Theme : Dashboards – The Rover P6

An Ignored Classic

Rover V8 Int

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.

The Granddaddy of the modern 2 Litre?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.

Rover Speedo

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.

BMW 1500 B

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. Rover Mark 2 BToday, 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.

Rover Mark 2 Int

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.

Rover SD1 B

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.

26 thoughts on “Theme : Dashboards – The Rover P6”

  1. I may (or may not) agree reference the quality issues of the SD1, the design of the dashboard is excellent. At a time when Rover were producing the Range Rover that used similar seats and velours the modernity of the SD1 stands out. The fact that it was designed to be easily converted from RHD to LHD is superb. The design and layout screams 80’s even though it was presumably created in the early 70’s and served Rover well p until their demise. Interesting that I don’t recall anyone particularly complaining of the slightly quartic steering wheel that was bemoaned so heavily in the Allegro.

    1. I loved the SD1 as a kid. A friends dad owned an SD1. I think it was either gold on brown. I loved that car. I took up any excuse to get a ride in it. I especially loved the interior. The pod dash with the block of large buttons on the right of the main dials, the steering wheel, the centre console and the door trims. More than anything I loved the big fat rocker switches for the power windows between the seats. I had a bit of obsession with power windows at the time. So I was saddened and disappointed when the switches started popping out. Not long after the rest of the interior did similar things. A few years later I rode in several of the 2nd generation models. The quality improved out of sight but the interior, like the series two P6, lost some of the originality and simplicity of the first generation cars. I especially loathed the cheap looking power window switches on the doors but at least they worked.

    2. David: have you seen our satirical take on the Rover V8-S in the Archie Vicar archive?
      My dad had a 1976 SD with chocolate brown paint and a mustard interior. I don’t remember much other than that the rear seats were too low and that it needed a lot of maintenance. Until then he drove British cars and then went German/Swedish for ever after. Of our UK cars it was the Triumph 2500 I liked best but in comparison it was very old fashioned.

  2. I find the transition from the P6 to the SD1 interior as astonishing as the SD1 itself. Where did that come from? They may have been badly made but the design is proper industrial design but not without a character. The assembly is fully integrated graphically whereas the 1963 car clearly isn´t. It´s naive and primitive, good and all as it was. The CX is rightly remembered as a landmark interior. I would say that despite its underlying conventionality, the SD1 is just as much as a step forward. It´s very hard to imagine designing a dashboard for today that had this impact and integrity. Perhaps its not possible: the process of integrating car interiors was completed. The ID aesthetic is timeless and you can only do it once, or in a few clearly different ways. If anyone can think of a source or influence for the SD1 I would like to know what it might be. Is David Bache still alive?

    1. No, he isn’t, he died in the 1990s. Doing some research on him, I not only learned that he was born in Germany, but that his work appears to be somewhat underappreciated, maybe because he didn’t exactly leave Rover/BL on a high note.
      He’d certainly make for an interesting subject for a study on British automotive design.

  3. A Google of late 60s Italian industrial design, early 70s Italian, French and German industrial design/product design does not produce anything very eye-catching. Is the DS1 explainable as being simply being “self-created”? I suppose originality has to come from somewhere.

  4. Wikipedia says Bache was fired over disagreements about the design of the Maestro. Given his track record, I can only assume his ideas were probably quite good but the morons managing BL wanted something slightly to very mediocre. There´s a lovely metaphor in all that somewhere for the decline of the British motor industry. I never seem to come across similar stories from other countries.

    1. That’s right. At that point I’m restrospectively losing any interest in the Rover marque.

      David Bache really needs to get some more credit for his work as one of Britain’s most mould-breaking car designers. His work was similarly avantgarde as William Towns’ oeuvre, but Bache doesn’t seem to be as fondly remembered.

  5. If I had to criticise the SD1 layout – the radio is too close to the “cliff” of the upper dash and too low down (from saab ergonomics).. though saab were still in 99 mode at the time and that wasn’t as good as the classic 900 that wouldn’t appear until 1979.

  6. I remember being massively impressed by the P6 interior when I saw a fine example at a classic car meet; very light and airy, with many modern and well considered touches. It embodied the form-and-function utility of the finest modernist architecture. Unfortunately the “facelift” evokes the cheapened, drab concrete conformity imposed on too many British towns by urban planners.

  7. As Kris says, Bache was underappreciated. He was not only talented, but obviously flexible in his approach. His employers should have viewed him as a prime asset but, being the British motor industry, a self-aggrandising and ultimately inept manager sacks him.

    1. Hello all! Bache and the others at Rover did some great cars in P4, P5 and P6 and a great missed opportunity in SD1. Read more about where that all went wrong at http://www.aronline.co.uk, regards, Adrian

  8. Hello Adrian. Yes, aronline is a super site. Thanks for stopping by. What´s your view of the SD1 interior? Do you have any suggestions as to where the theme emerged from? It seems almost sui generis, like a bolt from the blue. It´s a pity Rover lost their experimental character and reverted to being a poorer-man´s Jaguar.

  9. When I was younger I always thought a Series two 3500S with all the fruit was the way to go. But 25 years later I now hanker for the series one less is more approach.
    We owned and “maintained” many p6s one after the other, all of them series twos. In fact I was driven home from the hospital in brand new 2000TC P6 as a new born. 10 years later my dad’s girlfriend at the time bought a lovely series one 2000 TC white on tan leather. It just felt, and smelt, much more special than dads series 2 with its then tired drab looking tobacco leaf paintwork and vinyl tan interior.
    In it’s defence the series two dash comes alive at night in a way that series 1 doesn’t. Friends and acquaintances that rode in my P6 where always impressed with that dash and interior at night but less praiseworthy about it during the day.

  10. Thanks for popping by, David. That point about the difference between the night and day impressions is thought provoking. I wonder how much of the difference or effect is the result of testing in the dark or if it’s chance mostly. I can say that I notice urban spaces seem smaller and cosier by night than by day. Perhaps the car interior does too, an effect caused by the warmth of the “brazier of coals” feeling you get from fireplaces and candles in a dark room and the way the walls disappear.
    Was the Series 2 cost cut? Were all of them bereft of leather?

    1. There was actually a fair bit of thought and design that went into the back lighting of the rotary switches to give it a lovely evenly distributed green glow that complemented the row of round gauges on the main dash at night. The white text also lit up cleanly and perfectly.
      Most series 2 cars sold here in Australia were vinyl or cloth, I think leather was an optional extra.

  11. David. My own prejudice is towards the Series 1, possibly since my Mum owned a red 2000TC with tan leather and wire wheels from new. It had faults – the twin SUs were always going off balance and the (non-powered) steering seemed very sensitive to the tracking adjustment – but it was an excellent car, luxurious, yet without the timber laden pomposity of its UK competitors.

    I take your point about the Series 2 dash – I was probably a bit too harsh on it – but I always felt that the Series 2 had become unnecessarily fussy.

  12. Thank you for that. The dashboard´s overall theme is easier to see as the details are hard to make out. I still think there´s an awkward forced curve between the speedo box and the A-pillar. The rectangular form is not marrying well with the overall curve of the base of the windscreen. That said, it´s overall a charming and agreeable car. You could use the same theme today and with modern detail finishes it would look very good.

  13. I agree with your aesthetic criticisms but, put in the context of both what was technically possible back then and, what everyone else was doing, I still find it a remarkably fine design. Do note that those padded sections at knee level are huge hinge down bins.

  14. That´s true, it was a good example of what was possible at the time. I wonder if we have passed the point where there will be much about car interiors now that will look so technically passe. Furniture hasn´t moved on in decades. In the previous centuries it altered over fifty year periods. And if you look at furniture from the 1300s it looks like it was hacked with axes and chisels (which was). I suppose the 60s designers were still looking for conventions and norms. The Rover has a nice look that the Doctor Who set designs had around then. The controls stick out and have to be pulled and levered. I sound very harsh but I don´t mean to be. I like the Rover P6, funny curves and all. Design obviously evolves on a national as well as personal level. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. The generation change for the SD1 is all the more remarkable as it seems they were doing poll vaults off the shoulders of giants.

  15. I like the video because you see how the stalks move and it involves a way of driving (unpowered steering and a large diameter wheel) that even van drivers don’t know these days.

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