Wednesday July 13, 2016
If you are of a certain vintage – i.e. old enough to remember Watney’s Party Seven, Richard O’Sullivan in Man About the House, and the summer of 1976 - you will probably remember the first time you encountered the new SD1 series Rover 3500 some forty years ago.
One of the very few familiar reference points was the sound of the 3.5 litre V8 engine., for several motorists were convinced that this was a five-door Ferrari Daytona or a similarly unattainable and exotic machine.
The SD1’s extremely challenging task was to replace the Rover P6 and the Triumph 2000/2500 in addition to tempting Mercedes-Benz and Audi drivers into their local British Leyland (BL) showroom. Spen King was in charge of the engineering, and the styling was by the great David Bache, who was openly influenced by the Ferrari 365GTB/4. The new Rover was marginally more powerful than its predecessor – 155 bhp as opposed to 143 bhp – there was a new, Triumph designed, five-speed gearbox and, one of the main selling points was the rear hatchback door. When Rover unveiled the 3500 on the 30th June 1976 it was almost unique in its market sector; the Austin Maxi had no claim to be a luxury car and of overseas rivals, the Renault 30 predated the SD1 by a year, but that built on the success of the 16. As compared with the Ford Granada Ghia, the Volvo 264 or the Peugeot 604 the Rover was a truly ground-breaking design, and if Bache had his way, the 3500 would have looked more radical still; he was extremely keen on the idea of gull-wing doors until economics forced him to dispense with the plan.
However, even when fitted with conventional side doors, the motoring press loved it - Autocar stated that the 3500 ‘should be one of the successes of the decade’ and Motor Sport went so far to say the launch date ‘will go down in contemporary motoring history’. At a time when the British Leyland brand was fighting for its survival, the Rover was a note of confidence and the publicity material highlighted the £95 million investment in a new factory. SD1 enthusiasts did note some foibles; the limited headroom for the front seat occupants if the optional sliding roof was specified, and the choke lever was apparently designed to snap off in the driver’s hand. But these were minor issues on the Car of the Year 1977 that cost only £4,750 and yet had adjustable steering and central locking (the latter was a real talking point in late 1970s suburbia) as standard. It soon became a ubiquitous sight as a police car and civilian owners had the kudos of driving a television star; Mark One Productions used a yellow press fleet 3500 for The New Avengers and early episodes of The Professionals.
BL continuously developed the Rover throughout its ten-year production run and although budget limitations ruled out four-door saloon or estate versions derivatives still ranged from the 190 bhp fuel-injected Vitesse to the entry level 2000. Plants in India, New Zealand and South Africa built the SD1 but the major issue with the early examples was reliability problems. The facelifted models launched in 1982 were a good deal more dependable but the damage to the brand was long-lasting, not least in the vital US export market. But today, the SD1 is regarded as a flawed but genuine automotive masterpiece and should you encounter a rare survivor at a car show, just compare it with any of its contemporaries. Then marvel at how, forty years ago, BL did make one of the finest executive cars in the world.