By on June 17, 2021

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]

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39 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1986 Rover SD1 Vanden Plas, Style, Luxury, and Utmost Quality...”


  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Just over 58,000 miles on the one for sale. 1986 model. A Rover. Read into that as you wish, but at least it hasn’t burned to the ground yet. Some of the best classic Top Gear moments always came when they had 1970s and 1980s-era British cars at their disposal. I always assumed they had the usual camera cars and then a tow truck not far behind.

    • 0 avatar

      I loved the BL challenge, and the £100 one too.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        I think it was a Rover when they went to open the driver’s door and the interior of the door stayed in place while the outside of the door opened. That part still makes me laugh…

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree

          While I won’t discount that there could be more than one British car that did such a silly thing…the story I heard in which the door card stayed in place when the door was opened was about a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur, written by Jean Jennings in 2002. And she wrote about it in the past-tense, too. The car that did it was either a new press unit or a newer (at the time) car that belonged to a private owner and was loaned to whichever publication she was writing for. I imagine it happened somewhere between 1987 and 1994.

          Crewe (the combined entity that included Bentley and Rolls-Royce) worked on shoestring budgets, with small staff. They couldn’t afford to do the same stress testing and quality control (QC) that major OEMs could do, such as Mercedes-Benz on the contemporary W140. The cars were often impeccably finished…but if something leaked through, there wasn’t a lot of QC to catch it and it would be a glaring and hilarious defect.

          • 0 avatar
            msquare

            She was writing for Car and Driver at the time and the incident was reported by David E. Davis Jr. when he was actually complimenting the contemporary Cadillac Sedan de Ville. He said while they encountered such an epic fail with a Rolls-Royce, he “never drove a Cadillac that wasn’t perfect.” His words.

            Car and Driver in particular was known for dropping hints here and there that they might not report in a car’s actual road test to avoid pissing off the manufacturers and advertisers. Of course, they didn’t pull punches with Detroit, which made Davis’ positive review carry all that much more weight.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        Here’s part of it:

  • avatar
    wolfwagen

    I remember seeing an ad for the Rover 3500 in National Geographic (i think) when I was about 10. Always thought that was a great-looking car. I showed my dad and he would never buy one due to BL reputation/quality and parts availability.
    I would still love to have one

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I remember “Wheeler Dealers” did one of these. Ant drove one in his days as a bronze and loved how it performed, but hated working on it.
    And that V8 is a second cousin to my Buick’s 3800.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    So much good stuff going on here…RWD, love the styling, love how understated the interior is.

    And then I saw the driver’s side door, which I’m going to be is permanently open a crack.

    This from the company that got bought by BMW and then basically abandoned a year later…

  • avatar
    KOKing

    I’ve seen exactly 2 of those 1254 US-market market ones on the road, and a couple more in lots of local British mechanics, but never at any sort of show. Clearly no nostalgia for them in the US.

  • avatar
    jmo

    There is a very good youtube channel called Big Car that goes into the history of various vehicles. He did the SD1 and it had a very late 70s early 80s GM quality about it. Namely that the first of these were terrible and over time they became quite good. But the quality problems with the first ones ruined it for subsequent vehicles.

    I think the main issue was they were so popular when they were introduced Leyland tried to build them as fast as they could…in a brand new factory… with newly hired staff. They would have been better off building 20,000 good cars than the 40,000 rush jobs they actually built. Again very 1980s GM.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    These were gorgeous and had a very commanding presence, more than comes across in the pictures. They caught my eye even on the streets of the Geneva where I partly grew up, which were full of S-classes and 735is. But I cannot imagine signing up voluntarily to own a product of British engineering in the National Enterprise Board era.

  • avatar
    Kyree

    Jaguar was spun off from British Leyland (the entity that included Rover and several other makes) in 1984. In 1990, Ford acquired it. Ford must have acquired the use of the Vanden Plas nameplate in the US, as well, because it began appearing on the Daimler-equivalent trims of the US-market XJ in the early 1990s…at the tail end of the XJ40-generation model. That carried into the subsequent X300, X308 and X350/6/8 generations of the XJ, or all the way into 2009. I myself currently own a 2006 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas. By the advent of the X350 (2004-2009 in the US), the Vanden Plas wasn’t nearly as nice as the Daimler, and that mantle was instead taken up by the Super V8 and Super V8 Portfolio.

    The Vanden Plas name was dropped for the final (sleeker) X351-generation XJ, which arrived in 2010/2011.

    Side note…I believe Vanden Plas comes from an old Dutch surname, Van den Plas, which translates to “of the lake/pond” and likely referred to a land owner whose land included some kind of significant or measurable body of water. Thus, while most English speakers will pronounce the car-related name as Vohn-den Plah (with the “ah” sound the same as in the word “honor”) and the S sound silent…the S is actually sharply pronounced. So it should be “Vohn-den ploss.”

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      Vanden Plas has been English for most of its existence. I lived in England for five years in the 1970s when the place was clogged up with Austin 1100s in disguise as the Vanden Plas Princess 1100 and then an Allegro version. Standard British “luxury” of the time: shag pile carpet, instruments and switches mounted on a plank of wood, levver seats, mate, and a fancy grille. Same cruddy car underneath. You know,a pretty good design on paper, subject to British production engineering, wot’s that, mate? and a load of blokes chucking the parts together in spots where it seemed most likely they might fit.

      Your pronunciation is way off. Here it is, and the English pronunciation is the first and correct one:

      https://www.pronouncekiwi.com/Vanden Plas

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    This is like the smoking heart woman at the end of the bar that looks like she isn’t a day over 38 but is actually 51.

    Never been married, engaged a few times, just had terrible experiences she says. She’s got a trick pelvis, a million dollar home, a BMW, and a great career.

    You know this is going to be amazing, you’ll never hold her, and she’s going to bankrupt you.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Is there a possiblity of small car companies prospering in the BEV future? With simplicity of buying a skateboard powertrain from a supplier perhaps we will enjoy interesting quirky vehicles again.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I hope so but diktats for crumple zones, roll over cages, and 800 airbags may put a crimp on it.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree

        It’s not so easy when they still have to do considerable engineering on all of those variants for safety, and then crash-test them. They also have to make sure that the powertrain (especially the battery, which is a highly dangerous, vulnerable assembly) integrates into the body structure.

        I don’t imagine it’s going to get any cheaper for large automakers themselves to continue doing that, so don’t expect Toyota to, say, revive the MR2 as an EV if it doesn’t make a whole lot of economical sense.

        Unless it’s an RV or some sort of large commercial vehicle, the days of an automaker producing a rolling chassis and then having a coachbuilder do up the body are long over.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    In the early 80’s I would see a few of these in the NYC metropolitan area. They had the US spec round headlights and federalized rubber bumpers.
    I wonder if these influenced the trend of the mid to full sized hatchbacks of the era like the Saab 9000, Chrysler LeBaron GTS/Dodge Lancer ES, Mazda 626 and Toyota Camry 5 doors. The Buick Regal sportback is probably the last of these short of the more upscale Audi A5 and A7.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree

      The Arteon and Stinger are also sporty, elongated-looking liftbacks (although the Arteon is quite underwhelming). At the upper end, you have the Panamera, AMG GT 4-Door, and Model S.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I finally saw a Arteon on the road the other day. Underwhelming but I’m glad it’s available. I actually think it’s a better deal than a Maxima. But for every one Arteon you see out there there are at least 30 Atlas’ and Tiguans.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          I feel more want for an old CC Executive 3.6, one of the last of the crazy Piëch cars, than a current Arteon.

          • 0 avatar

            Could never live with the willfully terrible rear of the CC and its super plastic console wedged between the seats. Bleh.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            The post-facelift CCs had a more conventional rear bench available, and they are also the best-equipped and best-looking. Definitely the right choice.

            (The console thing is also convertible to a bench with a fairly small amount of work by an upholstery shop.)

  • avatar
    msquare

    These cars were a hit when they first came out, actually in spite of the indifferent quality. Like here in the States, European quality in the 1970’s was pretty bad across the board, except for Mercedes.

    And Mercedes got that level of workmanship by literally building the cars twice, once to get all the parts together and again in quality control to get it right. Not very efficient compared to the Deming Principles the Japanese were using. And the Japanese put Europe into a similar tizzy as they did in North America.

    And like everything BL did at the time, it would have been much more successful had the quality been only slightly better.

    BL put out some interesting cars in the 1970’s, but they were let down by some of the world’s worst examples of build quality

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Is it just me? I don’t see Daytona as much as Citation.

    • 0 avatar
      msquare

      The Citation came out a few years after the SD1 did so you have to wonder if GM was influenced by BL. Neither one was much for quality at the time.

      • 0 avatar
        msquare

        The SD1 influence really shows up in the European J-car 5-door, a body style we didn’t get stateside. The Ascona/Cavalier of the time was almost a dead ringer from rear 3/4 view.

        https://www.favcars.com/opel-ascona-cc-c3-1986-88-images-298447

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Piece of $#!+

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Second picture (the ad) – This vehicle immediately sprang to mind:
    https://en.wheelsage.org/unsorted/american_vehicles/6000_sux/pictures/i2z3w9

    (wasn’t far off)

  • avatar
    NeilM

    The SD1’s aluminum V8 was licensed from Buick, and benefited from some useful continuing development over the years in the UK.

  • avatar
    myllis

    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.

  • avatar
    Boxerman

    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.

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