Fastback Flashback

We attempt to remain aloof to the Rover SD1’s visual appeal, but like the car itself, we fall at the final hurdle.


When it comes to legacies and reputations, has sufficient time elapsed to talk about the Rover SD1 without falling into the usual narrative tramlines? It’s a tricky one isn’t it? After all, the big Rover remains a deeply likeable car with much to commend it. Yet at the same time, although it never quite attained Lancia Gamma levels of toxicity, it became the living embodiment of British Leyland’s genius for snatching defeat from the cusp of victory.

It’s easy to get sidelined by SD1’s styling (both exterior and interior), after all, its appearance caused a sensation during that scorching summer of 1976. As starkly modern as the Pulsar digital watches that were rapidly consigning traditional timepieces to bedroom cabinets across the developed world, SD1, for that brief period at least, became the car to have. Yet beneath the prescient style lay a car that broke little ground, taking the longship brand back a generation and in effect extinguishing its pioneering engineering spirit.

SD1 creators, Spen King (right) & David Bache (left- against car) Image:

Like its Italian rival, SD1 was born out of harsh realities. Created from the ruins of the aborted P8 programme, Rover’s Maurice Wilkes initiated a more straightforward, conventionally engineered vehicle. Part of his rationale was to reduce costs, especially given the millions wasted on the bloated P8 – a car which belied its muscle car on steroids appearance by its technical ambition. A second imperative was to produce a car to fit the times, given the strong belief within post-Ryder BL that oil was running out and traditional luxury cars were dinosaurs.

Spen King, the man behind the long-running and technically brilliant Rover P6 series left Lode Lane in 1967 to head Triumph’s engineering team, later telling journalist, Chris Harvey he had become “rather horrified” at what P8 had gestated into. Returning in 1971 when Rover and Triumph engineering were merged, he took up the programme which became dubbed RT(Rover/Triumph) 1 and eventually SD (Specialist Division) 1.

King was instrumental in developing the much lauded rear suspension system fitted to P6, a design which was a good deal more sophisticated than most de Dion systems. To make it even more independent, the beam was designed to freely rotate, keeping the wheels upright, and avoiding one of the layout’s weaknesses, that of one wheel feeding the other.

Given the density of clever engineering embodied within P6, it seemed uncharacteristic for King to champion a more simplistic approach. Initially unconvinced by the proposed live rear axle, torque tube and Boge self-levelling damper arrangement, only a ride and drive in an SD1 prototype led King to approve the layout. However, it was King the pragmatist who proposed the use of Mc Pherson struts at the front, on the basis they would provide more under bonnet space for exhaust catalysts and other anti-pollution addenda that the US market was by then insisting upon.

The use of a Burman servo assisted system allowed for very direct steering; at 2.7 turns lock to lock it was second only to Citröen’s DIRAVI system in response. Apparently King favoured a V6 derived from the familiar Buick-sourced unit for smaller engined models but with the V8 production at full capacity, a derivation of Triumph’s long running in line six was developed instead. One marque tradition that was maintained however was an emphasis on passenger safety. SD1’s body structure and interior was highly commended, winning Rover the Don safety award and European Car of the Year in 1977.

BL management, believing they had a massive hit on their hands were said to have doubled production projections to 3000 cars per week necessitating a brand new factory, and most likely hobbling the car’s business case at a stroke. But given the state of labour relations, the lack of effective management, the almost entirely apathetic supplier base and the habitually slapdash approach to production tolerances this wasn’t the only own goal, but perhaps a fatal one.

The parallels between SD1 and the Gamma run deep. Both were launched the same year and both were heavily influenced by the same Pininfarina styling concept. Both adopted a more pragmatic technical specification to that of their forebears. Both suffered from not being entirely ready at launch and of course both developed chronic durability issues. Additionally, in part due to their relative fates, both were replaced by even more technically generic vehicles, co-developed with external partners.

Unlike the Gamma however, there was little fundamentally wrong with SD1. A simple unstressed, high-geared upmarket saloon with modern styling, practicality and (eventually) a wide range of engines seemed ideal for late-70’s realities. Where Rover’s engineers failed was in taking account of the growing sophistication of their European rivals.

By its 1982 revamp – (in which its styling purity was lost) – SD1’s chassis was viewed as old fashioned against more up to date competition. BL’s emphasis on simple well engineered underpinnings (ditto Triumph TR7), seemed to foster a mindset where pragmatism ruled, justifiable when it came to mass market cars, less so perhaps in the luxury sector.

Rover 3500. (c) Readcars

But strip away the exotic car styling and industrial chic interior and what remains? A reactionary car cloaked in tomorrow. This probably wouldn’t have mattered had the car been bullet-proof, but that’s academic now. Tomorrow had fallen out of favour by decade’s-end anyway, the ’80s becoming characterised by a renewed conservatism. So just as customers returned to analogue watches once the digital fashion faded, Rover chose a narrow course with the 800 series.

And yet – SD1 was a charming car, with a languid appeal that transcends its humble underpinnings and troubled career. But whatever side of the fence you perch, for one shining moment in that heat-haze summer of 1976, the world really did appear to be at Rover’s feet.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Fastback Flashback”

  1. I was hugely disappointed at the mechanical specification of SD1 when it came out and also at the cynicism that meant that Bache was asked to design a 4 door Ferrari Daytona. On reflection, though, I decided it was quite clever, simple bulletproof engineering and an exotic looking body – it was bound to be a huge success. Except, of course it wasn’t bulletproof and, as you point out, it should have been viewed as a short term (5/6 year maximum) expedient to get them by but, as was so often the case with the UK industry, like lazy schoolkids, if they got away with it once they thought no-one had noticed and did it again.

  2. It may have ‘lost its styling purity’ in the revamp, but I was a kid in the 80s and it was the later model V8 Vitesse (with the big chin spoiler) that did it for me.

    Also, that dashboard is far too austere – it might work for something German and reliable, but a high-maintenance British car required a bit more attention from its owner, and so needed to provide less cerebral satisfaction in return. What it needed was some big horizontal slabs of walnut across it, and thankfully the facelift provided.

    1. There’s little question that the 1982 revamp gave the SD1 a new lease of life. It was a much improved car. However, I never felt the traditional materials suited the car all that well and the external revisions, while not terrible, were not an improvement. But then, I was a kid in 1976 when it launched and thought it looked wonderful. For me, SD1’s appeal was always its modernity. Making it more ‘trad’ was a backwards step in my view – albeit one the UK market seemed to approve of.

  3. It’s a wry implication Jacomo. That making the interior a bit more lavish made it a nicer place to be stranded on the hard shoulder in.

    I wish David Bache was designing dashboards today.

    1. I think the original SD1 interior was possibly a better piece of industrial design than the car’s exterior, and I rate that highly – up there with the XJ6 Series 1.

      That’s with one proviso – to work, it needed to be built to Mercedes-Benz, or at least Volvo standards. Instead it was shoved together appallingly badly. The problem wasn’t on the production line, it was in the detailing of how it all went together. The console mounted choke lever broke within months, often days. Instrument box endpieces fell off with a will of their own. The disheartening shoddiness was hard to bear, particularly at a time when everyone else was doing things better.

      The influence of the SD1 exterior on future designs was manifest, perhaps the interior is still to come into its own – consider the tablet-like instrument panel of the C4 Cactus. The SD1 instrument box looked like something from Quad, Armstrong, or Goodmans in their ’70s pomp. Prescient? Bache usually was…

  4. I’ve never really understood Rover’s engine choices for SD1. The in-line six which was developed didn’t really deliver on its promise and came in two rather unhelpful capacities. It probably would have benefited from a clean sheet of paper to start with, rather than being a very distant relative to Triumph’s well regarded Six. Jaguar’s AJ6 suffered similar constraints in originally stemming from work on a slant six version of the V12. Expediency rarely yields the best results, despite both being good engines – AJ6 in particular being notable for being particularly robust.

    What Rover really needed was a decent 2.0 litre unit. That finally came in O-Series form around ’83 or so, but far too late. That engine produced 101 bhp against the 2300’s 123 bhp, but was a good deal lighter. It was no ball of fire, but then neither was the 2.3, which also proved very thirsty. There’s probably a good reason (although maybe not) why they couldn’t have adapted Triumph’s 2.0 litre inline four. The 8-valve version in the TR7 was producing 104bhp in a not very high state of tune. In 16 valve form it was putting out a very useful 127 bhp so something in between surely could have led to a power unit that would have obviated the necessity for the 2.3 unit entirely.

    A 2.0 litre engined SD1 with about 110-115 bhp would have been a very appealing car right across Europe in 1977 and could have done wonders for the car’s chances. BL locked themselves out of a huge swathe of the European market by failing to offer the engines the market needed. The view seemed to be they’d get all the volume they required from the US.

  5. The PE146/166 six was a bit of a job creation project, a consolation for the Triumph engineers to whom Spen and the Leyland hierarchy felt some loyalty. The pity is that it was never improved, or even had basic defects, like a top end oil feed problem, sorted out. The opposed-valve layout inherited from the Dolomite Sprint head should have been better than it was in practice, in principle it is far better than the O series’ Jaguar-influenced Heron combustion chamber.

    A 2 litre six would have been possible. Even keeping the 81mm bore, it would have been less oversquare than the 1.3 litre Ford Kent engine. Something close to the 2300’s 123bhp would have been possible as the PE146/166 had porting deliberately restricted to avoid the 2600’s power output being uncomfortably close to the carburettor V8’s 155bhp.

    As Eóin says, a good 2 litre would have improved the SD1’s chances in fiscally punitive European markets. Rover themselves continued the 2000 for Italy when the 2200 replaced it in other markets. Volvo were assiduous in producing attractively specified sub-2 litre versions of the 200 series for Italy. From personal observation there in the early to mid ’80s they possibly outsold the home-grown competitors in their entirety.

    1. People’s levels of knowledge on this site consistently impress and humble me! Am loving this thread! Thank you.

    2. That’s interesting Robertas – I did wonder if there was a reason why Triumph’s people upped the capacity when the 2 litre engine was already well positioned in the marketplace. It wasn’t even that the fuel crisis hadn’t happened by then. Nevertheless, as an entry level engine, wouldn’t a four have made more sense from a power to weight perspective at least even if a six would have been a nicer engine?

      Today, I uprooted a Giant test by Car from 1985, where they compared a Rover 2300 against a Volvo 740 and a Renault 25 – just launched. Needless to say, the Renault was the winner, but apart from fuel consumption and performance – (all were automatics) – the Rover scored highly. Now I expected the SD1’s live axle to have been an issue by then, even though the Volvo was similarly equipped and few seemed to complain, but apart from both cars suffering from some minor rear axle jiggle over rough surfaces, the ride and handling of both cars was commended. The Rover in particular.

      Which begs the question, could a reskinned SD1 have survived in the marketplace into the late ’80s? Volvo managed for some time before adopting an independent rear. I presume the live axle was retained for lower powered models. Could Rover have done something similar and would it have been a better proposition than the notably Honda-centric 800? The party line was that BL couldn’t afford to replace SD1 by themselves but wouldn’t a reskin with perhaps a more sophisticated rear end and an updated range of engines have been possible sooner at a fraction of the cost?

  6. A re-worked SD1 is an appealing idea, but it has to be remembered that its makers had reached a new stratum of ineptitude by the early ’80s – refer Ital and Ambassador. Thankfully lucky little Edwardes had secured Honda’s co-operation by that time, but not before some awful products made it to market.

    Perhaps the question we should be asking is “Would the Leg End have been a better car if it had been an evolution of the Rover SD1?”

    Honda got their way with that car, a damn good big Accord, very close in dimensions to the SD1, but resolutely front wheel drive, in defiance of European preferences for the market segment.

  7. To this party I have come late. I’d like to say that that the first generation interior is dramatically better than the revised one: a rare chance for English modernism to have a moment in the sun.
    The Rover faced internal and external problems. Rover had ideas above their station and thought the car should hunt Jaguars. They also faced a rough market with Volvo offering Swedish modernism at a similar level but better quality. And anyone who was agnostic on quality could get a 604 which was roomier and more visually normal. And a saloon.

  8. The SD1 is the Bang & Olufsen VHS player among cars – delightfully futuristic to look at, but actually a mere cover for clumsy technology.

    I too prefer the early cars’ interior, but I also like the Barbican, which probably means I’m just as prone to fall for the odd bit of stark modernism as a nice wood n’ leather ambience.

    The first photo seems to stem from Auto, Motor & Sport, back in the olden days (the D-plate probably meaning it was an Auto Becker car) – which means it was a press car, which in turn makes its glaringly untidy panel gaps all the more surprising. One would think that BL would take utmost care that press cars are of the highest standards, particularly abroad. But then again, BL never really liked to play it by the book…

  9. One more minor detail: I’d actually claim the SD1’s shape was influenced not just by the Daytona, but by Il Gobbone (née 365 GTC/4), as well. The Rover’s wavy bonnet line and lower greenhouse reminds me more of its less popular brother than the Daytona itself, while the (theoretically) straight crease was, of course, 100% 365 GTB/4-derived.

  10. I have always considered the SD1’s Ferrari-aping styling odd, given that it invites a comparison that the Rover could never hope to win. Plus it was not as if Rover had an awful design inheritance from the P5 and P6.

    1. I have heard it said that early proposals featured a more Rover-esque nose treatment, but that it was altered on the behest of David Bache – a man with strong persuasive powers and by 1971, an enviable track record of styling successes. He also is said to have lobbied hard for gullwing doors, which was one argument he didn’t win. And you think the panel gaps on the production car were bad…

  11. The black plastic lumps at the end of the front bumper are unfortunate. Practical, yes, and visually disruptive.
    My dad had a Rover SD1 and I can attest to the thirst and unreliability of the car. He never bought another British vehicle again.

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