Whither the Rover P8? AROnline Correspondent Julian Robinson ponders how different things might have been had it been a commercial success…
Rover P8: Don’t fancy your’s much
On my fantasy driveway is a nice, two-year old, 30,000 mile, Rover P23 tourer. It’s the 2.0-litre model, looks smart, performs faultlessly and copes with everything I throw in its direction from dashing around the county to meetings, to family camping holidays.
I don’t use it much at the weekend though, because my fantasy weekend car is a much loved, iconic, Rover P8, the car that broke America for Rover. Mine’s a 1974 car with the 4.4-litre (Rover-designed, fuel injected) V8…
The P8 was the car Rover intended to take over from the Rover P5. Initially intended to use a 4.0-litre version of Rover’s ex-GM V8, the project was cancelled by British Leyland in March 1971, after millions had already been spent on body tooling. Suggestions of conspiracy swirl around the cancellation decision – was it killed by Sir William Lyons of Jaguar because it threatened the success of the XJ6?
Did it die because it couldn’t be made crash safe? Did it emerge instead, in simplified form, as the Leyland P76 in Australia? Or was it simply an avenue BL could not pursue further in an era of mounting operating losses and dwindling development funds, when the Marina and Allegro were more pressing priorities than a high end saloon? No-one seems to know for certain.
I’ve written this piece because I feel that current view on the Rover P8 underplays what it could have been, and because I think it’s time for a reappraisal. I will set out here why I think that the P8, if built, could have been rather good – a big success – and a success that would have given the Rover company the escape velocity it needed to break out of its role as a purveyor of transport to the English-speaking middle classes (whether in the UK or Commonwealth) and into a global player today.
The case for the defence
Now, why do I think P8 would have been good? On the face of it, the P8 looks a hard sell. The one existing prototype is indefensibly as ugly as sin. P8 is understood to have performed badly in crash tests, it remained shackled to the Buick V8 – appealing, but an engine which was old hat even by the early 1970s.
Christopher Cowin in British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 (2012) says it would have been Britain’s Peugeot 604 – a good enough car, but a slow seller. Sir William Lyons is believed to have encouraged its death because it might take volume from the Jaguar XJ6, and even the great Spen King told Keith Adams he thought it was ‘unnecessary’ within the context of BL also producing the XJ6 and should have been cancelled earlier than it was.
And it’s often confused/compared with Leyland Australia’s P76 – a car of almost Edsel-level commercial catastrophe. What defence could possibly be offered for the P8? I will present my case.
The first defence is simply the quality of the team behind it. King/Bashford/Bache/ Wilkes et al were at the height of their powers when this car was designed. The P6 which preceded P8 is a genuinely great car, and the Range Rover, which was next from the Design Office, is, quite simply, iconic and mould breaking and has since created a sector of its own.
The P8 came between these two wonderful machines, why would it fail when the cars either side of it were absolute (no pun intended) triumphs? To me that seems, if not impossible, certainly unlikely.
Turning back to P8, the prototype may look fugly, but then the prototypes for the P6 and RR were no oil paintings either. The studio shots of P8 styling bucks look good enough, so I think the car would have been tidied up for production and an attractive vehicle would have resulted. Just think of one of the styling bucks with an interior as good as a P5 or P6’s…
This would then have been a good-looking car. It would also, of course, have had a very different aesthetic to the XJ6 or Mercedes S-Class, perhaps its only real competitors at launch on the European market. I find it hard to believe its square rigged looks would not have attracted a certain type of customer, who was perhaps less enthusiastic about the baroque country house styling of a Jag, or even the Merc.
After all, Volvo did pretty well out of selling square rigged cars to the sorts of people the P8 was intended for, and there aren’t many curves to be found on a 1980s Rolls Royce or Bentley. So, I think the styling would have been attractive and would have filled an otherwise empty gap in the market. Certainly, I can imagine the more respectable baddies driving them in The Sweeney, The Professionals and The Long Good Friday…
Second is the issue of the thing’s mechanics. I will admit that this bit requires a bit of a leap of faith. But what if the Buick V8 was not intended, as it did, to power Rovers and Land Rovers for 40 years? What if it was a stop gap until the company could develop its own V8?
In the late 1960s, Rover was experimenting with a 2.2-litre dual overhead camshaft slant-four, intended to replace the four-cylinder engine in the P6. Triumph’s slant-four was developed into the Stag V8. Surely, Rover’s slant-four could also have been developed thus, into a 4.4-litre V8? And what an engine that slant-four might have been: with four valves per cylinder, fuel-injected prototypes were said to make 150bhp.
Could such an engine, as a V8, have found its way into P8 in a 200-300bhp state of tune? That would have been quite something in, say, 1973, almost an equal to the Jaguar XJ12. And even before the Rover engine was ready, the Buick V8 could have been fuel injected, with a Brico-injected P6 set for launch in 1971, and cancelled at about the same time as P8.
The other mechanical data we know about P8 is compelling – it had de Dion rear suspension, like a P6, and brakes and steering as part of a hydraulic ring main like a Citroën. With an off-the-shelf five-speed ZF gearbox this could have been a seriously fast and drivable machine. The problems with crash testing, serious in the prototype, could surely have been engineered out in time for production with sufficient dedication and funds.
So, there you have my view. The P8 would have been good to look at, a nice place to sit and would have scampered along at a blistering pace. It would have been highly competitive and a desirable thing to own.
I know, but does it really matter?
I think so, yes.
Firstly, a good P8 would have allowed Rover to realise its global ambitions, which it tried, but failed, to do with P6, SD1 and 800. I think P8 would have given Rover a car which could compete effectively in America, and, hence, gain an entry into that market and much-needed volume sales.
The car’s size would have pitched it against Cadillacs and Lincolns. I think it would have picked up sales in the same way Jaguar and Mercedes did. Certainly, it would not have been, like the P6, a ‘funny little European car. By selling in the ‘States, it would also have formed the dealer network necessary to sell Range Rovers, P6s and eventually SD1s.
Simply, by upping the volumes of Rovers in the ‘States, it would have resulted in better support and spares holdings, and far fewer of the servicing problems which did so much to undermine confidence in Rovers in the US. The additional volume in this, and no doubt other export sales in markets like Australia, South Africa and continental Europe might, at least in my view, have been sufficient to turn Rover into a global, rather than local, firm, with sales volumes at the time to rival if not Citroën and Mercedes, then certainly Alfa Romeo, BMW and Volvo – and higher sales would allow higher research and development budgets and hence better future products.
Secondly, the technology honed in P8 would have made the SD1 a better car than it is, which would have enjoyed better critical acclaim and sold much better over its production. An SD1 with a de Dion suspension replacing the live rear axle, the slant-four engine instead of the troublesome 2.3/2.6-litre sixes, and greater confidence in Rover as a brand would have reduced the calls for it to be built to a price, with a cheap interior and the regrettable build quality of a sandcastle (and I say that as the real life owner of a 2.6-litre SD1 for 18 years).
The 2.2-litre slant-four would have been more economical than the two sixes – an important sales factor in the late 1970s, as it turned out – though no-one would have guessed that in 1970. And a good SD1 would have trounced the 1970s competition in the way it perhaps deserved to. Audis, BMWs and Mercs would have remained rare and exotic beasts in the UK, and Rover wouldn’t have needed to turn to Honda for the XX (though in itself an admirable car, of course, but not with much mechanical carry over from its predecessors).
So, all-in-all I think the cancellation of P8 is a big part of why I can’t buy a P23 now. I will be quite open that much of this piece is conjecture, and that it’s written by someone born three years after the project was canned, and with no inside information other than some of the very excellent books about Rover and the fascinating comments (some from people who really were around at the time) on the various Rover and BL websites.
However, I don’t think what I say in totally without foundation. I have no idea whether the Rover company and/or BL would have been able access the capital funding to get a good product to market – especially if it was going to get a new engine.
But I can’t believe that the Rover team of the late 1960s would have produced a duffer when everything else they did was so good, or that the Rover company’s experiments with engines and suspension in the late 1960s wouldn’t have resulted in a humdinger of a car. I understand that the cancellation of P8 was a great disappointment to those on the Design Team. I suspect that was because they thought they were working on something rather special.
Perhaps, even, some of them read this website and can set me right, one way or the other? I’d love to know…
- Opinion : The Rover P8, and why it might be important - 22 August 2022