Page last updated at 18:42 GMT, Tuesday 17th February 2009
ROAD TEST: 1967 ROVER P6 SERIES I
In the Sixties Roverâ€™s P6 represented a mighty leap for â€˜one of Britainâ€™s fine carâ€™ companies. And as a classic daily driver, it still takes some beating.
Genial and intelligent, George Haslam is a man who embodies some contradictions. He’s Lancashire born but for years happily resident in the heart of Oxfordshire, and a former scientist who’s now a jazz musician. But there’s nothing contradictory about his choice of absolutely classic cars – a Mk2 Jaguar, and his daily driver, a Zircon Blue 1967 Rover P6.
Anoraks will note that the P6’s ERN registration letters, as well as inevitably meaning that this Rover’s name is ‘Ernie’, indicate that it had first been registered in Preston, Lancashire. George had indeed gone back to his north-western roots to source this most practical classic. By good fortune, on the day I turned up, George’s old friend from home, Steve Ramsbotham, was staying with him. It was Steve, then a garage owner in Preston, who eight or nine years ago had found and refurbished the P6 for George.
‘He rang saying he wanted something classic but useable,’ said Steve. ‘At first he was thinking of a Fifties car, but I told him a Sixties one would be better for spares. I’d already been doing up cars – a Bond Equipe, they were made in Preston, with a glassfibre body and a Triumph Herald/Spitfire engine. An original yellow Mk I Escort that I’d meant to turn into a replica of the RS2000 I once had, but it was so perfect that to begin with I just resprayed it. I’d also done a GT6 basket-case which I’d bought half finished.
‘Anyway, I knew of the Rover 2000 P6,’ Steve continued, ‘it had been this guy’s dad’s car, and garaged for 20 years. I got it for £1,000, and apart from dents in the bolt-on body panels – there were even dings in the roof – it was in not bad condition. I had the head off and got it done for unleaded, then put it back together and away it went, even the clutch was OK. There really wasn’t much to do mechanically. The only thing not fully sorted was the gearchange, which can still be a bit of a lottery. And the brakes needed seeing to.’ This isn’t the easiest job on a P6: the rear discs were sited inboard of the wheels and hard up against the differential. It had been done in the interests of reducing unsprung weight, but it made for a tricky servicing chore. ‘The frame box section running front to back between the wheels also needed some welding, but that was pretty much it.’
‘The car had done 67,000 miles when we got it,’ said George, ‘and now it’s done about 80,000. I spent another thousand pounds on the work, including the unleaded conversion and new Pirelli Cinturato radials, which are still on it’ (the original 1963 P6 had been among the first British production cars to use radial tyres). With top Series I P6s rarely fetching more than £2,500, the price George paid overall seemed about right. ‘I used to do a lot of work with my cars, I had a 1936 Daimler Light Fifteen among other things, but now I haven’t the time – or the money! – so I was grateful to Steve for sorting out the P6. To begin with I ran it alongside a Mazda, but then I gave that away to my daughter Julie, and the Rover took over as my daily ride.’
The P6 lives out, because there’s no room for a second classic in George’s garage. As mentioned, he’s a jazz musician on baritone sax – ‘mostly free jazz, avant garde – the type nobody likes,’ laughed George. Somebody must like what he does, though, because the next day he was playing at the Windsor Festival. As well as teaching music, he’d set up his own CD label, ‘Slam’, with 150 artistes represented, including the American great Max Roach. It’s his back catalogue of CDs that takes up half the garage!
‘We had no real problems with the Rover, just replacing a couple of sealed beam units. I’ve got five sisters in Blackpool and my wife Beryl has family up there, too, so we drove it to Lancashire and back a few times, as well as on trips. One of them was to Aberystwyth with our local Thame and District Motoring Club. Then we began having problems starting the engine when it was warm. When it died in the middle lane of the motorway going to Blackpool, I thought it needed a new head gasket – there was no suction in cylinders one and two. But with the head off, we could see damage to the bores – it must have sucked in something.
‘However, via the Thame club, though it’s all different cars, I’d met a Rover fanatic, Chris Marshal – he even has Rover bicycles! Chris puts the P6 through its MoT tests for me, and he was able to supply me with a good second-hand 2.2-litre engine.’ The more powerful big-valve 2,204cc, 98bhp version of the original 1978cc, 90bhp, SOHC four-cylinder engine, had replaced it in 1973.
Birth of the (Zircon) Blues
The P6 represented a true quantum leap for Rover of Solihull, a family firm previously known for uncompromisingly sound engineering, but despite their groundbreaking Land Rover, for cars aimed at a middle-class market and tinged with stuffiness.
In fact the firm had been anything but. The P6’s generous engine compartment, made possible thanks to the unusual bell-crank front suspension with its horizontally-mounted coil springs, had been designed to be able to take a variety of engines – including projected gas-turbine ones, for Rover had been involved for many years in developing such engines for road use.
The P6 also represented the original Wilks brothers permitting a new generation to produce a Rover for the Sixties – and for an entirely new market segment which emerged during that decade. Breaking the previous mould of small/medium/large family cars, this was the executive class, targeting middle-class business people and professionals with a relatively compact car featuring leading-edge engineering and a fairly high performance, together with luxury and style. Not for the P6 the family sprawl of bench-seats: the four occupants, front and rear, were each supported and cocooned in shaped leather seats. Executive luggage was catered for with a very generous boot, which could be even bigger if you took the factory option of mounting the spare wheel on the boot lid.
Though the Wilks brothers – with Spencer as chairman and former chief engineer Maurice as joint managing director – supervised the P6’s gestation and birth (the launch in 1963 coincided with Maurice’s death), it was their nephews Peter Wilks and his cousin Spencer King, together with designer David Bache, who created the new Rover 2000. As marque historian Eric Dymock put it, they and the car showed that ‘radical engineering could come to the aid of designers aiming at new standards of roadworthiness.’ Faith in the project was such that Rover’s management authorised plans to build 550 a week, three times the volume of any previous Rover car.
The innovation started with the way the car was put together. In an age where the monocoque was increasingly the norm, Rover opted for base unit construction, which was somewhere between a monocoque, and the previous separate frame and body method. It involved a stressed steel skeleton, to which unstressed panels were bolted, as were mechanical components. Only the roof panel carried any stress, and the panels, some of them aluminium, were easy to replace if accident damaged. The fact that the panels didn’t carry road or engine noise or vibrations also helped towards the fundamental Rover desiderata of quietness and smoothness. The downside was that the base unit had to be substantial and therefore heavy. But that was in the Rover tradition of paying a bit more for something with a respectably long working life. The P6 would largely deliver this, though as we’ve seen with the necessity of welding George’s car, it wouldn’t last forever – just longer than most.
But the stiff body did also provide a perfect platform for exceptional suspension. At the rear was a sliding-joint De Dion axle, a set-up which meant that the wheels were always kept parallel to each other, while the Rover-originated joint ironed out the De Dion’s potential problems with the final drive. At the front, the bell-crank suspension fed its loads via the big horizontally-mounted springs into the strong central part of the base unit. The result was judged on its debut to ‘ride better than any car in the world with steel springs’ (as opposed to the air-sprung Citroen DS).
The new, square (85 x 85) four-cylinder OHC engine featured a Heron cylinder head with a flat face and combustion chambers within a recess in the piston crowns. With an alloy head featuring integrally cast inlet tracts and a five-bearing crank, it produced 90bhp at 5,000rpm. It was perhaps the least successful element in this refined package, with a hydraulic cam chain tensioner which meant start-up clatter; and tappets to set which the camshaft had to be removed. Eric Dymock judged it ‘rather rough’ as well as noisy when revved, and ‘not that quick’ at just over 100mph and a 0-60mph time of 14 seconds (though the figures had been respectable enough in 1963). Miles per gallon was in the mid-20s (though George finds he gets around 30 on a run). The P6’s great contemporary rival, the Triumph 2000, had a six-cylinder engine, which despite still featuring overhead valves, was smoother and a hair faster. The latter, of course, changed with 1966’s Rover 2000 TC (twin carburettor), and radically so with 1968’s 3500 V8.
But in every other respect, price included, it was the Rover that triumphed. This smooth-riding car with its near-wedge shape and quad headlamps, yet tastefully furnished, was full of innovation, especially in the area of ergonomics and safety features. The novel front suspension set-up meant the steering wheel column (which unusually for the time was adjustable for height) could be short. It was designed to compress on impact, aided by the position of the steering box on the scuttle, while the two-spoke wheel would also collapse. In a head-on collision the engine was designed to drop downward rather than be pushed back into the cockpit. For passenger protection, there was extra padding on the roof cant rails, the rear quarter pillars and the front seat backs, as well as knee-protecting covers on the handy storage ‘shin-bins’.
The chassis stiffness was exploited by the pioneering use of radial tyres as standard. The easy-to-use multi-purpose control stalks were another near-first, as were the dashboard switches shaped according to their functions to aid eyes-off use – rocker switches were hooked, push-pull ones round, and the rotating one T-shaped. No wonder that the first ever Car of the Year award went to the P6, which beat the Mercedes 600 and the Hillman Imp.
Very traditional Rover customers may have complained that the P6’s leather upholstery was no longer hand-stitched like the P5 saloon (they also didn’t like the wood-effect dash, or the ‘modern’ strip speedometer – the latter would indeed be dropped with 1970’s restyled Series II). But entering the car, the wafting smell of the seats’ chocolate brown leather, picked up on the padded dash, was a pleasure. Once the engine had come to life with a brief clatter and warmed up, the leather odour was supplanted by a sharp but not unpleasant tang of lubricant.
I’d been warned about the gearbox, and specifically the danger of going into reverse rather than second. It was indeed a very tight pattern yet with some slop, but it rewarded care – in a dozen test miles I only crunched on one downchange. (In return for permission for a new plant at Solihull to build the P6, the Government had insisted on a gearbox factory in the high unemployment area of Wales, where Rover’s standards of excellence may have taken a while to get established.) The pedals were quite close together too, but very shortly these things were forgotten.
For the Rover 2000 proved a joy to drive. Despite the big steering wheel, and some body roll, steering and roadholding were precise and solid, utterly confidence-inspiring. And the suspension proved incredibly forgiving and comfortable, without ever feeling soggy or imprecise. Cruising quiet roads at 60-plus was delightful. The substitute 2.2-litre engine pulled well, accelerating with a pleasing rasp. There were marks on the horizontal speedo for one at 30mph, two at 55mph, and three at 85mph, presumably the red-lining revs in each gear, but we saw no more than 60 in third and even that didn’t feel entirely appropriate; this was a faithful retainer that deserved sympathetic managing, though the willin’ motor and surefootedness meant that driving it was never boring.
The P6 also held its own in town traffic, with the engine responsive and the disc brakes still good. Waiting at lights, it ticked over quietly and steadily, shuddering gently. The upright seats were still comfortable and supportive after all those years. Above all, this ground-breaking Rover still had a phenomenally ‘modern’ feel to it. I would drive one daily, with pleasure.
George Haslam appreciates this last-of-the-first P6, considering the Leyland-era 1970-on Series II cars with their honeycomb grilles to be less desirable. ‘Ernie got birthday cards in 2007,’ he grinned, ‘from Steve’s Jag, for his 40th. He’s definitely a member of the family.’