Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1

| 20 May 2022
Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1

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It is sometimes too easy to overlook the sense of amazement when British Leyland unveiled the all-new Rover 3500 on 30 June 1976.

The SD1 not only bore no resemblance to its P6B predecessor, but it also symbolised hope for the future of BL at a time when the ‘mangle handle’ logo seemed to be inextricably associated with news footage of industrial disputes and faintly desperate advertising.

So this gathering of the Series 1 line-up at the British Motor Museum provides the perfect opportunity to pay homage to this charismatic and often misunderstood car.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Rover 3500 is one of the first off the line

BL commenced work on the SD1 in 1971 as the replacement for the P6 and the Triumph 2000/2500 range.

The intention of Rover’s head of design, David Bache, was to evoke the form of a supercar with five doors, and the result undeniably enjoys Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona overtones.

Given the restricted budget, technical director Spen King decided to use as many standard components as possible.

He cut costs further by employing a beam axle and drum brakes at the rear instead of the de Dion set-up and discs of the P6.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
1976 Rover 3500 owner Jonathan Harley was inspired by his policeman father

However, this didn’t affect Bache’s vision: “The word ‘elegant’ describes the styling philosophy behind the new Rover.”

The press launch for the SD1 was staged at Château Impney, and it went on to become European Car of the Year for 1977, defeating the Audi 100 C2.

In addition, the 3500 was awarded the Don Safety Trophy plus provided a distraction from Gareth Hunt’s wardrobe in The New Avengers and Doyle’s hairstyle in The Professionals.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The classic Rover’s sleek shape – the 3500 has 155bhp

Autocar noted: ‘The Rover has its flaws – but we believe that these can and should be easily rectifiable as running changes.’

Alas, this appeared to be Leyland’s cue to embark on its familiar pattern of self-sabotage.

Within a few years, strikes, poor stock control resulting in eight-month waiting lists and complaints about a lack of build quality blighted the SD1’s image.

Autocar’s own MD ranted that the finish was poor by any standards, and ‘downright disgusting for a near-£5000 car’.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
Finished here in dark-brown Caviar trim, the 3500 featured a pushbutton radio and electric front windows

Today, however, Jonathan Harley’s mint 3500 is a reminder of what a remarkable machine it was by the standards of the day: a lavishly appointed five-door fastback capable of more than 120mph yet costing a very reasonable £4750.

Furthermore, it was very much a car in the Rover tradition: the P4, the P5 and especially the P6 were never content to follow the herd.

Harley’s 1976 example is one of the earliest production models, and was used initially by none other than Derek Whittaker, then the managing director of Leyland Cars.

Its current keeper’s reason for buying an SD1 is simple: “My dad used to be a traffic sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, and he arrived home in a Rover one day. I was just 10, and was blown away by it.”

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The SD1 made its debut with the 3.5-litre V8 from the P6B

Harley became the fifth owner of the 3500 in 2011, and over the past decade the car has been treated to a set of new wings and a respray of the lower half of the body.

“On the road it’s a lazy car, and yet the engine just keeps on pulling,” says Harley. “I find that the V8 is really well suited to the automatic transmission, and my SD1 can show a clean pair of heels to many modern vehicles.”

Glance at the superbly preserved lines of MOL 385P and it’s easy to see how futuristic it must have appeared compared to rivals such as the Ford Granada Ghia Mk1 or the Opel Commodore.

For its proud owner, the SD1 lives up to both the brochure and the dreams of his childhood – claims that very few vehicles can fulfil.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
“On the road it’s a lazy car, and yet the engine just keeps on pulling”

The new 3500 did not entirely replace the old Rovers and Triumphs, because the P6 2200 and the 2000/2500 continued to be available.

BL had planned to launch a complete SD1 range in October 1975, but production issues meant that it delayed the introduction of the less expensive versions until autumn 1977.

Power for the 2300 and 2600 came from overhead-cam engines loosely based on the Triumph straight-six, but with such extensive changes as to represent a ‘clean-sheet’ design from Canley.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Caribbean Blue 1979 2300 looks dazzling in profile

BL commissioned a sales film starring Anton Rogers and entitled Two More for The Road to introduce the six-cylinder Rovers.

At one point in the drama, an SD1 comes to the aid of the owner of a broken-down Volvo; not a terribly subtle reference to one of its main competitors.

The 2300 targeted the sort of junior executive who might otherwise have been allotted a Ford Granada 2.3L, an FE-series Vauxhall VX or the in-house rival of the Princess 2200 HLS.

According to BL, at least, the Rover 2300s were prestige motor cars that imposed ‘no more tax liability on their users than an ordinary 2-litre company car’ – and all for a mere £5342.41.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The Rover 2300 enjoyed the same quality carpeting and fabric seats as the 3500, but fewer features

Naturally, sacrifices had to be made, such as variable-rate coil springs with telescopic dampers at the rear instead of the self-levelling suspension of the more expensive versions.

Nor could 2300 drivers expect the newly developed five-speed LT77 transmission (Rover’s first), a standard cassette player, electric windows or central locking, but this would hopefully inspire them to climb the corporate ladder.

Entry-level executive models often appear faintly poignant, with acres of blanks in place of the more comprehensive switchgear to be found in the costlier versions.

However, Chris Powell’s 1979 2300 looks magnificent in its optional Caribbean Blue paint finish, even if the wheeltrims and the lack of a passenger door mirror denote its lowly status in the Rover hierarchy. From behind the wheel there’s also the omission of a rev counter and oil-pressure gauge.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This classic Rover has been revived, having sat in storage for more than 25 years

Powell is only the second custodian of XON 172 T. “The original owner drove it for about five years,” he explains, “and the Rover was then garaged for more than a quarter of a century.

“I came by it in 2012, and it needed only a small amount of recommissioning. Fortunately, the bodywork was not rotten, although it did require some cosmetic attention, especially around the wheelarches.”

It’s enjoyable to drive, too, reckons Powell: “There’s plenty of power, the engine is smooth and flexible, and the gear ratios are well chosen.”

Lower speeds can be a challenge – “it is quite formidable to park, because it’s not equipped with the optional power-assisted steering” – yet Powell regards his SD1 as being eminently suitable for its intended market.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
A shorter-stroke straight-six made for a 2.4-litre 2300

Perhaps its major problem was one of presentation, and BL did make sure that later bottom-of-the-range offerings didn’t look as spartan as the Series 1 2300.

The most telling detail is the absence of halogen headlights and warning lamps for the leading edges of the doors; evidently, safety after dark only applied to the 2600 and upwards.

Still, hard work might finally earn you the 2.6-litre version, as described by Car magazine as one of a trio of vehicles representing the very best available, alongside the Lancia Gamma Berlina and Peugeot 604 Ti.

At £5800, the Rover was cheaper than the BMW 520i, capable of 117mph and fitted with such luxuries as ‘superior cut-pile carpet’, a map light and illuminated heater controls to set it apart from lowly 2300s.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Series 1 Rover 2300 has a smooth and flexible engine

Jon Harper’s 2600 dates from 1978 and is thought to be the only surviving example finished in Avocado.

This wonderfully evocative hue was one of his reasons for buying the SD1.

In period, anyone who ordered a Rover in such a distinctive shade almost certainly possessed a hostess trolley, a Soda Stream, a video recorder and all the other accoutrements of the late-’70s good life.

On location at Gaydon, BEC 484S was subject to various remarks in which the name ‘Kermit’ tended to feature prominently…

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
Chris Powell owns the blue 2300 (left); Jon Harper’s 2600 may be the only surviving example in Avocado

The 2600’s cabin closely resembles that of the 3500, and anyone trading in their Triumph 2500S would probably have been mesmerised by its sheer modernity.

Gone were the wood veneers and slight air of a well-to-do yacht club in favour of a deliberately Minimalist approach.

Prior to the SD1’s launch, BL’s management even warned its sales staff: ‘Do not mention the steering wheel at all unless the subject is broached to you.’

Harper came by his distinctive Rover 14 years ago, but has been a fan of the SD1 since they were new.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Rover 2600 could come from no other period

The sole extra on his 2600 is the power steering, and it has never been welded or painted during its lifetime, which seems faintly miraculous given the model’s reputation.

“In the late 1970s, many enthusiasts preferred the combination of the 2597cc unit and the manual gearbox to the 3500, because they found the 2600 to be more of a sports saloon,” explains Harper.

“I just like the fact that it’s different, and I like to champion its underdog status.”

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The only extra fitted to this SD1 is power steering

The final member of our quartet is one that BL thought perfect for the ambitious barrister or successful company director.

On 2 July 1979, Rover introduced the V8-S, which it claimed illustrated: ‘The difference between the best and the rest.’

In essence, the new flagship was a testbed for the marque’s return to the US market, especially its SU-Butec air-conditioning system.

Furthermore, in the UK it would hopefully lure the well-heeled motorists away from their velour-lined Vauxhall Royales.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
“I just like the fact that it’s different, and I like to champion its underdog status.”

Our test car, owned by Tim Spencer, is finished in Midas Gold, with the other colour choices being Platinum Silver, Persian Aqua Blue or Triton Green.

TSL 982 is also unusual in featuring the five-speed manual gearbox, with many customers opting for the Borg-Warner automatic.

Regardless of the transmission, however, the sales brochures proclaimed: ‘We set out to create an exclusive member of the Rover stable that would offer you the perfect marriage of unique style and motoring luxury.’

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The mid-range 2600 has a 2.6-litre ‘six’ (left); the V8-S had no mechanical changes from the 3500

In other words, the owner could boast of the deep-pile carpets, the headlamp washers and wipers, the sliding roof and, unlike the cheaper Rovers, an enamelled Viking badge.

The alloy wheels alerted motorists to the presence of an exclusive SD1, one that looked down on any Opel Senator.

The interior is a special delight, leaving the occupants feeling as though they have been encased in luxury.

If the raison d’être of the Volvo 264 GLE was dignity, then the V8-S seemed to revel in conspicuous consumption.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
“In the late 1970s, many enthusiasts preferred the combination of the 2597cc unit and the manual gearbox to the 3500, because they found the 2600 to be more of a sports saloon”

‘Rover has achieved the standard of finish which the excellence of the basic design deserves,’ concluded Motor.

The five-door layout was not always a sales advantage in a very conservative market sector, but BL only ever intended the V8-S to be a limited-production vehicle.

Just 1040 examples left the factory before it was succeeded by the 3500 Vanden Plas in September 1980, with TSL 982 having been built in the very first week of manufacture.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Rover V8-S is believed to be the oldest in the UK

The Rover SD1 Club believes Spencer’s car to be the oldest V8-S in the UK. It originally served as a demonstrator for Mylchreests Motors in Douglas on the Isle of Man.

When Spencer acquired it in August 1997, the Rover resided in Loughborough in a somewhat dilapidated state, and his first tasks were to tidy the bodywork and find missing trim items.

Today, the gold SD1 looks resplendent and every inch a conveyance that screams ‘the difference between the best and the rest’.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The rare V8-S of Tim Spencer looks the business with its gold alloy wheels

Spencer regards the SD1 as more suited to cruising than sporting motoring, even as a V8-S, and finds the manual ’box ideal for motorway travel.

Even if this exclusive model is now overshadowed in the public memory by the Vitesse, its importance in further raising the marque’s profile cannot be overstated.

Leyland facelifted the range in 1982, and production of the Series 2 ceased in 1986.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
The cabin of the V8-S is marginally better appointed than the 3500, but wows with velvet seat covers and deep, shag-pile carpeting

This quartet not only resembles the forecourt of a prosperous dealership at the end of the ’70s, but also demonstrates why the new Rover held such promise.

For too many years the SD1 family was viewed almost solely within the context of the British Leyland story, but a new generation of enthusiasts respects them on their own terms.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1
This Rover V8-S has the rarely specified five-speed manual gearbox

As memories of Panorama footage of picket lines fade, along with the BL jokes that ceased to be remotely amusing circa 1997, the SD1 is now regarded as ambitious, sometimes flawed, but never dull.

While certain cars have absence, this Rover has presence and, in many respects, it was indeed ‘Tomorrow’s Car Today’.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to the British Motor Museum; the Rover SD1 Club


Factfiles

Classic & Sports Car – Rover ambitious: celebrating the SD1

Rover 3500

  • Sold/no built 1976-’86/107,916
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 3528cc V8, twin SU carburettors
  • Max power 155bhp @ 5250rpm
  • Max torque 198lb ft @ 2500rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, coil springs, semi-trailing arms, self-actuating ride-levelling units
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 15ft 5in (4698mm)
  • Width 5ft 9½in (1768mm)
  • Height 4ft 5½in (1354mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 3¾in (2814mm)
  • Weight 3006lb (1363kg)
  • Mpg 23.6
  • 0-60mph 9 secs
  • Top speed 123mph
  • Price new £4750
  • Price now £5-12,000*
     

Rover 2300 (Where different to 3500)

  • Sold/no built 1977-’86/42,996
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 2350cc straight-six, twin SU carbs
  • Max power 123bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 134lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual
  • Suspension: rear live axle, variable-rate coil springs, telescopic dampers
  • Weight 2899lb (1315kg)
  • 0-60mph 11.5 secs
  • Top speed 114mph
  • Mpg 25.4
  • Price new £5342
  • Price now £4-8000*
     

Rover 2600 (Where different to 3500)

  • Sold/no built 1977-’86/108,572
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 2597cc straight-six, twin SU carbs
  • Transmission five-speed manual
  • Max power 136bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 152lb ft @ 3750rpm
  • Weight 2978lb (1351kg)
  • 0-60mph 10.7 secs
  • Top speed 118mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £5800
  • Price now £5-10,000*
     

Rover V8-S (Where different to 3500)

  • Sold/number built 1979/1040
  • Transmission five-speed manual
  • Height 4ft 6½in (1382mm)
  • Weight 3165lb (1436kg)
  • 0-60mph 9.7 secs
  • Price new £10,699
  • Price now £8-12,500*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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