Altered Images

Today we explore alternative realities – one where perhaps Rover didn’t necessarily take the fork in the road marked ‘SD1’. What would that have looked like?

Image: Autocar

Counterfactuals are for the most part, exercises in futility, or at best, wishful thinking. When it comes to the products of what used to be British Leyland, added layers of poignancy come as standard. Few cars embody this like the Rover SD1 series; a car of enormous visual promise, fatally undermined by a combination of factors we all know by rote.

However the one unquestioned aspect of SD1’s identity is that of its styling. The work of Rover designers under David Bache, its fastback, Pininfarina-influenced lines were universally lauded when the car was announced in 1976, but while they were favoured by Bache, BLMC bosses, as well as swathes of the motoring public, they were a total departure from any recognisable styling markers and conceivably left some of Rover’s more conservative customers cold.

Today’s counterfactual then stems from a couple of images which appeared in a 1992 copy of Classic & Sportscar magazine where the vehicle seen below was briefly profiled by journalist, Jon Pressnell. A somewhat rudimentary development mule, it would have been used extensively during the SD1’s proving phase and is believed to have been one of the earliest development prototypes.

Its appearance led me to pose a number of rhetorical questions: Would the mid-70s Rover have been better served with a more iterative stylistic approach? Taking matters further still, was SD1 actually required at all?

Image: Classic & Sportscar

Studying the (not particularly clear) photos, one can determine the centre section, door outlines and canopy shape (to the c-pillar at least) as being that of the production car. In addition, the scuttle height, bonnet shape and wingline appear broadly the same. What is notably different are the skin panels themselves, not to mention both front and rear treatments. Former Triumph / BLMC engineering Director, Harry Webster once told historian, Graham Robson that SD1 gained the Ferrari-esque bodyside scallops quite late in the day, so it’s possible the reverse fold bodyside treatment seen here had been an earlier proposal.

What is striking about it is how coherently Rover it looks. The door handles appear to resemble those from the P6 and are quite elegantly positioned. The more bluff nose with twin circular headlamps again appears to reference the SD1’s long-running predecessor, as does the quite obviously cut-and-shut C-pillar.

This latter treatment is clearly far too abrupt but one could imagine a more integrated (or potentially a six light) arrangement. The rear deck is too long (owing to the rudimentary nature of the C-pillar, but despite the relatively low boot line, it retains an essential elegance.

Shades of Michelotti? Image: Classic & Sportscar

Overall, this car, despite not being anything more than a test mule intended to put scoop photographers off the scent offers a tantalising glimpse of what Rover could have offered as a more evolutionary reimagining of the P6 template. I’m not suggesting that it’s necessarily better, but I would contend that here lay the bones of a decent looking car.

Something else it suggests is that maybe there wasn’t as much unanimity within Rover as regards the stylistic direction for SD1 as one might have imagined. It’s known that David Bache’s team mocked up at least five alternative styling schemes, one of which was a three-volume saloon. Could it have looked something like this?

Here’s another even more heretical thought. There wasn’t an awful lot wrong with the P6, even by early ’70s standards and given the car’s notable commercial success, its tooling costs would have been well and truly amortised. Surely a re-engineered (and reskinned) version utilising a modified P6 inner structure would have been a more cost-effective replacement than developing an all-new model from scratch?

There isn’t a great deal between the two cars dimensionally either. The P6’s wheelbase is 1.9 cm shorter and it’s taller by 56 mm. The SD1 is longer by 1.6 cm and is 94 mm wider. Rover’s Spen King was once quoted as saying that by using curved side glass, it would have been possible to engineer a more commodious cabin within the P6’s existing (quite handily sized) dimensions. And if the P6 was a little snug, it wasn’t unacceptably so – certainly not by contemporary standards.

The registration number suggests a 1973 prototype. Image: ARonline

It’s all academic of course. Firstly because the car we all know as the SD1 was chosen and for all that car’s failings, its body style is not really one of them. Secondly, Stokes and his people were fixated on the new and therefore sacrificed much of what was good on the altar of image. But thirdly and more to the point – the prototype itself no longer exists.

Despite having survived the proving process and being used for low-impact crash testing, it was broken up in the 1980s – BMIHT’s Anders Clausager telling C&S, “Even if we had restored it, it still would have looked like a scrappy lash-up. It wasn’t a vehicle to which we ever paid much attention – it was a bit of an embarrassment.”

Which seems a shame, because if nothing else, it was a fossil trace – a fascinating piece of the Rover’s developmental jigsaw, not to mention a tantalising counterfactual.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Altered Images”

  1. Eoin, agree interesting questions, so here are a few thoughts. I always enjoyed driving P6’s, and they had, and have, much more ‘Roverness’ than the SD1 . This has good, and not so good aspects.

    Not So Good (suggest) include: Presumably, higher manufacturing costs? The whole front end is designed around the very oddball front suspension, whose original purpose never materialised. The worm and roller steering, another consequence of that architecture, was less than crisp, especially as the cars aged, and a bit of a throwback by the time the SD1 was being conceived. The cabin, while comfortable, didn’t have a spacious feel.

    Among the Good: The Dion rear end made for a very well behaved car, with a wonderfully ‘planted’ feel, although more understeer if driven in ‘Top Gear’ style, as all today’s road testers feel is required. Although the inboard rear brakes were a bridge too far, in terms of maintenance labour costs.

    As we know, the SD1 represented a very conscious decision to break with the past, but a P6.5 , with some of the more anachronistic features ironed out, is certainly an interesting thought experiment.

    1. RichardF: Good points and interesting to hear from someone with first-hand knowledge of the car. You’re right about the front end, but Rover had a solution to the front suspension issue. The P7A, which was a six cylinder development of the P6 (and a very good car, according to Spen King) was fitted with a double wishbone arrangement, which I believe then formed the basis of the front suspension for the aborted P8 model. Another potential solution may have been to re-engineer the front end for McPherson struts, a la SD1. The Burman steering system as fitted to SD1 would also have been advisable for any putative P6 V.2.0.

      Such a vehicle would likely have contained more manufacturing cost for sure, but would still have avoided the huge investment in the SD1 programme which of course included the massive fixed costs associated with expanding the Solihull plant.

      A slightly more compact car, with a range of engines from 2-litres up to the 3.5 V8, based on the proven and excellent P6 base would in my view have been a more expedient, more cost effective and more ‘Rover’ proposal. Given that Jim Randle (who was the lead engineer for the P7 programme) still maintains P6 was the most intelligent production car he was involved with, and while understanding the pragmatic reasons why Rover took the decision to go with the RT/SD1 programme, to throw all that away for what was a reactionary (if competently-engineered) step backwards seems (retrospectively at least) illogical.

      It probably would have ended in tears one way or another, but anyway…

  2. My favoured thought experiment re: Rover imagines what it would look like today, had BMW held its nerve and the brand survived.

    BMW develops its new UKL native front drive platform, but no BMWs are built on this transverse-engined structure. Instead, the 2 series people carrier, X1 and 1 series sedan are all Rovers or MGs instead. The Rover 75 is pensioned off and not directly replaced. BMW toys with the idea of a Rover flagship based on reskinned 5 / 7 series underpinnings, perhaps offering it in LWB form to the Chinese market only.

    Would it have worked?

    1. This is a controversial view, but BMW eventually did the right thing with Rover. Strip out the bits that had some prospect of survival, and bin off the rest. Sometimes a company is just too far gone to be salvageable and ever make your money back. How many people who sentimentally wring their hands over poor old MG Rover ever actually parted with any cash to buy one of their cars from new?

    2. Another interesting ‘alternative reality’ story would be about Jon Moulton’s takeover of Rover. He may not have been the warmest of people, but his views certainly had some merit, with or without hindsight.

  3. You raise a good question. I am a bit of a sheep: until now I would have said the SD1 was a good car, poorly made. I also know it was cheaper to make than its predecessor. Stirred from the slumber of consensus, I ask myself now (prompted) do I still think that. Well, the P6 was a break with past. And so was the SD1. My view is that the English have an uneasy relationship with custom and innovation. The real “mistake” was not knowing how to do change. Clearly the P6 paid off: change in a Rovery mould (or am I being fooled by the car) whereas the SD1 embodied dumb change for-its-own sake. Maybe it really belonged to another marque. Remember too that if the DS begat the CX, the P6 begat the SD1 and neither of the latter cars was or perhaps could have been as revolutionary as their predecessor.

    1. If we agree that the Rover P6 was Britain’s DS – and I think we should – then where does that leave the SD1? The Citroen CX was not as revolutionary as the DS – (how could it be?), but it was a logically progressive car, continuing its predecessor’s themes in a slightly more rationalised package and adding a few additional technical advances of its own for good measure. No, CX was a worthy successor.

      However, SD1 was in many ways a repudiation of the P6’s values, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine the same engineer being so deeply involved with both cars. Had Rover not been so starved of investment, would they have made such a car? The P8 project suggests otherwise, ill-advised as it undoubtedly was.

      It does seem that there was a good deal of soul searching within Rover regarding P6 – it was a big change for them. Perhaps by accident as much as good design, it hit the zeitgeist in Britain at the time, giving both domestic and European rivals something of a fright. Hard to imagine now, but in the early ’60s P6 was viewed as a sporting saloon.

      So yes, while SD1 was another break with the past, beneath the sleek exterior was a deeply ordinary motor car – and I say that as someone who admires it greatly as a piece of industrial design. Its historical importance isn’t lost on me either. However, P6 was an infinitely more significant motor car and one I believe remains massively underappreciated in this country.

  4. Shades of Michelotti? I’m seeing hints of Bill Towns, ex-Rover from 1966, but he may not have been too heavily occupied at Aston Martin in the decade which followed.

    Anders Ditlev Clausager’s excuses are feeble – the British Motor Industry Heritage Trashers have a pretty appalling record of neglect and damage to significant prototypes. Fortunately The Rover Company and, even more so, Standard-Triumph sold quite a lot of theirs to private individuals (usually employees) who have ensured their survival.

    I’d categorise the SD1’s chassis engineering as mature, rather than ‘deeply ordinary’. With the P6 Peter Wilks, Spen, and Basho tried all manner of new or unusual ideas without too much though given to risk / cost / benefit analysis.

    It was the way in these days. The P6’s round-the-corner MacPherson strut front suspension is something of an engineering marvel, but it’s widely acknowledged that the De Dion / inboard discs rear end achieved nothing outwith the capability of a well located live axle with outboard drum brakes. Some late P6s were fitted with live axles as P10/SD1 development hacks.

    The SD1 wears its cleverness more discreetly. It weighs no more than the P6 but matches the principal dimensions of the standard-wheelbase XJ6. It’s also rather more spacious than the Jaguar, and weighs 500lbs less. The rear suspension is also clever. The older and wiser Wilks, Spen, and Basho seem to have looked at everything Fiat, Opel, Peugeot, Alfa et al. had done and come up with something efficient in its parts count, effective in action, and not quite like any other.

    Just two trailing links – the torque tube acts as the third link, and a Watt’s Linkage keeps it all in place. And let’s not forget the much-maligned Boge Nivomat bump-energised dampers which endowed the 3500 with self-levelling and were claimed by the designers to be more cost-effective in achieving their ride/handling objectives than a fully independent rear suspension.

    1. There’s no doubt there was a good deal of clever thinking in SD1. Packaging being only one of them. I seem to recall there being some coyness from the UK motoring press at launch regarding the car’s suspension design, as though they were slightly embarrassed by it. I think there was a perception that a luxury car such as this should have had a more sophisticated set up, regardless of how well or otherwise it drove.

      My understanding is that in pre-production form, the rear suspension fared well, but in production, owing either to incorrect tolerances, shoddy build or inconsistent componentry – (or a combination of all three) – the car’s ride wasn’t as accomplished. Latterly, King reluctantly admitted an independent rear end would have been a more suitable solution, but reiterated he was against it at the time.

      And yes, I saw Towns in the tail treatment of the prototype as well. It’s a fascinating artefact – what a terrible shame it was destroyed.

    2. Can we say there appear to be two types of clever under scrutiny here. The P6 version is about originality. The SD1 is about cleaver use of familiar means. The second type can mistaken for ordinary. That said, the P6 doesn’t require you know the backstory to see it was quite intelligent. Maybe the P6 design should have been sold as another marque and Rover could have carried on with evolutionary designs as per the SD1 (styling apart). That car too wasn’t really a Rover either, to look at but more a British stab at a continental car (it had a hatchback!)

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