Selling your classic car? It's FREE to list your car on Honest John Classics | No thanks

Rover P6 (1963 - 1977)

Last updated 14 March 2013

 
4

Model Timeline

August 1956
Rover P6 project instigated

The Rover 2000 was the product of a new and highly imaginative engineering team that had joined Rover in the 1950s. Their idea was to produce a new and radical car to fight future battles with – the project was officially born in 1956, although Bashford had been dreaming of designing a baseframe car for sometime prior to that. The design team had all but completed their work on the P5 and turned their attention to the P4 replacement – that is, when they were not working on the T3.

Rover needed this shot in the arm, and the company positively encouraged radical thinking. The engineers (led by Peter Wilks, Spen King and Gordon Bashford ) had their feet kept in contact with terra firma thanks to the steadying influence of the Wilks brothers, Maurice and Spencer. Had it not been for this intervention, the P6 would undoubtedly been even more revolutionary than it already was (and possibly less saleable). The board ruled out the possibility of using the flat-four and Hydropneumatic suspension the engineers wanted, but they agreed to the body and chassis design, that were a big departure from the norm – let alone what the company had done before.

The ‘shell’ of the car was a fabricated inner monocoque (or baseframe as it became more widely known as), to which all the outer panels were simply bolted onto. The idea of this was the simple renewal of body parts when required – and unlike other cars produced in Britain at the time, in theory, rust would not be the killer it would be on more conventional designs. If the baseframe was solid, all other rust could be treated as purely superficial. Gordon Bashford also had it very much in mind that this system would allow for relatively easy styling changes… such was the success of the Bache styling, however, that the theory was never put into practice.

August 1958
Rover P6 took shape

Rover P6 prototype

This is how the P6 looked in 1958 – David Bache had already decided on the sloping roofline and distinctive window contours. The front end would come under serious scrutiny, not least from upper management.

The suspension was also a big departure for Rover. Up front, the top wishbones act through a cranked linkage onto horizontal coil springs, which were braced against the scuttle – this system was soon called the ’round the corner’ suspension system. The advantage of this system was that it utilized the stiffest part of the car’s structure to absorb suspension loads, but more intriguingly, the design left room to install a gas turbine engine, which the company were still working feverishly on.

King himself recalled, ‘the original concept of the thing was the structure of the car and space for the gas turbine. That idea without necessarily the transverse lower suspension wishbone, I sketched out and then Gordon Bashford , who was a good friend of mine (although he was not working for me then) planned out the thing, I think for both the Rover 2000 and the Turbine car more or less simultaneously.’

Rover P6

At the rear, it had sliding tube de Dion suspension, with fixed-length driveshafts, which was a layout mirrored on the T3 gas turbine car. Spen King developed that system alongside Gordon Bashford , so it was familiar territory for them both. King stated that this system may have been unconventional, but it had very real advantages: ‘The P6 was designed specifically to cure that (lift off oversteer), but it certainly gave a good ride and stuck the wheels on the road well, the geometry was good – there was nothing wrong with it at all.’

The drivetrain was also a new design, and unique to the car throughout its life – as was the newly designed Heron-head inline four-cylinder engine (objected to by the sales people, who thought it was too noisy) of overhead cam design. The new engine was considered essential for the light-footed new car, as the P4 unit was too pedestrian, whilst the Land-Rover engine was simply unsuitable. A new gearbox was also part of the package – and was built in a new government-backed factory in Cardiff (against the wishes of Rover’s management – but that is a different story).

Sadly for Rover, the run up to the announcement of the P6 was marred by the death of the company’s chairman, Maurice Wilks, at the age of 59, on 8 September. He was succeeded by George Farmer.

October 1963
Rover P6 launched

Clearly visible in this Motor magazine cutaway, is the unique front suspension design. Other  noteworthy features are the baseframe design, overhead cam engine, and DeDion rear suspension.

The Rover P6 was launched on the 9th October 1963, and alongside the Triumph 2000, which – amazingly – was launched within weeks of the new Rover, it redefined the executive car market. The idea that six-cylinder, 3-litre cars were necessary for status conscious motorists was banished to history, as this new Rover (and Triumph rival) could do everything the traditional rivals could, but using less fuel, taking up less road space whilst doing so. In a word, the two-litre executive car had arrived.

The new Rover caused nothing less than a sensation when it was launched – certainly, it was a huge move away from everything that had preceded it. Apart from being entirely new, with no carry-over parts from any other Rover, it was compact (some would say too small inside), technically advanced, and relatively cheap. Also, compared with previous numbers, it was to be built in huge numbers without a drop-off in build quality. Without doubt, it was a clean sheet design, and a £15m gamble that Rover chose to take in order to guarantee future survival. Overnight, the company’s image was lifted from that of a manufacturer of stolid middle-class cars to that of a trendy front running manufacturer.

The sales department had misgivings about the car (they wanted a larger six-cylinder car), but they were in the minority – the P6 was a huge sales success from day one. There were economic factors at play here, as there had been a demand for more economical cars following the Suez Crisis , and although this was by then a memory, at the time of the P6′s launch in 1963, it was a recent one – and customers looked to trade down to smaller, more economical cars, but without losing the luxury they had become used to. The Solihull plant was expanded to accommodate the new car, and a 550-per-week run was talked about. The sales people thought that this projection was wildly optimistic, but they were soon proved wrong, and by 1964, the plant was already running at full capacity. That same year, dealers were turning customers away (who no doubt headed to their local Triumph dealer instead), who were unprepared to join the queue.

Rover P6

A 1970 2000TC: the design matured remarkably well throughout its 14-year production run, and did not rely on any facelifts of any substance to remain fresh.

The press also loved it, and Motor raved about the 2000 in its first road test in 1963. At launch the car cost £1264 and it was not without rivals at this price – in this context, their comments make interesting reading: ‘One has the impression that it was planned by engineers, who are enthusiastic drivers and by stylists who put function before decoration. The result is something of an object lesson to others.’ The King/Bashford chassis also drew the highest praise: ‘…we would put it in the top three among European cars irrespective of price’ – whilst the brakes also drew comment, ‘…among the best we have tried…’

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, and the new engine’s lack of refinement (when compared to Triumph’s silky smooth ohv straight-six) was all-too evident – and this backed up the misgivings that Maurice Wilks had about the new power unit. Performance and economy were reasonable enough, but it became somewhat thrashy at higher revs – but Rover were pretty conscious of this, anyway, and gave the car a high top gear, which resulted in relaxing and peaceful cruising. Performance figures made interesting reading – the 0-60 time recorded by Motor was 14.6 seconds, whilst the top speed was 104mph. Acceleration was reasonable, but one must wonder what the top speed of the 2000 would have been if the original front end (see picture of the clay styling model, above) had been used.

Sales were brisk, but Rover developed the car throughout its life in order to remain competitive. Such was the instant success of the P6 model that Peter Wilks, co-ordinator of the P6 project and nephew of the recently-deceased Maurice Wilks, was appointed to the board of the Rover company as technical director at the beginning of 1964. In May of that year Bernard Jackman joined Rover as executive director (production), the same month the ageing P4 ceased production. Rover had hoped to sell around 250 cars a week, as it turned out a weekly production rate of 550 cars still could not satisfy demand. Rover’s efforts to ramp up P6 production in 1964 was hampered by a series of industrial disputes over earnings, bonus payments and strikes at outside suppliers. This was to be the Achilles Heel of the British motor industry; when it did produce a winner, industrial disputes would restrict the ability to supply the market and long term it would prove to be crippling to the UK owned motor industry.

June 1966
Rover 2000TC launched

Thanks to a useful boost in power, the 2000TC could see 110mph and complete the 0-60 sprint in 11 seconds. Various other small engineering changes were made to the car, including the introduction of improved Girling disc brakes, making the car a nicer proposition to live with. by this time, the car’s reputation for safety and strength was gaining momentum, and the improved performance (it was now decisively quicker than the Triumph 2000) was icing on the cake. Sales remained strong…

Rover P6

Take a successful executive car, shoehorn in a lusty V8, and what do you get? The Police's favourite car... pushy young executives liked it, too... and thanks to its introduction, sales of the already successful P6 took off like a rocket

Rover P6 interior

The sumptuous P6 interior was treated to a comprehensive revision in 1970. The traditional instrumentation, incorporating a strip speedometer, was replaced by a more sporting design. Either way, the P6 was still a very luxurious place to sit, resplendent with acres of leather and wood.

December 1966
Rover taken over by Leyland Motor Corporation

In December 1966 it was announced that the Leyland Motor Corporation, which included Triumph, was taking over Rover at a cost of £25m. Now Rover was bedfellows with Triumph, although the only real model conflict was in the 2-litre executive sector.

Overall UK car sales at this time were still depressed, but demand for the P6 remained strong. Sales of the Rover P6 during the three months of May, June and July 1967 rose by 31% over the corresponding period in the previous year. Rover sales director, John Carpenter, commented at the time: ‘Our 2000 production line is now working at capacity day and night to keep up with demand.’

April 1968
Rover 3500 launched

1968 was a year of change. In January it was announced that the Leyland Motor Corporation was merging with British Motor Holdings to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation, initially headed by Sir George Harriman and later by Sir Donald Stokes. In April, the Rover 3500 was created by slotting in the V8 under the bonnet – the style remained almost unchanged (only an under-bumper air scoop gave the game away), but the driving experience changed remarkably.

Although the Rover 3500 would initially only be available as an automatic, it still had the ability to cover the ground deceptively quickly.

June 1970
Rover P6 Mk2 launched

By now Triumph had started to lose money as well and BLMC was being kept afloat by the profits of Leyland Vehicles, Jaguar and Rover, profits which were diverted into Austin Morris instead of being re-invested in the companies that generated them in the first place. Rover had to make do with a Mk2 version of the P6, announced in 1970 which featured various cosmetic changes, including the use of the P6B V8 bonnet pressing, which featured twin power bulges, for all models including the four cylinder versions.

A sign of the times and the loss of Rover’s independence was demonstrated in March 1971 with the cancellation of the P8 saloon. Not long after this in July 1971, Rover Technical Director Peter Wilks was forced to retire with failing health and was succeeded by Spen King.

Tragically Peter Wilks was to die the following year at the premature age of 52 years. His early demise has unintentionally led to his contribution to the Rover story being airbrushed out of many histories.'

August 1971
Rover 3500S launched

It was not until 1971 that the manual 3500S model was launched (using a strengthened version of the standard P6 gearbox), and thanks to its arrival, sales continued to rise, and by mid 1972 Solihull was producing 1000 cars per week. This really was a remarkable achievement some eight years after its introduction, but proved the rightness of the concept, even if by Spen King ‘s own admission, Rover purchasing the V8 from General Motors was not unanimously supported within the company.

Rover P6

The P6 swan song, the 2200 models, launched in 1974. Very evident in this shot, is the bolder front end treatment that was introduced in the 1970 facelift.

October 1973
Rover 2200 launched

The last major technical change to the P6 took place in October 1973, when the engine was enlarged (by increasing the bore from 85.7mm to 90.5mm) to 2205cc, thus creating the 2200SC and TC models. The emphasis of the revised engine was definitely on mid-range driveability as opposed to outright power, although the new models were marginally quicker than the models they replaced. However, the P6 was not a particularly light car, and even though it was blessed with high overall gearing, it was not especially economical – and this was very much a factor during the early 1970s.

What Car? magazine tested the 2200TC in October 1974 and were still reasonably enthusiastic about it, concluding that, ‘despite its age the Rover still looks pleasant and dignified. It represents the strong resistance to the change inherent in the British motor industry, but is none the worse for this. It rides and corners well, but still has drawbacks; lack of space for luggage and passengers, and only mediocre performance.’

December 1974
British Leyland needed bailing out by the government

In December, British Leyland ran out of money and went cap in hand to the government for help. Rover had suffered from strikes in 1974, but nothing like the disruption occurring at Triumph’s plants, which always seemed to be strikebound, even when BLMC had finally run out of money.

June 1976
Rover SD1 launched, P6 remained in production

On 30 June 1976, the Rover SD1 was officially launched to great acclaim and the P6 faded into the background, although manufacture was to continue into 1977. The SD1 was initially only available in 3500 form, so the decision was taken to continue with production of both the Triumph 2000 and Rover 2200 until the 2300/2600 versions of the SD1 came on stream. Surprisingly production of the P6 3500 also continued. Perhaps Leyland Cars thought that some buyers would be put off by the now long – and getting longer – waiting list for the SD1, and opt for the readily available older model.

March 1977
Final Rover P6 built

The end for the P6 came on 19 March 1977, when both the last 2200 and 3500S were produced. The last car of all was a green 3500S registered VVC 700S.

Back: IntroductionNext: Specifications
 

Ask Honest John