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?
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?
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.
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.
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.