The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Seventy Years of the Rover P4 The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Seventy Years of the Rover P4
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Seventy Years of the Rover P4

Just imagine you had obtained tickets for the 1949 London Motor Show and were eager to mentally plan your latest car, even if the domestic waiting list meant a possible delivery date in 1952.

As one who appreciates the finer things in life (and who believes that you are now socially elevated above the Ford V8 Pilot, Humber Hawk and Wolseley 6/80) you immediately make your way to the Rover stand. There, you are greeted with this -

And so, once you have recovered your powers of speech, you start to grumble about the lack of running boards, the body’s resemblance to the  Studebaker Champion with those “three box” lines and that spotlight in the middle of the radiator grille? ’. But the  P4 was the first of a succession of Rovers that created their own traditions. As Brian Sewell wrote in The Independent:

it seemed the most brilliant, the most forward-looking car of its day, the first full-width, streamlined Rover, all corners rounded, all contours smooth, sans running boards, sans separate headlamps, the great Cyclops' eye of a third headlamp set in the prow that had no conventional radiator grille.

The 2.1-litre straight six engine was carried over from the outgoing P3, albeit with modifications including twin SU carburettors, and the new 75 continued to feature a separate chassis and a transmission freewheel – but its appearance was almost defiantly post-war. Malcolm Bobbitt observes in his book Rover P4 that the price of  £1,106 was the same as the older model and a useful £116 less than the Riley RMB.

The company stated, with justifiable pride, that ‘the Rover exemplifies the better features of modern design while maintaining a certain individuality which betokens a respect for traditional precepts and a belief in the virtues of British craftsmanship’. One cannot help but note a decline in the standards of advertising copy over the past seven decades. Meanwhile,  Autocar referred to the 75 as a ‘superb car’ that was one of ‘superlative charm’.

By January of  1952, the Rover gained a new radiator grille, denoting its passage into respectable middle-age and in September of the following year, the 75 was supplanted by the four-cylinder 60 (for the junior executive) and the 2.6-litre 90 (for the MD). A floor change replaced the steering column gear lever on all three versions and, at last, there was synchromesh on second as well as the third and fourth ratios.

 In October 1954, the P4’s coachwork was facelifted with a longer boot and a three-piece rear screen. There were also flashing indicators in place of trafficators, and the 75’s engine was enlarged to 2.2-litres.

When  Autocar tested a 90 in January 1956, they were so impressed as to write ‘The car has something about it that is difficult to describe. It tends to make the driver try to drive better than he usually does, a feeling which has occurred only with one or two other cars; they were equally out of the top drawer’. That last line has to be one of the prime examples of 1950s British motoring journalism at its most ultra-1950s.

The autumn of 1956 saw the P4 gain new front wings with the indicators atop the sidelights (‘bolder, cleaner lines’) and two new flagships with a high-compression 2.6-litre engine. The 105R featured the new  “Roverdrive” transmission, and it was the first Rover with self-selecting gears. Motor thought:

The 105R Rover stands today as the senior member of an impressive range of fine motorcars and as such is most likely to appeal to senior men and women anxious to obtain transportation which combines speed, safety and reliability amidst the dignified accoutrements of first-class British engineering.

Its sister model, the 105S (for “Synchromesh”), was for the more sporting type (think of Nigel Patrick in The League of Gentlemen) with its manual box and Laycock-de-Normanville overdrive as standard.

For the motorists who craved 100 mph plus in a car a tad less flamboyant than the Jaguar 2.4 and more compact than the Riley Two Point Six, and with build-quality on a par with a Rolls-Royce, the 105S had no equals. The great John Bolster of Autosport went so far as to describe the 105S as ‘a most important new high-performance car. I put it, without hesitation, among Britain’s four best cars – and well among them, too’.

The introduction of the P5 in late 1958 saw the demise of the 105R as the new 3-Litre was available with Borg Warner transmission, and the 105S was downgraded in trim as the “105”.

The range was reduced to just a pair of models in 1959 – the four-cylinder 80 with its 2.3-litre unit and the 100, which featured a 2.6-litre version of the P5 engine. The final modification to the P4 took place in late 1962 with the launch of the 95 and the 110, both with six-cylinder power and the latter featuring overdrive and a Westlake head, resulting in a most respectable 123 bhp.

By that time the young blades who enthused about the original “Cyclops” 75 at the 1949 Motor Show were now prone to grumbling about Billy Fury and the pernicious effects of the BBC’s Saturday Club on the nation’s teenagers.

For such types, the P4 was the ideal motor car, still retained its rear-hinged back doors and conveying an air of quiet dignity in contrast to the exuberantly tail-finned Ford Zodiac Mk. III. And both more than fulfilled Rover’s claims that they were ‘a lasting pleasure to drive and be driven in’.

The appearance of the P6 at Earls Court in 1963 marked the arrival of the heir to the “Auntie Rover” and manufacture of the P4 ceased on the 17th May 1964.  Over the previous fourteen and a half years it had both defined Rover’s saloons and represented the standards to which a mass-produced car could aspire.

To quote the Road & Track journalist, Bob Dearborn in a 1952 test ‘ I honestly believe (barring the Rolls-Royce) that there is no finer car built in the world today’. And here, in glorious colour, is the P4 in the PR film In The Rover Tradition:

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