Ever Since I Bought A Rover 3500 Online, We Have A New Policy At My House: No Ebay While Drinking.On a fateful night last June, a mere one-and-a-half glasses of syrah deep into an otherwise uneventful evening, I found myself online, purchasing a 1980 Rover 3500, sight unseen.
Lord, have mercy on my interactive soul.
Actually, to say I bought the Rover sight unseen would be technically inaccurate. I did ogle extensively the many pictures posted by the seller, the suspiciously dim-witted cousin of the deceased former owner. But as any veteran eBayer ought to know, pictures can, do, and must lie, just like everybody else in the virtual world. And if one picture can be worth a thousand words, sometimes one word, a word I know too well in a lifetime of self-inflicted automotive misfortune, is worth a thousand pictures. That word is Rover.
Rover was back in the news recently. Ford, which bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000, announced that it had exercised a “first refusal” clause to buy the once grand and once associated with Land Rover “Rover” name. The clause creating the buying “opportunity” for Ford was built into BMW’s sale of Rover and its Longbridge, England, facilities, also in 2000. Perhaps anticipating the company’s imminent insolvency, BMW only licensed, rather than sold, the Rover name to the maker’s new caretakers, Phoenix Venture Holdings. When Phoenix went bust and China’s Shanghai Automotive bought the right to build cars that Rover had designed, BMW reclaimed the rights to the Rover name, and that is what Ford-which needs another sick brand like it needs a hole in the head-has now bought.
Considering the parlous state of the Ford operation lately, this is even more hilarious than the troubled Kitman operation’s rash decision to buy another Rover (I also own a 1971 3500S P6B) and possibly up there with General Motors paying $2 billion for the right not to buy Fiat. Like GM, I’d have been wiser trading a large sum not to own this car.
Given its current predicament, Ford has no plans to use the Rover name any time soon. Which is quite the coincidence, since I am unlikely to use my Rover any time soon, either. It needs some work. Did I forget to mention that? The guy who sold it to me certainly did.
Today, everybody knows about Land Rovers and Range Rovers, but once upon a time, they were but a mildly profitable adjunct to Rover’s main business of building cars, a task they handled rather well. As an independent company, Coventry’s Rover, which traced its roots back to a nineteenth-century bicycle-making enterprise, built some of the world’s finest, if not exactly best-known, executive cars.
Although they’d never enjoy much sales success in the United States, Rover’s P6 line of 1963, for instance, won press plaudits and international acclaim for advanced design, especially in the area of passive safety. Ditto the replacement SD1 lineup, which broke cover in 1976. By then, Rover had long since been subsumed into the nationalized British Leyland, a suicidal quagmire that shepherded many once valued names off to the great beyond. But somehow, enough of Rover’s crack engineering staff held on to turn out the SD1 (the name denoted the first design of Leyland’s Specialist Division), a very credible four-door luxury sedan with a then-unusual hatchback design.
Rover’s 3.5-liter V-8, the aluminum engine whose tooling had been purchased from General Motors in the 1960s, was deployed again, meaning the 3500, as the SD1 was also known in V-8 iteration, was no slouch. Its avant-garde looks recalled the Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona, and with brisk performance and Rover’s traditional commitment to safety, it was off to a bright start, winning Europe’s Car of the Year award in 1977.
However, things immediately went downhill from there. Chief among the new Rover’s many enemies was the diabolical build quality that only Britain’s centrally cast cadres of uniquely inept managers, ludicrously militant trade unionists, and shoddy suppliers could guarantee. Suffice it to say, the SD1 was not the car for Rover, which had left the American market in 1974, to return here with. But relaunch they did in 1980, bringing us back around again to my car.
In any one of a million particulars, my eBay “red-light” special instantly explains why Rover had to quit America but one year after it returned-at the close of the 1980 selling season. (That is, if you can call it a selling season; Rover failed to shift even the modest first allotment of about 500 cars that it sent us Yankees, many remaining unsold for years.)
At least my car, built to the ultra-rare, ultra-undesirable California-smog/auto-gearbox specification, is not rusty. Typically, rust, borne of steel without peer for low-quality composition and inadequate preparation, was the first thing to lay SD1s low. So you can readily see how a lack of rust closed this deal for me. Right?
But with my blessedly rust-free example (which wound up in sunny Reno, Nevada, by way of Sacramento, after an initial extended period of mellow seasoning on a California dealership’s lot), one is forced to confront the fact that in the absence of rust, the rest of a Rover’s systems-fuel, braking, and electrical, among others-will each be given a chance to conspire with its cheap switchgear and less-than-robust materials to let the side down completely. In this sense, the component parts truly join together to rise up and defeat the sum.
From the paperwork I’ve pieced together, it seems an elderly couple finally took a shine to this SD1 in 1982. I’m thinking they were blind, although they could have been bighearted drunks or unspeakable vulgarians, as they must have been one of the three to overlook this car’s screaming yellow paint job and its hideous brown velour interior. In the online auction, the pictures appeared to indicate a delightful shade of primrose with stone leather seats. I was looking instead at a car that had been ravaged by the sun, one whose paint had the depth and appeal of an ancient cheese pizza. The interior-casually recovered in soiled white vinyl, with brown carpet that looked like it had been repatriated from a ’70s hippie van-not only looked like cheese, it smelled like it, too.
The upside for this car that needs lots of parts is that those parts are shockingly cheap -if you’re in Britain. The Buick V-8 is ubiquitous, and because so many Rovers have rusted off the road in England, where they once sold well, used parts are plentiful. For example, I just bought a pair of good front seats on eBay for 1 (less than $2). If only I could figure out how to get them back from England for less than the price of another Rover, I’d go so far as to say that this is indisputably a practical classic.
So you’ll have to excuse me. I’m thinking it’s time to crack a beer and start looking online for new old stock Rover parts. For every Rover, there must be a problem, and for every rule-such as no tippling while logged on to eBay-there must be an exception.