The Rover SD1 History

Launch pack inner 2

By the time of the next new Rover saloon, the old Rover Company had changed beyond all recognition. Indeed, what had once been Rover no longer actually existed, but had become part of the Specialist Division of British Leyland which was responsible for sports cars, luxury saloons and Land-Rovers. From that name of Specialist Division came the codename of SD1 under which the new car was developed, the '1' denoting that it was the division's first project.


After the merger which created British Leyland in 1968, Rover initially retained its autonomy to a large extent, but by the early 1970s BL had started the difficult process of rationalizing the various marques it now owned.

It was obvious that the company needed only one range of saloons to replace the directly competitive Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6 2000/3500 models. During 1971, the Rover and Triumph design engineers both put in bids to develop that new range of saloons, and Rover's Pl0 proposal was chosen over Triumph's Puma. The project was rechristened RT 1 ('Rover- Triumph, no.1') when the engineering departments of the two companies were merged shortly afterwards, and soon after that it was again renamed as SD1 when Rover- Triumph became the Specialist Division.

The SD1 was therefore a Rover from the beginning, and it was Rover engineers who took the lead in its design and development. Rover's Spen King was by this stage in overall control of Rover-Triumph engineering (having spent a period as Triumph's Chief Engineer immediately after the BL merger); Rover's David Bache was in charge of styling; and Rover's Gordon Bashford was responsible for the overall layout and 'chassis' design. There was also continuity of engineering in that the flagship variants of SD1 were planned to have the Rover V8 engine.

Nevertheless, for the cheaper versions of the car, BL decided to use a new six-cylinder engine which was already under development by Triumph. The rest of the drivetrain was to be shared between the SD1 and the forthcoming Triumph TR7 and TR8 sports cars. Thus the rear axle and both the manual and automatic gearboxes were designed to suit both applications.

At this was obviously carefully planned to minimize capital expenditure on production tooling, and the ruthless cost-paring which BL's planners and accountants indulged in at this period resulted in the SD1 being built down to a price. No previous Rover had ever been conceived in such a way, and the inevitable compromises caused some equally inevitable dissatisfaction among existing Rover customers who loyally bought the new car.

Despite ecstatic initial reactions from the press, and the award of European Car of the Year for 1977 by an international jury, quality control problems in the SD1's early days quickly earned the car a bad reputation. The collapse of large-car sales which followed the 1979 oil crisis then terminally damaged BL's hopes of selling the SD1 in anything like the quantities originally planned. Although vastly improved build quality, a wider model range, and a successful racing programme pulled the car round during the early 1980s, total sales never remotely approached the combined totals of the Rover P6 and Triumph saloons which the SD1 had replaced - and in fact did not even equal the totals achieved by the P6 alone.

The huge new plant which BL had built at SolihuIl for SD1 assembly never was used to the full for Rover saloons; from 1980, part of it was turned over to Triumph TR7 assembly; and then at the end of 1981 it was closed and the SD1 assembly lines were relocated in the old Morris plant at Cowley. By this stage, BL's Specialist Division had already fragmented, first into Jaguar-Rover-Triumph in the later 1970s and then even further after 1978 when Land Rover was established as a separate operating company. Rover, or what remained of it, joined the old Volume Cars division and during 1982 the resulting BL business unit took on the name of Austin-Rover.

The SD1 was undoubtedly dogged by misfortune in its early life, and it never did get the better of its direct rival the Ford Granada, let alone compete effectively with the medium-sized Mercedes and BMW saloons which made such inroads into the British market in the early 1980s. Yet for all that, it was a car with considerable character. lts striking shape remained distinctive a decade after the last example had been built; the performance and refinement of the larger-engined models were excellent; and the later cars with the full Van den Plas-specification wood and leather trim were certainly worthy heirs to the Rover name.

Body and Interior


David Bache's proposal to make the new Rover a sleek five- door hatchback saloon was a radical one for the early 1970s, and was undoubtedly what persuaded BL management to choose the Rover design in preference to Triumph's conservative Puma. However, the development of Bache's styling proposal did not proceed smoothly. Although the basic dimensions were aIl in place by the end of 1971, the full-size styling buck was angular and undistinguished. Bache realized he had to do something radical - and he did just that. He borrowed a Maserati Ghibli from a friend, called in the styling staff over a weekend, and had them graft the Maserati's curves onto the fuIl-size styling buck. With the addition of some stylish lamp units at the front which had clearly been inspired by the contemporary Ferrari Daytona, the SD1 was completely transformed, and by the Monday morning a stunning production style was ready for the enthusiastic approval of BL management.

Right from the beginning, BL's cost-conscious approach to the SD1 ensured that it would have a monocoque body sheIl: monocoques were much cheaper to build than exotic structures like the P6's base-unit with its bolt-on panels. In addition, the latest developments in structural engineering allowed the SD1 monocoque to be made strong enough to give good refinement and meet the severest crash-safety requirements without incurring an unacceptable weight penalty. Even the windscreen - bonded to the shell rather than fitted in the conventional way - was made to contribute to the monocoque's torsional stiffness.

The SD1's production life can be divided into three distinct periods, and each one of those was marked by visual as weIl as engineering changes. The fust period lasted from the car's launch in June 1976 until September 1980. The second period was really a transitional phase, and lasted from October 1980 until January 1982. The cars assembled at Cowley in the third and final period then had several very obvious differences from the earlier modeIs. Production ran out in the first half of 1986, and the SD1 was replaced in the Rover range by the 800-series saloons, which Austin-Rover had developed jointly with the Japanese Honda company.