The Best Yet

A Rover Experimental Sports Car

Most of us at some time or another must have sat round a fire with a group of friends and designed the perfect “special”, the car to fulfil all our needs and built with unlimited money and resources. No two such specials were ever really alike because we all have different ideas and different requirements, but occasionally a more rational approach would produce some constructive ideas, but seldom would any of them get put into practice. Most of my friends who have assisted in this armchair pastime over the years and have actually built a “special” have gone off quietly on their own and started work, the others only being called in when something needed lifting or holding. Usually these “one-off” cars are restricted in their design, either by money, facilities or availability of parts, but whatever the restrictions “special building” is a fascinating exercise.

Over the years of the life of the motor industry many makes and models have come into being because one man had this penchant for “special building”, the beginnings of M.G. and Lotus are two classic examples, and anyone connected with the 750 Club will know that it is still a very busy activity, while our Club racing scene is flooded with the results of such efforts. In the immediate-post-war years, when the only available sports cars were those left over from 1939 and before, the pastime of “fireside special building” was very popular, though few cars got built as nobody seemed to have enough money and suitable parts were scarce. During this time I used to sit around with a group of enthusiasts, one now the Editor of this monthly motoring magazine, one the Editor of a weekly magazine, another has taken to boats, another emigrated to Australia, and one is no longer with us, and we were often joined by a bespectacled young chap who was a junior engineer with the Rover Company. This must have been in about 1947/48 and one day he arrived in a brand-new Fiat 1400, the latest thing in family saloons from Italy. Needless to say we all piled into it for a demonstration drive and young Spencer King drove us round our local “test circuit” and said, in all seriousness, that if the Rover Company could not design a better car then they might as well stop trying. We all respected “Spen”, but were rather aghast at his condemnation of the Fiat for we were of the school brought up on Alfa Romeo and Maserati racing history, and felt that anything Italian must be good. While driving around he explained why he did not like the Fiat and demonstrated what was wrong with it, and from that day I have had a healthy respect for the Rover Company, and not without reason as the years have proved.

Our particular group of enthusiasts gradually changed and dispersed and not many “fireside specials” got built, but King progressed with the Rover Company, rising to Chief Engineer (New Vehicles Projects), being particularly active on the turbine side of Rover developments, and now being Technical Director of Standard-Triumph. After the post-war Rover series, that became known affectionately as “Auntie Rover”, were started, Spencer King and his friend, Peter Wilks, who is now Technical Director of the Rover Company, could not resist the “special-building” urge, and they built a single-seater racing car out of Auntie Rover parts, doing short races and hill-climbs with it during 1949 and 1950. One ingenious feature of this car, which is still very active in V.S.C.C. racing even today, was the de Dion rear axle layout, in which one-piece drive shafts were used. When Spencer King and Peter Wilks showed us this “special” we were all most envious, and little did we realise that it was leading the way to better and better Rovers, some of the basic thinking in that single-seater being traceable in the Royer 2000 and Rover “three-five” of today. This “special building” activity by the lads at Rover soon turned into full-time prototype designing for the experimental department, and when Spencer King showed us his next “special” it was the open two-seater Auntie Rover with the gas-turbine in the tail. Experimental cars are built in all the car manufacturers’ factories, some not very imaginative, some not very well made, some not even completed, and the list of “one-off” cars built at the Rover would read like most other big factories. However, some of them have been landmarks in the automobile industry, and the “Auntie with the hot boot” registered JET 1 was an example. In 1956 there appeared at the London Motor Show a turquoise-coloured coupé bristling with advanced thinking, for apart from having a gas-turbine in the boot, it had similar suspension to the single-seater and Four-Wheel-Drive. Turbines were put into the front of saloon experimental cars, but for any form of sporting vehicle the power unit was destined to go in the rear, and we saw this sort of thinking come well to the fore when Rover and B.R.M. combined to build a gas-turbine car for the Le Mans 24-Hour race. The first Rover-B.R.M. did a 24-hour demonstration run at Le Mans, starting a few seconds after the race proper, and the following year the Mk. II Rover-B.R.M, competed officially. On both occasions the 24-Hour run was completed successfully, the cars impressing all who saw them.

The mid-engined sporting coupé layout was strong in the minds of the people in the Rover Experimental, and when the new alloy V8 engine was produced it sparked off yet another “special”. Just as the 1948 single-seater was built by laying out various production bits from Auntie Rover, the BS coupé was contrived by laying out parts of the Rover 2000 and the V8. Recently I was given the privilege of borrowing this latest “special” from the Rover factory, and, as regular readers know, I have been “going-on” about mid-engined sporting coupés for some years now, reaching my peak of enthusiasm when I had a week with a road-equipped Ford GT40. Known as the P6BS, or BS for short, this Rover experimental is just -about everything I have been looking for in a road car since my first year with my “vintage” E-type Jaguar, and after 941 miles I was very reluctant to give it back, and felt very frustrated when Rover said they could not take my deposit for the first production version. The British Leyland “controller of destinies” has got many more higher priority problems to sort out than the fate of this splendid machine.

Looking at a Jaguar, an Aston Martin, an Iso-Grifo, or a Ferrari as a vehicle for carrying two people at high speed, it does not take much engineering knowledge to see that no matter how pretty they may look, the basic layout is wrong, for they are all too long and too big. Many attempts at mid-engined coupés have been terrific fun to drive, like the GT40 or the Lamborghini Miura, or the de Tomaso Mangusta, but they all lack “normality” in their appearance and appointments, having very little room in the living compartment and needing a “hands-and-knees” approach to get in. The layout of engine and transmission joined together as in a Grand Prix car is very space consuming, especially in length, so that the engine is usually pressing on the back of the driving seat. At rather high cost Lamborghini has overcome this in the Miura, building the engine across the chassis, in unit with the transmission. Rover have overcome it in a much cheaper and simpler way, the BS being designed with existing components as an exercise in low production costs as well as being an exercise in engineering. The 3½-litre alloy V8 engine has been turned completely round, pointing backwards, and a modified Rover 2000 gearbox is mounted forwards, slightly below and to the left of the clutch, with a Morse power-chain joining the two units together. A shaft then runs out of the back of the gearbox, under the engine to the differential unit, which is in one with the engine sump casting, but using its own oil system. This makes a very compact engine/gear-box/axle assembly, with no weight aft of the rear axle and very little space taken up in the interior of the car, the short V8 engine being almost over the rear axle centre-line. In addition to space-saving there could be no better place to concentrate the major weight mass, and its advantage of traction was to make itself very noticeable when driving the car. With the gearbox just behind the seats the control linkage was very straightforward, short and simple, unlike some layouts where the gearbox is behind the rear axle. The rear suspension is de Dion from a Rover 2000, the only modification being that the disc brakes are mounted outboard, as the V8 engine takes up the space inboard, where they are normally mounted. Front suspension is independent by a new wishbone and coil spring layout, with a large-diameter anti-roll bar acting as the lower forward member of the bottom wishbone. All this mechanism is built into a body-chassis unit of steel construction, with a wheelbase of 7 ft. 10½ in., and a track of 4 ft. 6¼ in. front and 4 ft. 9 in. rear, the driver and passenger sitting almost exactly on the midway point of the wheelbase. On this “one-off” many proprietary parts are used, partly to cut the cost and partly because existing components are adequate, such as the seats from the later E-type Jaguar, a Rover 2000 gear-lever, and a Jaguar thermostatically-controlled electric radiator fan. Rover always like their “specials” to be well finished and practical and no attempt has been made to build a “racer” or an impressively low coupé body, so that the overall height of 48 inches gives more than enough headroom. With the main strength of the chassis in a central backbone there is no obstruction when you open the door, and Auntie herself can get in and out without any trouble, unlike most mid-engined coupés. Behind the seats is a remarkable amount of room, the engine protruding partly into the right-hand side, but there being room for an adult person to fold up in the left-hand corner. In the tail of the car, isolated from the-engine compartment, is a sizeable luggage boot; so that some of the excitement of borrowing this Rover was taken away because it was so practical. I had been visualising another week like that with the GT40, where I was restricted to a map and a bar of chocolate, but this was made up for by performance and road-holding that was not only out-of-this-world for a road car, but almost beyond my capabilities. My first impressions of the Rover BS were bewildering, for here was a perfectly practical, usable, everyday vehicle, with all mod. cons. and a quiet, docile V8 engine, the whole car exuding very little “stationary personality”. Once under way the true character of the car soon became obvious, for it had the “on-paper” performance of a 4.2-litre E-type, but the ability to cover the ground at about 20% higher average speeds, with at least 30 or 40% greater safety and stability.

It is difficult to put into words the feeling of stability that you get with a well-designed mid-engined coupé, compared with a front engined car, and the Rover comes very high on the list. The rear wheel adhesion, especially for accelerating, is such that you give it full throttle long before the end of a corner is in sight, so that it will come out of corners so fast that you find yourself at the next one much sooner than you expect. With most fast cars there is time between corners to change up into another gear on certain roads that I know well, but I found with the Rover BS that I was running out of spare time between the corners. It was then that I felt that this new conception of motoring was going to need something new in the way of transmission, and I do not mean the three-step Borg Warner so-called Automatic transmission. Rover have the real answer in the T3-turbine coupé, but that is another matter. Experiments are still going on with the BS coupé, so that any such criticisms that I had were already known to the Rover engineers, and were either being rectified, or there were thoughts already under way about improved design. I had expected a “lying-down” driving position, and finger-tip steering where you “think” the car round a fast swerve with the accelerator pedal, but the BS is entirely orthodox in this department, the seating being upright in Jaguar fashion, and the steering was a bit on the heavy side; but the car had only just been fitted with a different rack-and-pinion unit. The heaviness only made itself felt when flicking the car through a series of 50-70 m.p.h. swerving bends; on normal open-road motoring this was no problem. The overall stability up to the car’s usable maximum of 125-130 m.p.h. was of such a high standard that it was memorable, and a comparison with the E-type on the same road made the front-engined car feel like a wobbly jelly. The 3½-litre V8 Rover engine was impressively smooth and quiet, as well as being very flexible, so that the car could be used for shopping or pottering around town without any drama, which is as it should be, for apart from a different exhaust system and bigger carburetters it was a standard unit. The limit was 6,000 r.p.m. and the power was so unobtrusive that a wary eye had to be kept on the tachometer when pressing on. In third gear the car would do over the 100 m.p.h. mark, but speed began to run out over 120 m.p.h. in top, though given space it would probably wind on up to close on 140 m.p.h. The acceleration up to 90 m.p.h. was not only sufficient, but very usable. I cannot imagine that another 50 b.h.p. from the Rover V8 would present the Solihull engineers with any problems, and then the BS would perform adequately on all counts.

In the daylight the ride seemed remarkably flat and level, and the comfort was of Rover 2000 order, but at night on full-headlamp beams I was made conscious that full throttle out of a corner in second or third gear was making the rear end “squat”, for the light beams would suddenly point at the tops of the hedges, and under heavy braking they would point into the ditches, which made night dicing rather tricky. Sitting in the fore and aft middle of the car, you are not conscious of this movement in daylight and it came as rather a surprise on the first fast night run, but even so I managed to average the legal 70 m.p.h., round a known circuit of 25 miles, which is something I have never managed before. It is the remarkable ability of “squat and squirt” that makes the Rover BS such fun through medium-fast corners. On long 110 m.p.h. bends it tended to get into a slight sideways rocking motion, but it never developed into anything and was a characteristic that was soon forgotten. As I said earlier, this car is a one-off, but the overall standard of behaviour is so high at present that if it was put into production it would outsell Jaguar and Lotus on merit alone.

After living with a GT40 Ford for a week I estimated it to be as far in advance of an E-type Jaguar, as the Jaguar is in advance of an M.G.-B, and that included all aspects. At their respective prices this is reasonable tabulation, and after living with the Royer BS for a few days I have no hesitation in putting it between the Jaguar E-type and the GT40. It has virtually the same performance as a standard E-type in a straight line, but would leave it behind through any corner. The overall handling and control is not as “ultimate” as the GT40, but it is essentially more practical and usable. Coming between the E-type and the GT40 means that it should cost about £3,500, and it probably would if it came from Italy, but I am sure that Solihull could make it for around £2,090, and possibly less, for it is made from a great number of components that are already in full production.

The body shape of this prototype, made from steel sheet, was not intended as a styling exercise, but was schemed up by the engineering division to fit functionally around the mechanical components, and bears an obvious similarity to the Le Mans Rover-B.R.M. and the early T-3 turbine coupé. Under the bodywork ahead of the windscreen is the fuel tank, the steering gear, the pedal mechanism, the radiator and a spare wheel, and the whole front I found very neat and pleasing to the eye. The tail was not so nice and would stand a little tidying up and shaping, but the remarkable feature of the body shape was the all-round visibility from the driving seat, unlike many mid-engine coupés in which you can only see forwards or sideways. On the tail is a Perspex bubble covering the two sloping S.U. carburetters, but if the V8 was put on to fuel-injection this bubble would disappear.

Over the years many of the various “special projects” built by Rover as engineering and research vehicles have been very exciting and technically very advanced, but I have no hesitation in saying that the Rover BS is the best yet. The brains that conceive and build these “special projects” are the same that control the engineering of production Rover cars, so it is not surprising that the Rover 2000 stands high on the list of good cars. But when will we be able to buy a production BS? That is a question that only Sir Donald Stokes can answer, since Rover were absorbed into British Leyland. At the moment the answer is never, but, who knows, Sir Donald may have a brainstorm one day, and realise that in Solihull he has a car that would make the Lamborghini Miura, the Dino Ferrari, the de Tomaso Mangusta, the Matra 530, and the forthcoming Chevrolet seem like the expensive toys that they are, for the Rover BS could be sold tomorrow to ordinary, everyday motorists, and it could be serviced at any Rover agent; there would be no need to skulk off down some Mews to get service. It is British and we could all be proud of it. If it was called the Leyland Eight, as it was at the New York Motor Show when it was displayed, it could not fail to be accepted on the world’s markets.—D. S. J.