Opinion : The Rover P8, and why it might be important

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

How the Rover P8 looked just before production was cancelled in 1971.
The P8 Prototype (1970) – a face only its mother could love? (Note the strange bonnet scoop, clunky bodywork, low (collapsed?) rear suspension and non-body colour front panel – all adding to the thing’s unattractiveness.  This prototype survives, but is now badly damaged)

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.

Leyland P76
The Leyland Australia P76 of 1973.  Is it just me or do those doors look kind of familiar (the frames if not the skins)?

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.

The Rover P8 team
Mike Lewis, Bache, King, Bashford and SD1 (arms folded as if it was a cold day?), ‘Midlanders of the Year’ in 1976

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

Rover P6 prototype
A P6 prototype – this design matured with age too…
Rover P8 prototype
What a production P8 would have looked like – a big improvement…

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.

Rover P8 engine
Engine bay view – front suspension is by double wishbone (not MacPherson struts as in P76 and SD1)

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).

Rover Slant-four engine

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…

P8 interior scheme by David Bache
P8 interior scheme by David Bache
Rover P8 crash test
Crash bang wallop…Two P8 prototypes meet their end at MIRA’s boulevard of broken glass. J89 seems to perform rather better than J33, with noticeably less distortion to the roof and passenger compartment

Rover P8 in 2012
Rover P8 in 2012
Rover P8 interior in 2012
Rover P8 interior in 2012

51 Comments

  1. The front end of the potential production P8 shown above looks like what one would have expected on a Pontiac.

    • It was designed around the “Endura” deformable bumpers pioneered by Pontiac (which itself may have become a problem – as American regulations changed and Pontiac themselves had to redesign a lot of their cars in the early 70s). As already mentioned, James Taylor is the expert …

    • In many ways P76 and P8 set the scene for some of what Lexus did . They produced a squarish styled V8 4l enlarged to 4.3 . Based in some ways on the Merc S-Class .They also produce now SUVs competing the the Range Rover producst . In many ways Rover could have followed the Lexus model prioducing Luxury cars and SUVs . Exactly what Rover did in the 70s and 80s. They could have used volume parts from the BL family much as Lexus, did with Toyota . . In many ways the LS and GS are exactly modern day P5s and P6s In many ways Rover were there well before Lexus was created

      • That’s an interesting observation. The original LS400 Lexus was a real gamechanger, challenging MB in their backyard, and achieving huge and immediate sales in the US.
        This, of course, was the market it was designed for (Large EXec US), and for some years Lexus meant very little in the UK.
        I’d contend now, though, that with a broader range and more obvious Toyota bones, its initial promise has been diluted, so that it is more akin to Acura, Lincoln or Cadillac – gussied-up mass market cars.
        In the UK, Jaguar has had decades to establish itself in the same niche as Lexus and the German marques, but, despite Ford and Land-Rover, it’s never delivered the volumes, or achieved the right blend of brand uniqueness and market acceptability (two contradictory qualities).
        Looking at what Rover might have been, in a very alternative universe, perhaps Volvo now comes closest?

    • Dear Julian, I am one of the editors of the Dutch Rover Club Magazin, we would like very much to publish your interesting and wildly unknown article about the P8 in our magazin. Could you please be so kind to contact us at redacteur@roverclub.nl

  2. Thanks for the name check : ) …. My opinion (and it’s only that) concurs with Spen King as mentioned in the very interesting article….

    If you exclude American cars (which were rather a different breed) only two companies in the world made cars like this in 1971 – Mercedes and Jaguar. (BMW hadn’t quite got there yet).
    Did it really make sense for cash-strapped British Leyland to field two contenders when the Jaguar XJ6 was a roaring success (including in the States) and when the only problem was building enough? Strategically it was surely better to build on success and a surefire winner by lifting Jaguar/Daimler production instead of introducing a totally different and rival car in parallel ….
    Why struggle to expensively establish a new luxury brand in the USA (think “establishing Lexus”) when you already had one with fantastic brand awareness, and with dealers clamouring for more Jaguars to sell (as they were)?
    Rover by contrast was weak in North America and withdrew totally (with cars) after 1971, rather hastily amid some reputation-damaging “issues”.
    North America (vital to the success of this type of car) has been the graveyard of many other bold ambitions – Triumph 2000, Stag, Rover SD1, Sterling – and the Peugeot 604 mentioned in the article are examples.
    Even the huge Jaguar Mk X, which though designed around perceived US demand, basically sank without trace despite the Jaguar name (and is an example to ponder on in this context).
    Sales weren’t simply there for the taking if you shipped cars over …

    British Leyland Inc. would have needed to price the P8 substantially above domestic luxury cars in the USA due to the massive scale economies of the US industry (Cadillac, Lincoln & Imperial not only sold in big numbers, but shared a lot under the skin with lesser marques) – and while Jaguar and Mercedes (which was very much on a pedestal) could handle that premium pricing, one doubts a Rover could. This was the perennial problem of British saloons (including the old Rover P5 and the P6) in North America …
    One fears a fiasco similar to that suffered by the Triumph Stag in the USA (which cost more than a 7.5 litre Buick Riviera – as did the Mercedes 350SL – but Americans were prepared to pay that for a Mercedes). The Stag though (again) designed around perceived American requirements, flopped disastrously in the USA and was withdrawn after 3 years.

    But with the XJ6 Jaguar had clearly “made it in the States” and all seemed set fair for the (1972) XJ12 to build on that if they could only build enough …
    Of course the P8 was an interesting design although – in the inevitable comparisons with the new and widely acclaimed W116 Mercedes S Class – would the P8 have been declared the “Mercedes beater” which was part of the original design brief ?? Or be seen (by Motor Trend & Co.) as a sort of obscure “me too” Mercedes.
    One can imagine awkward comparisons being drawn between the lavish spending of Daimler-Benz on safety research in that era (when it was the focus of a lot of attention) and the limited facilities for safety research & testing available to Rover.

    After the P8 was cancelled plans did move forward for a new Jaguar factory capable of meeting demand – though the collapse of 1974/5 resulted in that expansion never happening.
    Which raises another issue: Though it obviously wasn’t a factor in cancelling the project, the oil crisis of late 1973 (and beyond) hit this sector of the market hard. Even Jaguar who had waiting lists stretching into years for XJ6 and XJ12 in 1972 & 1973 was struggling with excess stocks in 1974 … On the other side of the world the hike in oil prices was one of the factors behind the failure of the Leyland P76 …
    In that context it’s perhaps fortuitous that P8 was cancelled and Rover was instead directed (and allocated a lot of funds) to focus on the more compact SD1 ….

    In the car enthusiast world with its talk of “missed opportunities” it’s almost standard to lament all the projects that got cancelled and avenues that were not pursued. That applies to P8 as much as anything. But I guess my sentiment is that it was a gamble the company simply didn’t need to indulge in when Jaguar/Daimler had the market covered (and with investment in better production facilities and the product – such as introducing the LWB cars – could cover it better).
    What is mystifying to be honest (as a lot of people have said) is why it wasn’t cancelled earlier, as all of the above was evident from the time Rover & Jaguar became part of the same stable (in 1968). Instead they waited until pre-production cars were on test and a great deal of money had been spent ….

  3. The P8 sadly just doesn’t make sense as a part of BLMC.
    But, as became clear in due course, neither Rover (the Wilks business as it was in 1968) or Triumph (killed in little over a decade, despite being the “favoured brand”) enjoyed any long-term benefit from merging with BMH. BMC had been basket-cased by incompetent management, and Jaguar was a fiefdom; it might have been much better for Triumph (sports cars and small, sporty saloons) and Rover (large saloons and 4x4s) to have come together as an independent, tightly focused potential world-beater. BMW and Mercedes under one roof, so to speak…
    Of course, politics, finance and expediency conspired to ensure this wasn’t the case. 20/20 hindsight is such a wonderful thing!

    • Really glad you said that Philip, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Leyland made a catastrophic mistake in hooking up with BMC, but had they remained independent, so you think it would have been a better course of action to merge Rover and Triumph together, maybe even with Leyland itself, to create something similar to Mercedes, as in a truck, bus and van manufacturer who also makes high end cars, all under one name?

      The P8’s story kind of encompasses Rover’s as a whole; was there even room for it? I love Rover, I really do. They made high quality excellently engineered cars, invented the whole concept of the luxury off-roader, and the Longship is one of my personal favourite car badges of all time. It’s as recognisable as they come. But where they ever to stand a chance on their own after the 60s? I personally don’t think so, as they were probably too small. Triumph had more worldwide recognition and thus was probably the name to go with.

      Me personally, I’ve have used the Triumph name, the Rover badge, and had their engineers and designers come together under one roof. The Rover name could have lived on in the off-roaders; the ‘Triumph Range Rover’ anyone? Now I’m really waffling lol.

      • It’s a tough call, isn’t it? And it’s coloured by one’s fondness for specific cars; I always saw the Triumph 2000 series as a somewhat smarter alternative to a big Ford or Vauxhall, whereas Rover, with the P5 and P6, was a cut above, with the potential to show Jaguar (saloons) how it ought to be done…
        I guess one avenue would’ve been to develop the Range Rover more vigorously in the 70s (four doors, extra power, plusher interiors etc), as I think the Europeans and some of the coastal American markets would have really gone for that, and the big two-box sector would have developed a decade or two before it actually did, with only the big Jeeps as competition, at least until MB got their act together.
        It’s a truism that today’s Range Rover is the true heir to the P5. It is moderately amusing, given how troublesome William Lyons was, that the true heirs to Wilks’ Rover have ended up “owning” – ie vastly outselling – their Jaguar brethren. Last laugh, and all that.

        • Rover board minutes show that the marketing department wanted the Range Rover to have four doors from the outset but production said they couldn’t build it! Hence a decade of lost opportunity and a complex front seat arrangement. As often with Rover, the tail was wagging the dog…

          • @ Michael A. Gould:

            Would there have been sufficient production capacity to also build the 4-door bodystyle in the 1970s? I guess delaying introduction of the 4-door bodystyle meant it enabled the Range Rover to pitch the more upmarket model variants at the right time from the early 1980s when practical estate cars were becoming more luxurious and aspirational (e.g. Volvo 740 and 760) and Land Rover were in a stronger position to launch the Range Rover in North America supported by a small, but realistic dealer network (and also helped by further improvements made to the vehicle’s design). Delaying the 4-door bodystyle might have also played an important part in extending the sales appeal and production life of the Range Rover too.

          • I recall buried in the Specialist Cars minutes some debate about adapting the Range Rover for US sales, where Sir George Farmer doubted the justification of the necessary investment (I would need to re-check my archives but I think it would have been ca 1971/2). Hindsight is 20:20…

        • Indeed, I remember once suggesting on this site that the original Range Rover Sport was the true successor of the V8 SD1, as a V8 powered “hatchback” produced in Solihull!

          • I don’t know if you’ve ever driven an Evoque but if there was ever a successor to the SD1 that’s it!

    • I am of the same opinion other than BMH being not quite such a basket case. Both groups were to suffer from the merger and really it should not have happened, plugging together a cash strapped BMH with a only marginally less cash strapped Leyland with only limited easily reached synergies was clearly never going to work.

      Instead it would have been better if Leyland had focused its efforts on plugging Rover and Triumph brands together, positioning Rover as a premium plus volume car brand to compete with Jaguar and Mercedes i.e. the P5 segment whilst Triumph as a premium volume brand competitors i.e. the P6 segment.

      You had Range Rover as well and Land Rover and it would have been logical to replace the Standard Van range with a Freight Rover to offer quality (Mercedes like) LCVs.

      In addition to this Leyland should have gone to the city to raise cash to buy from BMH, BMCs medium duty truck business and Nuffield Tractor business (as well as agreement to exit 4×4 market), these would have plugged in well with Leyland’s commercial vehicle operation and the obvious area to find synergies quickly. This would have provided a useful cash injection for BMH.

      So what about at BMH.

      At BMC one critical problem had healed itself, with Issigonis wanting to stand down from his management role to focus on advancing small car technology. Thus we are clear to sort out the product issues.

      The biggest of these issues is the yawning gap in the model range between the 1800 and 1100/1300 models. This is unfortunate as this was the centre of gravity of the UK car market. Issigonis’s solution the 1500 which we were to know as the Maxi was clearly flawed, so with cash in the bank we phone the Italians at Bertone and Pininfarina and pose them the problem, to reskin the Maxi’s oily bits taking 5″ out of the wheelbase (100″) and 2″ (62″) out of the width in to a 5 door minimum length hatchback, a sedan and estate (think Jetta, or the neat looking 104 proposed Sedan. Powered by E4 1300 and 1600.

      I imagine you would end up with something looking like an enlarged Peugeot 104 (think 306 in relation to the 205) or Bertone taking there more angular styling from the Innocenti Mini, Golf etc along similar lines.

      This along with the cash brought in from the XJ6 should have helped give BMH time to follow on with its model and engine replacement. Noting that had they reskinned the ADO 16 into a Peugeot 104 like 5 door hatchback, they would have been well positioned in the market for the fuel crisis and recession of the early 70s.

      • That’s a very compelling win-win case for the Leyland Group and BMH, independent of each other. If all of BMC’s efforts had gone into keeping ADO16 fresh into the 1970s, and creating a decent Cortina-class saloon/estate (then attending to the Mini and Landcrab replacements), without all the myriad of other projects and distractions, how much better they might have been. Would you see Joe Edwards as Group MD? I think Lyons/Jaguar would probably have had to be semi-autonomous, to keep them at arms-length from the volume business.
        Like many on this site, I am always in thrall to the idea of Triumph developing the Toledo/Dolomite theme into a decent 3-series competitor.
        The curse of BLMC was the perceived need to do everything, everywhere, all at once. And then find they were unable to do anything much at all.

      • See the appeal of keeping BMC/BMH and Leyland away from each other, however the consolidation of both companies prior was either mismatched or of limited synergies in basically trying to square a circle (BMC needed Rover, Leyland needed Jaguar).

        IMHO Leyland would have also benefited from acquiring Rootes as was said to have been considered (despite the flaws of the idea) before the latter was acquired by Chrysler, mainly though not strictly for Leyland gaining additional production capacity (and soon beginning culling Rootes’s marque portfolio in favour of Triumph and Jaguar).

        Allowing a scenario where the best elements of the British C car project such as the Avenger-based V6, De Dion rear suspension and 5-speed gearbox is integrated into the Puma/Bobcat/Bullet/Lynx family, with the B car (Avenger) instead forming the basis of a Michelotti styled clean-sheet successor to the 1300 instead of the 1300 being recycled into the Toledo / Dolomite.

        Additionally depending on how early Leyland acquires both Rootes and Jaguar, there was potential to merge the Avenger 4-cylinder / V6 and Jaguar V12. Which just leaves the question of best how to approach the thorny subject that is the Triumph Slant-Four / V8 family, short of the Stag V8 tooling being repurposed somehow.

        • Acquisition of Rootes would have had to excluded Linwood (and the Imp) to make any sense, and keep the focus on the west midlands. The government of the time, committed to the geographic diversification, would have kicked hard against this.
          Why do you believe Leyland should have merged with/acquired Jaguar? Not sure I see the benefits.

          • Because a Leyland combine that included Triumph and Jaguar would have reduced any friction or overlap than one that included Triumph and Rover due to competing models and engines. Thereby avoiding the Stag V8 debacle, the former being victim of BL cost-cutting and the fact the Stag engine bay was revealed to be unsuited for the Rover V8 (hence why owners later converted the Stag back to original V8 engine).

            Also Jaguar’s plans to move further upmarket with the V12 family meshes well with Triumph’s own ambitions without Jaguar perceiving the latter as an existential threat (and thus seeking to sabotage others to secure its own spot in the company like at BMH and BL), there is also history between the companies via Standard not to mention Coventry-Climax linking both (and Rootes).

            The absence of Land/Range Rover at Leyland would be balanced out by an opportunity to further build upon the work of the Triumph Pony 4WD to potentially produce comparable rivals if deemed necessary.

            The Imp would either be expediently replaced by some version of the (pre-Sunbeam) Avenger fastback or an approximate analogue of Harry Webster’s ADO74, which now features input from those involved with the Imp and draws upon Triumph’s own pre-existing efforts at a 1300-based supermini project (yet with visual elements possibly derived from the Michelotti penned Innocenti 750 prototype).

            Agreed that Linwood either needs to be quickly disposed of or to have never occurred.

          • I think Leyland buying Rootes would have ended up in a bigger mess than BL! Routes was in a terrible state because of Linwood and the Imp, and it really needed Chryslers big checkbook. Leyland didn’t have that sort of cash, as emphasised by the issues that Triumph had getting investment they needed for projects like the Fury and the small car project, as per comments made by Harry Webster in the Classic Car special on Triumph.

          • OTOH Leyland had a thriving commercial division that once including BMC’s commercial division when it became BL was said to have basically propped up the ailing car division, in this situation Leyland would only have Rootes (plus Commer-Karrier) to deal with in the interim (whilst going about quickly extricating the former Rootes Group from the baggage it acquired).

            And that is without mentioning the prospect of an ailing BMC still being amenable to potentially selling off its commercial division to Leyland to survive (in lieu of merger), thereby a larger Leyland commercial can help support the smaller (Jaguar-Triumph) car division’s process of integrating the smaller Rootes group (instead of BL’s entire car division).

            Of course Leyland would obviously not be expecting to take on Rootes at government behest for free in order to snatch it from Chrysler’s grasp (though to be fair despite the option being on the table they never outwardly expressed an interest), yet Rootes smaller size vs BMH would have made the former a comparative tempest in a teapot vs the perfect storm that was British Leyland.

            It is an imperfect solution and one Leyland (even one composed of Jaguar and Triumph) could certainly do without, however they could have benefited from what Rootes brought to the table in terms of production capacity and all-new designs that could easily be repurposed (similar to how the Datsun Cherry was originally developed by Prince Motors) or even compliment other projects.

  4. An interesting read although I do wonder whether with the eleventh hour cancellation of the P8 project, resulting in wasted millions of pounds having already been spent on body tooling, the car you see here was actually how the production car would have looked. You don’t invest heavily in body tooling if you are planning on undertaking some last minute surface refinement/changes to the body’s pressings. In this respect, what is likely to have been the production car is definitely not something that exudes elegance and form compared to previous Rovers, but is more like the automotive equivalent of neo-brutal architecture. It looks neither contemporary nor elegant.

    Spen King also suggested in an interview I read somewhere that the P8 was originally conceived as a follow-on replacement for the P6 although it eventually grew in size and stature when it was decided that it would be the successor to the P5. Clearly at that point the design values of Rover became diluted somewhat…

    That said, a genuinely well built, solidly engineered and well-appointed Rover saloon would have still been desirable and may well have been influential in raising the body engineering and assembly standards of the supplementary SD1 that followed. Sales volumes may well have been low compared to core BL products such as an Allegro or Marina, but the profit margins would have likely been higher. British Leyland did not recognise that having higher quality products sold under premium marques such as Rover and Triumph, which did not need to be mass produced or built down to a price to compete with mass market marques, would have still delivered significant benefits to the company through higher profit margins and less volatility in sales in the market place.

    What British Leyland ultimately lacked was a car that would have been worthy enough to take battle to the likes of Mercedes Benz and Volvo, both of whom enjoyed good profit margins on their flagship models and consistently impressive sales from their respective W123 range and 240/260. These offerings were more expensive than the Rover SD1 that would ultimately follow in 1976, yet they outsold it by a considerable margin, suggesting buyers were prepared to pay more for a higher quality product. That was British Leyland’s missed trick, not cancelling the P8.

    Finally, I do hope the surviving P8 model owned by the British Motor Museum will soon be sympathetically restored after years of neglect, including sitting outside for a long period in all weathers. Its an interesting car and it is time we saw it in a more presentable condition on display inside the museum.

  5. The P8 was a Stokes plaything. King stated in an interview that Leyland wanted a Mercedes beater, and so therefore he was not willing to withdraw from the project. Even if Jag was on board, the XJ launched in 68 was not a Leyland product, while the P8 would be.

    That the car was as Ugly as hell and looked like a P6 had had a relationship with a 70s Japanese motor, did not seem to be an issue. Bache had already started looking at replacing the P6 with a fastback, so did he finish the styling? It certainly looked ugly than the original Bucks. Also as mentioned by others on here before, Rover designed the structure in house, whereas the P6 had been been designed with assistance (Pressed Steel?), and so its structure was extremely poor and failed the crash tests. Comments I think on said that it would have needed a complete redesigned llatfirm to comply costing more money. Also we’re Rover really stretching themselves? King had gone to Triumph to replace Webster and they were trying to get to production both the Rangie and P8 at the same time?

    The other question you have to ask is would Rover, an untested brand really been able to crack the states? Other European brands tried and failed. Yes Lexus and Infiniti showed you can, but the 70s was a very different time.

  6. Rover had access to a 2 litre slant 4 from day 1 for the SD1 – From Triumph/Saab. Always wonder why BL left this and its associated V8 to fester instead of developing them as Saab did. All the problems associated with these motors was down to poor manufacturing. If they could have got that right they would have had a bang up to date modular engine family ranging from a cooking 4 cylinder up to a 32 Valve V8.

  7. Largely agree. Have previously read of Rover’s reputed intention to replace the V8 with its own 2.2 P10-derived fuel-injected 32-valve Quad-Cam V8 on a few Rover forums years back, there was room to make the P8 into a more attractive car for production that was both an evolution of the P6 exterior yet incorporated cues from the Range Rover.

    The P8 was said to have had a shorter wheelbase at 108.5-inches compared to the SD1 and P76’s 111-inch wheelbase, also recall it being conceived as a dual replacement for the P6 and P5 featuring a P6 range of 4-cylinder and V8 engines before drifting into a direct P5 replacement. It would have had a positive impact of the P10 had the P8 reached production, although based on the P8’s shorter wheelbase it is possible the P10 would have been much smaller with a similar 103-inch wheelbase to the P6.

    Am assuming the 2.2-litre P10 Slant-Four and related 4.4-litre V8 could have been reduced down to 2-litres and 4-litres respectively, with the latter having potential to grow larger if needed yet surely a Six of some form would have been needed to plug the gap in the range (even if the V8 could be reduced to ~3.5-litres).

    Allegedly Land Rover were experimenting with regular Rover V8-derived Slant-Four diesel/turbodiesel engines IIRC from James Taylor’s books long after the P8 and P10 engine were cancelled. It was said the P10 engine was capable of putting out as much as 168-170-ish hp, with entry-level versions putting out about 120 hp.

    Rover replacing the V8 with a more sophisticated in-house V8 design leaves open the possibility that it would be pensioned off to Land Rover and non-Rover marques, if not even potentially bought back by General Motors for a profit when they were said to have approached BL after the fuel-crisis only for the latter to refuse (along with approaching AMC who owned the Buick V6 after acquiring Kaiser-Jeep).

  8. The answer to the P8’s cancellation is simple: it was too expensive to build thanks to its complexity. The base unit (think P6 architecture) cost as much as the whole P6 body. Better to write off the tooling than put a loss maker into production. I joined Rover as a cost analyst shortly after the plug was pulled on P8 and got the reason from the man behind the cancellation.

  9. Some really interesting comments here. And it appears we now know why it wasn’t taken to production. Cheers all.

  10. IMHO P8 encapsulates BL’s determination to not hit the market sector. They needed a straight Rover 2000 replacement – maybe with a performance V8 option at the very top end. Instead they pitched slightly above that market with first P8 then SD1 – V8 optimised, going into the oil crisis.

    They needed a Supermini to compete with the R5 and Fiesta – instead they pitched slightly above with Allegro and below with Mini.

    They needed a Cortina competitor – so they pitched above with Princess and below with Marina.
    Axing P8 was a rare good call

    • That was a recurring issue with BL yes; they could never get their cars to fit into the right market segment. The allegro was the right size for the c segment, and I suppose the maxi was an ok d segment, but all the others are either too big or too small. Like the marina; bigger than an escort, smaller than a cortina, with a wide gap in the engine line up. Still sold ok by their standards though.

  11. The idea of a slightly larger replacement for P6 which could also replace P5 made sense, but instead this got pushed far too upmarket

    It would have been crazy for BL to end up with 2 new prestigious luxury cars in the XJ and P8, yet have the 10 year old Triumph and Rover 2000s to battle in the far more important exec car market. And that’s not even with hindsight, knowing the oil crisis was about to happen.

    The Granada Mk 1 was exactly the same length as P6 incidentally.

    • Great spot with the Granada/P6 length. It’s almost as if Ford were looking at market trends and trying to replicate successes. Incredible! Why didn’t BL think of that?

  12. The P6 failed in the USA because it was “unreliable”.

    Not that it was actually unreliable in reality. The problem was that mechanics in the US understood Chevys, but they were crude carts with a big, stupid V8 screwed on to them. You bring along your sophisticated European sedan with its complicated suspension and weird braking system and the US mechanic would say, “no, sir.”

    So the P6 was “unreliable” in the sense that when it broke – and it would, all cars do – it was nigh on impossible to get it fixed. Even then, it was probably done badly, by inexperienced mechanics.

    When VW introduced the Audi 100 into the US, it got rave reviews – right up until the point that it broke in all sorts of interesting and expensive ways. Word of mouth almost killed it. However, VW had the resources and the persistence to stay the course and sort out the problems. Rover had neither.

    The P8 would have failed in the US for exactly the same reasons as the P6 did. Of that, there can be no doubt, and it’s good that BL never tried to test this.

    • PS – Have to add that this is a great and thought-provoking counter-factual. I don’t agree with the thrust of it, but I’m glad you’ve taken the time to put it together!

    • Based on a sample of one, a 1974 3500S, the P6 was unreliable.
      Beautiful, a delight when it worked, it was too often immobile. It was traded in at 18 months old for a Saab 99, a first non UK made car purchase for the household. The P6 was the last British made car our family bought.

    • Why did the english manufacturers never considered buildning factories in Americas? Heavy products must be produced locally at the consumption, as the japanese and german car makers have done for 30 years.

  13. Cheers – glad you enjoyed it. I think it’s an entertaining what if. I actually wrote the article a few years ago, but it only reached the page more recently. Since I wrote it (in 2015) Land Rover has probably expanded to the point where the posited mass market product in America really has taken place. And I suppose if I really did want a “P23 tourer” I could just buy a Velar (which wasn’t available when I wrote the piece) or Evoque. SUVs leave me cold though, so my actual driveway has an Audi A3 hybrid and an SD1 on it.

  14. I have never got the argument that traditional American cars were ” big, crude carts”. Yes they made some dud cars like any other country,, but the traditional Cadillacs, Lincolns and Chrysler Imperials were known for being very durable, well made and relaxing cars to drive with luxuries like air conditioning and stereo systems that were unknown on Rovers 50 years ago. Also the big V8s were simple to fix when they went wrong, which wasn’t very often.

    • People weren’t buying Lincolns, Cadillacs or Imperials though. Those were luxury cars, for rich people, and that’s why they were loaded up with the toys. Most people were buying Chevys, Fords and Plymouths. With the exception of oddities like the Corvair, these relied more on styling than technology and had poor steering ,weak brakes, soggy suspension and cheap interiors with few amenities (but a long options list). Not that the luxury cars were really all that much more sophisticated under the skin.

      The V8s were certainly reliable and easy to fix. This is not surprising because they were simple, low-stressed, inefficient units. The Europeans couldn’t compete with this and usually failed when they tried (Stag being a prime example). This was because fuel was expensive in Europe and nobody could afford to run a gas-guzzler.

      All this went wrong when energy efficiency became a pressing issue with the fuel crisis in the early 70s and then again in the late 70s. It turned out that the Japanese could produce well-built, reliable cars filled with toys AND they were fuel efficient.

      Detroit had no answer to this last point. All they could do was to cut corners to compete on price and ensure that their cars were total garbage.

      The rest of the decline of the American car industry is their inability to accept that their big, stupid cars are no solution to the modern world. They sort of showed signs that they understood it, producing technically competitive cars, but have lately regressed to massive pickups, showing that they haven’t learned a damned thing in all this time.

      • The American attempts to make smaller cars in the 1970s were unsuccessful. I was reading recently how the Chevrolet Vega could have been better but was undermined by attempting to build them too fast, leading to poor paint finish & other quality issues, especially after workers started to strike over working conditions caused by the accelerating production.

        By the end of the 1970s some lessons had been leant & the 1980s compacts turned out better, but later on these lessons were forgotten.

  15. American luxury cars in the early seventies were cheaper, better equipped, easier to maintain and often more powerful than their European rivals. Would an American really trade in a fully loaded Lincoiln with effortless performance from its V8 for a two litre Rover that would do little more than 100 mph and would cost a similar amount. Then the American would be wondering where the 8 track stereo, air conditiioning and power windows were in a supposed luxury product. Until the 1974 energy crisis, except for Jaguars, Rolls Royces and top of the range Mercedes, upmarket European cars just didn’t sell in America. Mention Rover or BMW and you’d draw a blank.

  16. Frontal treatment aside, this prototype looks all too reminiscent of an early seventies Subaru blown up 150%.

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