Storage Yard Classic: Rover 3500 SE (SD1) – A Brilliant Exit Strategy

1980 Rover 3500 SE

After Rover’s promising start with the advanced P6, it didn’t take too long for their relationship with North American consumers to sour. Perhaps it was its overly complex design, or the poor dealer network, but Rover cars quickly gained a “lemon” reputation. As a last-chance shot at redemption, Rover made an effort to right the wrongs with the simplified, handsome and V8-powered 3500 (better known as the SD1)–but it was not to be.

Rover P6

On paper, the outgoing P6 Rover–in its twin-carburetor, four-cylinder 2000TC variant, and even more as the 3500 V8 version–was a remarkably advanced (and complex) car. It was a sophisticated, sporting, luxurious saloon that was more affordable than a Jaguar and offered more performance than a Mercedes. After failing to live up to the hope and hype in North America, Rover retreated from that market for a serious re-think.

development

While the P6 styling was strong, the car certainly had a few quirks, including its extra-tall front turn indicators. Since British Leyland intended to replace both the P6 and the Triumph 2000/2500 saloons With its intended successor, styling proposals were accepted from both Rover and Triumph. The Triumph team’s effort was code-named Puma, and featured Michelotti styling; the Rover proposal, named P10, aimed to once again leapfrog the competition with an unusual and large hatchback design.

The Rover team, which was headed by David Bache, edged out Triumph, and British Leyland went with the more daring and exotic styling direction. It was initially renamed RT1 to indicate both Rover and Triumph influences; however, the corporate masters decided Triumph should focus on smaller cars, and the project was renamed SD1 (Specialist Division Number 1) as a Rover exclusive.

1967 Pininfarina BMC 1800

Clearly, the SD1 took some styling direction from the groundbreaking 1967 Pininfarina BMC 1800 concept. It wasn’t the only car influenced by that very advanced concept, which also inspired the Citroen GS and CX, among others. One of the SD1 proposals included exotic and cutting edge (for the time) scissor/gull wing-style doors; thankfully, these didn’t make it to production on both cost and sanity grounds.

ferrari 365-gtb4-daytona-coupe-1320780484-38293

Pininfarina’s 1968 Ferrari Daytona was another obvious influence, especially at the front and the concave side accent line. The Daytona style was watered down a bit for the North American market, since Rover was forced to fit dual sealed-beam headlights in place of the European lenses. The fenders were reworked slightly as well–as a friend of mine found out the hard way when he tried to repair his collision-damaged Canadian car with a British-market fender.

rear suspension

The SD1′s mechanical specification was greatly simplified from the earlier P6, and to many it looked rather like a seriously retrograde step. The complicated and costly deDion rear suspension was tossed in favor of a conventional live rear axle; fortunately, it was well located, utilizing Watts linkage, and proved to be more than acceptable. Also, rear drums replaced the disc brakes. Just to prove it wasn’t going all caveman-tech, there were self-leveling shocks at the rear and standard radial tires, although the latter was pretty typical by then.

Rover SD1 cutaway

Up front, the almost ubiquitous MacPerson-type struts were utilized. The power steering system was updated, now requiring only 2.8 turns lock-to-lock. The SD1 was very well regarded in terms of both quickness and handling feel. Any unique P6 engineering had been erased by the run of the mill, time tested solutions on the SD1. It all looked very promising–especially for the North American market, whose customers and mechanics didn’t generally appreciate the advanced tech once the car actually drove off the lot. In the UK, the basic specification made the Rover much more appealing to the very large and important company-car market.

Rover V8

Engine wise, the SD1 was only available in the North American market with Rover’s fine 3.5-liter, all- aluminum V8. Purchased by Rover from Buick, it enjoyed a prosperous second life in several Rover saloons as well as Range Rover, Leyland P76, MG B-GT V8, Triumph TR8, and innumerable British specialty vehicles. It was truly the UK equivalent of a small-block Chevy V8.

1980 Rover 3500 Engine

Released initially in dual SU carbureted form, the V8 was eventually fitted with Lucas L-Jetronic fuel injection in order to meet emissions regulations in North America. The SD1/3500 could be fitted with either Rover’s fine LT77 five-speed manual gearbox or, more commonly in North America, a Borg-Warner three-speed automatic. The five-speed’s 0.83 overdrive ratio gave the Rover fine high speed cruising ability, as well as impressive-for-the-era acceleration.

Rover 3500 ad

European cars achieved 0-60 times in the eight second range and a top speed of 125 mph; the North American cars were only slightly slower–not bad for a good-size car with a claimed 26.2 (Imperial) mpg. It was both faster and more economical than almost all its European rivals, many of which cost significantly more. Understandably, early press reaction was extremely positive.

six cylinder engine

Back in the UK, other engine options soon became available following the V8-only launch. Obviously, a smaller engine was needed for the 2200/2200TC as well as the Triumph 2500. At the time, V8s were out of the price, tax, and fuel economy ranges of most European buyers (even of premium brands), and were very uncommon.

The Rover four-cylinder, which was considered a bit crude even back in the 60s, was not considered, but in 1977 the Triumph straight six was offered in 2.3- and 2.6-liter versions. Originally, the six-cylinder was supposed to be a straightforward SOHC conversion of the Triumph 2500/TR6 unit, but ultimately was so extensively re-worked that it ended up a completely different design from the OHV unit, with which it shared no parts. Starting in 1982, a more economical 2.0-liter O-series four- cylinder was also offered, which was especially important for company-car sales. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder diesel was also on tap for those who valued fuel economy over any kind of performance.

1982 Rover 3500 SE dash

Inside, the SD1 once again differed dramatically from the earlier P6. Gone was any trace of traditional wood, as the designers had gone for a very modern seventies-minimalist design. With an eye to export markets the dash was symmetrical, with an instrument cluster in a pod and a swappable steering column and heating vents. The second glove box, under the steering column, is a rarely seen nice touch. Unfortunately the materials, although nice to look and touch when new, didn’t seem to hold up very well over the years, eventually giving older examples a bit of a rundown look. North Americans also missed out on the oh-so-’70s steering wheel featured in the home market,  instead getting a three-spoke unit that looked to be lifted from a TR6 or MG B aftermarket catalog.

Rover SD ad

Given the positive press reaction, consumer buzz  and multiple car awards in the European market, the future of the SD1 looked rather rosy–but this being British Leyland, one just knew they were very capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And they didn’t disappoint in that regard.

It began by launching the car in the spring of 1977 without a supply adequate to meet the demand. In the home market, lightly used examples were being sold for more than list price–rather ironic, given their extremely poor resale value a few short years later. It didn’t take long for whispers about quality control issues to become shouts. Predictably, there were worker strikes as well, with some cars taking up to six to eight weeks to produce. Just as Rover was able to tool up to meet the large initial demand, it sharply dropped off. The UK cars would gain a minor facelift and several further enhancements to quality, but the North American cars didn’t last long enough to benefit.

headlight compare

The Rover 3500 wasn’t certified for U.S. sales until 1980. In that year, sales in the all-important U.S. market amounted to a paltry 480 units. Technically, the following year’s sales numbers improved, all the way to a whopping 774 units, but that figure included a lot of leftover 1980 models (There are also a few titled as 1982 models, which are really unsold 1981 carryover units). While growing up, I remember seeing a reasonable number of 3500s, and I’ve a number of friends who owned one, but Canadian sales numbers seem to be impossible to track down. Given that the Canadian market, as a whole, is smaller than California’s, the totals were probably still quite small despite the relatively greater popularity.

1980 Rover 3500 rear

In the storage yard are two examples to choose from: Both are similar, with the grey one being the earlier of the two and titled as a 1980 model. It has the fuel injection and automatic gearbox, which probably kept it from being used as a donor for an MG B V8 swap over the years.

1982 Rover 3500 SE

The second example, while titled as a 1982 model, was produced in 1981 and sold as left-over stock the following year. It’s in slightly better condition than the grey one but again, fuel injection with an automatic transmission limited its appeal to me. This one also has a sunroof, which was one of the few optional extras for the very well-equipped North American-specification cars. A four-barrel Holley four-barrel carburetor, which reduced servicing headaches and boosted power, was quite a popular swap for these.

1982 Rover 3500 SE rear

The 3500 SE was disastrous enough to chase the Rover nameplate from the U.S. and Canada for good. When Rover thought (again) they had the winning formula with a new car full of Honda engineering, they went with a brand new name: Sterling. That sad tale was told here, and maybe will be retold on another day.