Everybody loves picking at the Rover SD1, don’t they? But in reality: How does it compare to – say, a Mercedes-Benz SLC? Well, I’ve enjoyed both for a year now and here are my findings.
The Rover was one of the cars on my hundreds-of-cars-long list of cars I’d like to own. And so was the Mercedes. In fact I’d say they were almost equally coveted as candidates for my dream garage as both were sort of exotics but nonetheless real cars that I actually recall seeing in my childhood: The Rover would occasionally be spotted here in my native Denmark, while the SLC mostly was admired by me on our holidays south of the Danish border.
For me the Rover was always about the design and the engine, while the Mercedes was about – well, it’s presence and heft. I later learned that the Mercedes-Benz way of designing and building cars and the SLC specifically, could also be seen as the very definition of “teutonic”. That was after I learned that the Rover SD1 could be seen as the definition of – well, a bad car, to be polite.
Of course I beg to differ, as logic defies that the SD1 could be so bad: After all it took the “Car of the Year” laurels in 1977 and for the first year after its introduction, there were huge waiting lists for the car. And then people found out that it was actually – bad? Well, something like that. Yes, British Leyland had rushed the car into production and onto the market, could then not meet the huge demand, and the workforce was more force than work. It was deemed to go as wrong as everything else bewitched by the BL-curse.
I didn’t know that as I child, of course, and could admire the car in its whole. And to me it is obvious that is is something very special. I was out of a Volvo family, and within those bloodlines a 264 was the flagship. But compare the Rover SD1 to the Volvo and it seems an insult to the Brit: Talk about the beauty and the beast. And the same goes when comparing the SD1 to an Audi 100, a Ford Granada, Saab 900 or Peugeot 604. See below:
Only the Citroën CX showed something along the lines of the Rover in boldness of design, and the French offer of course also features that famous suspension, making it even more comfortable than the SD1. But then start the engine in a CX: Rover wins again. Some critisize the SD1 for in some respects being a simpler car than its predecessor – but as it nonetheless works better, I’d rather say it is an engineering masterpiece to get more out of less.
In my opinion the Rover SD1 simply stands out as a design and not least as a concept in another league. And it is rather dazzling to think that even the design was all-British. How come British Leyland did not mess that up as well? I guess because designer David Bache was rather inspired by some Italian exotics, which I feel is absolutely okay when the end result turns out as well as here.
So I was indeed a happy man that day back in 2016, where I acquired the Platinum Silver with Nutmeg interior 1977 Rover 3500 Automatic: What a handsome car! It was then and it is now. Low, wide, lithe and sharp. Even today the shape still has real presence and judging by how many people have complemented my SD1 during my ownership, it seems I was not the only admirer back in the Seventies.
My example even had a terrific history: Acquired as a demonstrator car back in 1978, the owner grew so fond of his Rover that he kept it until his death, passing it over to his son in 2016. At that time the car had been restored three or four times; the son couldn’t quite recall. No wonder: Originally it was an all-year round company car, and only in later years had it been retired for a more protected life as a classic car. And apparently, rust was at one point a real issue!
Nonetheless, the owner’s affection for the car is obvious: The last two or three restorations could not possibly have made any sense financially, but he did go forth anyway. Shortly after the last restoration, the father passed away and the son hung onto the car until he eventually realised that it had to go. I came along and fell for the SD1 as well as the story: At the time, the son estimated the Rover must have covered around 400,000 kilometers. However, that didn’t bother me much as the car had clearly been restored and presented well.
It took some further fettling before it actually ran as well as it looked, but primarily a new electronic distributor did the trick. Further enhancements of the cosmetics helped bring out the original design in the car, and it ended up looking indistinguishable from the brochure car; platinum silver with nutmeg and all. And then along came the Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC.
That was last summer, and the 1972 Mercedes-Benz was really in a worse way than the Rover. Having been stood for three years, it took some convincing to start and we carried on with a somewhat troublesome path from there. Within a fairly short time, I spent about the price of the Rover in repairs and restoration for the SLC, and even now it still won’t run entirely smooth and clean at low revs. It is, however, fine otherwise, and I think it is fair to compare the two.
Judged purely by their key specs, they seem rather similar: Seventies designs with big V8-engines, automatic transmissions and a fine flair of luxury. And as each of my examples had their faults, I’d even say they are fairly matched conditionwise as well.
That’s where the similarities end though. The Mercedes-Benz is a true coupé where the Rover was almost revolutionary in its class, offering a huge hatch. The Mercedes-Benz is also built to completely different standards than the Rover: Everything on the Mercedes oozes quality, while the Rover seems built down to a price. A really low one at that. Which is exactly as it was too, so I suppose none of the above will come as a surprise. But most importantly: The Rover is newer. About one car generation, to be exact. Which is exactly how it feels.
I was actually always positively surprised by the way the Rover drives: Of course it’s not a new car, but it is certainly not an outdated car either. Light on its feet, comfortable, airy, brisk, relaxed and always composed as well. In fact, I suppose you could say, it drives like it looks.
Unfortunately exactly the same applies to the Mercedes: It’s about as much heavier than the Rover as it looks, and when considering the ergonomics, it feels even more than one generation older. In fact, only the engine feels younger: Once that injected V8 comes on song, the SLC is genuinely rapid in a way the Rover would not achieve until the much later Vitesse. Surprisingly the Rover V8 sounds more muscular and melodic, by the way. Just bear in mind that there will probably be a curve somewhere along the road – thank God for its good brakes, as curves are not really the domain of the SLC. Although it will go around them the steering provides even less feedback than the Rover’s and it is very clear that the natural habitat of the SLC is that of the Autobahn, motorway, autoroute or whatever you call them. Huge chunks of largely straight tarmac can be devoured by the SLC whenever you feel like it – rapidly and fuss-free as well. In fact I almost feel ashamed that I have not ventured outside of the Danish borders in the Mercedes yet – it certainly feels as though it was built to cross Europe in a day. Or the States, for that matter.
But in general terms, the big surprise is that the Rover SD1 actually drives better then the Mercedes-Benz SLC. Yes, it really does! Historically this should perhaps come as no surprise, as the Rover is the newer design. But amidst all the shaming of the SD1 I think many people forget just how good it was when it all worked. In fact, the SD1 should have been a world beater. That this never happened was yet another of British Leylands great lost opportunities. To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I love the car: After all, there’s nothing quite like a good tragedy, eh?
Nonetheless, I just sold the Rover last week. Even acknowledging just how different these two cars really are, I could not vindicate two Seventies-V8’s in the garage. We’d driven less than 5,000 kilometers in the Rover during those almost two years of ownership. Very pleasant miles, but recently we’ve struggled to take it out enough. I still absolutely love the way it drives and looks, but it seems the new owner does too. I think it was the right thing to do.
I think it will also help make me drive the SLC more. Or fix more issues – whichever comes first! In reality I’ve so far driven even less in the SLC than in the Rover.
Upon which I might find myself sat there behind the wheel, wondering why I sold the Rover when the SLC drives worse – perhaps? No, I don’t think so, as it all makes sense to me: I like old cars that feel like old cars. The Mercedes-Benz fits that bill perfectly. But even so, I can’t help but wonder how long the Mercedes-Benz will continue to live in my garage. The content had slowly crept up to ten cars, which is clearly too many. How will I ever find the time to drive them all?
But what to do when you love them all? Answers on a postcard, please. And opinions towards the Rover SD1 / SLC-comparison are welcome too.