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What is a Rover P6?
It’s one of the most affordable, innovative Sixties classics around. When first shown in 1963, it truly pushed the boundaries, with its clean lines, unconventional construction, racing-derived rear suspension design and all-round disc brakes - those at the rear being in-board to reduce unsprung weight. The front suspension was even designed so that a gas turbine engine could have been fitted, although conventional powerplants were all that ever graced the nose of the P6. When launched in 1963 the P6 created a real stir - this was a daring car from a traditionally very conservative car maker. With its rakish lines, sophisticated braking and suspension systems and innovative construction, it was no wonder the P6 was named Car of the Year in 1964 - scooping the very first COTY award in the process. What’s even more impressive is that more than four decades after its launch, the P6 makes as much sense as ever; the cars remain eminently usable yet are more affordable than they’ve ever been.
The P6 made debuted at the October 1963 Earls Court motor show, as the Rover 2000, with a 90bhp 1978cc four-cylinder engine. Three years later the 2000TC arrived, with twin carbs, sportier cam and head and a 120mph speedometer. At the same point, wire wheels became optional (they were rarely ordered) and for the first time there was the choice of an automatic gearbox on the 2000. It was the 3500 that really captures the classic car buyer’s imagination though; this went on sale in April 1968, with a 144bhp Buick-derived V8 taken from the P5B. In December of the same year the P6 got a slight refresh; from this point all cars were fitted with through-flow ventilation and fixed rear quarterlights. The latter feature lasted just a year though, before the rear quarterlights were re-instated, by popular demand!
In October 1970, the Series IIP6 was shown at the Paris motor show. Known as the MkII by Rover, but the Series II by everyone else, changes were largely cosmetic, such as the black honeycomb grille, vinylcovered C-pillars and the introduction of circular instruments. The strip speedo remained on the SC and automatic four-cylinder cars until production ended, however. The most sought after of all the P6s made its debut in October 1971; the 3500S. The V8-engined P6 had been available only with an automatic gearbox from launch, but this new derivative offered a four-speed manual with the legendary 3.5-litre lump, making a truly desirable combination. Aside from the gearbox, the only other difference between the 3500S and the standard car was a vinyl roof. Development slowed right down into the 1970s, with few model changes. The most significant advance was the scrapping of the 2000 in October 1973, when it was superseded by the 2200; a worthwhile change as the new unit gave the P6 much better performance. From this point on, any P6 buyer could specify a vinyl roof but other than that there was virtually no development of the range until the P6’s demise in March 1977.
A well-sorted P6 can give many modern econoboxes a run for their money, thanks to a supple suspension that smooths out the bumps but give a decent degree of grip into the bargain. True, there’s more roll than you’d hope for, but it’s nothing to spoil the driving experience and the P6 was regarded as a super safe sports saloon in its day. While everyone wants the V8 (especially the 3500S with its manual gearbox), the four-cylinder cars are also utterly usable although can feel a tad rough at low speed. Best with manual ‘box (especially the 2000 which really needs to be avoided in auto guise because it’s too pedestrian), strangely overdrive was never offered on this cruiser.
Four-cylinder cars are all worth much the same, as the 2000 gets free road tax but the 2200 is nicer to drive. Decent examples of either start at £1000 and rise to £3000 for a really nice car. The 3500 starts at £2000 and a really nice 3500S can fetch £5000 as long as it’s well equipped; the most valuable examples have power steering, tinted glass and leather trim.
What To Look For
- With all the panels bolted on (even the roof), it’s easy to remove everything; the monocoque can rot, especially in the centre section – although the P6 is less rust-prone than most of its contemporaries. Have a good prod underneath with a bradawl all the same, because even fairly major corrosion can easily be masked by the factory-applied underseal.
- The sills need careful inspection; they’re crucial to the car’s strength but also rot-prone. Don’t be fooled by outer sill panels that are in perfect condition; these are bolt-on items that are purely cosmetic rather than structural. It’s also important to check the condition of the sills from inside the car; peel back the carpets and have a good poke.
- Remove the back seat and ensure the metal at either side is still there; it often isn’t. If there’s heavy corrosion here there’s a good chance that the rear wheelarches are rotten, along with the closing panel that the back door shuts onto.
- Inspect the wheelarch lips and rear quarter panels plus the leading edge of the rear wings; if these have corroded badly it’s likely the inner wings will also be holed. Even if the wings appear okay, look at the rear valance and rear quarter panels, which can rot badly.
- Open the boot and see what state the floor is in; also see what the panels inside the rear wings are like. The rear suspension trailing arms are bolted to these, which means they’re under a lot of stress and strain. Consequently, once the metal has started to weaken through rust it’s possible for the arms to pull right out!
- Less serious, but very likely, is rot in the front wings around the wheelarches and along their trailing edge (just ahead of each front door). While you’re inspecting these, take a look at the undersides of each door and front valance.
- Despite the inherent durability of the four-cylinder engines, there are still potential problems such as water leaking from the block’s side cover plates, potentially leading to overheating. Things can be made worse if these plates have rotted through, but used plates are available for £30-40 each. Cylinder heads can corrode internally if the correct anti-freeze levels haven’t been maintained: a 50:50 mix is the best policy.
- Listen for a rattling timing chain; it’s normal for some clattering at start up, but this should quickly subside. Even when warm there’ll be a hollow ringing sound at around 1200rpm, which then disappears as revs rise; the top chain is straightforward to replace, the bottom one far less so.
- Twin carbs go out of balance while single-carb units are prone to wear of the throttle spindles and linkage. If there’s an annoying rattle at high engine speeds it’s likely to be a cracked carburettor heat shield; replacements are £10. If you can hear rattling from inside the inlet manifold, it’s the spacer inside the carb-to-manifold adaptor. It can get into the engine so it’s a good idea to retrieve it!
- On SC and V8 engines, check the exhaust manifold mounting flanges, as these crack; used manifolds are typically £35-50 apiece. The V8 is durable as long as the oil is changed every 3000 miles; if this hasn’t been done there’s a good chance the hydraulic tappets will have got clogged up and the camshaft, followers and rocker shaft may have worn prematurely too. The giveaway is an especially noisy top end; these units should run very quietly even as the revs rise. Don’t be too concerned by an oil pressure gauge that seems to read lower than you’d expect, as these engines run quite happily with just 15-20psi showing. Of more concern is knocking from the bottom end; this signals that a rebuild is due, and you can expect to pay £500 for the parts.
- Chief wear point on the V8 is tappet number eight, which is the first to get noisy due to the small oilways. It’s caused by infrequent oil changes, which should be performed every 3000 miles. Tappet clatter is normally an indication of camshaft wear, but fixing it all is straightforward.
- Oil leaks from pre-1973 V8s are par for the course, as they used ropetype seals for the front and rear bearings. These are ineffective, and replacing them means stripping down the engine. New neoprene front seals are £12 each but upgrading the rear one means machining the block.
- As well as renewing the oil regularly, it’s essential that the coolant is replaced every couple of years. Being an all-alloy unit, the V8 is prone to internal corrosion if anti-freeze levels are allowed to drop off, so check the temperature gauge once the car has been allowed to idle for a few minutes. If it gets ever hotter, it’s probably because the radiator and block are full of deposits that need to be flushed out.
- Gearboxes are strong, although the 3500S was fitted with an uprated version of the manual ‘box fitted to the four-cylinder cars, and it’s not really up to the job of coping with the V8’s torque. Look out for difficult gear selection and jumping out of gear which indicate there’s a £400 bill looming for a rebuilt ‘box. The slick SD1’s five-speed gearbox can be retro- fitted but they’re hard to find and expensive as a result.
- Automatic cars were initially fitted with a Borg Warner Type 35 gearbox, but from 1974 the Type 65 unit took over on the 3500. This later gearbox is smoother than the earlier unit, but slightly less durable. Whichever unit is fitted, check the state of the transmission fluid (dipstick is to the left of the engine, near the oil dipstick on BW35 equipped cars, to the right on BW65 models). It should be pink and without any horrific smells; if it’s got black specks in it and smells really grim, the gearbox will need a rebuild before long because it’s overheated at some point.
- Gear selection problems and rattly gearsticks on manual cars are usually due to wear in the remote linkage. Pre-1971 cars, with a tortuous linkage, are especially prone. New bushings are available, but sadly fitting them means removing the engine and gearbox. Differentials are prone to leaks, so there’s a very real chance of seizure; listen for whining to indicate a worn out unit.
- The P6’s worm and roller steering box is precise and predictable when set up well, but not as sharp as rack and-pinion. Make sure there are no tight spots, indicating that someone has overtightened the box to take out any play. The steering can be heavy, which is why power assistance is desirable. It can be retro-fitted without too much difficulty; expect to pay £240 to convert a V8 and £330 for a four-cylinder car.
- The front suspension suffers from worn ball joints at the bottom of the suspension legs; once they’re in need of replacement there’ll be an obvious clonk on uneven surfaces.
- The rear suspension features a coil-sprung De Dion axle, and it’s important that you check the rubber gaiter on the de Dion tube. If this is split it will allow dirt in and the grease out. Once this has been allowed to happen there’s a very real danger of the sliding joint seizing up; you’ll know this has happened by the effect it has on the usually fine handling!
- The in-board rear discs are a pain to access - which is why the rear brakes are often neglected. The handbrake often won’t hold the car and the rear calipers can leak fluid - but very gradually so it’s not especially obvious. Things will be made worse if the back axle has leaked oil all over the discs, so get underneath and check everything closely.
- Cars built before 1966 were fitted with a Dunlop braking system, while the later P6 featured a Girling set-up. Parts for the early cars are now hard to find, which is why many owners convert to the later type; early cars to original spec are rare. It’s fine if the work has already been done, but if you feel like embarking on the project, you’ll need the front suspension legs from a later car as well as the complete final drive assembly.
- There were various colours and materials offered throughout the life of the P6; all are now obsolete and even decent used parts are now hard to find. Leather trim for cars built between 1971 and 1973 is prone to shrinking and tearing, so check it’s not falling apart.
- Used exterior trim is easy enough to track down, although you’re unlikely to find any new items. Bumpers commonly rust as they’re chromed steel, and those nice wheel covers can be dear to source.
- An alternator was fitted to all P6s apart from some pre-1970 cars, which featured a dynamo (negative earth for ‘66). The 11AC unit is getting scarce now, and its separate regulator often packs up, so it’s generally replaced with an 11ACR unit which features an integral regulator.
- The 12-way fusebox on post-1971 cars can melt, but the switchgear and instrumentation is reliable and it’s all available used. Harder to findare front sidelight/flasher units, while the number plate lamp also rots readily and new ones aren’t available.
- On cars with power steering the wiper motor can work only when it wants to, while starting problems on the V8 can often be traced to the connection where the battery lead goes through the bulkhead; on P6s the battery is located in the boot, meaning long lead run and possible problems with starting if age has taken its toll of the electrical system.
Buy a really nice P6 and you can’t go wrong; they make utterly usable everyday classics thanks to their comfort, build quality and practicality.While the V8s are thirsty for everyday use, they offer the perfect antidote to modern motoring. But you don’t need the 3500’s power and torque, because the manual 2000 and 2200 models also offer a decent turn of speed and are just as comfortable. If you’re in no hurry the automatic 2000s are okay, but they’re rather sluggish and are best kept for occasional use only. However, there are a couple of rarities worth seeking out; an end-of-line VIP model with all extras and a unique interior (77 built) or one of the 150 or so estates produced by FLM Panelcraft. Happy hunting and roving around!
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