Rover SD1 Introduction
The SD1 Project
Rover's SD1 project was a 'first' and a 'last' for the Solihull-based company. It was the first-ever Rover to have a hatchback body style, and it was the last new all-British Rover model to carry that famous badge. It was also the first to be assembled in a large new factory building at Solihull, known as the East Block, then (from 1982) the first Rover to be assembled at Cowley.
But what does 'SD1' mean? In fact it was conceived in 1972 by the newlymerged Rover and Triumph businesses, both of which were controlled by British Leyland. Because the planners looked on this as a rather specialised business and this was the first project they had tackled together, it was logical that it should carry the SD1 code name, which stood for 'Specialist Division No.1'. Although it never appeared in any company badging, or advertising, this was a name which stuck, and by which everyone remembers it today.
Before they both became part of Leyland in 1966/1967 (and of British Leyland in 1968), Rover and Triumph were direct rivals. Both produced fine ranges of saloon cars - Rover and Triumph 2000s - and both hoped to develop replacements for those cars in the 1970s. Work had actually started on such projects when British Leyland merged Rover with Triumph into a 'Specialist Division', taking the decision to combine their strengths. The result was the birth of a brand-new range of cars, coded SD1. This was intended to replace all the medium and large-size Rovers and Triumphs - P5s, P6s, 2000s and 2.5 PIs - though with a larger cabin and a greater choice of engines.
Except for the use of Rover's fine light-alloy V8 engine in some versions, the SD1 was a brand new design - a new body shell, new engines, transmissions, steering, and styling. It was intended to sell in large numbers, to world markets, for a number of years.
Spen King was in overall control of this car's design and development, Gordon Bashford of Rover worked up the overall layout, and David Bache's department produced the styling. As a true co operative effort, styling, body engineering and most 'chassis' design was entrusted to Rover at Solihull, while a brand new six-cylinder overhead-camshaft engine, new four or five-speed gearbox and a sturdy new rear axle were all developed by Triumph in Coventry. Much effort also went into making the new transmission suitable for the Triumph TR7/TR8 sports cars, which were being designed at the same time.
Rover always planned to use one style, a smart fastback/hatchback fivedoor layout which had nothing in common with any previous Rover or Triumph shapes. Although the plushy seats took away some of the extra space for passengers, this new car had a bigger cabin than the Rover 2000 and Triumph models which it replaced.
The engine bay was made deliberately roomy (which makes it that much easier for maintenance work today), so that engines as diverse as the existing lightalloy V8, and an all-new in-line overhead-cam 'six' could be installed. There would be a four-speed gearbox for the original 2300 at first, but all other types used a five-speeder, while Borg Warner automatic transmission was optional. Compared with previous Rovers and Triumphs, the new car had a simple 'chassis', with MacPherson strut front suspension and power-assisted rack-andpinion steering, and a live rear axle with coil spring, torque tube, trailing arm and Watts linkage location. Front wheel disc brakes and radial-ply tyres were standard on all models.
The 155bhp/3.5-litre V8 3500 was the first car to be launched in mid-1976 (when it cost £4,750), this being joined by the 123bhp/2.3-litre and 136bhp/2.6- litre 'six' varieties at the end of 1977 (their prices starting at £5,350 - Britain's price inflation was high at this time).
These were all fast cars - the 2600 being capable of 121mph, the original 3500 reaching about 125mph (though fuel consumption was often little better than 20mpg). because of the high performance of the V8-engined car, and the good carrying capacity, many Rover 3500s were bought by British police forces in the next decade.
Having won the European Car of the Year award for 1977, the SD1 got off to a great start, and sales were strong until the second Energy Crisis then hit the world's motor industry in 1979. This was doubly unfortunate for Rover, who were just preparing to launch the SD1 in the North American market, where it then only sold slowly due to American buyers' short-lived dislike of V8 engined cars. It was withdrawn after two years.
To make the car more attractive to more people in the next few years, Rover then began to expand the range, not only with smaller-engined, more economical varieties, but with even faster, up market types. First to appear, in mid-1979, was the short-lived V8-S which, though mechanically identical to the 3500, had higherspecification trim and furnishings. Cast alloy road wheels, leather upholstery, full air-conditioning and a sliding sunroof were all standard.
Only a year later the range was further revised, with the better-equipped 2300S arriving, with the 3500 being renamed 3500SE, and with a new V8-engined Vanden Plas taking over from the V8-S.
Early in 1982 the range was completely revitalised, and at the same time final assembly was moved from Solihull to the existing British Leyland (ex-Morris) factory at Cowley, near Oxford. Although the same basic structure and style were retained, there were many visual differences between the new and original types and - soon - two new engines.
The 'Series 2' cars all had large polyurethane bumpers and enlarged hatchback tailgate glass, which came complete with a wipe-wash mechanism. At the front, headlamps were more neatly flush-fitting than before, there was a large chin spoiler under the bumper and a small but definite radiator air intake above the bumper. The SD1, somehow, looked somewhat chunkier and more purposeful than before.
Inside the car there was a completely revised, very well-equipped, facia/instrument panel, complete with a centre console, along with new trim materials and carpeting.
At the same time, Rover also introduced a new derivative, a new-generation Rover 2000, which was absolutely no relation to the previous type though it carried the same name. As the entry-level model in the SD1 range, this used the corporate BL overhead-camshaft O-Series engine normally found in cars like the Morris Ital, a smaller engine which looked quite lost in the SD1's engine bay.
For the Rover 2000, it was a 101bhp/1,994cc unit with twin-SU carburettors. Even though this was the least powerful of all SD1s so far launched, it could still reach more than 105mph, and return about 24mpg fuel economy.
The 2400SD Turbo version was also introduced, this using a 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, manufactured by VM of Italy. Aimed specifically at certain European markets, this was a 'tax-break' model for those markets like Italy which put operating economy ahead of performance: although the engine only produced 90bhp, it produced lusty torque, a top speed of 103mph, and fuel economy of better than 30mpg. Automatic transmission was never available in the diesel-engined car.
By the middle of 1982, therefore, when the revised range had settled down, there were seven models in the line-up - 2000, 2300, 2300S, 2400 SD Turbo, 2600S, 3500SE and Vanden Plas types, all of them with the same style, but with different visual touches concerning wheels, badges and decoration.
The most impressive SD1 of all was then introduced at the end of 1982, when the mighty 190bhp Vitesse appeared. Under the bonnet there was a high-output version of the famous V8 engine, still of 3.5-litres, but now complete with Lucas fuel injection, and with a strengthened gearbox, while the chassis was further improved with 205/60 VR 15 low-profile tyres, ventilated front disc brakes and a big black polyurethane transverse rear spoiler which was intended to trim the handling for truly high-speed driving. Automatic transmission was available in 1984, but very few such cars were ever built. Suitably prepared, the Vitesse was a remarkably successful competition car.
Intended to make the SD1 truly competitive in motorsport, the Vitesse was also a formidable road car, for it handled better than any previous SD1, could cruise all day at 100 - 120mph where such speeds were still legal - and it was still at least as fuel-efficient as the lower-powered, carburetted, 3500s had ever been. It was, however, an expensive car - the first Vitesses went on sale at £14,950 - but no other British Rovers offered such relaxed, high-geared, highspeed capability.
Except for minor changes to keep the cars abreast of the latest exhaust emission regulations, and a number of trim, equipment and furnishing up-grades, in the next few years there were no further major mechanical changes to the SD1 range.
A high-specification Vanden Plas version of the 2600 type was introduced in May 1984, and at the same time a new model called the Vanden Plas EFi was also introduced, this replacing the original Vanden Plas type, by combining the Vitesse's 190bhp fuel-injected engine and chassis with the existing top-of-therange Vanden Plas trim and furnishings. It was only available with automatic transmission.
Before SD1 assembly finally ended, a variety of specially-engined types were produced in overseas countries, using modified CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits supplied from the UK. The South African SD and SDX models used 2.6- litre six-cylinder engines evolved from the BL Princess 2200 design (not the Triumph 2.6-litre), while in India there was a car called the Standard 2000 which used the much-modified running gear of the obsolete Standard Vanguard! None of these cars was ever marketed in the UK.
Assembly of SD1s finally ran down during the first half of 1986, yet even then the SD1 was not replaced by a new all-British car, for after ten years the next big Rover was a front-wheel-drive design based on the new Honda Legend, and equipped with a variety of Austin-Rover or Honda power units. All in all (see the panel) more than 300,000 SD1s of all types had been built.
SD1s In Motorsport
British Leyland's 'works' Motorsport department began to support SD1s in motor racing from 1980 and (briefly) in long-distance rallies in the early 1980s. In every case, these cars used highly-tuned V8 engines.
The first Group 1 cars appeared in the British Touring Car Championship in 1980 (when Jeff Allam's car won the supporting race to the British GP), and were always competitive. Tom Walkinshaw Racing ran the 'works' cars from 1981 - winning six BTCC Championship rounds in 1981 and again in 1982. Other cars, in the meantime, began winning races in Europe.
To meet new rules, Group A SD1 Vitesses took over in 1983, these featuring fuel injection and 290bhp engines. Although the cars won the Championship title 'on the tracks', and Andy Rouse's privately-prepared car won the 1984 BTCC title, there was much controversy over Rover's interpretation of the regulations and the 'works' team then turned to the European Touring Car Championship instead. Rover entered a three-car team in the 1985 ETC, winning several longdistance races, but from 1986 the first of the opposing turbocharged 'homologation specials' overwhelmed them, and the racing effort was wound down as SD1 production came to an end.
In Group A form - especially after the arrival of the fuel-injected Vitesse - the SD1 was also a competitive Group A rally car. Starting in 1983, Tony Pond won several Group A categories and Championships, his Vitesses being quite the fastest of the normal-production cars entered in these events.
SD1 Production Figures: 1976 - 1986
Rover have never been able to provide completely detailed production figures. Choosing from several Rover sources, these are the approximate production figures for every significant model:
|2400SD Turbo Diesel
|Total of the above
Nevertheless, when all CKD assembly is considered Rover state that a Grand Total of 305,139 cars of this type were produced in ten years.