Keith Adams tells the full story of the Rover P8 and its mid-engined cousin, the P9. Rover’s range-topping saloon and coupe were killed days before they were set for production. Both were victims of politics, poor crash testing and internal rivalries with Jaguar.
Rover P8/P9: a vital opportunity lost
In 1966, the Rover car company literally had the world at its feet – in the shape of the Design Team led by David Bache and Engineering Department headed up by Spen King, the company had arguably the strongest development team of any British car company in post-war automotive history. Rover was riding high on the success of the Rover P6, introduced in 1963 and new models were in the pipeline.
The success of the P6 had completed the rejuvenation of the Rover image, which had begun with the highly publicised outings of the gas turbine-powered Rover JET1 and then the success at Le Mans of the jet-powered Rover-BRM. The image of the Auntie Rover was a lasting one but, with the launch of the Rover 2000, the shape of the executive car market had changed – people no longer needed to buy the excessively large 3.0-litre cars so typified by the Austin Sheerline to show their status in life.
Back in 1963, and with the success of the Rover 2000 not yet assured, Rover was looking at its future strategy. A replacement for the aging 3-Litre P5 and P4 would be needed, and King and Bashford had a problem: the P4 was due to disappear in 1964, but the P5 3-Litre would need heavy revision or replacement to stay competitive.
How to replace the Rover P5?
What this situation meant was that, by 1970, there would be a need to be a new model to do the job of both the P5 and P6. It was a straightforward decision for the company to pursue this single model programme because management at Rover had become convinced that the Solihull Design Team could only handle the development of one major new car at a time.
With the decision made that the new car should be a larger car than the P6, work began on developing a replacement. King had not wanted a larger car, and the wish to make it bigger came from above: ‘I had a lot to do with the machine that went into P8 before it ever happened, and I didn’t ever want it to be as big a car as P8. The thing is that in P6 we had straight window glasses and curved side windows were just coming in and you could make a P6-sized motor car with a lot more space in it quite easily without making a bloody great lump of a thing like a Jaguar.’
Various mules were concocted – all based around the P6 base unit – in which to test new engine and suspension configurations. The idea being that the P6 Rover 2000 replacement should be a re-engined and re-engineered version of the existing car and work was soon underway on the project. These models became collectively known as the Rover P7 prototypes and they allowed Rover to investigate various mechanical configurations for their upcoming large car replacement.
Which engine to use in Rover’s future?
The other problem for Spen King was that not only was the P5 an ageing car, its engine was also past its sell-by date. Even though straight six versions of the P7 were produced, there was never any serious consideration given to the use of this power unit in any upcoming car that would lead Rover into the 1970s. However, six-cylinder versions of the Rover 2000 engine were developed and, with a displacement of 2967cc, managed to produce a more-than-healthy 150bhp even in single carburettor form.
Straight-line performance was ample, but the handling balance of the car was upset by heaviness of the engine – giving a bias towards understeer. The problem was that the six-cylinder engine was physically a long engine and there were considerable problems in installing the unit in the P6 bodyshell without resorting to changes to the bodywork to accommodate it. In a move pre-dating Audi by a decade, the Research Department, run by Brian Sylvester, actually engineered a 2.5-litre five-cylinder version of the engine to get over these problems.
Edward Eves of Autocar actually owned one of these prototypes, which survives today (in the hands of Ian Glass of the Rover Sport Register), and he reported that the in-line six version of the P7 was impressive and considered it equal to the later Buick-engined version.
The P7’s role in Rover’s evolution
The Rover P7 mules acted as a rolling test bed for the alternative power unit configurations to go in the eventual P6 replacement. With this work coming to completion, the P7 name was dropped and thoughts were put into an entirely new car. P7 proved that the P6 could be re-engineered to take a straight-six, but the sensible option was always going to be to start from scratch. The cost was one consideration, but the lack of space granted by the P6 body was a major one, given Rover’s intention of using this car to replace the P5.
Because the P7 mules had served their purpose, Gordon Bashford and Spen King worked together to formulate plans for a completely new car to take over where the P7 had so successfully started out. Logically, the new car was dubbed the Rover P8 but, because the design office was now working actively on the mid-engined P6BS (which stood for P6 Buick Sports) sports car, the P8 development programme was to take a back seat in Rover’s task-list.
Not only was the P8 pushed behind the glamorous P6BS, but also the pressing need for a new large saloon had been deferred somewhat by the fact that, in 1965, Rover had acquired the rights to use the remarkably efficient Rover V8 engine. Now, Rover had the perfect power unit with which to give the P5 and P6 ranges a much-needed fillip.
Rover V8 engine revolutionises plans
This audacious deal, pulled off in January 1965 by Rover’s Managing Director, William Martin-Hurst, would prove to be a far-sighted one – it would provide an engine that would become the centrepiece of British Leyland’s corporate executive car through the 1970s and into the ’80s but, more than that, it would provide the motive force for the Range Rover and also keep the British specialist sports car makers, such as Ginetta, Morgan and TVR in engines all the way through to the late-1990s.
All the installation problems the company had met with various six-cylinder engines had been cured at a stroke – the V8 engine was compact and light and, more importantly, produced ample power and oodles of torque. As a result of the purchase of this engine, another ongoing project – the 100in station wagon – would bloom, and the destiny of the end product, the Range Rover, would change irreversibly. Spen King related: ‘…the actual Range Rover was planned design-wise and we hadn’t got a very suitable engine. The V8 was a godsend.’
With all this activity then taking place on the P6BS and Range Rover, the fairly simple task of installing the new engine into the P5 and then P6 was also undertaken, breathing a new lease of life into both cars. As it was, the P8 was now very much a paper project and it would receive attention as and when there was time to do so.
Rover P8 styling plans take shape
This would stay the case until 1967 when, after the acquisition of the company by Leyland, the company’s plans came under scrutiny from the new management. When they viewed the cars that Rover was working on at the time, Donald Stokes and John Barber both agreed that the saloon car project should be pursued, even if it was still behind the Range Rover in terms of resource prioritisation in the company.
David Bache presented his thoughts (above) on the P8 design to the Leyland management and what was emerging was a large and brutal looking car, which incorporated some styling cues from the P6, but owed most of its inspiration from the products of Detroit. Leyland management gave approval for production in late 1967 and the styling was signed off for approval less than a year later, after these changes to the make-up of the model range and chassis development rapidly followed.
Maybe the hints of Americana were incorporated to ensure the success of the car in the USA, but it also endowed the new car with just the right amount of heavyweight appeal for the P8 to be a successful replacement for the P5B. At this point in time, the P8 was engineered around a single base unit, incorporating a range of engines encompassing the 2000cc straight four, as well as the 3.5-litre version of the V8 engine, and two different body styles with varying trim levels.
Two models, one replacement needed
This flexibility meant that the P8 could act as a replacement for all P5 and P6 models. After Leyland stated that their desire was for the car to act as the group’s flagship model, the smaller-engined model was rapidly dropped and upward expansion of the V8 model was mooted, with an enlargement to a full 4.4-litres.
Spen King, however, was unimpressed: ‘I think if you try to make something impressive, and not good, you’re doomed, and the P8 was trying to do that. The only way that anything good is going to get done is by trying to do something good, not by trying to do it impressive.
‘The rationale behind the P8 really became big because David Bache wanted to make it big and because the Leyland people, Stokes and George Turnbull particularly, came in and, because it was before they got hold of BMC, which had Jaguar, started talking about building a “Mercedes-Benz beater”. You shouldn’t try to beat someone. you should try and make something that is good, that the public will want.’
Styling evolution as P8 heads for production
The new chassis that would underpin the P8 was created as a result of all the work undertaken by Rover on its various P7 mules – and, because of this, it was a very carefully considered piece of design. The major change from the current car was in the front suspension, always a weakness of the P6, which incorporated a double wishbone set-up mounted on a subframe, which was insulated from the body by four flexible rubber bushes, which also allowed for fore-aft movement of the front suspension assembly.
An unusual addition was the Rover P8 arrangement of horizontal tubes for the mountings, giving a large engineered longitudinal compliance. At the rear, the P8 would use a de Dion and coil spring arrangement, which was configured in a different way to that found in the P6. The P8 also had its own single central levelling unit, with a pump was produced in collaboration with Lockheed – something which Spen King was extremely keen on with regards to the beneficial effects upon vehicle handling that self-levelling possessed.
This change to the rear suspension that Spen King had put in place was the start of something much more ambitious: he designed a hydraulic ring main that not only served the rear self-levellers, but also acted a servo for the power steering and braking system – similar to the system employed on the Citroën DS and later refined for the CX.
Pushing the boundaries of technology
Jim Shaw, who’s father worked on the P8 project, confirmed that it was also to have anti-lock brakes. The company minutes stated: ‘Peter Wilks was fairly definite with Girling on wanting to go along with their skid control to the extent of being first into production on a vehicle (the Rover P8). He said P8 was to be “in the forefront of technology – we are leaving the antique motorcars to Jaguar”.’
Evidence sometimes points to King being a pragmatist with some of his later engineering solutions on the Rover SD1 and Austin Maestro especially, but given time – and budget – he was unafraid to experiment with radical engineering solutions, as the suspension system of the P8 readily demonstrates.
At this point in time, King was drafted by Donald Stokes to lead the Engineering Department at Triumph, so the final production engineering of the P8 was left to the rest of the Rover Engineering Team. Despite this, the car was very much his brainchild and it must have been frustrating to not be able to see the car’s development bear fruit.
Following the Leyland merger with BMH in January 1968, wider issues began to surface for Rover, not least the strength of Jaguar in the newly-amalgamated company – reflected by the fact that William Lyons, no less, was on the newly-formed BLMC Board and his interests lay purely and simply with the survival and prosperity of Jaguar. Because of the group-wide re-organisation and the loss of Rover resources (not least that of King to Triumph), the final production engineering and development of the P8 began to drag its feet.
Road testing begins late in 1970
The tooling-up of the P8 began in 1969 but, because of delays in the new BLMC system, prototypes of the new car did not get onto the road for serious testing until 1970.
Slippages in the P8 programme meant that the launch date was put back from the original plan for a pre-1971 Earls Court announcement to a more realistic time of mid-1972. Various prototypes were spotted testing furiously at the MIRA test track at Nuneaton and the P8 seemed to be again on course.
Trouble was brewing for Rover, though. With the Range Rover successfully launched in 1970, a far-reaching analysis of the financial state of the group resulted in Rover’s two outstanding projects being put under further scrutiny.
First casualty of BL merger: Rover P9
Meanwhile, the Rover P9 hadn’t progressed as rapidly as the P8, and was further away from production. Unlike the P8, which was being body-engineered at PSF, the P9 was being engineered at Solihull. It started life as the P6BS, and thanks to a new set of clothes from David Bache’s team, it was now looking far more appealing.
The engineering of the P6BS had been overseen by Spen King and Gordon Bashford, and had been originally put together by Rover’s New Vehicle Projects team in Alvis’s factory in 1967. The car had tested favourably, and as it evolved into the P9, this mid-engined supercar looked to have a bright future ahead of it.
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.
But, after this promising start, the future did not look good for the P9 mid-engined supercar. It was too close to Jaguar’s patch of the market where the E-type resided – and, when delays in that car’s replacement resulted in a shortage of tooling capacity at Pressed Steel Fisher, it was canned in preference of the Jaguar XJ27, later to become known as the XJ-S.
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 William Lyons, deferred to the Jaguar man and allowed their saloon car project to be put under microscopic scrutiny. This late-development analysis was undertaken after tooling had been completed at Pressed Steel Fisher and the car was being made ready for production at a cost of over £3m to the company.
The inevitable happens, and the Rover P8 is killed
The axe finally fell on the P8 in the spring of 1971 and, sadly for the company, three years of precious development resources at Solihull had gone down the tubes. There were other issues to be taken into account, such as the group’s entire capital spending and the fact that there was a question over capacity and where to build the new car without affecting the production of the P6 and Range Rover.
The cancellation of the Rover P8 was probably unique in that it was announced in The Times newspaper of 10 March 1971. Three days later the same paper was reporting widespread anger at Solihull over the cancellation, although no names were published.
The anonymous Rover executives pointed out that, with Jaguar XJ6 demand outstripping supply – at one stage the waiting time was reported to be two years – and, with some would-be Jaguar customers buying foreign cars instead, there could have been room for the Rover P8 in British Leyland’s range and that competition between the Solihull and Coventry cars would have been minimal.
‘In its crash test, rather than the engine bay folding on impact, it was the front passenger compartment which had done so – it was a complete, utter and unexpected disaster. Hurried modifications were made and a further crash test carried out. The result, however, although showing a marginal improvement, was fundamentally the same.’ – Peter Wilson
The P8’s position was not strong as it should have been and all the indications are that this car was a World-beater of the same calibre as the SD1 that would emerge from Solihull some five years later. However, while there may have been a potential clash between the XJ6 and the P8 in that they were to have been pitched at a similar market sector, the two models would have appealed to different buyers.
Historically, the Rover P6B and Jaguar 2.4 were always priced at a similar level in the late 1960s, but appealed to a vastly different set of buyers: the Rover being more old money than the flashier Jaguar. That aside, however, Donald Stokes and, perhaps more importantly, John Barber were acutely aware that after the absorption of BMH in 1968, their financial situation was more ropey than perhaps even they had imagined and so they cut their losses at the cost of Rover.
Who was responsible for the death of the Rover P8?
For a long time, the blame was lay at Sir William Lyons’ door. The assumption was that the Jaguar boss and BLMC Board member killed the in-house rival to the new XJ6. However, a former employee of AE-Brico, Peter Wilson, shed some new light on this situation in Jaguar World Monthly magazine, citing poor performance in crash testing as the most likely scenario.
‘I arrived one morning to find a large group of Engineers, all with long faces, surrounding a P8, which had been subjected to a 30mph frontal impact test at MIRA as part of its proving programme,’ Peter recalled.
‘The reason for their consternation was all too obvious. Rather than the engine bay folding on impact, it was the front passenger compartment which had done so – it was a complete, utter and unexpected disaster. Hurried modifications were made and a further crash test carried out. The result, however, although showing a marginal improvement, was fundamentally the same.’
He continued: ‘It spelt the end for the P8, and this is what killed it off, not Sir William.’
Were the Rover P8 and P9 Mercedes-beaters?
Had the P8 and P9 made it through to production, by 1973, Rover would have been in possession of an innovative and desirable range of cars, incorporating a Premium off-roader, an exciting sports car and muscular large saloon. What actually happened was somewhat different and a sad reflection of the extraordinary bad luck that the company put up with in the early years of the BMH/Leyland merger.
Certainly, such was the level of belief in the abilities of the P8 that the car had its mourners at Solihull long after its demise, but perhaps not as many as those that mourned the loss of the glamorous P9.
It is fair to say that Rover never recovered from the loss of the Rover P8 and P9 and, although the SD1 that followed it was an enormously talented car, it suffered from Solihull build quality woes from day one. Not only that, but the SD1 was compromised on several fronts to be deliberately cheapened so as not to pose a threat to the Jaguar XJ6. That, in turn, devalued the Rover name and, from that point on, British Leyland never allowed the company to compete in its traditional market sector.
Thanks to Jim Shaw, Ian Elliott, Ian Nicholls, Kevan Barnhill and Spen King
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.