The original Wild Rovers

... or the days when Aunty picked up her skirts and flew... Rovers entered totally standard cars, won some surprising laurels, then quit in disgust at the politics of the sport. A V8 world-beater was just around the corner, the basis of the team established... what might have been achieved, had they carried on?

It was as much to change their image, as to dominate rallying that Rover came into the sport in the 1960s. In four seasons, there was only one truly remarkable success, the cars were never truly competitive against projectiles like the BMC Mini Cooper Ss, or Fordīs Lotus Cortinas, and immediately after the Monte Carlo scandal of 1966 erupted, they retired, sickened.

The Rover marque did not return to rallying until the early 1980s when Austin Rover Motorsport built three long-distance cars for the ill-fated Peking to Paris proposal, and began to develop the big SD1 model for Group A events.

By 1962, Roverīs problem was that they had an important new model coming along - the compact, technically advanced 2000 saloon - and it was vastly different from any other Rover built in the previous 30 years. In that period, company fortunes had been directed by the Wilks brothers - Spencer and Maurice - and their approach had always been to build reliable, dignified machines of high quality, without the need to descend to any whizz-bang sales or marketing techniques. Typical of that fine cars were the P4 "Auntie" and P5 "Great Auntie" saloons.

But the younger generation, headed by Peter Wilks and Spencer King, now looked after new design, and their forthcoming Rover 2000 was dramatically different - it had ultra-modern engineering, where that of the P5 3-litre was traditional, advanced styling by David Bacheīs team, and features like an overhead camshaft engine, and De Dion suspension, which needed to be well publicised.

Roverīs new managing director William Martin-Hurst, therefore, decided to get a "works" team involved in international rallying, and in 1962 and 1963 they broke ground by using the massive, but rather slow P5 3-litres saloons. They always ran absolutely standard, but since they were also very strong, and extremely well-built, some highly creditable performances were recorded. On their first event, the Safari no less, a P5 was up to fifth at half-distance, while on the Ličge-Sofia-Ličge which followed, two of the four cars finished, and Ken James not only won his class, but finished sixth overall.

Quite suddenly, the rallying establishment, which had been laughing, fell silent, and watched - carefully. There were more good, if not sensational, results to follow - 11th in the RAC of 1962, seventh in the 1963 Safari, and eighth in the 1963 Ličge - but all the time the planning went ahead to use the new Rover 2000s. Their debut, however, did not come until the Alpine rally of June 1964.

Team foreman Toney Cox, himself a British club rally driver of no mean ability, looked after the building of four new cars - 1 KUE, 2 KUE, 3 KUE and 4 KUE respectively - from a department tucked into a corner of the new P6 assembly building at Solihull. Engineering workshop superintendent Ralph Nash was also the teamīs competitions manager (when it all started in 1962, he cheerfully admitted to knowing nothing about rallying, but he became cumming and resourceful in a very short time indeed!), and for that first event he not only had Ken James, Peter Riley and Anne Hall in his team, but he also signed up a young man called Roger Clark to drive the fourth car.

Clark, incidentally, had already had one "works" drive for Reliant (a Sabre Six in the 1963 Alpine), and one for Triumph (a TR4 in the Ličge), but this was his first regular appointment. Even at this stage, of course, Clarkīs powess in British events was well known, where he used his own Cortina GT, but he had to come to terms with the less highly developed Rover before he could begin to drive it to its limits.

But it didnīt take long, for as he later wrote in his autobiography: "Until I really got used to the Rover, and found out what tremendous handling it had, I didnīt know just what liberties I could take with it. Iīd never driven a car flat-out for so long; you could go so far sideways and stay in control it was almost ridiculous, but it was essential".

Of the four red Alpine cars, two ran standard (absolutely standard, which is to say that they had no more than 90 bhp from their four-cylinder engines), and two ran "modified", because they were using prototype 2000 TC cylinder heads and carburettors. On what was a very fast event indeed, it was asking a lot for the cars to produce any results, first time out, so it was remarkable that two of the four made it to the finish. Peter Riley actually took third overall in Group 1, behind Erik Carlssonīs Saab, and Guy Verrierīs Citroen DS, while Ken Jamesīs "modified" car took a class third (behind two racing Porsche 904 GTS coupés!).

For the rest of 1964, however, it was downhill all the way. Three cars started Spa-Sofia-Ličge (the last of those spine-tingling rough road races through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria) but they all retired. Clarkīs due to blowing its engine on the autoput south of Zagreb when the car jumped out of gear, Anne Hall was eliminated by a navigational error, and Logan Morrison simply ran out of petrol too far from help. There was minor consolation that the deadly rivals from Triumph, in much-modified 2000s, all dropped out too, all with the same rear suspension breakage.

The RAC rally, too, was a real Rover disaster, with four cars starting, but only Anne Hallīs machine making it to the finish.

At Monte Carlo, in January 1965, though, it all came good, and the effort was worthwhile. The weather was so bad that year that every starter had a good excuse for retiring: running out of time, or going off the road. At the end of the event, only 22 of the 237 starters were still mobile. But one of those was a Rover 2000 - not only that, but Roger Clark and Jim Porter urged the slow, but amazingly weildly machine, into sixth overall, winning their class, and the entire Group 1 category!

Roger, who said in his book, of this event: "It separates the men from the boys - you soon find out whoīs brave and who isnīt!", swept serenely on through the blizzards, though Logan Morrisonīs car blew its engine, and the other two team cars crashed. Clark, though, dropped just 11 minutes on the dreadful run to Monte Carlo, held seventh at the start of the mountain circuit, and moved up one place on the last eight.

There was a down-market sequel equally as satisfying. The Clark/Rover combination, with several others, was rushed back to Sweden for a TV rallycross-on-snow spectacular immediately afterwards, where the grinning Mr. Clark soundly defeated local hot-shot Bengt Soderstrom in a "works" Ford Cortina GT!

By this time, Rogerīs co-driver, Jim Porter, had joined Rover as Ralph Nashīs competitions assistant, the team having really "arrived", and enthusiasts were beginning to expect more giant-killing performances, especially from Roger Clark himself, who was the undoubted star. The problem was that Roger tried even harder than was natural for an ambitious young man, and had more than his share of shunts in the rest of the season...

It wasnīt Roverīs week on the Acropolis in May 1965, when all four cars retired, or had accidents, but on the Alpine rally of that year (which had schedules even faster, if that was possible, than the previous year...), the four cars performed much better. Three of them were entered as standard machines while a single one (for Andrew Cowan) ran as a GT machine, complete with the twin-carb TC engine and about 115 bhp.

In an event made notorious for Peter Harperīs Sunbeam Tiger winning outright, then being disqualified because the engine spec. didnīt tie in with the homologation form, Roger Clarkīs standard car missed its Coupe des Alpes with one infuriating minute of lateness, but Andrew Cowan surpassed all expectations by finishing third overall in the GT category, finishing behind, would you believe, Constenīs Alfa Romeo TZ Tubolare, and the Austin Healey 3000 of the Morley twins.

It was quite clear to everyone, by this time, that the 2000īs "chassis" was outstanding, even if Ralph Nash did insist that they ran with something approaching standard damper settings, but that the cars were drastically short of power. The rival Triumphs, which usually ran as Group 3 GT cars, used Weber carburettors and 150 bhp, which made them much faster, if less reliable, but it was not Rover policy to let Toney Nashīs mechanics start tuning-up the cars. Management, above all else, wanted to prove their cars in standard (or, in the case of the 2000 TC, soon-to-be-standard) guise.

The RAC rally of 1965 was another very snowy event, which ought to have suited the sure-footed Rovers, but misfortune struck the team in a big way. Every one of the four cars (still the same registration numbers, incidentally) was crashed, some several times, and only two of them finished. The good news was that Roger Clark and Logan Morrison took second and third in their capacity class, but the bad news was that the class was won by Roy Fiddlerīs Triumph 2000, which finished fifth overall behind four Scandinavians.

For 1966, therefore, Rover started the season with a set of new white-painted standard 2000s, for the Monte Carlo rally was to include a new Group 1 category. Roger Clark, Peter Procter and Andrew Cowan had all moved on to other teams, so it was Logan Morrison, Geoff Mabbs, Anne Hall and Sobieslaw Zasada who drove the cars.

The event, of course, will always go down in history as the "headlights fiasco" event, for BMC Minis took the first three places, and Roger Clarkīs Lotus Cortina fourth, only to be disqualified by organisers who seemed determined to trump up an excuse for a Citroen to win. None of this affected the Rovers, in fact, for their wiring systems were not altered from standard.

Four cars became three when Anne Hall crashed her car near Gap, and two of the final Mountain Circuit when Zasada also crashed, then to one only, when Logan Morrison crashed on the Turini, but newcomer Geoff Mabbs (co-driven by Jim Porter) kept going... and going... eventually to finish tenth overall.

But this, no doubt, was an event so marred by politicking that it sickened many people. Both Rover and Triumph management were appalled by what had gone on, and within days both firms had withdrawn their cars from rallying. It could only have been partly the reason, because new homologation rules (which, quite incidentally, had allowed the Mini Cooper S and Ford Lotus Cortina models being accepted as 5.000 cars-a-year "standard" models...) hurt their big saloon cars quite badly.

The statement diplomatically said: "Having demonstrated in numerous rallies the mechanical reliability of the Rover 2000 and 3-litre cars, the Rover company has temporarily withdrawn from this form of competition in order to concentrate on current engineering commitments. It is the companyīs intention, in due course, to return to rallying".

In fact, as with so many "temporary" withdrawals, this one turned out to be permanent. The pity of it all was that, although Roverīs marketing and publicity departments were delighted by the limited successes gained, there were even more promising models just around the corner which could have made the team truly competitive.

Not only was the 2000 TC put on sale during 1966, and built in large enough numbers to ensure its use in Group 1, but there was also the very exciting P6B 3500, complete with light-alloy Buick-type vee-8 engine, under development. In fact it was Toney Coxīs rallying workshops which had built the very first 3500 prototype back in 1964, even before the 2000s had tackled their first rally!

Now, in the mid-80s, we all know how formidably powerful that vee-8 engine can be, in the latest Rover hatchbacks, or a few years ago in the Triumph TR8 sports cars. Just think how rapid a rally-prepared 3500 could have been in 1968...

Sporting Cars November 1984