Wintry Shadows Creep As The Beams Fall Aslant

Today we have a small lesson in what amounts to a leafy cul-de-sac off a side-road in a dead-end of British motoring history.

1977 Rover 2600: source

For me the Rover SD1’s is a story starring the Buick-derived V8, a car known as the 3500 or 3500S. That’s the car that gets much of the press, it seems to me. That being the case, I have but a vague, passive knowledge about the 2300 and 2600,meaning if you asked me to confirm or reject the statement “Rover sold cars known as the 2300 and Rover 2600” I might have confirmed it hesitantly. That would have been after asking what years had you in mind.

1977 Rover 2300 (or similar): source

Driven to Write has featured the starring 3500S, of course, but today I thought I’d simply remind you of the spear-carriers in the SD1 history. Both cars used versions of the PE166, which is thought to be derived from the Triumph L6 engine. Citing a certain R. Leitch (cited at Wikipedia), “Both the capacity variants use a 81.0 millimetres (3.19 in) bore, with a 76.0 millimetres (2.99 in) or 84.0 millimetres (3.31 in) stroke giving 2350cc or 2597cc capacity respectively.”

1977 Rover 2600 Road test: source

Since Aronline (Wikipedia’s source) already says quite a lot about the Rover six-banger engine, it is probably redundant of me to try to outdo that sterling resource. I will note that Aronline reaches the same conclusions as I do about the irony of the Triumph-derived engine powering the Rover SD1.

First, it seems cruel as the SD1 didn’t “replace” the large Triumph cars so much as assassinate them and jump on their bodies. Second, the engines came almost a decade after Leyland had both firms under their control. And thirdly, these expensively-developed and late-to-the-party engines only ever served in Rover SD1 rather than being general to BL cars. They weren’t used in the SD1’s successor and weren’t used in other contemporaries of the SD1.

There’s a fourthly to add to the list. Were these engines even needed?  Austin had the E-series of engines, ranging from L4 to L6. The 6s had capacities of 2.2 litres and 2.6 litres and that latter one even saw service in the SD1 in South Africa. Admittedly, the E-series engines were developed before the PE166 but that didn’t stop them being used as late as 1980 in Maxis. I expect one of our resident engine experts (book, please!) can explain why the E-series was not fit for use in the Rover (there must be a reason).

But this being a tale of BL, the reason is as likely to be political. “Harry Cudge, chief-ball bearing designer at Austin, ensured the E-series could never fit in Rover’s engine bay by the clever device of using an extra-long exhaust manifold….et cetera” is not true but sounds like it might be.

Dunford’s rents the Rover 2000 and other fine cars. Colour and specification may vary.

I presume the intention was to have been to have an in-house, relatively modern 6-pot engine for the Rover and the ancient Austin E-series was not going to cut it. And the Triumph people needed something to do. Conceivably, the Triumph chaps didn’t even know their engines were going to end up powering a car which stood cheerfully on the corpse of the Triumph 2500. So where were Rover’s engine development team standing at this time?

Well, it gets worse now we consider it further. Rover didn’t really have a lot of socks in that box. The P6 (1963-1977) had some 4-cylinder engines of 2.0 and 2.2 litre capacity. The 2.0 was developed to become the 2.2 and was on sale from 1973 to 1977. Clearly that engine amounted to a dead-end and, I suppose, overlapped too much with the E-series engines which could be had as L4s.

That small tour around BLs engine range shows Rover were not well-stocked with engines: the L4 didn’t outlive the P6 and the V8 was way too big. Triumph had the L4 engines, ranging from 1300 to about 1.9 litres plus the L6 engines used in their large car – in a way Triumph had much the most complete range of engines and, indeed cars.

That just leads me back to my newly-established view that BL killed the wrong car company. Rover was as much a path to nowhere as its 2300 and 2600 engines. The SD1’s successor used O-, M- and T-series engines plus Honda units. Those engine codes reveal the fate of Rover. The letter-designations are a relic of the engines’ origins in Austin’s workshops not Rover’s or Triumph’s. So, Rover ended its days under BL as restyled Hondas with Austin engines.

For the record, Setright (in Car, 1977) considered the 2600 to be a rather better car than the V8. It had most of the same features and the performance was not much worse but the refinement better. Autocar (Oct 1977) came to much the same conclusion, noting the 2600 had a more sporting character.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

16 thoughts on “Wintry Shadows Creep As The Beams Fall Aslant”

  1. German ‘auto motor sport’ once had a 2600 as a long term test vehicle. One morning the engine wouldn’t turn over. Then BL importer Brüggemann picked up the car and in his Düsseldorf workshop a close inspection showed a cylinder liner had come loose, slipped down and blocked the crankshaft. Funny thing was that the engine wasn’t meant to have liners in the first place and this was the only liner to be found in it.
    It seemed the block had a casting fault or a bore wide out of tolerances so the aftermarket repair solution of retrofitting a liner was used on a brand new engine instead of scrapping a faulty block.

    1. That doesn’t surprise me. Even in the late ’70s casting quality wasn’t one of the British industry’s strengths, compounded by worn-out tooling which made high demands on operator skill. There wasn’t a lot of overbore space on the PE146/166, but letting something like that slip through with a bodged repair shouldn’t have happened.

    1. The Maestro´s scallops are relatively large affairs and so look like one of three main surfaces down the bodyside. The SD1 look more like a cut into one main surface.

    2. The Maestro’s side scallops probably owe something to the fact that both car’s designs were overseen by one David Bache, who having been Rover’s chief stylist (of some renown), was elevated to head BL’s styling division during the post-Ryder era. Given that the SD1 was so well regarded from a visual perspective, it was probably inevitable that some of its stylistic fairy dust would be sprinkled upon the more prosaic models – for better or worse.

      The broad scallops of course also re-emerged with the abortive Lynx programme – the 2+2 V8 Coupé, derived from the TR8 – and also designed under the supervision (and it has been said) against the preference of Bache, who it appears championed a rather more challenging looking device more akin to an Oliver Winterbottom-era Lotus Elite.

  2. The Autoar article concludes with a subtle jab jab about quality.
    It´s taken me years to understand the enormity of BL´s mismanagement of their brands. Of course, I could have read it all at Aronline. Rover was a one-car brand or maybe two car brand with a small pool of engines. It competed somewhat with Jaguar. Triumph had a larger range of engines, sporting heritage and a range of saloons, estates and sportscars. They were a good middle-market brand – something like a British version of Alfa Romeo and BMW. All they had to do was carry on. But BL decided it was a better bet to invest in Rover and change its image from fuddy (and also, let it not be forgotten, duddy) to modernist. Some will say the P6 was a foundation for the SD1, being also modernist. Yet decades later Rover was still fighting with tradition. The SD1 is something of a Barabas.

    1. For all its visual modernity, the SD1 was a resolutely conventional car in engineering terms. In contrast, its P6 predecessor was much more interesting and ambitious. It’s a shame the mooted T4 gas turbine engined version was a non-starter. The lower bonnet line this allowed made for a fascinating profile and could have been Rover’s DS (the original, obviously, not the present day imposters):

      Regarding the scallops on the SD1, Richard, you took the words out of my mouth: there was enough convexity to the Rover’s body sides for this feature to appear secondary. On the Maestro, they dominate the profile and make the body sides look “thin” and insubstantial. This effect was exacerbated by the tall glasshouse, giving it a rather top-heavy look.

    2. Eoin: yes, I suppose the Triumph team knew by then there would be no more cars to put the engines in. I was not sure of the timeline.

  3. That said, I have seen that front end treatment before, on a most unlikely candidate.

    The Rover T4:

    The Ford Consul Classic/Capri:

    1. Yes, the SD1 took a step back on the engineering front though period accounts talk of an agile car with great steering. In gross terms the set-up was ordinary but the effect of the details made it what seem like a British CX.
      The T4 I could live without. I prefer the standard car.

    2. I’m not sure about the assertion that Triumph’s engineers were working under false assumptions as regards the ultimate destination of the PE166 units. The Triumph 2000 replacement had been well and truly put to the sword by then with SD1 being a single programme to replace both P6 and Innsbruck models. It may however have been something of a figleaf for Triumph in the light of such a demoralising reversal of fortune.

      It’s also possible that Triumph had a stronger track record on engine design under the leadership of Harry Webster, although by the time PE166 was developed, Rover’s Spen King had been moved from Lode Lane to Canley, following Webster’s move upstairs to Longbridge in the wake of Issigonis’ ousting.

      It’s believed that the 2.6 litre version of the E-Series was quite a decent engine and there is little to suggest that it wouldn’t have been an effective power unit. It wasn’t ancient either, by the way. The E-Series was part of the Maxi programme and apart from the breathing-related design issues stemming from its siamesed bore layout – (thanks Alec!), gave decent service in the South African models. (I seem to recall that it was also employed in the Australian market).

      One thing that BLMC didn’t lack was engines. In fact they were up to their arses in the things. What they were hopelessly unable to do was to rationalise them, meaning that several worthy engine lines were discontinued, while millions of pounds were pumped into less worthwhile powertrain programmes.

      The problem with BLMC was that owing to George Harriman and his predecessors’ inability to manage the BMC business well, Stokes and Co (notwithstanding their own corporate hubris) were running to stand still. In retrospect, the botched SD1 programme was probably the final fatal straw.

      Incidentally, I would be inclined to suggest that while the P6 was very much an engineer’s car (with all that entails), the SD1 was touched to far greater extent by the hand of marketing and product planners – (with all that entails).

    3. There is a resemblance, but but the Consul Classic and T4 first appeared in 1961, so perhaps it was pure coincidence. Bache was said to have been inspired by Citröen, but four headlamps were considered a necessity as a signifier of the car’s premium status. The Buick-inspired extruded grille which found its way on to the P6 was at the insistence of management as a grille-less front end was considered too outre for their customers, and also for the USA, which Rover tried in vain to “break” with the P6.

      Is it just possible that there is some Citröen influence in the Ford Classic? We’re supposed to believe that everything of that era at ford was broadcast worldwide from Dearborn, but the Classic had a rather protracted gestation, and design work would have begun when the automotive world was still enthralled by the 1955 DS, and possibly also the Panhard Dyna Z.

  4. We have to remember that the PE146/166 engine was a job creation scheme for Triumph engineers – a consolation for losing out to Rover on the big car. It had its origins in an SOHC upgrade of the 20S six, so it could be said that the groundwork was already in place. However Rover had been working at the same time on a heavily revised version of their SOHC four, with capacity increased to 2.2 litres, and a new DOHC head with four valves per cylinder.

    The 2622cc Australian E6 was substantially different from the 2.2, with a much stronger block and ancillary locations revised to suit longitudinal RWD applications. Its weakness was the iron cylinder head with these odd knock-kneed valves, a compromise which remained even in the 1984 S series. With an opposed-valve alloy head it could have worked well in the SD1 at a fraction of the PE146/166’s development and tooling costs.

    There was also the very compact and light 3.3 litre V6 which was in an advanced stage of development at Zetland, and could easily be accommodated within the Australian V8 tooling. The dimensions were a square 3½” x 3½”. With a bit of dimensional tweakery, some more Europe-friendly capacities could be derived. Instead, the Australian V8 tooling was scrapped, despite offering significant advantages over the British machinery. They really didn’t help themselves.

  5. Having read some of the details of the state of BL and its myriad departments, I am again staggered. It´s always wierder than you might think beforehand. Just as the Titanic serves as a metaphor for the hubris of the 19th century, BL stands as a metaphor and microcosm of all that is silly and splendid in the United Kingdom.

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