Welcome to Forgotten Cars, where we highlight fascinating cars and engines that are obscure, unrecognized and lost to the passage of time.
I have a kind of sick interest in Rovers. Last week, I expressed some illogical love towards a '75 V8 with a paint job obviously picked out by someone who was clearly colorblind. But many others are good looking, the old ones had lots of ingenious features and they're British cars that aren't Jaguars. The P6 is a handsome thing, but I've always been attracted to its successor, the SD1. A rear-wheel drive, V8 hatchback sounds like the best of all worlds.
Ask a Brit, and they've most certainly owned or knew someone who owned an SD1 – it's a Rover after all. But an American would have no idea what it was, even if you were around in 1980 when the car was launched on these shores at Jaguar and Triumph dealerships. Ask someone today, though, if they know what a Rover 3500 is and the response will probably be, "You mean a Land Rover?" That discussion could go on for some time.
The SD1 was originally launched in the summer of 1976 in the UK. It was intended to replace the very ‘60s P6 as a sort-of upscale sedan that wasn't quite as big or plush as a Jaguar XJ6. The launch model was the 3500, with the 3.5-liter V8 bought by Rover from Buick in the ‘60s. That engine went on to power the Range Rover and various other British cars.
What made the SD1 special in 1976 were the looks. Even today, it cuts a striking image from certain angles. If you squint really, really hard (or have eyesight that rivals Mr. Magoo's) it resembles an Audi A7.
According to AROnline, the holy grail for everything British Leyland, the SD1 started in the early ‘70s as a five-door hatchback designed by David Bache that also incorporated gullwing doors. This wasn't an Autozam from the ‘90s, though, so it had a conventional five-door arrangement. Actually, that wasn't very conventional, either, for the time, since only Renault and Citroen were making big, plush hatchbacks then with the 20/30 and CX, respectively. But what set the SD1 apart were the lines that mimicked a Ferrari Daytona's, and again, squint hard and you can see the similarities.
Inside, Rover went for a modern look without the traditional British cockpit. There was no wood, but there were lots of features. The most ingenious touch of the interior was the instrument gauge package that could be moved for either left or right hand drive by simply moving it to the opposite side of the car without any redesign of the dashboard.
When it went on sale in 1976, the British press was naturally enamored with it. Autocar wrote:
‘It is hard to be over-enthusiastic about the new 3500; on every score, its qualities justify any kind of enthusiasm. I would have been hard to predict, especially looking at the bald paper specification, just how well the car would perform, handle and ride.
‘Add to that the spaciousness and aerodynamic efficiency of the body, and the attention paid to ensuring that the car will last, and it is easy to see why all competitors are casting worried glances, not only at the car but also at its price. If the 3500 will be built in sufficient numbers, if the quality can be maintained along with the price, and if the ground is not cut from under its wheels by ill-advised legislation, the new 3500 should be one of the successes of the decade.'
The car was so universally praised at its lauch that it even walked away with the European Car of the Year Award for 1976, the most recent car with a British badge to do so.
The federalized version came along in 1980, with the V8 putting out a rather unimpressive 133 horsepower. It also sacrificed the concealed headlamps for four round sealed beam units that were rather ungainly, actually. In Popular Mechanics of June 1980, Ed Jacobs wrote:
"Since engine, transmissions, and final-drive assemblies are shared with the also-new Triumph TR8, this is one family sedan definitely intended for sporty driving. It rides solidly on the open road, and feels firm and well controlled. Handling is nice, with no undesirable characteristics."
"Power is more than adequate with the automatic, but is better with the five-speed. My only substantial complaint about the car is its unusually high fan noise at cruise, which is out of place in a $16,000 car that is otherwise agreeable."
But the Rover 3500, as it was known here, really bombed among Americans. The company imported at great expense somewhere between 800 and 1400 vehicles that took well into 1981 to sell. By then, BL's presence in the States had practically dried up, with MG out of production and Triumph packing up the TR7 in 1981, leaving Jaguar hanging on by its claws.
It all came down to quality, as early SD1s were appallingly constructed. There are stories of people ending up with water leaks through the hatch, insanely poor panel fits, all in spite of the fact the American versions were well-equipped and slightly undercut the BMW 5-series of the era. The reputation for indifferent quality killed the car's reputation globally, as about 300,000 were made in its 11-year production run.
Rover followed up the disaster of the SD1 in America with the Sterling line of 1987-1991, and that was equally bad because not only was the car basically an Acura Legend, it was still built badly and had nothing of the SD1's looks or novelty. Or rear-drive V8-ness.
All of this is a shame, because the 3500 was a really good package. It's one of those cars that, looking back some 33 years after its American launch, you would've hoped you could find a nice-ish example and be able to reasonably use it as a daily driver. And every now and then, a federal SD1 turns up on Craigslist in Palo Alto or in some elderly professor's garage who's had it from new and kept it covered in a perpetual state of dust. They're still stupidly fragile, but maybe someone experienced can take it apart and put it back together better than BL did in the first place. I'd drive that.
Do any of you Yanks have experience with old Rovers?