A most English car

It´s at least 20 years since the last new Rover P6B burbled out the dealer´s doors and joined the streams of cars on our roads. During that time the technology of the motor car has changed immensely and it takes a good car to hold its own amongst the modern cars of these very last years of the 20th century.

But it´s been a sunny Sunday afternoon in Greenhithe, north of Auckland, and I´ve just been driving a couple of cars that can still easily foot it on our highways.

Kelly Archer is a boat builder with a lifelong passion for perfection and consequently for these great Rovers. He´s has several good ones, but the two he has currently are prime examples of one of my favourite cars.

It was like revisiting an old friend. The great advantage too was that this time I could drive an auto like the ones I used to own and then drive a manual edition, both in excellent condition. They were quite different cars.

Kelly has owned the almond-coloured automatic 1974 car for about 15 years and it is his daily work car, so you can believe it when he mentions that this car has now completed 300.000 ks – not unusual with this cars incidentally.

Originally it was tourist delivered in England and then used for about six months in Europe before being brought back to NZ. The white 3500 S car was bought with overseas funds and delivered to its owner in Napier in 1973. Kelly bought it in 1988. The mileage on the 3500 S is still only 120K and it shows up in the way everything handles and feels – especially the manual box which is by far the nicest one I´ve ever used in one of these cars. In fact it was a delight by any standards.

Not strong enough

These boxes didn´t come into use until 1971 and they were derived from the four-cylinder box, which is the reason why they´re a bit on the edge if abused or misused – not quite strong enough.

Both cars are strictly bog standard in every feature. Although Malcolm Clarke of Bygone Autos does the servicing and has several very interesting tricks that transform these P6Bs, he hasn´t yet been able to persuade Kelly to carry out the mods.

These mods can be very rewarding. They involve changes to the suspension, and you can go further, changing the twin SUs to a downdraught Weber and even a Japanese five-speed box.

It took Kelly five years to find the 3500 S, and then he stripped it down to paint and rustproof. He also managed to find a touring kit, including boot lid, which he installed. The touring kit enables you to put the spare wheel on the boot thus making the boot a lot more useable. Touring pack installation can be done in 30 secs. But the spare wheel is a bit prominent on the boot lid and does obscure your vision directly out of the rear window.

Both cars are immaculate inside and out although the auto is due for a repaint, says Kelly, and that´s on the agenda when he´s worked up the energy to carry out the preparation – don´t you hate rubbing down? It´s a lot of trouble persuading teenagers to do it, even for money, the lazy bs. Bring back the knout!

Both cars are Mk IIs and have the later box-pleated seats in the very high quality vinyl in the auto and cloth in the manual. The seats can be raised and lowered with packers between the runners and the floor.

When you´re seated you can actually feel yourself to be quite high up. I get the feeling if innate superiority that is expected of a Rover owner – enough even to make me vote coalition possibly. You can also adapt your stance with the adjustable steering column and the seat back which can be rake modified easily. Seating is extremely comfortable – even on a long run – and gives an excellent feeling of control.

Instrumentation is really very well placed and there´s everything that you need at a glance. From the right – the fuel and temp in one gauge then the speedo, the rev counter and the amp and oil again in the one gauge, and then the clock. Below them on a new panel is the fog lighter, the two light switches for the interior and the outside lights. Then there´s the wiper switch – slow and fast – and the hazard lights button and heated rear window button. Night lighting is restfully tinted and superbly clear and adjustable.

Its only failing is the cabin room which is strictly four seater, and if you´ve got a tall driver, the rear passenger will feel pinched from the knees down.

A safety capsule

There´s a sloped and padded glove box lid in front of the driver and passenger – in front of their knees actually – one of the reasons that the P6B has always been rated as one of the world´s safest cars. Seatbelts were always standard too.

Both the auto and manual sticks are perfectly positioned for rather portly motoring writers – such as Allan Walton or Greg H.

The power steering is excellent and once you´ve had it you wouldn´t be without it. A well set-up P6B is a secure-feeling handler, with some initial understeer, although if the suspension is aged and sloppy the body roll can turn quickly into oversteer.

David Bache was given his head in designing the P6 which was to replace the P4. The original P5 idea of a base unit (which never eventuated) was revisited when the design team were brainstorming their way through things.

The P6 was conceived as a high-speed light weight, with advanced specs. Remember that it was originally conceived as possibly a turbine engine user and certainly as an employer of the new Rover 1978 cc ohc motor.

By the time it was launched in 1963, the turbine had been axed and the only available motor was the four-cylinder ohc unit. Everybody thought it a wonderful car with an excellent motor (which the four ohc is) but they´d like more power thank you, so then came the period of dithering when Rover tried to extend the unit by two more pots – too long for the engine bay, so what about five cylinders? Balance was a problem of course and Audi didn´t solve that for another few years.

When it was found that GM no longer needed the alloy V8 – casting iron blocks was now a lot cheaper and compacts such as the Buicks and Pontiacs were not selling so well – Rover made one of their best-ever decisions and snapped it up.

At last a reasonably priced English saloon with lots of power and that lovely burbling sound that America was used to.

With both the 2200 and the V8, Rover had winners in the P6 design, and don´t forget that simultaneously the Land Rover was just as important in generating business for Solihull – where Rover made Rovers.

Timeless pleasure

I don´t always comment on driving cars, but I need to with these two, because there´s something a bit different about them. In a word it´s “refinement”.

I´ve driven a number of the Rover P6Bs and I´ve owned a couple. As soon I got into the auto version I found myself dropping straight back into the standard Rover P6B mode – laid back and easy enjoyment heightened by the power steer, smooth auto and the silently powerful sensation of a stressfree V8 doing its job.

But in the manual version half an hour later I found that the very markedly more lively performance of the V8, freed from the auto, and instead directed ny an excellent gearshift, made me much more purposeful in my driving.

Contrary to my previous experiences this manual shift was outstandingly efficient; it clicked quickly, cleanly and readily from gear to gear and showed me that when one of these boxes doesn´t do this there´s something wrong with it.

The auto is calming and the manual is exciting. One is a soporific and one is a stimulant.

This is why Kelly has both of them. There´s a time and a need for each. Long-distance touring and/or towing with an auto is very relaxing. Going somewhere in a hurry is very energising in a manual.

I definitely would have the suspension modified in the 3500 S to turn it into a very sporty car. If there´s another nice one out there at a sensible price let me know. I´m in lust again.

Penn McKay

NZ 1997