Rover P5

Bastion of Britishness

The Rover P5, like the Daimler Double-Six and the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is a true bastion of Britishness. A car coveted by 70s government ministers, HRH The Queen and sheepskin-clad 70s gangsters, it evokes emotive images of Harold Wilson (whose Admiralty Blue 3.0-litre had a specially designed ashtray for his pipe), Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan speeding from crisis after crisis as well as getaway drivers bolting from the scene of the crime… But like so many cars of the time, it almost didn’t happen…

History of the Rover P5

Rover’s Chief Engineer Maurice Wilks realised that Jaguar and Mercedes were making decent profits from their big cars so instead of making the P5 a small car to complement the outgoing P4, he recommended to the Rover hierarchy that they make a large, luxurious executive car to compete. The extra profit would be garnered from making smaller numbers of more expensive big cars rather than high-volumes of cheaper small cars. In a very typical display of British conservativeness, when the project was signed off, it nearly caused a corporate coup!

One of the bosses said to designer David Bache about the P5 (responsible for the P5 and P5B, the 2000, 2200 and the world-famous 3500) ‘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.

They made it anyway.

The Mark I was launched at the 1958 Earls Court Motor Show and it was badged as the ‘3-litre’. It used a beautifully smooth 2,995cc, six-cylinder engine producing 115bhp and a top speed of 98mph. A 0-60 time of 16.2 seconds was barely adequate but this wasn’t a car where pure speed was a make-or-break factor. It was essentially a limousine to be treated like a Queen Anne sideboard. It was designed by Bache and engineered by Spen King and Gordon Bashford who would go on to achieve worldwide fame by designing the Range Rover. Heard of it?

It was said at the time that only the Bentley had a better interior. It was a civilised, refined place to be. However, Rover wanted to distance themselves from selling the car almost exclusively to older British gentlemen and made small yet significant improvements, most notably a new version of the 3.0-litre engine which topped 100mph. In a testament to longevity and build quality, a high percentage of the 20,963 Mark 1s are still around, some as everyday drivers and some under dustsheets.

In 1962, the Mark II was released. The original 3.0-litre block was uprated to 129bhp and while ‘coupé’ often referred to two-door versions of four-door cars, Rover kept the existing door count but lowered the roofline by 2½ inches for a sleeker look. Though the real key was the engine, it came with power steering and extra gauges on the dash and was £200 more than the Mark I.

The Mark III was unveiled at the London Motor Show in 1965 and was even more lavishly trimmed. It used the same 3.0-litre block as its older brothers but power was increased to 134bhp and after 6,420 were built, one of the most famous engines in all of British motoring arrived.

The 3.0-litre was a great engine for sure but it was coming to the end of its useful life until something remarkable happened.

William Martin-Hurst, the company MD was visiting Mercury Marine in Wisconsin when, the story goes, he ‘discovered’ a discarded Buick alloy 3.5-litre engine (at a time when US manufacturers were returning to cast iron blocks for their V8s). He measured the engine and was prepared to take it there and then but after lots of boardroom wrangling, dealing and negotiation, General Motors eventually sold the tooling for the Buick 215 and with some considerable amendments the 3.5-litre Rover V8 was born – an engine in various guises that has kept the country moving for almost half a century.

The P5B (for Buick) was made between 1967 and 1973 and was the undoubted star of the P5 era. Commonly known as the ‘3½ litre’, it transformed the stately P5 into a very fast car indeed. It had a top end of 110mph and a 0-60 time cut by five seconds to 11.7. It was a real world alternative to the big Jags and Mercs and while Rover originally planned a weekly output of 85 cars, that number was quickly revised upwards by a factor of two to satisfy demand. Rostyle sports wheels, power steering and a lighter alloy block gave the car great handling properties as well as achingly cool looks. The sloping back of the coupé is one of the most beautiful elements of an all-round beautiful car.

To cement their place at the top table of British establishment, the last batch of P5Bs made in June 1973 were bought by the British government and stored. They were used as necessary and when dear old Maggie Thatcher arrived in Downing Street after her election victory, she was driven in a 1972 P5B.

HRH The Queen also owns an Arden Green P5B saloon with the registration JGY 280. This was the registration of a car her father George VI gave her soon after she started driving (she holds a valid licence but has never passed a driving test) and she keeps it for sentimental reasons.

After 20,600 P5Bs, production of Rover’s most famous car ended in June 1973. Leyland merged with British Motor Holdings in 1968 to create the British Leyland Motor Corporation and this coming-together created stablemates out of Rover and Jaguar and sadly there was only one winner. Jags took over the luxury car niche from Rover and never looked back.