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Rover SD1 at 40

Published: 18th Mar 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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The SD1 was the last real Rover but if build quality had been better perhaps it wouldn’t have been, suggests Andrew Roberts

If you had cause to glimpse a new SD1 series 3500 on the 30th June 1976 your first thought might have run along the lines of ‘surely that cannot be a Rover?’. Forty years ago the marque was primarily associated with the advanced and respected P6 and, although the range had ceased production in 1973, the P5B still featured in almost every news bulletin that concerned 10 Downing Street. But this new replacement for both ranges did not even boast the traditional Viking badge on the bonnet and as for the interior, it looked either ‘minimalist’ or ‘just like the set from Space 1999’. Buyers who sought a world veneered in walnut veneer opted for the more expensive Jaguar XJ6 3.4 as the Rover’s cabin was open in its use of plastics with instrumentation that literally resembled a black box. Even the paint finishes were dynamic, none less so than ‘Triton Green’ that seemed to make a 3500 glow in the dark.

THE BIRMINGHAM FERRARI?

Such were often the first impressions. The second, once the motorist had the time to truly appreciate the styling with its overtones of the Ferraris 250LM and 365GTB/4 Daytona and how utterly handsome the latest Rover appeared, was that David Bache was one of the greatest stylists of his generation. The automotive historian James Taylor has observed that the SD1 “depended on its distinctive lines to be instantly recognisable as a Rover”. What it did not have was a ‘Rover face’ but it could be argued that as with all of the marque’s great cars it created its own traditions.

The famous PR shot of a 3500 under Concorde’s nose established that here was a car for airline pilots, go-ahead police chiefs and anyone who owned more than one LED watch.

David Bache had finalised the Rover’s shape back in 1971 and over the next five years, it was decided that the SD1 would initially début in V8 form, with the six cylinder 2300 and 2600 replacing the P6 2200 and the Triumph 2000/2500 in 1977. This would allow the 3500 version to enjoy maximum impact and indeed one major talking point in the motoring press and in suburbia alike was new Rover’s hatchback. Bache had been interested in the idea of a five-door executive saloon as far back as the early 1960s and hatchbacks are now so ubiquitous that it is sometimes difficult to appreciate that 40 years ago, the SD1 was only the second Leyland car to be sold in this format.

The first BL hatchback was the 1969 Austin Maxi although by 1976 there was a number of new hatchback saloons on the market. At least British Leyland’s sales and marketing teams did not have to cope with a car fitted with gull-wing doors, an idea that Bache was very keen on…

Of the Rover’s competitors, the 30TS was an excellent car but in 1976, the Renault marque had been associated with five door cars for a decade and a half. Two other rivals of the late 1970s, the 1977 Audi 100 C2 Avant and the 1978 Saab 900, were sold in both saloon and hatchback forms and the offerings from BMW Ford, General Motors Mercedes- Benz, Peugeot and Volvo firmly adhered to traditional three-box styling.

A four-door saloon option might have broadened the SD1’s appeal, especially to those motorists who regretted the eventual demise of the Triumph 2500, although BL did consider an estate model to serve as a competitor to the Granada, Rekord, Volvo 245/265 and the W123 series 280TE.

The resulting prototype station wagons were extremely attractive but the project was cancelled on (being BL you guessed it) financial grounds as Leyland had little surplus funds. The SD1 was not merely a replacement for the P6 3500 but a car that was, together with the TR7, the XJS and (an often forgotten fact) the Princess Wedge, tasked with reviving the image and fortunes of the ailing BL group that had recently been bailed out by the Labour government now headed by Jim Callaghan.

The (in)famous television commercials with a Ronald Fraser-style retired Colonel being tempted into a new Rover and to a background of a merry jingle masked a sense of despair. It was as if since British Leyland was nationalised in 1975 every comedian had, at the very least, one joke about the lack of quality inherent in its products and every news bulletin had Richard Baker or Leonard Parkin reporting on yet another strike.

But for a short period, it really did seem as though the stylish looking Rover 3500 would revive the flagging fortunes of the vast and struggling corporation.

At an initial price of £4750 the SD1 was quite a bargain and, better still, it looked set to become a genuine class leader, being elected Car of the Year 1977 and winning the Don Safety Trophy. Weekly Autocar magazine observed that ‘‘It is hard to be over-enthusiastic about the new 3500” and, in general, the motoring press loved the new five-speed gearbox (automatic transmission was an option), the power steering and the 123mph top speed. One carping note was struck by the never easy to please Car magazine, whose tester contended that beneath the svelte coachwork was “a competent saloon that does most things quite well without being brilliant”.

The SD1 was indeed designed for simplicity of manufacture and in place of the P6’s elaborate De Dion rear suspension was a live rear axle. Spen King and his team developed a car that was less concerned with radical technological developments but with truly ground-breaking aesthetics that were underpinned by proven components. Another factor was that the SD1 was constructed with cost in mind, unlike as previous British Leyland and BMC cars, and straightforward engineering meant that there would be fewer of the problems that bedevilled the Triumph Stag.

A BIT OF A DOG?

Unfortunately, one of the main initial problems with the SD1 that proved to be ongoing was the lack of supply and quality control. In 1976 Motor Sport hoped “that Rover can supply what ought to be a fantastic demand and maintain the quality which the concept deserves” but, as experienced Leyland watchers expected, the Solihull factory was unable to cope with the interest the SD1 almost inevitably created. There were also issues with BL’s vexed industrial relations, the first year alone of Rover production was plagued with strikes and an oblique approach to build standards.

Any reader who has driven a Mercedes- Benz W123 may recall how even the low-spec 200 models felt as though it was carved from solid metal. Meanwhile, not a few SD1 owners have memories of panel gaps, sagging headlining and of the controls for the choke and lights that felt as though they were poised to snap off at any moment.

The problems with the early 3500s should be considered in the light of the observation of the BL expert Keith Adams; “The only other car Leyland could shift easily in the showrooms at the time was the humble Mini, and there was next to no profit in that. This was why the SD1 was so vital to British Leyland.”

Autocar had a pretty wretched time with its long-term test cars. The first, a 3500 auto caused it to remark; “The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection.” The second, a 2600 auto was even worse which suffered a plethora of known faults leading one report to remark; “their dealers must be said to deserve all their criticism they endure if they deliver a [£6194] Rover 2600 in the state in which this one came”.

The tragedy and that is not too strong a term, was that the Rover 3500 really could have been everything that the brochures promised but by the beginning of the 1980s a potentially great car was associated in the public mind with inept build quality and industrial relations straight out of I’m All Right Jack. The SD1 never achieved major overseas success – it was also built in New Zealand, South Africa and in India, where the ‘Standard 2000’ combined Bache’s coachwork with the Vanguard’s ancient 1991cc engine – but most depressing was the saga of the US market versions. A handful of 3500s were sold in the USA, where the price undercut the excellent BMW 5 Series, but, sadly, the reliability problems ensured that the SD1 would be the last new Rover to be marketed in the States.

By 1982 the build standards had improved, assisted by the SD1 being made in Cowley rather than Solihull, and BL had also introduced the magnificent 190bhp Vitesse; an Aston Martin saloon in spirit.

The range was constantly being developed in the last four years of manufacture and when production ceased in June 1986 the Rover ended its ten years run with a great deal of residual affection.

Yet, it could have been so much more, if only British Leyland’s industrial relations were not a text book example of ‘how not to do it’. If only the Rover had been built by Volvo or BMW. If only…

Because a good Rover SD1 remains a cracking car and, 40 years on, enthusiasts are finally grasping that fact.

THE CAR IS THE STAR

You didn’t see many dignitaries or politicians travelling in an SD1 although the Police felt obliged to use them both on the silver screen and in real life. The Professionals had a pretty rotten time with their BL loaned cars and soon switched to Ford and sanity. But really, producer Brian Clemens should have known better as he had a nightmare with the SD1 used in The New Avengers he also produced. Mind you, the XJ-S and MGB that BL also provided weren’t much better…

REMEMBER WHEN… 1976

Britain baked in a heatwave during the wonderful summer of ’76, with water shortages leading to standpipes in many streets. Here’s what else made the news that year

The Queen opens the new National Exhibition Centre on the outskirts of Birmingham, close to the airport and rail links. It was, of course, to prove the perfect venue for motor shows of all types. The main British International Motor Show moved to the NEC in Birmingham in 1978 from Earls Court.

James Callaghan becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, following the resignation of Harold Wilson. Labour had already lost its majority when Callaghan took over, leading to the Lib-Lab pact. Not quite a coalition government and one that struggled.

Liverpool FC wins its 9th Football League title plus win the UEFA Cup for the second time, beating Belgian Brugge. We wonder what the club’s bosses like Shankley would have said back then if someone told them they would one day be selling a player for £50m!

With financial troubles, the Labour Government tries to get itself out of the recession by negotiating a £2.3bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. This figure now seems like small change when you consider the UK’s current National Dept total of around £953 billion!

British Driver James Hunt wins the Formula One World Championship by just one point from Niki Lauda. He suffers a puncture in the final race in Japan, which was torrentially wet, and has to pull in for an unscheduled pit-stop. As a result he only manages to finish the race in third place.

 



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