An Ignored Classic
In Simon’s introduction he mentions the original P6 Rover dashboard, and I think this merits more scrutiny. The P6 Rover ceased production in 1977, ending its life as a British Leyland product built in 2.2 and 3.5 litre forms, and viewed as a rather staid design with a latterly gained reputation for poor build quality.
That isn’t what it deserved, but it had lived far too long. Casting back to its launch, 14 years previously, as the 2000 of the then independent Rover company, it was a well made car and a fresh, new design by any standards, a radical departure for that company. It drew inspiration from the Citroen DS, but in no way slavishly copied it. Of its many fine points, much was made at the time of its ergonomically designed interior. The term ergonomics, the scientific study of the interaction of the human body with an industrial product, had been around for several years, but this was one of its first outings as a selling point to the general public.
The whole interior was remarkably well though out, and its dashboard design was exemplary both in terms of the trumpeted ergonomics and occupant safety. Coming from a company that one would have expected to emphasise the traditional leather and walnut, it was an unexpectedly ordered and minimal design.
A padded top section was made in deformable foam, beneath which a generous shelf went across the dash. On the lower fascia edge, the four switches in the centre had two different shapes, so it was hard to mistake them when reaching blind. Neat adjustable face vents were positioned in front of the two front seats. The steering wheel was adjustable and stalk columns controlled indicators, lamp flashing, dipping and horn at a time when the last two were still normally activated by a clumsy foot switch and an ornate ring on the steering wheel respectively.
Apart from an elegant Kienzle clock in the centre, all the instruments were gathered in a compact rectangular pod in front of the driver. A strip speedometer was used, flanked by just two essential gauges, everything else being monitored with warning lights behind a tinted strip above.
Two padded, bottom-hinged lockable storage bins lived below the dash, protecting the occupants legs in an accident, whilst affording very generous storage space. Between them, a centre console held a nicely shaped speaker enclosure (in those days mono did the job) with room for a radio above and ventilation controls neatly incorporated
Only a slightly aftermarket looking switch with built-in warning light fitted near the driver’s door for the optional heated rear window looked out of place, the rest was a very well designed and coherent whole, at odds with the rather random efforts of most manufacturers back then and making the lush timber designs of then current Jaguars look very old-fashioned, even if they remained desirable.
For what would, today, be viewed as an aspirational car, say the 5 Series of its time, the P6 was remarkably restrained. Where status really should have dictated round gauges, including a couple of extra ones like oil-pressure that no-one ever bothered looking at, Rover’s logic insisted that water temperature and fuel gauges were all that was needed and that a strip speedometer made better use of space and was easier to read, notwithstanding negative associations with lesser brands like Vauxhalls. An 80mm or so strip of trim ran across the dashboard, curving neatly round and following through beneath the side windows. It was ‘wood’ as a nod to the past but, as an acknowledgement of the present, and just as nylon shirts were worn at all levels of society, so Rover used a subtle laminate without any irony or risk of accusation of penny-pinching.
To put all this into context, let’s see what the dashboard of the actual predecessor of the 5 Series, the Neue Klasse BMW, looked like at the time. Painted metal, chrome fittings, random switches, a generation behind.
Cars reflect their age. The faux-egalitarian Sixties, where the daughters of bricklayers supposedly met the sons of earls on equal terms on the floor of the disco-a-go-go, all too soon gave way to the divided and strife-laden seventies. The old order was trying to reassert itself and the Series 2 P6 subtly reverted to Rover type. Today, after 7 years, an all new body would be overdue but, in those cash-strapped times, all that could be afforded were small cosmetic changes. Although supposedly updating the car, they also managed to make it look heavier and more ‘British’. The wood-alike timber had a more busy grain and it seems that the most money was spent on the dashboard where a new bulge in the cowl allowed for round instruments. More conventional, more important looking, but not nearly as agreeable to my eyes with the previous elegant switches replaced by things that appear to have come from a government surplus electronics catalogue.
In fact this wasn’t a complete reversion for Rover. Whilst the facelift took place, probably not overseen by David Bache, he was planning the SD1 and its dash, though also using round instruments, reflected more the minimalism of the original 2000, with now even the suggestion of timber excised. However, in the case of that car, the 3500 of 1976 wretchedly showed that minimalism also extended to build quality from day one.
Compared with the P6, today’s cars have a plethora of controls and manufacturers are still struggling to present them to drivers in a way that allows them to be operated easily and safely. They don’t help their case by assuming that the driver will also need to be entertained by swooping curves and shiny bits. The Rover showed that you could produce good design that didn’t compromise ease of use.