(first posted 8/25/2016) Orphan cars hold a special allure for enthusiasts who appreciate the unusual. And there is perhaps no more fascinating orphan than Rover’s US-market 3500. A groundbreaking car when introduced in Europe in 1976, this premium British sedan took nearly 4 years to make it to North America… and then nearly everything went wrong. Far from being the car that would resuscitate the British auto industry in the New World, the Rover was hardly noticed – only 1,200 were sold in the US. This rare surviving example demonstrates the Rover’s many attributes, but it was the unseen aspects that sank the car’s chances for success.
Several other Rovers preceded the 3500 over here in the American marketplace, with Rover’s most serious effort undertaken with the P6, sold stateside from 1967 to 1971. A competent, well-engineered and comfortable upmarket sedan, the P6 was plagued by reliability problems, which was too bad because it was otherwise a great car. Rover cited difficulty in meeting US safety and emissions regulations as a reason for leaving the American marketplace in 1971, but surely poor sales played a part in that decision as well.
The P6 (in red above) featured a somewhat stodgy design wrapped around very advanced underpinnings. Its successor, our featured car, was the complete opposite. Code-named SD1 (for Specialist Division 1), the new Rover featured a unique, modern design, underneath which was technology that was a decade or more old.
SD1’s most striking feature was its appearance, which borrowed major elements from two Pininfarina designs by Leonardo Fioravanti, his Ferrari Daytona (1968, upper left) and his BMC 1800 concept car (1967, upper right), a seminal design that influenced many others for decades. Designed by Rover’s Head of Styling David Bache, the SD1 eschewed the conservative approach of its predecessors in favor of an instantly recognizable modern design that looked more continental than British. Not only was the shape distinctive, but the format was as well, since the SD1 featured a hatchback – quite a novelty for an upmarket sedan in the 1970s.
Upon its July 1976 introduction, the SD1 was extremely popular with European buyers, and awards rolled in. On the day the car was introduced, Rover’s parent company British Leyland estimated that it received $31 million worth of orders. On that same day, however, some production workers walked out on strike; this presaged a problem that would plague the SD1 throughout its lifespan. During the late 1970s, strikes were almost routine in BL factories, and labor unrest, coupled with the company’s own financial crises, led to significant quality-control problems. The car eventually developed a reputation for poor quality, and sales trailed off.
Rover always saw the car as being suitable for the American market, and initially targeted 1978 for its US introduction. But for multiple reasons, the US launch was delayed until mid-1980. Although European SD1s were offered in 5 trim levels, only one package made it to the US market.
Simply called the 3500, the US version included a full complement of upmarket features, as well as Rover’s V-8 standard.
The 3.5-liter V-8 used in this car was no stranger to the American market. British Leyland acquired the engine’s production rights from GM in 1965, after it had been deemed too small for domestic cars. The tried-and-tested V-8 had seen numerous applications in British Leyland vehicles over the years, and its light weight (only 12 lbs. heavier than Rover’s 2-liter 4-cyl. engine) made it an ideal choice for Rovers and Land Rovers.
Like the engine, the SD1’s suspension was highly traditional. In fact, the live rear axle seems antiquated when compared to the car’s futuristic appearance. However, the car provided stable control and quick steering (2.7 turns lock-to-lock), and handling was one of the car’s strengths. Braking was provided via disc/drum brakes – again, this was old technology, but it got the job done. All contemporary reviews praised the Rover’s roadworthiness.
For the American market, the V-8 received fuel injection, but the engine still saw a loss of power compared to the European version. US model 3500s developed 133 hp (down 22 from Euro trim) and 165 lb/ft of torque. Fortunately, a wide torque band provided usable and flexible performance, competitive with other premium cars of its day.
American Rovers came with a long list of standard equipment, including air conditioning, power windows/locks, cruise control, and a 4-speaker stereo. A sunroof and a 3-speed automatic transmission were the only options.
This particular car lacks the most easily identifiable US-market feature because the current owner replaced the quad round headlights with the better-looking European versions (not an easy job since the headlight assembly is welded in place). He did, however, leave the US-market 5-mph bumpers intact.
Ungainly as the bumpers may be, they are at least functional.
While the streamlined design may have been less novel in 1980 then when the car was first designed, it still cut a unique figure on American roads. It looks significantly larger than a typical mid-sized domestic sedan of the period, such as this Malibu. It’s not. In a testament to Bache’s design, the Rover suggests a size advantage, but in reality, it’s smaller than a Malibu in all exterior dimensions.
Considerable thought was put into space engineering, as the Rover’s front and rear passenger accommodations were generous, and the car revealed a 34 cu. ft. cargo capacity with the rear seats folded down (though a high rear liftover could be cumbersome).
The Rover’s interior looks like it was designed with a sci-fi space pod theme. This was certainly an unusual design for the mid-1970s, but the overall effect was well done, with an abundance of horizontal planes adding a feeling of spaciousness to an already generously-sized cabin. Passenger room was ample, and materials were of high quality for the times. American Rovers came with a 3-spoke Y-pattern steering wheel, which this car’s owner replaced with the chunkier European wheel.
The dashboard is completely symmetrical. The place where the steering column would enter on a LHD car is used by an air vent on a RHD car. The instrument cluster sits in a pod that could be placed on either side of the dash, and there are even matching glove boxes – one each on the driver’s and passenger’s sides. Overall, the SD1’s interior looked at least 10 years ahead of its time.
Rear seat room was generous like the front. Although leather upholstery was available on the European Vanden Plas model, only a velour-type cloth was available in North America.
The Rover had plenty of attributes, and was a pleasure to drive. But only about 1,200 cars found homes in the US. Numerous reasons combined to account for this poor showing, but four in particular warrant special mention.
Late Introduction: While the SD1 was splashy and novel when it was introduced, four years had lapsed before it came to North America. Though still unique, it was nowhere near as futuristic as it appeared in 1976, depriving the 3500 of its most significant selling point. Americans may have noticed a design similarity to Chevy’s Citation – that was not a coincidence, as GM is said to have studied the SD1’s hatchback concept when developing its X-cars. The long gestation period turned the 3500 from a trendsetter to a somewhat of a follower.
Price: Rover suffered from an unfavorable exchange rate – the pound peaked against the dollar in 1980, and hasn’t been as high since. With a base price of $15,900 ($17,000+ w/ automatic & sunroof), the Rover occupied a range above its most direct competitors (Audi, Volvo and Saab) and was closing in on Mercedes-Benz and BMW models. A lower price would have helped persuade wary buyers to give the new nameplate a try. Ironically, Rover’s 1981 UK sales brochure boasted that the 3500 had “found favor in an increasingly cost-conscious USA.” That was hardly the case.
Dealers: Rovers were sold by Jaguar/Triumph dealers, which had a reputation for being indifferent to customers. They simply didn’t know how to sell a car like the Rover. Between 1968 and 1980, 95% of vehicles sold by Jaguar dealers were MGs and Triumphs, so catering to a higher-end clientele wasn’t the highest priority. It was difficult to attract new upscale customers in such an environment, and cancellation of the MG and Triumph lines threw the dealers into complete disarray. Eventually, Jaguar dealers improved, but far too late to save the 3500.
Durability: Finally, there’s durability, that long-time bane of British cars. Rover was justifiably proud of its recently-built Solihull plant, but SD1s were often haunted by reliability problems. Labor unrest plagued Rover’s production facilities (at any given time in the late 1970s, some of Leyland’s workers would be on strike) and these troubles translated into significant quality control woes. Overall fit and finish was sub-par for the Rover’s price range, and combined with the public’s generally poor perception of British car durability, these problems doubtless scared off many customers.
American auto journalists generously praised the Rover’s strengths in 1980. Car and Driver admired its “warm, endearing, just slightly eccentric personality.” Road & Track was equally smitten, but added that:
“…the car will stand or fall entirely on the standard of quality control at the factory and the standard of service… at the dealerships.”
That was a prescient comment. Within a year, imports of Rovers would halt, and it would take another year to clear out the accumulated inventory (European production continued through 1987).
Rover’s most creative venture into the US market was a failure so complete that it’s barely remembered today. Which is quite a shame, because the car itself was a fascinating study in ingenuity.
As one few SD1s sold in the US, our featured car is an extremely rare example, and even seeing one at a car show was an unexpected surprise. This Barley Yellow survivor is owned by somewhat of a serial Rover owner, this being his fourth since 1990.
When he bought this car several years ago, he rescued it from almost certain demise, with it having sat neglected in a field for some time. The Rover was sunken several inches into the ground, and looked unredeemable. However, with skill and determination, the new owner got it running on site, and drove it 60 miles to his home.
Once home, the work continued, and the lucky Rover’s new owner repaired body damage, replaced the V-8’s camshaft and completed scores of other projects.
It is much easier, he said, to own unusual or orphaned cars like the Rover now that web searches have made scarce parts more readily available. In the early 1990s, just a handful of suppliers controlled all Rover parts in North America, asking exorbitant prices because there was no alternative. But still, modern-day Rover ownership is not for the faint-hearted.
It’s hard to look back on the SD1’s brief US history without frustration. This was arguably one of the best sports sedans available in 1980, with an advanced design, comfortable interior and stout powertrain. Yet it was one of the most dramatic sales failures of its era. If only the car had been more reliable… and had a better distribution network… and been priced better… and hadn’t taken so long to get here… then the history of Rover over here might have been very different.
Photographed at the Sully Antique Car Show in Chantilly, Virginia in June 2016.