The stillborn Rover P8 remains a fascinating technical fossil, but should the cause of its demise be laid entirely at Jaguar’s door?
Lost causes exert an undying fascination: The Beach Boys’ original Smile LP, Orson Welles’ allegedly destroyed original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. These and others like them, while unrealised (or unfound) live on in our collective imagination, unsullied by inconvenient reality.
In 1965, the Rover Motor Company was a successful independent carmaker, producing well-regarded luxury saloons and a range of highly capable off-road vehicles. However, its flagship P5 saloon was dating and lacking the resources to replace it, Lode Lane’s developmental head, Charles (Spen) King, working under the guidance of Peter Wilks proposed a modular range of cars to be derived from a single base unit.
The work carried out on the highly acclaimed 1963 P6 saloon model would underpin much of the new cars’ thinking. So a stressed steel base unit was proposed, with outer panels bolting into place, allowing alternative styling for upper and lower-end models.
Power was to be provided by versions of Rover’s existing in-line 2.0 litre four and the 3.5 litre V8 being re-developed from its Buick origins. Suspension would employ a subframe-mounted double wishbone set-up at the front, while aft, a new design of de Dion layout was devised which would ultimately incorporate a hydraulic ring-main to provide self-levelling, power braking and steering, à la Citroën. Anti-lock braking was also envisaged for the model.
While the business case for the car (dubbed P8) was apparently sound, it existed largely on paper, but in early 1967, Leyland acquired the Rover business, precipitating a product review which would radically alter P8’s course. Viewed by Leyland’s then CEO, Donald Stokes as a potential Mercedes rival, he pressed for the programme to be refocused to push P8 upmarket. The smaller engined models were dropped, with the V8 now being the sole powerplant in 3.5 and 4.4 litre versions.
Later that year, Leyland and its embattled rival, British Motor Holdings (BMH) were press-ganged into marriage by an interventionist UK government, creating the BLMC leviathan. Yet despite the fact that P8 would now compete directly with the ‘in-house’ Jaguar XJ6, development proceeded, with the car set to debut in 1971.
The styling of the big Rover was the responsibility of Solihull’s David Bache, the man responsible for the P5 and P6 saloons (and later the acclaimed SD1). A visionary designer, his styling team proposed a somewhat heavy-set saloon in the American ‘muscle car’ idiom. The most notable styling feature of the finalised design was its integrated, body coloured polyurethane over steel armature bumper units, which were influenced by the so-called ‘Endura’ bumpers fitted to contemporary Pontiac models.
Heavily influenced by Americana, Bache championed this styling theme with its prominent bonnet air-scoop, wing-mounted vents and ‘coke-bottle’ hips, and while Stokes and the BLMC board approved the design in late 1968, Rover’s Spen King later denounced it as having “pretty brutal styling and I didn’t like it much.”
The P8 interior was the work of Rover designer, Geoff Perkis, who was also responsible for the impressive cabin design of SD1. Like the later car, P8 employed a somewhat stark, product design aesthetic with an emphasis on simplicity, sound ergonomics and an unusual, almost ‘quartic’ steering wheel.
The following year, tooling was ordered from Pressed Steel Fisher and proving began in earnest. However, the 1971 launch date began to slip. Meanwhile at BLMC board level, a battle of wills was said to have ensued; Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons allegedly making his views about P8 plain.
Of course when BLMC was created, the XJ6 had yet to be announced and commercially speaking was still something of an unknown quantity. However, it cannot have been lost on Stokes and the BLMC board that Jaguar had a winner on its hands. Its subsequent critical success and Browns Lane’s failure to meet demand really ought to have concentrated minds at Berkeley Square.
It certainly did that of Jaguar’s Chairman, who quite reasonably argued at board level for resources to be diverted towards Browns Lane to help Jaguar (and BLMC) capitalise on the XJ6’s success. But his entreaties appeared to fall on deaf ears – at least until a 1971 BLMC product review, which sealed P8’s fate.
Central to this was the fact that not only did P8 perform somewhat catastrophically in barrier crash tests, but the base unit developed structural cracks during pavé testing which would have necessitated hugely expensive revisions and a further slippage of the further revised 1972 launch date. With around £5 million spent, the programme was abruptly cancelled.
Lyons and Jaguar were subsequently accorded villains of the piece, believed to have connived to see the programme axed. But this ignores some uncomfortable realities. Rover maintained a strong reputation in the UK market at the time as purveyors of well-crafted, modernist luxury cars. However, they enjoyed little penetration across Europe and had consistently failed to make any meaningful inroads into the US market, despite glowing reviews for the P6 series of saloons.
Furthermore, P8 was conceptually ambitious, technically complex and given the prevailing manufacturing limitations within the BLMC mothership at the time, unlikely to have been assembled to the required standards of a ‘Mercedes beater’. Moreover, Sindelfingen was on the cusp of announcing its W116 S-Class in 1972, a car which would quickly embody the state of the luxury car art.
With the XJ range, BLMC already had a highly competitive entrant at the top end of the market, one which was in keen demand worldwide. The last thing they needed was an in-house rival. Especially one whose commercial prospects were an unknown and whose appearance was, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. Historian and author, Chris Cowin more recently punctured the conspiracy-theory bubble, stating, “If the P8 had been launched in 1972, it is hard to escape the conclusion that it would have lived an uncomfortable life, forever in the shadow of the Mercedes and Jaguar,” an assertion which is difficult to refute.
Because the question which orbits around the P8 programme is not why it was cancelled in 1971, but why it wasn’t culled well before? The Rover was the wrong product, with the wrong styling at the wrong time and its undoubted commercial failure would have simply proven yet another sorry episode from British Leyland’s catalogue of ‘nearly’ cars.
Given the financial strictures placed upon the BLMC business, the revenue squandered on P8 could potentially have transformed other parts of the business, least of all at Browns Lane, where expansion and modernisation was desperately needed – to say nothing of that highly sought-after slot at Pressed Steel.
In every merger situation there are winners and losers. The P8 was a technically brilliant concept poorly clothed, but fundamentally it was too ambitious, and certainly too ambitious for BLMC at that time. But like all great lost causes, it lives on in our imaginations, its perfection complete in its incompleteness. It can never die because it never truly lived.
Owing to an error making reference to GM’s ‘Enduro’ bumper, the text has been amended. (12/10/18 16.54 PM)
Sources /further reading:
Overstepping the Marque – Hilton Holloway Thoroughbred & Classic Cars – Dec 2000
British Leyland – Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 – Chris Cowin