The story of Rovers most iconic car of the 70's and early 80's starts in the still largely independent Rover of 1969, with a discussion on how to replace the companies well regarded P6. There were ideas running along in the background, including the never to be perused P8, the proposed successor to the P5 and the P6BS supercar proposal, however while the P6 along with the Triumph 2000 were successful cars, Rover saw the need to produce a platform for the companies future prosperity, but crucially this platform needed to be mechanically simplified to keep both development and manufacturing costs to a minimum as unlike the rest of the Layland car group, Rover and to an extent Triumph were well managed and produced cars at a profit. The problem though was that in the British Car Manufacturing paradigm of the late 1960's through to the 1970's and beyond, cash was centralised and allocated to the competing companies within the Layland group, so any proposals for a new car needed to be efficient in terms of costs of development and eventual build costs.
Gone were the days of innovative linked suspension designs, these were the days of making every penny count, but this had not yet filtered through to the majority of British Layland Motor Company (BLMC).
With that, the proposals for a new car to replace the P6 and the Triumph 2000 were given the green light. As one car would be developed to replace two models, both Rover and Triumph were invited to submit designs for the new car. The proposals would be internally designated P10 for Rovers proposal and Puma for Triumphs.
Designing the next executive car
In 1971, the design proposals were put forward for selection by the BLMC board. David Bache designed and produced six clay models for the Rover P10 proposals and Spen King in consultation with William Towns produced two scale models for the Triumph Puma.
It was one of David Bache's hatchback proposals that was ultimately chosen to go forward with development (4th model back in the picture), though it should be noted that while David's designs showed a similar influence on design, at least one of the designs was a notchback design using a more traditional boot rather than a whole glass tail lift as this was the more traditional idea for an executive car of the time. David was also a proponent of Gullwing doors and at some point during the cars development, a version was built using the idea, however the costs of bringing this into production, along with other practicalities meant that this idea was dropped.
However with the design chosen, the car was now starting a full development path, however changes were afoot...
Birth of the SD1
Jaguar, Rover and Triumph were brought together under the Specialist Division banner, a group of specialist manufacturers producing executive, sports and luxury cars. The P10 was renamed the SD1 to reflect the new cars status as the divisions first product.
Initial mockups were tested in wind tunnels while the final details of the design were worked out. At each stage the reaction from management was positive, garnering more support for the project at each stage. Eventually full size clay models were made and shown at customer clinics alongside more exotic cars of the time. As with management, customer reaction was extremely positive and confidence with the new car was growing within the company. The SD1 was shaping up to be a car the company should rightfully be proud of.
From this point on, the overall look of the SD1 would not change, but the mechanical side of things had to be worked out. Engine wise there was the obvious choice of the V8 engine that graced the P6. The design was refined but with the oil crisis and higher petrol prices looming, smaller engine choices were also brought into the mix. Initially these were to be the Triumph straight six engines, but the tastes of the time were turning to overhead cam designs rather than the push-rod systems employed by the Triumph straight six engines, so they served as the starting point for an evolution of the engine design. As it turned out, the overall cost of this was almost as much as designing a new engine (Which was veto'd when initially suggested) and contributed to problems further down the line. More on this later.
Drive was to be provided through a live rear axel and trailing arms, with suspension using McPhersen Struts, compared to the suspension setups of some of the earlier cars, this was a far simpler setup and as a result easier to maintain and replace. The gearbox is notable for its modular design, where 4 and 5 speed boxes were essentially the same, with the 5th gear effectively slotting onto the back of the main box (Source Haynes Manual for Rover SD1).
With the overall look and the mechanical package complete, the interior design was also attended to. As this was to be a European car, the dash design was cleverly designed so that the main modules could be used regardless of the final car being a left or right hand drive car. The end result looked good for the time of production, even if it does seem a little dated today.
Another advantage of the design was that there was a glovebox on both the drivers and passenger side of the car, this is unusual even today, 38 years after the SD1's official launch and was certainly something that helped the car stand out back in 1976. The central console was also well thought out, with controls for the stereo and heating system being just a short distance from the gear lever, making it possible to reach without over stretching, unlike many larger cars of the time. Seats were well padded and comfortable, with just as much attention to comfort paid to the rear of the car as the front.
It is well known that BLMC had issues with industrial action, affecting all models under production and development at the time, and the SD1 was no different. However confidence in the car was so high that anew factory was commissioned and equipped with the best production facilities that BLMC could get at the time. New production lines, new paintshop, new production methods, everything was being put into the car to make it succeed.
BLMC seemed to have a death wish. The car was launched to rave reviews, customers rushed to dealerships to buy the car, but there was a problem. First, only the V8 3500 was availeble, second, it was only available in limited numbers. Not long after launch potential customers were quoted 6 months waiting lists for the car. The production lines were brought to a standstill with industrial action, further restricting availability. It was not all BLMC's fault though, industrial action at parts supplier Lucas brought all of BLMC's facilities to a standstill when parts stores ran out and no replacements were available. This however did not stop people wanting to buy the car or from the car receiving accolades, culminating in the 3500 being awarded the Don Safety award and also the European car of the year for 1977.
Despite setbacks with limited supply and the lower capacity models being unavailable, the SD1 became incredibly popular, so much so that when the 2300 and 2600 straight six cars were launched, they too were subject to long waiting lists. While this may well seem like good news for the British car industry, what it actually did was make potential owners look elsewhere at the European rivals that were now becoming available, as well as Ford's respected and proven Cortina. These cars may well not have had the showroom appeal of the SD1, but they were available to buy.
In typical British manufacturing fashion, it wasn't long before build problems arose with the new car. Problems with the electrics had many a bemused owner returning to their car to find the electric windows either failed to work at all or worse, had wound themselves down while the owner was away. As the new paintshps were under pressure to get cars out of the factories, often the paint was not left to cure long enough resulting in pain peeling from the bodywork, or coming off in large chunks when driving or in strong winds! Failure to start was another issue, along with poor sealing causing water ingress into the boot and the cabin.
Problems started to occur with the straight six engines where the cylinder head would become starved of oil, damaging the camshaft and the bearings. This as it turned out was as a result of adapting the older Triumph straight six to take an overhead cam. Problems with the car began to mount, yet initially this didn't put too much of a dent into its popularity, with the car featuring in shows like the New Avengers and appearing in the video to the Human League song, Don't you want me.
It would not always be this way though...
Politics, finances, unsold stock and industrial relations came into play, closing the original SD1 plant down and moving production to Cowley, this was after investment in new paintshops and tooling for the facelifted SD1 due in 1982. This investment was not totally wasted though, improvements were made to the SD1, resulting in what enthusiasts call the series 1.5. While identical in looks to the original SD1 (Soon to be referred to as the series 1), the plastics for the instrumentation were improved, as were the electrics and overall finish of the car. From 1980 until the launch of the Series 2 SD1 in 1982, the car was more reliable, more fuel efficient and more watertight than the cars before it, but by then the days of waiting lists for the car were long gone, with Rover at one point having 10,000 cars waiting to be sold and production lines being halted until excess stock had cleared.
The SD1 reborn
In 1982, the facelift version of the SD1 was launched and included additional model ranges. There was the 2000 based around the 2 litre O series engine and the 2400 diesel engine.
Along with the new engines, the look of the exterior was improved, gone were the stainless steel bumpers with plastic end caps, replaced with a wrap round fibreglass bumpers front and rear with a chrome strip running along them. The headlights were no longer recessed, now sitting flush with the bonnet line and gaining a chrome surround strip that continued on to surround the indicators. A new body coloured front spoiler 'chin' was fitted to all but the lowest models of the range which in some people's eyes completed the look of the car. Other changes included a larger glass panel in the rear hatch to aid rear visibility, new and improved electrical systems and a new steering wheel and instrument binnacle inside.
The new binnacle extended over the centre of the main dash console and contained a central warning light system and a new switch design. The 'square' steering wheel drew praise, criticism and confusion, but often was adorned with leather matched closely to the colour of the interior. The console above the gear lever was updated too, allowing for the addition of a trip computer in the higher end models (Though the wiring for this to be added was in every series 2 SD1 car as I added one to my Rover 2000). The speedo was no longer cable driven, it was electronic and was driven from a transducer that plugged into the old speedo cable entry on the gearbox.
The changes to the car itself and the addition of the new models helped propel the SD1 back into the public eye, and for once for the right reasons. While most of the changes were small overall, they had a big impact on the cars visual presence. Once again the press 'loved' the car and with the allience with Honda on other projects such as the Triumph Acclaim, lessons had been learned when it came to build quality. Ok, the car was not perfect, but there were fewer issues with the facelifted model than there were with the original models, which gave the newer car a better overall impression on customers. With new found optimism, new models were brought onto the market, with EFI versions of the 3500 being released and new versions of the Vitesse and Vanden Plas models
There were still issues with water getting into the boot area, though the most frequent cause of this was the rear windscreen wiper seal that went through the glass rather than through the metalwork. Often this also seized the wiper motor mechanism and the box containing it filled with water and the gear linkage rusted!
Arguably the SD1's finest hour came in its last few years of availability in the UK with the launch of the Twin Plentum Vitesse which is easily identified by its front spoiler. This car took the V8 engine up to 3.9 litres, was fuel injected and had an air intake system reworked by the team at Lotus. It was quick, frighteningly quick for the test drivers at Autocar, though they did complement the car on its ride quality and overall package. Only around 1000 of these cars were produced but they are the car of choice for the true Rover SD1 enthusiast who still has a little of that bad boy spirit remaining.
The new twin plentum chamber, increase in capacity of the V8, redesigned air intakes and other smaller modifications made the car stand out from the crownd. The engine bay looked tight as it was whenthe V8's were fitted, but with the new additions as well, it really began to look crowded under the bonnet (Which was a hard thing to accomplish with such a huge engine bay!)
But the Twin Plentum Vitesse was to be the SD1's last hurrah. While development of a successor was proposed on the cars platform, it was decided that the successor would be based on a Honda platform and the car faded into obscurity within the showrooms.
On hearing that the car was to be discontinued, a number of Police forces bought up stocks of the 3500 and continued to register them for use up to 1989! But before that, a number of things happened that make the passing of this car a more protracted story than initially thought.
Before the Rover 800 was ready for sale, parts for the SD1 started to dry up, namely the heater unit. Rather than retool to make new ones, the heater matrix from the maestro was placed into an SD1 heater box and various adaptations made to the cooling system to accommodate the new hybrid box. The result of this is if you have a D registered car (Or newer) and your heater goes, you cannot fit an older heater system without a lot of modification (You have been warned!).
But as well as this, in 1981 a deal was signed with a car company in India to produce the SD1 for that market. Regulations for cars had been relaxed in the country and car ownership was expanding at a growing pace and the SD1 appeared to be ideal for the new wealthy upper class who were most likely to buy the car.
While the deal was signed in 1981, production did not start until 1984 with Rover shipping panels out to India where the car was assembled and local engines fitted. Known locally as the Standard 2000, outwardly only the bumpers and badges were different, though later cars omitted much of the SD1's now trademark chrome. When SD1 production ceased in 1986, the tooling was shipped to India and in an unusual turnaround, parts were fabricated and shipped back to Unipart to fulfil requests for new body panels.
However the Standard 2000 did not sell well. The ride height was raised front and rear to accommodate the road conditions in India, but this also served to compromise the ride quality. Air conditioning was standard with the car, but with the poor ride and high price, only a few thousand were made before production ceased and the SD1 died.
Tooling was returned to the UK and is owned by British Motoring heritage, meaning that production of SD1 body panels is still possible should demand from enthusiasts be there.
The SD1 continues to have a loyal following and has gained classic status, and while it has been out of production for nearly 30 years, its influence on car design can be seen, from the styling of the nose to the overall shape of the car. However the true successor to the SD1 lay not in the Rover 800, but in the Rover 75.
Our thanks to AROnline and the SD1 Owners Club for providing background information & some of the images for this article.