Rover SD1 – The Unlikely Champion

3

By Chris Pollitt

The Rover SD1 was a special car. Literally, in fact, as the name stands for ‘Special Division 1’. It was the final car to be a complete Rover product, created in-house and built by Solihull-based engineers. It was also a car with huge boots to fill, namely those of the groundbreaking Rover P6, a car that had sent Rover screaming into the future. The SD1 needed to do the same. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

When the SD1 rolled out into the world in 1976, it did indeed wow us. The looks were unapologetically ‘borrowed’ from the Ferrari Daytona. But this wasn’t a Ferrari. It was a car from Solihull. It was a staggering bit of design when compared to its peers from Vauxhall and Ford. The SD1 was sleek, it was sharp and it was exciting. And brilliantly, Rover launched it with a 3.5 V8 option. So it was brash, too. 

Being the only car of its class to be offered with a V8, the SD1 was in effect built with something of an advantage. If it was raced, the big engine from which to extract power was already there, there would be no homologation loopholes to jump through. But the SD1 was too big and cumbersome for motorsport, surely? Well, as it turned out, not at all. It was quite the formidable force on the track and even, somewhat amazingly, on the stages of the rallying world. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

As well we know, the SD1 when built into a touring car/circuit guise was something of an animal. Steve Soper claimed race wins in one, Andy Rouse won the British Saloon Car Championship in one in 1984, TWR-built (Tom Wilkenshaw Racing) cars won five rounds of the ‘86 FIA Touring Car Championship and Kurt Thiim won the 1986 DTM Championship in a Vitesse. Yes, on circuit, the SD1 was a proper, bona fide, serious weapon. 

But as we alluded to earlier, it wasn’t just a force to be reckoned with on the circuits. It was also something of a formidable force on the rally stages, too. It should have been. It was too big, too long and far too unpredictable on the loose stuff. But for those brave enough to strap in and try and tame it, it was able to be a brilliant rally car. As proven by the car you’re looking at here. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

Built in the late 1970s, the SD1 you’re looking at is in fact a series one model. It is believed to be the first car to be built under the Austin Rover Group Motorsport brand, which alone makes it special. However, that’s just the beginning of the story. 

The car wasn’t built for conventional rallying. Instead, Austin Rover engineers built this SD1 with a view to taking on the gruelling Peking to Paris rally. This, thought Rover bosses, would be the ultimate demonstration of the car’s durability. But alas, before the car got a chance to enter the famed event, it was called off. This was frustrating for Rover, as it had invested considerable money into the project as well as hundreds of hours of testing. The car was a monster, with full cage, twin shock suspension, buckets and a V8 that had been beefed up considerably with better heads, cam and even a dry sump system. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

Annoyed, Rover execs mothballed the car and ignored it, right up until the point Tony Pond expressed an interest in it. Tony wasn’t a name, he was the name, so if he wanted it, Rover was more than happy to oblige. And indeed, Tony had some fun in the car over the course of the Century Oils and Pace Petroleum series, but soon he was wooed by the appeal of a Metro 6R4, and once again the SD1 was forgotten. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

That’s when Rover bosses noticed that way up north, Ken Wood was making waves in the Scottish rally championship. In a TR7 fitted with a V8. And he was winning. This was good for Ken and co-driver Peter Brown, but it was a bad look for Rover. TR7 production had ended, thus Ken was championing a car nobody could buy. At least not new. This couldn’t be, and so Rover bosses invited Ken to have a go in the SD1. It was of course a world apart from his TR7, but he saw potential in the big Rover, and agreed to drive it. Rover let him do so for a nominal fee, and also offered full company support should the car need work. It was as good as getting full-on factory backing which, for Ken, was something he was several thousand pounds away from ever having. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

The SD1’s first outing with Ken was the 1983 Scottish Rally Championship. Unfamiliar with the car, Ken opted to hold back and instead chase the safe points rather than the lead. However, thanks to his ability behind the wheel, this plan went out of the window. Ken and Peter finished second! 

Overjoyed with the result, Rover brought the car back home at the end of the season and gave it a facelift, in turn bringing the car up to Vitesse specification, in line with the new model landing in showrooms. Rover saw a marketing opportunity that wasn’t to be missed, and Ken didn’t disappoint them. In 1984, he and Peter didn’t finish second – they won the event outright! Not bad for a car with too much power, with rear-wheel drive and with dimensions closer to an aircraft carrier than a car. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse

After the car’s success in Scotland, it was sold into private hands, and for a while its future looked bleak. The body was altered to give it a shorter wheelbase, the livery was lost and soon the car was unrecognisable as the champion it once was. Instead of being on the receiving end of much adulation and celebration, it languished in a Greater Manchester garage. But as you can see, that’s not where the story ends. 

Getting wind of the car, Michael Kitt did some further investigation and, after confirming it was indeed the Ken Wood/Peter Brown car, he struck a deal and set about returning it to full 1984 specification. The body was restored using panels from a donor SD1, the livery was put back in place and the engine was rebuilt to full, snarling, 320+ bhp rally specification. Once forgotten, the Rover was alive again. 

Rover, SD1, Rover SD1, Ken Wood, Tony Pont, Scottish Rally Championship, rally car, race car, motorsport, classic motorsport, British Leyland, motoring, automotive, Car and Classic, Car ad Classic Auctions, V8, Vitesse, Rover Vitesse
Used for demonstrations and events, this car had made light work of winning attention since its rebuild. There is something special about seeing a racy classic car, but to see a Rover SD1 in full rally trim is something else. We’re thrilled that Michael took the plunge and restored the car, as otherwise it would have almost certainly been lost to the history books.

Now though, it’s time to move the car on. For sale with Car & Classic Auctions, this very SD1, the car that won the 1984 Scottish Rally Championship, could be yours. And trust us when we say you should bid on it – much like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Ken Wood to be offered a works car, so too is it a once in a lifetime opportunity for you to own a slice of motorsport history. 

Enjoyed this article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles, news, classic cars, auctions and events every Thursday - compiled expertly by the Car & Classic team