Old Rover logo The beauty that also was a beast
Old Rover logo


B ack in 1971 the Rover P6 was beginning to feel long in the tooth and badly needed replacement. Technically it still was a very advanced car but the age showed up in the styling and it was quite costly to produce this marvel. As Rover and Triumph both were in the Leyland group a combined engineering team was set up to create the follow up for the Rover P6 and the Triumph 2000/2500 cars.

The codename for this combined Rover/Triumph effort was SD1 (short for Specialist Division nr. 1) The team under supervision of Spen King (Well known for the brilliantly designed P6 suspension system) started with a clean sheet to design the new car. This Rover would be different from the previous ones.....

Rover had established itself with a good name for high quality well engineered automobiles aimed at the luxurious middle of the market. Although the build quality of the P6's could be better, there was nothing wrong with its engineering. The SD1 would have give the same solid feel but then with newest technology. Oh...and one more thing....it should be able to compete with lesser machinery....

Where the old Rovers like the P5 and P6 were placed against Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW the new SD1 would be pitched against Vauxhall, Ford, Citroen, Renault and Volvo. Rover wasn't planning to build a car for the higher market but one aimed at the high volume middle market.

SD1 mock-up in a windtunnel  (8,9 Kb)
Despite it's aerodramatic looks the SD1 only managed a Cd of 0,40

David Bache was already a well known designer at Rover and designed the P5/P6 as well as the Range Rover. For the SD1 he was inspired by some exotic machinery like the Maserati..... and the Ferrari Daytona. .... The nose design and placement of the indicators were clearly a hint towards the Daytona. British Leyland even arranged a setup to compare the new SD1 with such machinery in the design stage as the picture shows.

The sensational timeless sleek and handsome shape was quite revolutionary for Rover which was always known as a bit conservative in its styling. The SD1 would change that image drastically. And it even wasn't a saloon like a real Rover has always been. For the first time a fastback design was being developed. For such a big car like the SD1 would be this was quite a step. However other companies like Renault (model 20/30) and Citroen (CX) also worked on cars with the same overall design. There was a market for a big versatile hatchback and Rover,Citroen and Renault were early to jump on the bandwagon. Later Opel (Monza), Ford (Scorpio) would follow. The design surely contributed to the voting of the SD-1 as Car of the year in 1977.

Ferrari Daytona  (11,5 Kb)
The SD1 nose styling and the side line can be traced back to the Daytona

Selling a car in this difficult section of the market meant that costly exercises like the base unit construction and the complicated suspension setup of the P6 had to go. It just would be to expensive. So.....gone was the beautiful but complicated Dion rear suspension of the P6 and a simple but sturdy live axle setup was used ,although it was provided with a very good location system by watts linkage and trailing arms. Furthermore the live axle setup incorporated a torque tube to eliminate axle tramp under acceleration. The front suspension was also very basic in being a simple Mcpherson instead of the complicated P6 system. Regarding the simple suspension lay out, the engineers really did a very good job in creating a very safe and balanced ride

1971 early design of the SD1  (8,3 Kb)
Early SD1 design (1971)

The only component used from the old P6 model was the old and reliable V-8 engine which was a further development of the 1961 aluminium Buick engine, also known in the States as the Aluminum Fireball V8. (Yes they named it Aluminum not Aluminium).

Buick discarded this engine in 1963 because the american customer just didn't give it the maintenance it needed (especially regarding the expensive coolant not generally available) and because a cast iron V-8 was more cost efficient to build. So in 1965 Rover acquired the license to produce this beauty in England. The Rover V-8 made its debut in Sept. 1965 in the P5. Later on GM regretted the sale and tried, unsuccesfully, to buy it back.

Because of the size of the V-8, the engine bay of the SD1 was designed around it. So it provided adequate room for the 2300 and 2600 six cilinders and the later 2 litre O-series four cilinder and 2.4 litre VM turbodiesel engine. The 2300 and 2600 engines were basically the same only the stroke being different. These engines were newly engineered by Triumph (not Rover). The design was originally based on the Triumph six cyl. engine but re-engineered and improved to such a degree that no parts were interchangeable. For instance the engine bores were offset and the block lengthened. Especially the 2600 became a popular option being a bit slower than the V-8 while using less fuel ( 24 mpg for the 2600 and 21 mpg for the V-8 under normal conditions). Reliability of the sixes was somewhat less than the V-8 with the main problem areas being the lubrication of the overhead camshaft and blowing head gaskets.

6 cyl and V-8 engines  (21,4 kB)

Originally the P6 could only be delivered with automatic transmission because Rover didn't have a transmission wich could handle the torque of the V-8 engine. The later available manual transmission in the P6 3500S wasn't really up for the job. For the SD1 and TR-7 a new manual transmission was developed by Triumph which could easily cope with the torque and the unit outperformed the competition in precision and feel.

To keep the lines clean the air supplied by the capacious ventilation system could escape through a grille in the rear hatch instead of the then widely used grilles in the side of the body work. The front shape was futuristic (certainly for Rover!) with no grille. The air inlet for the radiator taking place beneath the bumper. Still an additional air inlet was needed on top of the bonnet to provide enough fresh air for the interior.

For Rover it was the first hatchback model. At the premiere the SD1 was together with the Renault's 20 and 30 one of the first large fastbacks on the market as the Citroen CX wasn't a real hatchback.

The interior was all new.......no wood and no leather, a thing many people still expected from Rover. The wood and leather only returned to Rover with the series 2. A nice touch were the ventilated sills wich received warm air through the engine compartment. This prevented moisture built up in the sills. And as we know now this system works pretty good as you seldom see SD1's with a rotten inside sill structure.

The electrics were mainly supplied by Lucas also known as "the Prince of Darkness". That this nickname was not for nothing can still be noticed by the various SD1 horror stories and articles on the electrical system

Prototype SD1 estate  (12,4 kB)
Prototype of the SD1 estate (BMIHT museum at Gaydon)

During its production life from 1976 until 1986 the SD1 received many changes. The main change taking place with the series 1 to series 2 in january 1982.

There is even talk of a series 1 1/2 as some series 2 changes occurred gradually on the series one cars in 1981. Main changes on the series 2 could be noticed in the interior, dashboard, bumpers and headlamps. Rover considered an estate version, but sadly this never made it to production. A prototype SD1 estate however can be seen at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon. And it must be said that it looks very good indeed. Certainly a lot better than the contemporary estates from Volvo (the 240).

In October 1982 Rover introduced a beast....., the Vitesse, being an inch lower with fat 205/60 VR tyres and a big polyurethane rear spoiler it really looked mean!. The trusty V8 was uprated from it's lazy 155 bhp to a healthy 190 bhp. The twin carburetor set up was ready for the bin and replaced by a somewhat less reliable but better flowing electronic injection system. (Off course coming from Lucas but based on the Bosch L-jetronic system). For more information and some pictures of the Vitesse go to the Vitesse page or the Fuel injection page. Combining the power of the Vitesse with the luxury of the Vandenplas models. Rover introduced the Vandenplas EFI in May 1984. This model could only be bought in automatic form and is now, like the Vitesse, very sought after. However here in Holland this model was never sold

In 1986 the production of the SD1 ended after a production run of 10 years. It's successor was the Rover 800 wich was built in cooperation with Honda, making the SD1 the last real British Rover!!   (haven't we heard that more often?.......I think despite its BMW backgrounds the Rover 75 is again a real Rover!)

The competitors

With the SD1 Rover faced stronger competition than ever like

  • Ford Granada
  • Vauxhall/Opel Rekord/Monza/Senator
  • Citroen CX
  • Renault 20/30
  • BMW 5-series
  • Peugeot 504
  • Volvo 240/260

Reliant Scimitar GTE

When it came out in 1968 Reliant's GTE was an instant hit. Actually it was much better then could be excpected from a small manufacturer like Reliant. The two door fastback design was sensational and very goodlooking in a beefy British way. The picture shows a SE5a from 1972. In 1976 an enlarged version was introduced called the SE6. Engines were the trusty Ford "Essex" three litre pushrod which was later replaced by the German 2.8 litre "Cologne" engine. Front suspension was Triumph TR6 style and the rear was a properly located live axle not unlike the SD1 design.

1972 Reliant Scimitar SE5b (8,2 kB)

Although not a big competitor to the SD1 in the eighties and seventies they both competed in the executive market. Today the SD1 and the GTE can both be regarded as stylish classics with conventional running gear and relatively big engines. The GTE has the additional advantage of having a rot free fiberglass body but this also means more electrical problems than can be expected with the SD1.
More Pictures from the Reliant GTE and SD1.

Car of the year logo (2,32kB)
SD1 car of the year

Renault 20 & 30

1978 Renault 30 (8,9 kB)

The Renault 20 and 30 were introduced in 1976. They replaced the succesfull Renault 16, however the 16 was sold along with the 20/30 for a while. The basic Renault 20 was equipped with the 1,6 litre engine from the old 16. this gave a top speed of just 100 mph. The 30 was equipped with a 2,6 litre V6 which was also used in the contemporary peugeot 604 and Volvo 264/265. This engine gave a 110 mph top speed and a 0-60 time in a not so bad 10,3 secs. Off course the Renaults had front wheel drive and independent suspension They sold rather well being roomy and reliable. However many fell victim to the rust bug and nowadays a Renault 20 or 30 is a rare sight as they never achieved the classic status like the SD1.

Ford Granada / Opel Rekord

The Ford Granada was the biggest competitor for the SD1 in the UK market. On the continental market the Opel Rekord was its biggest competitor. Both the Rekord and the Granada had the then fashionable square (and thus very dull) euro box styling. The SD1 was certainly miles ahead in styling and looks. All three (Rover, Opel and the Ford) had a similar mechanical setup with rear wheel drive. The Opel and Rover had a live axle at the back where the Granada ,surprisingly, already had independent rear suspension.

1978 Opel Rekord (8,2 kB)

Power for the Opel came from 1.9 or 2.0 litre engines which weren't high on power but therefore very reliable. There were no 6-cylinders in the Rekord. But you could buy the Commodore which actually was a Rekord with higher specifications. The Commodore had a 6-inline 2.5 litre rated at a lowly 116 hp. The newer Senator/Monza were equipped with more powerful engines giving 180 hp for the 3-litre versions.

1978 Ford Granada (6,2 kB)

The Granada had even more square styling than the Rekord and was a little bigger and roomier. Power came from various engines from a 1.7 litre V4 (love the sound!) up to the old and trusty 2.8 litre cologne engine which equipped with the mechanical Bosch K-injection system gave 160 hp. This 2.8 litre could also be found in later SE-6b Reliant Scimitars and the TVR Tasmin/S-series. The V-6 gave the Granada a top speed of 194 km (120 mph). The Ghia versions were quite luxurious equipped with for instance: Wooden dashboard inserts, velour upholstery, additional sound insulation, central locking, electric operated windows,etc. Therefore the Ghia versions could be considered as Ford's answer to the VandenPlas editions of the SD1.

A short overview of 10 years SD1 motoring
June 1976 SD1 launched, V-8 only
October 1977 2300 and 2600 versions
June 1979 V8-S appears predecessor of
October 1980 Entry of the 2300S, 2600S, 3500SE and Vandenplas
January 1982 Facelift to series 2
New 2000 model
April 1982 2400SD turbo introduced
With Italian VM turbo engine
October 1982 Vitesse launched
May 1984 Vandenplas EFi, Vandenplas with
a Vitesse engine
November 1985 Twin-plenum Vitesse introduced
July 1986 SD-1 production stops....sniff!!

The SD1 compared

0-60 mph
top speed

Rover SD1

1994 cc
101 bhp
14,7 sec
103 mph
3048 lb
1383 kg

CX Reflex

1995 cc
106 bhp
12,1 sec
110 mph
2706 lb
1230 kg

Rekord 2.0S

1979 cc
100 bhp
11,5 sec
108 mph
2585 lb
1175 kg


1985 cc
92 bhp
15,5 sec
93 mph
2821 lb
1280 kg

Rover SD1

2597 cc
136 bhp
10,7 sec
117 mph
3212 lb
1457 kg

Granada 2.8

2797 cc
135 bhp
10,4 sec
114 mph
3201 lb
1455 kg


2664 cc
128 bhp
10,3 sec
114 mph
2838 lb
1290 kg

Rover SD1

3528 cc
155 bhp
9,7 sec
123 mph
3214 lb
1458 kg


2494 cc
150 bhp
10,1 sec
120 mph
2970 lb
1350 kg


© rwp aug 2003