Works Rover P6 – The car for bank managers – and the Monte. Pre-Leyland Rover, that is. Here’s how the definitive mid-century creators of cars for comfortably-off Britons nearly became full-on rally bad boys. Words Dale Drinnon. Photography Tim Andrew.
MONTE-CARLO RALLY ROVER P6
Rover’s last rumble
‘WITH BRITISH SOCIETY STARTING TO BUBBLE, ROVER SOUGHT TO LOOSEN ITS IMAGE IN 1962 WITH A TOE IN THE WATER OF THE EUROPEAN RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP’
Let’s be honest. When the call came from Richard Thorne I was (a) too distracted with hammering the keyboard on another job to really catch what he was saying, and (b) too vain, as the savvy professional motoring journo I am, to admit an almost total bewilderment on the subject of works Rover P6 rally cars. ‘Uh, Richard, bad phone signal. What was that again?’
Knowing me quite well enough to spot the dodge, he simply carried on. ‘We’re selling it for a regular client, it’s from the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally team, and I think it could make rather a good story.’
Indeed, it would lead me into a little-known chapter of the grand old British automaker’s history, and that of an exceptional driver vastly under-appreciated outside his native country, as well as an intriguing series of what-could- have-beens. When the Mini-Coopers were famously disqualified from the ’1966 Monte, it cost BMC a mighty victory. But it may very well have cost Rover a great deal more.
I will nonetheless claim a certain justification for my ignorance of Rover’s rally efforts in its classic period as an independent manufacturer. For the edification of our readers in the lands outside this sceptred isle, Rover was better known before the 1967 absorption by British Leyland as a purveyor of solid but uninspiring upmarket saloons, the stereotypical customer was a retired artillery major who spent his days playing golf, lunched daily with the chaps wearing a blue blazer and regimental tie, and harrumphed a lot. Or he was a bank manager, the faithful P4 model of 1949 through ’1964 was so exciting that it was nicknamed ‘Auntie’.
So it was understandable that with the arrival of the ’60s, and with British society starting to bubble, Rover sought to loosen its image in 1962 with a toe in the water of the European Rally Championship, forerunner to the WRC. Successful rally cars in the saloon-type classes were then still relatively standard production models with an added compass and map light, not fire-snorting special-stage rockets. In 1957, for example, the hot ticket had been a Borgward Isabella. Reliability was a major plus and Rover had high hopes for its P5 model, the big, rugged 3-Litre. Hopes turned to encouraging results, including sixth place overall in the 1962 Liege-Rome-Liege and seventh the following season in the car-killing East African Safari.
Rover, meanwhile, was developing a brand new production Rover of a decidedly more modern sort, the P6. Marketed as the Rover 2000 (the ‘P’ numbers were internal company platform designations), it was a clean-sheet design with a two-litre overhead-camshaft engine, a monocoque structure with non-stressed bolt-on body panels a la Citroen DS, four-wheel disc brakes, de Dion rear suspension and much emphasis on safety. It would be named Car of the Year for 1964, the first to be thus awarded, and it made its official works rally debut that June in the Alpine Rally.
In line with Rover’s straight-up philosophy, the P6 rally cars always had box-stock running gear just like the customers could buy. They therefore made some 90 rampaging horsepower – apart from those few entered as ‘modified’, thanks to their prototype cylinder heads intended for the coming 2000 TC (Twin Carb) model, which might be worth an extra 25. Even against the Volvo Amazons and 220 Mercs, Rover was fighting an uphill battle.
Still, it turned in several notable performances. First time out, both stock and ‘modified’ examples took class thirds, the latter preceded only by a pair of Porsche 904 GTS hot rods. And in the 1965 Monte, young Roger Clark used his stock example’s handling stability on wintry roads to come home an excellent sixth overall, one of only 22 finishers from 237 entries, while Andrew Cowan took his 2000 TC proto to third among the GT cars on the ’1965 Alpine, right behind an Alfa-Romeo TZ and the Morley brothers’ Big Healey.
For the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally the Rover organisation must consequently have been feeling pretty darn rock ’n’ roll, with a freshly built four-car team of battle-tested equipment and personnel in an event that usually favoured strong machinery with predictable road manners, such as the P6. Maybe a little too much rock ’n’ roll: three of them crashed out along the way and the sole survivor, driven by Geoff Mabbs, finished tenth overall.
Of course, at the end, the BMC Minis that had filled the top three places, along with the fourth-placed Ford Cortina and another six cars including the Coupe des Dames-winning Hillman Imp, were all excluded for violating headlamp regs. This impromptu political move was so offensive to Rover management as to prompt its total withdrawal from the sport.
The official announcement alluded to the possibility of a later return but, as it turned out, that decision would soon be out of their hands. No Rover would again rally under the control of the original Rover Company Limited.
Which is not to say that Rover had no further use for the cars, the P6 offered by Richard Thorne today JXC 8C, was just one rally old so it had its Monte crash damage repaired, was immediately commandeered as a test mule, and would reportedly do 300,000 miles or so developing the enlarged engine for the Rover 2200 and 2200 TC that replaced the 2000s in 1973. In 1978 it was sold to celebrated former works driver Anne Hall (in addition to factory drives for Rootes, and Ford for whom she claimed a phenomenal third in the ’1961 Safari, she was one of the Rover crash-outs of Monte ’1966), who kept it for six years and often used it as everyday transport.
Time and tide were naturally wreaking their havoc, however, so the next owner commissioned a full restoration in 1988. This involved extensive transplants from a donor bodyshell, but the dedicated rally mods such as reinforced suspension pickups and skid plates were preserved along with the mechanical and accessory parts. Under a subsequent owner in 2008 the car had a major functional reconditioning as well, along with upgrades for Historic rally use: electric fuel pumps and radiator fan, alternator, battery master switch and so forth.
But the work stopped short of any genuinely period-insulting improvements deemed unsuitable for such a historic car. Cere’s no rollcage, no lumpy camshaft, nothing that would discredit the car’s authenticity. It looks very much as it did during its singular competition appearance in the 1966 Monte, and no doubt it drives that way, too – that is to say, like an ordinary first-series Rover 2000.
Fire the engine – still wearing a single SU HS6 – and the noises ensuing seem more suitable for a trip out for the Sunday papers than a hard charge along the Col de Turini.
So does the acceleration, frankly. Ninety horses aren’t all that many in a car of this size to begin with and, after the Halda and the extra screen wash, the skid plates, the plethora of assorted lighting, this and that, here and there and nothing at all stripped off, JXC surely weighs more in competition trim than it did off the assembly line, the original steering wheel is still there, a huge circle with ‘2000’ on the centre, wrapped in DIY leather, and the ’60s space-age ribbon speedo is a delight. And I’m sure the dandy Rover heater was appreciated on snowy sections; it’ll run you out of the cockpit in short order if left on max.
Despite the thoroughly underwhelming power, though, JXC is immensely enjoyable on the road. Team drivers of the era repeatedly- praised the P6s handling, not for great gobs of lateral grip but for qualities that make a good rally weapon: predictability and forgivability. The chassis won’t surprise you in tight situations, and it can be brought back from extreme out-of-shapeness without disaster. Braking and steering are both virtually at modern sports car levels, and the car, like all the best ones, inspires confidence on your very first experience with it.
It’s enough to make you wonder about the Rover drivers who crashed on the ’1966 Monte. Except that photographs of the event clearly show horrible conditions in the mountain segments – and the driver of JXC had other extenuating circumstances to consider. Sobieslaw Zasada, a Polish star relatively new to motorsport outside Eastern Europe, was piloting his first (and only) right-hand-drive car; it’s said that in the early part of the rally he had co-driver Adam Wedrychowski help with the shifting from the left-hand seat. Zasada, however, wasn’t the type to be easily denied.
As a young man he had been an outstanding all-around athlete but, in 1953, soon after he had started rallying, a ski injury had put him in rehab for two years after he had barely avoided a leg amputation. On release, his athletic career ruined, he opened his own garage in Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland, shifted his focus seriously to rallies, and evidently became very good, very quickly.
Having started the ’1966 Monte from Warsaw, he was on the last mountain stage and threatening a top-ten placing, hotted-up Minis, Cortinas and Lancias be damned. But he brushed a stone wall, pushing bodywork against a tyre, that lost him just enough time to drop him to 22nd overall in the final standings.
More and larger things were in line for Zasada. He would win three European Rally Championships over the coming years, one outright, two in ‘group’ categories when there was a champion for each of Groups One, Two and three. The first came very quickly, in that same debut ’66 season after Rover made good its resignation. He would be runner-up another three times, and was a prime exponent of the art of hurrying a Porsche 911 on snow. He was the first driver from the Soviet Bloc to earn factory rides in the West, and he became a Polish national hero with multiple awards, orders and a knighthood. Beyond that, he eventually grew his little garage into a massive automotive business empire.
Stefan Scieszka, the current owner of JXC and himself of Polish birth, now lives in Germany and is a massive Zasada fan. Zasada, he says, was a smooth driver, always gentle on cars. ‘He didn’t like to abuse the machinery. And he preferred small, light, nimble cars; his championships were won in Minis, Porsches, and the last in a BMW 2002 Ti.’ Zasada also probably holds the record for the unlikeliest rally seat ever: part of his ’1966 championship season was spent in a Steyr-Puch 650 TR.
then again, some might say the P6 wasn’t the most obvious of seats, either, they aren’t unknown in Historic rallies, though, and deputy editor Mark Dixon used to campaign one very successfully. Stefan bought JXC five years ago through his passion for British cars and Zasada, but additionally with an eye to Histories, then, he says, ‘the garage was getting really overcrowded [mainly with Morgans, hence the friendship with Morgan specialist Richard Thorne] and I decided it would be a shame to change the car so much with modern safety gear. And besides, a part of me would like to see it find a home in the UK.’ In reality, JXC might be as revered here as Zasada is in Poland had Rover’s suits been a touch more steadfast in 1966. It isn’t unreasonable to speculate on what might have happened had a driver capable of three world- class rally championships, against the best in the business, been given a sweet chassis with the light, powerful, eminently tweakable Buick V8 that Rover already had well down the pipeline towards product launch. Win or lose, the Auntie Rover image could have gone into retirement alongside the artillery majors. Remember when Audi was just a builder of high-quality but conservative family saloons?
Maybe Zasada in a P6 V8 would have been Rover’s Quattro. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference in the company’s ultimate fate; maybe it would have made all the difference in the world. Hindsight doesn’t always have 20/20 vision, you know. But neither is it totally blind.
THANKS TO Richard Thorne Classic Cars Reading. More information on www.rtcc.co.uk or telephone +44 (0) 118 98 1200
Clockwise from left: Rover looks almost standard apart from extra lights and lack of wheeltrims; brush with a wall put paid to likely tenth place on 1966 Monte; engine bay as factory apart from air filter and electric fan.
1965 Rover P6 2000 Works Rally Gar
Engine: 1978cc in-line four, OHC, one SU HS6 carburettor
Max Power 90bhp @ 5000rpm
Max Torque 113lb ft @ 2750rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Front: lower wishbones, upper leading links, horizontal longitudinal coil springs actuated by bell-cranks, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: De Dion axle, longitudinal Watt’s linkage, Panhard rod, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Steering Worm and roller
Brakes Discs, inboard at rear
Weight 1272kg (standard car)
Top speed 102mph