Rover 3500 S

Power to the People

Roverīs model nomenclature has often confused people, so letīs begin by defining exactly what it is weīre talking about here.

The UK-market 3500 S was built between 1971 and ī76, and was a manual-transmission version of the 3500 saloon. It is not to be confused with the Federal 3500 S (a specially equipped automatic made for the US market between ī69 and ī71) or with the V8-S (a completely different car which was based on the later Rover SD1).

OK? Letīs go on then - or rather - letīs go back. The 3500 S was a member of the Rover P6 family, which has first been seen in four-cylinder 2000 form at the 1963 Earls Court Motor Show. The 2000 was a sensation - both because it broke new ground for Rover and because it incorporated an astonishing selection of new and sensible engineering features. Rover was deluged with orders, and was simply never able to keep up with demand until the fuel scare of the early ī70s which encouraged customers to turn to smaller-engined cars.

Those customers who did get their hands an a Rover 2000 generally had one main criticism, which was that the car wasnīt fast enough, in fact it was quick for the time, but its superb chassis could clearly handle much more power than the 2-litre engineīs 90 bhp. So Rover introduced a more powerful twin-carburettor engine in 1966 and then, in 1968, added a Three Thousand Five model with its new, ex-Buick, 3.5-litre V8 under the bonnet.

It was from this car that the 3500 S was descended, albeit via the Series 2 or New Look 3500 introduction in 1970. The 3500 was already a quick car but many owners thought that the all-alloy V8 really needed a manual transmission behind it. Rover thought so, too, but it didnīt have a manual gearbox strong enough to take the V8īs torque in 1968, which was why all the early V8 cars came with automatic transmission. By 1971, however, they had redeveloped the 2000īs four-speed box to handle the V8īs torque, and it was this which appeared in the 3500 S.

When the car was launched, it received ecstatic reviews. In cold figures, performance wasnīt actually all that much better than from an automatic 3500, but the 3500 S felt much quicker and could manage an extra 5 mph or so at the top end. It wasnīt until much later, when the first cars began to rack up high mileages in the hands of unsympathetic owners, that the gearboxīs marginal ability to deal with the V8īs torque became apparent.

Check out a random sample of half a dozen 3500 S models offered for sales today, and you can bet that at least four will have, or will have had, gearbox problems. If the problems are still there, then there will be assorted rattles and graunching noises from the gearbox, and the odds are that it will jump out of reverse and maybe out or third as well.

Gearboxes can be rebuilt, and new "police-specification" gearboxes still turn up from time to time. These are rather stronger than the standard type, but they are also noisier. And they donīt offer any performance increases, no matter what their vendors might say.

But weīre leaping ahead here. You must check the gearbox on a 3500 S, but the really expensive problems on one of these cars all sterm from the bodywork.

Like all P6 Rovers, the 3500 S is built on a steel skeleton, known as a base-unit, to which the running gear and the unstressed body panels are bolted. It is only too easy to remove rusty body panels and replace them with sound ones, and many owners will do this before selling a car. The problem is that the new panels might well be covering serious structural rust in the base-unit, and this will only become apparent during a thorough investigation. More than with almost any other car, therefore, do not allow shiny paintwork and new panels to seduce you into buying a P6 until you have checked the car over carefully.

Rust in the external panels will be pretty obvious. Look at the rear of the four wings, the front of the rear wings, and the bottoms of the doors. You might also find that the big under-bumper air intake panel is damaged - itīs no longer available, so youīll have to settle for a remade steel panel (mostly not so good) or a glass reinforced plastic replacement. You wonīt find rust in the bonnet or boot lid, as both are made of aluminium alloy. Worth remembering is that the paint on the final (mostly P-registered) cars was prone to flaking, and that this tended to make these examples more prone to rust than earlier ones.

Then start looking more closely. Open the bonnet and examine the tops of the inner front wings. Open the doors and bang the carpeted inside surfaces of the box-like sills with your fist: you might hear metal crumbling or rust falling off and dropping into the sill. Check the bottoms of the D-posts (the forward edge of the rear wheelarch, visible when the door is open), and then lift the rear seat cushions and check the condition of the "wells" at each outboard end. On bad cars, you can see the road through them.

Next, feel along the inner surfaces of the sills under the car and, if you canīt find jacking points under the rubber bungs in the outer sill panel, then you know youīve got trouble! Watch out, too, for outer sill panels which have been welded to the inners: they should be screwed on, but bodgers often plate over the area.

At the back end, feel up inside the rear wheelarches, checking for flaking metal in the panel at the front to which the wing is bolted. Open the boot and lift the carpet to check for holes or dampness at its front edge. Feel carefully along the sides of the boot well, too: the suspension arms bolt to these, and have a nasty habit of pulling out under load if the surrounding metal has been weakened by rust.

If all that is sound, youīve either missed something or found an exceptional car! Look now at the interior.

Most items wear very well, but you might find the black dashboard has gone grey in the sun and that the seats have split. The latter isnīt likely with the later cloth type, but it is fairly common with the vinyl and leather types. Remember that leather is very expensive to repair properly or to replace.

Still impressed? Take the car out for a road test. The seats are astonishingly comfortable, and itīs immediately obvious that the whole interior was designed around the driverīs environment (that may be why Rover forgot to include any legroom for the rear passengers). You canīt fail to admire that magnificent instrument panel - still one of the clearest around - and youīll soon come to appreciate the benefits of the centrally-placed switchgear, too. What you wonīt like is the steering at low speeds if the car youīre testing doesnīt have PAS. If it does have power steering you might find the car a bit twitchy and in need of constant correction at high speeds.

The 3500 has long-travel, coil-spring suspension all round, with a De Dion rear axle and horizontal springs at the front which act against the bulkhead. Itīs an unusual set-up, which gives a very comfortable and flexible ride at the expense of a lot of cornering roll. Handling and roadholding are both pretty good, but you need to be familiar with the car to get the best out of it. On the move, that front suspension feeds a fair amount of road rumble into the bulkhead, so donīt assume thereīs a problem when you hear it, but if you hear a clonk from the front end, the odds are that thereīs a ball joint on the way out. The lower one is a real pig to replace, and some specialists offer replacement suspension legs with the new lower joint already installed.

If you hear a clonk from the back end, or if the car seems to lurch or skip sideways under cornering, then suspect De Dion trouble. The sliding joint needs to be lubricated from time to time, but most owners forget, with the result that it seizes up. Problems can also be caused if the rubber gaiter splits and allows water and road debris into the sliding joint. Have a look underneath to check, and while youīre at it, try to get a good look at the inboard rear brakes. The pads are a real pain to change and are often allowed to wear down to bare metal as a result.

Weīve left the engine until last, simply because itīs such a robust piece of kit. It does like regular oil changes, though. Top end noise from a worn camshaft is a common problem which results from infrequent servicing; many cars also "tick" when one of the self-adjusting tappets gets gummed up with sludge. Watch out for overheating, caused either by a blocked radiator (curable) or by corroded waterways (expensive - these engines need coolant inhibitor or anti-freeze all the year round). Check for oil leaks, particularly from the back of the engine on early cars, where the main seal can sometimes go.

After that, enjoy! The 3500 S is a superb package, combining luxury saloon with sporting performance.

James Taylor

Auto Classic Weekly / UK  30 September 1992