Matters of moment, July 1976

A new Rover

On the day before this issue of Motor Sport was due to reach the book-stalls and its subscribers, Leyland Cars made a very important release, that of their brave new Rover 3500. The title of this new car from Solihull may not sound very breath-taking, because we have had 3 1/2-litre Rovers previously. But this is an entirely new product. An important one, we think, for Britain, and a car which should be of great interest to those who have been staunch Rover supporters in the past.

In recent times Leyland have produced the splendid V12 Jaguar, their first all-Leyland Motors car, the Princess, of which we approve, and the Triumph TR7, dealt with last month. Now comes this brave new Rover 3500, to bolster, we hope, our flagging Export Trade, to sell strongly at Home, and to give Rover-people good reasons for renewed enthusiasm.

Elsewhere in this issue you will find a full description and road impressions of this significant new British car. Known as the SD1, it is to be built in a 64-acre £95-million new factory at Solihull. This Rover 3500 is in some ways a simplified version of the popular Rover P6, inasmuch as the latter’s de Dion rear axle and the complex front suspension have been abandoned in favour of a beam -back axle and Macpherson-strut front suspension, but with simple self-levelling telescopic-units incorporated.

When the Editor of Motor Sport interviewed Spencer King on the subject of these changes, he was frank and honest in his replies. He explained that this computer-designed new Rover had had to be simplified, both from the economic angle and in the light of engineering advances. The new project is a sensible combination of quality, easy-servicing considerations, and building to an acceptable selling-price. The P8 project came too close to Jaguar, so a fresh start was made. To develop a satisfactory front-drive Rover concept would have needed much more time and as the work done under a subsequent heading to the P8 filled the bill, there was no point in scrapping it. David Bache styled the exciting 5-door hatchback body, it was known that a beam back axle would do all and more titan was required of it, if experience with the Range Rover, which uses them at both ends, was sophisticatedly made use of, and adequate wheel-travel provided, and King was glad to use a breaker-less ignition to improve reliability and too-frequent servicing. The new suspension takes kindly to different makes of tyres, whereas the 2000 had its springing more directly related to its chosen “boots”—the new 3500 is supplied with Pirelli, Michelin or Avon tyres, etc., with the Option of Dunlop Denovos. It has an admirable 5-speed gearbox developed by David Pity, strong enough to serve other Leyland projects, even unto the commercial-vehicle field. And before the new 3500 is dubbed an Olds-Rover, on account of it retaining the light-alloy V8 engine introduced by General Motors of America 15 years ago for their Oldsmobile F85 and Buick Special compacts, let it be emphasised that this fine power unit has been given bigger valves, altered port shapes, and the efficient BS exhaust system for the new Rover, which has raised its safe maximum speed from 4,700 r.p.m. to 6,000 r.p.m., which ensures that it can withstand flat-out Autoroute cruising with automatic transmission, in which there is no high-drive to resort to. Other notable features of the Rover 3500, such as Solihull’s first use of rack-and-pinion steering, the Triplex Ten-Twenty laminated windscreen, plug-in servicing, etc., are described in our technical description starting, in colour, on page 816.

Spencer King, Leyland’s Director of Engineering, is a modest person. When we interviewed him he was insistent that praise be given to those who worked with him on the SDI, such as Gordon Bashford who “found” the project, Rex Marvin who developed it, Mike Lewis who headed the development team, John Lloyd who put it into production form, and others already referred to. Together they have evolved a car which remains entirely in the Rover tradition, yet is, as Leyland express it, “the car for Britain, the car for Europe, above all, tomorrow’s car for today”. It has been simplified, true—even the new badge they have evolved for the 3500 is less elaborate than the former Rover motif, as can be seen at the beginning of this Editorial—but Spencer King claims that the new 3500 is a “thinking-engineer’s car with a high degree of detail, sophistication and refinement which belies its deliberately simple ‘paper’ specification”. We are prepared to accept this, from one who has been behind so many great Rover projects, from gas-turbine racing cars to the prototype Range Rover. For he is a great practical engineer, who raced just for amusement that Rover Special which Frank Lockhart still finds so effective at present-day VSCC meetings. Incidentally, King, like other Chief Engineers, tries most of his rivals’ cars; when he enquired of the Editor in what make of car we had arrived in Birmingham for the purpose of sampling the new Rover and conducting the interview with him and was told “In a BMW”, we observed that he did not raise so much as an admonitory eyebrow…. Which could bode well for his latest accomplishment!

There are some manufacturers Who have made no, or very few, really miserable motor cars—we do not propose to name them, but this might form an interesting topic for correspondence. The Rover Company does not come into that lofty category. It has made “lesser” cars, like the sleeve-valve singles before the First World War, the post-Armistice Eight, the Scarab, and the Rover Ten and its non-illustrious followers. Conversely, it has also been responsible for some very good and well-liked cars, including the Cleggdesigned pre-1914 Twelve, those luxury 10s, 12s and 14s of the mid-1930s, the immortal P4s, and the excellent and still-current P6s. Moreover, there have been noteworthy racing exploits, from winning the TT in 1907, being highly placed in short Brooklands handicaps with the single-seater “Odin” with its complex o.h. valve-gear and the later Speed Model, to the outstanding and specialised Le Mans showings with the gas-turbine Rover-BRMs, apart from milder racing and rallying exercises.

Thus the Rover is a car that has earned wide respect and the new 3500 has arrived at an opportune time. The financial climate that greets it is slightly better than had been expected, since Mr. “Chamberlain” Healey has accomplished that further enormous foreign loan—last month we wrote of millions of pounds being bandied casually about ; now it is billions! However, with the £ strengthening, this brave new Solihull-built car at a sensible selling price should get off to a good start. Its future was in jeopardy under the proposed Company Car Tax but it now seems as if our Dither-Government is likely to have had second thoughts about this disastrous blow to new-car sales, just as it is now uncertain about making us strap ourselves under compulsion to our automobiles—otherwise, why the low fines now proposed, for disobeying our Lords and Masters in not belting-up ?

The Rover has long been an important British car—its history can be assimilated by reading George Oliver’s scholarly book (Cassell, 1971)–and we commend those who are concerned about the recovery of the British Motor Industry to read the assessment on the new 3500 which our hard-working staff have prepared for publication on the day following its long-awaited appearance in the showrooms of the 750 Rover/Triumph distributors and dealers in this country. Will you buy, or won’t you ? Your reasons for doing so, or not so doing, would be of much interest.