The Finest Around: 1980 Rover 3500 SD1

1980 Rover 3500 SD1

As past readers of the site may have guessed, I have a soft spot for unusual cars, especially British ones. Despite being unusual, the Rover 3500 deserved better in the US market. Brought over as the Jaguar-Rover-Triumph entity was imploding upon itself, the 3500 offered a terrific blend of sportiness and practicality. With an aluminum block V8, manual transmission, roomy interior and a practical hatchback design, on paper the 3500 looked like a winner. This pristine example, one of the nicest I’ve seen, has been stored and obviously loved in Santa Clara, CA and is available here on craigslist for $3,800.

1980 Rover SD1

After the SD1 was named European Car of the Year for 1977, the return to the US of the Rover marque with the 3500 was filled with high hopes. Unfortunately, the federal version of the car suffered from an ugly headlamp conversion, large bumpers and strangulation of the V8 to meet emissions standards. Reviews were still fairly good at launch, but unfortunately quality issues and the lack of acceptance of the hatchback body style led to less than 2,000 being sold over a two-year period. This particular car has had a lot of work recently done, with new paint, refurbished wheels, tires, ignition system, fuel injection and lines, shocks, calipers, master cylinder and suspension bushings all claimed.

1980 Rover SD1 Interior

I’m used to seeing SD1 interiors completely trashed; this one looks almost mint. The modular dash allowed both RHD and LHD version to be produced; the vent in front of the passenger seat was swapped for a steering column depending on which market that particular car was to be delivered to. This one even has a working sunroof, with the only negative being a non-functional air conditioner, although all parts are included.

1980 Rover SD1 Back Seat

SD1’s offer a decent-sized rear seat, and were compared favorably with the BMW 5-series upon launch. I tend to think of it as a 4-door Triumph TR8 hatchback as they share the same drivetrain. I’ve also heard others compare the nose to that of a Ferrari Daytona, although this is much more apparent with the European flush headlights fitted.

Rover 3500 V8

I really, really wish this one were closer to home. I’ve admired the SD1 for a long time and find the hatchback perfectly practical, and this one is the cleanest example I’ve seen in many years. I hope a Barn Finds reader that’s closer than I am can give it a good home. Is there a Rover in your future?

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Comments

  1. Mark E

    As a collectible I’d grab it, put some euro headlights on it, and polish it and love it though personally I’ve always preferred the Rover P6 V8. As a summer daily driver I’d very much prefer the later Sterling which can be had in about the same condition for the same money…when you find them.

    Like 1
    • Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

      Mark, I agree about the headlights, and I’d probably add the aero bits from the Vitesse models ala this picture.

      • Mark E

        When I toured Great Brittan one summer during my college days I loved the look of the Rover 3500s. I personally thought they looked a bit like a 4-door Ferrari. Never realized any Rovers were imported to America. But OF COURSE they would have had to have ugly headlights then!! I mean, look what they did to the poor Citroen SM… >_<

      • Dale

        I agree I had a s reg when I was stationed at RAF Bentwaters that was a 3500 five speed gear box. I lived in Ipswich on the hill past the station and loved the sound going under the pass to the right of the station!!! i now live in Lithia Springs GA. In the states the rover did not do very well.I had 5 or 6 cars and a caravan.That the rover towed like it was nothing!!!My son was born at RAF Lakenheath in 1985 so I would like to have a 1985 shipped over but the cost would be dear. I like the dash better on the 85’s.

  2. John Newell

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Here in North America appreciation of the muscle car era automotive styling was still too recent for this car in 1980. It had a better interior than most if not all North American cars that year especially GM with it’s ugly as sin modular dashes.

    As well, throughout North America, the unreliability of British made cars was legendary. Most people who needed reliable transportation to get back and forth to work would not intentionally sabotage their family’s finances or lives for a British made anything on four wheels no matter what they looked like. If that weren’t the case, British cars would have out-sold Volkswagens by a wide margin. People here were far more receptive to British products than those from any other country at the end of WWII. If they had been as diligent about engineering and assembling their products, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea and Indonesia would still be knocking on the door.

    Instead they blew it with shoddy workmanship and zero attention to what a North American market needed – cars that could handle long distances on a continent where it was often a hundred miles to anywhere.

    Ignition systems were an area where attention to detail and materials would have paid enormous returns – even in Britain. But no, spark plug wires and distributor caps got wet where no self respecting engine wants to be wet if it wants to start. Points are like that. While this car could likely have cruised with any NA car, its brethren certainly couldn’t. They could be found at the side of the road with hoods up as frequently (per capita) as any Fix Or Repair Daily of the era.

    But unlike Ford who could sell exquisitely styled rust buckets anyone with half a brain would know they’d soon be marooned in, Britain made mostly butt ugly cars. Ugly might sell in Britain where there was no real choice until you got to XKE range but not in North America.

    In North America, if we accept that yes we will be marooned in our new clunker, we don’t want the look of it to push the embarrassment of car choice to the wall.

    Like 1
    • Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

      John, as you said, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Personally, I like the look of most Jaguars, new and old, Triumphs, MG’s, Austin-Healeys, etc. I’ll admit there have been some oddballs out there, but generally I think British cars’ looks are pretty nice.

      As far as the reliability…well…you’ve got me there, although in defense, IF maintained by manufacturer’s instructions (which required a lot more attention than a typical American car at the time) they aren’t as bad as they have been made out to be. Since I started driving in 1980, right around the time most BL products left, I find far more issues caused by uninformed or uncaring previous owners “bodges” than pure design/assembly defects. And I say this as someone who commuted in Triumphs for the better part of 30 years.

      • John Newell

        Jamie, the cars you mentioned are all sports cars. There’s a difference of approach between American muscle cars and British sports cars. Muscle cars were family cars built with street racers in mind – they were 2 dr hdtps and sedans. The non-street racers bought their 4 dr. sedans as family cars. Same body and frame. British sports cars were never a family car so for most buyers, they weren’t a option even without all of the mechanical difficulties. Plus they rusted out like Fords.

        My driving experience started with 1950s cars. In the 50s there were no British cars here that anyone sane would buy as a commuter. In the sixties there were more. People bought them hoping things had gotten better as American cars improved year after year. But they didn’t. They were always under-powered too.

        By the 80s possibly a good mechanic could keep up with the emergency repairs but prior to the eighties most people found that wasn’t possible even with a good mechanic.

        Manufacturers’s instructions were never a match for moisture in the distributor. What British cars needed more than most was electronic ignitions.

        I like the look of most Jaguars myself and was disappointed when Ford bought them. Same with the Mini. But both needed a reliability and credibility component to survive and that was not going to happen under British control. The British union most likely didn’t help either and I’d bet sank their own ship out from under themselves.

  3. Rick

    Only upside is you wouldn’t have to worry about running into your twin on cruise night. But not enough reason for me.

  4. Barry Thomas

    Jamie, interesting car. I believe Rover took the Ferrari Daytona styling and added the extra doors. Ferrari enthusiasts may recoil at this comment, but I read this somewhere back in the day and of course, just look at the Rover’s styling. I wouldn’t touch any English sedan of this vintage, unless I had a great mechanic or was very hands on myself (and neither applies in my case).
    Barry Thomas’ “Wheel to Wheel” blog

    • Alan (Michigan)

      Well I dunno about the Italian styling…. At first glance the nameplate which popped into my head was Toyota Celica!
      I do think that the Euro headlights and Vitesse bumper treatment are far more attractive.

      Unless the seller used Bondo to fill in a bunch of sheet metal issues, this seems like a reasonable ask for an uncommon car. No matter what the reputation for reliability, particularly electricity-based (electrons seemed to leak out, or jump across to the wrong location), my experience is that the British manual transmissions were all a joy to operate. Extra points for that here.

  5. jim s

    looks like a lot of car for the money with a V8 and manual transmission. the seller has done a lot of work so do a PI and then make a cash offer. daily drive it until something major breaks and then part it out. great find.

    • Alvin

      Jim, if it breaks down put a Chevy motor my Chevy Luv with Rover V8, Jensen Healey W/RV8, 69 Sunbeam Alpine Coupe w/Rover V8! Make sure you meet emissions, where ever you are!!!

  6. Maestro1 Member

    Jamie, I agree with you including the headlights but not the rest. They were lovely cars. and although I only put 100 miles on a borrowed one it was an excellent experience. Someone should go look at it, look at its Bones and if it’s solid, buy it for happy miles.

    • Dale

      I to think the Rover is a nice that I had for three years in England with very little refit to be done. Like several rear boxes and a clutch cyl rebuild kit that’s all in three years!!! So any one that does like the Rover can come on this site and talk to me about VW bugs, that would never buy!!! I all so drive a 1985 1/2 Porsche you want to talk that down as well?God did not make us all the same. We can like what we want and say so, at least in this part of the world!!! Any one that has a ROVER SD1 find me even if it can be right hand drive sent to GA {us} that I can afford SIGN ME UP!!! If some do not like how I feel then to bad so sad it sucks to be them ,I can say how I feel too!!!

  7. cory

    I never knew any of these made it to the us. the European is definitely more attractive. these just look too 80s gm for me. jaguar always made a nice interior, this one, not so much.

  8. Horse Radish

    Sad to see.
    ….because it will always remind me:
    I remember a low mileage, really clean one sitting at the local Pick a part.
    NOBODY touched for several weeks and then it was gone…..
    I got the owner manual, but may be stuck with it forever……
    $1500 would have got it home……and then what ?

  9. Dolphin Member

    I think John Newell has the difference between British cars and the VW, as a successful foreign sedan, nailed.

    The differences between Britain and No America go deep, down to the way people lived and what their commute to work was like. In Britain back then people mostly walked to work because they lived ‘locally’ and most things, including work, were close by. Not everyone owned a car, which was a luxury. Over here cars and fuel were cheap and people pretty much went anywhere, whenever they wanted to. They commuted to the best job they could find and often could not afford to live near that best job because of housing availability or price or both, so a reliable car was necessary. Britain had no affordable cars available in large numbers with widespread supports to offer for the wants and conditions of North Americans.

    VW comes along and offers a small, ugly (to No American eyes), but cheap and reliable car. People here didn’t accept it at first, but then there was a very clever, very funny ad campaign in the biggest US magazines and people started to find out that this ugly German is reliable, cheap, and almost fun to drive. British cars started to have a big uphill battle to survive at all here, even in ultra-British, tiny Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where every other driver had an Austin or similar back then. There are almost no British cars there now. Today VW Group is banging on the door of the title of largest carmaker in the world.

    British carmakers lost in the end, in part because US carmakers saw VW’s success and started making smaller economy cars to compete. Except for the niche sportscars, the days of British car sales were about over in No America.

    This Rover 3500 has a great engine, but even that’s US-derived. It’s got a lot of useful room inside, but to North Americans it’s plain, very long, and ends in a hatchback, none of which appeals very much. Whether it would have been reliable or not with the US-derived drivetrain, it was too little, too late, unfortunately.

  10. bruce R. Colbert

    Great buy for the Rover fan eh ?

    • Ross W. Lovell

      Greetings All,

      While I’m a big fan of English cars, it’s always amazed me that even with one of the most unique V8’s that came out of Detroit since the the LA-series hemi’s of sub 300 cubic inches, The Brits still managed to damage the reputation of reliability the Olds engine had with their electrics.

      • Peter

        Ross,

        I was about to correct you and state that British Leyland got the 3.5 Rover, all-aluminum V-8 from BUICK, who apparently designed it (and built it), but per the following wiki, even Pontiac and Olds got into the act, with their own versions. So your “Old’s engine” may not be incorrect, even though Buick was first to design and market it:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buick_V8_engine

  11. Dermot Harvey

    I have owned and driven SD1’s for about 20 years. I have a 5 speed with Euro headlamps and have just upgraded the braking system to 4 pot. The car is fast, reliable and fun to drive.
    The quality is not as good as the earlier P6 V8 but the car was much better sorted. My wife drove an auto SD1 for about 10 years. Her car is now for sale in the New York area.

    • Alan (Michigan)

      DH, as an aside, I was looking online at larger temporary shelters like seen here in the background of your photo of the Rover. How does it handle snow and wind?

    • Dale

      Find me I live in Lithia Springs GA If you know of one for at a fair price. I know of one that I feel the price was to high in NC that I could not afford. I was at the a place to try and find the money for it. But I could not and it was red, I painted my Rover in England red!!!
      Dale Haggart

  12. MikeH

    There was, in the 60s and 70s, a fundamental difference between the Brits and the N Americans and the Brits never really corrected it. A Brit loved nothing better on a weekend than putzing around in the garage with his car. He would do all the little maintenance things the book called for–lubing this and that, oiling his SUs, etc. North Americans didn’t want to be bothered. They were happy so long as they could stomp the accelerator and burn rubber.

  13. Dermot Harvey

    Hi Alan,

    Yes, its a 2 car shelter logic – I’ve had it for about 9 years. The first cover lasted for about 4 years. I replaced it with a heavy duty cover which is about 5 years old and is still looking good. The cover sheds snow quite well. The tubing skeleton is pretty strong. It is important to anchor it firmly to the ground so the wind doesn’t damage it.

  14. RickyM

    I agree – swap the lights and possibly the bumpers if you are allowed (the English ones won’t have running lights in them). It is in great condition; does not appear to have much rust, and the interior is in good condition, with no dashboard cracking that I can see. A common problem on most 80’s cars from that time……Great find !

  15. Mark-A

    Another thing I personally would add would have to be a Janspeed full exhaust with manifolds (headers) as this V8 sounds good with it attached, always remember that this engine was bought by Rover from Buick as well, and if you did blow it up, you can get basically the same engine with up to 340bhp & 5000cc displacement from TVR which being a specialist car means plenty of companies in the UK can rebuild it to TVR specification which would make it a fantastic sleeper! Fun

  16. Alvin

    I still have 12 SD1’s, I plan on keeping 4 or 5 keep 1 automatic, 5 speed 2 I will be converting to LS Chevy engines the rest just preserve as many bodies as possible. Had one in storage incomplete with a 1970 Buick 455 engine and transmission but was stolen.

    • Dave Moorefield

      Hey Alvin! Once ROVER addicted, no turning back, nor do you seek help, lol! Still Waiting for that Rear Window Louver for my SD1. Cheers / Dave 😀

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