Special Branch armoured P6 3500 V8 "MMC 501L"

"Youīre nicked !"

Forget, for a moment, the blue light and all those aerials, and take a close look at this Rover P6. Thereīs something odd about it. Something that suggests this is no ordinary car. Yes, all right, itīs an unmarked police car, but the secrets go deeper than that.

The P6 in the pictures squats strangely close to the ground. Lowered suspension? More than that - this 1972 Rover sits low because it weighs close to two tonnes. Underneath the belly of the car is a layer of quarter-inch steel plate - enough to take the blast of an IRA car bomb. Inside the doors are panels of Kevlar carbon fibre to protect against bullets, while the windscreen and windows carry fastenings for extra sheets of inch-thick bullet-resistant glass.

Other than the removable blue light (or the Royal Crest - weīll get to that later), the car carries no official markings. It was designed to go unnoticed. Even today, passers-by are more likely to acknowledge the characteristic P6 styling - the familiar neo-gothic architecture of those pointy windows-in-a-church light clusters - than the fact that itīs an armour-plated police car.

But the closer you look, the more intriguing it gets. Between the seats are the controls for a radio - an enormous valve radio that fills the boot. And if you look really carefully, just below the rear numberplate is a cut-out through which a small motor can such "fresh" air. The duct is worryingly close to the exhaust but, since bullet-proof windows donīt open, extra ventilation is useful.

This car was created for Special Branch in the early Seventies, a time when IRA bombing campaigns were hitting London hard. Built by the Army at the Special Vehicle Unit at Alfreton in Derbyshire, it was intended to protect top terrorists targets of the day. When accompanying a member of the Royal Family, the blue light would be replaced by the Royal Crest - a thing of beauty in itself, hand-painted by coachmakers from the Royal Mews. Usually the P6 would act as an escort vehicle but occasionally, despite the lack of limousine-proportioned rear seats, it would be called upon to carry the great and the good themselves.

"We believe Mrs. Thatcher was conveyed it it", says PC Jon Dorsett of the Metropolitan Police Historic Vehicle Collection. "Itīs fair to say that most of the prominent politicians at the time are likely to have been either carried in it or escorted by it."

The car was used extensively by Special Branch throughout the Seventies and into the early Eighties, spanning the days of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan. It was still in active service when Margaret Thatcher took office in May 1979, just a few weeks after Airey Neave, Tory MP and senior aide to the soon-to-be PM, was killed by an IRA car bomb. It was a tragedy which highlighted the need for armoured protection.

Happily, the P6īs gritty history of counter-terrorist activity is at odds with its role today. Recognizing the importance of preserving its historic fleet, the Met houses seven genuine police-cars from 1948 to 1996, plus six motorcycles from 1954 to 1987, at its Hampton Traffic Garage.

Public reaction is supportive. "I was driving our Austin 1100 Panda car when an elderly gentleman pulled up beside me at some traffic lights and wound down his window", says PC Dorsett. "Are my taxes still paying for that?" he asked gruffly. "Probably", I replied. "Good on you" grinned the old chap. To be fair, the cost to the tax-payer is minimal, thanks to occasional donations and fees for film work.

In any case, the cars in the collection are technically still serving police cars. "All the cars are ready to go out on a blues-and-twos run", says PC Dorsett proudly. Blues-and-twos? Itīs jargon that anyone in a police family understands, but the rest of us donīt. I was still struggling with how to address a police constable. Jon? Mr. Dorsett? Sir?

Proceeding with my enquires, we opened the bonnet and saw huge twin air-horns. (Ah - got it - blues and twos. Blue light, two-tone horn) But air-horns were fairly new at the time and buried beneath them sits something more at home in a small church tower than an engine bay. Itīs a cast iron bell, a fully-operational Whitworth bell. Splendid. Other than that, things look pretty standard. Met cars rarely had power upgrades and this P6, despite its vast weight, has the standard 3528cc V8 engine. Nevertheless, it recently apprehended a disqualified driver. Sounding both horns and Whitworth bell, the 1972 Rover set off in pursuit... and caught the scoundrel.

"90 percent of the time when weīre out exercising the historic cars (thatīs was Dorsett call it - exercising), we come across an incident someone broken down, an accident, dangerous driving. A local postman was knocked unconscious by a falling branch and there he was, out cold, lying with his bicycle on the A316. Along we came in the 1983 Rover SD1. When the ambulance arrived, the driver thought it was a set-up. Postman in the road, old police car ind the fend-off position."

I hope there will will be no criminals to pursue while Iīm driving. As it happens, the first car I ever drove was my fatherīs P6. I was about nine at the time and, to this day, my father knows nothing about it. If you have any further information relating to the crime, call Whitehall 1212.

Now, sitting at the wheel, the familiar is mixed with the bizarre. The sliding, faded blue-and-red heater controls are the same, plastic lollipop of an automatic gearstick and the angular indicator knobs on their long, skinny stalks. But in among all this are angry-looking buttons marked GONG and BEACON.

Surprisingly, thereīs also a factory-fitted sunroof. Not for pleasure, but for further ventilation and an alternative means of escape. For obvious security reasons, itīs the small, metal variety, not a huge Webasto sliding vinyl one. They wouldnīt even let my dad into Windsor Safari Park with one of those.

Despite the weight, the V8īs massive torque gives smooth acceleration and the ride is typically superb. We cruise effortlessly over the speed bumps around Hampton Court, scarcely aware of their viciously-angled peaks. Two tonnes or not, the V8 Rover still has the P6īs famous combination of performance and refinement.

The sense of luxury doesnīt extend to power steering, however. "The lack of power assistance was probably a cost-saving measure", says PC Dorsett, which seems unforgivably miserly given the carīs weight, even if it did cost an extra Ģ88.75. The one saving grace is that the small-diameter steering wheel specially made for the armoured car has been replaced by the normal, large as a bus-wheel version. So why the diminutive wheel in the first place? Because the bullet-proof windscreen, which adds another inch of armoured glass, would have meant grazed knuckles. "Today, however, the protective windscreen is not in place. It is", says PC Dorsett, "at the bottom of the North Sea".

Heīs not entirely joking. At the end of active service, armoured police vehicles (then and now) are destroyed, to keep the technology confidential. Actually, thereīre not thrown into the North Sea but blown up at the Army ranges in Salisbury. It gives the Army a chance to practice with its latest shells and see how various bits of the car stand up. Then the next generation of cars - and shells - can be improved. This was almost certainly the fate of the only other armoured P6.

PC Dorsett is a genuine Rover enthusiast. Close to retirement, heīs just bought himself (sight unseen - ouch) a manual P6 3500 S to restore. He drools over the burble of the V8 but makes no mention of the armoured carīs whirrily-thrashing Borg Warner automatic gearbox, slackly propelling us through its three gears as we pick up speed. "The armoured car is great on the straight but problematic in roundabouts." His warning is timely. It takes effort to wrench the wheel around and the car leans like youīd imagine with two tonnes compressing soft Seventies suspension. Uprated the springs and dampers might be, but at 15 mph weīre keeling hard over.

Itīs a matter of Official Secrets whether this car ever withstood bombs or bullets itself, but the log book was updated daily. Flipping the pages, we come across an entry from the Eighties listing 470 miles in one day. Next to it the letters "SB" - Special Branch. They must have had triceps of steel in cope with the exhausting choreography of twirling that two-tonne behemoth with its tiny steering wheel for 470 miles. With a bit of calculation the log suggests the car manages around 10 mpg. "At best", days PC Dorsett. "Drive it hard and you wouldnīt see 5 mpg."

Lledo produced a model of this actual car - the limited edition sold out in days - but the old warrior herself has never been repainted. She proudly carries her paint-chips from 33 years in the Force. Thereīs even some slight damage on the front. "It just adds to the angry face", says PC Dorsett.

Classic Cars UK 2005