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As part of our search for the most iconic British cars of the last 60 years (head over there to vote for your own favourite) we’re looking at some of Britain’s best-loved cars in a little more detail. Today, we’re kicking things off with Rover’s stunning SD1.
The 1970s were confusing time for the British car industry. At the start of the 60s, Britain was still a pre-eminent force in motor manufacturing, but nationalisation and consolidation had seen us slip behind our European competitors and, most notably, the Japanese.
The advent of British Leyland had seen previously competing marques brought into one stable in a bid to rationalise production and increase the sharing of expertise and platforms. While prescient (today, many marques share components and design elements) the move was driven by political imperatives rather than market logic – meaning that inefficient plants were kept open because of their political importance to marginal seats – giving shop stewards a disproportionate hand in the direction of the company.
Despite this background, Britain still had confident designers and a still solid engineering base. King amongst the British designers was David Bache who in 1971 saw his radical design for Rover’s flagship saloon signed off by an enthusiastic board. Taking its styling clues from such unlikely sources as the Ferrari 365 Datyona and a design study known to posterity as the Pininfarini BMC 1800, the car looked nothing less than sensational when it hit the market in 1976. So strong an offering was it that it was European car of the year in 1977 and was adopted by police forces throughout the country as their preferred pursuit and patrol car.
If you grew up in the 1980s, the sight of the big Rover in police livery squealing through a pile of cardboard boxes on shows such as The Professionals is probably indelibly etched on your mind.
Powered by the venerable Buick-originated V8 that powered its P6 and P7 predecessors, the SD1 was a powerful and attractive package in the sector but, riven with the power plays between the unions and the government, the Rover was soon found to be poorly built and production was hampered by a series of walkouts over factory conditions, pay and a variety of other factors. Within a year, the problems were so great that production was running at a mere 50% of that anticipated.
Autocar, after their year long trial despondently reported:
“The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection. Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.”
Hampered by the public perception of its reliability and plagued by poorer than expected sales numbers, the SD1 arguable never lived up to its potential. Ultimately, it was replaced by the safer and far less inspiring Rover 800. When seen on the roads – even to this day – it is still a visual thrill.
Primarily, its stunning looks: nothing on the market looked quite like it and even today it is a real head turner in the flesh. But the problems that plagued its production also tell part of the story of British car manufacturer of the time. Brilliant design stymied by lackadaisical engineering and used as a pawn in political disputes, the SD1 is emblematic of both the best and worst of British car production of the last 60 years.
The head-turning Jaguar XF demonstrates that British designers still know how to design a stunning executive saloon car. Thankfully, the age of woeful manufacture is long behind us, but the reputation gave the likes of BMW’s 5 Series and the Audi A5 the chance to capitalise and become the de-facto standards during the 1980s.