Classic Cars, Collectors, Features

Craig takes us inside his red Rover SD1

A rare but striking sight, this exotic Rover SD1 Vanden Plas has a powerful secret under its curvaceous bonnet.

When was the last time you saw a new car that literally stopped you in your tracks? Not a supercar, but one from a mainstream brand?

Tough one, isn’t it? Big players like Toyota, VW, Ford and Hyundai may show design flair on occasion, but overwhelmingly we get vanilla. Safe choices. Cookie-cutter design.

Image: Iain Curry

Conversely, back in 1976, Rover’s SD1 was a stop-and-stare masterclass. Emerging from the troubled British Leyland stable, this was a five-door family sedan with nods to exotica of the period. Despite its everyman badge, its styling rightly draws comparison to the beautifully muscled Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona. “Put it up against cars of today and they look very sterile,” says Craig Barraud, owner of this stunning 1984 SD1 Vanden Plas. “Modern cars just don’t have the charisma of these Rovers.”

The SD1 was in production for a decade and over 300,000 were made, despite notoriously poor build quality. Australia didn’t receive its first until August 1978, featuring the familiar all-alloy 3.5-litre Rover V8 with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, but a rather puny 102kW and 245Nm. It may have looked something like a Modena-sourced Italian grand tourer, but you’d have to wait 12.4 seconds to hit 100km/h.

Image: Iain Curry

“I first saw one in 1978 when I was in the schoolyard,” Craig says. “Back then we were only used to seeing Fords and Holdens, so I just thought ‘what the hell is that?’” No wonder. Note the windscreen’s steep rake, the lack of front grille between those Daytona-esque headlights and the huge rear glass panel as part of the hatchback/fastback design. There’s also a luxurious interior with modular ‘pod’ dashboard and slightly quartic (non-round) steering wheel, and this being of the 1970s and 80s, lots of brown throughout.

Kitted out

A young Craig was around Rovers from an early age. His parents founded W.W Shock Absorbers in north Brisbane in 1959, and he served his mechanic’s apprenticeship at the suspension specialist. “It’s still a family business with my wife and I running it, and my eldest son James doing the work with me,” Craig says. “We do everything including 4WDs, but mostly work on old-school stuff. We’re one of the only places left in Australia that still do lever arm shock absorbers.”

Image: Iain Curry

These were used on the likes of Morris and Austin vehicles of the 1950s and 1960s, and Craig’s father had the foresight to have dies made so the specialist parts could be reproduced. “I’ve got a manufacturer in Brisbane able to build them for me,” he says. “To get bushes, valves and seals would be impossible these days without those dies.”

The business is a Rover specialist – including Land Rovers – and Craig says they’re something of a one-stop-shop. Suspension’s the day-to-day, but he’ll handle anything on Rovers from mechanical to power steering to air-con. So, he’s been around SD1s for decades, but what’s the appeal? “It’s the shape. As simple as that,” he states.

Craig picked up his ’84 SD1 Vanden Plas in 1991, paying $8000 for it as it “wasn’t a really sought after car,” he says. “I traded a Series 1 SD1 for it as I’d always wanted the Series 2,” referencing the facelifted model which arrived in 1982. And the Vanden Plas was the one to buy; it was the flagship full luxury version, dripping in equipment. Examples? An electric sunroof, headlight washers in the front bumper, cruise control, Connolly leather seats and a fancy trip computer.

Image: Iain Curry

Car and owner are almost 35 years into their relationship, and it’s been a busy one. Due to Craig’s contacts, passion and expertise, his SD1 is like no other in Australia. Most obvious from the outside is its ‘Vitesse’ equipment. This was a flagship grade never sold in Australia (but was in the UK and New Zealand), featuring a 142kW fuel-injected version of the V8, and sporty exterior flourishes.

Red Rover

Long-established Rimmer Bros in the UK has been the go-to place for new-old-stock and used SD1 parts. “I’ve been dealing with them for about 30 years,” Craig says, and it was through this specialist he sourced the Vitesse goodies. There’s multi-spoke 15-inch wheels, a deep channel front spoiler, boot-lid wing and four-piston brake callipers on ventilated discs, all original parts giving this large sedan a sportier flavour.

The colour, gleaming in the Queensland sunshine, fooled me as original Rover. When Craig had the SD1 stripped and re-sprayed he changed it from its original ‘rust’ red – an apt description as these big Rovers were quite partial to the tin worm – to a hue from British rival Jaguar. It’s called Carnival Red, typically found on early 2000s S-Types and XK8s, and works magnificently.

Image: Iain Curry

Beyond the aesthetics, there are greater changes under the skin. In 2005, Craig ditched the car’s original 3.5-litre V8 and replaced it with a 4.6-litre V8 petrol from a P38 (1994-2001) Range Rover. Engine transplants are a contentious subject amongst enthusiasts, but Craig’s made the swap because he was hungry for more performance. And since a variation of this engine was employed by TVR for its Chimaera and by Morgan for its Plus 8, it comes with decent pedigree.

“I wanted to upgrade for the extra power,” Craig says. “The 3.5-litre’s a good little engine, but for top end cruising they run out of puff. The 4.6-litre just keeps pulling away.” Lift the SD1’s curved front-hinged bonnet and the new motor is a good fit, although there’s little space to spare.

Also boosting driving joy has been mating the new motor to a five-speed manual gearbox.

On the inside

Craig’s car, like all Australian Vanden Plas models, originally came with a three-speed GM auto transmission. Only a small number of manual SD1s came to Australia in the 1980s, but Craig sourced one, and reports this gearbox is more than capable of handling the extra power and torque from the larger Rover engine.

Hop inside and there’s the new pedal box with required clutch, plus the manual shifter. In front of this is the wonderfully 1980s button set for the trip computer, complete with little red lights to indicate your selection. You can imagine when this thing was new such technology was a bit mind-blowing. “Tomorrow’s car, today,” was how Rover advertised its SD1, and it must’ve felt that way for those who’d never thought the humble Rover brand could produce such a spaceship.

Image: Iain Curry

Reflecting its luxo Vanden Plas badge, there are wood panels for the dash and doors, and its Connolly leather seats are more the reserve of Rolls Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin. Craig’s SD1’s chairs are, he assures us, still immaculate, but are covered by lambs wool. “There’s a bit of nostalgia there because an old guy who’d crashed his SD1 gave them to me,” he explains. “And with the covers on, those seats will stay immaculate.”

Victory lap

It’s very much a weekend and club cruiser, but Craig’s been confident enough to take the SD1 to national Rover events, including driving from Brisbane to Adelaide. “Comfort levels I’d give it an eight out of 10,” he says, “but the faster you drive the better it gets. At speed it just hugs the road even harder.”

It’s now 219,000km and 40 years old, but Craig reports this Rover’s proved reliable. “I’ve never yet had to ring a tow truck for it,” he says, “and it’s easy to maintain; just the basic oil changes and pump the tyres up to keep it going.”

The care and expertise he’s shown has played a part in his SD1’s longevity, including when it was pulled apart for the engine swap and new paint. “Interestingly, when I took up the carpets I found pop rivet shafts under there,” he says. “This was confusing as there are no pop rivets in an SD1.

Image: Iain Curry

I spoke to a guy who worked at the SD1 factory in Coventry, and he said the blokes on the Land Rover assembly line, which was right beside, would throw these parts at the guys on the SD1 line.” Concentrating on building the car with care and attention rather than playing Rivet Wars may have improved SD1 build quality…

Regardless, these big bruisers still hold a beloved place in many hearts. They served as UK police cars, were television stars (The New Avengers and The Professionals) and held their own as Group A touring car racers in the mid-1980s – including finishing 12th outright at the 1984 Bathurst 1000 with TWR. And just like when they were first introduced, an SD1 – when as immaculate and enhanced as Craig’s curvaceous classic – still has the power to amaze.

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