road test: 1978 Rover 3500

Rover 3500The Rover 3500 made a dazzling entry to the late seventies executive car scene. Prettier than a Seven Series, roomier than a 380SEL and faster than an XJ6, the innovative new high end hatchback won European Car of the Year in 1977. And with strong styling cues from the Ferrari Daytona, it had striking good looks too. The SD1 proved an instant sales success, packing dealers’ showrooms within hours of its 30th June 1976 launch date.

Sadly though, things could only get worse. The car many believed could save British Leyland proved a constant headache as soon as the launch party was over. The SD1’s tragedy is that it should have put Rover back on the map for design excellence, but ended up reminding punters how badly BL built cars.

The basic design outclassed its rivals in terms of style, comfort, refinement and strength, not to mention character. It came from two of the greatest post war British automotive engineering minds. Leyland Cars’ Director of Engineering Spencer King did the platform and rolling chassis, while Director of Styling David Bache penned the distinctive body shape and interior. The former had previously engineered the 1964 Car of the Year award-winning Rover P6, 1968’s Range Rover and the 1975 Triumph TR7, the latter was responsible for styling the original Land Rover and Range Rover.

The idea was simple – an executive car with class-leading levels of comfort, speed and safety. To wit, Leyland formed a ‘Specialist Division’, bringing together the best brains from Triumph and Rover. The SD1 was the result, built in a brand new purpose-built Solihull factory at a cost of £95million.

Many considered the SD1 a striking car when it first appeared, being the first executive express to sport a five-door hatchback body (Renault had the 30, but this was neither as beautiful or as upmarket) with a slippery drag coefficient of 0.39. Indeed, from certain angles the SD1 had strong hints of a Ferrari Daytona – Bache himself said that early clay bucks were put alongside Maseratis and Ferraris where it, “looked perfectly in keeping”.

Whereas Spen King had given the P6 high tech – from trick DeDion rear suspension to rear disc brakes – the SD1 used carefully honed conventional engineering to give handling light years ahead of its predecessor. Front suspension was an evolution of the Triumph 2000’s MacPherson struts, while a live rear axle kept the rear on the road with a torque tube arrangement boasting anti-dive, anti-squat geometry and Boge self-levelling dampers. A Watts linkage with cushioning courtesy of constant-rate coil springs completed the package.

By mid seventies safety standards its spec was outstanding – a rigid passenger cell with the fuel tank hidden ahead of the rear axle beneath the floor, horizontal door compression struts and a front hinged bonnet, collapsible steering column with steering wheel crash pad, Triplex 10-20 tinted laminated windscreen, crush resistant under fascia lockers and optional Dunlop Denovo run-flat tyres.

For many buyers though, the Rover 3500’s main attraction was its all-alloy, 213 cubic inch lump under the bonnet. Even in 1976, a power output of 155BHP at 5,250RPM from 3,528cc was not prodigiously high, but 198 lb./ft of torque at a trifling 2,500RPM was ample compensation. It was a joy in both the P5B and P6, but for the SD1 it got even better thanks to extractor-phased exhaust manifolding (designed for the stillborn Rover BS mid-engined sportscar), Lucas transistor ignition, hydraulic tappets, better head porting and larger inlet and exhaust valves.

The rev limit duly grew to 6,000RPM (although peak power was at 5,250RPM), which was a full 800RPM higher than the P6 and 1,250RPM more than the Buick original. The result was a clean, punchy and surprisingly economical power unit. At 26cwt (1320kg) the SD1 was a heavy car, but could still turn in sub-8.5 second 0-60 times and standing quarters in 17 seconds. Yet outright performance wasn’t really the point, because the V8’s wall of torque gave impressive in-gear acceleration, effortless overtaking and ridiculously long-legged cruising. With 28.03MPH per 1000RPM, the old thumper would only be turning at 3,500RPM at 100MPH! The tallest geared car in the world for quite some time, it was a star on long motorway hikes.

“Design a five speed gearbox with a change as good as Ford’s four speed”, was Spen King’s goal for the new gearbox being developed jointly for the SD1 and Triumph TR7/TR8. The LT77 was the result, a sturdy single-rail design using Timken tapered roller bearings on both mainshaft and layshaft, with baulk-ring synchromesh on all five forward cogs. In truth it wasn’t the smoothest operator around, but it was positive in a notchy way and cold starts notwithstanding, solidly satisfying to use.

In October 1977 the 3500 was joined by the 2300 and 2600, using brand new six cylinder engines based on – but sharing nothing with – Triumph’s old in-line six that powered the 2000. Its character was quite different to the V8. Surprisingly revvy, Spen King later admitted how the design team had struggled to keep the 2600’s power output down to the quoted 136BHP! With 152 lb./ft of torque it was swift in manual form and soon gained acres of good press, unlike the 2300 which at 123BHP (with 134lb/ft of torque) was underpowered. Its poverty spec didn’t help sales either, lacking those pretty clover leaf wheel trims, tachometer, electric windows and halogen headlamps of its big brothers.

For the first two years of its life SD1 sales were very healthy, but took a dive when the 1980 oil crisis hit. Rover duly embarked on the first of countless upgrades, improving the seat trim, heater, auto transmission, switch gear and audio equipment. Most significant though was the reintroduction of the company’s traditional badge design, heralding the return to Rover core constituency of conservative customers. By all accounts, the ultra-modern ‘skeletal’ Rover badge penned by a jewellery designer hadn’t gone down too well with buyers, along with the car’s lack of leather and wood.

Next came the V8-S, launched in June 1979 with stacks of extra equipment ranging from SU Butec air conditioning, electric sunroof and plush quilted velour upholstery, to metallic paint, headlamp wash and alloy wheels. No sooner had this arrived when the range was rationalised into 2300, 2300S, 2600S, 3500SE and Vanden Plas models. The latter carried the luxury mantle over from the V8-S, while the others set the model hierarchy used until the last SD1 ever made.

By this time the big Rovers had got themselves an appalling reputation for unreliability, which successfully managed to wipe out the car’s once sky-high residuals and banish it to the sales wilderness. Tragic tales of drivers being locked in when the central locking and electric windows failed, coupled with dreadful rust problems (especially on yellow cars!) did for the SD1 what Red Robbo had for BL. Ironically, the gremlins that beset the early cars had been ironed out by the time the media scares bit, but the damage was done.

On January 20th, 1982 the new Cowley-built Series Two cars arrived. Exterior changes were subtle; the headlamps were moved forward and given a chrome trim strip, the bumpers changed from stainless steel to plastic, the rear window was enlarged and given its own programmed wash-wiper, the dash was redesigned and trim was upgraded across the range.

The changes certainly breathed life into the car, along with the stacks of extra equipment. The new long instrument binnacle was highly distinctive, the seats much improved, the heater worked properly, a trip computer arrived for the first time, as did a large strip of wood on the dash. Coupled with the Vanden Plas’ leather seats, it was just what Rover’s traditional constituency had wanted all along.

The Vitesse arrived soon after, taking its name from Triumph’s cute sixties sports saloon after Aston Martin refused use of the name ‘Rapide’. With no less than 190BHP and 220lb.ft of torque the 130MPH car was hoot to drive, with sub 7.5sec 0-60 times and a superb chassis that didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when the extra horses were summoned up.

The 2400SD Turbo was launched in April 1982, appropriately enough at the Turin Motor Show thanks to its Italian Stabilimenti Meccanici VM HR492 diesel engine. Aspirated by a KKK turbocharger, the 2393cc lump’s 90BHP could barely get the big Rover moving, although its 142lb.ft of torque did a reasonable job of keeping it going if used carefully. The meagre power output and extra weight meant a lower 3.9:1 axle ratio was needed, so economy wasn’t significantly better than a gingerly driven 2600.

The 2000 was Austin Rover’s assault on the Ford Granada, a car that had borrowed much from the SD1’s luxury hatchback blueprint. Now it was payback time, so in went a 101BHP 1994cc O Series engine in breathed on twin carb form. That it had come from the Ital might have seemed shocking but BL had big plans for it, not least in the re-engineered Triumph TR7 they’d been planning all along. The first 2000s were very low rent machines with little in the way of creature comforts, but were nonetheless surprising pleasant to drive if you weren’t in too much of a hurry.

The SD1 story continued with yearly equipment upgrades, so that by 1986 the Rover 2000 was actually far better appointed than the original 3500. The 2600 got the Vanden Plas option in 1984, and the Vanden Plas 3500 got the Vitesse’s EFi (electronic fuel injection) at the same time, making the best luxury express of its day. The last few Vitesse models got a twin plenum fuel injection system, for which no official power output figures were ever published. Reputed to give a useful few extra foot-pounds of torque, the manual Vitesse Twin Plenum was a very swift beast indeed.

Throughout its lifetime the car was plagued by reliability problems, many centring around its marginal electrics. If only Rover had gone the BMW route and traded the SD1’s lavish specification for decent quality control, the car would have been a world beater, thanks to the best chassis of its day and one of the finest engines. Its ride, handling, refinement, comfort and sheer sense of occasion were all streets ahead of its rivals, right up to the day it was replaced. It was truly an inspired design – if only the same could be said about its manufacture.



  1. 222rab

    Rust especially on Yellow Cars ! What a load of rubbish ,rust was bad on all early series 1 cars but more so on metallics as the paint tended to come off in lumps when stone chipped,if anything yellow cars have survived best – unlike all the Carribean Blue ,Persian Aqua ,Platinum and Midas cars ,also ive never came across a series 1 car which locked me inside – all you do is operate the lock button manually if the system fails .Frankly if you are going to right stories about the SD1 at least get your facts right and dont fall into the myths and tails school of writing ,ive had many cars and been involved with them right back to my brother in laws new 3500 back in 79.

    • I’ve had twelve SD1s myself, including a mint 35-year 2600 in Caribbean Blue with all its original paint intact, and the Platinum Metallic 3500 pictured above, again on its original perfect paint. Nineteen seventies BL cars did rust, but not anymore than most other car brands of that time, so I think your comment is too sweeping. As I say, it was a lovely car spoilt by poor build and detail finish; personally I would rather that than an unlovely car built slightly better.

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