Rover P6 - Underestimated and Overlooked

Throughout their history, the Rover Motor Company had enjoyed a reputation for solid, well-built and appointed - if rather dull - motor cars. Rovers were the type of car that appealed to the British middle class; the first choice of bankers and accountants. Not for nothing did the car earn the nickname "Aunty Rover".

By the 1960s, Rover ditched the staid image somewhat, with the release of the P6. The new range managed to combine old world charm and quality feel of the previous Rovers while incorporating some innovative design features. Roverīs team of engineers, headed by David Bache, were determined to create a car with class, sophistication, and performance.

The overall styling of the P6 was a radical departure from the tall, bulbous P4; featuring a new beltline, the new P6 had an almost rakish look. Quad headlights and a full length grille replaced the dated front end of the P4. In keeping with Roverīs luxury image, the interior of the P6 featured plush, comfortable leather seats, and adequate room for four adults. New safety features included a fully padded dashboard and glovebox designed to offer protection to the knee area in an accident. Safety was high priority for Bacheīs team, and the P6 incorporated state-of-the-art crash-resistance in its structure. The steering column was collapsible rather than intrusive on the driver, doors were heavily reinforced, the fuel tank was well-protected, and three-point seat belts for all seats were standard.

The most notable feature of the P6īs construction was its monocoque skeleton, inspired by the Citroen DS range, onto which all the body panels were bolted. This feature enabled cheaper and easier body repair work. The P6 utilized an interesting and complicated independent front suspension, with double wishbones relayed through a knee-action mechanism to springs mounted horizontally against the firewall. Steering rods were carried under the cowl scuttle. A De Dion axle at the rear, similar to contemporary Aston Martins, with a Watts linkage and a Panhard rod, provided a set-up that delivered a comfortable ride. Although often considered "soft" by sporting drivers, it was nonetheless praised for its stability at high speed.

The engine bay of the P6 was, from the very beginning, intended to accomodate a variety of engine sizes and configurations. So, a particularly capacious engine bay, without a conventional, space-hogging front axle, allowed a range of possibilities. An all-new 2000cc, overhead-cam four-cylinder engine was the motive power of the new P6. Envisioned were such subsequent options as a production version of Roverīs famous experimental turbine engine. Although quite compact, production costs for the turbine were too high, and development to a stage of acceptable reliability would take too long. There was, of course, the old F-head straight six from the P4, Land Rover, and early P5s. But it was deemed too bulky and heavy for this application. Perhaps history would have served the P6 better if it had been equipped with the tried and tested F-head, or at least featured a better produced four cylinder, as the two-litre engine was to prove unreliable and hasten British Leylandīs decision to discontinue exporting the car to the United States.

Despite its reliability problems, the 2000 - as it was known as equipped with a single carburettor - was a lively engine, producing 90 bhp and capable of propelling the 2770-pound Rover to 100 mph and more. With the introduction in 1966 of the twin carburettor P6, known as the 2000 TC, power rose to 114 bhp and the top speed increased to 110 mph. But by the mid-sixties, American owners were becoming increasingly tired of the quality control problems associated with the P6, and sales reflected their dissatisfaction.

At the tail end of the sixties, British Leyland wanted to take one more stab at the U.S. market. A search for a more reliable and powerful engine had Roverīs engineers experimenting with five and six cylinder versions of the 2-litre four, and even taking another look at the old F-head six, still chugging along in thousands of P4s.

Perhaps the answer would be to find a proven design amongst the other automotive manufacturers? On a trip to Detroit, Managing Director William Martin-Hurst found what he was looking for. GMīs Buick division had developed an aluminium, sand-cast, dry-lined V8 engine for their mid-sized line-up, displacing just 215 cubic inches (3.5 litres, tiny by American standards) and very compact in size. The high-compression motor developed 200 bhp, and, in some brief forays into the performance fray, GM offered very rare turbocharged and alcohol-injected versions with yet more power! Used in the 1961-63 Buick Specials and some of their Pontiac and Oldsmobile counterparts, GM finally decided that this high-cost engine didnīt make economic sense for so low a volume range. Substituting a conventional cast-iron V8 for the alloy powerplant, they then entertained negotiations with British Leyland, finally selling the tooling and production rights for the engine.

The lightweight 3.5-litre V8 weighed almost exactly the same as the cast iron Rover two-litre four, which enabled a straightforward transplant which had no ill effects on the steering and suspension set-up of the P6. The large engine bay, planned well in advance, allowed a tidy fit, with just a chassis structural member moved slightly forward, the battery sent to the boot, the exhaust manifolding and air cleaners altered, and the oil pump mount angled to miss a cross member. The motor then slipped comfortably in at a 4-degree tilt.

Backing up the Rover/Buick V8 was a Borg Warner Type 35 three-speed automatic gearbox, common to many other larger European sedans such as Volvos and Opels. This trans offered good performance, and proved to be more curable than the four-speed manual box offered after 1972 in the British-version 3.5 S. Although the United States received a slightly detuned engine, in order to meet the tightening federal pollution laws, the V8 still gave the P6 143 bhp and a respectable top speed of 122 mph. With double the horsepower and nearly twice the torque of the four-cylinder, the V8 pushed the car from 0-50 mph in 8.5 seconds with the automatic transmission. With the V8 came a whole new personality, characterized by a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution due to the batteryīs relocation in back and a fuel tank enlarged from 14.4 to 18 gallons. Larger tires, stiffer suspension, and larger brakes allowed better use of the new engineīs potential.

Although the overall look of the 3.5 P6 remained the same for the British model, the U.S. export models received all the fanciest appointments. These included a new dashboard with complete instrumentation and large, white-on-black dials. The interior featured Roverīs most comfortable, fully-adjustable seats, four large glove bins, fast-paced electric windows, and Roverīs anachronistic Icelert warning device (intended to warn drivers of road-freezing conditions). Also available were variable-assist power steering (rare in 1970) and vacuum-modulated, adjustable intermittent windshield wipers.

Exterior trim was upgraded as well. The U.S. 3500 S received heavier chrome bumpers, a stainless side rub strip, dual rearview mirrors, and a unique fitting for mounting the spare tire on the boot lid if ever the space within was at a premium. Special wheels were fitted and (supposedly necessary to meet U.S. emissions requirement, but perhaps more realistically as a nod to the muscle fad) three air scoops adorned the bonnet. The esthetic qualities of this trio of scoops, though clearly distinguishing the car from its four-cylinder sister, has long been a subject for debate.

The list cost of the P6, in 1969, was approximately $5.440, for which the purchaser received a refined, comfortable, and more-than-adequately powerful motor car. Unfortunately, many also received a handful of problems, both mechanical, and in fit and finish, due to the erratic quality control that was becoming more and more associated with British-made cars.

By 1970, due to these problems, along with a very low profit margin for U.S. emission-controlled cars, and aggrevated with labor unrest, hardly a week went by at British Leyland without some form of dispute. Finally, BL management upheaval led to Rover withdrawing from the North American market. Aside from a brief and unspectacular foray in 1980 with the wedge-shaped SD1, the Rover name was not to be seen again in the U.S. until the debut of the Sterling last year.


At the wheel (by Robert Daines)

Having owned both a Rover P4 and P6 in the UK, it is not hard to discern the radical departure from Roverīs traditional styling that the latter offered. The most immediate point one notices behind the wheel is the driving position. Whereas the P4 offered a very 1950īs, almost stately position, the P6 is much more in line with modern trends.

True to Rover tradition, the seats are leather, and offer a fair degree of support and comfort for both driver and passenger. The dashboard is clearly laid out although idiot lights replace the vital instruments, emphasizing the fact that the P6 is a family car first and foremost.

That said, the P6 in both SC and 2000 TC form will never deliver tire-scorching performance, but neither does it feel underpowered around town or on the motorway, where it will be happily propel you to trouble with the police. The steering, without power assist, is responsive even at low speeds, which is a blessing considering the size of the car.

Cornering the little vigorously provokes some understeer but nothing that will cause panic, while the car is flat and stable at freeway speeds. All in all, the handling, though far from race-bred, inspires a quiet confidence in the driver.

British Car / USA 12/1988