Rover’s 1958 3-Litre was a class act, but it was a class in the grasp of profound change.
On the 30th of April 1958, Royal assent was given to an act of parliament which changed the constitution of the upper house (the House of Lords) from being a male-only chamber, composed exclusively of hereditary peers. The Life Peerages Act led to a significant modernisation of parliament, lending the Lords a degree of legitimacy it had hitherto lacked, while better reflecting a changing UK society.
One which remained deeply class-riven nevertheless, a stratification which encompassed most areas of UK life. Social markers abounded; one remained judged by one’s background, one’s accent, one’s education, the clothes on one’s back, even to the motor car one chose to drive, assuming such luxuries could be afforded. After all, Post-War austerity was still fresh in people’s memories and for many outside the privileged enclave of Westminster, Britain remained impoverished and blitz-riven.
The same year that Harold Macmillan pushed through the contested Lords reform bill, Rover introduced its marque flagship, the 3-Litre saloon. The Rover company of Solihull had by then built a solid reputation for producing thoroughly engineered, conservative motor cars of bearing and quality.
While lacking Daimler’s establishment positioning, or indeed its Royal warrant, to drive a Rover marked the owner as a person of means and of standing. Upright, upstanding, and dignified, the choice of barristers or perhaps, back-bench MPs, the post-war Rover range embodied values of integrity and fidelity.
Pioneering the Rover Safety bicycle in 1885, the Rover Company evolved into a free-thinking carmaker, with a reputation for sound engineering, albeit with an inventive streak. Lode Lane’s engineering team was lead by Maurice Wilks included such luminaries as Gordon Bashford and Spen King, who fostered an environment of technical innovation and scientific rigour, often at odds with senior management and marketing’s notions of propriety and fitness for purpose.
The P5 programme was a case in point, beginning life as an advanced, cheaper, mass-produced model to sit below the existing rather upright and distinctly formal P4 model, but soon morphing into a larger, more prestigious offering. A number of interesting technical avenues were believed to have been explored along the way before budgetary and marketing constraints saw a more conventional layout adopted.
Like many early designs of modern unitary construction, Rover engineers elected to mount the engine and front suspension on a stout subframe, which could be unbolted from the car, which aided refinement, but also added to what was already a rather heavy bodyshell. Having abandoned an independent rear suspension design on cost grounds, Bashford retained a well-located live rear axle, while at the front, double wishbones and torsion bars were employed.
A V6 engine design having been tried and rejected, Rover enlarged its inlet-over-exhaust in-line six to 2996 cc, the very limit to which it could be expanded, creating a commendably refined, flexible, if not particularly powerful (105 bhp) power unit – a matter of some later significance for Rover’s upmarket ambitions.
Having first arrived at Solihull in 1953, David Bache became Rover’s lead stylist and is broadly credited with the design for the P5 body. Combining elements of Rover’s patrician style: grille, the positioning of the headlamps, sidelamps and indicator units, with reference to earlier work carried out by Pininfarina, the 3-Litre’s bodyshape was lower, wider, yet more imposing than of yore, a skilled synthesis of Italian polish with a subtle nod to Americana.
Interiors were always something of a Rover speciality and the 3-Litre’s minimalist dashboard was a fine blend of traditional materials (wood, leather, chrome) with a markedly contemporary (for its time at least) flair for design, ergonomics and safety. Elsewhere, the gentleman’s club ambience was well in evidence, with large softly upholstered seats and ample lounging space for legs, feet and one imagines, formal headwear.
Initially criticised for being underpowered, in 1959, a redesigned cylinder head, courtesy of Weslake saw a notable jump in performance, while stopping power was also enhanced by the standard fitment of disc front brakes. Power steering became available in 1961, as did a rakish US-style hardtop Coupé model, an unusual, if highly attractive development for so formal a model line.
The American influence was furthered still in 1967; Rover engineers, having thoroughly re-developed Buick’s light alloy 3.5 litre V8 engine, debuted it in the P5B, transforming the car’s performance potential and market appeal at a point where the model had begun to fade in commercial terms. With 160 bhp and 210 lbs ft of torque at its disposal, the Buick-engined P5 was a genuinely quick motor car.
Furthermore, the lighter power unit meant it was also a nimbler one, achieved with no loss of the earlier cars’ serene hush. Sales leapt immediately, with production having to be raised to meet demand. Owing to delays and the eventual cancellation of its putative Solihull replacement, the P5B remained in production until 1973 and was never directly replaced.
Exuding all the accepted signifiers of status, the 3-Litre became the choice of the senior civil servant, so much so, that in later years, it would become the official vehicle of state for four successive UK Prime Minsters, the British government retaining them as official cars for a good decade longer still. The Queen was also a P5B owner-driver of note.
When Prime Minster Thatcher arrived at Downing Street and made her famously emollient speech at the door of Number 10 in the Spring of 1979, she was ferried there in an official, stately P5 saloon, a vehicle so redolent of the status quo her government would subsequently rip to shreds. Her tearful departure in the Autumn of 1989 was, by neat irony, precipitated by that totem of UK PLC and unfettered private enterprise, Jaguar’s XJ40. And so the World turns.
The P5 would be the last of its line, not only in evolutionary terms but also in what it came to represent. Emblematic of traditional nostrums of position and authority; these, like the Rover itself fell victim to sweeping societal change where such matters became (for a brief time at least) somewhat democratised. It’s sadly ironic that a car of such such warmth and genuine charm should become conflated with figures of authority and (dare I say) oppression, but just as all of HM’s Treasury coins have two sides, her Parliament also has two opposing houses.