Island Queen

Restoring an ageing classic can present all manner of difficulties at the best of times. Imagine how much harder it is, then, when you´re on a tiny island miles from Land´s End and everything you need must be freighted over to order. Chris Horton reports from the Isles of Scilly on David Oxford´s stunning Rover 2000.

The Isles of Scilly have always been a surprisingly rewarding place for old-car spotting. Thanks to the highly corrosive Atlantic air they aren´t in quite the same league as, say, Malta, Cyprus or New Zealand, but the isolation, the absence of salt on the roads in winter – and not least the lack of any form of MOT test mean that even now it´s not unusual to see a 40-year-old saloon in daily use on the islands.

You can imagine my immediate and consuming interest in David Oxford´s Rover 2000. I first telephone him in January when I spotted this 1975 3500 automatic advertised for sale; and as soon as he led slip that he´d just finished restoring a 1965 car – the same year and the same colour as the one in which I learned to drive and still own – it was only a matter of time before photographer James Mann and I were on our way to the islands, in a Sikorsky helicopter.

We weren´t disappointed either. While not particularly original – David has updated the Rover to suit his own taste and requirements, with parts from various cars.

“The Rover´s been in the family virtually from new”, says David, proprietor of a contract furnishing business and a small family-run hotel on St. Mary´s. “My father-in-law bought it from Henlys in Camden Town in 1966 when it was only ten months old – he traded in a Mini Cooper for it, would you believe!”

“They carried on using it on the island”, he continues, “but it had to live outside. By October 1980 it was starting to look pretty sorry for itself – water was getting in through the sills, and the wings and doors were literally falling apart – and as I´d always liked it I decided we really ought to do something about it.”

With the car off the road and safely stored in his garage, David began to buy the major parts he knew he would need during the rebuild. It wasn´t until 1985 that work began in earnest on the car itself, by which time he had acquired no less than four brand-new wings and four brand-new door shells. “I think the wings were about thirty quid each when I bought them”, he laughs. “Now they´re about ₤100 apiece!”

“Of course, the first big problem was finding someone to tackle the welding”, recalls David. “I was quite happy to remove the bolt-on outer panels myself – well, what was left of them, anyway – then to strip out the interior and cut most of the rot off with an air chisel, but I knew from the start it was going to need some specialised attention when it came to stitching in the new metal.”

“Because we don´t have a MOT test on the island there aren´t that many people here who do high-quality body welding – when a car simply won´t run any more it´s dumped – so in the end I found a chap on the mainland who said he could tackle it. I paid for him to come over on the Skybus one Monday morning and he worked solidly until the following Friday afternoon.”

With that major hurdle out of the way – and with the new metalwork let in so skilfully you can´t now tell that the inner sills have ever been touched – David immediately protected the body shell with plenty of primer and under-body sealant and, as he puts in, “literally gallons of Waxoyl.”

Next on the agenda – when the holiday season drew to a close that year – was the preparation of the wings. The first step was to wash them thouroughly in water to remove any trace of salt – you´ve never more than half a mile from the sea on St. Mary´s, and winter storms can easily send spray right across the island – then to dry them in front of a heater and spray on three thick coats of under-body sealant. After that all the edges were painted in body colour – City grey – and then each panel was carefully saturated with yet more hot Waxoyl.

“That did cause us some problems when it came to painting”, confesses David, “but I still reckon a little extra effort to clean off the surplus then was well worth the added protection. You just can´t be too careful with rust out here, and I certainly don´t aim to have to do this job ever again.”

Having tackled all of the Rover´s bolt-on panels in a similar manner – with the exception of the roof, which he left in place, and the aluminium bonnet and boot lid – David next began to refit them to the car itself. He left all the wing fixings loose to allow later adjustment of panel gaps, and fitted the door shells minus their complex stainless-steel window frames.

“It was easy enough to buy a pair of outer sills”, says David, “and the only other exterior panel I needed was the front valance. Fortunately this car had the later, horizontally slated lower front valance from new, und unlike the earlier vertically slatted variety they were quite easy to find at the time. I got mine for ₤11 from the Brighton classic car show one year! The rear valance was a bit rusty in places, but that was easy enough to patch! I was gradually doing some work on the mechanical side while all this was going on, but I suppose the next major job was the painting. By one of those strange quirks of fate the chap who came to inspect the hotel for the fire regulations turned out to be retired coachpainter, so I persuaded him to come back again the following weekend and tackle the Rover!”

“By now all the panels were on the car and properly aligned – the window frames were loosely in the doors but minus their rubber seals so I didn´t get paint on them – and I´d flatted down all the exterior surfaces, so basically all he had to do was spray it in two-pack acrylic. I wasn´t particularly happy with his first attempt on the Saturday morning, though, so we left it until the Sunday afternoon, rubbed it down and started again. That was much better – although even now I sometimes feel that it is a little too dark for true Rover City grey – so then we simply left the car for two or three weeks for the paint to harden fully and it was ready for the final assembly.”

David reports few problems with this part of the project, although it did take him a frustrating day to assemble each of the four doors to his complete satisfaction – and then a further day each to hang each of them on the car. Highly frustrating, too, was the task of cutting out and fitting new carpets (only the binding of the edges was tackled by a local carpet specialist). “I managed to find some new material which was very similar in texture and colour to the old stuff”, he says, “but it was much thicker. I had enormous problems getting it to fit under the transmission tunnel cover and it took a lot of force and patience!”

So, too, did the carpeting of the boot compartment, the side and front panels of which are now cleverly secured with strips of Velcro for ease of removal and cleaning. “That was a really fiddly job, too,” recalls David, “but again it was worth the effort. It won´t please the purists, but I think it looks much better than the nasty bits of rubber fitted as standard, and it means you can carry lors of luggage without damaging either the luggage or the trim. The car works for its living, ferrying guests to and from the airport and the quay, so it´s important to create the right impression. And, as you can see, I´ve increased the carrying capacity quite substantially simply by leaving out the spare wheel. I´ve got the parts to allow me to fit the spare on the boot lid itself, and I´ll put that on as soon as I have the time, but with only nine miles of road on the island I´m not unduly worried about having a puncture.”

The Rover differs from standard in several other significant respects, although even as something of a connoisseur of 1965 2000s I have to admit that the overall effect is highly satisfying. The trim on the underside of the boot lid itself, for example, is now covered in red leathercloth to match the carpet, the inner A-post trims have been neatly covered in the same material; the front part of the headlining (otherwise original) has been trimmed in black leathercloth; and, of course, the car carries numerous “Series II” components ranging from wheel trims, those stainless-steel body-side strips and the later car´s switchgear, through to exterior door handles and rear lamps incorporating recersing lamps.

“I bought a pair of new rear lamp units from Andrew Craig at Roverline”, says David, “and incidentally I´d strongly recommend him to anyone else rebuilding or running a P6, but they were of the later type with built-in reversing lights from a very early stage in the car´s life. It was hit from behind in London in the late 1960s – so hard, in fact, that the front-seat backs progressively collapsed and Dorothy´s parents both finished up on the back seat! – and when Henlys straightened it out her father asked them to fit the later lights with reflectors on the boot lid.”

“So I like to think I´ve personalised the car in keeping with its character rather than merely customised it”, says David. “Although it does actually belong to Dorothy and me, I still regard it as her father´s car, so I´ve tried to keep one or two things exactly as they were and I appreciate the subtle modifications. The radio and the instruments are exactly as they´ve always been, and I´ve deliberately not touched the little model elephant on the dashboard.”

Both front and rear headrests are original equipment, however, having been bought for the car some time during 1967 (and fortunately before that rear-end shunt), although one of the now-rare rear units required re-covering. The leather seats themselves required little more than cleaning and treating with a colouring agent from trim specialists Woolies, although David did have to repaint the driver´s inner door trim panel with Vinylkote to render it fit for duty again.

Mechanically the car has required relatively little detail work, albeit at the expense of some quite major transplant surgery. The engine and front suspension, for example, David replaced with later assemblies from a low-mileage 1972 Mark II he broke up, and although he´s retained the original final drive it has been fitted with the later car´s Girling brake calipers and discs in place of the troublesome Dunlop system used as standard on these early 2000s. Original, too, is the car´s gearbox; it works perfectly, with not a hint of protest from the synchromesh, and, thanks to its typical slight whine in second, gives the car much of its character and wonderful period feel.

Not that the car, even now, is quite finished. Thanks to the understanding nature of the local constabulary David is able to drive the car minus its front number plate while he searches for the smaller US-spec holder he´s set his heart on, and at some point in the near future he intends to spruce up the engine bay to match the rest of this quite remarkably clean Rover P6.

After 18 years on the island he and Dorothy are in the process of selling their business and moving back to London, but since Dorothy´s parents are staying put it seems likely that the 2000 will remain there, too. “We´ll need some form of transport when we come back to visit, and what better than a car that´s been here for over a decade already?”

UK 1991