The Rover P6 was a radical new product for its maker – and proof it was trying to move away from the stuffy ‘Auntie’ image that it had been landed with over the last couple of decades.
It had styling that was influenced by the Citroen DS, and possessed a skeleton structure and modern styling that really were a million miles away from the P4 (which was still in production when the P6 was launched).
Rover P6: revolution, not evolution
In an era where manufacturers will spend huge amounts of time cultivating their image, ensuring that they do not stray too far from their designated market slots, and that any new products that do represent a step into the unknown, are market researched to the nth degree, it is hard to relate to just how big a leap into the unknown the Rover P6 was for the company back in 1963.
Up to that point in time, The Rover Company was an independent company with the set-in-stone image of the a producer of solid-and-conservative cars for a solid-and-conservative clientele. However, there was a sea change happening within the company, and the very public emergence of the gas turbine cars and the innovative Land-Rover of 1948 demonstrated that Rover was embracing new technology.
The transformation of the Rover marque would take some time and, while sporting prototypes might be good at winning admirers in the press, they did not attract new customers into the fold. The existing range of cars that epitomised British style of the time, the P4 Auntie Rover (of 1950-1964) and the more recent P5 luxury saloons (1959-1973), were beginning to look slightly long in the tooth – and, even though they were respected by many existing customers, that base of buyers was ageing rapidly.
The establishment order
The market for middle-management cars was also something of a conservative minefield, and dominated by the larger 3-litre opposition, so epitomised by the big Farina saloons. Rover’s management team knew that, in order to survive in the market, they would need to devise something significantly more interesting, as a new generation of post-war ‘baby-boomers’ was emerging.
The Rover 2000 was the product of a new and highly imaginative Engineering Team which had joined Rover in the 1950s. Their idea was to produce a new and radical car to fight future battles with – the project was officially born in 1956, although Gordon Bashford had been dreaming of designing a baseframe car for sometime prior to that. The Design Team had all but completed their work on the P5 and turned their attention to the P4 replacement – that is, when they were not working on the T3.
Rover needed this shot in the arm, and the company positively encouraged radical thinking. The engineers (led by Peter Wilks, Spen King and Gordon Bashford) had their feet kept in contact with terra firma thanks to the steadying influence of the Wilks brothers, Maurice and Spencer. Had it not been for this intervention, the P6 would undoubtedly been even more revolutionary than it already was (and possibly less saleable). The Board ruled out the possibility of using the flat-four and Hydropneumatic suspension the Engineers wanted, but they agreed to the body and chassis design, that were a big departure from the norm – let alone what the company had done before.
Creating the new P6 on an unusual baseframe
The ‘shell’ of the car was a fabricated inner monocoque (or baseframe as it became more widely known as), to which all the outer panels were simply bolted onto. The idea of this was the simple renewal of body parts when required – and, unlike other cars produced in Britain at the time, in theory, rust would not be the killer it would be on more conventional designs. If the baseframe was solid, all other rust could be treated as purely superficial. Gordon Bashford also had it very much in mind that this system would allow for relatively easy styling changes… such was the success of the Bache styling, however, that the theory was never put into practice.
The suspension was also a big departure for Rover. Up front, the top wishbones acted through a cranked linkage onto horizontal coil springs, which were braced against the scuttle – this system was soon called the ’round-the-corner’ suspension system. The advantage of this system was that it utilised the stiffest part of the car’s structure to absorb suspension loads, but more intriguingly, the design left room to install a gas turbine engine, which the company was still working feverishly on.
Leaving room for a gas turbine
King himself recalled, ‘the original concept of the thing was the structure of the car and space for the gas turbine. That idea without necessarily the transverse lower suspension wishbone, I sketched out and then Gordon Bashford, who was a good friend of mine (although he was not working for me then) planned out the thing, I think for both the Rover 2000 and the Turbine car more or less simultaneously.’
At the rear, it had sliding tube de Dion suspension, with fixed-length driveshafts, which was a layout mirrored on the T3 gas turbine car. Spen King developed that system alongside Gordon Bashford, so it was familiar territory for them both. King stated that this system may have been unconventional, but it had very real advantages: ‘The P6 was designed specifically to cure that (lift off oversteer), but it certainly gave a good ride and stuck the wheels on the road well, the geometry was good – there was nothing wrong with it at all.’
Engine and transmission options
The drivetrain was also a new design, and unique to the car throughout its life – as was the newly-designed Heron-head inline four-cylinder engine (objected to by the sales people, who thought it was too noisy) of overhead cam design. The new engine was considered essential for the light-footed new car, as the P4 unit was too pedestrian, whilst the Land Rover engine was simply unsuitable. A new gearbox was also part of the package – and was built in a new Government-backed factory in Cardiff (against the wishes of Rover’s management – but that is a different story).
Sadly for Rover, the run up to the announcement of the P6 was marred by the death of the company’s Chairman, Maurice Wilks, at the age of 59, on 8 September 1963. He was succeeded by George Farmer.
Launching the Rover P6
The Rover P6 was launched on 9 October 1963, and alongside the Triumph 2000, which – amazingly – was launched within weeks of the new Rover, it redefined the executive car market. The idea that six-cylinder, 3-litre cars were necessary for status conscious motorists was banished to history, as this new Rover (and its Triumph rival) could do everything the traditional rivals could, but using less fuel, taking up less road space whilst doing so. In a word, the two-litre executive car had arrived.
The new Rover caused nothing less than a sensation when it was launched – certainly, it was a huge move away from everything that had preceded it. Apart from being entirely new, with no carry-over parts from any other Rover, it was compact (some would say too small inside), technically advanced and relatively cheap. Also, compared with previous numbers, it was to be built in huge numbers without a drop-off in build quality. Without doubt, it was a clean sheet design, and a £15m gamble that Rover chose to take in order to guarantee future survival. Overnight, the company’s image was lifted from that of a manufacturer of stolid middle-class cars to that of a trendy front-running manufacturer.
‘All our engineering know-how and skills’
Introducing the Rover 2000 to the media, William Martin-Hurst, Rover’s Managing Director, said: ‘Into this car we have put all our engineering know-how and skills. We have built 15 prototypes , which have been driven in the aggregate more than 445,000 miles in this country and abroad. Pre-production cars have been driven over 200,000 miles and 268,000 miles have been covered at high speed on motorways.’
P6 project leader, the then 43-year old Peter Wilks was quoted by the American Time magazine as saying: ‘This is an engineer’s company. That means nobody pushes engineers around here, but it means we also get the blame.’
The Sales Department had misgivings about the car (they wanted a larger six-cylinder car), but they were in the minority – the P6 was a huge sales success from day one. There were economic factors at play here, as there had been a demand for more economical cars following the Suez Crisis and, although this was by then a memory, at the time of the P6’s launch in 1963, it was a recent one – and customers looked to trade down to smaller, more economical cars, but without losing the luxury they had become used to. The Solihull plant was expanded to accommodate the new car, and a 550-per-week run was talked about. The sales people thought that this projection was wildly optimistic, but they were soon proved wrong and, by 1964, the plant was already running at full capacity. That same year, dealers were turning customers who were unprepared to join the queue away (and who no doubt headed to their local Triumph dealer instead)
What Rover thought of the Triumph 2000
Although Rover Chairman, George Farmer, said of the Rover and Triumph 2000s: ‘They’re different animals.’ His 2000, at any rate, had caught on well enough to make one thing clear: ‘For the next 18 months, our problem is making, not selling,’ he told The Observer newspaper.
The press also loved it, and Motor raved about the 2000 in its first road test in 1963. At launch, the car cost £1264 and it was not without rivals at this price – in this context, their comments make interesting reading: ‘One has the impression that it was planned by engineers, who are enthusiastic drivers and by stylists who put function before decoration. The result is something of an object lesson to others.’ The King/Bashford chassis also drew the highest praise: ‘…we would put it in the top three among European cars irrespective of price’ – whilst the brakes also drew comment, ‘…among the best we have tried…’
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, and the new engine’s lack of refinement (when compared to Triumph’s silky smooth ohv straight-six) was all-too evident – and this backed up the misgivings that Maurice Wilks had about the new power unit. Performance and economy were reasonable enough, but it became somewhat thrashy at higher revs – but Rover were pretty conscious of this, anyway, and gave the car a high top gear, which resulted in relaxing and peaceful cruising. Performance figures made interesting reading – the 0-60 time recorded by Motor was 14.6 seconds, whilst the top speed was 104mph. Acceleration was reasonable, but one must wonder what the top speed of the 2000 would have been if the original front end (see picture of the clay styling model, above) had been used.
A commercial success for Rover
Sales were brisk, but Rover developed the car throughout its life in order to remain competitive. Such was the instant success of the P6 model that Peter Wilks, co-ordinator of the P6 project and nephew of the recently-deceased Maurice Wilks, was appointed to the Board of The Rover Company as Technical Director at the beginning of 1964. In May of that year Bernard Jackman joined Rover as Executive Director (Production), the same month the ageing P4 ceased production.
Rover had hoped to sell around 250 cars a week, as it turned out a weekly production rate of 550 cars still could not satisfy demand. Rover’s efforts to ramp up P6 production in 1964 were hampered by a series of industrial disputes over earnings, bonus payments and strikes at outside suppliers. This was to be the Achilles Heel of the British motor industry; when it did produce a winner, industrial disputes would restrict the ability to supply the market and, in the long term, it would prove to be crippling to the UK-owned motor industry.
On 14 December 1964, Mr William Martin-Hurst, Managing Director of Rover, sent a Christmas message to employees urging them to show patience and not to withdraw their labour unconstitutionally. He pointed out that the firm’s financial year, which ended on 1 August, had showed a record for sales and turnover. However, despite his appeal for common sense to prevail, the stoppages continued into 1965.
Struggling to meet demand – blame the strikers
At the Geneva Motor Show in March 1965, Martin-Hurst said of the P6: ‘We could sell twice as many as we are making at present.’
Demand for the Rover and Triumph 2000s clearly impacted on another British executive car, the Jaguar Mk2. In 1960 Jaguar built 21,436, but by 1963 this was down to 10,253 – and in 1964 declined further to 8074 slumping finally to 4847 in 1965. In 1965 the Rover P6 cost £1298, and the Jaguar Mk2 2.4-litre cost £1389. The smaller-engined Jaguar could not even attain 100 mph, a fact that Browns Lane was very aware of, as it continued to refuse to lend any examples of its smallest-engined car to the press for road testing.
One could, of course, opt for the larger-engined 3.4- and 3.8-litre Jaguars, but extra performance would cost much more. The Jaguar looked dated in comparison with the Rover, and Sir William Lyons had already decided to abandon this sector of the executive car market in favour of developing the XJ4 project.
Industrial changes at Rover
In June 1965, Rover announced it was taking over Alvis. The positive impact of the P6 on Rover’s finances was visible for all to see when the company’s accounts were revealed the following October. With £205,000 for the full year’s contribution from Alvis, group pre-tax profits in the year ending 31 July went up about £1,100,000 to £3,636,000. In December, a Government-sponsored commission, called the Motor Industry Joint Study Group headed by a Mr Jack Scamp, reported on the series of industrial disputes at Rover’s plants, which had restricted P6 production. According to the commission, inadequate consultation and communications helped to impair labour relations at The Rover Company’s Solihull works.
In the 12 months up to the end of May 1965, there were 101 unofficial strikes at the works, which already had a bad history in spite of efforts by management and unions to get at the root of unofficial action. The main recommendation of the commission, was that the management and local union officials should jointly revise the system of works representation and consultation. They found nothing, they said, that common sense and better cooperation could not resolve; but neither side had met the challenge presented by the rapid increase of manpower over the previous two and a half years to man the assembly line producing the Rover 2000.
Rover’s image starts to suffer
Expansion had taken place in conditions of intense local demand for labour and the firm had been compelled to take on men with no previous experience in the motor industry. Against this backdrop, the eight unions representing manual workers had worked independently and had even opposed one another instead of working together. The National Union of Vehicle Builders, with the most members, had recently taken steps, with welcome results, to improve the quality of Shop Stewards and to discipline members who took part in unofficial strikes.
However the Scamp report, like other investigations into poor industrial relation in the UK car industry, simply proved to be a waste of time, money and paper. The disruption went on. It was another stoppage in August 1966 than finally snapped the patience of Bernard Smith, known by his initials as AB, General Manager and a Director of The Rover Company, who publicly called the strike ‘a catastrophe for the company, the workers and the country.’
‘In heaven’s name let us get on with the job. We need production now every hour of every week.’
– AB Smith
Overseas goodwill was, ‘a gossamer thread already at breaking strain… In heaven’s name, let us get on with the job. We need production now every hour of every week. With all the insecurity of the present economic crisis, it is a tragedy that we should be prevented from making the most of the sales and export opportunities, which will not last for ever… The Rover 2000 has been acclaimed throughout the world. We are under extreme pressure, from our home and export markets, particularly America to meet delivery programmes, and overseas customers will not wait. Many sales are on home-delivery basis.
‘Imagine the frustration of an American arriving with his family to pick up his car at airport or docks to use on holiday to find it is not available because the factory is on strike. Such a mess ensures that he will never buy another Rover, maybe never a British car again.’
Strong sales despite economic problems
In the autumn of 1966, deflationary measures imposed by the Government severely depressed the car market, with BMC being particularly hard hit. Rover saw demand for both the Land Rover and P5 dip, but simply transferred workers to the P6 line which was remarkably unaffected by the prevailing economic conditions. In fact during the year Rover had even introduced a nightshift.
1966 saw the introduction of the 2000TC, which thanks to a useful boost in power, could see 110mph and complete the 0-60 sprint in 11 seconds. Various other small engineering changes were made to the car, including the introduction of improved Girling disc brakes, making the car a nicer proposition to live with. By this time, the car’s reputation for safety and strength was gaining momentum, and the improved performance (it was now decisively quicker than the Triumph 2000) was icing on the cake. Sales remained strong…
Leyland takes over Rover
In December 1966, it was announced that the Leyland Motor Corporation, which included Triumph, was taking over Rover at a cost of £25m. Now Rover was bedfellows with Triumph, although the only real model conflict was in the 2-litre executive sector. In early 1967, Rover was hit by more stoppages and in April 1967 Leyland Chairman Sir William Black retired to be replaced by Sir Donald Stokes.
Rover P6 manufacturing methods
A contemporary magazine article described Rover P6 production as it was in April 1967. ‘When, in 1963, The Rover Company decided to put the advanced 2000 into production a special new factory costing over £10-million was built for the purpose at Lode Lane, Solihull, just outside Birmingham. Here, the Rover 2000 is assembled on virtually a single continuous line, in a vast hall, to which mechanical components are brought from other Rover factories in the area. This impressive factory is devoted solely to the assembly of the 2-litre cars, the 3-litre P5 Rovers being built across the road on a circular assembly line. To reduce fire hazards the new paint shop serving the 2000 assembly hall has been separated from it, although it is really a continuation of this building. So painted body parts are carried on an overhead conveyor-line through an enclosed bridge to the main assembly plant.
‘Looking first at the paint shop, it is here that the body panels are passed through the two electro-static spray-booths, in which paint particles leave gravity-fed centrifugal bells and are magnetically adhered onto the earthed panels under the influence of a 120,000-volt electrical system. This method is very economical, because about 98% of the paint arrives where it is wanted instead of some 60% spattering all over the paint booth, and no hand-spraying is involved, except for door apertures etc. on the base unit. Also a very even surface is ensured. Before the final coats of paint go on, primer is smoothed down by the wet-and-dry hand-flatting process and rubbed with chalk blocks to reveal any rough patches, which are then dealt with. The base units of the car are dipped in paint vats, then dried in the usual ovens. After the dip, two surface and two final coats of paint are applied.
‘In the assembly hall the base unit moves upside down along the single assembly line at floor-level while the suspension units and brakes etc, are fitted to it. It is then turned right way up and proceeds along the line for additional components to be fitted. The parts required are brought up to the sides of the assembly line in bins. The engines, each of which has been run for five hours on coal gas at the Acocks Green factory, arrive in Rover’s own lorries at Solihull. Pirelli Cinturato tyres predominate, but some cars go out on Dunlop SPs. After the mechanical components have been fitted to the base unit it moves up from floor-level for more easy attachment of the seats and trim etc.
A complex assembly process
‘Prior to this, each base unit has had all the necessary holes (62 of them) for door and panel attachment etc. drilled in it by transfer machinery which does all this drilling as one operation, entirely independently of human intervention. This impressive operation is carried out by a couple of Viltool multi-drillers, made in Wolverhampton. It is interesting that, before the body panels and doors are attached, each Rover 2000 is started up on petrol and driven to one of three short lines where the wheels are checked for alignment, the lamps are adjusted and the engine and transmission run-up on rollers.
‘Only when the car has been passed as mechanically 100% does it resume the single assembly line, for the body panels to be fitted. All these body parts arrive on overhead gantries in ‘prams’ or big wire-mesh baskets, each ‘pram’ containing all the parts for completing one body. These ‘prams’ are loaded by hand in the paint shop, for dispatch to the appropriate vehicle awaiting final assembly in the assembly hall. As it is essential that the paint containers are absolutely clean before a different colour paint is sprayed from them, panels are sprayed one colour one week and a different colour the following week, parts being stacked up as required. Incidentally, six different colours are available in this country and a more vivid range of finishes is provided for Rovers exported to the USA and elsewhere. All these variants, including LHD and RHD cars etc. are provided for on the single assembly line.
‘Various test rigs are at work in the engineering and quality control shops, destruction testing various components such as road wheels, and Rover have a MIRA crash programme to test body strength in accidents. Rover makes its own seats, carpeting etc. with upholstery in Connolly hide, these parts being made and kept in the main stores at Cardiff to provide more room for the assembly processes at Birmingham so that lorries are continually passing up and down [the] M50 with parts for cars on the Solihull assembly line.
Testing and out to the dealers
‘The aforesaid prams are attached to the cars and move with them along the continually-moving assembly line, operatives taking out the parts as they are required. After this each car is washed in one of two washers and then goes on one of two lines through the wind-and-rain test, the car being rocked on rollers and having jets of water blown over it at the equivalent of 30 mph while an observer sits inside noting whether any moisture intrudes.
‘The cars, as finished vehicles, leave the assembly hall for testing on Rover’s own 2.25-mile test track. This test track, adjacent to which there is also a jungle-course for giving Land Rovers an ordeal, is invaluable, not only for trying out secret prototype vehicles which are also taken to MIRA for more specialised running, but because every car made at Solihull can be driven there without the need for insurance, trade plates and other complications.
‘When I inquired how far each Rover 2000 was driven in this manner I was told that time is of no account. The cars are brought back for rectification of any faults, in a bay that includes pits for examining the underparts of the vehicle, and tested again until the drivers are quite satisfied with them. This normally takes from three to 30 miles but can, as with Rolls Royce, occupy a day, a week or a month, if this is necessary.
‘After this the completed cars are dried and travel along the waxing lines where they are wax polished and those for export are protected with anti-corrosive protection. Even now the testing isn’t finished. A team of four or five girl drivers takes the newly-polished cars for a final check run on the test track. If all is well, the cars are finally sent along a line for further washing and to have their tool-kits, carpets and wheel trims etc. fitted. These finishing processes are undertaken in the leg of the main hall which is L-shaped. A car park for 2000 vehicles beside the factory accommodates cars and Land Rovers until they are needed for dispatch to places the world over.’
1967: still flying in the sales charts
Overall UK car sales at this time were still depressed, but demand for the P6 remained strong. Sales of the Rover P6 during the three months of May, June and July 1967 rose by 31% over the corresponding period in the previous year. Rover Sales Director, John Carpenter, commented at the time: ‘Our 2000 production line is now working at capacity day and night to keep up with demand.’
At the end of September 1967 the Rover P5B was announced, the first Rover to use the ex-GM all-alloy V8 engine, although the factor that influenced Rover’s decision to purchase the engine was its ability to fit in the P6 engine bay. By early October Rover was telling the press, ‘We are working on the assumption that this design will form the basis of our engine family for the next ten years at least.’
It was already clear that both Rover and their major component suppliers were gearing themselves for a level of production far in excess of that required for the 3.5-litre P5B alone. Many millions of pounds had been invested in new machinery for the engine section of the Acocks Green plant which would be sharing production of the new engine with Alvis. But the most significant development was the new foundry built by Birmingham Aluminium Casting Company to produce the all alloy cylinder blocks, cylinder heads and timing covers. This had a capacity of 700 cylinder blocks a week and could be rapidly stepped up to over 1000.
The P6 line was working flat out to produce around 800 a week. It was therefore apparent that Rover had sufficient basic new engine capacity available for the whole of their current range of cars.
British Leyland is created
And to 1968, a year of change. In January it was announced that the Leyland Motor Corporation was merging with British Motor Holdings to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC), initially headed by Sir George Harriman and later by Sir Donald Stokes. In April, the Rover 3500 was created by slotting in the V8 under the bonnet – the style remained almost unchanged (only an under-bumper air scoop gave the game away), but the driving experience changed remarkably.
Although the Rover 3500 would initially only be available as an automatic, it still had the ability to cover the ground deceptively quickly.
In mid-May BLMC officially came into existence, but Rover had no representatives on the main Board, unlike Jaguar and Triumph. In late September Jaguar announced the XJ6 saloon to instant acclaim. Such was the demand for the car that in order to free up capacity, Jaguar withdrew its now ageing 240/340 saloons, the final variation of the Mk2 from the market, thus removing some internal BLMC competition from Rover and Triumph. In fact, the less than sparkling Jaguar XJ6 2.8-litre was only marginally more expensive than the Rover P6B 3500 and, although the Jaguar was the car of the moment, the Rover may have been better value for money.
In April 1969 Rover Chairman Sir George Farmer was belatedly appointed to the BLMC Board. In October 1969, William Martin-Hurst retired as Rover Managing Director and was succeeded by Bernard Smith. It was fortunate for Rover that the P6 was still selling well, for as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s the task of replacing the P6 could not be addressed due to financial problems within British Leyland. By 1970, the P6 had been on the market for six years and by industry standards was due for replacement. British Leyland’s priority was turning around the rump of the former BMC, the Austin-Morris division, which in 1969/70 lost some £16m.
By now Triumph had started to lose money as well and BLMC was being kept afloat by the profits of Leyland Vehicles, Jaguar and Rover, profits which were diverted into Austin Morris instead of being re-invested in the companies that generated them in the first place. Rover had to make do with a Mk2 version of the P6, announced in 1970 which featured various cosmetic changes, including the use of the P6B V8 bonnet pressing, which featured twin power bulges, for all models including the four cylinder versions.
A sign of the times and the loss of Rover’s independence was demonstrated in March 1971 with the cancellation of the P8 saloon. Not long after this, in July 1971, Rover Technical Director Peter Wilks was forced to retire with failing health and was succeeded by Spen King.
Tragically, Peter Wilks was to die the following year at the premature age of 52 years. His early demise has unintentionally led to his contribution to the Rover story being airbrushed out of many histories.
Rover P6 reaches its full potential
It was not until 1971 that the manual 3500S model was launched (using a strengthened version of the standard P6 gearbox) and, thanks to its arrival, sales continued to rise – by mid-1972 Solihull was producing 1000 cars per week. This really was a remarkable achievement some eight years after its introduction, but proved the rightness of the concept, even if by Spen King‘s own admission, Rover purchasing the V8 from General Motors was not unanimously supported within the company.
In March 1972, Rover and Triumph merged under the control of Sir George Farmer. The 12-man Board consisted of seven from Rover and five from Triumph. However, in May 1973, Sir George retired from BLMC to be replaced by Bill Davis, a former BMC man, as Managing Director of Rover-Triumph. Bill Davis’ tenure was short-lived as, following George Turnbull’s sudden resignation from British Leyland in September 1973, he was promoted to the firm’s main Board as Director of Production, a similar position to the one he had occupied at BMC. The new boss of Rover-Triumph was now Bernard Jackman. While this was going on, production of the larger P5B luxury saloon ceased in June 1973, leaving the P6 as the sole Rover-badged car as the various Land Rover models began to dominate the scene at Solihull.
The last major technical change to the P6 took place in October 1973, when the engine was enlarged (by increasing the bore from 85.7mm to 90.5mm) to 2205cc, thus creating the 2200SC and TC models. The emphasis of the revised engine was definitely on mid-range driveability as opposed to outright power, although the new models were marginally quicker than the models they replaced. However, the P6 was not a particularly light car and, even though it was blessed with high overall gearing, it was not especially economical – and this was very much a factor during the early 1970s.
The end of the road looms ahead
What Car? magazine tested the 2200TC in October 1974 and was still reasonably enthusiastic about it, concluding that, ‘despite its age, the Rover still looks pleasant and dignified. It represents the strong resistance to the change inherent in the British motor industry, but is none the worse for this. It rides and corners well, but still has drawbacks; lack of space for luggage and passengers, and only mediocre performance.’
In February 1974 Motor magazine interviewed the Managing Director of Rover-Triumph, Bernard Jackman. He reflected on his family’s long association with the company and the Rover P6 , of which he said: ‘I think it really went into production a year to soon. Certainly a lot of the body tooling wasn’t right and we were having to compromise.
‘I think we were rather provoked into putting it into production in 1963 because the Triumph 2000 was appearing at the same time and there was this competitive pressure. Most people felt that we were a bit premature and we rushed it . Production was running at about 200 to 250 a week when I came here and had to be held at that level in order to get the vehicle right.’
Explaining the success of the P6
He continued: ‘Once it was right I had to engineer a very rapid increase in production, up to 600-650 a week by about 1965 on a single shift . Then Bill Martin-Hurst did the V8 engine deal and when we put that into the 2000 it increased the potential of the vehicle very considerably. We went on to two shifts and production went up to 800-850 a week.
‘So the £11.5 million invested at the time in the project has certainly paid off. It amazes me now to think that one could ever have done the new engine and gearbox and all the plant for the car assembly and finishing including the new buildings all for a mere £11.5 million.’
Bernard Jackman was also responsible for putting the V8 engine into production. ‘It was one of the smoothest jobs we ever had, for it was a brilliantly designed engine from a manufacturing point of view. Its assembly costs are much less than for the four-cylinder engine, and its material costs are not very much more. It was a bit of a squeeze to get the V8 into the 2000 frame, but because it was wide and short we could just do it, with a few modifications to the panels and a few bulges here and there in the underskin. It was really a stroke of genius on Martin-Hurst’s part to think of it.’
Not always putting quality first
On the subject of quality, Jackman stated: ‘There was a tendency at one time for production and manufacturing considerations at Rover to override quality and things that we would stop going out now used to get out, but we have really clamped down on that over the past few years and stopped it. We get rogue cars going out of course, everyone does, but we have a good reputation for quality.
‘In fact, only this morning a high ranking army officer told me they regard army Land Rovers as the acme of quality of British military vehicle manufacture. I find this rather touching. But we are not home and dry on this quality thing by any means. It is a constant battle, and rightly so for otherwise people get complacent and standards start to slip.
‘Quality and design are a completely integrated thing. If you have a poor design, no matter what you do on the line or how good your facilities are you will still turn out a poor product. It is not possible for fellows on the assembly line to make good the deficiencies of bad design. In the Rover organisation as a whole quality therefore begins in engineering. They do try very hard to give us the ability to produce a satisfactory job, and the facilities people try to make it almost impossible for an operator to do a job incorrectly.
‘And in all our machining areas we build a lot of monitoring equipment into the plant that switches it off if things aren’t dimensionally correct.’
Here’s to Rover’s future success
These were optimistic times and Rover-Triumph talked of boosting annual output from 200,000 to 460,000 within five years. However, the focus would now be on the Rover SD1 and Triumph SD2 and the factories that would build them. Fortunately, P6 sales were holding up remarkably well despite the Energy Crisis. It appeared that buyers of larger-engined cars were downsizing to the P6. In the autumn of 1974, Jaguar was having great difficulty in selling the last E-types.
In December, British Leyland ran out of money and went cap in hand to the Government for help. Rover had suffered from strikes in 1974, but nothing like the disruption occurring at Triumph’s plants, which always seemed to be strikebound, even when BLMC had finally run out of money.
In early April the following year, Bernard AB Smith retired as Rover Chairman after 50 years with the company.
Rover after the Ryder Report
In the aftermath of the Ryder Report Rover-Triumph was absorbed into Leyland Cars under Derek Whittaker, and former boss Bernard Jackman resigned from British Leyland in August 1975 after a 70-year family association with Rover.
The departure of Smith and Jackman was the effective end of the original Rover Company as an independent concern and Solihull would later come to miss its firm grip on the tiller as the company gradually lost direction, but that’s another story.
Despite the introduction of worker participation schemes by Leyland Cars’ management, the now state-owned company was plagued by industrial disputes and, in November 1975, Rover P6 production was halted by a two-week strike by 1000 assembly workers. It was an ominous portent for the Rover SD1 which was to be built in greater numbers than the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500 in a brand new building at Solihull in a new spirit of mutual co-operation between management and workers.
The P6 is dead… long live the P6
On 30 June 1976, the Rover SD1 was officially launched to great acclaim and the P6 faded into the background, although manufacture was to continue into 1977. The SD1 was initially only available in 3500 form, so the decision was taken to continue with production of both the Triumph 2000 and Rover 2200 until the 2300/2600 versions of the SD1 came on stream. Surprisingly production of the P6 3500 also continued. Perhaps Leyland Cars thought that some buyers would be put off by the now long – and getting longer – waiting list for the SD1, and opt for the readily available older model. The end for the P6 came on 19 March 1977, when both the last 2200 and 3500S were produced. The last car of all was a green 3500S registered VVC 700S.
So, the Rover P6 was a success, and a sustained one at that – and, along with the Triumph 2000, it really did lead the class (in the UK, the two cars created it, really). This success can be seen in the total number of P6s built: 327,000 – which really is a tremendous achievement when one considers that The Rover Company was a low-volume specialist producer of up-market cars. What the P6 achieved in doing was hit the market at precisely the correct moment – and offer what buyers really wanted.
It swept away the profligacy of the establishment, and proved that a smaller, lighter car could offer middle management exactly what it wanted. When the P6B came along a few years later, it also caught the spirit of the moment, by appealing to P6 customers who wanted to move on… it was the original V8-powered executive express.
What was the legacy of the Rover P6?
While not a BL product, it did influence its BL-financed replacement: the SD1 followed the same formula, was created by the same Design Team and was an improvement in all the areas that the P6 was weak in.
Where the two cars differed, sadly, was in the quality of the execution – Spen King put it this way: ‘What happened was that they decided that it was going to have big volume, so built the ruddy great factory at Solihull and then there was a lot of stuff going on about how many hours it should take to build a motor car, and the Austin-Morris people came up with the figure that we should build SD1 in 23 hours.
‘So I think largely on the basis of that, there was this invasion of Rover, in the way the Normans invaded England, or how Triumph invaded BMC at one time. So, the car wasn’t made by the Rover people at all, but by the Austin-Morris invasion team.’
Did they learn their lessons?
In 1977, Leyland Cars was telling the press that they hoped to produce 2000 SD1s a week, which was twice the build rate of the P6 at its peak. The company simply did its sums and, instead of producing two executive cars, they now wanted to produce one at twice the production rate. Unfortunately, SD1 production never achieved more than 1500 to 1800 cars a week. The other factor that ultimately worked against the SD1 was its size. Conceived in 1971 before the First Energy Crisis around the 3.5-litre V8, the Second Energy Crisis of 1979/80 killed demand for even the smaller engined 2300/2600 models. It was a situation exploited by Ford with its German-built Granada, which was available in a more economical 2-litre version, and a market that had once been the domain of the P6 was lost.
This resulted in the later Rover 800 being designed as a smaller car than the SD1. So the P6 was built and designed well – and the quality was right – and success deservedly followed. The Rover SD1 was equally as advanced, and was just what people wanted, but because they left out the quality, its reputation was quickly tarnished. It was a lesson that BL sadly did not learn until it was too late…