For classic car fans the Rover SD1 still sits somewhere between a cheap hot rod and a classic car. But values are rising fast as the stock of good quality cars dwindles – 10 years ago there were 20,000 Rover SD1s on the road, today there are less than 2,000.
The Great Escape Classic Car Hire Rover is one of the last of the homologation special Vitesse Twin Plenum cars, which pushes 190 bhp out of the 3,500cc V8 engine. Sitting in our garage under the low neon lights, we had to admit that this is one of the greatest saloon car designs of all time, one that still looks good today. And it came about entirely by chance. Designer David Bache had come up with a succession of traditional, rather pedestrian Rover designs for the British Leyland board. The head honchos, apparently, couldn’t agree on the direction for a car that was supposed to replace the top end Triumph and Rover saloons, two brands with entirely different images. Frustrated, Bache apparently rushed out a sketch intended as a pastiche of the Ferrari Daytona, never quite expecting it to be accepted. It was, and the Rover SD1 was born. Like many design classics, the car looks so good because it went into production virtually straight off the drawing board.
The BL top brass had wasted so much time prevaricating that the SD1 was rushed into production virtually ‘as is’. Consequently much of the detail design of the car is poorly executed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interior, which contains some clever ideas but, particularly in early versions, appears somewhat rushed.
The SD1 was British Leyland’s ultimate own goal. Here was a practical, highly competent car that looked brilliant, particularly compared to the staid German competition. But these detail design failings and the input of BL’s bean counters conspired to turn a shining star into a lemon. The accountants green lighted a brand new factory to build the SD1 then systematically went through the car and cut as much cost out as possible. Fairly enough, the car needed to be profitable. But they went too far, giving a premium market car the fixtures and fittings more befitting of an Allegro. Under the skin they reversed the technical innovations of the Rover P6 and made the SD1 basic and simple with a live rear axle and rudimentary suspension. These were good ideas adopted from Ford, except Ford kept on the right side of selling showroom shine to the masses. And people expected Fords to be simple and basic – Rovers were upmarket and advanced. Now they weren’t.
The final nail in the Rover’s coffin was truly woeful build quality. Although BL improved standards, particularly under Michael Edwardes’ tutelage, the Rover SD1 was always significantly below market standards for executive cars, let alone much cheaper cars. It was almost as if Rover was trying to lose buyers.
Looking at the Rover SD1 Vitesse on a November night in 2011 much of this is history. Today it simply looks brilliant. Sure, the driving position isn’t great, the steering is too light and the rear axle give as uncomplicated a ride and handling combination as it’s possible to get, but it is these flaws that make the Rover great. That engine, that burble and that profile are an addictive combination.
For men of a certain age the Rover SD1 is the ultimate dad’s car. Enjoy one now before prices sky rocket.