Triple trouble

The Rover SD1 was an unlikely tin-top hero but as we found when we tested a trio of racers from the Gp1, Gp2 and GpA era, it still packs a serious punch

As a large and somewhat unconventional executive saloon, the Rover SD1 made an unlikely tin-top hero. Yet in the space of just a handful of years it forged success from troubled beginnings, bounced back from stinging controversy and finished its career as a formidable world-beater with a passionate following that endured long after Rover went to the wall. 

To celebrate this much-loved and massively successful production-based racer we’ve gathered together a trio of SD1s. Built between 1980 and 1985 to comply with Group 1, Group 2 and Group A regulations, they chart the intensive development and accelerated evolution that sealed its success, and hark back to truly dazzling days. If you’re a sucker for SD1s the sight that greets me in the Donington pit lane is about as good as it gets. Three magnificent cars resplendent in their evocative liveries and filling the garage with a heady hit of nostalgia and exhaust fumes as they noisily get some heat in their bones. Today we’re going to party like it’s 1985.  

Group 1

It makes sense to start our journey through Rover’s racing odyssey at the beginning, so its the Marlboro-liveried Group 1 car I’m drawn to first. Owned and raced by Andy Bruce and fettled by Ken Clarke (who worked at TWR and is acknowledged as an oracle on SD1s), this is one of the original cars built by David Price Racing in 1980 and driven in the 1981 and ’82 French Touring Car Championship by René Metge. Having won the French title in ’82 the car enjoyed more success in Portugal, taking two championships. Clarke tracked it down in 2015, took it back to the UK and restored it to original spec. It now enjoys regular outings with Bruce and Tim Harvey in Goodwood’s spectacular Gerry Marshall Trophy.

It’s often overlooked that it was DPR and not TWR that made the vital first step in the SD1’s competition history, building a handful of Group 1s and just one Group 2 car before Tom Walkinshaw’s outfit got the gig to mastermind the development of the Group A cars that would become the SD1’s crowning glory.

There’s something immensely charming about this Group 1 car, partly due to the naïvety of the race preparation compared to modern touring cars, but mainly down to just how darned cool a battle-ready Rover SD1 looks. By FIA law Group 1 should have been all but showroom standard, but as the class developed and national governing bodies gave a bit of wriggle room in the regs, Group 1 got a little more racy.

Only a little, though, with a few detail upgrades and tuning tweaks permitted to suspension, brakes and engine. Clarke reckons a good (legal) example such as this – fitted with ‘Federal’ fuel injection, as-per original Group 1 spec – will today yield anywhere between 80-85bhp per litre, so about 280bhp. That compares well to contemporary reports of early Gp1 Rovers developing 250bhp and 235lb ft of torque, but is bang in line with later-spec Group 1 cars which employed a single, twin-choke Weber, or switched to a two-barrel Holley carburettor and Huffaker manifold.  

Some spec details are especially charming. Most notably the brakes, which employ so-called ‘police spec‘ four-piston AP calipers, the same as Rover fitted to UK police cars, not to mention those used by our armed and secret services. The road gearbox was retained, but with closer ratios, and a Salisbury limited-slip differential was fitted. The suspension was rose-jointed with a small amount of adjustment allowed for camber changes, and the wheels were 15in diameter with 7in-wide rims.

The Group 1 cars used to race on slicks, but in order to race at Goodwood they now run on treaded historic rubber. Perhaps unsurprisingly it drives as it looks. That’s to say, very road car in feel. Once strapped in you immediately notice the big steering wheel, which hints you’ll be needing a bit of leverage in the absence of power assistance. The gearbox – five-speed with a regular H-pattern – is from the road car and has a long, soft throw; the clutch is heavy by modern standards but not too bad for a historic racer. 

Of course the heart of the SD1 is its 3.5-litre V8. Smooth, sweet sounding, nicely tractable, it pulls convincingly from 3500-4000 all the way to 7000rpm, so you’ve got plenty of revs and a nice blend of torque and power to explore.

The balance of the car is beautifully neutral. You will make it understeer if you ask too much from the front end, but you soon learn to be less aggressive and just float it through the corners.

Tighter turns require a more deliberate approach, just to make sure you don’t get the front pushing wide, but so long as you’re sensitive with your initial steering inputs you’ll be able to bring the tail into play and divide the labour more evenly between both ends of the car. Medium- and high-speed corners are where the real fun is. You really just nudge it into the direction change with the steering before picking the throttle up and playing it smoothly into a modest amount of oversteer. Somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of a turn feels sweetest, keeping that momentum going without excessive steering inputs or big stabs of throttle. 

Of course, you can provoke more exuberant slides, but it feels at odds with the precision and progressive nature of the car. Find its natural balance point and it’ll flow from one apex to the next, even down the Craners where you initiate the right-to-left direction change with a slight feathering of the throttle before steering neatly into the ensuing slide, fine directional control applied with your hands and right foot. It’s a fabulous and easily accessed sensation which really connects you to the car and makes you appreciate how inherently benign and well-balanced it is for what looks like a big old boat.

Without question the weakest area of the car is its brakes. Initially, they have a confidence-inspiring pedal feel but there’s not much stamina, especially on Donington’s GP circuit configuration which is hard on brakes. Even taking care not to hammer them it only takes two or three laps to feel that initial firmness turn soggy. They recover if you give them a break – or tap them up with your left foot between the corners – but it’s a timely reminder that successfully racing these cars back in the day must have been as much about leaving something in reserve as it was about finding the limit. That said, at Goodwood, where you spend far more time on the throttle than the brakes, this modest yet marvellous old car must be an absolute joy to coax through the fearsome run from Madgwick to Lavant.

Group 2

After the modesty of the Group 1 car the brawny 1981 Group 2 is as in-yer-face as SD1s ever got. Shorn of its bumpers and with massive tyres shoe-horned beneath wildly extended wheel arches, it’s an extreme caricature and raises big smiles before you’ve so much as cranked the engine over.

Also built by David Price Racing, it’s something of an SD1 unicorn, being the only Group 2 car DPR produced before TWR took control of Rover’s racing activities. That rarity was exacerbated by the fact this car was delivered straight to South Africa, where it was campaigned by the O’Sullivan brothers in the 1981 and ’82 Kyalami 9 Hours followed by the 1983 and ’84 Kyalami 1000Kms, where it raced alongside the Group C monsters of the day.

After passing through a number of hands in South Africa the car was purchased in 2014 by present owner Tim Summers, who placed it with UK-based BGM Sport for a fastidious restoration, after which Summers raced it throughout the 2015 season in Peter Auto’s burgeoning Heritage Touring Cup. I was fortunate to share it with Summers at Spa and Paul Ricard and have fond memories of the car.

Consequently it’s great to see the Jolly Green Giant parked next to its brethren. It’s a larger-than-life car – beautifully finished and immaculately detailed, right down to the brown corduroy-upholstered racing seat. The driving experience is an extension of the beefed-up look. Indeed you need similarly bulky arms and shoulders, for the unassisted steering is about as heavy as you can reasonably expect to cope with. There’s a pleasing uniformity to other control weights that underlines the seriousness of the car without inhibiting your ability to drive it, and immediately it feels much more like a race car than the Group 1 version did. 

That said, the gearbox remains closely related to the road specification, so while the shift action itself is sharper and more defined you have to treat it with respect for the transmission doesn’t have the inherent strength of the later Group A cars, even though the engine boasts more power and torque.

Lift the bonnet and you’re treated to the truly magnificent sight of four twin-choke Weber 45s inhaling through stubby velocity stacks. It’s one of best-looking V8’s I’ve ever seen, and when you work it towards its 7500rpm limit it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. 

Where you coax and caress the Group 1 car around Donington’s swoops and curves you propel the Group 2 car, leaning harder and harder on the huge slick tyres. To begin with the grip feels limitless, but eventually you find the confidence to probe the point at which their prodigious purchase begins to fade. 

Funnily enough, although the corner speeds are vastly different there are strong similarities in what the Group 1 and Group 2 cars do. With a long wheelbase relative to track width, the SD1 is extremely progressive, but if you’re too quick and insistent with your initial steering input you’ll quickly push through the limit of the front tyres. Better to make a more measured input, then ask more from the tyres. It’s subtle stuff to deploy in such a ballsy car, but it really pays dividends.

Traction is very strong, though again if you do manage to get the tail moving it does so gently and with plenty of warning. Having raced it in the rain at Paul Ricard I know this is also true in the wet. Surprising for such a potent rear-drive car. The brakes are a huge improvement over the Group 1 car’s, with a rock-solid pedal and far more stamina. You need to watch for pad knock-off on the way into the Old Hairpin, but if you can tap the pedal up with your left foot it sorts the problem.

Get your head around the grip and you can really hustle this car along, rain or shine. That inherent speed is reflected in its front-running pace in the Heritage Touring Cup, where it more than lives with the Group A cars. Indeed it’s only the real big banger stuff such as the GAA-powered Cologne Capris that it’ll struggle to match. No shame in that.

Something of a forgotten chapter in the Rover’s competition story, this Group 2 car is very special. With enough presence to fill an entire paddock it has real star quality. And if you’re lucky enough to race this gentle giant you’ll be revelling in the lofty but approachable limits, loving the mighty soundtrack and – most likely – wishing you’d spent a bit more time on your arms in the gym!             

Group A

Rover Vitesse TWR/014 and I go back a long way. Right back to arguably its finest hour, when Jeff Allam and Denny Hulme drove it to victory in the attritional and hard-fought 1986 Istel RAC Tourist Trophy at Silverstone.

I was 15 years old. With camera bag slung over my shoulder and precious race programme gripped tightly in my hand, I walked through the paddock and pit lane in the hours before the race was due to start, burning through rolls of 36-exposure film, hunting for autographs and inhaling the heady atmosphere like oxygen.

I was a bit scared of approaching the drivers, especially Denny Hulme. Probably because I’d read about his nickname ‘The Bear‘ and imagined he’d snap my pen and toss my programme away, or maybe just growl. To my relief he was an absolute gent, even thanking me when I wished him best of luck. When he and Allam subsequently won the race late that afternoon I couldn’t have felt more pleased.

Like most racing cars from the era, no14 has lived a life. One in which it was driven by names such as Jean-Louis Schlesser and Gianfranco Brancatelli as well as Allam and Hulme, garnering a huge haul of silverware in French, British and European championships throughout 1985 and 1986, before being retired from TWR duties at the end of the ’86 season. It then contested back-to-back Spa 24 Hour races with a privateer team in ’87 and ’88 before finally withdrawing from major competition. During that impressive career it changed liveries like the rest of us change socks, sporting Marlboro, Bastos, South Pacific Racing, Istel, Herbie Clips and, finally, Watsons colours in its last race for TWR in Macau. 

Lately it has resided in New Zealand with owner Alan Scott, TWR’s engine supremo in those heady Jaguar and Rover days. Recently purchased from him by James Hanson’s Speedmaster firm, it’s running in anger today for the first time since it arrived back on home soil.

It’s a magnificent machine. Hunched low over its distinctive centre-lock rims, front wheels tucked inside the wheel-arches thanks to a nudge of camber and stubby side-exit exhausts emerging from each sill, it oozes the kind of attitude that made Group A such a compelling recipe for manufacturers and race fans alike.

Better, it has a patina that you simply can’t fake. Yes, it’s had umpteen liveries during its racing career, but it was returned to Bastos colours years ago (using more paint than vinyl) and looks all the better for it.

Considering it’s the ultimate evolution of the SD1, you might expect the Group A car to be the most extreme, yet visually and mechanically it’s something of a halfway house between the Group 1 and Group 2 cars. Of course Group A was essentially a homologation game – that and a creative attitude towards the regulations! – so while it allowed greater freedom for dedicated racing components such as the dog-leg Getrag transmission, Bilstein dampers, big AP brakes and larger (but still restricted) wheels, manufacturers knew they had to produce road cars featuring performance-enhancing upgrades, or at least homologate cars featuring hardware with plenty of latent potential that could be released in a racing environment if they were to succeed. Perhaps the best example of this is the legendary ‘twin-plenum’ Vitesse, revered by SD1 geeks the world over.

Consequently the Group A SD1 is an intriguing blend of restriction, optimisation and interpretation, one that was almost continually changing season to season to wring the best from the machinery at each round of the ETCC. Tales of TWR’s illicit tweaks abound, most notoriously the furore over use of non-Rover (actually Volvo) rockers, but it’s all part of motor sport folklore now. Besides, we’re here to drive, not dissect dodgy deeds of the past.

There are differences in this car’s roll cage design, and the white interior marks this car out as one of the later TWR builds, but essentially the look and feel is very close to the other cars. I love the gloriously incongruous wood trim on the dash, the way holes have been drilled here and there, with ancillary dials and switch pods attached with little consideration for aesthetics. This was a place of work.

The big four-spoke steering wheel doesn’t take as much heft as the Group 2 car to work, largely due to Scott having fitted electric power steering. We turn it right down to give us the most authentic feel and level of effort, though there’s the faintest hint of some residual assistance. The clutch is heavy, the dog-leg gate feels slightly vague, but more robust than the road-based ’boxes. The fuel-injected V8 spins freely and strongly. Not with quite the drama of the bellowing, carb-fed Group 2 car, but with a cleaner, more linear delivery and a nice workable spread of power and torque.

Contemporary reports suggest the twin-plenum/twin-butterfly Group A motors gave about 335bhp. This car was updated in period to ’86 spec and still has its original TWR-built engine, though it now boasts what Scott describes as an ‘evolution’ spec developed – but never used – for the 1987 season. It’s good for just shy of 400bhp, which explains the sense of urgency.

The Group A car also seems a size smaller than the others. No, that’s not a reference to the apocryphal tales of TWR building 9/10th-scale cars, but it’s an indication of how much more wieldy and nimble it feels. In many ways it’s a combination of the best bits of the Group 1 and Group 2 cars – the delicacy and poise of the former car combined with much of the latter’s potency and fitness for purpose. It then builds on these qualities with strong brakes, greater agility and that racing transmission.

It’s not what you’d call a contemporary experience, but there are hints of modernity in the way it can string a lap together. You can attack that little bit harder and place the car with greater accuracy and finesse. It’s easier to find your pace and stay there consistently. That said, I’m not sure it would have the outright one-lap pace of the Jolly Green Giant, nor the same reserves of grip over a race distance.

What’s fascinating from a driver’s perspective is how each car has stark differences and striking similarities – strengths and weaknesses that demand you work with it rather than try to impose your will upon it. This was clearly the touring car driver’s art in the days before homogenised hardware, data-driven analysis and bullet-proof components became the norm. 

As a vociferous supporter of production-based racing cars, what I find especially satisfying about all three of these Rovers is that their shared DNA shines through. It’s this dynamic stamp that maintains a clear, deep-rooted connection between each racing variant and, in turn, to the SD1 road cars from which they are derived. That was the magic of these cars, and that golden era of tin-top racing. Wild Rovers indeed. 

Thanks to Ken Clarke Motorsport, and for supplying cars for this story.