- Check the A-posts, outer rear wheelarches and base of each D-post. Significant corrosion in this latter area will require removal of the rear wing, which is where costs will rack up. Although the P5 is of unitary construction, there are stout chassis legs that sprout from the sills and rot out.
- The outer panels are usually durable, but the rear inner wings can corrode out of sight. Analysis is tricky, but if you can look behind the boot trim you’ll get a good idea of the state of the metal.
- The nose area rots but it won’t affect the structural integrity. That’s not the case for rot at the back of the front wheel arches. Check where bulkhead, sill and door post meet. The subframe at the front is unlikely to give problems, but check for corrosion around the torsion bar mounts.
- The 3-litre’s power plant was a bored-out version of the P4’s 2.6-litre unit. If neglected, cylinder and valve guide wear will be in evidence. Cam followers can also wear and valve settings are tricky to do right on this IOE engine, which often leads to poor running.
- If it’s been poorly maintained, the V8 kills camshafts and rocker shafts and sticks its hydraulic tappets. As with any alloy engine, it’s essential that a decent quality antifreeze is used. Check that the engine doesn’t overheat when idling.
- While the P5’s rear suspension is conventional, the independent front set-up is unusual with its torsion bars. Problems are unlikely, except for sagging through old age. Any P5 with a droopy rear needs fresh leaf springs to restore ride and handling.
- The P5’s weight takes its toll on the shock absorbers which weaken and can break at the bottom lug. Plus the steering system tends to leak and the best solution is a modified box, with stronger seals, for some £300 or more.
- The interior is fabulous when pristine, but it’s costly to revive if tatty. All the Wilton, wood and leather could cost up to £5000 to revive professionally, so check everything closely for damage. The main dash is usually resilient, but the corners can delaminate because of water leaks. Replacement panels are mainly used ones.
Satisfying rather than sporty. V8 has good pace, 3-litre is smoother.
Fairly good although economy isn’t great, especially automatics
Generally okay but it’s a heavy car to lift. IOE tappets are tricky
Costs the same to own as a MK2, parts not so plentiful though
As good as a MK2 but much cheaper – what more can you say?
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Who needs a Jaguar when the Rover P5 is as good – and cheaper asks Robert Couldwell?
If it’s good enough for Queens, mothers of Queens and prime ministers, surely the 1958-1973 Rover 3-litre and 3.5-litre must be ideal luxurious transport for the classic enthusiast. Yes, the Rover P5 (3-litre) and P5B (3.5- litre V8) were the favourite wheels of our current Queen and her Mother as well as Maggie Thatcher, Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. The P5 succeeded a long line of high quality British cars starting as far back as the 1901 Rover Eight produced by the Rover Cycle Company. The Rover P5 was originally to be a small car to complement the P4 and Land Rover but chief Engineer, Maurice Wilks, suddenly realised that Jaguar had been making good profits with its large, luxurious MKVll, and decided to recommend a large car instead. The extra profit per car would make up for the higher volume of a small model and mean that it could be produced in the existing Solihull factory. Wilks realised that Rover did not have the in-house capability required to design this type of car and a proper design department was established to include the highly talented David Bache, who designed both the 3 and 3.5-litre P5s and P5Bs, the highly successful 2000, 2200 and 3500 executive cars, the Range Rover and the rather more prosaic Austin Maestro. However the P5 nearly led to a riot when it was signed-off because Rover’s big wigs thought it was too good for the company! One said to the designer David Bache “That’s a very beautiful model you’ve produced. I know everyone is most impressed with it. But we can’t make it, you know. And I’ll tell you why we can’t make it – it’s a head turner and the Rover Company doesn’t make head turners.” Happily, Rover went against tradition and launched the car.
Which model to buy?
Maurice Wilk’s instincts were absolutely right and the Rover 3-litre (P5) and subsequent Buick V8-powered 3.5-litre (P5b) proved to be highly successful and profitable, with a long production run from 1958-1973. Thanks to legendary ‘old’ Rover quality, many cars are still around and offer a real alternative to the Jaguar MK2 at a fraction of the cost. A V6 engine was in development but it wasn’t available in time, so the P4’s faithful 2.6-litre straight-six was increased to a full 3.0-litres and, when launched as a saloon, the P5 or Rover 3-litre as it became known, produced 115bhp, a top speed of 96 mph and 0-60 mph in 16.2 seconds – not bad for its time. The car was Rover’s first unitary construction model and was fitted with independent torsion-bar front suspension with traditional leaf springs at the rear. There was a standard four-speed gearbox with the option of an overdrive or a three-speed automatic transmission. Brakes were drums all round with servo assistance, but this was uprated to disc affairs soon afterwards. The first P5 was the most prolific, with nearly 21,000 built, many of which are around today. Over the next two years there were hundreds of detail improvements, the most notable being servo assisted steering and new interiors with wooden fascia inserts and door cappings. In September 1961, an interim version, the Mk1A was announced with added quarter lights, new wheel trims and some improvements to engine mounts and the optional automatic transmission. Way ahead of its time in 1962, Rover identified the four-door coupé market recently revived by Mercedes-Benz with the CLS, BMW with the 5 Series GT and Audi with the A5 Sportback. The new car looked fantastic but retained most of the practicality of the saloon. The Coupé was a contentious
car – it dared to add real style to the conservative 3-litre and set the pulses of the bowler hat brigade racing. It was probably the cause of a few chauffeur redundancies as the captains of industry wanted to drive it themselves – albeit without room for their bowlers. With concerned glances across to the high performance Jaguars, Rover fitted a Weslake cylinder head to increase power to 129bhp and maximum speed to 107mph with a reduced 0-60 mph figure at 15 seconds, somewhat behind Coventry’s finest but acceptable for such a large car. The P5 was now fitted with disc brakes at the front to handle the extra grunt, sealed beam headlights and upgraded upholstery and instruments. Despite the extra style of the Coupé, it was outsold by the MK2 saloon 15,676 to 5482. In 1965 there was a mild facelift with a new Borg Warner automatic gearbox and a power increase to 134bhp with little effect on performance. There were new chromed side strips, better seats and interior trim and new separate heating controls front and rear. The real step forward came in 1967 when Rover met Jaguar square-on with the P5b. The ‘B’ stood for Buick – the originator of the newly added and wonderful V8 engine. It may have only provided another 27bhp, but with considerable extra torque and much lighter weight, it gave virtually Jaguar 420 performance with better fuel consumption. Apart from the engine there were visual improvements such as Rostyle wheels, side indicators and recessed front fog lights. When it comes to buying, there are really four choices – the P5 Saloon, P5 Coupé, P5b Saloon and P5b Coupé. As far as the six-cylinder cars are concerned, the MkII and all Coupés have disc brakes, which is a big advantage – and there’s the choice of manual, manual/overdrive or automatic, while the V8-engined cars come as automatics only. While the 3-litre is no ball of fire it will just about keep up with modern traffic and cruise very contentedly at 70mph. Any of these cars, providing they are rust free and properly maintained, will make a rewarding choice. Roadworthy models start at around £3000, while the best 3.5-litre Coupés fetch £10-12,000 – sometimes more for real specimens. In other words, the days of a banger P5 are over. And about time too!
Behind the wheel?
Drive a P5 like a sports car and it will give a MK2 or TR6 a fright
The 3-litres are stately cars and respond best to restrained driving styles. They don’t like hard driving and can sound very strained when stressed.Wafting is their preferred style of travel and this they do arguably better than the P5b. The rear suspension is pre-war in design so fast cornering is not really an option. The resulting lurch and roll is most ungainly for so regal a vehicle. So rather than trying to carry speed through the bends, it’s better to brake early and use the prodigious performance to accelerate through: much more dignified. The 3.5-litre certainly responds much better to spirited driving, thanks to the lower centre of gravity and a fat 2cwt weight reduction. Motor clocked its test car at a whisker under 120mph and hit 60mph in 9.5 seconds – although the auto ‘box had to be worked like a manual to achieve this TR6-like pace. Both engines provide excellent cruising – the quietest being the 3-litre with a manual gearbox and overdrive, but none of them will disappoint providing door and window rubbers are doing their job to control wind noise. Comfort levels – as would be expected of a car chosen by monarchs and ministers – are of a very high order thanks to good seats and a mellow ride. For the majority we’d say that he P5b is the top pick, not so much for its added poke, but for the extra style that came with the V8, such as restrained looks, neat two-tone paintwork and the clever adoption of Ro-style wheels. It all added up to a car with real class and one that made the MK2 Jag look decidedly second best.
The Daily Option?
Power with pomp is how one magazine summed up the Rover
The only aspect that could stop either the Rover 3-litre or 3.5-litre being a daily driver is fuel consumption, which at best will struggle into the low twenties and the overdrive cars offer slightly better economy. If this isn’t a concern then you’ll find the Rover as capable as any Jaguar – and a lot roomier in the rear with a bigger boot, too. As with all monocoque cars of this era, rust is the enemy and few owners will want to takes the P5 out on damp, salted roads unless the underside has the highest levels of rust protection with regular inspections. All but the latest cars will be tax-exempt and classic car insurance will be very reasonable, particularly if your annual mileage is capped. Here’s what the press said at the time that still rings true today. Motor magazine summed up the old 3-litre perfectly back in 1966: “For less than half the price, you can buy a great deal more performance elsewhere. But for twice as much, it’s hard to think of where you can get that much more refinement”. “Power with pomp” is how Motor described the 3.5b Coupe two years later. “So many who regard this Rover – with its wood panelled interior and four thick leather armchairs – as being the finest London club on wheels, will now have to accept it as being the fastest as well”.
Ease of ownership?
After 1965 Rover increasingly rationalised production using common components between the P4, P5 and Land Rover, which means there is a strong supply of new and second-hand parts. First port of call before buying is the very specific Rover P5 club (www.roverp5club.org.uk) and the more general Rover Sports Register (www.thersr.co.uk). Either of these clubs will provide all the advice you need. Mechanically, there’s no real worries and it’s more simple to maintain than a rival Coventry Cat, although removing the engine and transmission is tough, as you need skyhooks to lift the whole front end to enable the front cross member to be dropped. The V8 engine is well known and swaps with later 3.9 and 4-litre units that would easily turn the P5 into a discreet sports saloon. The older IOE engine is simple but may still fox you. The tappets are quite tricky to get right and if they’re not done properly the engine can run rough. The interiors need looking after with a lot of high quality leather and wood veneer. Providing the seats are not actually ripped, a lot can be done with cleaners, hide foods and dyes to bring back some of the original luxury. These are big cars that might make parking an issue what with the heavy non assisted steering, in what are often inadequate parking bays. If a P5 is to be kept outside then it’s essential to ensure that the window seals are in good condition to prevent leaks that can spoil the carpets. Leaks can also come from the heater matrix. Replacement carpets are available from specialist suppliers but they are not to original specification.
P5 announced in Sept using the quirky IOE (part side valve inlet over exhaust) 115bhp 3-litre straight-six taken from the P4, equipped with drum brakes all round.
For 1960 front discs with servo arrived. In July ’61, the MkIA arrived with minor trim changes such as quarter light vents and stainless steel wheel trims.
Again in July, the MkIIA surfaced with Weslake-designed cylinder head for 121bhp. Also lower suspension – but the big news was the new Coupé.
July Rover’s favourite month! MkIIB went on sale. Changes slight though, Coupé was unchanged while the saloon’s steering ratio was raised to make it lighter.
The MkIIC brought power steering and two-speed wipers as standard, while the MkIII of September 1965 featured new seating and separate heating systems.
Biggest change was launch of the P5B with the Buick V8. Three-speed auto, Rostyle wheels, side trims, twin exhausts, fog lamps were eye catching features.
Revised auto gearing (signified by yellowcoloured change-up points on the speedo) and improved rear seat room (1968), plus inertia reel belts for 1972.
The P5 makes a great alternative to a Jag MK2 or S-Type, offering similar luxury and pace in – dare we say it – a more dignified manner. V8 Coupes in particular are lovely, stylish cruisers that have class to boot. No wonder the British establishment instantly took to them. As one road test of the time put it: “You might find a mere human being driving a Jag, but if you drive a 3.5 you’ve got to be a magistrate or something.” Hear, hear.
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