Description and Road Impressions - The new Rover 3500

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Clive Richardson

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Auntie’s Sporting Great-Nephew Makes “Buy British” a “Must”

Unless I am very much mistaken, June 30th, 1976, will go down in contemporary motoring history as the day that Britain put the plug in the tidal flow of medium-to-large-size luxury cars poured in upon us, in ever-increasing volume, from Continental motor manufactories. On that date (yesterday, to readers who receive Motor Sport on its official publication day—who says monthly magazines are always late with the news?) Leyland Cars announced the totally new, in all but name and basic engine, Rover 3500. This 125 m.p.h., five-door, five-gear, five-seat, 3 1/2-litre V8 saloon of thoroughly sporting demeanour and astonishing fuel frugality offers a specification which no Continental manufacturer can match. A specification which Continental manufacturers would surely persuade us was remarkably advantageously priced, if it was their product, at anything over £6,000. This new product from a purpose-built, 64-acre factory in Solihull, part of a £95 million investment, can be bought for just £4,750. Amazing.

Whereas complexity was the key-note of the old P6 2000/3500 series, SD1, as this first all-new Rover saloon since 1963 has been known during its five-year gestation period, has simplicity as one of its virtues, reflecting the changed approach of modern motor engineers. The steel body is of monocoque construction, the de Dion rear axle has been usurped by a live axle and that over-complex front suspension has given way to MacPherson struts. This has benefited production costs, ease of servicing and weight, the last in relative terms, for this 26.9 cwt. car is 5 1/4 in. longer—at 15 ft. 5 in.—than the old model, while its 5 ft. 9 in. width is 3 in. greater, so consequently weighs 136 lb. more, in manual form. The engineering buck stopped at that Rover-bred genius Spen King, now Leyland Cars’ Director of Engineering, while responsibility for the modernistically stylish, aerodynamically magnificently efficient (it has a drag coefficient of 0.39), body lay with David Bache, Leyland Cars’ Director of Styling. Talking of bucks, Bache says that early clay bucks of the design were put alongside cars like Ferraris and Maseratis “and despite the fact that it was a fully practical hatchback saloon car and not a cramped Grand Tourer it looked perfectly in keeping”. The reason I mention this is that the front corners of that rounded nose show unmistakable Ferrari Daytona influence—and who would complain about that? There is some Citroen and Lancia Beta resemblance too.

For safety, this striking shape has a crushable-end, rigid passenger cell structure for impact and roll-over, safety, horizontal compression struts in each door, the fuel tank mounted ahead of the axle beneath the floor and a front-hinged bonnet. If these features should be tested, repair has been facilitated in collaboration with the Motor Insurance Research Repair Association. For anti-corrosion, there is full undersealing, electrophoretic priming, zinc-coated steel sills, stainless steel bumpers, a plastic front apron, an aluminised exhaust system and a system which feeds air from the heater intake chamber through the sill box members to prevent the build-up of corrosive damp. That injectionmoulded plastic front apron acts as an antilift air dam, directs air into the radiator and contains the standard fitment auxiliary lamps. The inset, sloping headlamps are halogen Lucas H4, the rear lights incorporate high intensity fog guard lamps and reversing lamps and are crenellated, Mercedes-style, to avoid dirt built-up. A warning light indicates failure of any side, tail or stop lamp, a most useful feature fitted for the first time on a British production car. There are automatic warning lights in the trailing edge of each front door and mud flaps are standard, front and rear.

Apart from its many other virtues, of which more anon, the 3500 must have magnetic sales bait in its use of the five-door concept, paralleled in this sector of the market only by the Renault 30. The tailgate lifts high, assisted by gas spring struts. There is a vast, partially indented rear parcel shelf within; to give access to the boot, the rear half of this shelf hinges up with the tailgate, to which it is attached crudely, but effectively, by a detachable strap. The complete shelf can be lifted out to enlarge the already big boot, while the occasional grandfather clock can be carried by folding forward the rear-seat backrest to form a fastback estate car. If even that space is inadequate, lifting up two boards reveals a capacious, full-width spare-wheel well, which will be empty if the optional, now harder-wearing, Dunlop Denovo tyres are fitted. If there is a spare wheel lying flat in there, more usable space can be created by standing it vertically on either side of the well. Luxurious pile carpeting covers the entire boot—even the spare-wheel well and its covering boards. The only drawback to this versatile arrangement is the lift-over height of the rear tail panel.

Open the expansive, front-hinged bonnet and the view of the twin SU H1F6 carburetter-becapped, all-aluminium V8, illuminated at night by two automatic lights, will be familiar to even a Range-Rover owner. But the new car’s engine, though still of 3,528-c.c. and oversquare dimensions of 88.9 mm. x 71.1 mm., is much improved. Maximum power is increased from the old 3500’s 143 b.h.p. DIN at 5,000 r.p.m. to 155 b.h.p. DIN at 5,250 r.p.m., though accompanied by a fractional drop in torque from 202 lb./ft. at 2,700 r.p.m. to 198 lb./ft. at 2,500 r.p.m. Part of the power increase is released by allowing the engine to rev more freely, to 6,000 r.p.m., as against 5,200 r.p.m. in its old Rover form and 4,750 r.p.m. in its original GM-Buick guise. To achieve this the valving in the hydraulic tappets has been altered, inlet and exhaust valves increased in size, valve springs changed and porting and manifolding improved. With space restrictions of the old body shell gone, Rover have been able to fit the much more efficient, extractor-phased exhaust manifolding designed for the stillborn, mid-engined BS sports car. There is Lucas electronic, contact-less ignition, too, energising Champion N12Y plugs. Another detail emphasising the many leaves which have been taken out of German books in this new Rover’s design is the fitment of plug-in diagnostic equipment, using a magnetic transducer on the crankshaft damper. Further improvements in the engine itself involve the oil and water pumps, a narrowing of piston ring width to lower their inertia and the adoption of Leyland’s award-winning air temperature control valve on this manually-choked unit. Accessibility of plugs, carburetters, distributor, alternator and dip-stick is first-class.

Where Spen King is concerned, nothing is quite so straightforward as first glance might suggest. So you find that the live rear axle has a torque tube arrangement, anti-dive, anti-squat geometry and self-levelling, the last using the ingenious levelling damper units first developed for the Range-Rover. Further axle location is provided by trailing links and a rear-mounted Watts linkage; cushioning is provided by constant rate coil springs. The torque-tube means that only a fairly short, single propshaft is needed, which knocks vibration problems on the head.

For the front suspension, the nowadays “I wear all marque hats” King has utilised Triumph 2000 MacPherson strut experience for his beloved Rover. The tops of the struts swivel in ball-bearing mountings and coil springs are offset to give less “stiction”. As per normal MacPherson practice, the anti-roll bar and track control arms locate the wheels.

Burman power steering is standard—and uses rack and pinion for the first time on a Solihull Rover. Mounted ahead of the suspension crossmember, it uses torsion bar sensing for progressive steering feel. Its 2.7 turns lock-to-lock for a modest 34.3 ft. turning circle add another star to the score you will find in my driving impressions which follow.

In some ways this new Rover appears a contradiction in terms of what the public in the past have been told is engineering advancement. Firstly, I’ve just written the de Dion axle out of the story (how many times have we been told that de Dion is the best means of rear axle control?). Now I shall dismiss rear disc brakes, about which Jaguar and Rover have at times done so much shouting—and owners and mechanics have done so much swearing. Thank you, Rover, for the outboard 9 in. rear drums (with efficient handbrake), ably backed by 10.15 in., non-ventilated front discs, serviced by dual-line hydraulics and a direct acting servo. Those drums have a pressure limiting valve, automatically isolated in case of front brake failure.

In the cockpit

So often, the pre-announcement “blurb” and speeches thrust upon we motoring journalists by motor industry PR men are so much hot air fragranced by unfactual superlatives. Leyland are as good at doing that as anybody else. Rarely are we given a chance to sort out fact from fiction over lengthy mileages before writing announcement stories. Thanks to improved co-operation towards Motor Sport from Leyland Cars, with whom we have not always seen eye to eye of late, I have been able to confirm both my own ecstatically enthusiastic reaction to my 200-mile Press launch drive and Leyland’s own Press release superlatives with a subsequent several days and 1,200 miles of living with Pre-Production Vehicle No. 3, a Midas Gold, five-speed manual version of this new Rover.

Some idea of the extremes Leyland have gone to to beat the Continentals at their own game is immediately highlighted by the clunk as the key is turned in either of the front door locks; a Mercedes-style, not the less effectual Jaguar, central locking system it fitted as standard, whereby all doors and boot can be locked or unlocked at one turn of either front door lock. The hoot can be locked or unlocked separately by key, if desired, all four doors have individual override locks and the rears have additional childproof locks. Behind the pull-up interior door handle in his integral padded arm rest the driver has an all-doors over-ride lock button “for protection against malevolents”, as Leyland put it. Unlike Mercedes’, the Rover system does not control the key-lockable fuel-flap in the nearside wing, hardly an essential when self-service filling stations proliferate. Electric windows, as fitted to the test car, are one of the few extras available or necessary for this superbly appointed machine, which even has an excellent pushbutton, twin-speaker, Motorola radio as standard equipment. There are controls for all four windows in the centre console alongside the handbrake, the rear doors have separate controls and there is a facia-mounted over-ride control to prevent over-energetic fledglings climbing out through the rear windows, which open to inadequate a depth in any case.

Within the car the driver is confronted by a slightly quartic, padded-rim steering wheel suspended from the massive, square central boss at one side only and a forbidding rectangular instrument binnacle perched on top of the facia. Both will be controversial: I found both satisfactory, except that the wheel obscured the voltmeter and oil pressure gauge. These, together with fuel and water temperature gauges, are in a block of four to the left of the rectangle, 140 m.p.h. speedometer and 7,000 r.p.m. tachometer (red-lined from 5,500 to 6,000 r.p.m.) are in front of the driver, to the far right there are push-buttons for fog lights, heated rear screen (the largest made by by Triplex), hazard warning, rear fog guards and window over-ride, with the facia rheostat at the end of the block. Warning lights to the left are deliberately invisible except when their respective bulbs are alight. Cleverly, the left-hand end panel of the rectangle hides the comprehensive fuse box. There is a Kienzle clock in the centre of the facia.

Those useful 2000-type, drop-down illuminated and crash-resistant lockable under-facia lockers are retained, the right-hand one containing the bonnet release and the knob which adjusts the steering wheel for reach and height. A large tray, with non-slip mat, is formed in the passenger side facia too. The passenger has a map-light facing him in the gargantuan moulded plastic facia, while two courtesy lights respond to all four doors.

The front seats and footwells are partitioned by a massive transmission tunnel/ console containing radio and heater controls in the vertical section, gear-lever, window switches, choke-lever cigarette lighter, a small-change tray and the hefty handbrake, the last named more convenient for passenger than driver, on the flat plane.

Britax inertia belts are standard in the front, positioned so high up the side pillar that they cut across my wife’s neck—so much for making belt-wearing compulsory. Presumably Rover will continue to offer the adaptor they introduced last year to counteract this “short-person” complaint on the old model. The bottom mountings are secured to the seat, Range-Rover fashion, to maintain a constant position wherever the seat is adjusted to. Twin Wingard inertia reel belts and a contral static belt are optional for the rear.

Those brushed-nylon-covered seats—individual, with adjustable headrests, at the front, three-seater width at the rear, without the old model’s two-seater shaping, but with a fold-down centre arm-rest—look most luxurious. The front cushions are soft, the backrests, with prominent lumbar support areas, are reasonably firm. They are indeed most comfortable for normal use, but after some 400 miles on a day in which I stretched this Rover’s long legs for 700 miles, my aching back was crying out for additional lumbar support. The rear seats are firm for back and bottom, though less so than Mercedes and BMW and felt comfortable, though I confess to not having travelled on this Rover bench with its sensible leg-room, the driving seat having proved far too enticing. Connolly leather upholstery should be available as an option by September. The moulded, brushed-nylon headlining with inset padded sun-visors is most attractive.

Mediterranean-like June weather left the heater/demister system redundant, a pity, because I would have liked to have tried the effectiveness of the clever front door window demisters; a hole in the door shuts against a convoluted rubber tube on the facia, to force air through a door duct to a slot along the window length. But this new Leyland corporate heating system fought well against the high temperature, cool-air being rammed forcefully through two big directional vents in the facia centre, another in front of the passenger and a neat one in the instrument binnacle which deliberately directs the draught upwards above the driver’s eyes. Heated air is ducted to rear-seat passengers along the centre console. Air-conditioning will be available at a later date.

A driver’s delight

“Well, what do you think of it so far?” asked my passenger, Motoring News‘ Alan Henry, jocularly, within only a couple of hundred yards of the Chateau Impney, near Droitwich, as we left for the 200-mile Press Launch Drive in this new Solihull Sports Saloon. Some cars take a thousand miles’ accustomisation before I decide I like them or not. This time, as I settled down to the tautness and torque of this big hatchback saloon and snicked that so-positive gear-lever through to its fifth speed for the first time, I had an instant conclusion : “This, Alan, is a proper motor car. I want one!” The subsequent 1,400 miles in that initial car, the road test car and a few miles in another fitted with the optional Borg-Warner 65 3-speed automatic, a most effective development of the old Type 35, which puts the price of the basic, non-electric window car up to £4,900, have only served to make me even more enthusiastic.

The driving position feels so good, for starters, helped by that adjustable, if ugly, steering wheel. At rest the throttle looks to be too alienated from the brake, but on the move, heeling and toeing comes naturally. The seats are set quite high and there is almost a Range-Rover quality, see-all vista through the Triplex Ten Twenty laminated windscreen, tinted, like the rest of the glass area, as standard. This is the first production car to be fitted with the advanced Triplex screen which, say Triplex, “virtually eliminates severe cuts to the face and severe injuries to the eyes” in the event of accident contact.

Cold starting requires full-choke, an instrument which needs playing with for a couple of miles for stop-start motoring, air temperature control valve or not. Hot starting is straightforward. The V8 warbles merrily, yet very subdued, at low speeds, emits some harshness when hard acceleration is employed, but settles down to a soothing, unflustered murmur when driven with a light right foot or at extremely high cruising speeds in fifth.

It is that tall fifth gear which, with the excellent aerodynamics, gives this car such an extraordinary long-legged gait; this overdrive ratio offers 28:03 m.p.h./1,000 r.p.m., which means the eight pistons are moving at a mere 3,534 r.p.m. at 100 m.p.h.! On the other hand, the flexible V8 will pull fifth almost down to tickover. The owner of the automatic version will need a deeper pocket: on the same 3.08 :1 final drive, his car will pull a mere (comparatively) 23.5 m.p.h./ 1,000 r.p.m.

But gearing and aerodynamics musn’t be allowed to overshadow the engine’s own contribution to uncanny economy. Leyland claim 24-26 m.p.g., touring and tell me the average over the duration of the Press test days was 27-28 m.p.g., with a worst of under 22 m.p.g. and a best of no less than 32 m.p.g. On one non-stop motorway/dual carriageway journey (abroad, of course, Your Honour) my road-test car averaged over 80 m.p.h., in spite of roadworks delays, to the tune of an incredible 25.6 m.p.g. On the other hand, this commodious, 26.9 cwt., 3/-litre saloon also proved much cheaper for commuting into the City of London than my TR6, with which regular trartsport 1 most inevitably compare it. While the 21-litre two-seater, and slower, sports car averages less than IX m.p.g. for this journey, this Rover recorded 21.3 m.p.g., when gearing and aerodynamics would he of little benefit. And to think I praised the petrol-miserly Porsche 911 2.7 for recording 21.58 m.p.g. over that journey, albeit on 2-star. The 9.35 to 1 compression ratio Rover needs 4-star in its 14.8 gallon tank.

It is the aforementioned gearbox which helps make this car such a driver’s delight. “Design a five-speed gearbox with a change as good as Ford’s four-speed”, was the engineers’ requested criterion. The result I believe to be. possibly the best mass-production five-speed gearbox in the world. It is a new type of design in that Timken tapered roller bearings are used on both mainshaft and layshaft, the first time they have been fitted to both shafts in a volume production ‘box. The arrangement makes the gearbox stronger, more rigid and helps create the exceptionally positive gearchange. Peculiarly, reverse is on a dog’s leg up to the left against a strong detent spring, instead of opposite the right-and-up fifth speed. There is a modest spring bias towards the third/fourth plane. The selection of every gear is satisfying, but the fourth/fifth and vice versa movement is particularly so: Rover have transformed into an easy, natural action a movement which has to be deliberate in most other five-speed boxes. Clutch pedal pressure is of middleweight requirements.

Though the engine is particularly flexible, the improved rev, range makes it pay to put the crisp gearbox to work for best performance. Sonic idea of the usefulness of the ratios can be judged from the speeds at 6,000 r.p.m. in the lower three of 43 m.p.h., 69 m.p.h. and 103 m.p.h., second and third being superb overtaking gears. If anything it is a shade overgeared, for the sake of quietness and economy. Nevertheless, this car is quick: I’m informed that Rover’s quoted 0-60 m.p.h. in 8.7 sec. and 125 m.p.h. maximum are very conservative for Trade Description reasons and 127 and 8.5 sec. or less will usually be nearer the mark.

In its handling and roadholding this Machine feels every inch as though it has been designed by enthusiastic driver-engineers for enthusiastic drivers. It corners flat and neutrally, unless pushed forcefully into roll on tighter curves. Even in such extremes it shows no vices if emergency correction of line is needed, or if the throttle is lifted off abruptly or squashed hard to the floor in mid-corner; no sudden oversteer nor run-wide understeer, just wonderful adhesion, smooth stability and impeccable traction from the non-limited-slip live rear axle. There is a degree of response and ability out of keeping with this car’s size, engineered by tautness of suspension and communicative, sensibly geared, power-steering. I never ceased to be astonished at the precision and speed with which the considerable girth could be slotted in and out of traffic or hurtled down winding lanes. All this is done at the expense of slight suspension harshness and radial thump at low speed; as speed increases the ride and absorption of bumps grows excellent, passenger comfort assisted by modest roll angles. There is none of the sick-making ride of the old model. On the one hand this Rover is a taut sports saloon, on the other a comfortable, luxurious express.

The test car’s -optional—extra wide alloy wheels and 195 section Pirelli CN36s seemed to offer cosmetic benefit rather than road manner improvements compared with the standard steel wheels and 185 section steel-construction Goodyears on my Press launch car. Those disc/drum brakes provided creditably powerful retardation. High winds experienced when crossing the moorlands into Scotland provoked infinitesimal twitch and in general this 4 ft. 11 in. track, 9 ft. 21 in. wheelbase car’s straight-line stability is highly impressive. That quality, the high gearing, reasonably low wind noise and economy make this car a magnificent motorway mile-eater, no doubt an admirable continental touring car. What wind noise there is Seems to come from the door mirror’s (only the driver’s of which is standard), which are manually adjustable from inside the car. When two are fitted, the car becomes excessively wide.

Drivers not used to peering over modern, drop-away bonnet lines may find it difficult to place this Rover at first. Being used to such design penalties and making use of the precise handling, I had no such problems, but still found it a difficult car to park.

The gearbox whines overmuch in second gear, the spare-wheel needs a cover to avoid it dirtying the carpet, the bonnet prop can he released only from the nearside, four instead of two screen washer jets are needed for the big screen (these being operated, along with the two-speed plus fixed-speed intermittent wipers, dip, flashers and horn from steering column stalks) and what has happened to the splendid Rover toolkit of old? This is the sum total of criticisms, a credit to Rover engineers. The whole car feels splendidly rugged in Range-Rover fashion, has the makings of providing the best towing saloon on the market and can have its new thermoplastic paint treatment carried out in metallic finish at no extra cost.

The new_ Rover 3500 (should we call it Mk. II?) is as far removed from the Rover image as was the advanced 2000 in 1963. Traditional Rover owners may take some initial persuasion to buy, although they can continue to purchase the 2200 models, which continue in production along with the Triumph 2000s and 2500s. But Leyland should attract a vast new following from customers who would never have dreamt of buying Rover in the past. BMW, Citroen, Peugeot, Volvo, Renault, even Mercedes will feel the effect of this brilliant new car which initially is exclusive to the UK. Jaguar will doubtless lose a few customers too, though maybe gain a few traditional Rover-type owners who prefer walnut luxury and a softer compromise of suspension and engine. And no longer do Chief Constables have an excuse for buying “foreign”. Here at last is a British high performance luxury sports saloon to take the place of the much-loved Jaguar 3.8 of the early ’60s. I hope that Rover can supply what ought to be a fantastic demand and maintain the quality which the concept deserves.—

[The price -.of the optional electric windows, passenger door mirror, alloy wheels with 195 section tyres or Dunlop Denovo wheels and lyres had not been announced when we went to Press]

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