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Rover SD1 (1977 - 1986)

Last updated 26 April 2015

 
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Model Timeline

March 1969
First thoughts for P6 replacement are sketched out

Initial briefing for a P6 replacement, codenamed P10, began at Solihull in March 1969. What tends to be overlooked in the telling of the SD1 story is that the management structure that gave birth to the car and the factory that was to build it was not the same as the one that oversaw its eventual launch and production. The Rover Car Company was still very much independent in 1969. At its head was chairman Sir George Farmer, who in April that year was appointed to the BLMC board. Managing director was William Martin-Hurst, the man who discovered the iconic V8 engine for Rover.

Martin-Hurst retired in October 1969 to be replaced by another veteran Rover loyalist, A.B. Smith, although christened Bernard, he preferred to be known by his initials. Production director was Bernard Jackman, another devoted long standing employee. Technical director was Peter Wilks, the man who had coordinated the P6 project, as well as being the nephew of Spencer and Maurice Wilks, the two brothers that had built the Rover brand into to a highly respected purveyor of upmarket cars. The ascent of Rover had been very much a family affair, but now the Wilks family was relinquishing control as age took its toll.

Maurice Wilks had died in 1963 on the eve of the P6′s launch when he was the company’s technical director and his elder brother Spencer had retired in 1967 when Rover was absorbed by Leyland. William Martin-Hurst was their brother in law. Peter Wilks had succeeded his uncle Maurice as Rover technical director in 1964 and following the formation of British Leyland, Spen King, one of the P6 design team, nephew of Maurice and Spencer Wilks and cousin of Peter, was dispatched to become technical director of Triumph at Canley. Various configurations for the new P10 model were studied on paper including front- or rear-wheel drive.

Work by Rover began in earnest following the launch of the Range Rover in March 1970, and the new car rapidly took shape. In June 1970 P10 package drawings were passed to Rover’s styling department headed by David Bache. By that time a decision had been taken that the new Rover should be a mechanically conventional, front engined, rear wheel drive saloon using an up-rated version of the existing light-alloy V8 engine.

As with the P6, David Bache did not want a contemporary design; when it came to his new car, he wanted something that was ahead of the game, and with the P10, he decided very early in the development phase that he wanted a hatchback configuration, and that he wanted the Rover to look exclusive. Since the early 1960s he felt sure the hatchback, a saloon with a rear opening door was the concept people were beginning to want. It could give them an exciting shape with flexibility, practicality and generous living space.

February 1971
Rover styling chosen for new executive saloon

Rover/Triumph shoot-out Rover SD1 design shoot-out

In the initial stages of planning a new executive car for the ’70s, both the Triumph drawing office (Canley) and their opponents at Rover (Solihull) came up with competing designs. This picture was taken at the internal competition between the two divisions of BLMC, where Lord Stokes and John Barber had a final say in which design would go on to become the production car. The two Triumph Puma proposals are on the left – Bache, produced five scale models on the right (the final one chosen to become the SD1 was the fourth from front). Note the Gullwing design at the rear of the Solihull presentation room – Bache was heavily into this concept – and the small Gas-Turbine Rover model at the front.

While David Bache worked on Rover’s model, initially to be called the P10, Triumph’s design team worked on a Michelotti-styled scheme – codenamed Puma – in consultation with William Towns, presumably with input from Spen King. Basically, this internal competition was brought to a close when the BLMC board met at Solihull on 9 February 1971 to see both the Rover P10 and Triumph Puma proposals, with a view to the deciding which was the better of the two cars. And then go on to become the new large Rover/Triumph saloon.

David Bache had produced six scale clay models, five hatchbacks and a notchback for consideration by the board. Triumph’s Puma was thought to be too conventional in style by the board which included Rover chairman Sir George Farmer, former Triumph boss George Turnbull, Jaguar chairman and stylist Sir William Lyons, finance director John Barber and chairman Lord Stokes. In this ‘head to head’ competition, Rover’s car was adjudged to be superior by the British Leyland Board, so development resources were exclusively directed to David Bache’s design.

This result proved to be a happy coincidence, as there was already a feeling that the new large car should be marketed only as a Rover. After all, Triumph’s range at this time consisted of smaller cars (later to be umbrella’d under the Dolomite name) and the slightly cheaper of the two ranges in the 2-litre class (Triumph 2000/2500). Thus, it was decided that a smaller car could be developed in the future to replace the Toledo/Dolomite, and badged as a Triumph. It was at this point in the development of the car that the P10 was renamed RT1 (denoting Rover-Triumph), to signify that this was a car that integrated both Triumph and Rover engineering.

May 1971

Rover SD1 name chosen for Specialist Division's first new product

By late spring 1971 Jaguar, Rover and Triumph were grouped together under the Specialist Division banner because of this internal re-organization within British Leyland, the project was given a new name: SD1 (for Specialist Division). At this early stage of development, it was obvious that the new car would use the ex-Buick V8 engine that had provided service in the P5B and P6B models and would have gone into service in the P8 model.

Extensive work had already taken place on this power unit in order to produce the required power output for the larger P8 model and it was logical not to allow this work to go to waste. Obviously, now that Jaguar occupied a unique and prestigious niche right at the top of the Specialist Division, there would be no requirement for the 4.4-litre version of the V8 engine to be used, but even that did not go to waste, finding its way into the Leyland-Australia P76 model as well as the Australian version of the BMC/BLMC Terrier truck.

July 1971
Styling approved by management

In July 1971 and after much engineering development work, the SD1 had reached the full-scale model stage and when Management viewed the project, they were very impressed with the designs that were being mooted. It was at this point that the styling was yet to be finalised by Bache, but the British Leyland board gave the SD1 the green light for production on the strength of what they had seen so far.

Not only had David Bache been working towards the five-door hatchback that the SD1 eventually became, but he also pushed forwards on a wilder proposal, which incorporated gull-wing doors – a concept that he believed was a viable one, but which his colleagues around him were not so sure of. The gull-wing idea was dropped on cost grounds, but not before full-sized models of his idea had been built. In later years, when he was in the position of head of Product styling for BL, he attended a designers’ conference, where he was still keenly trying to sell the concept to anyone that would listen.

It was at the end of July 1971 that Rover technical director Peter Wilks was forced to retire due to ill health. He was to die the following year at the early age of 52 years. Spen King duly returned to Solihull to replace his cousin as Rover technical director and project P10/RT1/SD1 became his baby.

August 1971
SD1's engineering well underway

Rover SD1 design shoot-out

SD1 Clay model poses alongside some rather exotic Italian machinery for comparative purposes. (Picture supplied by Ian Nicholls).

A consequence of the Mini pricing fiasco, in which a cutting edge design was allegedly sold at a loss, resulted in British Leyland bringing in Ford-style cost control methods. No doubt this was instigated by BLMC finance director John Barber, who was himself ex-blue oval. The SD1, unlike the P6 would be designed and built to a price as BLMC’s bean counters tried to reduce cost.

One thing was very evident on the Engineering front for the new car; the range of engines available for the new car was very limited. Obviously, the V8 engine was settled, but the question of what to power the smaller engined versions that would be required to directly replace the Rover 2200/Triumph 2500 model was still unanswered. The then Current 2-Litre Rover engine was considered less suitable for use in a ’70s executive car, being as it was by that time, a rather unrefined unit, so it was deemed that the six-cylinder Triumph engine would be used.

As events transpired, the plan to add a overhead camshaft head to this unit was dropped when it became obvious that the straight six required more extensive development – and so, a practically new engine was developed in its place, the Triumph unit acting merely as a starting point. As it happened, this would prove to be an excellent marketing ploy, as Executive car buyers were becoming increasingly demanding in their tastes nothing less than six cylinders in their wagons would do.

No consideration was given to using the Austin-Morris E6 engine, as the spirit of rationalization had not yet entirely taken hold at BLMC – whether it was a suitable engine anyway was debatable because in twin-carburettor form, it produced only 110bhp. However, in an in-line application, the ’1750′ stroke could be applied to the E6, giving 2622cc. This is what was used in the South African built SD1, as well as in some of the Australian P76 and Marina models. An engineer who went out for the SA launch admitted that the 2.6-litre E6 was much smoother and livelier than the ‘Triumph’ SD1 engine.

Rover SD1 development hack

This disguise was designed to keep the likes of Hans G Lehmann, scoop photographer extrordinaire, confused as to what it was he was actually photographing. In this case, even a seasoned BL-anorak would have trouble identifying this!

September 1971
Triumph six-cylinder engines delayed

Because the make up of the PE166 six-cylinder engines was finalised well after development on the SD1 had started, it was decided that the new car would be launched in Two phases: The V8 engined model coming first with the six-cylinder models following later – as and when the new engines came on stream. This strategy thereby gave the SD1 two bites of the cherry as far as publicity was concerned, effectively allowing two new product-launches.

While the issue of engines was being decided, development on the SD1 continued apace and Bache continued his work on the SD1′s styling. In November 1971, a further full-size clay model of the SD1, looking remarkably like the finished article, was presented to the British Leyland board. Bache had changed the look of the RT1 because he felt it too angular and he evolved the shape by making it more curvaceous, to become the SD1 as we know it today.

Looking at the development programme, it would now appear that the definitive SD1 shape was complete by December 1971 and yet, it would take a further eighteen months for the styling to be finally signed off by the BL Board. That shows that already, there was a lack of pace in the development of the car at this vitally important stage of its conception. The industry norm was for the car to take 30 months to reach production from this point in 1971 – it actually took 54 months – had the Rover SD1 arrived on the market in 1974, it would surely have made even more of an impact than it finally did.

January 1972
Design and engineering finalised

December 1972
Finance secured for new factory build in Solihull

Rover SD1

Rover managed to secure finance in November 1972 from British Leyland’s management to build a new factory at the Solihull site, solely to build the new car. The original target had been to build 1500 SD1s a week, but BLMC finance director John Barber managed to convince the company’s board to double this target to 3000 cars a week, equating to 150,000 cars a year.

Initial thoughts were to build P10/RT1/SD1 in North Block, site of P6 manufacture, but this would have required a new paint plant. BLMC managed to secure the requisite Government permission to build on a 64 acre site adjacent to the existing Rover plant. This £31million investment, although, endowed with good intention did prove to be a major problem for British Leyland, with a poor Labour relations record, resulting a huge amount of lost days due to industrial action. Lauded as a state of the art factory in 1976, the car producing plant was put on ice as a consequence of the great rationalisation of the Company in 1982.

June 1976
Rover SD1 launched

Rover SD1

Concorde test pilot, Brian Trubshawe, was one of the first SD1 customers in 1976

As Motor magazine surmised after a brief drive at launch, the Rover 3500 was indeed an excellent driver’s car, ‘On the open road, where the Rover excels, visibility is good and despite their blinkered appearance, the lights are powerful enough to let you exploit the roadholding on twisty roads at night. Only the premature squeal of the 195/70 HR14 Pirellis, which start making a fuss long before they reach their high adhesion limit, curb one’s enthusiasm. Whether these fatter tyres and the ornate alloy wheels are worth the extra cost we shall only be able to judge after driving on standard 185/70 HR14 tyres.’

This brickbat aside – and that was a reflection of the current state of the art in tyre technology, the performance of the (suspiciously quick) pre-production car impressed. ‘Until the oil pressure takes up the slack in the hydraulic tappets, the engine sounds clattery for a couple of seconds after a cold start. Thereafter, its turbine smooth and feels a lot more vigorous than the previous 3500, especially at the top end. It revs willingly, but not quietly (who wants quiet when the noise was so good?) to the red line at 6000rpm, though such is the low and mid-range torque that you can keep well below 4000rpm and still cover the ground very quickly and quietly. We took no proper performance figures but our stopwatch registered 7.8s for an impromptu squirt from rest to 60mph against the uncorrected speedometer, and Rover claim a top speed of 125mph which we see no reason to doubt.’

The 3500 was also praised for its good ride and handling and the quick steering made it feel smaller and more responsive than it actually was. ‘Steering response is exceptionally quick and precise: not quite so high geared as that of the Citroën CX which is positively twitchy until you get used to it, but much quicker than, say, a Jaguar XJ-S’s. When I got back into the 3.4 its steering felt decidedly vague and unresponsive after the sensitivity I’d quickly adjusted to in the 3500.’

January 1977
Rover SD1 won the European Car of the Year award

What this all meant was that the 3500 appealed to the same pushy young execs that fell for the P6B’s charms. This time though, the 3500 was also a commodious car, something the P6 never was, but not only for passengers, but for luggage too – the hatchback configuration afforded practicality that rivals such as the Ford Granada had no hope of matching. Because of this almost universal acclaim, bouquets being bestowed on the Rover in the UK and Europe, alike, the Rover became the recipient of some quite prestigious rewards.

Rover SD1

V8-S interior, showing just how modernistic this design was. Not a piece of wood veneer to be seen anywhere. This picture also demonstrates how the dashboard made it from design to production, relatively untouched.

After the kicking that the public and the media had given British Leyland over the Allegro, Princess and Marina, this was genuinely good news for the Company, but as usual, trouble lurked, not far away. Rover had committed the cardinal sin of not making enough examples to satisfy the demand for the new car. The target had been to have 2700 cars in the dealers at launch, but only 1400 were actually available. No-one within British Leyland had expected the rush to buy the new car, but at the same time, the P6B was a very successful car and the SD1 was so right in design and execution that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that people were going to be clamouring for the new car.

October 1977
Rover 2600 launched, 2300 followed in January 1978

Rover launched the 2300 and 2600 models in late 1977, finally laying to rest the P6 and Triumph 2500 models after their long and distinguished service. As explained before, these inline six cylinder engines were very loosely based on the old Triumph straight six, but with changes to the cylinder heads, new cylinder blocks, crankshafts, carburetion and just about everything else, thereby bringing them up to date.

The second oil crisis of 1979 affected the Rover range along with all other large cars, but sales held-up relatively well and the arrival of the smaller engined cars meant that Rover could change the marketing emphasis of the SD1, pushing the 2300 and 2600 models, making sure that customers were well aware that there was a path for former 3500 buyers to downgrade to.

July 1979
Rover V8-S launched

1979 also brought the first changes to the SD1 range, with the addition of the V8-S model. This was the first attempt by Rover to move the model further upmarket in an attempt to expand the range’s sales potential. The V8-S basically included all options available to the 3500 model as standard, with the addition of such toys as air conditioning and electric sunroof. In effect, this was a test-bed for the North American version of the 3500, which then undergoing preparation work in readiness of its launch the following year.

Despite this, sales continued to fall in line with all other large cars due to the global recession that was now biting very hard. In early August 1979 Jaguar-Rover-Triumph announced cutbacks to SD1 production and the Solihull workforce.

July 1981
Production began to shift to Cowley

In July 1981, it was revealed that the forthcoming facelifted Rover SD1 would be produced simultaneously at Solihull and Cowley for at least five months to avoid a repetition of the costly interruption that followed the TR7′s move from Speke to Canley, Coventry. TR7 production was at a standstill for nine months when Speke employees fought the plant’s closure and refused to co-operate in moving machinery.

November 1981
Production shift to Cowley completed

The strike riddled-Solihull factory was wound down during 1981, and at great expense in late 1981, SD1 production was moved over to Cowley as the firm regrouped. The Solihull SD1 plant finally closed its doors in April 1982, when the final 800 workers joined the dole queue.

When production started at the new plant, it would appear as a facelifted model, although the first few revised models were, in fact, built in Solihull. In 1981, with Metro successfully launched and the LM10 (Maestro) nearing production, modified versions of existing cars across the BL range started to appear – first was the Ital, then the Acclaim (built under licence) then this revised version of the Rover SD1.

February 1982
Facelifted SD1 went on sale

Changes range-wide included cosmetic improvements, the rear window was enlarged to improve visibility when reversing, a new instrument panel was incorporated and a slightly tidied-up front-end styling treatment. The facelift also marked the first appearance of wood veneer inside an SD1.

Along with these further interior and exterior revisions, came the rebirth of an evocative name from the past: The Rover 2000. What BL created with this clever piece of parts bin engineering was a moderately successful attempt at an entry-level model. Under the bonnet, where previously large, multi-cylinder engines resided, a dainty twin carburettor version of the 1994cc O-Series engine, which it has to be said, looked almost lost in the engine bay.

The Rover 2000 was a better performer than its modest 104bhp and large body would have lead one to expect: Topping 105mph and completing the 0-60 dash in about 13 seconds. It was, however, a culture shock to drive one though, if you had previously driven the effortless 3500 or 2600 models. To get the best out of one, being in the right gear ratio at the right time was an absolute must.

Importantly, the SD1′s build quality and rust resistance improved markedly at this point in time. Problems with the early ones were legion – paint, trim and electrical fragility were commonplace, but also the 2600 and 2300 suffered from camshaft failures, due to poor design. These new models came at a time, when the SD1âs image was at a low ebb, and sales did pick up slightly as a result of the bargain priced (£5-7million) facelift, and the lift in quality. The group as a whole also posted increased sales in 1981 and 1982, as the new cars, which offered far more buyer appeal started to appear.

September 1982
Rover SD Turbo - the first SD1 diesel was launched

Rover SD Turbo

Rover SD Turbo was powered by a VM Turbo diesel and aimed primarily at the European market…

Further SD1 variations came thick and fast as British Leyland continued to develop the car. Late in 1982 came the SD Turbo model, a 2393cc Turbo Diesel engine as donated by VM of Italy slotted under the bonnet, which gave a handy 90bhp. Hardly a rocket ship, but as diesels circa 1982 went, it was not a bad piece of kit. Top speed was over 100mph, which made it one of Europe’s fastest oil burners. Unfortunately, like the similarly powered turbo diesel Range Rovers, it did suffer from a distinct lack of bottom end torque and did not go on to sell in particularly large numbers in the UK, but it did do well, particularly in France and Italy – the markets that it was designed for.

December 1982
Rover Vitesse launched

Rover SD1 Vitesse

The jewel in Austin-Rover’s crown: the Rover Vitesse.

For a long time, Rover had watched the rise and rise of BMW in Europe with some envy. They had built a solid reputation for building cars with sporting appeal – something that the 3500 also had, but as market researchers attested, customers were unaware of. Rover wanted a piece of this action, reasoning correctly that if they could create a High Image flagship, this halo effect would trickle its way down the range and give sales a useful fillip.

So, in the lead-up to the launch of the revised range, Rover started work on a higher-powered version of the SD1, which would be unashamedly marketed at as a sports model. Development was centred on incorporating Lucas fuel injection, freer breathing and most importantly, a handy hike in power (up to 190bhp from 155bhp). Of course this increase in power was easily achieved, due to the almost infinitely tuneable nature of the ex-Buick V8 engine. At the 1982 British Motor Show in Birmingham the car was launched in a blaze of sporting fervour (along with the MG Metro Turbo) using the former Triumph go faster moniker, Vitesse, signifying BL’s renewed interest in fast cars.

Originally, the name was going to be something different. John Batchelor recalls: ‘Back in 1981, I was working at Canley where the High Performance Derivative (HPD) of the SD1 was under development. In addition to deciding what induction system to use (the four twin-choke Webers sounded wonderful but were a mite awkward to keep in tune), they also had to choose a name. Aston Martin was approached for the possible use of the ‘Rapide’ name, but declined to allow its use, and an alternative in-house name chosen instead. Rover had got as far as producing ‘Rapide’ strobe side decals for styling reviews.’

It was, indeed, pitched as an overtly sporting 3500, with body stripes, lowered suspension, bigger wheels and extra aerodynamic spoilers creating a very favourable impression. The advent of the Vitesse signalled a new confidence at Rover and in a short period of time, it was developed to run in the British and European Touring Car cups, with a great degree of success. As a road car, it also proved popular, being favourably compared with rivals such as the BMW 528i and Saab 900 Turbo, being described by Motor Magazine in April 1983 as a, ‘Poor man’s Aston-Martin’.

June 1986
The last Rover SD1 was built

...although it remained on the price lists well into 1987.

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