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Rover P5

Published: 21st Nov 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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When the P5 saloon was killed off, it signalled the start of the slow decline for this great British car company

When you recall significant saloon cars from the 1950s, most enthusiasts will rattle off the usual: Jaguar Mk1 and Mk2, the MG Magnette, perhaps the rock and roll Vauxhall Crestas and Ford Zodiacs (see our twin test elsewhere in this issue) and maybe the Jowett Javelin (although this car actually was launched in 1947 and was killed off just as the decade was getting into third gear). And the revolutionary Citroen DS of course.

But what about the Rover P5, a car so good and daring that a scared Rover almost binned it. David Bache, who designed both the 3 and 3.5-litre P5s and P5bs, and then went on to pen the highly successful and advanced P6 saloons, the Range Rover and, ahem, the rather more prosaic Austin Maestro, came up with something so good that the stuff shirted Rover big wigs thought it was too good for this staid old car company – and told him so!

One Rover head is reported to have said to 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.” Thankfully, Rover went against tradition and launched a car that not only provided a far more modern replacement for the old P4 but was deemed good enough for Queens, mothers of Queens and Prime Ministers (Maggie Thatcher, Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan et al). They all liked the car so much for its dignity and decorum that even when the P5 was pensioned off in 1973 (Rover truly never replaced it with the plasticy SD1) special Governmental cars were kept in service right up until 1980.

POWER WITH POMP

The Wilks Brothers’ (who controlled Rover) gut instincts were spot on and the Rover 3-litre (P5) and subsequent Buick V8-powered 3.5-litre (P5b) proved to be highly successful and profitable for the straight-laced Midlands maker, enjoying a long production run of 15 years.

As advanced as the P4 was antique, the P5 was Rover’s first unitary construction design and was fitted with independent torsion-bar front suspension with traditional leaf springs at the rear. A V6 engine was in development stages so wasn’t available in time. As a result, the P4’s old faithful 2.6-litre straight-six was kept in service, albeit upped from 2.6 to a full 3.0-litres – the V6 was shelved.

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 – thankfully.

The first P5 was the most prolific, with nearly 21,000 built, and Rover certainly had the jump on Jaguar who, until the S-type came along in 1963, could only offer the smaller – and some would argue flashier – Mk2 or the lumbering MkVII-IX and then the huge MkX.

What the press said at the time still rings true today. Motor magazine summed up the old 3-litre perfectly: “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.”

Rover, or Auntie Rover as it was then nicknamed due to its staidness, was a company very set in its ways and never changed just for the sake of it. Yet when it did come up with something new – like the Turbine car, the P6, Range Rover and the sadly stillborn BS V8mid-engined sports car – rivals invariably followed suit.

Way ahead of its time, in 1962 for example, Rover identified the four-door coupé market that’s been revisited and revived by Mercedes-Benz with the CLS, BMW with the 5 Series GT and Audi with the A5 Sportback. The new Brit looked fantastic yet retained most of the practicality of the saloon.

The Coupé was a contentious car for sure because it dared to add daring style to the conservative 3-litre saloon and set the pulses of the bowler hat brigade racing. And with high performance Jag owners in mind, Rover fitted a Weslake cylinder head to increase power to 129bhp and maximum speed to 107mph. A 0-60 mph figure at 15 seconds, was still somewhat behind Coventry’s finest but acceptable for such a large car – and the best was yet to come.

IT’S A RELIABLE ROVER BUT WITH A VEE IN ITS BONNET

The real step forward came in 1967 when Rover launched the P5b to send a message to Browns Lane. ‘B’ stood for Buick – the originator of the newly added V8 engine that Rover purchased a few years earlier and was to serve the company for some 30 years. At 160bhp it only provided almost 30bhp extra, plus all that extra torque and much lighter weight, gave the P5 enough performance to keep station with a Jaguar 420 albeit to the detriment to refinement as few engines were as silky smooth as that old Rover straight six unit.

“Power with pomp” was how Motor described the 3.5b Coupé. “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”.

Every dog has its day so they say although Rover’s one was all too short-lived because a year later Jaguar introduced the XJ6 and made 90 per cent of its rivals obsolete overnight!

Suddenly the P5 belonged to another era and only moderate upgrades were added until the car was officially discontinued in 1973 after some 70,000 P5s were made. This was some way short of the 90,000 Jag Mk2s (including the later 240/340) but way ahead of the 24,900 S-types and 9600 420s produced.

A CLASS APART

Heads of state and dignitaries stayed faithful to the old Rover, not for them any flashy new Jag.

What they liked about the P5 was its understated style and restrained good taste, especially in a dark single tone colour. The sumptuous wood and leather clad interior was also a good deal roomier than a Jaguar in the rear (the XJ6 only became acceptable when the longer wheelbase option was offered) and was comfortable enough, if not up to XJ6 levels.

During the 1970s and 80s, P5s were dirt cheap to buy and you certainly got a lot of meaty metal for your money. The V8 engine (0-60mph in under 11 seconds) certainly showed fast Fords a thing or two although road tests picked up the car’s disconcerting nervousness at high speed which was put down to the suspension springs from the heavier 3-litre still being employed.

When the swanky Ferrari Daytona- inspired SD1 arrived, Rover provided another shock – but perhaps not quite the one it was aiming for. Now firmly under the wing of British Leyland, while the SD1 provided similar modernity the P5 provided 20 years previously, its build quality was decidedly below the usual standards Rover and customers had come to expect, and subsequent poor reliability saw owners left by the roadside, and no doubt hot-footing it to the nearest BMW or Audi dealer. The Honda-designed 800 was an improvement and in tune with the mid 1980s but lacked the class of the P5, while the racey Honda’s V6 engine was desperately short on pulling torque.

It took the then BMW-owned Rover bring back fond memories of the P5 with the 75 a decade later. With its deft chrome work and doors that closed with a quality sound (deliberately dialled in by designers), the 75 had the look and feel of a modernised P5 and deserved more success than it achieved.

P5s are common sights at classic car shows, usually two-toned P5bs sitting on gleaming white walled tyres fitted to polished-to-the-nines chromed Rostyle wheels. And don’t they look lovely! You can buy such a P5 for ten grand or less, which when compared to what a compatible Jaguar Mk2 sells for is a bargain.

REMEMBER WHEN… 1973

It was one of the bleakest years ever despite Slade’s Christmas song. Here’s some of the reasons…

On the telly there was the Dutch detective Van der Valk, comedies like Man about the House and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? And there were quality war dramas like Pathfinders and Colditz.

Sunderland caused one of the biggest FA Cup shocks ever when it beat Leeds 1-0. Jackie Stewart won his third F1 title, but ’73 was marred by three deaths, including team mate Cevert.

It was the Glam Rock era, but there were also some fab songs like Golden Earring’s Radar Love, Limme & Family Cooking’s You can do Magic and Gaye by the late, great Clifford T Ward.

The energy crisis hit hard as the Yom Kippur war saw the oil taps turned off, leading to a world t was recession that was to last a decade. The UK was naturally one of the hardest hit due to industrial strife elsewhere.

The first of the ‘modern’ Royal weddings took place between Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. The United States suspended all military action in North Vietnam plus it finished with landing on the Moon and launched Skylab, its first space station to orbit the earth instead.

When The Car Was The Star

It was left to the Rover P6 to be Police cars on the silver screen; the P5 was transport for the establishment and dignitaries. Perhaps the Rover’s biggest claim to fame was in the 1970 film ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’ when the usually saintly Roger Moore took on a more sinister role. Playing a stiff upper-lipped, law abiding Harold Pelham, he inexplicably unclips his seat belt and gives his G-reg P5b full throttle and crashes. He momentarily dies on the operating table before coming back to life but as two different Pelhams with opposite personalities. Yup, it was as daft as that…



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