Relative Values

Rover’s great aunt marks her 70th. Time to pay our respects.

(c) classics-honestjohn

Reputation can be make or break. Whether it be gained through dynamic prowess, stylistic excellence, or for other, more negative traits, once it has been established, there is little chance of a well orchestrated perception being altered. Certainly by the time production finally ceased, the image of the Rover P4 as stuffy, outdated and overtly conservative had been broadly codified in the consciousness of the press and thereby the public. But it wasn’t always thus.

By the outbreak of the second world war, the Rover motor company was established as the purveyor of finely engineered, upmarket driver’s cars of quality and bearing, favoured by the establishment and by what might have been termed, the professional classes. Dignified, conservative, but by the time hostilities had ceased, somewhat old-fashioned in design and execution.

Like everyone else, Rover’s senior management, led by the Wilks brothers (Maurice and Spencer), were keen to capitalise on the post-war appetite for new cars, both domestically and for export. Unlike many domestic carmakers, who were perfectly content to rehash outdated technology, Rover’s engineering chief, Gordon Bashford was of a more inventive bent, but lacked the financial wherewithal to do much but carry over much of the preceding cars’ hardware.

This was particularly evident in the use of the slow-revving, long-stroke, 75 bhp, 2106 cc in-line six, with its pre-war inlet-over-exhaust valve arrangement, but it was a proven unit and moreover it was all that was available. Bashford also elected to retain a separate body and chassis, which was probably a sensible choice for a relatively small independent carmaker during the late 1940s, especially as the job of refining unitary bodyshells was very much still in its infancy. Suspension by wishbones and coil springs at the front and half-elliptic leaves at the rear was far from the cutting edge either. A freewheel clutch was employed for non-overdrive cars.

Technically then, the P4 was no revolutionary, but its body design on the other hand was of a more progressive mien. Both Bashford and brothers-Wilks had been impressed by the Raymond Loewy inspired design of the 1946 Studebaker Champion/Commander and are believed to have obtained an example for evaluation purposes. There is no doubt that its design subsequently informed the shape of the P4, however there are also similarities with the more compact Singer SM of 1948, but these are probably coincidental.

Like its American muse, the pre-war style of reverse hinged doors were retained at the rear, Rover (unlike Lancia with their 1950 Aurelia), retaining the stout B-pillar for torsional strength. Doors, bonnet and bootlid were aluminium pressings, steel being in short supply during those immediate post-war years.

(c) wheelsage

The frontal styling was perhaps the most striking departure, with all semblance of a traditional grille eschewed for a body-coloured horizontally-barred affair with a large central spotlamp mounted on a chromed plinth – quickly dubbed Cyclops Eye. However, this is believed to have contributed to cooling issues with early cars and was altered in favour of a more conventional arrangement in 1952.

The P4 was introduced at the 1949 Earls Court motor show as the Rover 75 and was hailed for its progressive appearance and for the quality of its construction and build, especially when most British rivals still sported styling features which dated back to the early years of the previous decade.

In 1953, two additional engines were added – a smaller four cylinder Rover 60 and a larger capacity 2.6 litre version of the six for the Rover 90. Later 105R-badged models employed an automatic transmission of Lode Lane’s own design dubbed Roverdrive. This used a fluid flywheel and a vacuum operated plate clutch driving a two-speed (and reverse) gearbox. A third ratio was provided by an overdrive facility. In normal use the car moved off in high gear, the overdrive engaging automatically as speeds increased. Emergency low gear or reverse could be selected by pressing a button on the selector to disengage the clutch. The transmission was not a success however and was subsequently dropped.

1954 saw the body receiving its only significant stylistic alteration. Carried out under the auspices of lead stylist, David Bache, the rear screen aperture was enlarged considerably, while the entire tail section was raised and squared-off entailing a far larger boot. This had notable practical considerations and to some eyes modernised the shape, but paradoxically, lent it a less athletic silhouette. The P4’s profile (or aerodynamic qualities) were not enhanced either by the subsequent addition of indicator units to the tops of the front wings, outboard of the headlamps.

As the P4 became a familiar sight on UK streets throughout the 1950s, the upright Rover’s styling quickly dated amidst later, more contemporary designs. The ‘Auntie’ soubriquet which would dog the car for most of its life stems from an otherwise laudatory report by Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson which was published during this period. But however well meant, mud sticks.

The debut of the larger P5 model in 1958 further compounded the P4’s image, and perhaps in retrospect really ought to have replaced it. By May 1964, when P4 production ceased with over 130,000 examples built, it looked positively antediluvian – especially when viewed next to its 1963 successor, the Citroen DS-inspired P6.

(c) Rover-P4-Purzuit

History hasn’t been all that kind to the Rover P4. Dismissed in similar terms as aged spinster aunts once tended to be, its perception conveniently ignores how at its launch in 1949 it was about as progressive a British motor car as it was possible to obtain – this side of a Jowett Javelin at least. Rover, in what would become an unfortunate habit, simply retained the P4, as it would later do with both P5 and P6 models, in production for too long.

Fundamentally a car of immense integrity, durability (P4s do appear to have survived in number) and considerable charm, the fact that one of the “outstanding new cars of 1950” ended its life as something of a running gag illustrates both the pace of change which was taking place throughout the 1950s, and the fickleness of press and the public it informed. One should always respect one’s elders.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Relative Values”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. Is it just me, or does the original P4 have more than a passing resemblance to the 1949 Saab 92 and it’s 1955 93 successor? Both look like “engineer’s” cars, with minimal ornamentation and an aerodynamic design. The original P4 actually looks rather more interesting than the now slightly frumpy facelifted version. That rear three-quarter aspect is very nice.

  2. A T&CC buyers’ guide in the mid-Eighties said that the B posts of these Rovers were filled with bitumen as an anti corrosion treatment. No wonder these cars last.

  3. “Charm”. Yes, the P4 had oodles of it. Yet I struggle to think of a contemporary car with any at all.
    As for durability, there was a P4 in daily use well past 1995 in Belsize Park (NW London; friends of friends), and one of the few cars that, in the freeze-up of 1984-5, could be launched safely from the kerb into the hard-packed snow. 4WD was then a rarity, and the Kappa’s Viscodrive hadn’t arrived. No MB or BMW was as sure-footed.
    A relative had a P5, then a P5B, which performed similarly in the narrow, twisting hills of the Chilterns.
    So I’m not sure its production run was too long. Its looks may have been outdated, but for many it was more “Reliable Uncle” than Auntie, whatever Jenks said.
    The P6 looked altogether more fragile, and said relative swapped allegiance for a Lancia Flavia 2000, which he loved, even as it rusted before his eyes. Its massive wishbones would never bend in a deep pothole.

    1. Might it be heretical to suggest that Rover (as an independent carmaker) had an affinity with Lancia in their engineering-led approach, their positioning in the market, and their quality of build? Certainly, one can discern visual similarities between the pre-tail-lift P4 and the Aurelia berlina of 1950. The difference being that Lancia replaced the Aurelia after a mere 7 years, whereas Rover retained the P4 in production for over twice as long.

      Substantial is an adjective which readily springs to mind when one thinks of a Rover P4. But that is probably a factor of the manner in which the car’s perception shifted over the car’s life – (and afterlife). I might suggest that had they not been so disdained by the press (and therefore the public) even more might have survived. They seemed pretty indestructible – to these eyes at least. I still encounter the (very) occasional one about in suburban London from time to time – usually slightly scruffy looking, but hale and hearty nonetheless.

    2. Hardly heretical Eóin – but I think the more obvious comparison is between the Aurelia and Gerald Palmer’s Riley Pathfinder, a forgotten car but one of the best Britain ever produced. Palmer was well-known as an admirer of Lancias and the influence in both aesthetic intent and market positioning is clear (as indeed it is on the 1950s Magnette ZA/ZB, another of Palmer’s).

      Now HERE is something heretical, at least in certain circles: the first-generation Magnette was the best car MG ever made. That is a position I would defend with pleasure to the bleeding ears of MGB owners clubs everywhere.

  4. I’d mischievously contend that the P4 was The Rover Company’s most accomplished passenger car design.

    It was never fuel-efficient, but was quicker than most would imagine in 2.6 litre form. Comfort and refinement were its greatest strengths, helped by that separate chassis and thorough attention to NVH issues long before the acronym was coined.

    If the P5 had built on the p4’s strengths, Rover could have affirmed their “British Mercedes” standing. The unibody 3 Litre never matched the P4’s refinement, and an expensive re-work of the OISE engine – seven main bearings, increased bore centres – did not bring the expected improvements.

    There are a few V8 P4 conversions around – good ones are said to be like a marriage made in heaven.

  5. I’m intrigued by the reference to the Roverdrive gearbox, something of which I’d never before heard and I thought I had come across most of those numerous 1950s and 60s attempts to provide something a bit easier to drive than a manual without going for an American made “proper” automatic which would have been expensive with the import tariffs that were in vogue at the time. There were many and varied examples – the Smiths Easydrive, AP Manumatic, Jaeger electromechanical and any number of semi automatics with either an automated clutch or a torque converter. The Roverdrive with its combination of an automatic overdrive and a two speed manual box seems to be something of a blend of semi automatic and full automatic. It wasn’t popular, with only about 3,500 sold in a production life of only two years, and its reputation for providing very mild performance and a heavy thirst didn’t help it much.

    1. I dare say Eóin was understating matters a touch in diplomatically describing Roverdrive as “not a success”. I have elsewhere seen Roverdrive and the 105R that employed it described as “diabolical”, “Rover’s darkest hour” and “undoubtedly the worst car Rover ever made.” All of the above epithets emanate from the same six-line description.

    2. Hadn’t 1930s Rileys had an auto box — Autovia if I remember?
      And obviously RR/Bentley had to have them in the 1940s/50s, but I forget their provenance. Ditto Armstrong Siddeleys and the bigger Humbers.

    3. Vic, Autovia used a Wilson preselector they bought from Armstrong Siddeley. RR used GM boxes which they made or at least modified under licence. Armstrong Siddeley used the Wilson box as above but then added the RR/GM box as an option and then went in their last years to the Borg Warner DG once that was being made in the UK and therefore exempt from import tariffs.

  6. But I do take issue with you, Stradale, on the Pathfinder. Not for nothing was it called Ditchfinder. Revised, as the badge-engineered Two-Point-Six (and Wolseley 6/90) it was safer.
    And I’d prefer a ZB Varitone, albeit with slightly ugly but useful rear screen. The ZA was just too slow, and let down MG fans who’d expected the liveliness of the XPAG-XPEG engines. Annoyingly, you could still get that engine, but only in the Wolseley 4/44.

  7. Apropos of nothing but sentiment, as a kid growing up in Portsmouth from 1953 to 1959, I really liked the look of these old buses. Just something about them, and they weren’t too common.

    Contrast their obvious solidity with that of the mid ’50s Humber Super Snipe, no more than a fashion queen, which looked ungainly with a super long bonnet to house the six, compared to its cheaper relative, the Hawk which had some antedeluvian four cylinder powerplant and could scarcely move itself from a stop. Amazingly enough, some bloke on our Avenue in the North End of Portsmouth, not ten doors away from our house, had a Super Snipe AND a chauffeur. The car was kept somewhere else and dutifully arrived on cue to pick up its owner for his rounds. Why the gentleman lived on our rather plebeian street yet possessed the wealth to run a Super Snipe with chauffeur is not noted for posterity.

    A decent Rover 90 would have been so much nicer, surely? And given off far less of a vibe as a Flash Harry.

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