During the 1960s the Rover P6, despite many clever innovations, was plagued by mechanical problems
Some of you may find this hard to believe, but I'm the last person to argue that all old British cars—regardless of how quirky or unusual—are collectible. There, I've said it.
Just because a car was made by a company that is now out of business, was trimmed in leather and wood, and stood out from the crowd when new, doesn't make it valuable today. How else can you explain the innovative Rover 2000—the basic platform was referred to as the P6 by Rover—introduced in 1963 with a 4-cylinder engine, and then upgraded in 1968 with a V8?
The SCM Price Guide doesn't even list Rovers, going right from Rolls-Royce to Saab. What does that tell you? The few other price guides that do list this model suggest that it's not worth more than $7,500 in good condition, and that may be optimistic.
Granted, there are two clubs for Rover P6s in the United Kingdom (www.p6roc.co.uk and www.p6club.com), but then again, put two or more Brits with a common interest in the same room, and they'll form a club.
So what's the problem? After all, when the first 2-liter, 4-cylinder version of the Rover 2000 was introduced in 1963, it was certainly attractive, with smooth lines and quad headlights flanking a small grille that replaced the kennel-gate grille of the P4 "Auntie Rover." The P6 gestation was as long as an elephant's—Rover sent designer David Bache to France soon after the launch of the Citroën DS19 in 1955, and early prototypes have the rounded DS19 nose.
Innovation came with a cost
This complete redesign that replaced the Rover P4 had a long list of innovations, including deDion rear suspension with inboard disc brakes (one of the first cars to have disc brakes on all four wheels).
The P6 was built around a unibody chassis, but the aluminum external panels were unstressed and most could be removed and replaced like those of the Citroën DS. In addition, the car incorporated revolutionary safety features, such as standard seat belts and safe interior trim pieces. The engine was also designed to be driven below the firewall in the event of a head-on crash. Perhaps all these factors accounted for extensive police use.
The engine used in the first version of the P6 was designed specifically for the car. It had an overhead camshaft layout with the combustion chambers cast into the piston crowns. However, as innovative as this design was, it only put out 104 horsepower, so for 1966, Rover introduced the 2000 TC, which had a redesigned top end and twin SU carburetors. The improvements added 20 more horsepower, and the car had some successes in rally competition.
Unfortunately, all of this innovation came at a cost: Customers didn't appreciate the technical niceties and instead noted how the rear suspension reduced trunk space significantly, so that the spare either occupied most of the space or—optionally—was fitted on the trunk lid, which was considerably inconvenient.
Even though North American market cars were fitted with a variety of features, such as the Icelert sensor on the front bumper that flashed a red light on the dash when the road temperature dropped below freezing, they couldn't attract a customer base.
The innovative features also brought a host of mechanical problems that required a mechanic's intervention. Rover-trained mechanics were scarce in North America, and while 327,808 P6s were sold in ten years of production from 1963 to '73, few came to the U.S., and running survivors are as rare as running DS19s.
By 1968, it was clear the 4-cylinder engine was not competitive in a heavy four-door sedan, so Rover, now a part of the Leyland combine, installed the Buick aluminum V8, the rights to which it had acquired from General Motors.
Rover 3500S introduced with fanfare
That extra space in the P6 engine compartment, thanks to the horizontal front springs, made the upgrade easy, and the Rover 3500S was introduced with great fanfare. In the United States, the new model was even recognized by Road Test magazine as "among the best-engineered cars produced in the automotive world today."
However, any pride over this was followed by a fall 1970 Road & Track magazine survey of Rover 2000 TC owners. To be fair, the 100 owners hated their dealers more than the car (32% rated them as "poor"), but the only dealers who trailed them in R&T surveys sold Triumphs, Jaguars, and Corvettes, so there's little consolation.
There were 24 problem areas (Fiat scored 15!). Main issues were: speedo/odo—43%; starter—32%; tires—30%; gearshift—28%; clutch—28%; cooling system—25%; spark plugs—22%; alignment—21%.
As a bitter footnote, the sole owner who had reported no problems (at 8,000 miles) wrote to R&T in 1971 (at 63,000 miles) to report all but one of the 24 problems and to conclude bitterly that none of the Rover dealers in the Bay Area would take his car in trade.
Today, preserved examples of the 3500 that survived the demand for their V8 engine among rebuilders of Range Rovers are the most desirable model in the P6 family (if a classic car selling for $7,500 can be called desirable). There were also between 160 and 170 Crayford-bodied station wagons and one or two convertibles by Panelcraft in the U.K. and Graber in Switzerland, but there's a distinction between curiosity and collectible, and they come down on the wrong side of that line.
After the 1971 model year, during which Rover offered one of the largest rebates—$6,000—offered by an automotive manufacturer, the company withdrew the P6 sedan, keeping its U.S. dealers alive with Land Rovers. Of the 79,057 3500 sedans produced from 1968 to '77, perhaps 2,000 came to the U.S., and a handful survive. Sadly, no 5-speed 3500S was sold in the U.S.
In the rest of the world, the 2000 was upgraded to a 2200 model in 1973, and the 3500S continued to be available into 1977. In 1980, Rover made one more stab at the U.S. market with the daring (for them) 3500 hatchback, powered by the 133-horsepower Rover V8 engine, which was coupled to a 5-speed transmission and sold through Jaguar dealers. Crippled by poor construction quality from the start, only 481 of these cars were sold in the U.S., so finding one these days is difficult. And most likely unrewarding, anyway.
Sterling qualities unremarkable
Let's not even mention the Sterling, a joint venture between Honda and Austin-Rover that was sold in the United States from 1987 to 1990 and is an orphan with a capital O.
The V8 3500S engine is easy to maintain and parts are readily available, in contrast to the difficulties of dealing with the complex 4-cylinder engine, but those attributes just make the 3500 an attractive donor car for Range Rover restorations.
So perhaps we should just say, "rust in peace" when we think of any Rovers after the P4s. The Auntie Rovers of the 1950s and '60s are probably the best way of remembering this company, now dead and buried after the Chinese buyers recently rifled the British plant of its machinery.
At the end of the day, the Rover P6 falls into the "nice try" category. It's the equivalent of a brainy kid who may be smart but lacks charm. The P6 also suffers from the "Peugeot syndrome"; that is, cars that seem to have proven records in countries with no roads at all, but won't start if it rains. To wit: P6s were campaigned energetically in everything from the Monte Carlo Rally to the East Africa Safari Rally in the 1960s with some success. You can imagine owners asking, "If the car is so damn tough, how come little stuff goes wrong all the time, when all I want to do is go to work?"
Rover never managed to find the answer to that fundamental question, for the P6 or even succeeding models. And consequently, Rover is no more.