The cars : Rover P4 75 (1952-53) development story

The Rover P4 75 burst on to scene in 1949 and completely changed the direction of travel for the Rover Car Company. Under its daring skin beat the high quality heart of a true winner.

James Taylor tells the story of the facelifted MY1952 models, which packed a surprising amount of changes. Some would say it ended up being unkindly nicknamed the ‘Auntie Rover’ considering how far ahead of the game it was.


Rover P4 75: Getting it right second time

Rover P4 75

Far more work went into the 1952 model Rover P4 75 than met the eye when the cars were announced. In typical Rover fashion, all the new season’s changes looked like evolution when in fact they were the results of a comprehensive redesign. The Development Engineer in charge of the whole thing was Chris Goode, who had taken over leadership of the P4 project from ‘Bro’ Ward.

All the public saw at first glance was a new front end with a reassuringly Rover-like grille. It was certainly more attractive than the rather odd front end of the earlier Cyclops models, which had prompted some rumblings of discontent from Rover’s traditional customers. However, that was far from being the point of the exercise – in fact, there were two very practical reasons why Rover had redesigned the front end.

On the one hand, the original horizontally slatted grille with its central foglamp restricted airflow to the radiator and contributed to overheating in some circumstances. On the other, the twin air intakes mounted below the headlamps picked up not only the air they were designed to feed to the heating and ventilating system but also exhaust fumes when the early cars were standing in traffic.

Rover P4 75
This rear view of a late 1953 car shows the redesigned bootlid handle, the wider rear window and the body-colour light plinths. The reflectors would have been added circa 1954 to meet new UK regulations

A bolder outlook from the start

The new Rover front end was a brilliant but simple piece of design. In place of the body-colour grille came an elegant new one with a bright metal frame and narrow anodised slats arranged horizontally. With the addition of the traditional triangular Rover badge at the top of a bright central spine, it not only harked back to the respected earlier designs but also let through the necessary amounts of cooling air.

The basic shape of the wings remained unchanged, but the headlamps were recessed directly and neatly into the wing fronts. Meanwhile, the twin intakes below the headlamps disappeared as the whole heating and cooling system was revised. The design solution was again simple – and so simple that you can’t help wondering why the complex original type was designed in the first place.

A hinged flap was placed at the base of the windscreen, cutting into the back of the bonnet, and ideally placed to take in air at a level high enough to avoid exhaust fumes. It could be closed manually by a lever inside the car to prevent an excess of cold air getting into the cabin and, for good measure, a larger heater provided an increased output of 3½ kilowatts.

Rover P4 75
Lakeside Green was still available for 1952, although this promotional postcard almost certainly used a hand-coloured black and white picture. LUE 950 was a RHD Export model, number 2436-0035

The only casualty of this front end redesign was that there was no longer a foglamp as standard. Rover nevertheless compensated by offering one as an optional extra. It bolted to the front bumper valance and, later, would become part of the standard specification of the new top-model 90.

It’s perhaps surprising that we know so little about the creation of this new front end. There can be no doubt that the driving force behind it was Rover’s Chief Engineer, Maurice Wilks. He would certainly have been helped by Ben Loker, the Chief Body Designer. But where did the inspiration for that grille come from? Back in 1951, when it must have been designed, there were not many obvious precedents. American grilles tended to be horizontal, and European ones to be vertical. The exceptions were from some of the bespoke coachbuilders, primarily in France and in Italy.

The Rover photographic archives contain no clues except that the new front end was first photographed on 18 June 1951. The pictures were taken by Rover’s regular contract Photographer, John Toft-Bate, who then took a further set on 22 August. Both sets were listed as showing the 1952 models, but in practice the revised cars did not enter production until January, and would not be introduced on the world stage until the Geneva Motor Show in March. For this, Rover prepared a special display chassis.

Rover P4 75
Was this real or was it posed? Either way, this picture from The Observer newspaper shows a gent apparently astounded by the front suspension of the 75. The picture is dated October 1952, and the show chassis was probably the one first seen earlier in the year.

The engine and gearbox of the 1952 chassis were essentially unchanged. The 75 still had its 2103cc six-cylinder IOE engine with twin SU carburettors, and the gearbox was still a four-speed with synchromesh only on third and top, a column-mounted change lever and a freewheel.

A new exhaust heat shield made a welcome reduction to the heat transmitted to the interior of the car, but the major improvement to the 1952 models’ refinement came from new composite rubber and steel mountings between body and chassis that reduced the transmission of road noise into the body shell. Spen King once said that these completely transformed the P4, in his opinion.

Suspension improvements

Silentbloc mountings that used the same principle were also fitted to the front suspension, where rubber between springs and suspension arms stopped road noise being transmitted up the springs. Meanwhile, the rear chassis crossmember was now slightly dished to accommodate a wedge-shaped fuel tank.

This whole area had been redesigned to provide better accommodation for the spare wheel, which now sat under the boot floor. The wheel was accessible through its own hinged door which could be locked shut by a pin operated from inside the boot.

The boot also had a spring-balanced lid now, instead of the temperamental self-locking prop on the earlier cars, and fitted with a neater handle than before. Without the spare wheel, its floor was unobstructed, although it still sloped towards the rear. The right-hand rear corner of the boot became the new (and permanent) home for the electric fuel pump, where it suffered from neither vapour locks (as on the 1950 cars) nor water damage (as on the 1951 models).

Rover P4 75
This overhead view of a press demonstrator shows the new front end with the air vent in the open position

Increased practicality

Invisibly, the body now sat an inch higher than before at the rear, giving extra passenger headroom. A wider rear window made for a lighter cabin, and better seat comfort came from a spring base underneath the cushions. A recessed backrest for the front bench added knee room for rear passengers, while alterations lower down improved foot room.

The driver would have noticed a full circular horn ring instead of the half-ring of the earlier cars, while an organ-type accelerator pedal allowed more sensitive throttle control. New rotary switches replaced the earlier push-pull type and, instead of a low-fuel warning light, a switch gave access to a reserve supply of petrol (made possible by rearranged fuel lines).

Amid all this change, Rover chose not to offer any new paint or interior trim colours for 1952. So that season’s models had the same five paint options and the same five leather options as before. Perhaps this was for manufacturing convenience, or perhaps it provided the sort of reassuring continuity that Rover customers seem to have liked. One further small change involving the paint was made, though: the rear light plinths, originally chromed, were now painted in the body colour.

Rover P4 75
Perhaps this car on the 1952 sales brochure was supposed to be Pastel Blue – if so, it was a very poor representation of the colour!

Small changes for the 1953 models

The positive reception that greeted the 1952 models made clear that Rover did not need to make any major changes. The ones they did make were to the paint colour options. The Black, Ivory and Pastel Blue favourites were retained, but in place of the two greens came Sage Green and Light Grey. As for interior colours, the previous year’s five options remained unchanged.

The basic five-colour paint range was also extended by extra-cost, two-tone options, in which the roof was painted a darker colour than the lower body. The options featured the two new colours, but in each case with a second colour that was not available on its own.

There was thus Dark Grey for the roof of Light Grey cars, while Light Green was used for the lower panels of cars with a Sage Green roof. Both combinations were most attractive, although the two-tone grey seems to have been more popular. Interestingly, several 1952 models had served as two-tone prototypes in the first half of the year, and rejected options included Green with Grey, and two-tone Blue; Very Dark Red with Red is also recorded, although this may have been an experimental single-tone paint with a Red interior.

With a single exception, only detail changes were made to the cars during the 1953 season. The exception occurred quite early on, after just 1238 cars had been made, and was the deletion of the Panhard rod on the rear axle. This had given some trouble on the earlier cars, and Rover had now concluded that it was unnecessary. They now suggested that dealers should remove it from older models when they came in for service, so few cars that survive still have it.

Progress quantified

As the 1952 season was just eight months long and the 1951 season lasted 16 months, the actual production totals for these years can be misleading. However, combining the totals of 10,279 for 1951 and 5768 for 1952 gives a figure of 16,047, and averaged out that gives just over 8023 cars a year. That shows how much improvement had been made on the 1950-season figure of 5250.

For the 1953 season, Rover probably deliberately capped production at 8000 cars, leaving the major increase in the P4’s popularity to come in the 1954 season when there were three models available rather than just one. And that year, the production total would increase massively to 13,486, or more than 250% of the first year’s production total. Alongside the huge increases in demand for Land Rovers, that made clear just how well Rover was now doing.

James Taylor

24 Comments

  1. Yes a fine piece of writing with images to match. I still like seeing these Rover P4’s on old films & TV series. I was born in 1955 so the P4 was established before me!

  2. Do we know what was wrong with the Panhard rod? A simple enough system, it seems a bit strange that there should have been a problem with that.

    • I would think that if the leaf springs at the rear were sufficiently stiff to handle the lateral loads that the tyres of the time would generate (not very much by modern standards) they did not need and on occasion did not respond well to the lateral load a Panhard rod would put on them.

  3. ” In place of the body-colour grille came an elegant new one with a bright metal frame and narrow anodised slats arranged horizontally.”

    Vertically if I’m looking at the right pic?

  4. I’ve always thought Rover P4s look slightly odd and awkward. But I’ve never been able to work out what exactly it is.

  5. This article mentioned Chris Goode. Was he the same gent that was Chief Engineer of Vehicle Safety in the 1970’s?

  6. As someone who only got into cars in the late Sixties, as a sub-teenager the P4 Rovers were seen as deeply uncool. The sort of car your retired colonel grandad would drive.

    Odd lethargic engines, chassis frame underpinnings, slab sided body aesthetics that made the Austin A70 Hereford or the A99 Atlantic look like something from the next century.. Did any P4 ever get that Late 50’s thing of disc brakes??

    Normal people drove Ford Zephyr / Zodiacs, Austin Westminsters or Triumph 2000s.

    That Rover carried on selling the anachronistic and stylistically dead P4 into 1964 is horribly fascinating. The P6 saved them from oblivion.

    • Totally agree. The famous nickname of Auntie always made me think of the old fat unmarried mums sister.

    • Rover 90s came with power assisted drum brakes in 1956. Then, in 1959, power assisted disc and drum brakes were introduced with the Rover 80 and 100. The P4’s IOE engine continued to be used in Land Rovers until 1979. The engines were not lethargic, e.g. Mk 2 Ford Zodiacs, in 1962, took 17.1 seconds from 0 to 60mph. The Rover 110 took 15.9 seconds. Triumph Heralds came with a separate chassis and were built till 1971.

      The Rover P6 was an excellent replacement for the P4, providing the same jolt to the car market as the Rover P4 did when launched in 1949.

    • Even the later P5 was still very much more of the same, and hadn’t progressed styling much in 9 years.
      I guess for a small company it was safer than producing something very modern in 1958, that went out of fashion very quickly like some of the rocket tail designs of the time.

  7. I remember Siegfried Farnon in the later series All Creatures Great & Small, which suited his character well. Certainly the seemed popular with professionals like doctors, headmasters & bank managers.

    Bangernomics buffs in the 1970s seemed to keep many surviving examples going, probably due to the fairly simple mechanical layout.

  8. One possible source of inspiration for the grille design is Commercial Vehicle manufacturer AEC, the first Road Rover had a grille design very much like a scaled-down RT bus.

  9. Affluent farmers tended to choose the P4 in the 50s and 60s. In the 70s they transferred allegiance to the Volvo 144/244

  10. I think some people were being a bit unfair on the dear old P4. I remember one of the first jobs I had when I became a professional writer was to drive a P4 alongside an Austin Westminster and report back my findings.

    I wasn’t relishing the task at all as both these cars were very much grey porridge to me. First the Austin, and it was what I expected – soggy, heavy, uninspiring and hideously outdated.

    Then I drove the Rover. What a revelation. It felt tight and predictable, and steered with surprising precision. The engine was as smooth as silk too, and the freewheel worked beautifully. Quality was fabulous too.

    My respect for these cars was established that day, and today I still feel the same. Yes its styling would have been staid to those who grew up in the 1970s and beyond, but as a quality piece of engineering with surprising responsiveness, the Rover P4 was, and is, an excellent car.

    Wonder how it would be perceived today had it been as advanced to look at as the P6?

  11. If the P4 was so good, why didn’t the Police choose it in the Fifties and early Sixties against the likes of the Wolseley 6/80 6/99 and 6/110 and the A110 Westminster??

    I can’t really see a P4 engaging well in a chase against a bunch of bank robbers driving a 2.6 Litre OHV Vauxhall Cresta, a Ford Zodiac or a Mk.II Jag as a getaway car.

    • MOWOG

      Cheshire Constabulary chose P4s in the 1950s, see here – https://british-police-history.uk/f/cheshire-rovers There were other constabularies too from recollection.

      As per the Cresta Wiki “A PA tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1958 had a top speed of 89.8 mph (144.5 km/h) and could accelerate from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 16.8 seconds.” The Rover 100 from 1960 would accelerate 0-60 in 17.6 seconds so not far behind the Cresta. The Rover 110 from 1962 would accelerate 0-60 in 15.9 seconds.

      A Rover P4 was used by the criminals in the great train robbery!

      MOWOG, do share the personal experience you have of the P4 range of cars to enlighten us with the reasons for your negativity towards them.

  12. Had it been possible and despite the risk of it either delaying or outright erasing the P6, should Rover have replaced the P4 with a slightly smaller successor along the lines of the Volvo Amazon by the mid-1950s prior to the P5?

    The article on the P5’s early conception as a “P4 Light” with a 103-inch wheelbase / 1118kg had me pondering on the idea, the 2.4-litre (actually 2.5-litre) French and 2.6-litre Austrian tax special versions of the P5 next to the existing 3-litre would in 4-cylinder form have also given this P4 Light a similar 1.6-2.0-litre displacement to the Amazon (prior to being superseded by a version of the P6 OHC).

  13. My dads garage serviced a chauffeur driven P4 “60” then eventually purchased the car driving it as our family car for years, after 13 years of use the car never had a bulb replaced and the battery lasted 10 years and at 56000 the clutch was replaced. My dad lent me the car a few times, it was a pleasure to drive. extras included full tool kit freewheel hubs radiator blind rear window blind auto engine oil check and a rather primitive and dangerous cruise control!! Aluminium panels tons of leather and wood made it a special and well built car

  14. My P4 experience was as a passenger; some neighbours had a P4 and we would let them borrow our 4-berth caravan – in exchange for them taking me along on their holidays.

    2 adults up front, 3 kids and a terrier in the back, no seat-belts to be seen! Back then there was sod-all of the M5 so a trip from the West Midlands to North Devon could take 6 or 7 hours. Bridgwater, Exeter, massive traffic queues! Same on trips to Dorset or Norfolk. The P4 churned along in the traffic; ofen with nobody in front of us but plenty of frustrated drivers behind – who, in their Cortinas, Corsairs, Volvos, Hunters etc. would come screaming past at every opportunity. Progress in the P4 was at best ‘stately’, and Gerald, its music-teacher owner, drove it in a mode which was much more Lento than Allegro. Every hour or so we would pull into a layby, he’d open the bonnet, and after a while would diligently check the oil and water before we moved on – even though it was maybe only 40 miles since this had last been done!

    I remember a trip with his kids to Austria; same caravan, but my father’s XJ6 doing the towing – and cruising at the legal-limit-plus-about-20% all the way.

    The P4 was a thing-of-its-time. I doubt there are many people under 70 who have actually *driven* one. Personally, I don’t like wood-and-leather in a car, I want my cockpit to look more like a fighter-jet than an old castle.

    [Backstory: when in 1971 said music-teacher got upgraded to head-of-department and deputy-head, he upgraded his car too. To a mustard-yellow 1.8 Marina Estate. Oh dear… a year later he upgraded to a Volvo]

    • Can I please seek clarification MOWOG. Are you comparing the performance of fully laden P4, which is also towing a caravan, with other cars on the road? I wonder how the cars you mentioned, e.g. Cortinas and Hunter, would have compared with such a payload?

    • I also travelled with a childhood friend in his family’s P4. I’d have been around 6years old probably and made trips to their caravan at North Berwick, East Lothian. Unlike you my memories are overwhelmingly positive. Their 110 was classy and luxurious compared with my family’s Victors and Zephyr. As a small boy the rear passenger compartment seemed cavernous, the suicide doors were a novelty, and when my pal’s mum put her foot down the old girl could shift( the car that is!). I vividly remember the transmission whine though, quite unlike anything I was used to. Writing this really takes me back to caravan site with its view of the Bass rock and mournful foghorn when the the haar set in. It’s a housing estate now, of course.

  15. I’m a lot under 70 and bought a P4 (a 1961 100) a year ago and am a bit blown away by how usable it is – having now done several 200 mile plus journeys in it. Whilst slower than an XJ6 (launched 20 years after the P4, I would add) it happily sits at 65 on a motorway and returns a surprisingly good 27mpg). I’ve never been in or driven a Zephyr or Westminster – but I’d be surprised if they were markedly better than an early 60s P4. I have driven a 4 cylinder P6 a lot and, if anything, would say it was not a lot more capable and, in some ways, rather less. So, Give a P4 a Try Today!

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