Britain’s Rover P6
For many of us, the name Rover is inextricably linked with a more unfortunate era in the company’s history – the British Leyland period. While Rover – one of the upmarket brands in the BL portfolio along with Triumph and Jaguar – continued to produce innovative and stylish designs such as the iconic SD1 and the 800, they were plagued with the reputation for the same poor build quality and awful industrial relations as the rest of BL. Rover is, however, the only BL brand to have been a continuous part of the portfolio throughout the state-owned, BAe, Honda and BMW partnership eras through to the ultimate demise of MG Rover under the Phoenix Consortium in 2005 – MG having had a short period of extinction between the MGB’s demise in 1980 and the launch of the MG Metro in 1982.
However, the history of the Rover company is much greater and more illustrious than the period mentioned above. The company was founded in 1878, making bicycles and in 1904 the company started producing cars too and it remained an independent company until merging into Leyland in 1967. Rover was known for producing well-engineered, comfortable, luxurious but perhaps somewhat staid cars for the middle classes – indeed the P4 model especially was beloved of Doctors and Bank Managers and was affectionately dubbed “Auntie Rover”. The later, larger P5 model – an especially stylish vehicle of the era – could often be seen whisking politicians to and from engagements in the 60’s and 70’s and was a particular favourite of Mrs Thatcher who, it is said, preferred the P5 to more modern offerings. Innovative engineering could be seen in the company’s experimentation with gas turbine cars in the early 60’s – and this is of course the company that gave us one of the world’s most iconic vehicles ever – the original Land Rover.
When the time came to replace the “Auntie” P4 model – a staple of British life in the 1950s – Rover started a with a completely blank piece of paper for the P6. Rover launched their new model in 1963 to instant acclaim. It heralded many new features in its engineering – especially within its suspension set-up which endowed it with impressive ride and handling qualities – and it certainly looked the part. Even today it seems hard to believe early models are now over 50 years old. While its looks are perhaps not as ground-breaking as the Citroën DS had been less than a decade previously, it was certainly very smart and modern against its contemporaries.
This was all more than enough for it to be a well-deserving winner of the very first Car of the Year award in 1964. It also won the AA Gold Award for the safety features built in to the design – it was the first car to be designed around the use of radial ply tyres; the fuel tank was located away from the rear wings in a position above the rear axle behind the rear seat making it far less susceptible to explosion in a rear-end shunt; furthermore it featured front and rear energy-absorbing crumple zones around a stronger passenger cell, disc brakes all round, adjustable front seat belts, anchorage points for rear seat belts, burstproof door locks, padded interior fittings and the like – and this was at a time when safety wasn’t really a selling point, unlike today. Although Mercedes Benz, SAAB and notably Volvo were building safety into their cars at the time, it was only really Volvo who pushed this in their marketing.
The car was launched in October 1963 as the Rover 2000, featuring a newly-developed modern 4 cylinder 2 litre engine with an overhead camshaft, unusual for this era. A week after the Rover 2000 was launched, rival Triumph launched their new six cylinder Triumph 2000 model and these two models are credited with creating the 2 litre executive car market; the “sports saloon” – the market segment we now associate with the BMW 3 Series. Although it had a chassis – and handling – worthy of a sports car, with only 89 bhp on tap the 2000 was a little underpowered. To help matters a more powerful twin carburettor version offering 110 bhp appeared in 1966 badged 2000TC.
In a masterstroke, the Rover’s performance went stellar in 1968 with the launch of the Rover 3500; this model squeezed the Buick 3.5 litre V8 engine – also used in the concurrent Rover P5 – into the P6’s engine bay. As the P6’s underbonnet area had been designed to be able to accept a gas turbine engine, this was less of an engineering chore than would otherwise have been the case. The car’s front suspension had been cleverly designed to take up as little space in the engine bay as possible by using coil springs mounted horizontally onto the engine compartment bulkhead; however the suspension cross-member needed to be moved further forward and the battery had to be relocated to the boot. This V8 engine produced upwards of 150 bhp and despite being a much larger engine, its alloy construction meant it weighed roughly the same as the smaller 2000. This gave the 3500 – in manual gearbox guise – a top speed of over 120 mph and the ability to reach 60 mph in 9 seconds. This was usefully faster than almost every other competitor at the time – not surprisingly the 3500 became a very popular car with the country’s police forces.
The entire P6 range was given a mild facelift in 1970 – the most notable alterations being a new front grille and bonnet together with revised rear lights – and in 1973 the 2000 and 2000TC were replaced by the 2200SC and 2200TC; a slightly larger engine giving more power (98 bhp and 115 bhp respectively) and a commensurate increase in performance – and fuel consumption.
While Triumph offered an estate version of the its 2000/2500 model, Rover never designed an estate version of the P6. However, a small number (less than 200) of “Estoura” (Estate-Tourer) models were coachbuilt by Crayford Engineering, FLM Panelcraft and HR Owen. However, to maintain the roofline and not compromise the saloon’s elegance, the load area wasn’t especially capacious, nor easily accessible, and the conversion itself was carried out to fairly mediocre standards so all too soon rust became a real problem.
The only concession Rover made to increasing the capacity of the boot was the option to have the spare wheel mounted on the bootlid, complete with a cover. An advantage for the boot capacity but a disadvantage for visibility through the rear screen.
The British Leyland era mentioned earlier was a dark time. Rover as a company was merged into BL in 1967. The P6 suddenly became beholden to BL’s manufacturing processes. BL’s design teams were renowned for devising advanced, spacious, practical and innovative vehicles that really should have been class-leaders; however the transition from design to production and the manufacturing process ensured that this potential was never fully realised. This is of course something that can justifiably be levelled not solely at the P6 (having been designed independently by Rover in a pre-BL era) but at almost every BL product from the 60’s onwards – think Maxi, Allegro, Princess, Rover SD1, Metro, Maestro and Montego – all arguably brilliantly designed cars that suffered from poor manufacturing controls and unreliable components. Then there were unfortunate industrial relations which led to seemingly-constant industrial action at most factories. This was even woven into a Fawlty Towers script, with Basil complaining to a deceased guest in the episode The Kipper and the Corpse:
“Another car strike. Marvellous, isn’t it? The taxpayers pay them millions each year so they can go on strike. It’s called socialism. If they don’t like making cars, why don’t they get themselves another bloody job – designing cathedrals or composing violin concertos. That’s it! The British Leyland Concerto – in four movements, all of them slow, with a four-hour tea-break in between.“.
Things hit a real nadir in August 1975, when the AA’s ‘Drive’ magazine named the Rover 3500 as the worst new car in England. It reported that a Rover 3500 purchased in 1974 had covered 6,000 miles during its first six months, during which period it had consumed three engines, two gearboxes, two clutch housings and needed a complete new set of electrical cables. The car had spent 114 of its first 165 days in a workshop. It is a great shame that Rover’s undoubted engineering prowess had been allowed to be so diluted with shoddy quality under BL. To add insult to BL’s injury, second and third places were taken by the Austin Allegro and the Triumph Stag, both BL products. With the AA’s links to its European counterparts, this report became wildfire across Europe, none more so than in Germany – one of BL’s biggest target markets. Sales on the continent took a nosedive and even in the UK many prospective purchasers plumped for a Ford Granada, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes W123, Peugeot 504 or Volvo 244/264 instead, or a larger model from one of the Japanese companies appearing on the UK market – renowned for reliability and ease of driving if perhaps not for quality, style or an especially impressive driving experience.
Production of the P6 came to an end in March 1977 – a year after its successor, the hatchback SD1 model, came onto the market. To that date, it proved the company’s most successful model.
Today it is viewed as a popular and remarkably usable classic. There are many still around, there is a strong owner network and parts availability is generally good (the V8 engine – in various guises – continued into the later SD1 model for its entire lifespan and were used in various TVR models are indeed still in production in today’s Land Rovers and Range Rovers). Current prices are from under £1,000 for something requiring considerable amounts of work via easily usable models in the £4-8,000 range to well into five figures for a concours example.
A few key points…
- launched in October 1963, replacing the Rover P4 “Auntie” model
- P6 3500 replaced by the hatchback SD1 3500 in 1976
- production of the 2200 and 2200TC continued until March 1977, by which time the 2300 and 2600 versions of the SD1 model had started production
- being several inches lower than the P4, it was the first post-war Rover in which the average driver wouldn’t be able to wear a hat!
- perfect 50:50 weight distribution on the 3500 for optimum handling characteristics
- manufactured in Rover’s factory in Solihull, West Midlands with peak production running at up to 850 cars per week
- total production over the lifespan of 327,000 (impressive for a small company producing high-end cars)