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