Rover P5: 22 September 1958 to 18 September 1967
Rover P5B: 18 September 1967 to 22 June 1973
Rover P5 (3 Litre) and P5B (3.5 Litre) Information.The Rover P5 (3 Litre) and Rover P5B (3.5 Litre) were and are loved by many, including the British Government who used them as official cars right through the 70’s, until well after the Rover P5B went out of production. They are regarded by many as the best ‘British’ car that was ever produced, combining tradition and refinement with beautiful styling and a great engine, designed and manufactured when Britain’s car industry was healthy and innovative but before the turmoil and collapse of the 1970’s.
It’s also true to say that the Rover P5 (3 Litre) and Rover P5B (3.5 Litre) have always suffered from a bit of an image problem – being launched in the late 1950’s they were seen as being slightly out-of-step with Britain in the swinging ’60’s, a car from a fading era of paternalism, tradition and assumed authority. Indeed, many of Rovers customers were the captain’s of industry and government, and Rover’s marketing reflected that. Even today the cars attract a large number of more mature enthusiasts, which brings a wealth of knowledge and experience.
To some degree this also hampers promotion of the car, which combined with the damage done to the Rover brand between 1971 and 2005 has contributed to keeping these cars’ values low. Yet the Rover P5 and P5B were innovative for their time, are surprisingly competent even compared to modern cars, and were designed and built by a very forward-looking company who certainly weren’t afraid to innovate (the Land Rover, P6 and Range Rover for example, but also torsion bar and De Dion suspension systems, gas turbine and V8 engines, unstressed exterior panels, aluminium construction etc). Rover was a long-way ahead of the market in the 1960’s, a situation that was sadly reversed when the company became entangled with Leyland Motor Company and the ensuing nightmare of Britain’s car industry in the 1970’s and beyond.
The Rover P5 (3 Litre)
The Rover P5, or Rover 3 Litre to give it its proper title, was to have been a replacement for the Rover P4, Rovers long-running post-war car, but a decision was taken in the 1950’s for the car to be enlarged and moved up-market (partly because Rover were struggling with space in Solihull due to the success of the Land Rover). The car was styled by David Bache who went on to style the P6, the Range Rover and the SD1) and the plan was to introduce a Saloon and Coupe version.
The car used a slightly modified straight-six Rover engine which was rather underpowered (later modifications to the head improved matters), independent torsion-bar front suspension (possibly Rover were considering fitting their gas turbine engine at some point, so keeping the engine bay free from suspension intrusion was important), Girling disc brakes and Rovers first monocoque body (with separate front and rear subframes).
Both Coupe and Saloon were 4-doors, but the Coupe had a 2½” lower roofline than the saloon, with a more raked glass line. Combined with the pronounced high shoulder line of the basic design which runs from front to back unbroken, the Coupe has a slight ‘custom’ chopped look. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference (and in fact the Coupe was originally envisaged as a pillar-less model, but Rover weren’t happy with the window sealing) , but it does give the Coupe a subtle ‘edge’ or attitude, and this was accentuated by Rover offering the Coupe with 2-tone paint scheme after it was discontinued on the Saloon.
In the end the Coupe was delayed until the early 1960’s, when it was introduced alongside the MkII Saloon. Rover made further revisions with the MkIII a few years later.
The Rover P5B (3.5 Litre)
“Oh, for a modern Rover to match the P5, a thuggish skinhead fiendishly disguised in a bowler. It was born rather timid but grew into a beast.
Normally with classics the earlier cars are more desirable but here it’s the later P5Bs we want…Its fog lights and Rostyle wheels transformed this celibate vicar into a hairy-chested lothario.”
The Rover P5B (or 3.5 Litre / 3 ½ Litre as it was officially known) was an update of the Rover P5, a large executive car available as a 4 door saloon or coupe, that was launched as the P5 in 3-Litre form in 1958.
The P5B update, launched in 1967 and available as a saloon and coupe, replaced the straight-6 cylinder P5 engine with a V8, the design of which Rover purchased from Buick and modified extensively (this advanced lightweight engine was later used in the Rover P6 and SD1, the Range Rover and Land Rover, MGB GT V8, MG RV8, Triumph TR8, various TVR’s, Morgans and many other cars). Together with minor styling changes (Rostyle wheels, built-in fog lamps, revised trim strips, centre console, extra instruments) the new engine transformed the P5B into a beautiful, fast, imposing car that could compete with the best in the world, even though the basic design was already 9 years old.
I’ve loved the P5B ever since I saw Roger Moore in the film The Man Who Haunted Himself. The film came out in 1970 and is well regarded. It’s worth watching, not only for Mr Moore and the car, but also for some great views and street scenes of London in the early 70’s. The P5B in the film was a saloon, and in my view the Coupe is more desirable – that’s generally reflected in the price, with Coupe’s currently selling for several thousand pounds more than the Saloon.
In late 1967 the P5B cost £2,009 3s 4d (that’s ‘old money’ – roughly £2,009.17) including Purchase Tax and Seat belts. That was considered good value according to the Autocar road test in September 1967. Adjusting for inflation in mid 2014 that’s the equivalent of £32,000 (drivable P5B Coupe’s now start at around £6,000, with a good example costing £10,000-£15,000 and a few going for nearer £20,000).
Competing cars in 1967 included the Jaguar 420 (£1,930 / £30,800 now), the Mercedes Benz 300SE Auto (£4,159 / £66,500 now (ouch!)), the Vanden Plas R Auto (see also here) (£2,030 / £32,500 now) or the Vauxhall Viscount Auto (£1,483 / £23,700 now).
It’s no exaggeration to say that Rover could well have become the British Mercedes if they had replaced the P5B with a new car in 1971 as they had planned, and if they hadn’t become mired in the BLMC nightmare of pitiful investment, conflicting models and awful industrial relations, but the reality was somewhat different: the planned new car (the P8) was cancelled by Leyland to avoid conflict with Jaguar (and/or possibly because of poor crash test results, but the truth may never be known), and Rover had to wait until 1976 and the launch of the SD1 for a new model – 18 years after the P5 was introduced and 13 years after the last new model (the P6). The SD1 was beautiful and extremely well received, and won the first European Car Of The Year, but terrible build-quality quickly destroyed its reputation in the market.
The Rover roller coaster continued through some good cars produced with the help of Honda in the late 1980’s (1980’s Rover 200, 400 and 800’s), some inspired cars made on a shoestring budget in the early 1990’s (1990’s Rover 200, MGF), some misguided cars (the 75, which was backwards looking and failed to capture the market’s desire for sporting saloons) in the late 1990’s and some cars that should never have worn the Rover badge in the 2000’s (the City Rover), until the death-spiral finally concluded when cash ran out, Rover failed to find a willing partner, and the Government refused to intervene in 2005.
I recommend taking a look at the website AROnline for a fascinating and detailed history of the British car industry. It’s a modern British tragedy of arrogance, bad decisions, poor management, worker unrest, poor government, bad luck and flashes of brilliance, shared across much of British manufacturing over the last 50 years.