We ask if it’s sometimes better to die young.
Recently it’s been pointed out that, whatever his past achievements, such as a surprisingly 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.
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.
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.
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 an inverted T lift detent, looked good, though the box itself was a bit stiff at times.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.