Concepts and prototypes : Rover P6 BS (1966-1968)

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

Rover P6BS

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.

Rover P6 BS cutaway

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.

Rover P6 BS profile

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.

Rover P6 BS
The P6 BS was so far ahead of the game in so many ways that it is hard to believe it was conceived in the mid-1960s. The three-seater used a mid-mounted Rover V8 engine to great effect. Styling was rough and ready, but this was to have been tidied up for the P9 Project. The car survives today and is part of the British Motor Museum’s extensive collection. (Picture: The Cars That Time Forgot, by Giles Chapman)

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.

The styling department's first ideas on the Rover P6BS...
The Styling Department’s first ideas on the Rover P6BS…

Rover P9: Styled by David Bache's team, the P9 shows what could be achieved when facelifting the P6BS. Many people within The Rover Company bitterly mourned its loss; a direct consequence of Rover's integration into the Leyland fold. Alongside Bache's other Coupe, "Gladys", this would probably have been badged an Alvis, despite this clay model wearing the Rover Longship. (Picture: 'A Collector’s Guide – Classic Rovers – 1945 – 1986”, by James Taylor), supplied by Ian Robertson.
Rover P9: Styled by David Bache’s team, the P9 shows what could be achieved when facelifting the P6BS. Many people within The Rover Company bitterly mourned its loss; a direct consequence of Rover’s integration into the Leyland fold. Alongside Bache’s other Coupe, Gladys, this would probably have been badged as an Alvis, despite this clay model wearing the Rover Longship. (Picture: A Collector’s Guide – Classic Rovers – 1945–1986, by James Taylor, supplied by Ian Robertson)

Rover P9

Rover P9
Full-size clay of the Rover P9, how it is likely to have appeared had it been allowed to reach production. Many regard the non-production of this car as not only British Leyland’s greatest loss, but also one of its biggest mistakes (Picture: Motor Graphs)

Rover P9 interior
The P9 was investigated fully and readied for production, and a full-size interior mock-up for the promising mid-engined supercar was created. As can be seen by the detailing, it would have been a bang-up-to-date effort, and possessed plenty of interior space

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.

Rover P6 BS rear

Keith Adams

14 Comments

  1. The main reason for ditching the P8 was that it cost so much to build that it would never have made a cent with any kind of vaguely competitive pricing. The P9 never got as far as being costed to my knowledge but it was clearly headed down the same route. Rover consistently lost money on cars which led it into the arms of Leyland, which forced Range Rover into production. The view that the prototype was so good that it needed little more than tidying up is a myth. Rover was engineering led which led to costly and complex designs. Spen King’s best work was arguably when he came up with simple cost effective designs like the SD1 and Maestro/Montego….

  2. Sorry to be pedantic Mike, but who said Rover were losing money on cars?
    Was it John Barber and his imported ex-Ford costing experts?
    Because by their criteria, nothing in the BMC and Rover Triumph range seemed to make money.
    As for the SD1 and Maestro/Montego, they were made to price, which alienated buyers and drove down volume. Had the SD1 been properly engineered it would have sold itself, just as the P6 had.
    I know I keep banging on about it and it has become my hobby horse, but the costing and financial whizz kids imported into British Leyland after 1968 sabotaged the engineering integrity of the company’s next generation of cars, alienated customers and reduced sales. And because they all had university degrees in god knows what, nobody had the balls to challenge their judgement.
    The properly costed Rover SD1 destroyed the marque as a prestige brand,

  3. I’m sure it’s possible to properly engineer & price a car, but it seems to be one or the other, or even neither at BL!

    Even before BL were formed there were a number of times when designs were compromised by having to carry over existing components, even when the tooling was worn out & needed replacing, which led to a worst of both worlds situation!

  4. Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but the supposedly “much better looking supercar” P-9 styling does nothing for me. I see something bland and unexciting–a sort of cross between two rather ordinary American cars that were to come along years later. In the front it looks like a 1980s Camaro, and the rest of the design looks like a Fiero. I don’t think this was some wonderful lost opportunity for Rover. Had this gone into production it would have been a money-loser, in my opinion. I guess to each his or her own.

    • I agree. An ugly duckling of a car with a large engine. It stood no chance at all and was correctly cancelled.

  5. The P9 would have benefited from a more SD1-like front-end.

    Would have been fascinating to see how the P9 could have coped during the malaise era in the US (short of displacements growing to 4-litres+ to compensate), where outputs of the 3.5-litre Rover V8 were reduced to around 133-137 hp before being increased to about 148 hp from the early-80s.

  6. Did the V8 ever really produce 185bhp? There are quite a few different outputs quoted depending on which source one uses. I know there’s the difference between DIN and SAE measurement, and then the engine was down rated to accept four star petrol. I’m sure the P6B that I owned was only rated at 140-something bhp.

  7. What I always didn’t get was why did Stokes not enforce this on Jag as the new E Type? He was so controlling in large parts of the business, it makes you wonder why he did not push this to Jag? Scared of Lyons?

  8. Launch a V8 sports car into a World fuel crisis – that might not have gone well. On the P9 styling buck with the cutaway roof I am just wondering about the geometry of the door – would it open conventionally without fouling or were they seriously looking at a gullwing doors? If conventional they might have fallen into the GT40 trap of needing the door to open very wide so you could actually get in. I can’t imagine Bill Lyons accepting it as a Jag…

  9. I’ve said this elsewhere, but to me this makes most sense badged as a Triumph, Rover wasn’t a sporty brand, while Alvises had been quite conservative. TRs were “proper” sportscars which is what this is.

    Get Michelotti to tweak this to give it some family resemblance, and hey presto a modern TR6 replacement.

  10. It is worth comparing the Rover P9 with the likes of the Maserati Merak, Lamborghini Urraco/Jalpa, Ferrari 208/308/Mondial and Lotus Esprit in terms of mid-engined opposition.

    As for concerns on releasing a mid-engined V8 supercar before a fuel-crisis with the benefit of hindsight, its negative impact could have been somewhat mitigated if a TVR 2-litre V8S type approach is taken with the Rover V8. Meanwhile a P9 featuring a 160-170-ish hp Slant-Four engine from the P10 project immediately allows for a more Lotus Esprit type approach to be taken if needed.

    Maybe Rover could carve out a new niche as a prestige maker of sportscars under its own name, Alvis is doubtful whereas anything other than an octagon badge would have been pointless exercise in trying to square a circle as far as prospective commercial sales success goes.

    OTOH while ambivalent on the idea of the P9 being a Triumph TR replacement (particularly if the Stag V8 is involved), the prospect of a 105-127+ hp 2-litre Slant-Four powered “Triumph Montecarlo” does appear to be a worthwhile compromise on the sportscar front to fit the marque’s pretensions in moving upmarket, with what became the TR7 instead being vacated and given to MG.

    AFAIK the 175 hp 1989 Saab-powered mid-engined UNO 001 project would be the closest a distantly related Triumph engine has came to being utilized on such a car.

    • I suggested the Triumph badge, because it would replace the TR6. The British spec injection TR6 had 150hp, so even the Rover V8 engine wouldn’t be an unreasonable leap in power. Maybe by giving it a Triumph badge, William Lyons would feel less threatened too?

      Size and power wise, the TR7 would make a much better MG anyway than a TR, and with Harris Mann involved with the styling, already had been “influenced” by the Austin-Morris side.

      I wouldn’t change anything mechanically, it would keep the Rover V8 engine, in a first step of rationalisation, seeing that Rover and Triumph were starting to work together by this stage.

      • If MG receives what became the TR7, would it be worth making it or a least a version of it a shade lighter to be an all compassing Broadside-esque replacement for BL’s sportscars (featuring a wider choice of engines) below Triumph’s appropriated Rover P9?

        Styling wise the MG takeover of TR7 would have benefited from the involvement of David Bache, where the car is influenced by Bache’s P9 / etc at the front and Mann’s ADO21 at the back (including the tail-lights and flying buttresses or failing that a Datsun Cherry Coupe type liftback) to create what amounts to a British composite of a 240Z and RX7.

        To offset any potential criticisms of the P9 being an unnecessary exercise and symbol of excess, would also probably be worth spawning an Italian tax special version of the Triumph P9 with a baseline output roughly comparable to the 150 hp fuel-injected TR6 and help further broaden its appeal in continental Europe. That just leaves the question of whether it would enough to appease Jaguar and prevent them from imposing a glass-celling like they were said to have done with the Rover SD1 V8 before the SD1 Vitesse.

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