Rare Rides: The 1986 Rover SD1 Vanden Plas, Style, Luxury, and Utmost Quality

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

We’ve featured exactly two Rover vehicles in this series so far, which were the predecessor and successor of today’s SD1. Like the P6 before it and the 800 series after, the SD1 was the flagship executive car in Rover’s lineup.

The SD1 entered production in 1976, as British Leyland concluded the long-lived P6. P6 was in production since 1963, and a new model was long overdue. Development began in 1971, with an aim to replace the Triumph 2000 in addition to the P6, and discontinue any large car offering from Triumph. BL specifically wanted to go in an all-new direction, and leave the P6 and 2000 in the past.

Designed by Rover employees, David Bache penned the SD1’s Ferrari Daytona-inspired shape, and engineering was managed by Charles Spencer King. Both men worked together previously on another important BL project: the Range Rover. The team on SD1 focused on manufacturing simplicity and cost savings in comparison to the outgoing P6. The De Dion rear suspension of the P6 was ditched in favor of a live rear axle on the SD1, and drum brakes grabbed the rear wheels instead of discs. Looking forward to the future of luxury!

The interior was designed for flexibility as well: Controls sat in an independent box atop the dash and could be moved for left- or right-hand drive markets. Similarly, an air vent on the passenger side of the dash was where the steering column went for the opposite market. David Bache was an expert at this sort of switch-em-up layout, and had implemented it on the Range Rover and later on the Austin Metro. It meant Rover had to build only one basic dash layout.

A wide variety of engines were available on the SD1 dependent on year and trim. At base was a lowly 2.0-liter from the Morris Marina, alongside three different inline-six mills of 2.4- and 2.6-liter displacements. There was also the trusty 3.5-liter V8 used in a lot of other BL vehicles. Italy provided one diesel, a VM Motori inline-four from the Alfa Romeo Alfetta. GM provided a three-speed TH180 automatic to Rover, and a five-speed manual was also offered. You may know the TH180 from its starring role in the Geo Tracker.

Rover built the SD1 in three different factories in England during its tenure, most notably at Rover’s factory in Solihull where it was the last Rover-badged vehicle produced there. Today that factory builds the Range Rover Sport. Production for foreign markets also occurred in India, and New Zealand. The SD1 was built in two different Series models, a Series I from 1976 to 1982, and Series II from 1982-1986. Though there was great initial excitement for the clean break styling and innovation of the SD1, indifferent build quality, materials, and a “that’ll do” attitude at the factory garnered it a very mediocre reputation very quickly.

In 1980 Rover introduced the SD1 to North America, a return after a decade of absence. Wearing “Rover 3500” badges, all examples were V8 powered and similar to the top-line V8-S trim from the UK. Numerous changes were forced upon Rover by US regulation, most notably fuel injection, ugly exposed headlamps, and big heavy bumpers. Priced with the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes 300, it was a complete flop. 1980 sales totaled 480, and 1981 (mostly leftover 1980s) saw 774 additional sales. Rover retreated from the market once more and did not return until its one final attempt with the Sterling.

Speaking of which, the Rover-Honda jointly developed 800 series cars replaced the SD1 for 1987, as Rover went front-drive and modern with its new flagship. You probably know the rest. Today’s final year Vanden Plas is a European left-hand drive example. With leather, wood, and lace alloys, it has the Leyland 2.6 inline-six and an automatic. Yours for $15,000.

[Images: Rover]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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  • Myllis Myllis on Jun 21, 2021

    Fastest SD1, named Vitesse was called Saab Turbo and BMW killer in Germans autobahns. The Rover SD1 saw considerable success in Group A touring car racing in the mid-1980s in Europe. Among its major successes were: - Steve Soper and René Metge won the 1983 RAC Tourist Trophy driving a Rover Vitesse - Andy Rouse won the 1984 British Saloon Car Championship driving a Rover Vitesse. - Jeff Allam and Armin Hahne won the Group A class and finished 12th outright at the 1984 Bathurst 1000 in a Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) Rover Vitesse. - Tom Walkinshaw and Win Percy won six rounds (Monza, Vallelunga, Donington, Silverstone, Nogaro and Jarama) of the 1985 European Touring Car Championship driving a TWR Rover Vitesse. - TWR Rovers won five rounds (Monza, Donington, Anderstorp, Zeltweg and Silverstone) of the 1986 FIA Touring Car Championship. - Kurt Thiim won the 1986 DTM championship (Deutsche Tourenwagen Master) driving a Rover Vitesse. In touring car racing, the 3.5L Rover V8 engine produced approximately 340 bhp.

  • Boxerman Boxerman on Jun 21, 2021

    I was 16 in 1980 and an uncle bought a v8 one in europe. At the time it felt like it handled better than anything. What did I know being 16. Uncle sold it maybe 18 months later. Throttle cable kept on coming off its cam hinge by the carbs. Bash fell off somehow. Then they couldnt open the hood cause the latch broke etc. Cousin bought a 3 yo 2600, it hardley ran and rusted like a 20 to clunker with bits falling off evrywhere. Bl was a socialsit disaster, the wors build quality you can imagine, TR7 anyone. Sad part is the designers and engineers were really talented and did a lot with the little they had. What could hav been. The brits owned the sports car market in the 60s, but the 70s and 80's kept buiding the MGB cause why spend money on product when workers comitees control and don't think its necessary. How to have quality control when managemnt has no power. If you assume consumers have no choice and gov will just give you handouts its easy to slip into making crap, Fortunately for jaguar the xj6 was so good when designed that it kept the brand alive. Fortunatley for rover the range Raover was inspired and spawned a who genre. These are sucesses in spite of BL.

  • Scott So they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and they are promising us a “Cheaper EV”? I wonder how that will look and feel? They killed the Fiesta because they claimed that they couldn’t make a profit on them and when I bought the first one in late 2010 they couldn’t deliver the accessories I wanted for it! Then I bought a 2016 Fiesta ST and again couldn’t get the accessories for it I wanted. They claimed that the components were going to be available, eventually. So they lost on that one as well! I don’t care about what they say anymore. I’ve moved on to another brand.
  • Michael S6 CX 70 or 90 will not be on my buying list. Drove a rental base CX 90 and it was noisy and the engine noise was not pleasant. Ride was rough for a family SUV. Mazda has to understand that what is good for Miata isn't what we expect in semi luxury SUV. My wife's 2012 Buick Enclave has much better Ride and noise level albeit at worse gas millage. Had difficulty pairing my phone with Apple CarPlay
  • Michael S6 What is the metric conversion between one million barrels and the number of votes he expects to buy.
  • NJRide This could give Infiniti dealers an extra product maybe make it a sub brand
  • Lou_BC Mr. Posky outraged over an old guy passing er releasing some gas. How are those sedan sales going?