Friday December 7, 2018
Some of the greatest motor cars wear their distinction lightly – cars such as the Rover P5 3-Litre. The coachwork denotes solidity and natural authority and the interior is less the gentleman’s club’ circa 1937 than a painstaking fusion of formality and modernity. The wood veneer is understated, the instrumentation resembles the cockpit of a BOAC liner, the window deflectors in the doors were typically well-planned touch and there were even dashboard mounted air vents.
The message to any prospect buyer in the autumn of 1958 is obvious; here is an executive car for the motorway age that would commence by the end of the year.
Most enthusiasts know the story of the P5’s development. It was originally intended to be a medium sized rival to the likes of the MG Magnette ZA but by the mid-1950s it was re-defined as transport for captains of industry.
An early plan to use a V6 engine was abandoned on the grounds of cost and so the existing 2.6-litre plant was expanded to 2,995cc while the transmission choices were a four-speed manual box or – a first for a Rover – Borg Warner automatic.
When the 3-Litre made its bow at the Earls Court Motor Show, one of the major talking points was the coachwork courtesy of David Bache. Not only was this the first Rover without a conventional chassis, its lines were contemporary without being at all ostentatious. – or so radical as to frighten any P4 owner.
Of course, those motorists who believed that tail-fins and an excess of chrome were the surest path to gaining social status would be most disappointed by the P5’s air of sober dignity. It was, as the brochure pointed out, ‘restrained in its styling’ and ‘a worthy addition to a distinguished range of Rover Cars’ and worth every penny of the £1,763 17s price.
By the standards of the day the 3-Litre was not especially fast - the top speed was 96 mph - but as a mass-production touring car with the build quality of a Bentley occupied its own niche in the market. The P5 replaced the more expensive versions of the P4 while those considering a 3-litre executive saloon might well have considered the latest incarnation of the Humber Super Snipe, which also debuted in 1958.
However, the car from the Rootes Group had a different appeal to the Rover, with its combination of 1955 Chevrolet looks and ‘traditional British’ interior. The Snipe was flamboyant without being at all flashy but the P5 was deliberately low-key while managing to appear somewhat more conventional than the Citroën DS.
Your local Wolseley dealer offered the 690 but while that must be one of the most handsome large cars of the decade (naturally I deny any bias in this regard) in many respects it harked back to the early 1950s. The 3-Litre anticipated the new decade – ‘one must move with the times old boy’.
The P5 was continually improved, gaining front disc brakes in late 1959 and overdrive became available by the spring of 1960. The facelifted Mk.1A of 1961 – recognisable via its front quarterlights – was, at last, available with “Hydrosteer” PAS as an extra.
We shall cover the future versions, including the Coupe and the P5B in another blog later this year as for now we pay tribute to the car described by Motor Sport in that same year as one with ‘a good deal in common with a pair of shoes or a favourite cap—it improves on long acquaintance’. And, as with all great Rovers, the P5 3-Litre created its own tradition.