Rover and out… Almost Fate led this Rover P5B Coupé to Matthew Sanders. Faced with the decision to scrap or restore it, heart overruled head. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Tony Baker.
TURNING ROVER A NEW LEAF Originally bought for its numberplate, this P5B revival became a labour of love
Serendipity. Fate. Destiny. Karma. Call it what you will, but when it strikes, you just know it’s meant to be. That was the case for self-made businessman and avid classic car aficionado Matthew Sanders.
“I was browsing eBay late at night, beer in hand, and there it was,” he recalls. “I’d been looking for a Rover P5B Coupé, but more important was the registration plate it bore.” The recruitment company Sanders founded, de Poel, was named after his Dutch grandfather Barteld de Poel, an engineering officer in the merchant navy, who came to Britain in WW2: “I was very close to him, so giving the business his name was my way of honouring him. When I saw the advert I was initially focused on the car, and then I saw the plate – I thought, ‘I’m having that.’ It was one of the weirdest coincidences.”
He bought the P5B sight-unseen from a chap in Birmingham, paying £7000. “It was over the odds at the time,” he considers, “but then I would have paid double just for the plate.” After the vendor received a confirmation of payment message from Sanders’ official business e-mail address, that fact wasn’t lost on him, either: “He asked me, ‘Would you still have bought it, had I charged what I wanted?’ I said, ‘yes,’ but luckily by then it was too late.”
Still, at least the seller could console himself with the fact that he’d achieved top dollar for his ‘fully restored’ car. And when it arrived, at first glance it appeared to be as described. However, closer inspection revealed a variety of issues: “He said it was ‘mint’, but when I started poking around it turned out to be an absolute bag of rust. People say things have been ‘restored’ when there’s bits of yoghurt pot in them.” With the intention of doing some of the work himself, he stripped out the interior and sent it off for restoration, then sent the steel RoStyle wheels for refurbishment. At this point, the sheer extent of the rot started to become clear, so he “took it to Trevor”.
Who? The proprietor of Knutsford-based restoration and race-preparation specialist Trevor Farrington Ltd. “I found him by chance,” says Sanders. “About 14 years ago I bought a Mk2 Jaguar, which on my way home from work one day packed in at the side of the road. I didn’t have time to fix it, so pushed it onto the verge and put a sign in the window saying, ‘Broken down, will pick up in the morning.’ Little did I know it was 100 yards from Trevor’s garage.” It was another friend who told him of the business’ whereabouts and, once the Jag was rolled there, Farrington identified and replaced a faulty alternator, as well as rebuilding a braking system that verged on the treacherous. “Since then he’s looked after all my cars – including a Ferrari Daytona, a Lotus Esprit Turbo, an Aston Martin Lagonda and a Reliant Scimitar racer – as well as turning the Mk2 into a restomod, so it was the natural place to take the P5B.”
At this point, Trevor Farrington workshop manager Ashley Hulme takes up the story: “Once it was stripped down you could see how much corrosion there was; when you sat in it, you could see through every corner. There were holes here, there and everywhere. The engine, too, was a bit – well, a lot – knackered.”
The sensible thing would have been to transfer the registration plate and bid adieu to the Coupé, something Sanders considered. “Once it’s on SORN you can’t just take the plate off,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Do we just get it running for an MoT?’ But by then it was in a thousand bits, so I thought it rude not to restore it.”
Having plumped for that financially irrational choice, the body was sent for soda blasting, which promptly exposed the sheer extent of the tinworm. Once mounted on a spit it was time to start. The rear wings were cut off, and a comprehensive list of required body panels made. “We were lucky,” says Hulme. “Most of the panels that were gone we could get from JR Wadhams, and those that we couldn’t we fabricated.”
The scale of the body repairs was vast, and would require another story to list accurately in full. The main work involved the replacement of nearside and offside inner, centre and outer sills, while the front wings and bulkhead were also largely new. Repairs were made to the metal behind the front windscreen panel, before a new one was fitted. At the rear, the Rover’s inner and outer wings were re-made and a boot floor panel was fitted. New rear chassis members were fabricated, replacement outriggers added and fresh valance panels welded in. New door skins were cut and welded to fit, before attention turned to achieving panel-gap perfection, plus filling and shaping the car ready for paint.
“It wasn’t just new outer panels that were required,” recalls Hulme. “The underlying structure – pillars, rear-axle brackets, bumper mounts, jacking points, you name it – also had to be repaired. It was a huge number of man-hours just getting the body back in shape.”
The underside of the floorpan was seamsealed, as was the inside of the bodyshell before application of a stone-chip finish. A 2K primer was applied, then the car was ready to be repainted in its original Silver Grey over Claret. With Sanders popping in regularly to gauge progress, talk turned to other matters of originality. “With my Mk2 Jaguar we went OTT,” he explains. “The restoration turned into a restomod, with updates to bodywork, running gear, interior and in-car entertainment – long before Ian Callum did his. In fact, so upgraded is it that I added a ‘Mk3’ badge! However, with the P5B Coupé I wanted it to be stock – the only addition would be hazard warning lights.”
With that, attention turned to the mechanicals. The engine, rear axle and carburettors were stripped down and rebuilt to standard specification, with the automatic gearbox sent to a specialist for refurbishment. All suspension components were also dismantled and sent for powder-coating, before being rebushed. “There isn’t a part on that car that hasn’t been replaced, repaired or cleaned, re-plated and made as new,” says Hulme. “But, strangely, bodywork aside, it was the jobs you’d think were straightforward that took the longest; the biggest challenge was getting the windscreen in.
Everyone you speak to will say ‘good luck’, because it could take you two weeks. It’s the rubbers: the aftermarket ones just don’t seem to fit, so you spend an age trying to adapt them and get it in properly. After the chromework came back from being redone, getting it to fit correctly was difficult. I don’t know why, this car was built on a production line, so they should have flown straight on, but they didn’t. Finally, there’s a separate heater in the back and getting pipework right – plus carefully taking the heater valves apart (you can’t get new ones) to try and fit new rubber seals – was a pain in the backside.”
It sounds as if the restoration was one problem after another. “Actually, it’s a straightforward and good-quality bit of engineering,” says Hulme. “We’ve restored all sorts, from exotica such as a Lamborghini Countach to a vintage Ford Model T, and some can be a real pain, but I really enjoyed the P5B. Although it seemed to be in for a lifetime, it was nice to work on.”
With the body painted, subframe rebuilt and refreshed and new parts ready to go, it was a case of getting everything back on. As attention turned to the cabin, Sanders brought in his ‘restored’ biege leather interior. “It was an economy measure,” he says. “I’d used someone that advertised themselves as affordable and it was the worst case of ‘you get what you pay for’.” Farrington is more forthright. “There was no way it was going back in the car,” he states. “It was a very cheap job. The door cards had already started to bubble, and it just looked poor – so we re-did it, properly. Matthew then chose a non-original veneer in walnut for the dashboard, which was produced by Chapman and Cliff.”
Today, sitting inside the Rover on its huge leather driver’s chair, the attention to detail is lovely. Purists may baulk at the dash, but it’s to Sanders’ taste and he prefers it to the original. On start-up the compact, Buick-sourced V8 introduces itself with an elegant, multi-layered woofle, settling down to a quiet tickover. Engage drive and, once off, that familiar, reassuring burble – like a tiny ball-bearing gently being rolled around inside a metal pipe – comes to the fore. The ride cossets, the big Rover taking each mile easily and gracefully – no wonder it was considered ‘the poor man’s Rolls-Royce’.
“To drive, it’s just so comfy,” says Sanders. “And for some reason, everyone has a story with one. My wife’s grandad had one, and I know of another where the owner put a Perkins diesel engine in it – but then you had 1970s petrol prices. It gets used regularly, recently going up to Llandudno on the north Wales coast. My other love is Liverpool Football Club and it’s been to Anfield, where it got a nice reception.”
He’s not overplaying the P5B’s effect on people, something that’s become immediately clear even with just 10 minutes behind the wheel. Knutsford, complete with its prominently sited McLaren dealership and all manner of high-end vehicles buzzing around, may be the centre of the Cheshire set, but today it’s this Rover that’s causing necks to turn and smiles to be elicited. The P5B’s restoration took two and a half years and, again, that question of ‘why do it?’ arises. “I had to,” he answers. “And I know Trevor’s attention to detail and quality from previous dealings, so the finished result is every bit as good as I knew it’d be. The fact that it still has that numberplate is a bonus.”
Sanders used his favourite resource, eBay, for the finishing touches. “I really enjoyed the journey,” he says. “Especially finding things such as new-old-stock mudflaps, a rear-view mirror, the registration-plate box, badges and badge bar on the internet. It’s amazing what you can find… although if you know anyone who has two new seats for a Volvo 240GLT Estate I’ll have them, I can’t find those.”
Having recently trimmed his car collection and imposed a one-in, one-out rule on himself, his final comment suggests that this now rather fine Rover P5B Coupé will not be the last of Sanders’ epic restoration projects. The business bearing his much-loved grandfather’s name has now gone – sold in a management buyout back in 2016 – but, for Sanders, the ‘de Poel’ Rover is definitely a keeper.
“The seller said it was ‘mint’ and restored, but when I started poking around it turned out to be an absolute bag of rust”
Clockwise from main: this was a two-and-a-half-year restoration project; blasting the shell revealed the rust; repair panels made for the rear arches; the tub had full underbody protection and is shown here in etch primer; a new wiring loom was required. Clockwise from top left: 3.5-litre Buick-derived V8; the Coupé was bought for its numberplate; the nonstandard dash is Sanders’ choice; the plush cabin was retrimmed twice.
“It’s a very much diminished collection,” says Sanders. “I’ve sold five or six, including a BMW 850, Escort RS Turbo, modern Morgan 3-Wheeler and a Porsche 968 Clubsport – I don’t have time to drive them.” Remaining are a Ferrari Daytona, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Aston Martin Lagonda and, of course, the P5B Coupé. A BMW E46 M3 racer has recently been added – it’s an eclectic set. “My first classic was a Morris Minor flat-bed pick-up with a Marina engine, Toyota ’box and Janspeed 3-into-1 manifold; it was a death-trap that caught fire all the time. I’ve had all sorts: an Astra, Montego, Volvo 340GLT and Twin-Cam Escort. None of them ostentatious – well, except the Ferrari, but even then it’s in a sober colour.” The heavily modified Mk2 Jaguar sees most action, followed by the P5B. “Both get more attention than the Daytona; young lads love the noise of the Jag, and older gentlemen the Rover.”