Blinding White Heat
No other British car ever encapsulated progress, modernism and optimism in as vanguard a fashion as the Rover P6.
Every culture has the idol it deserves. This includes any category, be it the arts, science, craft or humanism. Even the automotive realm.
In Europe, the élan of the post-war years did eventually manifest itself in automotive terms. France, victorious and bursting with self-confidence and creativity, hence got her Déèsse in 1955. In contrast, it took West Germany until 1967 to pull off the veil of bustling conservatism that had sustained the Wirtschaftswunder and embrace the future with the NSU Ro80.
In Britain, the era of austere motoring truly ended in 1963. For this was the year of the unveiling of the Rover P6.
Of course, the P6 was far from the British motoring industry’s most lavish offering. There had still been the Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Jaguars, Alvisses and even Rover’s own, far more stately P5 models, which were perfectly able to fulfil the criteria of luxury and opulence. But none of them provided for the aesthetic and social changes the ‘swinging sixties’ brought about in remotely as radical a fashion as the P6. This car wasn’t (just) about comfort, power or prestige. It was about progress.
It is obviously a bit of an irony that the British ‘intellectual car’ came from Rover, of all companies - a brand known for being purveyor of almost stolidly conservative, high-quality motor cars. Yet that irony evaporates once one remembers that Rover was also a company run by engineers. And hence, in the best sense of the term, rigorously engineer-led. Rover in its heyday wasn’t conservative in the sense of being opposed to unfamiliar ideas, but conservative in terms of thoroughness and diligence - as exemplified by the P6.
Thus, at the same time as British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, propagated a 'new Britain’ to be forged amid a scientific revolution and actors like Michael Caine and Terence Stamp began to banish the requirement for Received Pronunciation from the cinema screens, the time was ripe for a thoroughly modern British kind of car.
Even if the originally planned turbine engine that was supposed to power the P6 had eventually been abandoned (only after thoughtful considerations and testing, naturally), the new Rover brought about a proper engineering sea change. With its highly sophisticated de Dion suspension, extremely stiff and hence safe (for its time) monocoque chassis, as well as disc brakes, the P6 covered quite a bit of new ground. The Rover Way of old meant that it did so in a careful, measured way.
It is hardly surprising that some of the finest automotive engineers to ever work in the British car industry were involved in this particular car’s creation. There was, of course, Charles Spencer King, who most famously created the Range Rover, as well as Peter Wilks and Gordon Bashford, who’d been instrumental in the development of the original Land Rover. Later on, a certain James Neville Randle - who would eventually become chief engineer at Jaguar - was tasked with developing the P6’s 2000 TC variant. That’s what one would call pedigree then.
On the styling side of things, the great creative freedom the end of the post-war era brought about was just as apparent. Tasked with finding new, modern forms for this new modern car for the new modern Briton was David Bache, a man with a keen understanding of the newest trends - as exhibited by both his automotive creations and his sartorial flair.
Rather then going for an outright outré style, Bache chose a delicate balance of modernism, restrained flamboyance and faint traditional styling tropes on this occasion. His P6 design was, in short, the ideal British answer to the otherworldly flamboyance of Citroën’s Déèsse. The three-box saloon outline was kept, as was the traditional chrome grille (albeit adapted to much more contemporary proportions), even though Bache seems to have toyed with the idea of a streamlined, grille-less frontal aspect with protruding round headlights. Semi-encased rear wheels and a strongly dynamic, tapering-to-the-rear roofline meanwhile acted as the most unashamed nods to avant-garde design trends of the time on the actual production car.
Among all this ‘60s panache, a few highly unexpected nods to the British styling heritage can be spotted, too. For what do the slender, pointy rear lights and rear number plate light casing constitute if not a minimalist homage to gothic shapes?
Dwelling on homages, influences and trends would sell the quality of the Rover P6’s styling short, however. For where it truly comes into its own is in the overall shaping of its body. What Bache did there was to employ the P6’s bolt-on body construction to create an utterly original appearance. Flanks, bonnet, canopy and boot are each made to appear like different bodies, bordering and strengthening one another. The bonnet, for example, is obviously separate from the wings - an effect dramatically emphasised by the radii at each of its corners. Thanks to this device, the form of the car is broken into parts without it appearing any less substantial. If meeting opposing criteria acts as a verification of good design, Bache and his P6 may still be considered underappreciated.
Thankfully, the Rover’s cabin keeps the promise the exterior makes. On its inside, the P6 similarly balances tradition with modernism, contemporary trends and avant-garde concepts. There’s still plenty of heavy, solid metal in presence, but plastics (the material of the future in the 1960s, lest we forget) also featured prominently. Not least in the shape of the stripe of ‘wood’ on the doors, which flows into upper part of the dashboard - an idea that has been reused by more than one ‘premium' car manufacturer in recent years. Just like the analogue clock on top of the dashboard, by the way. A case of ‘talent borrows, genius steals’, one might argue.
The P6’s plump leather seats add some of the class that’s required from a British executive saloon, but any sense of stuffiness is quickly dissipated, thanks to the wide, slender steering wheel, the clean strip speedometer and the sober trapezium shapes of the centre console. If there ever was such a thing as a (British) International Style car cabin, it’s got to be the Rover's.
Being the offspring of the busy, bustling, staunchly conservative British automotive industry of the 1950s, the Rover P6’s daring can hardly be overestimated. Other cars may have brought motoring to the masses, but it was the Rover that didn’t just cater for the present, but pointed towards a brighter, better future. It was the product of the ‘white heat’ Harold Wilson had demanded, a symbol of British creativity and excellence. Its sales success couldn’t have been more deserved.
But the Britain the P6 seemed to herald never came into being. Its optimistic aura certainly appeared all the more at odds with the social unrest, division and austerity of the 1970s. That its successor, the visually flamboyant, but highly compromised Rover SD1 was much more cynical a car can therefore only be considered a logical consequence. For by 1976, the UK appeared to have run out of vision.
Both these Rovers respectively were awarded Car of the Year, by the way. Every era gets the automobile it deserves.
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