Rover SD1


Rover SD1 Review

Equally adept as an executive express or saloon car champion, the Rover SD1 still makes good on its sleek and sporty looks…

What Is It?

Depending on who you speak to the Rover SD1 is either a pinnacle of retro British cool and a canny blend of sleek styling and V8 muscle. Or one of the grand follies of the ‘70s domestic car industry and, given its astronomical development costs, sometimes woeful build quality and relatively modest sales, one of the architects of its downfall. Possibly both, indeed.

Either way, the SD1 – an abbreviation of the internal Specialist Division 1 designation under which it was developed – has come to symbolise the ‘80s era in which it really made its name. Against its contemporary exec saloon rivals it still stands out for its Ferrari Daytona inspired, five-door fastback styling and performance credentials sealed on both the racetrack and the nation’s motorways, where in classic ‘jam sandwich’ police livery it became an iconic sight on British roads. As a modern classic its stature is growing, too.

Corrosive Areas

Inner and outer wings

Front and rear valances

Door lower edges


  • Launched in 1976 as the V8-powered 3500, Rover SD1 production is neatly divided into Mark 1 and Mark 2 phases, with the latter coming in 1982
  • Mark 1s can be identified by their recessed headlights, chrome bumpers (on most models) and smaller instrument binnacle
  • Mark 2s feature flush-fitting lights, wraparound bumpers, a front chin spoiler, a broader engine range and a bigger instrument binnacle stretching across the shelf-like dash to the centre of the car
  • The classic 3.5-litre Rover V8 in its various forms is the engine best associated with the SD1, though the arrival of 2300 and 2600 six-cylinders in 1977 added more choice, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, a 2.4-litre diesel and uprated Vitesse V8 coming with the 1982 facelift
  • At the time Mark 1s were being built poor industrial relations and a general lack of quality control can make them more challenging to restore now, given increased vulnerability to corrosion and the cheaper interior fittings
  • Rust remains an issue on all versions, though, and any potential purchase should be checked thoroughly if there’s no documented evidence of a proper restoration
  • Key areas to check include the bonnet and bootlid, front and rear valances, inner and outer wheelarches, front scuttle and windscreen surround, door bottoms, front strut towers, rear trailing arm mounts and – if fitted – the sunroof surround and drainage channels
  • Four- and six-cylinder engines are considered generally tough, though the six-cylinder can suffer from blocked oil feed to the camshaft that can ultimately lead to expensive failure – check for unusual rattles or other noises and make sure you factor a belt change into your equations for the first service
  • Proven V8 engine is well understood and can last well with proper care and regular oil changes; check for signs of overheating; electronic fuel injection can throw up issues
  • Manual gearboxes are generally tough but check for any rumbles or graunches; Borg Warner automatics can be fragile so if fitted make sure it shifts smoothly

How does it drive?

With its McPherson strut front suspension and live rear axle the SD1 is mechanically less exotic than the sleek lines would suggest, though in typical style the Rover engineers knew how to get the best out of what they had and the handling was always considered one of the car’s selling points. This was validated by success in touring car racing, especially once in the hands of TWR, and the big Rovers were regular front runners in domestic and European championships, not to mention crowd pleasers in Goodwood’s Gordon Spice Trophy.

Launched in 1982, the Vitesse model really proved the SD1’s credentials, the uprated engine delivering around 190PS (140kW) and putting it to the road through uprated suspension, a limited-slip differential and matched with more powerful, police-specification brakes and lovely cross-spoke style alloy wheels. The driving style is suitably beefy, with a compelling blend of luxurious appointments, predictable handling and sufficient performance to keep tabs with modern hot hatches.

 What’s good?

Looks that may for a time have been considered a bit chintzy have matured nicely, and the SD1’s distinctive fastback lines remain a pleasingly distinctive proposition with plenty of retro charm. It’s a big car with plenty of room for passengers, so a sociable classic to enjoy with family and friends alike.

Mechanically it’s also relatively simple and uses proven, well-understood engines that should be within the capabilities of a competent DIY mechanic to keep sweet. Performance is also pretty strong for a car of this vintage and a well-sorted and presented example will always be in demand, so remains a safe place to have your money.

What’s bad?

Famously poor build quality, especially for the earlier versions, means finding a good one will be even more challenging than it would be for other cars of the era. Paint, sealing and general fit and finish were all below par for a supposed luxury model but you’d have to hope that by now natural selection will have weeded out the rotters.

Interiors for Mark 1 cars were also pretty cheaply made, with poor quality materials and durability. Spares can be hard to find, so a car of either generation with a good interior is a solid basis for a restoration. Rust will always be an issue with a car of this vintage as well, so check every inch inside and out. Damp carpets are a warning sign of what may lie beneath but really you should be looking and feeling everywhere for signs of rot.

Which model to choose?

The V8 models have obvious appeal for their combination of smoothness, performance and obvious charisma, power steadily increasing up to the Vitesse models and, ultimately, the sought-after ‘twin plenum’ homologation cars built late into the SD1’s life. With just 500 reportedly made to qualify the updated car for racing these are now real rarities, and command accordingly chunky prices.

Going the other way, the six-cylinder cars shouldn’t be overlooked. The 2600 in particular is not far off the regular 3500 V8 in terms of performance and potentially a good bit cheaper to buy.

Given the SD1’s sporty looks and reputation it’s hard to overlook the Vitesse, though. The chunkier styling and extra performance all add to the experience if you can stretch to it, while the more luxurious Vanden Plas EFi derived from it is also much prized and rarer still.

Specifications – Rover SD1 Vitesse


3.5-litre V8, petrol


192PS (142kW) @ 5,250rpm


285Nm (210lb ft) @ 4,000rpm


Five-speed manual/three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight



7.3 seconds

Top speed


Production dates

1982-1987 (total production 1976-1987)

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