This is it, this is the real deal. A genuine works Rover SD1, a car that for many years was missing, presumed dead. But here it is, in all its snarling, V8, roll-caged, bucket-seated, Golden Wonder glory. What a machine.
The Rover SD1 was, as we all know, Rover’s new flagship car for the late 1970s market. It was a bold, brave departure from Rover norms, with its Ferrari Daytona-esque face. However, it was a departure that worked. It was big, it was fresh and it served as a wonderful reminder of just what a Rover flagship car could be, especially in V8 guise.
This car, of course, is not any old Rover SD1. This is something special, for which we need to head back to the early ‘80s to better understand.
Thought to be the first competition car built under the Austin Rover Group Motorsport brand, this SD1 was plucked from the assembly line. It was ushered off into a workshop where it was modified extensively in the name of competition. The SD1, as a relatively new model, would be the perfect torch carrier. But given its size, traditional stages would not be the aim. Instead, the car was built for the gruelling Peking to Paris long distance rally. Thousands of miles of the road less travelled. The ultimate test of durability.
Before being used in anger, the V8 SD1 was the subject of considerable testing and fine tuning. Nothing would be left to chance. Every part of the car was upgraded, and significantly at that (which we’ll cover below).
And then, with the car built into rally spec, the event was called off and the car was mothballed. But Rover wasn’t going to see its efforts go to waste, and after a short period in storage, handed the keys to motorsport legend, Tony Pond, who went on to campaign the car in the Century Oils and Pace Petroleum series of the early ‘80s.
Once Tony had had his fun with the car, Rover’s attention turned to Scotland, where champion rally driver Ken Wood was smashing through the stages in a V8 powered TR7. This was good for Ken, of course, but bad for Rover, as the TR7 had ceased production. If someone was going to be winning the Scottish stages in a BL product, it needed to be current. So, for a nominal fee, Ken was given the SD1 to campaign. He was unsure at first, but with well over 300bhp, the SD1 had promise. He set his sights on some stage wins here and there, get as many points as he could. Instead, thanks to his skill and the car’s power, he came second in the 1983 Scottish Rally Championship. But Ken and co-driver Peter Wood weren’t done yet.
The car was given a facelift to bring up to the same visual specification as the new Vitesse model and in 1984, the car was once again campaigned through the stages of Scotland. This time, it won!
After Ken Wood’s time with the car, it was sold into private hands. Here, the owner opted to modify the car to make it handle ‘more like a Mk2 Escort’, which meant shortening the car. This was done, and the car was then sold again before ending up sitting idle in a garage in Oldham, where it sat until the current owner bought it.
He verified the identity of the car, and then set about an extensive restoration in which the car was returned to its original dimensions before being built back up into full Ken Wood, Golden Wonder specification. Now, the car exists as a functional show piece, which has been used for several demonstration events. Currently SORN, the car is road legal and ready to be used again.
There is a log book present for the car, along with documentation to support the competition life and results of the car over the years during which it was in use. The current owner also has a number of photographs from when the car was restored, which serve to show the amount of work that went into the rebuild.
The Vitesse might have been a plush, executive place to be, but all traces of that are long gone here, and rightly so! The first thing you’ll notice is the significant, welded in roll cage. Then there are the chunky Motordrive bucket seats, the MOMO three-spoke steering wheel and of course, the full complement of TRS six-point harnesses.
The original dash is long gone, and instead is now a bespoke unit fitted with all the required gauges for temperature of oil and water, volts, pressures, revs and so on. There’s no speedometer though, as that’s not something a rally car needs. It’s flat out or nothing!
The interior as a whole is in excellent order. The fresh, white paint would be quick to highlight any rust or corrosion, so it’s pleasing to see that it’s bright white throughout. The door cards have been replaced with lightweight items, and the windows are now Perspex rather than glass. There is also a full, modern fire extinguisher system fitted. While this car might not be competitive in the traditional sense, it is used for events and demonstrations, and as such, safety is paramount.
Open up the huge rear hatch, and you’ll be greeted by braided lines for both fuel and oil. This car uses a dry sump system, the pumps for which are located in the rear, along with the fuel cell and pump. The fuel cell itself lives under a secured aluminium plate that locks down over it.
Make no mistake, slipping into the driver’s seat of this SD1 is an experience like nothing else. The shape is familiar, but that’s about it. Any trace of the road car this Rover may have once been decades ago is now long gone, and instead it is a seriously well built, solid, safe space from which you can try to control the grunt of that V8 engine.
Sitting on 18-inch split rim alloy wheels, this Rover already looks the part. As mentioned earlier, the car is actually a series one SD1, but was upgraded in the early 1980s to be a series two. The lights and trim were changed to bring the car up to day, as were the spoilers and mirrors and some other small pieces. All of that still remains, and to the untrained eye, it is every bit a Vitesse.
The panels are all straight and free from any major damage. Remember, other than demonstration runs at Race Retro and the like, this car hasn’t been used for any serious competition since it was completely restored by the current owner. As such, while it does have the odd imperfection (this is a tool, not a show piece) there is nothing of concern.
The trims are all in good order, as are the rubbers. The glass and Perspex is also in excellent order, with no fogging or fading of the latter. The shut lines are all impressive given the car’s function, and everything opens and closes as it should.
Then of course, you have the crowning glory of this Rover’s aesthetic - the livery. Apparently the car’s ‘in period’ co-driver, Peter Brown, had myriad images of the car, and as such, specialists were able to faithfully recreate the period liver to perfection. As such, the Golden Wonder branding is absolutely perfect, and served to set the car off a treat.
If you’re not already sold on the history and the striking aesthetic of this monster, the mechanical side of things will seal the deal. Noisy, brash and unapologetically in your face, this SD1 is powered by a John Eales 4.6 litre Rover V8 running Omega forged pistons and rods, the cylinder heads are fully ported and gas-flowed stage four items, it’s got bigger valves and a dry sump oiling system with three Facet oil pumps. Fuel is handled via four Weber 45 DCOE carbs, regulated by a Weber pressure regulator. All the fuel lines are braided and use AN10 fittings.
The seller tells us the engine has had 5 hours of competition running, and 7 hours of road-running time.
Fire this monster up and the world shakes. It’s loud, snarling and revs freely and quickly, thanks in no small part to the lightened flywheel. The stainless exhaust system is a side-exit item, and snarls as soon as you go anywhere near the throttle. This car just sounds strong and fit. No coughs, no burps, nothing to be worried by. It holds pressure, and it stays cool thanks to massive alloy radiator with tin slimline electric fans.
The transmission is an all-steel Getrag five-speed dog-shift unit and is tough, but given it deals with approx. 325bhp, it needs to be. It sends power to the rear 4.89 limited slip Atlas rear axle care of a race-specification, heavy duty clutch.
The suspension and brakes are, of course, uprated too. The suspension features Bilstein adjustable dampers up front with stiffer springs, while each of the rear struts has two Bilstien dampers apiece It’s fully poly-bushed, and all the top mounts are adjustable. As for the brakes, the Rover is running factory callipers, but with AP Racing grooved discs and upgraded motorsport pads.
This Rover might be an old machine, but be under no illusion that it’s been made aware of that fact. It’s staggeringly quick, it’s snappy, alert and exciting to drive. A proper, old school example of grunt, rear-wheel drive and torque. And also a reminder that while today’s rally drivers are undoubtedly talented, old school rally drivers were a different breed.
What you have here is a slice of automotive history. Rover built it, Tony Pond drove it, Ken Wood drove it and then it went on to win the Scottish Rally Championship. It’s a car that so very nearly ended up being forgotten and consigned to the scrap heap. But thankfully, the current owner stepped in, spent untold money and man hours and in the process, resurrected this magnificent machine. It stands today not as an old car trying to be competitive, but as a working, driving, ready to run example of what rally cars were like back in the day.
It’s a special car with a special and most definitely unique history, and one that you will simply never again be presented with the opportunity to buy.
If you would like to read more about this vehicle, please click here to read our feature article in the Car & Classic magazine!
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