James and friends attempt to drive coast to coast America... in a Rover SD1
WORDS AND PICTURES James Walshe. June 2023 Edition.
I know what you're thinking. You're curious as to how far we got, aren't you? That's exactly what went through my mind before we set off from the Pacific coast. And the answer? 26 miles. So, there you have it. British Leyland strikes again. We shook out fists in the direction of Solihull and went to the beach. Well, not quite...
Having nursed the spluttering SD1 off the LA freeway near John Wayne International Airport and into a business park, a dead fuel pump is diagnosed and after watching my two pals disappear in their Jeep to find a replacement, I slump under a nearby tree with a Haynes manual to study the inner workings of the Rover V8. Despie BL selling only a thousand or so examples of the SD1 here, we are determined to get ours up and running properly and cross this giant continent. Our first task then, is to source a fuel pump for a 1980 Rover in one of the most populous megacities on the planet. Hmm.
Months before, my chum Tim Wade Jr had called me from his Rhode Island home in the far north-east of the US. ‘I found a Rover SD1, and I think we should go and rescue it!’ It sounded like an excellent excuse for a holiday, so I agreed to join him on the collection mission. ‘Oh, thing is, it’s in California.’ Vermont-based friend Chris Mercon had already signed up. No surprise, since both he and Tim had roped me into a madcap scheme in 2019 that involved the recovery of a shabby North American spec Rover 800 from a trailer park in Idaho. The Sterling would eventually make it across the Atlantic, into my hands and later, back to its birthplace in Cowley.
We gave ourselves a two-week period in which to fly out to LA and then nurse the aged Rover to the Eastern Seaboard. Tim, having agreed to pay $2000 for the car, seemed inexplicably confident. It had spent much of its life in sunny Santa Barbara and while the ‘Pendelican White’ paintwork wasn’t shiny, the California climate meant little corrosion and the previous owner, an enthusiast named Geoffrey Carter, had done some excellent work to bring this project car to life. That included sourcing a bonnet and tailgate to replace the rusty originals (both in ‘Poseidon Green Metallic’). Geoffrey was certainly very enthusiastic – but was thankfully straight with us. ‘The wiper motor is dead and the wiper arms are missing.’ With left-hand-drive items not readily available, I began my search via the SD1 Owners Club and the Federal Rovers Group on Facebook with some urgency, fully aware the American Midwest is no stranger to rain and snow.
Still 5000 miles away in Northamptonshire, I began to wonder what else the car might be missing so Geoffrey kindly trailered the Rover to a British car specialist in Los Angeles. Once there, proprietor of British European Auto, British ex-pat Jeff Taw, was quick to deliver his driving impressions on the phone. ‘Is the rest of the suspension still on its way?’ The sway bar mounts and bushes, bottom ball joints, and numerous steering parts were tired, while the alternator wasn’t charging and the lights and instruments were all dead. Jeff then talked me through the leaking clutch master cylinder, seized brakes, exhaust full of holes and the tired hoses and belts. ‘The tyres are good though.’ Unlike Europe, America doesn’t do the whole ‘MOT thing’.
We gave Jeff the green light for repairs and awaited the call, which came the day before our flight to LA. Jeff’s team had worked hard to get the Rover up to scratch. ‘We fitted a used alternator, a voltage gauge from a Jag XJ, bouts of rewiring and modified TR6 bushes’. Meanwhile, a pair of used wiper arms had turned up… donated by Canadian SD1 owner Michael Murphy who’d sent them to Los Angeles from his home in Toronto.
Stunted by our meagre budget, I sensed our hero Jeff was reluctant to guarantee us a successful mission, but he was confident he’d done all he could with the wholly inadequate deadline and money we’d given him. ‘It’s not to our usual high standards, but put it this way: if we were in the UK, the car would almost… possibly, maybe… pass an MOT.’