There was a time when Rover stood for solid, dependable comfort without having to break the bank; indeed, for a while the brand was considered to be the “poor man’s Rolls Royce” and enjoyed what could be termed a golden period through the 1950’s, ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.
Although their reputation was based largely on upmarket, conservative family and executive saloons, their biggest seller was the farmer’s best friend (besides his dog), the Land Rover, and they had also been developing some very experimental projects in the area of gas-turbine driven cars with prototypes such as the Rover 90-based JET 1 and T3.
In the years following WW2, the Rover P4 series was firmly established as a middle-class favourite, affectionately referred to as “Auntie Rovers” long before the BBC was anointed with the same materteral nickname. Apparently this was as a result of Denis Jenkinson referring – ato a Rover handling a difficult journey as if it were going to Auntie’s for tea, after which the nickname stuck amazing what you learn when researching these pieces sometimes. The cars were sturdy, upright and well appointed, and a sales success, and the range was built from 1949 to 1964, with model numbers from 60 through to 110.
However, the P5 represented a further move upmarket, and became the de facto means of transport for government ministers and even royalty for several years, until well after it had been discontinued. Designed by David Bache – who subsequently also had a hand in its successors, the then-advanced Rover P6 range as well as the SD1, together with Spen King – the P5 was launched in 1958 and by Rover standards, its styling was quite modern – certainly compared with the staid and upright P4.
It came with a 3-litre 6-cylinder engine derived from the Rover 110’s 2.6, and from which it got its name, the Rover 3-litre. While this produced 115bhp, the 3-litre was a big and heavy car – 4.74m long and 1587kg in weight – so 0-60 took a relatively leisurely 17 seconds and top speed no more than 95mph or 153km/h. Nevertheless, this was a car in which to travel long distances in cossetted comfort – big leather seats, walnut veneer fascia and door cappings, yet cost less than £1,800 at the time.
Four years later a Mark II version was produced, with more power, and saw the introduction of the coupé version. Unlike just about every other coupé, the P5 retained the saloon’s four doors but had a lower, more raked roofline, a daring move at the time and you could make a case for the 3-litre Coupé being an early precursor to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLS launched in 2004, and the modern range of Gran Coupés currently being sold by BMW.
Mark III versions of both body types began production in 1965, but it was 1967 when the final and perhaps most significant change to the range was made, replacing the 3-litre six with an aluminium twin-carburettor 3.5-litre V8 from Buick further developed by Rover, giving the car an internal designation of P5B – B for Buick, of course. Power output was now up to 161bhp, resulting in improved performance, with the P5B capable of reaching 115mph or 185km/h. Four seconds was shaved off the 0-60 time, yet nevertheless, fuel economy also benefitted, thanks to the lighter engine, which also contributed to better handling, especially in the case of the coupé, thanks to its lower centre of gravity.
Externally, besides the lower roofline, there was little else to differentiate the saloon and coupé, with both variants sporting Rostyle wheels, a pair of front fog lamps and of course their badges.
At launch, the 3.5-litre saloon cost £1,999, while the coupé was less than £100 more at £2,067, deemed to be excellent value for money. Over its lifetime, the P5 was a success, with over 69,000 examples sold, of which 17,442 were coupés, 9,099 with the 3.5-litre engine.
The motoring press thought very highly of both the saloon and coupé, but while the 3-litre’s performance might best be described as adequate, the 3.5 is much more of an executive express, and won compliments for its comfort and refinement, as well as its performance. Motor magazine in particular was fulsome in its praise when it tested the P5B coupé in 1967, saying that a “Jeeves-like calm nearly always prevails” and that even at speed, the engine “emits nothing more than a purposeful hum”. Most of the time, the engine merely whispers the car along”.
Over such a long production run, there were many contemporary rivals for the big Rover, and the fact that even the coupé has four doors means that any number of prestige saloons could be considered alternatives, too. Among its main rivals were certainly the Jaguar 3.4 MkII and S-Type, and if we stick to coupés, others could include coupé versions of Ford’s big Granada Mk1, Opel’s Rekord B and Commodore A GS/E, and FIAT’s 2300S, the Mercedes W114 and W112, all very different in character and style to the big Rover, which changed little, visually at least, during its lifetime. And we mustn’t forget Citroen’s ultra-modern DS, which was actually launched three years earlier than the P5. Of course, of these only the Mercedes-Benz 300SE came with a V8, but at a significantly higher price – and still does.
There are still a decent number of survivors in the UK – some 600 of the 3.5 litre alone, though it’s not clear how many are coupés, and it’s the coupé that everyone seems to want – and is indeed what we have found for our Prime Find this week.
“Our” car is a 1969 example in Silver Birch over Black, with burgundy leather – it looks very smart. It’s Rostyles have covered a fairly modest 79,000 miles at the hands of just four owners and according to the dealer, this Rover looks to be in excellent condition and drives superbly too. It even has it’s original Radiomobile radio and 8-track player, surrounded by a full complement of dials and switches.
This particular one is not the cheapest at £18,990, but if it’s as good as the dealer claims, you’d be hard pushed to find a better one, and if you did, you’d pay quite a bit more for it. Compared to an equivalent Jaguar or especially the admittedly significantly faster Mercedes 280SE 3.5V8 but no more luxurious, it’s still good value. The range is also well supported in terms of clubs and parts availability, so running one should be reasonably straightforward. As usual, we’ve borrowed a few photos from the dealer’s advert, which you can see here – and of course the usual caveats apply.
With their wood and leather Gentleman’s Club ambience, these grand cars are as British as they come – despite the US-sourced engine – and have great presence, very high levels of comfort, and pretty decent performance, all wrapped up in a stylish, prestigious package – if they were good enough for the Queen, they’re probably good enough for you.
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us be inspired by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org