaded it to the Phoenix Consortium in 2000, who then led the company into final bankruptcy in 2005 due to their mismanagement.

Today the brand is owned by Tata, who also own Jaguar and Land Rover, but so far there is no talk of a possible return to use. Despite the sad end of the marque, the SD1 remains firm in the collective imagination and many retain a beautiful memory of the car, steeped in nostalgia for this British flagship. Even in Italy, though the car was considered a niche product because of its high fuel consumption, the SD1 has its fans, like Daniel, one of our readers, who tells about the SD1 which was owned by his father-in-law who was “really satisfied with the car” and still “tells me of its pure power and engaging engine noise. I remember once, about 15 years ago, the roar of his V8 sending shivers down my spine”; he goes on to say that the car had really excellent road-holding. It wasn’t just the performance, however, as he says the interior was of “unparalleled comfort, its seats were like sitting heaven knows where”. The car he was referring to was a very rare Vanden Plas 3500 V8 version which he had bought in Belgium in 1982, as the 8-cylinder engine was not available in Italy. I cannot add to Albert’s opinion that the SD1 was a really great machine, capable of stirring emotions and absolutely worthy of the brand name it wore.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

Copyright © Cars Forgotten Stories. All rights reserved.


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