The Rover SD1 of 1976 inspired either ecstasy or apoplexy. As a member of the new British Leyland group, Rover now had major in-house competitors like Triumph and Jaguar, with whom it expected to share parts and develop discrete elements of the company’s extended range. It also had a brand-new factory of its own to produce the fruits of its Specialist Division — but that couldn’t happen until the Division had learned the lessons of compromise from its early efforts.
The SD1 went into production on a wave of infectious optimism shared by industry critics and the public. It was fast and safe —crash-tested, crumple-zoned, ergonomically brilliant and innovative. With the ever-versatile and seemingly endless tuneability of the 3.5 litre Buick V8 (though perhaps after more than a decade it could be called Rover’s own), it made the most of its low weight. People spoke admiringly of its sporty handling, composed ride and modern design.
It looked a little like a Ferrari Daytona (check the front end light assembly) with a hatchback designed by Pininfarina; and until Rover introduced a range of smaller engines some time later, it had a performance to match. The executive market for which it was intended glowed with reflected glory at its racing and rallying success. Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet Ministers all wanted one, and it was photographed underneath Concorde’s needle nose as the 1976 Car of the Year.
Unfortunately, the new icon of postwar British car design was a manufacturing crock. Initial reaction had made favourable comparison with Jaguar and its ilk. Instead of upgrading the SD1, its price and build quality to match, Rover tried to give it a more `economy’ feel. Simultaneously, the first batch of cars began to rust, break down, and fall apart. Conceived as a world contender, the SD1’s future literally rotted away.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: UK
FIRST MANUFACTURED: 1976 (until 1986)
ENGINE: 3,528 cc V8
PERFORMANCE: Top speed of 130 mph (208 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.7 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW: In its lifetime, the SD1 was never marketed by that name. The 14 different versions (including the Vanden Plas and Vitesse of the 1980s) were identified by their engines.