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.
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.
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.