Keith Adams tells the full story of the Rover P6 BS and its more stylised replacement the ill-fated P9. Rover’s range-topping sports car was given the push before it ever had the chance to prove its worth.
Blame its non-appearance to internal rivalries with Jaguar and the chaos following the merger of Leyland and BMC in 1968.
Rover P6 BS: The thinking person’s supercar
Following Rover’s purchase by Leyland Motors in 1966 it looked like the Solihull company was about to become an unstoppable force in the automotive world. Thanks to the canny addition of the ex-General Motors aluminium V8 engine to its armoury, it had the potential to develop some very exciting cars. Its model line-up wasn’t exactly shabby – the beefy P5 serving captains of industry, P6 wowing the management classes and Land Rover coining it in as the world’s favourite off-roader.
The present was good, but the future for Rover looked even more exciting. Plans were drawn up for a new luxury car, called the P8 saloon, while a more roadworthy off-roader internally dubbed the ‘100-inch Station Wagon’ would eventually evolve into the Range Rover. Third string to this bow would be an advanced, usable sports car, which Rover Chairman A.B. Smith wanted to top the Rover model line-up. Spen King was tasked with creating the new car – a job he absolutely relished.
A Rover to fight the Italians
King succeeded in coming up with something special in double-quick time. Following up his successful work on the Rover-BRM gas turbine racing cars, he decided on a similar mid-engined layout for the sports car. Crowning the package would be Rover’s newly-acquired V8 engine because of its lightness and power. Despite the mid-engined format being in its infancy for road cars – with the main protagonists being the De Tomaso Vallelunga and Lamborghini Miura – King concluded that this would be the right direction for a sports car which could be light to drive, easy to see out of and relatively practical, if packaged thoughtfully.
Sitting in the P6 BS (for Buick Sports) today, it’s clear that King and engineering partner Gordon Bashford succeeded in that aim. It’s roomy upfront, with fantastic visibility, and even has a small seat in the rear. Spen King told AROnline back in 2002 that, ‘there were certain advantages of a mid-engined sports car – you get more weight on the driven wheels and you can get a low scuttle, so you can see better where you’re going.’
Central to the packaging efficiency of the P6 BS was the repositioning of the Rover P6 gearbox, effectively laid on its side, between the front seats, combined with an Alvis-designed chain transfer drive. That drive was taken to the rear wheels and differential, placed alongside the engine, via a short shaft. Finally, to maintain lateral weight distribution, the V8 was mounted off-centre to the tune of six inches. Sounds complex, but it was a clever and compact solution.
Challenging looks would give way to the P9’s beauty
What about its gawky styling? That was never meant to be the P6 BS’s definitive look. The exterior design you see today is literally that of an engineering mule cobbled up by the Engineering Team and built by Abbey Panels. Rather like the original Range Rover, which would end up effectively being one such engineering mule ‘tidied’ for production by the brilliant David Bache, a similar process would have worked for the P6 BS. That’s because it just looks ‘right’, and its large glass area, slim pillars and flat rear deck behind would have translated well into production. Alas, we’ll never know…
The car’s relatively low kerb weight of 1270kg endowed it with a decent power-to-weight ratio when combined with the V8’s maximum power of 185bhp. That would result in a seriously quick car for its time, which according to contemporary reports could dispatch the 0-60mph benchmark in 7.0 seconds and go on to a 140mph maximum speed. Motor magazine, which bagged a prototype drive at the time, was besotted by it.
Killed by corporate rationalisation
Although the stars should have shone brightly for the P6 BS, with production versions rolling off the line by 1971, politics and model rationalisation would prove to be its death knell. By the time it was first shown at the New York Motor Show at the end of March 1968 under the name Leyland Eight GE (for Group Experimental), it was clear the writing was well and truly on the wall, despite David Bache being some way down the road to creating a much more beautiful body for it under the codename Rover P9.
Unlike the P8, which was being body-engineered at Pressed Steel Fisher (PSF), the P9 was being put together at Solihull. The car was rapidly evolving into the far better-looking P9 (below), this mid-engined supercar looked to have a bright future ahead of it. Alongside the P8 saloon, it looked like Rover would have a flagship range fit to rival any of its opposition.
Many regard the non-production of this car as not only British Leyland’s greatest loss, but also one of its biggest mistakes – the blame for that lies firmly with post-British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) rationalisation. With the creation of the world’s fourth-largest car company in 1968, came some uncomfortable discussions about model and production overlaps. With the P6 BS looking likely to compete strongly with the Jaguar E-type and its successor, the XJ27, later to become known as the XJ-S, the battle was on.
Sadly, for Rover, there wasn’t a battle to fight – Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons was a prominent member of the British Leyland Board, while Rover had no representation at the top table. So, within months of BLMC’s creation, the P6 BS would be axed despite so much promise.
Unfortunately for Rover, it was the same case for the P8. Its future lay in the hands of its representation at Donald Stokes’ boardroom table – and, because of the fact that Rover’s management struggled to contain Sir William Lyons, the Board deferred to the Jaguar man and allowed the Rover saloon car project to be put under microscopic scrutiny. This late-development analysis was undertaken after tooling had been completed at PSF and the car was being made ready for production at a cost of over £3m to the company.
And that was that for the Rover P6 BS
Today, it serves as a sad reminder that even the best laid plans can be undone by corporate manoeuvres. The P6 BS is far from being unique in being nixed by the creation of BLMC – you can add the Austin 9X Mini replacement, next-generation MGB and Triumph’s 1970s executive car range to a very long list.
However, what the non-appearance of the P6 BS and, ultimately, the P9 version, signalled very clearly was that Rover had been supplanted by Jaguar in the corporate pecking order. That, clearly, was a reversal of their relative positions prior to the creation of British Leyland – and would ultimately lead to the marque’s gradual downfall into oblivion.