When the Rover SD1 project was born in 1971, Leyland was in trouble. Few if any of its models were returning a profit, much of its dealer network was threatening to defect to rival brands and the company was only seven years from being nationalised by the UK Government. Rover’s designers had won the internal competition for production of a new four-door executive car intended to reinvigorate sales, but the budget for its development was tightly limited. A cost-effective way of making something desirable was needed. First responsibility was handed over to designers David Bache & Spen King.
The SD1’s sleek Ferrari 365GTB/4-mimicking design was a stark contrast to the boxy Ford Granada and soft-faced Vauxhall Carlton. It looked comparably exotic, yet at £4,750 in 1976 (about £34k in today’s money) it was priced competitively to undercut premium models from BMW and Mercedes. Capable of carrying five adults and their luggage and built to the day’s latest safety standards, it looked set to lead a major company turnaround, but not even a model as visually strong as this could hide the cracks beneath BL’s surface.
Early customer cars were often poorly built, with inconsistent panel gaps and loosely fitted door seals, and it took several months for an order backlog to be cleared due to initially sluggish production. This was despite the fact that the technical makeup beneath the SD1 was familiar to Rover’s factory lines, with a live-rear axle, rear drum brakes and existing powerplants used to save money and speed up the development schedule. Nevertheless, the car proved to be a hit after initial tests, mixing those good looks with rear-drive balance and decent grunt. It soon became a familiar sight on UK roads, thanks in part to the SD1’s popularity with the police, with more than 300,000 produced in its ten year production run.
Power was provided by Rover’s then-ubiquitous V8 and six-cylinder engines from BL’s Triumph range, leaving the four-cylinder-powered Leyland Princess to provide a cheaper four-door rivalry to Ford and Vauxhall’s alternatives. This helped to maintain the SD1’s classier image, although the biggest boost to this didn’t come until 1984, when output from the 3.5-litre eight was lifted to 190hp. The improvement, which was made possible largely thanks to the swapping of carbs for fuel injection, was accompanied by an upgrade to the car’s standard specification. The plush Vitesse got electric mirrors, windows and central locking, as well as a trip computer and adjustable steering column as standard.
Today’s Spotted is a 1984 SD1 Vitesse sporting all of the above, although the present owner – its custodian for the last five years and 16,000 miles – admits some parts need TLC or even replacement. That’s not due to neglect, but rather thanks to good, honest use that has seen this 35-year-old Brit cover 121,000 miles, many of which are said to have built up abroad on touring holidays. The current owner has poured many hours into ensuring the silver four-door remains mechanically sound, meaning it flew through its most recent MOT; it’s powered by an upgraded Rover 3.9-litre V8, has received a recent brake and suspension refresh and sits on a set of refurbished alloys. But the seller says there’s a leak in the boot that’s causing rust, the bonnet needs replacing and two audio speakers aren’t working, to name a few of the handful of issues.
At £6,500, this lovely example of BL’s once vital SD1 seems fairly priced (its rarity is emphasised by the fact this is the only SD1 on the classifieds), accounting for the fact some love (aka cash) is needed to bring it back to its best. But with all the major oily bits beneath seemingly in great order, it also looks like a smart step into the world of one of Rover’s finest – and most important – models. Will any PHers ensure it lives on?
SPECIFICATION - ROVER SD1
Engine: 3,946cc V8 (replacement)
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 190hp (estimated)
Torque (lb ft): N/A
MPG: Not much
First registered: 1984
Recorded mileage: 121,000
Price new: £4,750
Price now: £6,500