What could be better than a Rover P5B? Two of them would be, especially one of each variant
John de la Haye took delivery of his Rover 3.5-litre saloon in October 1970. He had a choice of colour and couldn’t decide, so his son-in-law, Bob Wolfe, said he was having the Arden Green one and the decision was made. The list price was $6665 at a time when a Jaguar XJ6 was about $8500, and a Ford Zodiac about $4300. A few months later Mr de la Haye became too ill to drive, and his wife took over the driving duties. With a name like Lola de la Haye, and being related to the Delahaye car makers, there was a good chance she would be a car enthusiast, and she is one to this day.
Mrs de la Haye drove the Rover for years, and was often approached by enthusiasts wanting to buy the car. They would leave their contact details and she dutifully kept them all, ending up with over 30 names. So if you’re still waiting for that lovely old lady with the green Rover to call, forget it!
In time the Rover was passed on to her grandson, Michael Wolfe. Mrs de la Haye still drives her Rover 2000 every week at the young age of 98 years. Although Michael is the P5B’s acknowledged owner in waiting, at this stage it is still considered to be owned by the Wolfe family. He commented that the family barely sells a car. When they want a new car they buy it and keep the ones they already have. That’s why his mother has a 27,000km Morris 1100 and Michael is now the custodian of the Ford Zodiac that his parents bought new, which has travelled 108,000km.
Until a few years ago, the family owned a holiday home on the Thames coast. On a day drive to Coromandel, Bob saw a Rover P5B coupe parked on the street. He went to talk to the owner, a Mr Bishop, and a five-minute chat took an hour. Almost unbelievably, seven years later Mr Bishop rang to ask whether the Wolfes would like to buy his car. It was newly registered and warranted and had new tyres, and he wondered, would $4000 be too much? He had received a better offer but he wanted to be sure the car was going to a good home. They left almost immediately for Coromandel, and Michael bought the car on the spot.
The coupe was perfect mechanically, despite having done over 320,000km, but the body needed quite a bit of work. It was stripped, and rust and dents were removed prior to a full repaint in Michael’s basement garage. Michael was adamant the colour scheme had to be changed from battleship grey with a green roof, and he chose Arden Green for the body and Roman Bronze for the roof. Both are Rover colours, but the coupe’s green paintwork is slightly lighter than that of the saloon.
The bumpers and grille were re-chromed, and new rubber seals and light lenses were fitted. The interior was also refurbished, except for the seating, which is still serviceable. Michael says the seats need to be re-upholstered to bring the car right up to scratch, but it will be on the ‘to do’ list for some time yet. The refurbishment was completed in just three months because Michael’s younger brother, Stephen, wanted the Rovers for his wedding cars.
Because the coupe was fitted with whitewall tyres, the saloon looked a little under-dressed. Michael’s mother promptly ordered another set, so the two cars were matching. After the coupe was finished, Michael sent photos of it to Mr Bishop, who heartily approved of the transformation.
Behind the Wheel
Michael and I went for a cruise in the two Rovers, and it was a real pleasure to get behind the wheel of a P5B Saloon for the first time since 1974. The V8 started instantly and idled smoothly with a very pleasant, typical V8 rumble that was inaudible by the time the speed reached 50kph. The car got to 100kph surprisingly quickly, with no apparent effort.
It felt beautifully smooth and solid on the road, as you would expect of a car that’s covered a gentle 68,000km in its life. The power steering was light, but it was possible to feel what was going on where the rubber met the road. A Borg Warner automatic was the only transmission available for the P5B, unlike the earlier P5 which could be ordered with a four-speed manual with or without overdrive, or an automatic. The auto’s changes were undetectable.
I was too busy keeping Michael in sight to see the reactions of other road users, but I’m pretty sure the two green beauties attracted plenty of attention as they slipped quietly through the Saturday morning traffic.
There is no doubt the lovely alloy V8 engine is the dominant feature of the Rover. The engine was originally designed by General Motors and produced by Buick. It was fitted to several hundred thousand compact Buicks and Oldsmobiles between 1961 and 1963, but it always leaked water and oil. Buick produced it with a cast-iron block to overcome these problems, and also made a V6 version that had a long and distinguished career.
A Stronger V8
General Motors sold the tooling for the alloy V8 version to Rover, which re-engineered it to eliminate the leaks, making it stronger and slightly heavier in the process. As well as the P5B and P6B Rovers, the engine also saw service in various capacities up to five litres in Land Rovers, Morgans, MGs, Triumphs, TVRs, the Leyland P76 and some fairly obscure low-volume brands. It was finally phased out in 2006.
Richard Hammond featured the P5B on the Top Gear television show in 2003, and was very complimentary about the “¦gentlemen’s club on wheels¦” No matter how hackneyed the cliche might be, he thought it was entirely appropriate, given that the car has what Michael refers to as a trilogy of wood, leather and deep pile carpet.
Hammond said the Rover 3.0litre P5 had a “flaccid” six cylinder engine that would get the car from zero to 100kph in 17 seconds and would take it to 162kph, but “¦not without a fight.” In contrast, the P5B will sprint to 100kph in 11 seconds and carry on to a top speed of 176kph, easily and in total dignity.
Her Majesty’s Rover
The P5B that Hammond drove was Queen Elizabeth’s car, kept for the times she wanted to drive and be incognito. Her car was identical in colour, inside and out, to Michael’s. There’s a delightful story that may be true, of an English shopkeeper being dumbstruck when a green Rover pulled up outside and Her Majesty came in to buy a pie. The P5B was the car for lawyers, bank managers and others of elevated status in Britain, at least until the Jaguar XJ6 came along. Although the Jaguar had a more sporting image, it didn’t quite have that air of understated dignity, and there was no car that could fully take the P5B’s place when it went out of production. Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher also drove, or were driven in, P5Bs, so these cars moved in high circles. Mrs Thatcher clung onto her example for years, and it was already seven years old when she came to power.
In most respects, the saloon and coupe are identical, and yet they look very different. In womanly terms the saloon is the full-bodied dowager, while the coupe is her slightly more svelte sister. The saloon is a size 14 top and bottom; the coupe has a size 10 top and is size 14 below the waist. The coupe has the more instant allure, but the saloon would be no less satisfying. The coupe is 70mm lower than the saloon, but the difference doesn’t stop there. The front and rear screens have more rake and the coupe’s side windows have narrow stainless steel frames. Richard Hammond said the coupe had a slightly more caddish look, but I’m not sure whether that’s quite the right description. I am sure, though, that the coupe has the proportions a hot-rodder would give the saloon.
Inside, the only noticeable difference is that the saloon has a full bench rear seat, where the coupe’s seat is sculpted to be more of a two and occasional three-seater. Both have what Michael thinks is African mahogany woodwork, and some nice detail touches. The saloon has good old-fashioned fabric grab handles hanging from the C-pillars and the coupe has a pull-out drinks tray hidden behind the rear seat’s centre armrest. Both have a pull-out tray under the dash that doubles as a home for the tool kit. The one jarring note in the P5B’s design, to Michael’s eyes, is the instrument panel. He feels that Rover didn’t know how to make a nice dashboard. It’s as though it designed the dashboard and then realised it had to provide instruments, so it mounted them on a box that is not even slightly integrated into the overall design. This applies to all models from the P5 on.
The P5B (fifth post war model, Buick engine) in either form was a classic from the day it was introduced in 1967, and it is still a head-turning car that is satisfying and practical to drive on a daily basis. It will always be sought after by those who appreciate the best of British attributes, which these cars have in abundance. The last one came off the production line in 1973, after 11,501 saloons and 9099 coupes had been built.
Michael has an eight-year-old son, Nikolai, and he is a very fortunate young lad. One day he will inherit two immaculate, almost identical, Rovers, a MkIV Zodiac and a MkI Ford Capri. Whether he will be able to fuel or drive them is another matter, but one thing is certain — barring major natural disasters or World War III, the cars will be owned by the Wolfe family, to be handed down to the fourth and successive generations.
Words & Photos: Gordon Campbell