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Rover 3500 (SD1)

Published: 11th Jul 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Ferrari looks, prestige name and hatchback versatility… The SD1 had it all. Except respect and success?

An estate version was developed but never produced

Fancy a V8 sports car with the looks of a classic Ferrari, plus plenty of space for granny and the kids? In early 1970s Britain, a small group of designers and engineers in the Midlands set about making this dream a reality, resulting in the 1976 SD1 Rover. Whether it was actually a dream or a nightmare remains open to debate, thanks to infamous 1970s British Leyland build quality. However, one thing’s for sure, the car always looked the part and, in its latter years at least, could offer the sort of performance that would impress any Ferrari owner. Still trying to cope with poorly-planned mergers, British Leyland had two separate design teams working on different designs for a luxurious new executive car in the early 70s.Both Triumph and Rover designers found themselves working for the ‘Specialist Division’ of the merged company. Eventually the Rover team, lead by David Bache, and with Spen King heading-up the engineering side, was given the go ahead to produce their own design. Bache was inspired by exotica such as the Daytona, with the frontal styling of the SD1 bearing a close resemblance to this desirable Italian. Incidentally, the new Rover’s name stems from the fact that it was the fi rst car from BL’s new Specialist Division – SD1. However there was little else that was specialist about the SD1 compared to the advanced P6. Out went the skeletonconstruction and bolt on panels, the De Dion rear suspension with inboard brakes… And, alas, the quality air of an old Rover. In a launch that would seem topsy-turvy to most modern marketing men, the performance version of the SD1 was launched before the lessexciting versions. At its UK launch in June 1976, the car was only available with Rover’s trusty 3528cc V8. In 1977 the range was increased, with the addition of two six-cylinder engines that were descended from the old Triumph straight six, a 2351cc 118bhp unit and a 2597cc 130bhp alternative, known as the Rover 2300 and 2600 respectively. The car’s rear-wheel drive transmission came with a fi ve-speed manual or threespeed automatic and the rear end featured a simple live-axle with drum brakes. The car quickly gained a lot of press attention and there was high demand for it. Unfortunately a series of strikes at BL meant that the company couldn’t keep up with orders, blighting both the UK and European sales for the fi rst few years. After the 1976 launch, the next signifi cant year for the Rover SD1 was 1982. Production had been moved from Solihull to the old Morris plant in Canley, during 1981, so this gave the company a chance to launch a facelifted version of the car, early in 1982. Exterior changes included a deeper glass area on the rear hatch, which also allowed for a rear wiper to be fi tted. Inside a revised dashboard included a longer and sleeker instrument pod (the original ‘box’ was design to aid switching from left to right-hand drive), while the door window switches were moved from the central console onto the doors.

The face-lifted SD1 of 1982 also saw one of the car’s often over-looked ‘innovations’, when a diesel engine was made available as an option. At the time this was practically unheard of for a luxury car in the UK, and foretold the increasing popularity of diesels as the 80s progressed. BL engineers had been developing a diesel version of the V8 petrol engine but this project was scrapped in favour of a 90bhp 2400cc turbo-diesel from VM Motori of Italy. Performance and refi nement was initially seen as very good, when compared to the crude diesels of the time, but reliability problems included warping cylinder heads and gaskets if the engine wasn’t properly maintained. Cylinder heads would often crack at around 80,000 miles, leading to older cars being scrapped rather than repaired.

Return of the Rover 2000…

Also in 1982, Rover SD1 buyers were given the exiting option of the two-litre, 100bhp O-Series engine, care of that fi ne executive saloon, the Morris Ital! This four-cylinder engine was really just a tax dodge for fl eet car buyers, since its capacity put it just under a tax threshold. But the best is yet to come. With the starting to lag behind the fi eld, Austin Rover bought back an old Triumph name for the 190bhp Rover Vitesse, which used a fuel-injected version of the 3500’s V8 engine. The company had originally wanted to name the car the ‘Rover Rapide’, but Aston Martin already owned the name, and was probably slightly concerned that the new high-power V8 would offer a cheapas- chips alternative to its own V8 GT – which in essence and character it was. Offering a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds, plus a top speed of 132mph, the Vitesse meant that the SD1 could truly live up to its Ferrari looks. From 1984 the engine was also available in the Vanden Plas EFi, which was the SD1 to have if you wanted the combination of sporting performance, automatic transmission, plus, of course, the stylish VP interior that was as good as any XJ6. The Austin Rover brochure boasted, ‘Apply the Vanden Plas philosophy to the Rover 3500SE and you truly achieve the last word in Rover luxury.’ Before the SD1 fi nally bowed out, there was just time for one more throw of the performance dice. In 1985 Austin Rover introduced the Twin Plenum version of the Vitesse, which produced 210bhp. No wonder this excellent road car also excelled in circuit racing. Thanks to depressing reliability, the SD1 bowed out, after almost a decade, as an upmarket banger for used car buyers after an upper crust bargain – which a good one was. Production was shipped out to India where the car gained the old Triumph TR4 engine no less to become the Standard 2000, although reliability problems meant it was better known as the Stranded 2000. Sadly the last real Rover, a car with so much inbred pedigrpedigree, became known as a dog and died as one.

When The Car Was The Star

“The Bill”, “The Gentle Touch”, “Juliet Bravo” - where would so many of these staples of early 1980s television have been without their SD1 patrol cars sreeching around corners to arrest the sort of ‘punk rocker’ who spoke in pure Dick Van Dyke cockney? But the big Rover’s TV fame began as early as 1976 with “The New Avengers” and the same yellow BL PR car surfaced as Cowley’s transport in the fi rst season of “The Professionals”. The most entertaining recent Rover 3500 appearance has to be in “Ashes to Ashes” and as for the most enjoyably bad series to feature the SD1 it has to be “Dempsey & Makepeace”. On the big screen, Michael Caine had his SD1 moments in “The Fourth Protocol” and the dire “The Jigsaw Man” but nothing can compete with “Venom” – a 1981 B-fi lm starring a police Rover, Oliver Reed at his extreme worst.

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