The Rover SD1 was built between 1976 and 1986, and in some ways was the last great car produced by the soon-to-be doomed British manufacturer – British Leyland.
Think what you will about 70’s British cars, it’s hard to deny that the SD1 was, and still is, a beautiful car to look at. Designer David Bache (who also had a hand in designing the original Range Rover) was determined to create an aesthetically powerful looking machine and drew inspiration from motoring icons such as the Ferrari Daytona.
The SD1 was available with a range of engines, ranging from a 2.0 litre six-cylinder, right up to the one everyone wants, the roaring 3.5 litre V8. Interestingly, in an effort to reduce production costs Rover made the decision to take a simpler approach to some of the componentry than they had done with previous models. Notably they moved away from the complex De-Dion independent rear suspension seen on the P6 and reverted to a “live rear axle” set up (as was frequently used by their competitors at Ford). This did however mean drum brakes came as standard on the rear, which were a little optimistic for the V8 powered cars, and often converted by hobbyists in a disc-brake set up.
This move towards simplicity didn’t deter the public or the motoring press, as the SD1 was voted European car of the year in 1977. Despite the early fanfare, build quality issues soon became apparent. This was of particular concern, because in terms of pricing the SD1 was pitched against rivals from BMW and Mercedes, who were already well known for producing high quality automobiles.
Despite its shortcomings, the SD1 remains to this day a British motoring icon, from a time where form over function could still result in strong sales! The SD1 sold over 300,000 units before being replaced by the uninspiring by comparison Rover 800.
Joe’s SD1 is a late, series 2, V8 powered model meaning it has fuel-injection which gave the car 190bhp in standard form (huge numbers for the time). The car is immaculate, and we love the fact Joe has modified it from a performance standpoint, but left the car original aesthetically speaking. We caught up with Joe to find out how he found himself to be the owner of this unlikely British sports saloon…
Rover 3500 SD1 ‘Vitesse’ (1985)
- The engine block has been re-linered with top hat liners, new pistons, a hotter cam, and the whole rotating assembly lightened and balanced.
- Big valve cylinder heads which have been machined for composite head gaskets, giving a compression ratio of 9.75:1.
- The fuel and intake system are also slightly modified with rebuilt injectors, increased fuel pressure, and carbon fibre intake trumpets.
Interview with the owner
- These cars really look incredible – when did you buy this one Joe?October 2016
- These aren't the obvious choice for young car enthusiasts, what made you buy a Rover SD1?It's completely my Dad's fault. He had 2 SD1s in the 80's and 90's, so I have SD1s ingrained throughout my childhood. The last one we had was a 1985 3500 'Vanden Plas' and this was stolen in around 1999 which was gutting.After spending my teenage years and early 20's mucking around with classic Minis I fancied a change. The Goodwood Members Meet live streams re-ignited the interest drawing me back to the big Rovers. Watching them battle the nimble minis and romp past them on the straights with that V8 howl brought it all back.After spending some time convincing my Dad to help me, we both wanted a Vitesse. The fastest, and in my opinion the ultimate SD1. What we soon realised was demand had started to outstrip supply and any cars that did come up were snapped up within hours. I wanted a nice twin plenum (last 500 UK market Vitesses) but couldn't find one. So I widened the search to all Vitesses. I eventually found BCK on eBay advertised as a project and I do like a challenge!
- So what's it like to drive with that lump under the bonnet?A big angry armchair!It's a brilliant mix of the best of Austin Rover British luxury, and a thunderous V8 exhaust note. The engine is biggest character for me, and surprises a lot of people with how well it goes. It has a distinct rear wheel drive feel, but is quite docile thanks to a long wheel base and an open diff.The gear change requires a good shove, and can be a bit agricultural, but does have a nice positive feel when warm. The gears are long though and it does blunt the acceleration a tad, but makes for an excellent cruiser. Steering is oddly light, thanks to over assisted power steering and a massive steering wheel. I did try a smaller steering wheel and although it did make it feel more nimble I couldn't see the dials, so I went back to the original.It's a lovely car to drive both for a blast and over long distances. I recently took it down to Goodwood for the Retro Rides Weekender, it ate the 400miles over the weekend with ease.
- What's the current BHP? (and torque if you know it!)In standard form it's got 190bhp / 220lbft. However this car is running 230-250bhp.
- Has the car been restored / rebuilt?Yeah it's had some work done to it.I bought the car when it was in need of attention. The main reason I got it was the previous owner had experienced some serious engine troubles, and despite replacing the engine it still barely ran.The car itself had spent a large proportion of its life outside, and although heavily protected this had started to take its toll. Saying this it was still in remarkable condition with only a few areas of corrosion that needed attention, much better than any mini I'd ever seen!I had the car off the road for almost 2 years taking the car to pieces, doing all the small body repairs and cleaning and fixing things as I went. No panels were replaced, and only required small bits of paint. The headlining was the only part that required re-trimming, with the rest just cleaned using a wet vacuum. This work was finished in June 2018. I got the car to run well, and took it to shows but the replacement engine was lacking in power and needed attention…
- Ok, so the engine… it's all about the engine! What have you done with it?So, as mentioned, the next project with this car was the engine. I bought the car with a replacement engine, but managed to also secure the original engine when I bought it. I always intended on re-uniting BCK with its original engine, and in 2019 it was time. It had been heavily damaged by lean running, and had detonated in one cylinder. After talking to a few specialists I found John Eales @ J.E. Developments. It was essential to restore the original block and he assured me this was possible. I also decided to put my stamp on the car a little, and went with John's recommendations to build the best road V8. I had the block re-linered with top hat liners, new pistons, a hotter cam, and the whole rotating assembly lightened and balanced. Big valve cylinder heads machined for composite head gaskets, and a compression ratio of 9.75:1 sounded perfect! J.E. completed the machining work, and assembled the short engine, and I put together the long block and installed it in the car. The fuel and intake system are also slightly modified with rebuilt injectors, increased fuel pressure, and carbon fibre intake trumpets. But retains the original Lucas L-Jetronic system.The engine is now nicely broken in with about 7k miles on it.
- Amazing, and always great to get the original engine back in where possible! Do you plan to do any further modifications to it?Yes. I had planned on going for a more "restomod" approach, but ended up doing an almost factory restoration! Apart from the engine it's completely as it should be, so any further modifications will stay very subtle.With the increase in power it feels like it needs a little more in the brakes department. I've also looked at aftermarket wheels, a set of period Ronals would go very well. But ultimately the SD1 EFI lattice wheels work so well I don't think I'll bother!I am also tempted with an LSD…
- Is the car a "keeper" or will you sell it one day?She's a keeper!
- Do you own any other interesting cars?I still have my first car, a 1978 Mini 1275 GT. I bought that car in 2013, and when it gave up daily duties I tucked it away. I did pull it out this year, but it requires some work before it'll be used properly again. It's not in great condition, and was done to look like a period Mini Challenge race car. I still absolutely love it.
- Ok final question – ignoring cost, and assuming you couldn’t go and sell it for profit… what’s your dream car and why?Being a car nut this is always an impossible question! As a child it would have instantly been a Jensen Interceptor, the coolest named car! Now I change my mind almost daily, but I think my currently favourite would be a BMW 850CSI in Daytona Violet please. In my mind the perfect combination of old enough to be interesting, and new enough to be useable. I love the styling and the combination of a manual gearbox and a 5.6l V12 just sounds amazing.