Six Appeal

The P6 Rover 2000 and its later derivatives was the most successful car the original Rover Company ever built. James Taylor looks back at its early history.

October 9, 1988 marked the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Rover P6, and the owners club has already celebrated with a hugely successful rally at London´s Alexandra Palace. Recognised when it was new as an advanced design, the car had rapidly been gathering an enthusiastic following in recent years, and many examples have already been restored to the standards normally only associated with established classics. It now seems certain that the P6 will attain a permanent place as one of the best-loved classic saloons of the 1960s and 1970s.

The exotic variants which are the focus of our main feature are mostly the sort of cars on which it would be difficult to put a price - and restoration can be correspondingly complicated and expensive. But prices for standard cars remain temptingly low at present; £750 will still buy a generally sound example of one of the V8-engined models, and £1500-£2000 ought to get e really good, low-mileage car which needs little work. The upward trend has begun, though, and the very best cars are fetching £4000 or more now.

It is the P6´s combination of compact luxury saloon with high standards of performance and handling, which lies at the heart of its appeal, and for that reason the 120 mph-plus manual-gearbox 3500 S is naturally in much greater demand than the 94 mph 2000 Automatic. Nevertheless, any P6 in reasonable condition is guaranteed to give a lot of driving pleasure. And as for those examples which have not survived in pristine condition, good spares availability and relatively simple construction makes them a realistic DIY proposition for the enthusiast.

P6 in Production

1963 (October): Launch of the entirely new Rover 2000 at Earls Court Show.

1966 (March): Introduction of 2000 TC (twin carburettor) and 2000 Automatic models. TC initially available only for export; Home Market deliveries begin in autumn 1966

1968 (April): Introduction of V8-engined Three Thousand Five with automatic transmission only

1969 (October): Introduction of 3500 S with automatic transmission for North American market only

1970 (September): Facelifted models with revised trim and various cosmetic changes introduced. Three Thousand Five renamed (but not rebadged) as 3500; single-carburettor four-cylinder cars rebadged as 2000 SC

1971 (October): Introduction of manual-transmission 3500 S (note: this model was not related to the US-market 3500 S, despite the use of the same name)

1973 (October): All 2000 models replaced by larger-engined 2200 SC, 2200 SC Automatic and 2200 TC

1975 (July): Introduction of limited-edition 3500 VIP models, with SD1 paint and trim, air conditioning, and several other options as standard. Only 150 built, of which approximately half remained in UK

1976 (July): Production of V8-engined models ends

1976 (December): Production of four-cylinder cars ends

Total production of Rover P6 models is not known for certain, but was probably around 330.000. Of these, only some 80.000 had V8 engines.

Once chassis/body structures had become established as the industry´s norm, manufacturers found it harder to produce variants of a basic design after its initial production parameters had been established. Much of the colour thus went out of the world of motoring, and standardisation took over. But behind the scenes, at Rover´s Solihull factory at least, there were always some interesting and technically brave experiments going on, and the story of the P6 variants which didn´t make it into production (or were built in only limited numbers) is a fascinating one which could take up far more space than we have here.

Engines and Transmissions

As far as production was concerned, the P6 only ever had two basic engines. The first was a four-cylinder overhead-camshaft Heron-head type, designed especially for the car and initially of 1978 cc; it was later over-bored to give 2204 cc. The other was a 3528 cc V8, derived from a redundant General Motors design. The original Rover 2000 had a single carburettor, was supplemented by a twin-carburettor version (the 2000 TC) in 1966, and then grew into a 2200 SC and 2200 TC in 1973. Automatic transmission appeared for the first time in 1966, and was only ever available with the single-carburettor versions of the four-cylinder engines. As for the V8, it arrived in 1968 and was available initially only with automatic transmission; a manual gearbox version of the V8 car, known as the 3500 S, was introduced in 1971. Cars with V8 engines, by the way, were known as P6Bs - the B standing for Buick, principal users of the original GM engine.

Well before the 2000´s launch in 1963, the Rover Company´s engineers had recognised that its basic "chassis" could handle a lot more power than the 90 bhp available from the original 2-litre engine. By the time this became apparent, the size of the P6´s engine bay had already been determined, which meant that later developments would face problems from the word go.

The first attempt to give the P6 the sort of performance it deserved actually involved a gas turbine engine. Rover had been leaders in the gas turbine field since the early 1950s, and so this project represented a natural convergence of two of the company´s trains of development. The prototype car was completed in 1961, and was constructed from the tenth prototype P6 base unit.

Installation of the gas turbine engine was far from straightforward, however, and the car ended up with an extended front overhang and remodelled nose to suit, plus front-wheel drive and an exhaust which was ducted to the rear of the car via the transmission tunnel. T4, as the car was called (because it was the fourth gas turbine prototype), had a twin-shaft gas turbine engine of 140 bhp, which gave remarkably good acceleration and a 0-60 mph standing-start time of 8 seconds.

There were problems, though  - like serious turbine lag of around three seconds, high paraffin consumption of between 16 and 18 mpg, and an expected cost for production versions of three or four times what the basic 2000 was going to cost in the showrooms. Although the project was given very serious consideration for a time, it was eventually shelved and T4 itself is now preserved in the BMIHT Collection. Nevertheless, the gas turbine project did leave its mark on the P6. The unique front suspension system seen in production cars, in which the coil springs had been turned through 900 and acted against the bulkhead, had been specifically designed to give the wide engine bay which the gas turbine power unit needed.

The next attempt to improve the P6´s performance involved a more orthodox six-cylinder engine. As the car´s low bonnet line precluded the use of Rover´s existing inlet-over-exhaust-valve "six", the Engine Development people under Jack Swaine set about developing a six-cylinder version of the 2000´s OHC engine, using the same bore and stroke dimensions. Work began in 1962, and prototype engines were tried out, originally with single SU carburettor but later with a triple-SU installation based on the 2000 TC´s cylinder head inlet manifold design. It was this latter version of the engine which took a development car up to a claimed 143 mph during testing on the M6.

The problem here, though, was that the six-cylinder engine (2960 cc. and 152 bhp with three carburettors) was very long, and that the nose of the P6 had to be extended to suit it. In addition, the standard gearbox could not cope with the engine´s torque, and so the development cars ran with ZF five-speed gearboxes. The resulting cars were so different from the four-cylinder base model that they were given their own project code of P7, and it soon became apparent that the re-engineering necessary to produce them was simply going to be too costly. So the project was dropped. The fourth P7 prototype was sold off to Ted Eves, then of Autocar magazine, and is now in the hands of a dedicated Rover enthusiast, who also owns two spare prototype P7 engines.

With the six-cylinder engine cancelled, Engineering Director Peter Wilks encouraged his designers to look at a variant of the 2000 engine which would fit under the P6´s bonnet without entailing major modification to the base unit. Under Brian Sylvester, the project team came up with a five-cylinder design of 2472 cc., again using the 2000´s bore and stroke dimensions. These engines were running in bench-tests and the engineers were working on problems of in-car balance when the whole project was cancelled in 1964, after Managing Director William Martin-Hurst secured the manufacturing rights to Buick´s redundant 3.5-litre V8 engine. Things were not going too well with the five-cylinder type, anyway: its 125 bhp was depressingly close to the 124 bhp (SAE figures) which Rover were getting from a twin-carburettor version of the original four-cylinder engine. One prototype five-cylinder engine, fitted with triple SU carburettors, still survives in the BMIHT Collection.

That was the last of the more radical P6 engine projects, although it is worth mentioning that the late 1960s saw experiments with fuel injection systems on both four-cylinder and V8 engines. As a matter of interest, surviving documents show that even a three-cylinder version of the OHC 2000 engine was under consideration in the late 1950s, though for a Land Rover rather than a saloon car.

Transmission development behind the scenes was also aimed mostly at giving the P6 more performance. Some of the works rally cars which ran between 1964 and 1966 used a 4.1:1 axle instead of the standard 3.54:1 type, and it was probably the gearing which was tried out in conjunction with a Triumph overdrive gearbox after the 1967 Leyland merge brought the two former rivals together. In the mid-1960s, the ZF 5-speed gearbox was also tried in the V8 development programme but this, like the other projects listed here, did not enter production.

The production P6 models all shared the same four-door saloon body, and all the four-door variants which were either seriously proposed or saw limited production were also based on this. In the very early days, however, some thought seems to have been given to an alternative four-door body style, and in May 1963 there was a proposal for a four-door sports coupé which, it seems, could have been either a P6 (four-cylinder) or a P7 (six-cylinder) car. Nothing seems to have come of the proposal, however, and it probably progressed no further than the drawing-board.

This must be the least known of the four-door P6 proposals, but there was also one which actually went as far as pre-production in 1965, and was then axed. This was the 2000 S, essentially the standard body with the twin-carburettor engine and a larger number of cosmetic alterations. Only 15 cars were built in the autumn of 1965, of which three had left-hand drive.

The full-spec 2000 S had wire wheels, a body-side trim strip, circular instruments (which did not go into production until five years later when the facelifted Mark II models arrived), a wood-rimmed steering wheel and a wooden gear knob. The seats had "breathing" centre panels like those favoured by Mercedes Benz, and steering was power-assisted. However, not all the pre-production cars had all those fittings: the one used by AB Smith, then Rover´s Production Director, had no side trim strips, ordinary steel wheels, and no badging at all. One 2000 S was rebuilt as a Zagato coupé, but sadly all the others have disappeared. The last one of which anything is known met its end in a Surrey scrapyard in the early 1980s.

Better known

Much better known is the P6 estate variant, which was based on the four-door saloon. Although this did go on sale, it was only ever made in limited numbers, and total production was probably between 150 and 160 cars. The estate was not actually a Rover project, although it was given Rover approval as a conversion. The design was by London coachbuilders FLM Panelcraft, and the first conversion was carried out on a 1966 2000 TC in 1967. The car survives in the hands of a Rover enthusiast in Belgium.

It was an improved design which went into production in 1969, and this was marketed first by Hurst Park Motors and later by HR Owen. Conversions were available either on brand-new cars or on older vehicles. Panelcraft sub-contracted some of the conversion work to Crayford, who appear to have put their own badges on some early cars. Most conversions were based on V8-engined cars, as the extra weight of the estate body left the four-cylinder cars rather underpowered. Several still exist, although the low height of the rear roof makes them less than ideal as estate cars, and body spares are unobtainable.

The P6´s base-unit construction, which consisted of a steel skeleton to which non-load-bearing panels were bolted, meant that any radically different alternative body configurations were bound to be expensive to engineer. Not that this stopped the Rover Company from trying out several two-door variants, though, all of which must surely have been doomed on cost grounds even before they got off the drawing-board! Not surprisingly, none of them went into production.

The earliest two-door P6 seems to have been a convertible, which was built as a design exercise in 1966. Peter Wilks had been impressed by a 3-litre P6 saloon conversion carried out for a private customer by FLM Panelcraft, and he asked them to build a similar drophead coupé on the basis of a P6. First, though, his own engineers did some homework by cutting the roof off a left-hand-drive 2000, welding up its rear doors, and subjecting the resulting mule to torsional rig tests. These seem to have been satisfactory, and so a standard 2000 was taken from the line and delivered to FLM Panelcraft.

Personal Transport

When the complete car was delivered back to Rover, Peter Wilks took it on as his personal transport for a while, and is said to have clocked up some 2000 miles in it. Although the open 2000 was an excellent concept, it did not become a production reality. Cost was partly to blame; the longer doors, special rear wings, and rear body modifications needed to provide a hood well and room for the hood mechanism, would all have made the 2000 convertible expensive to produce. The other problem was that production capacity was already at full stretch, and there was simply no room for another model to be built.

A second design exercise was carried out for Rover by the Italian coachbuilder Zagato. Rover´s own stylist David Bache had made the initial contact, and an agreement was reached under which a redundant Rover development car would be shipped out to Milan and clothed in a new two-door body. The car which went, probably some time early in 1966, was actually a 1965 2000 S with the twin-carburettor engine.

What came back to Solihull was a two-door fastback coupé in typical Zagato style, which certainly did the coachbuilder credit, but looked too much like his work on contemporary Lancias to get the go-ahead from Rover. Zagato displayed it on his own stand at the 1967 Earls Court Show, by which time it was wearing Rostyle wheels and "TCZ" badges, but after that it was sold privately in England.

The Zagato coupé would certainly have added sporting appeal to the P6 range if it had gone into production. Its 2+2 body made it some 380 lb lighter than a standard 2000 TC saloon, even though the panels were all of steel. The engine had also been modified with twin Dellorto carburettors in place of the original twin SUs.

The last of the Rover-sponsored two-door cars was styled in-house by David Bache himself, and was built up in 1967 on the basis of a very early V8-engined car. In spite of its rather high waistline, this car was a distinctive and quite elegant creation, similar in some respects to contemporary sporting coupés from Plymouth. The actual construction of "Gladys", as the prototype has always been affectionately known, was carried out by the coachbuilders Harald Radford in London, although they were working purely as sub-constractors to Rover. The car would never have gone into production as a Rover, however, but would have worn the badge of the company´s recently-acquired Alvis subsidiary, and would have replaced the old TF-series cars. David Bache now owns this unique prototype, properly known as the Alvis GTS.

In addition to these factory-sponsored projects, three two-door P6s were built by Graber, a Rover franchise operator in Switzerland.

The first Graber P6 was a convertible, built from a left-hand-drive 2000 and exhibited at a Geneva Show in 1966. In some ways, it was more successful than Rover´s own Panelcraft-converted car, and its neat hood was a vast improvement on the rather heavy item fitted to the British car.

Only a single Graber convertible was built. The coachbuilder´s next P6 was a two-door fixed-head coupé made from a left-hand-drive 2000 TC - again a particularly attractive creation, with a lowered roof-line and box-pleated seats. Perhaps it inspired more customer interest than the convertible, because Graber´s third car was a very similar design, based this time on a left-hand-drive 3500 and shown at Geneva in 1969. One of these two cars, finished in metallic light green, is still owned by the coachbuilder´s widow. The other, along with the Graber convertible, has simply disappeared.

Convertible Restored

First, a little history lesson; after Peter Wilks has used the car himself for a while, and the convertible had been rejected as a production possibility, EXC 187C passed into the hands of Anthony Cleminson, a Director of the Triplex Glass Company. In his hands, it was fitted with a heated windscreen of the type used experimentally on the rally cars. The next owner, from 1972, was former Rover engineer Chris Bramley, and he passed it on four years later to a farmer, Hugh Philipson. It wore the number plate 666 HP for a time, and passed into my hands in 1980, re-registered as CCN 346 C.

By this time, it was in very poor condition. In addition to serious rust in the base unit and in all the usual P6 places, it had particular problems around the rear end, where inadequate drainage of the hood well had allowed water to collect and rot out places which simply don´t exist ona standard P6. As the car had been primarly a design exercise anyway, the quality of some of the conversion work was suspect (such as rear trim panels cut from old cardboard boxes before being covered in vinyl), and there were damaged and ill-fitting parts aplenty.

The question, really, was where to begin. Professional restorers quoted £10.000 just to rebuild the base unit and panelwork, and suggested it might be cheaper to graft the rear half of an undamaged base unit on to the front of the existing car! Between the end of 1980 and the end of 1982 the car was off the road while I collected new parts and pondered exactly what to do. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of an enthusiastic amateur welder who was keen to tackle a major challenge such as this. He spent 417 hours patiently welding the base unit back together and building up the damaged special inner panels before returning the car to me in the spring of 1983.

A variety of problems held up further serious work until the end of 1985, when a friend´s enthusiasm, and the offer of a space on the P6 Rover Owners Club stand at the NEC show got things going again. I bought a scrap 2000 Automatic for spares and working flat out almost every wekend for the next six months, we got the car up to running condition again. We changed the rear axle, front suspension and cylinder head, fitted the later and more reliable Girling brakes, and generally sorted out all the problems.

But even after so much work, I knew it still needed much more. A bare-metal respray, a retrim, a new hood, an engine rebuild... I could see it taking another six years and an enormous amount of money before it was finished. And then my wife was expecting twins that autumn! So the car had to go, and is now with a P6 enthusiast who is doing to it exactly what I had always wanted to do. Lucky devil!


They do say that the sun shines on the righteous, and that probably explains why the P6 Rover Owners Club´s Alexandra Palace rally on 12 June was one of the few sunny days this year.

Several rarities were present: the Zagato coupé, a few estates, a handful of 3500 VIPs, and the T4 gas turbine prototype from the BMIHT Collection, kindly provided by Austin Rover. There were some ultra-low-mileage examples, too, like the 1056-mile 3500 for which a serious offer of £15.000 was recently turned down, or the unregistered 1976 2200 TC with only 24 miles on the clock which arrived by trailer. Equally fascinating to see was one of the surviving prototype six-cylinder P7 engines, which finally convinced many unbelievers that such engines really were tried out in the early days!

This was a most enjoyable event, which demonstrated both how much enthusiasm there now is for the Rover P6 and what can be achieved by a hard-working Club Committee. You should have been there!

Restoring Classic Cars / UK November 1988