The cars we loved.

1976-1986 Rover SD1: Dashed Expectations

1986 Rover Vitesse

1986 Rover Vitesse

In many ways the once futuristic SD1 represents the best and worst of the British automotive industry. In 1976, the SD1 became a replacement for two cars, the Rover P6 and Triumph 2500, both from the recently formed conglomerate British Leyland Corporation. An internal competition yielded a Rover design mated to a trusty Buick V8 from the 60’s. It was a highly tunable engine that had been used in Rovers for years. A Triumph 6 cylinder would join the options list a year later. The new car was designed to have low-cost straight forward engineering for production simplicity. The name SD1 was more or less a code
name derived from the collaboration from Rover and Triumph called Special Division.  1 was for the first (and only)
product from this collaboration. In England the car was initially called the Rover 3500 but would have 15 other model name variations as the range expanded and contracted.  The Buick 3.5L V8 was the only engine choice at introduction. A pair of Triumph SOHC 6 cylinder engines became later options.  In sticking with GM sourced parts, the SD1 would at one point use a GM 4 speed automatic transmission. The manual was a five –speed unit developed by Triumph.

Rover SD1 Interior

Rover SD1 Interior

The sleek five door lift back design was practical and sporty. With a look inspired by Ferrari’s 356 GTB, the SD1 stood out in a growing wave of European sedans with a similar profile, including the Citroen CX and Renault 20/30.  The interior seemed to be inspired from across the channel also. It was a departure from typical English luxury sedans with its contemporary control layout. The modern plastics with no traces of wood made the dash and switch gear look more German than English. Rover was thinking of export markets from the start by making the SD1’s dash a flexible left or right hand drive design. Depending on where sold, the SD1 had a large vent in the center on the passenger side that would alternate for the steering column. These economic measures allowed for easy conversion and production flexibility (no doubt pleasing the feisty strike happy factory workers too). In 1980 the SD1 was available in the US as the Rover 3500, although only 800 cars made it over. The heavier federalized cars had revised bumpers and produced 133 hp from a emissions compliant V8.

1980 Rover 3500

1980 Rover 3500 (US Market)

The cost cutting measures extended to other areas like drum rear brakes, and solid rear. The McPherson strut suspension, although simple was effective in aggressive driving conditions. A new power steering unit was newly developed for the SD1 that required less effort from drivers in low-speed situations.  Later cars would get disc brakes all around and electronic fuel injection. The McPherson strut suspension, although simple was effective.

At introduction, the SD1 was a hit. The press went crazy for England’s new sleek executive sedan, awarding it the prestigious European car of the year award in 1977. Although Rover may have cut some corners with a live axle rear drive setup, the SD1 appeared to be a value in the growing near luxury car market. New models and small updates keep the SD1 competitive, with a major updating in 1982 resulting in a more modernized appearance. During the height of the DS1’s popularity, one was featured in the Human Leagues stylish 1982 music video for the hit ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby”, a song featured a Rover 3500 as a backdrop on a movie set during a rain-soaked English night. The car had the similar effect of being  glamorized just as a Citroen had been in a Grace Jones video from around the same time.

Whatever notoriety that was gained from exposure in the media was short-changed by a still ongoing reputation for quality glitches. Yet, the car evolved and most problems were addressed, however labor issues still hampered production at times. The SD1 slowly evolved from a mid-level executive sedan to a luxury-sports machine with BMW 5 Series aspirations. The short-lived, range topping V8-S model from 1976 was touted as a luxury-performance sedan in much the way BMWs are today. The V8 engine in was only good for 135hp but that was enough to move it from 0 to 60 in just under 9 seconds.

Front Detail

Front Detail

There were versions of the SD1 that were more luxurious than the V8-S, like the Vanden Plas with its standard leather interior. While upmarket versions were being introduced, lower end cars with normally aspirated, turbo and diesel four-cylinder engines were anchoring the lower end market. Performance oriented SD1’s like the Vitesse came with a stiffened and lowered suspension, larger front disc brakes, 15’ alloy wheels  and Lucas electronic fuel injection. Recent
updates to the exterior saw large integrated front air dams that looked aggressive but tacked on. Proper side skirts and rear diffuser might have completed the look, but that was left up to the tuner market. The most desirable and rare of the performance oriented SD1 cars was a version of the Vitesse in 1976 called the Twin Plenum. Its twin throttle body design was mounted on the plenum chamber producing close to 200 hp from the 3.5L V8. Twin Plenum cars were among the fastest SD1 with a top speeds approaching 135 mph and the sprint to 60 mph in the low 7 second range.

Performance, economy and serviceability was some of the reasons police departments across the UK made the SD1’s the pursuit car of choice for much of the 70’s and 80’s. When word came that SD1 production would end, various departments began stockpiling the cars for future use. As a result, SD-1’s were pulling over speeders as late as 1989, three years after production ended in 1986.

Over the years, 15 variations of the SD1 would be available with engines ranging from small diesel fours to a big V8.  The popularity of the cars waned as more modern competitors like Ford’s Sierra gained market share. SD1 production ended in the summer of 1986, with the Rover 800 as a replacement. Rover’s reputation was already damaged. Thanks to Honda’s help it was repaired somewhat in the US with the sale of the Sterling 800. In Europe, Honda’s production deal with Rover would improve all Rovers, but not before British Leylands ongoing problems would catch up with it and change the Rover Company as we knew it. The SD1 was an innovative design that unfortunately could not shake off its quality demons. The basic shape and five door configuration endured as the prototype for the European sports sedan of the 80’s. cars as wide ranging as the Ford Sierras, Vauxhall Cavaliers and even  Japanese coupes like the Datsun 200SX may owe some influence to the SD1.

Rover SD1 3600

Rover SD1 3600


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This entry was posted on April 20, 2011 by in 70's Cars, 80's Cars, Rover and tagged , , , , , , , .


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