PH Heroes: Rover 3500 Vitesse

For people of a certain age, the Rover SD1 evokes bittersweet memories. The handsome BL wedge comes with baggage - sepia-tinted images of striking car workers huddling around burning braziers, damp evenings on the hard shoulder and 'Jam Sandwich' police cars on television. But for those into touring cars during the 1980s, the unforgettable sight and sound of the SD1 mixing it with the front running BMWs and Jaguars will be an eternal snapshot from a golden era in the sport.

Burly touring cars were a feature of 80s racing
Burly touring cars were a feature of 80s racing
Race bred, race cred
The SD1 hit the circuit in 1980, after BL Motorsport John Davenport realised how much potential Rover's executive hatchback had as a track weapon. A pair of touring cars were built for Jeff Allam and Motor magazine's Rex Greenslade, and after some tweaking, they pushed out 250hp. They performed well, and convinced BL's embattled management they should formulate a proper race programme. Tom Walkinshaw Racing was drafted in and it proved a winning relationship that lasted until 1986.

Keen to capitalise on the SD1's motorsport success, and in order to ensure racing components were homologated, Rover set about developing a VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) road car. It was originally designed with a multi-carburettor set-up (and was to be called the Rapide until Aston Martin said no), and was unveiled at the Dorchester at the end of 1982. It was a suitably plush location to reintroduce the Vitesse name.

Fuel-injected V8 delivers easy performance
Fuel-injected V8 delivers easy performance
Upgrades over the standard Rover 3500 included Lucas fuel injection, a 35hp boost, lowered suspension, 15-inch cross-spoke alloys, and a huge rubber tailgate spoiler (which really did add downforce). These changes completely transformed the look of the SD1, beefing it up, and turning it into a budget-priced muscle car. In short, the Vitesse was the perfect halo car.

Right on time
It was perfectly timed, too. The 290hp SD1 completely dominated touring cars in 1983. Well, it would have done except that BMW lodged a formal complaint, claiming the Vitesse had oversized rear wheelarches and non-standard engines. The result went against Rover, and it was stripped of its title after a lengthy court battle. TWR Rover fought on, taking the 1984 BSCC title, before being trounced by the turbocharged Volvos the following year and then losing out again in 1986 in a messy season marred by protests and counter-protests.

Racing links celebrated in contemporary press pics
Racing links celebrated in contemporary press pics
But glory came for an even more-powerful Vitesse in 1987. Kurt Thiim won the DTM championship and Tim Harvey took overall BSCC honours. For a road car that had been in production for over a decade, this was an amazing performance.

Rover introduced a twin plenum inlet manifold on the road-going Vitesse in 1985 to keep the racecars at the head of the field. Lotus helped develop the Vitesse Twin Plenum - but in order to avoid re-homologation, the official power figure of 190hp remained unchanged. In reality, it jumped to 210-220hp.

Great on track, brilliant on the road
When Motor magazine tested the Vitesse against a BMW 528i in April 1983, it pronounced the British car an easy winner, describing it as the 'poor man's Aston'. And almost 30 years on, you can see why. Brutish good looks aside, there is something very special about the Vitesse - even when climbing on over that wide sill and dropping into the supportive driver's seat, there's a sense of occasion. The widescreen view over the curvaceous bonnet is unbeatable, while the ultra-wide, box-like instrument panel, stacked with dials and buttons the size of biscuits, is wonderful.

Distinctive cabin brims with 80s character
Distinctive cabin brims with 80s character
The V8 takes stoking to fire, but once it does, it settles to a rumbling tickover. The idle is so laboured you'd swear you can feel each pulse and rotation of that ex-Buick V8. But tickle the throttle, and it revs keenly, ready for action.

It feels agricultural when you pull away, which doesn't bode well. The controls are heavy, the gearchange deliberate, and the lever's a fair old stretch. And the quartic steering wheel is huge, although most have now been binned by now. But once you start pushing the Vitesse, and acclimatise to the over-long throttle, you're rewarded with elastic acceleration, overlaid by a bass-heavy Can-Am soundtrack. The gearing is so long, it never really feels like you're moving - but you are, and you'll inevitably be doing 20mph more than you thought.

With a simple suspension set-up, it should be all over the place in corners. It has MacPherson struts up front and a live rear axle, but thanks to excellent location of the back end by a sturdy pair of Watt's Linkages, it doesn't hop, skip or jump when the road deteriorates. The steering (geared at 2.5 turns from lock-to-lock) is pin sharp, allowing the Vitesse to turn in quickly and with just a hint of understeer. Boot it mid-bend, though, and it will drift like a proper hooligan. But it's so easy and relaxed you'll never be intimidated - just how a track-proven racer should be.

Wing and cross-spokes an iconic combo
Wing and cross-spokes an iconic combo
A hero in your garage
Once you get past the corrosion-prone bodywork and flaky build quality, the Vitesse is a proper PH Hero to have on your fleet. The parts supply is brilliant, with just about everything available off the shelf for reasonable money. And should you want to tune it - and most do - there's a cottage industry built around its V8 that's waiting for your credit card details. Buying one's still child's play, as there are plenty around, with ones you'd actually want to own starting from as little as £1,500.

A few years ago, I bought a Twin Plenum off the guys at Autocar for not very much money. They'd bought it for a laugh, and had their fun. Understandably, they looked sad when I handed over the dosh and rumbled off into the rush hour, grinning from ear to ear. Several years later, I ran into road tester Chris Chilton, who had formed a proper attachment to the car while it was in his hands, and was still curious about my purchase.

"How's the Vitesse?" he asked.

"Full of filler, and a bit knackered," I replied.

"Wish I'd known that ... I took that up to 140 on the Millbrook banking and loved it."

3,528cc V8
Transmission: 5-speed, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 190@5,280rpm
Torque (lb ft): 220@4,000rpm
0-60mph: 7.1 sec
Top speed: 135mph
Weight: 1,440kg
On sale: 1983-1987
Price new (1983): £14,950
Price now: c. £1,500-£6,000

Photography by Keith Adams/Rover Press

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (132) Join the discussion on the forum

  • RacingBlue 19 Dec 2012

    I seem to remember this car being AROnline car of the year a few years back (long time reader and lurker!).

    I just love the 'set top box' on these stretching halfway across the dashboard smile

  • RichTBiscuit 19 Dec 2012

    Vitesse in Pictures needs Re-Gingercating.

    That is all.

  • FWDRacer 19 Dec 2012

    ETCC. Donington Park 500kms. 1985. Great memories.

  • ant leigh 19 Dec 2012

    First car I ever drove was my old mans V8 SD1
    Great memories and for its time a great car IMO
    Its true rust was an issue and that was the main reason it had to go but I loved it for the 4 years we owned it. Other than the rust and one electronics issue it was pretty reliable as well.

    It was also the first car I got the back end sliding in after I passed my test biggrin

  • Garlick 19 Dec 2012

    RichTBiscuit said:
    Vitesse in Pictures needs Re-Gingercating.

    That is all.
    Agree 100%, not a great look with clears

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