Which two vehicles would you choose to sum up the 1980s? If you asked Phil Oakey from the Human League, he would tell you that it was the Rover SD1, and the Saab 900. And who are we to argue with that? The 23rd most popular single on the UK charts and the band’s best known song can’t possibly be wrong. Then again, the DeLorean probably came a close third.
The Car: Rover SD1
The twentieth century for Britain was just a long list of easily avoidable tragedies – the sinking of Titanic, World War 1, World War 2, the collapse of the empire, the Suez crisis, economic collapse, British Leyland. Okay, maybe that last one was a bit anti-climactic.
As we all know, the so-called swinging 1960s was a good time for Britain – maybe because the Conservatives were in power. After the 1945-1951 Attlee administration, which stagnated the country while Europe grew under the Marshall plan, the Conservatives managed to claw back British prestige (even though, in a sense, Churchill was a crazy quasi-socialist himself) to the point that London was again the capital of the world and freedom, fashion and rock and roll painted an optimistic future for all. During this time, Rover, the great reliable name in British motoring, had carved out for itself a new market segment – the “executive” car. The P6 was not quite the Daimler Jaguar, but it was certainly above the family Morris.
Then in 1964, Labour came into power, beginning their long road of destruction again (although we can now be grateful that Ed Milliband, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Scotland’s incessant whining have hammered the last nails into Labour’s coffin). By the time the 1970s arrived, one year of Conservatism wasn’t enough to save the decade.
To understand my resentment about Labour and the 1970s, we need some historical context.
When you remember that the reason the BLMC (British Leyland Motor Corporation) existed in the first place, it doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. The successful Leyland Motor Corporation was unhappily paired with the failing British Motor Holdings (BMH, a merger of several other failing companies), and were shocked to learn BMH had no plans to replace their 1950s car designs like the Mini.
In 1971, the plan was to bring out some new blood to compete with trendy European cars. What did they come up with? The Morris Marina. Then came along the Allegro. And, if you know cars, I don’t need to say any more. Make up your own mind.
In April 1975 Sir Don Ryder presented his enquiry into the position of British Leyland, the Ryder Report, to the company. Following his recommendations, BL was restructured as a new holding company under the 1974-1979 Labour Government, with itself the major shareholder. This had the effect of nationalising the company in line with the Wilson administration’s “National Enterprise Board”, an extension of public ownership into major industry, whose primary role was to help fund investment. (They also took care of Rolls Royce when they found difficulty)
The four divisions of the new company structure saw Leyland Cars (BL Cars), the largest car manufacturer in the UK producing a million vehicles a year, Leyland Trucks/Buses, the largest commercial/passenger vehicle manufacturer in the UK, Leyland Special Products (miscellaneous other industries) and Leyland International (exports).
Throughout the 1970s the company was the great famous beast of industrial unrest. The only “good”(!) news to come for British Leyland during this time was in 1977, when the four-year planned replacement for the P6 won European Car of the Year. Did this mean the car was any good? If you’re a Longbridge fanboy, maybe; but anyone with a keen eye for innovation wouldn’t be so impressed. Despite its handsome styling, for which head designer David Bache took inspiration from the Ferrari Daytona and BMC 1800 (which laterally inspired the Citroën CX) Leyland decided the buying public loved outdated technology – so Charles Spencer King (Range Rover designer) stuck a live rear axle and drum brakes underneath. Big mistake…
A brand new 2.2L engine bit the dust too, to be replaced by the tried-and-tested-but-not-particularly-reliable Rover V8. Interior details were dodgy; air vents were fitted where clocks were meant to be, while they also faced the passenger to act as a slot for a left-hand-drive steering column (left hand drive models being stalled by a strike, of course), the front fog lamps were wired to the a dome light by the driver’s face, and if the antics of a certain TV presenter are to believed, the doors would fall off. Maybe not quite so bad, but drive down the M25 with your luggage in the boot on a British summer day and you’re likely to find you rain coat is a bit soggy – so, yeah, turns out an influx of British Government help didn’t exactly make the cars fit together any better (a fact Leyland acknowledged in their own press releases!)
Nonetheless, the press were enthusiastic – despite one test group of reporters noticing on a trial run that sunlight was entering through the door gaps and that the steering wheel made an alarming shuddering at high speeds.
Models were normally named for their engine size rather than marketed as the “SD1”. Which is probably why you hear a lot of people mistakenly calling it an “Ess Dee Aye”. Though that sounds somewhat like “STI”, which I guess is quite appropriate for the decade.
There were some midlife crisis facelifts and some interior modifications (nothing beats the early shag pile carpeting and velour seats, though) and the 1980s heralded the arrival of the four cylinder engine, plunging the SD1 straight into the lofty land of the fleet car.
There was a small foray into the American car market, but a small dealership network, high prices and ugly US modifications was too much, despite the praise it received there.
These days you can expect quite a cult following for the Rover SD1 – my father drove one in the police force, and my neighbour had a yellow one. It was one of those sensational designs the British are famous for – and it had the sensationally terrible reputation to go with it.
The Models: Corgi Rover 3500
My original plan was to do these two separately, but in order to save space and because it might seem weird to do a feature on the Rover then again on the Rover a few years later I’ve put them both together. Hopefully that will also help people judge which one they prefer.
I’m going to start with the Corgi because it makes the most logical sense to me (I got it first – it’s a childhood hero) but also because it came to the market before the Matchbox.
The Corgi Juniors Rover 3500 came as a Whizzwheels model in the late 1970s, hoping to compete with a bit of British metal against the Hot Wheels phenomenon. Corgi at the time were producing excellent and detailed castings. While they chose to label it as a 3500, really, it could have been any engine size, right?
Those with a keen eye will have already noticed that mine isn’t the correct colour scheme – I spruced it up alongside the Saab in order to recreate the iconic pairing from the video at the top of this post.
When it comes to the car, the casting has gotten the Rover down almost perfectly – and I say almost, just because technically those headlights ought to be recessed. But no matter – I think they look great and everything else about the car meets to my satisfaction. The plastic base feels a bit flaky, especially when you have to undo four rivets that are very close to the edge, but I managed to remove it cleanly without a problem.
It rolls beautifully, it has to be added. The suspension is rigid but that’s all right. It’s light and fast. Hot Wheels did a great thing by shaking up the competition, just because it produced some of the nicest Whizzwheels and superfast cars.
I also love the opening boot lid on this model. It’s a shame it doesn’t stay open though, but that’s just something you expect on a model that’s over thirty years old! All the lines are in place. My only suggested improvement: It would have been nice for them to add license plate details, but that isn’t something Corgi tended to do – they stuck a tow bar on the back instead, which unfortunately broke off on mine. Drat.
Normally I’d complain about an opening bootlid on a liftback, and while it has to be said I dislike that there’s a big rear window missing from the car, I just think it’s so appropriate that there are big panel gaps on the back of a Rover – it’s being true to the real car! Also, having painted the rear lights, it looks truly Roverlike. I’m very proud of the job I did on this car.
Matchbox Rover 3500
The Matchbox Rover of the same cubic cabacity was unleashed in the early 1980s, and also came with the “Superfast” branding to compete with Hot and Whizz wheels, although I can’t seem to find any such branding on the car itself. The colour variation is listed as bronze here, but I think it’s more of a blood red colour. My partner got me this model as a birthday gift – I’m not even sure if he likes Rovers?
Now, maybe it’s just me. But something about this casting just feels… off. It’s identifiably a Rover, but… what is it? Is it those teeny, tiny wheels? That body, maybe it just sits too high? Those headlights are pretty huge, aren’t they? What’s with the Hapsburg chin? And that sloping back looks rather like a bubble butt to me – in fact, the whole thing just feels chunky and clumsy, like it’s just eaten its Christmas dinner.
Maybe I’m being too critical. But when you put it beside the Corgi, I know which one looks more like a Rover. It can’t be argued that the Matchbox comes with much more attention to detail – it has an opening sunroof, license plate markings (in addition to a towpack), recessed and textured headlights, working suspension – yet, despite all these things, and despite how nice a quality model it feels, it doesn’t make up for the fact the Corgi just looks stunningly more beautiful.
I mostly take issues with the general body shape I think. Its fatness. Though you can forgive it for trying hard in other areas. It feels like a Chinese Rover copycat. Then again, looks close enough and you can actually make out the Rover badge on the front – kudos, Matchbox. You didn’t go for the “blob” thing that Corgi did.
The interior is listed as white too, but it looks a kind of off white beige if you ask me. Then again, that could just be the fading effects of old age. Neither of these cars are spring chickens – the Matchbox feels better put together. The plastic base is nice and thick, and the extra glass (well, plastic) windows make it feels a bit stronger around the cabin.
The license plate is KCF 188W, for those wondering. And no, that one’s a mystery to me; so if you know, get in touch.
Still, it’s all a matter of taste, and who am I to judge the quality of one casting over another? I know the Matchbox forums will have a few people ready to scold me for my take-down of the lardy-arsed Rover, and they have every right to. Don’t get me wrong here, I love the car. It’s just not as nice as the Corgi!
Still, a Rover is always going to be a player. So here he is with a couple of Toyota Yarises (or should that be Yarii?) to remind you not to mess with this 70s predator.
I hope you enjoyed the article. And yes, I realise 2 months is a long time to wait between posts. Apologies for that!