Misposted in Posterity’s Pigeonhole : Rover P6

We ask if it’s sometimes better to die young.

(c) favcars

Recently it’s been pointed out that, whatever his past achievements, such as a surprising yet admirable commitment to gay rights, David Cameron, British Prime Minister at the time of writing, will be defined by history as the man primarily responsible for Britain leaving the European Union and, conceivably, of causing irreparable damage to the EU itself. Whether you deserve it or not, posterity can be a harsh judge.

For many, you’re only as good as your last gig, and the Rover name inevitably conjures up the image of the Phoenix Four circus act, blundering around the ring, being chased by their out of control MG X Power SV novelty car whilst stuffing ten quid notes down each other’s baggy trousers until the whole thing explodes in a puff of smoke and a boing of springs.

There is, of course, an alternative image of Rover, that held by many of those who recently took full advantage of Mr Cameron’s terminally self-harming offer and voted for a return to ‘traditional British values’. In this view, a Rover is a light classical symphony of tasteful timber and leather, representing all that is fine, reassuring and comfortable about that green and pleasant island that sits, serenely, off the coast of Europe.

This is equally inaccurate and, whereas Mr Cameron will probably deserve history’s view of him, Rover certainly does not.

Rover 2000TC C
(c) milestone classics

In 1967, my Mum took delivery of a Venetian Red Rover 2000TC with Sandalwood leather interior and fitted with optional wire wheels and Carello foglamps. We’d looked at alternatives, particularly a Neue Klasse BMW 1800 TI, but really this wasn’t nearly as convincing a package. Had you asked me at the time which company would be prospering in 50 years time, the answer would surely have been Rover. The BMW had attractions, but it was nowhere near to the totally thought-out, coherent and modern package that the P6 Rover offered. And, fun though the Rover’s predecessor, a prematurely rust borne Jaguar Mark 2, had been, it seemed vintage in comparison.

At the time, the Rover felt the height of modernity. Inside, the strip of timber laminate across the fascia carried no pretension or irony, just a hint of the Scandinavian. The dashboard, with strip speedometer, kept the highly legible instrument panel in a low profile, avoiding the temptation to give a full set of sporty looking circular gauges, some of which would never be never looked at. Two lockable storage bins, hardly mere ‘glove boxes’, their faces padded to protect the front occupants knees, hinged down at the push of a button. The seats looked, and were, comfortable, but not like something you’d find in a suburban sitting room.

Series 1 V8 Interior
Series 1 V8 Interior

Outside, the vestigal wings avoided the all in one body look of the BMW, which of course was the actual way forward but, like the DS, these were bolted on for ease of repair and the resulting horizontal creases at front and rear made placing the car easy, even in the dark where the front sidelamps illuminates a pointer at the top of the unit.

The Rover T4 Turbine - image : picssr-com
The Rover T4 Turbine – image : picssr-com

Performance was good by the standards of the time, but not outstanding and, in twin carburettor form, the SUs seemed to lose balance between service intervals. Steering was by a reasonably large diameter, thin rimmed plastic wheel and, whereas, back then I would have preferred something more boy-racerly vogueish, smaller with a leather rim, in hindsight the unpowered steering needed that diameter, and the thin wheel was pleasant to handle. The stubby gearstick, with a T lift detent, looked good, though the box itself was a bit stiff at times.

P6 Cutaway by Terry Davey - image : p6club.com
P6 Cutaway by Terry Davey – image : p6club.com
Rover 2000 Seats classictrimming-net
P6 Seats – image : classictrimming.net

The De Dion rear planted the car well, and gave a fine ride, with plenty of body roll but good roadholding, in the French style. The front suspension was uniquely odd, being engineered with movement transferred to horizontal springs mounted on the bulkhead, a space saving solution to allow for the gas turbine engine that never came. This was actually a weak point of the car and could be easily put out of balance.

All round discs were good, though the inboard rear brakes could seize through lack of heavy use – something that didn’t seem to happen after I was able to drive it. As well as a Fiat 124, this was the other car I drove regularly after passing my test. I’d like to say that its qualities stemmed my exuberance, but of course that wasn’t so. It did, however, keep me out of trouble, even on one dark night on Christmas Day when, driving alone across the works for the new M3, I slid on an icy diversionary kink and broadsided neatly off the road between two trees, nose and tail, a piece of good fortune that had nothing to do with my skill. Next morning I was up early, pulling the bits of muddy grass from the wire wheels before my Mum noticed.

Good to know that it also emphasised safety.
Good to know that it also emphasised safety.

Although those wire wheels harked back to a vintage era, they oddly suited the early P6, whose standard hubcaps never really pleased me. However they seized on the splines unless maintained regularly, so punctures were doubly unwelcome. The rear suspension and the spare tyre took up a lot of boot space, so the mount for fixing the spare to the outside of the boot lid was another useful option, and looked oddly pleasing.

Rear Wheel Carrier - image : theworldaccordingtomaggie.com
Rear Wheel Carrier – image : theworldaccordingtomaggie.com

In 1968, Rover’s Buick derived V8 was fitted to the P6 and, two years later, the Mark 2 facelift was released. But, in 1967, Rover had crossed the Event Horizon into the black hole that would soon become British Leyland. Independent, it had been an engineering-led company, now it was led by politics. It had been a far more innovative company than either Jaguar or Triumph, but now projects were cancelled lest they clashed with either of those companies’ intentions. Rover had lost its way and never really found it again.

The P6 had replaced the P4. When it first appeared in 1949 as the 75, with Gordon Bashford’s styling inspired by Loewy’s designs for Studebaker, the P4 was seen as rather modern and sporting, though still offering great comfort. Somewhere along the line, the ‘comfortable’ bit remained, but the rest was forgotten so that, by the end of its life 15 years later, the term Auntie had got added to the Rover P4.

(c) classiccars.brightwells.com

This same change of image happened to the P6 over its 14 year life. This is what happens to cars when they are around too long. The 3 year cycle that used to be favoured by US makers, and was once followed by the Japanese, was too short. Nowadays, in Europe an 8 year cycle seems to work for upmarket models, and a 6 year one for the likes of Golfs and Focuses. But extend this and the car will inevitably become dated.

With just a facelift at the time it should have been replaced, it ended up adorned with chrome side stripes and vinyl bits, it had lost the lightness of the original and taken on a rather staid image. The Citroen DS, the car that in part inspired the P6, lasted for 20 years and still looked good, but it was exceptional and, fine though David Bache’s original work was, the P6 facelift was a clumsy mixture whilst the DS facelift by Opron was perfect.

The Last P6 - image : roverp6man on Wikipedia
The Last P6 – image : roverp6man on Wikipedia

The use of cars in films and TV is a convenient, if often lazy, shorthand indicator of its owner’s character. In the TV series of John Le Carre’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, George Smiley’s car was a Bile Yellow (possibly not an actual BL Colour name) Rover 2000, replaced in the sequel ‘Smiley’s People’ by a Dung Brown 2200SC. The character played by Alec Guinness was a spy, a troubled loner in many ways but, in all outward appearances, a solid and conservative member of the establishment. This latter is what the Rover underlined.

Mole Hunting - George Smiley's P6
Mole Hunting – George Smiley’s P6

The SD1 was a fair try, based on investment constrictions and pragmatic use of the Leyland parts bin and it was, of course, overseen by both Spen King and David Bache who had done the P6. But these two great talents weren’t working for the small, open-minded company that was Rover any more and, in truth, the car wasn’t a worthy successor to P6, even had it being built properly; and no car that ‘Rover’, in all its subsequent forms, produced ever was.

When Rover was reinvented under BMW’s wing it was based on a misperception of it as a heritage brand, a silly concept, probably unique to the UK industry. In the end it was just a long, drawn-out death, unless you believe the rumours that Rover is still alive somewhere.

25 thoughts on “Misposted in Posterity’s Pigeonhole : Rover P6”

  1. Even though I came along well after the P6’s time, I have always held the car in warm regard. Wandering between my mold-infested student digs and university at the fag end of the last millennium, I often encountered a well kept face-lifted example in BL mustard. Boot mounted spare apart, it seemed to embody many of the positive attributes of Britishness: modern and forward looking, but informed by heritage. I wouldn’t mind one in the garage now, especially in V8 trim. I would even tolerate it in mustard.

  2. Even my dyed-in-the-wool Jaguar self would rate the P6 among the very best of British metal. I’d have one over a Mk2 any day. Thanks for this most poignant tribute, Sean!

  3. I’ve always felt that the 3500 (‘pronounced three-thousand-five’) in Mark 1 form, fitted with a manual, could have been the M5 of the 60s. But the manual 3500S didn’t arrive until very late in the P6’s life.

    Apart from the quality problems you’d expect, and despite glowing reviews when the P6 first arrived in the States, here is another reason why its star declined very quickly.

    The need to fit AC, etc as well as that V8, made the need for some sort of bulge inevitable, but surely it could have been handled better than this.

    1. Rover’s introduction of the V8 P6 to the US was appallingly handled. On paper it should have been a real winner pitched as a compact European sports saloon, but without the temperament of a highly stressed four. But, instead of trading on modernist understatement, they seemed to think that US customers wanted all the GTO MegaPowrScoop add-ons of a typical muscle car. The thing you can see sitting in front of the grille is an Icelert, possibly a useful accessory in Northern parts, but its inclusion just seemed to emphasise the sheer amateurishness of the P6’s Americanisation.

    2. A Solihull M5? A delicious thought…

      The 3500S arrived in October 1971, the delays to the SD1 development allowed it another five years and nine months – that’s pretty much a modern industry-standard product cycle.

      The 3500S’s limiting factor was the gearbox, a heavily upgraded version of the Pengam-built 2000 transmission, with a new, much stronger, case with over twice the oil capacity and its own oil pump, shot-peened gears, and taper roller bearings. Even so, it could only just cope with the quoted 150 (according to Deutsch Industry Norman) bhp.

      It’s said that Rover tried out a ZF box, as used in the racing P6Bs, but didn’t find it satisfactory. My inner cynic thinks that it was probably far costlier than a Borg-Warner 35. The S was about a hundred quid less than the automatic, and had seats trimmed with plastic rather than cow, suggesting that the upgraded in-house gearbox was an expensive exercise. The 3500S’s big selling schtick was being seriously quick compared with the automatic, or anything else available for the money.

      The roster of regret should include the 3500EI, which should have arrived about the time of the 1970 facelift. Rover were working with both Lucas and AE Brico injection systems. Blame various things: the turmoil of industry consolidation, Triumph’s well-known problems with the 2.5PI, and Rover having no problem selling every P6 they had capacity to make.

    3. It is my understanding that Jaguar were also working closely with AE Brico at this time on an injection system for their V12 engine, which was reported to have been well advanced when Brico is said to have pulled the plug, forcing them to introduce the V12 with a lower compression ratio, fuelled by four solex carburettors – not at all what was intended – and delaying the already late V12’s introduction still further. The Rover version Robertas alludes to is likely to be related to this and if so, its cancellation is probably rooted in the same issue. Whatever that might have been…

  4. I’d always believed that the US P6B’s hood scoops were for cooling, the better to meet the emission requirements of the day. Wrong again, I fear.

    In the US P6s had terrible reliability problems, not helped by assembly faults. One of my friends bought an early 2000TC, went over it carefully after he’d taken it home. It went back to the dealer with 186 faults to be rectified, including the leather covers on the seats, which had been put on with the seams out. Not comfortable.

    In ’75 I bought a used P6B. It was a disaster. Nice enough when it went, but it didn’t go.

    The heater/AC controls were pneumatic, with a vacuum tank in the right front fender well. Mild steel, rusted, failed in mid-winter 400 miles from home. No heat at all. Brrr. That system had many hoses made of the wrong rubber. They split. No heat or a/c, depending on the season.

    I never believed the story, but immediately after I had brake pads replaced the brakes failed. Immediately as in “as I drove across the shop’s parking lot to the street.” Both times I was told that the brake master cylinder’s bore had corroded as the pads wore and destroyed the o-rings after the pads were replaced.

    There’s a right angle drive at the back of the speedometer. When it broke (twice) it destroyed the speedo. The instrument panel pcb broke. I managed to wire around breaks in the traces.

    And then there’s the engine. The thermostat failed closed. Often. A cam lobe wore away to nothing. This is a known weakness of the Buick/Rover V8 that has never, as far as I know, been addressed by the factory. The front seats were thicker than the 2000’s. Push them all the way back to have a four door two seater.

    Rover deserved to die for its sins.

    1. Fred. I can’t comment with authority as to how much things changed for Rover when they came under Leyland’s stewardship. But I’m pretty sure it was all negative. I was looking at a P5 Coupe a few months back, and it seemed a very solid and nicely detailed thing, albeit with agricultural panel gaps. The blindspot of the British industry of the time towards development, as well as an arrogance that what was good enough for the UK was good enough for anywhere else is mind-boggling. It wasn’t that big a deal to get on a plane and talk to people, surely, but the grandly (ironically) acronymed NADA P6s seem to have been designed for the market at arm’s length by someone leafing through a copy of Motor Trend.

    2. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the UK motor industry realised the necessity to carry out thorough proving regimes on US soil and by then, few British players had survived. BL made the same mistake with the SD1 – a car that unlike its predecessor was a reliability and build disaster in the UK as well. The follow-up Sterling effort was also ignominious, albeit for murkier reasons it’s been suggested by some.

      In Blighty, the P6 was well regarded and although as Sean points out, it remained in production for too long, it was perhaps the finest British saloon of the 1960’s and really quite an advanced car for its day.

      The US-spec version’s appearance demonstrates to me at least Rover chief designer David Bache’s interest in ‘Americana’, which reached its apogee with the US muscle car appearance of the stillborn P8 – the P6’s intended replacement. It’s said he once proposed a styling concept featuring a rear three quarter opera window.

    3. As might be expected, there is a good website specialising in federalised Rovers. It contains the information that following the incredible enthusiasm for the 3500 on introduction, Rover then shot themselves in the foot by supplying a disproportionate number of red cars, and few with air-conditioning. Two years after its introduction, Rover pulled out of the US.

      Apparently the scoops both allowed ram air and underbonnet cooling as well as room for a vertically mounted a/c compressor.


  5. The last time i heard of a Rover P6 was the fatal accident of Princess Gratia Patricia in 1982 which made this sad story more sentimental (“i thougt this could be a scene taken from a classic Hitchcock-movie).

  6. I’ve also always been drawn to this car. It was a great pity that it never received the gas turbine engine that was originally intended – it would have been a folly, but a noble one. It really was something like ‘Britain’s’ DS in some key ways.

    This piece and the excellent series on the Gamma remind us of how deprived we find ourselves of diversity in the ‘luxury’ car stakes these days (‘Executive’ still seems like a modern term for the upper sectors of the car market). But then, I think it reflects that society does not aspire to luxury these days, instead being attracted to ‘sports’ or ‘executive’ status; I wonder why?

    1. S.V: One might reflect on the distinction between luxury and comfort. Lancia cars have an element of comfort which is a different thing to luxury. All luxury involves comfort but not all comfort is luxurious. The distinction is a moral one. I think luxury is excessive while comfort is sufficiency.
      Luxury is in demand and it’s the stock in trade of Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Bentley, Moet etc. Comfort is more subtle and since people are visual, comfort can be hard to see. Luxury is visible (you are certainly seeing glittery things right now) so luxury trumps comfort. Also, since luxury has a visual element it conveys status. We, being polite people, aren’t interested in that which is why the sufficiency of Rover/Lancia/Citroen/Peugeot/Volvo comfort appeals: it’s enough and not more.

  7. That picture of the late model 3500S reminds me that there are only three things that look good in avocado:

    A P6
    A Series 1 SD1
    A first-generation Range Rover. Make mine a two-door.

  8. Hello Rover P6 Club members and thanks for dropping in. Any comments you’d like to make are very welcome.

    Adrian. Sorry about the punctuation, but someone once advised me that, if you want your own voice to come across, use punctuation to reflect the way you talk. Hence all the irritating commas which seem to have evolved since I started blogging and which are there since, conversationally, I have a tendency to pause and digress mid thought. Now, where was I?

  9. For 30% more Mum could have had a Lancia 819, the 1800 Flavia. A fast, smooth, comfy car, probably with what was later called alcantara and became the norm.
    Still no power steering, but a better wheel. And lots of dials she’d never look at, but you would have done.
    A well-thought-out package, as all Lancias used to be, and better than any BMW at the time.
    And as it rusted, as it would have done, after the first couple of welding repairs (no brilliant Rover bolt-on panels) she’d have junked it, as many did.

  10. I had a 2200 TC for 11 years, after 2 P4’s
    You didn’t drive the P6, you wore it – the roadholding was exceptional for those times.
    Disadvantage was that it was amazingly maintenace-hungry – you had to tweak things.

    As others have commented |& elsewhere, the insane control of the mad Stokes & BL killed Rover

  11. I remember seeing P6s as a pre-teen. I was never particularly drawn to it, though. Perhaps because most of them were in rather mediocre condition. No one in my family has ever owned one, and neither did any of my friends’ parents. However, I do recall narrations about them.

    Even as early as then, I was a reader of the overrated Greek “4 Troxoi” (4 Wheels) car publication. I remember one of its most influential contributors, a certain Nikos Dimou (appointed by the 1967-1974 military junta as president of the advertisers’ union, so you can guess how much he loved democracy). Dimou’s main schtick was whining about how the unwashed masses hurt his aesthetic sensitivities, and he did that with remarkable aplomb way before it was cool. He also wrote romanticised stories about driving and his experiences with his cars. Among these, there was one about his ownership of a Rover 2000TC that moved “more often in tow than under its own power”, to translate his words.

    1. In my case I can only remember ever seeing one of these cars in use when they were still somewhat current. The rest have all been pampered antiques. It´s an unusual car in a lot of ways: appearance inside and out, engineering and character. It is evidence of Britain´s occasianal forays into modernism. Rover forgot all about that right after that car and then continued to forget about it through the BMW years.

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