(first posted 12/11/2013) Britain in the 1970s was a country full of contrasts, with many examples of the best and of the worst – the best summers I can remember and the three-day working week with staged power cuts; some of best music ever and some of the worst music ever; the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and horrible industrial strife; a Wimbledon winner and football riots; Fawlty Towers and a faulty fashion sense. It was the same with cars.
We were offered the BMW 5 series and the Vauxhall Ventora; the Alfasud and the Austin Allegro; the VW Golf and the Morris Marina; the Peugeot 504 and the Ford Zodiac Mk 4; the Citroen GS and the Ford Escort; the Mercedes Benz 450SEL 6.9 and the razor edge Aston Martin Lagonda; the list goes on.
British Leyland was a representative of all of this – one of the many intriguing things about BL in the 1970s is that while some of the products were inadequate in most senses, the company had more than its fair share of best, or close to best-in-class cars. There were the Jaguar XJ6 and 12, the XJ-S, the Land-Rover and Range Rover. Maybe you’d add the Mini, perhaps the Princess (don’t laugh – five people and their baggage rarely traveled in more space and comfort with such a strong contemporary style), the innovative Triumph Dolomite Sprint, perhaps even the Triumph TR7 convertible (in a small class, I accept). By 1980 the Austin Mini Metro and Leyland T45 big truck range were candidates as well.
Yes, there were some absolute clunkers – the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina come to mind immediately, as well as the old sports cars that were still hanging in there. But for many, the true star of BL in the 1970s was the 1976 Rover 3500, known as the SD1.
A bit of background: SD1 refers to Specialist Division project No 1. The Specialist Division was BL’s name for the Jaguar-Rover-Triumph grouping within the organisation, and the Rover SD1 was to be the first new product from this grouping. There never was an SD2, but as this is BL you won’t be surprised by that. Therefore, although this was a Rover, it was from a very different company than any previous Rover, and that shows in many ways in the product.
There were several reasons for this status for the SD1 – the styling, the engine, the performance of the car, the contrast between it and earlier Rovers, perhaps most of all the confidence it exuded at a time when such a commodity was in short supply for most, except maybe for the Bay City Rollers.
The SD1 was styled by David Bache, who had been Rover’s styling director for around 20 years, with the 1963 Rover 2000 (known as the P6) and the 1958 Rover 3 litre (known as the P5) on his CV. To my eye, both these cars also take an inspiration from elsewhere – the P5 from the 1955 Chrysler (especially around the screen and glasshouse) and the 2000 from the Citroen DS (around the roof line). The SD1’s styling is often likened to the Ferrari 365GTB/4, known as the Daytona, and Bache acknowledged its influence and that of the Ferrari 250LM.
But a strong claim can be made for inspiration from the Pininfarina designed BMC 1800 Berlina Aerodinamica (isn’t Italian a wonderful language – even aerodynamic saloon sounds like an invitation from Sophia Loren) of 1968.
The powerful and lasting influence of the Aerodinamica car was certainly there in the Citroen CX of 1974 and the Lancia Gamma of 1975.
Given the timing, I’d contest charges of plagiarism from Citroen or Lancia and, to my eyes at least, the 1976 version of the Rover is the best and strongest execution of the group, with the greatest presence and a superb stance on the road. Yes, it does have a likeness to the Ferrari, and there is a well known photo of BL lining it up against a Maserati Bora and a Ghibli. But with the exception of some details, such as the front indicators, personally I put its style down more to contemporary fashion, and an astute observation of it, than anything else.
The engine was familiar but still striking for this class of car in Europe. It was a V-8, then a preserve of Mercedes Benz in Europe, give or take some Opels and imported Australian Chrysler Valiants. It had been used by Rover since 1967, an all-aluminum engine that had originally been designed and built by Buick, where it was known as the Buick 215 and installed in the 1961 Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest and LeMans.
Its high power to weight ratio made this an attractive engine for motorsport and marine applications and it was in a boat that Rover first saw it, shortly after GM had ceased production. Manufacturing issues associated with cast aluminum and some cooling issues had raised the production cost ahead of that of a cast iron engine, so GM withdrew it. Rover obtained the rights from GM, and in 1967 put the engine into the P5 3 Litre, to create the 3.5 Litre, and into the P6 2000 to create the 3500. All Rover’s competitors were limited to, at most, six cylinders and many were more focused on four cylinder variants, so the V-8 was a strong draw. Rover built on the capability of this engine by fitting a 5 speed gearbox, with a tall fifth gear for good cruising. This created an essential part of the character of the car. In V-8 form, the car had around 155BHP and a genuine 125mph.
Given that the Rover SD1 had to replace the complete Rover P6 range (2000 and 3500), and the Triumph 2000 and 2500, Rover also offered the 2300 and 2600 with heavily reworked overhead camshaft versions of the Triumph’s elderly 6 cylinder engines and slightly reduced specification levels. These cars came in 1977, but the V-8 is the car we remember.
The styling and the hatchback configuration were a big change for the regular Rover customer, but the interior was just as much of a change. Rover was, to this point, one of the more conservative brands in the UK, with a high dose of wood and leather in the interior, even if the underlying architecture was essentially more modern. The SD1, as offered in 1976, had no wood and no leather, and no option for it either. Instead, we were offered an interior that has stood the test of time because it was modern, attractive and ergonomically pretty sound.
Bache showed that you didn’t have to try to match the style of a Bentley or a (1970s) Jaguar to be attractive in this market, but instead gave us an interior that was much more modeled on the principles of industrial design, featuring soft feel plastics, an instrument binnacle that was actually a pod on the top of a shelf and a dash moulding that was common to left and right hand drive. Distinctive, attractive, modern.
Underneath, the car was perhaps surprisingly conventional – front MacPherson struts, a torque tube style live rear axle, rear wheel drive, the 5 speed manual or 3 speed automatic, and carburettors rather than fuel injection.
In July 1976, the impact of this car on British public was unlike anything seen for a long time, before or after – here was a car from our own (government owned) BL, which offered more for £4750 than the BMW2500 did for £6600, or than the Jaguar XJ6 3.4. The V6 Peugeot 604, at £5300, looked lost; the Ford Granada looked old and inadequate. The Citroen CX and Lancia Gamma could only offer 4 cylinder engines; the Volvo 244 and 264 looked even more like fridges with bumpers than before, the Renault 30 just ungainly. Chrysler and GM (in the UK at least) had no answer at all.
I referred earlier to the confidence this car exuded – partly that was from the appearance and stance, something the Citroen for example didn’t do, partly it was from its challenge to conformity and tradition and partly from its performance and value for money. Here was a car faster than a Mercedes-Benz 280SE for around 60% of the cost; it looked more modern and dramatic than anything in its class; it handled better than almost all its competitors; it went faster than most as well; it was 1976 on wheels. It was European Car of the Year for 1977. It was a hit; it was a runaway success.
Or rather it would have been if BL had been able to meet the demand. You know something is going wrong when franchised dealers sell cars at 10-15% over list, which is recorded as having happened in 1976 and 1977. The day after launch, a car was auctioned for £600.00 (12%) over list. But bigger problems were in store.
Remembering that this is 1970s Britain, you just know industrial relations strife will come into any account sooner or later. The SD1 had it within days of the launch, when a dispute arose in the factory over a raffle of five of the new cars for assembly workers. Non-assembly workers objected and many staged a 24-hour strike. Then, a week later, a two-hour stoppage occurred involving 1770 workers, who complained of excessive heat (1976 was one the best summers I can remember) in the factory. On 5th August, two workers were disciplined for poor punctuality resulting in a walkout by paint shop staff, which halted SD1 production for 24 hours. All of these events came to public notice, promptly.
Production of bodies for SD1 was as much as 50 per cent below target, although the targets were set by agreement with shop stewards. Nearly eight months after the car was launched, the assembly factory at Solihull was turning out fewer than 400 cars a week, mainly because of the failure to supply enough bodies.
The situation was also exacerbated by the infamous tool-makers strike, across all of BL in the early months of 1977, which began as soon as the Castle Bromwich body plant resumed normal working – domestic supplies were drastically cut, but more disastrously when the SD1 was put on sale in Europe in March 1977, the dealers had no stock to sell. By October 1977, SD1 production was again halted, this time the cause was a six-week strike by 57 axle assemblers.
BL spent 1977 and 1978 fruitlessly trying to establish a third shift at the (brand new) factory, and to achieve 20,00 cars a week. Disputes elsewhere within the BL factory network and at suppliers led to significant loss of production and interruptions as well, with lines of incomplete cars being a familiar sight, waiting for the last magic component. It may seem bizarre now but in January 1978, SD1 production was again halted for 24 hours after six inspectors walked out in protest at the colour of their overalls, and 40 other inspectors struck in sympathy. Inspectors must have white coats!
And by 1978, the car’s reputation for reliability and durability started to nosedive – weaknesses in the paint processes, electrical systems, some of the trim materials, the fit and finish of the body assembly leading to wind noise and leaks were some of the main complaints. The six cylinder cars also suffered from camshaft failures and there is at least one account of a car being delivered to the customer with no working reverse gear!
In 1979, Rover offered the V-8S – essentially a 3500 with all the options added, including air conditioning. which could be seen as a precursor to the American specification car. The less said abut the SD1’s American career the better (CC on that subject here). Sales were measured in hundreds and ended in months. The V-8S was “available in most Rover showrooms”, but not all, for some reason.
Six years in, Rover facelifted the car, and moved production to Cowley, Oxford (now the MINI factory) from Solihull, where the new factory was closed. Now we were in the 1980s, so the car got the automotive equivalent of big hair and shoulder pads. Bumpers were bigger, headlamps bigger, rub strips on the doors, more chrome, revised rear window profile and a wiper, a bigger pod for the instruments, and some wood and leather inside. The black car featured here is a 1985 3500SE, which by then had a full leather and wood interior.
The SD1 swansong was the 1982 Rover Vitesse, such as the red car above. This had a 193bhp version of the V-8 with the performance and appearance to match. Wide wheels, stripes, a large rear spoiler and significant attitude boost made this the enthusiast’s Rover for the 1980s. Also offered after the 1982 facelift were a four cylinder Rover 2000 and a diesel engine in the 2400SD.
Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, the SD1 was the car ofc hoice of many police forces, especially for motorway patrol and the like, to the extent that cars were stockpiled when production stopped in 1986. To see what these cars (and their drivers) could do, such as 7 miles across central London in less than 16 minutes, go here – you can even here the V8! The SD1 had some motorsport success also, in the European Touring Car Championship in the early 1980s.
The SD1 was the last rear drive Rover, the last V-8 Rover and the last all British Rover. Its successor, the 800 series (sold as the Sterling in North America – CC here) was a shared project with Honda and the last large Rover, the awkward and contrived 75, was developed with help from BMW in Germany.
The SD1 is now a scarce car, even in the UK. I have seen just one on the road this year, and just one last year. Many were lost to corrosion, many also scrapped for their V8s or rear axles for motorsport use. Banger racing has also claimed many – it always looks fun but then you consider the heritage implications and rapidly go away from it.
But to those of us who remember scouring our local newsagents for the weekly car magazines after school one Wednesday in July 1976, this is one car we truly remember from the 1970s, and I for one would take a tidy Rover 3500 series 1 over any car mentioned in this blog
And the best music of the 1970s? Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Without a doubt!