During the post-War years, Rover carved out a reputation as a maker of solid, middle-class cars, so typified by the “Auntie” tag.
The P6 was a watershed car for the company, because it blew that image into the weeds forever…
THE UK motor industry went through a most remarkable transformation between 1959 and 1964: BMC’s wholescale switch to Issigonis-engineered family cars was well underway, Standard-Triumph was undergoing the painful process of dropping the Standard part of the operation, and Rover moved from being a producers of Captain Mainwaring-type executive cars, like the P4, into the producer of advanced and forward-thinking big cars.
For Rover, this process had been going on in the background for some time, it was just not that apparent to the car buying public. During the 1950s, Spen King had been making his mark on the Rover management with the flamboyant gas turbine prototypes, which had been a logical extension of the work that went on at Rover on the jet engine during World War II. It was a sign of the times – an exciting era, when British engineers felt that anything was possible. The encapsulation of this dream had to be the gas turbine-powered 150mph Rover JET1 prototype and its T-series counterparts.
With these projects taking up so much of Rover’s focus, it is easy to see how the dyanamic thinking that led to the P6 came into being.
But it was not so straightforward. The P5 began life as a replacement for the P4, but grew in size thanks to Rover’s increasing confidence. With the P5 well underway to becoming Rover’s new flagship, the company to looked – once again – at replacing the P4. In 1956, first thoughst were committed to paper and it was Gordon Bashford and Spen King that worked towards devising a new and radical car for the job. As with the P5 before it, David Bache was to head up the styling, except this time, he aimed to produce something much more radical, to match the emerging mechanical layout.
The P6 was the first Rover, which Spen King was heavily involved with the development. And it shows. Beyond the innovative base-frame construction method, the suspension was pure Spen King, which can be seen in the cunning attention to detail. The rear was a de dion layout, which allowed for a soft and compliant ride. The independent front layout was more than a little unusual, but it was a hang-over from the T4 gas turbine project (gas turbine was considered for the P6’s motive power at one point). Strict four-seat accommodation was also a pre-requisite of the programme, as was the use of a four-cylinder power unit.
The P6, therefore, shook off many of Rover’s previous conventions, and was a massively ambitious programme for the company to undertake. Luckily, it worked out for the best, even if management did have a few reservations leading up to its launch.
When it appeared in 1963, the Rover 2000 (along with its deadly rival, the Triumph 2000) revolutionised the market for executive cars in the UK. Firstly, it defined the size and and engine capacity for all its future rivals, and almost overnight, the P6 and the Triumph 2000 banished the rest of the 3-litre class to oblivion. The UK middle management had seen nothing like it before, and the idea that a 2-litre car could offer all of the luxury, performance and status of the heavier, less wieldy opposition was one that buyers soon latched on to.
The Rover-Triumph equilibrium was disturbed somewhat, when the companies became bedmates within Leyland Motors, which meant that the two rivals no longer were.
Rover then added the ex-Buick V8 in 1967 to create the iconic 3500, thus distancing itself from Triumph. More than that, with the 3500, the Rover P6B became synonymous with the police and bank robber alike. Its pace was impressive, as was its refinement. In all (pre-energy crisis), the P6B became the unbeatable executive car.
The P8 debacle distracted the company from the important matter of getting the P6’s replacement out earlier than it did, which meant that it enjoyed a long life. The P6 lasted until 1977, when it was replaced by the lighter, simpler and cheaper to build SD1.
The P6 left a lasting legacy though. Partly as a backlash against poor SD1 quality, many Rover afficionados view the P6 as the last “real” Rover, and it has to be said that where the P6 always scored heavily was in its build quality and the solidity of its interior fittings. Nothing could beat the aroma of the interior of a P6, and even today, people still speak reverently and in hushed tones about that leather and wood interior. A far cry from the plastic and vinyl SD1 interior, perhaps.
It is slightly ironic though, that the revolutionary P6 is seen by many as a traditional Rover today. Credit that to its beautifully judged styling, which was ultra-modern, but at the same time, had just enough about it to keep the traditionalists happy. Today’s Rover 75 is the perfect modern interpretation then..?
The P6B was loved by the police for its strong performance and reliable V8 powerplant. The 1970s became synonymous with the image of the Rover “Jam sandwich”.
Mike Duff: Rover’s high water point? Brilliant design and outstanding performance, and one of the big influences on the development of the ‘sporting executive’ saloons that dominate the market these days.
Roy Axe: This was a car that was well designed and classy. If the work done on this car had been continued at the same level for the SD1, Rover would have been on to the BMW/Mercedes track for the best and classiest cars.