Once in love with Rover

Sticking big engines in medium-sized cars is all the rage this year. Vauxhall have done it to both the Victor and the Viva, and now Rover have followes suit with the 2000. But donīt imagine for a moment that thatīs the end of the story, even with petrol at its current price.

Of course, the excruciatingly named Three Thousand Five (why not just Three-five, or even 350 to come into line with the Jaguar range?) was always on, right from the day we first heard whispers about Roverīs work on anglicising the all-alloy Buick V8. This engine was certainly the answer to the prayer of that hefty maiden, the 3 Litre, but equally clearly the numbers involved were not enough to make production an economic proposition for this car alone. There had to be something to make the effort really worth while, and in the absence of a totally new car that something had to be the 2000 with the V8 slotted into it.

So the new V8 has gone in. It sits as far back as possible, and (one suspects) a bit higher than Rover would have liked. It is claimed to be no heavier than the original 2000 engine, but whether or not that is so keeping it close to the bulkhead has upset the balance of the car no more than could be helped. However, there have been changes to both engine and front suspension. The air cleaner arrangement has been totally changed from that in the 3.5, with the box stuck up near the bulkhead. The exhaust has been re-routed, the oil filter position has had to be changed, and of course the throttle and choke linkages have had to be engineered to suit. On the suspension side, the bottom links had to be changed to clear the engine, while the springs are uprated and the dampers are larger. And since Rover decided that larger wheels and tyres (185/14, no less) were needed to handle the extra power, the wheel hubs are now offset so that the wider rims will fit. Tyres are all-new Avon textile radials.

In anticipation of heavier steering problems, Rover have fitted a Burman variable-ratio recirculating ball system to the 3500 which is lower-geared than the fixed-ratio setup in the 2000.

Of the engine we need say little, because it should still be fresh in everyoneīs mind after the extensive treaties written about it last October. Of classic GM design, but in light alloy instead of iron, carefully redetailed by Rover to bring it up to their own requirements in the way of quietness and durability and made largely in the Alvis factory at Coventry. It endows the 3500 with 184 gross bhp at 5000 rpm and a massive 226lbft of torque at the comparatively high figure of 3000 rpm.

What one has to remember is that these are gross figures, and that what actually reaches the back wheels is going to be less due in large measure to the transmission, which should be even more familiar to you than the engine, unfortunately. Not that we have anything against the Borg Warner 35; itīs just that we must confess to grievous disappointment that the 3500, like the 3.5, should have emerged with automatic as standard and no chance of a manual box even if you want it. One can follow the reasons behind doing this with the 3.5, but the 3500 inherits the 2000 tradition as a splendid diverīs car rather than an old manīs one, and – as we shall see – the BW 35 is neither going to help it retain this tradition nor make the most of the engineīs potential. All the more harrowing is the fact that we know Rover flirted with the idea of a five-speed ZF box (presumably like the one used by Aston) for a long time and rejected it. The only hope is that they may elect to make something similar themselves – a course of action that seems logical, as they already make the much improved four-speed 2000 unit.

Anyway, what is the car like to drive? Although our test specimen was devoid of badges, other than in the privacy of the test track, there was just enough difference about it to give it away to those who really looked. The fat tyres, for one, and the big extra air scoop beneath the front bumper to take care of the bigger radiator area. On the other hand there is but one tailpipe – nothing there to give the game away – while from the driving seat you get precious little to tell you that you arenīt in a 2000 Automatic. There is a 3500 blazoned across the steering wheel spokes; the speedometer reads to 140 mph instead of 120; the transmission selector is the floor-mounted one from the 3.5.....

Then you start up, and at once it feels and sounds different. Certainly no quieter, definitely a lot smoother, undoubtedly different. When you move away from rest the thingis smooth and dignified. If you try and blast it away from traffic light it is still smooth and dignified, and not all that fast. This is a measure both of the fact that the transmission milks a lot of the apparently impressive power low down and that the car weighs over a ton and a half with one hefty person and a full fuel load aboard. V8 or no, you are going to have to resign yourself to the fact that a determined driver in (say) a Corsair 2000E is going to leave you in the traffic lights Grand Prix. From about 50 mph upwards, as your torque converter starts to lock up in second gear and take you through to 80 or so, you will have the laugh on him, but there is certainly no kick in the back away from rest.

When you try and park you really start to have trouble. Lower geared or not, the steering is very heavy – we would have thought impossibly so for some of the more ladylike ladies of our acquaintance. Once on the move things are not so bad until you try some ambitious cornering, but there will be those who will not like this car until it has power steering – which at the moment is not even an option.

On the credit side the splendid visibility of the 2000 is of course retained, so that the car is never a handful in traffic in the same way as its big sister.

This is not, however, a town carriage. It shocked us by returning a fuel consumption of 12 mpg during a two-day period in which it never left Greater London, whereas the overall consumption during the ten days we spent with it was about 17 mpg and on one Mobil-type run up a fairly clear Great North Road and back it managed no less than 23 mpg. But there is no getting away from the fact that it is going to drink petrol an awful lot faster than the 2000, and on long runs the larger (15 gallon) fuel tank is much appreciated even though, together with the bigger wheel and the battery banished from up front, it hogs already-limited space.

So, as we said, automatic transmission or no this is too heavy and thirsty a car to be ideal around town. It must therefore belong in the world of long-distance, high-speed, luxury touring, where the traditional 2000 handling and comfort is allied to new-found performance. Ah, but what has happened to that handling? Is the comfort all it ever was? And just how crushing is the performance?

We hesitate to say that the handling has gone to pot. The car can still go round corners faster than most. Yet compared with the 2000 it has undeniably last something. Partly through the different balance, partly through the changed steering, partly no doubt because an automatic transmission with a limited manual override never encourages fast cornering anyway. The 3500 understeers more strongly than the 2000, and the bigger tyres, while conferring impressive roadholding, do nothing to cut down the alarming amount of wheel-winding which has to be indulged in. With a good deal of lock on and the car travelling fast the loads are as much as a strong man can deal with. Power oversteer is not the answer. On most bends, piling on the power simply makes the understeer rather worse; there is no suggestion that the back end is helping things by starting to run wide.

In really extreme situations the inside rear tyre will lift and spin if enough power is applied, not just for a moment or two but for as long as you are prepared to hold the condition. It spins out of adhesion with, yet in contact with, the road surface, so that the result is clouds of acrid rubber smoke and the loss of many milesī worth of tread. At the same time the outside front tyre is running sufficiently nearly on its sidewall to wear the tread on an asymmetric section in no time at all, and still the thing wonīt really oversteer, although it does come nearer neutral. Perhaps the rumoured new front suspension (still ages away, we hear) will be easier to set up. Meanwhile it does seem that a rear anti-roll bar would help.

What of comfort? Well, if you take comfort as the sum total of seating, ride, noise and heating/ventilation, then you are slightly worse off than in the 2000 SC. The seats are the same; most people like them, one or two donīt. The ride feels softer, despite the re-rated springs, and the bigger tyres give more of a sideways shuffle and Dutch-roll effect that the 2000 suffers from, which might upset the odd passenger. Heating and ventilation is virtually standard 2000 and good enough for those who donīt have extensive experience of the Cortina or Hunter. But the extraneous noise factor gave Rover some fearful problems, and itīs no use pretending that they are entirely out of the wood yet.

As to performance, compare the figures given for yourselves: you can hardly say that the 2000 TC (manual only, remember) lags all that far behind the 3500, either in acceleration or in top speed.

It seems to us that Rover didnīt quite make up their minds what they wanted this car to be. At the moment it is more likely to appeal to the relaxed and elderly (except for that heavy steering) and probably always will as long as there is no manual gearbox option.

So much promise unfulfilled – was this really the engine for the 2000? If BLMC means anything at all, why donīt we see it in the ADO 61? In the meantime, we are off to see how the 3500 goes on the Continent, so watch this space.

UK 1968