Michael Thomas on what it was that made the Rover P6 a great car…
Why have I fallen for the Rover P6? It’s something that began twenty-five years ago. In 1978, as a seven year old, my mother was unwell and unable to pick me and my brother up from school. The job fell to my retired great-uncle, rather than our Cortina Mk3 the job of taking us home fell to a more esoteric beast. I remember walking out of the school gates, the badges on the boot ‘Rover’ and ‘V8’ struck my eyes. The passenger door slam sounded like a train door. We sat in the back with our legs dangling over the edges and the seats smelt like new shoes. My great uncle was holding this huge steering wheel, I remember the dignified click-clonk of the indicators and the big V8 badge on the centre console. This was the way to travel, it felt solid, it sounded like we had something very sinister under the bonnet that kept us glued into our seats and I was hooked. Whilst I’m still looking for a good V8 of my dreams, I currently own a 1973 2000TC.
Many friends look puzzled when I go dewy-eyed talking about such a forgotten car. The Rover P6 was a front-runner in so many ways. It created the concept for many of the cars my friends drive today; the two-litre compact executive. The Rover P6 is a cruiser that offers performance, handling and comfort. It possesses all the things that we take for granted today but in 1963 it was a complete revelation. It initially had a light two-litre engine that could propel the car beyond 100mph, no mean feat for 1963. It offered other technical advances, all round disk brakes, it was the first car to run on radial tyres and it’s advanced suspension offered a ride that was simply light years ahead of any of the competition. It was deliberately engineered for safety and aerodynamics. It was no wonder it was the first ever European Car of the Year and won numerous awards for safety and technical achievement.
|…It was built in an era when we could design
and make ground breaking cars, a time when we
were at our most confident and visionary.
Sit inside a P6 and everything was designed for the driver and passengers, the steering wheel is adjustable for rake and the seats are deliberately engineered for comfort as they are adjustable too. The attention to detail of the dash makes it easy to pick out dials and switches without really having to take your eyes off the road. There are reading lights that don’t disturb the driver, nooks and crannies that provide plenty of storage. The air vents front and back provide fresh air in a variety of combinations. It drives well, all the four gears are well chosen, even in the 2000TC version 0-60 is a respectable 12 seconds, the engine is eager and communicative. In bends, it dips but you know that thanks to the clever split-shaft DeDion tube at the back, both wheels are level and applying power. It is a very sorted ride; there might be pot-holes in the road but you can’t feel them. It is a ride that still impresses my passengers today. I can easily imagine it being driven in the 1960s just for the hell of it, it’s a rewarding drive for such a big car.
And then there is the way it looks, it was styled by arguably Britain’s greatest post-war stylist, David Bache. It has timeless lines that extend cleanly on its sides from the front to the back, the raking roof sloping downwards and not one line is out of place. The P6 looks as if it is moving even when stationary. As a post-modern design I feel it is up there with the Citroen DS. The P6 is retro-style as we know it today, it was chic and modern in the 60s and 70s. It also has that ‘X factor’ and the excitement of the space race and jet age about it. Rover had always intended to put a gas turbine under the bonnet, the engine bay is enormous for the small two-litre engine, Rover’s own T4 gas turbine saloon was based on early P6 prototypes.
The gas turbine development programme was unfortunately dropped in 1966 and Rover had acquired the Buick V8, a light all aluminium and yet powerful engine. By placing the V8 into the P6 Rover created one of the cars of the 1960s; the P6B. It offered performance that mere mortals could only dream of at that price; 0-60 in 9 seconds was only something that a Jaguar could manage. It became the Police car of choice when pursuing the most commonly used getaway car of the era; the Jaguar MkII. The P6B protected Prime Ministers and caught the bad guys, indeed it was the getaway car itself for more enlightened villains if a Jaguar couldn’t be found. It all added to the aura of the P6B as a car with steely purpose and a slightly caddish car with a veneer of respectability. Not many cars it can be said possess such a Jekyll and Hyde reputation.
The Rover P6 ran from 1963 to 1977 and it offered something for everyone. Respectability to more traditional Rover customers and excitement to its younger drivers. It was built in an era when we could design and make ground breaking cars, a time when we were at our most confident and visionary. I’ll always love the P6 for that reason alone.