Rover P6 racing car

2014 Drive-My

The family saloon that turned feral. This extreme Rover was part of a grand plan to take the P6 racing. Eric Richardson tells its story and goes for a wild ride. Photography Tony Baker.

The cabin is filled with an angry cacophony that is beyond full-throttle TVR and closer to cinematic muscle-car chase. The P6B shimmies. In the middle of the needle’s journey around the rev counter, the sheer weight of torque – roughly 400lb ft – takes over. Gravel is flung from the wide slick tyres by the handful and rattles off the wheelarches. A dab of brakes and the side-exit exhausts pop and bang like a wired Keith Moon.

Back on the throttle and the rear wriggles as gargantuan power overcomes grip. The noise rises and falls with each ratio of the Muncie four- speeder, and the Rover charges along the straight free from the constraints of bends, comers and chicanes. Deft choreography down the gears makes the V8 snarl and snap.

Rover P6

Turn-in comes across as good – body roll present but in check. Unlike in period, the P6B now has assisted steering but, given its vein- bursting heft, this makes sense if you aren’t Olive Oyl’s significant other. The rear swings wide, accompanied by brief tremolo in the V8 hullabaloo. I’m starting to regret having had lunch.

Up to temperature, briefer pauses between gears and more speed. I’d been cautioned about the efficacy of the brakes, but had assumed that they would be merely good for a car that was built in 1969/70. Thanks to their eye-bulging retardation (they came from an F5000 McLaren M10B), plus the acceleration and lateral g-force, my lunch feels like wet plaster being flung against a new party wall. Again and again and again. Factor in die tang of fevered brakes and cabin heat, and this dazed semi-digested mush intends to make a bid for freedom. We come to a halt just in time for me to extract myself- somewhat green around the gills – from the passenger seat for some much-needed fresh air.

Rover P6 racing car

Resembling a primeval beast from the dawn of modsport, this car – JXC 808D – was the beginning of the ultimate programme involving the BMC Competitions Department. A promising project encompassing Rover’s finest hour, fettled, pumped and polished by one of the period’s most professional works teams.

Save for a few cosmetic and mechanical details – the most notable of which is a new Rover engine – 808 remains largely original. Now this awe-inspiring machine has been returned to the track for the first time in more than 40 years.

“If I can race it, it will be in Historic Touring Cars,” says owner Ian Giles. “The engine was built by Knight Racing Services. I said that I wanted torque and it pulls like a train. It has the original Weber 48IDA carburettors and the inlet manifold from the Traco-Oldsmobile engine – which I haven’t rebuilt. I’ve kept it for history’s sake, and this is a Rover copy of it.”

Rover P6 racing car

Headed by Peter Browning, and since 1968 under the beady eye of British Leyland Motor Corporation, the Competitions Department – or Comps – had been hampered by the wider BMC/BMH malaise. Models that had been successful w ere then either out of production or past their motor sport prime – and of the few new cars that BMH had and BLMC was developing, none really suited Comps’ requirements.

It was a concern because BLMC boss Donald Stokes had said to Browning: “You can stay in business so long as you keep on winning events that will give us worthwhile publicity. And don’t spend too much money.” Yet the 1968 and 69 seasons had not produced any overall headline victories for the Abingdon team.

In the short term, the formation of BLMC did provide Comps with a glimmer of hope via access to Leyland models, a range that since 1968 included the Y8 derivative of Rover’s successful junior executive, the 3500 – or P6B.

In late ’68, Browning approached the Rover board and was handed the keys to JXC 808D by the firm’s former rally manager Ralph Nash. Assigned to the engineering department, 808 was a development hack that had been used to assess ease of build before production began.

Rover P6 racing car

Clockwise, from main: outrageous GRP wings were necessary to cover wide slicks; remarkably standard interior, but lightweight materials abound; chassis plate; proud owner Ian Giles

Comps envisaged a four-stage programme for the car. Firstly, 808 would be entered into some rallycross events, because Abingdon had experienced success there with the Mini, so it would be an effective evaluation of the Rover. Also, it was hoped that the publicity would be a good way of re-igniting corporate support.

Rob Lyall, who worked in Rover’s experimental department, recalls: “Slightly modified, it ran in rallycross twice – both at Croft with Geoff Mabbs driving in March and April ’69. It then returned to engineering and I autocrossed it with the 432 Solihull Motor Club in June that year. This was because William Alartin-FIurst wanted to see how it would compare with his son Richard’s Rover V8-powered Escort It was a wet day and the P6 was a heavy beast on worn SP44s and wet grass, so it didn’t beat Richard!”

Cue stage two, in which JXC 808D, to quote Motoring News, ‘turned from a well-thrashed rallycross nail into the shiny red beast ready for a round of the Hepolite Glacier Championship at Mallory Park’. Peter Browning wrote in a 1980 edition of Collector’s Car: ‘Time was vitally important and we realised that trying to build JXC 808D into a club racer at Abingdon – at that time – would be fraught with problems. Rover engineers would probably have a heart attack had they seen what we were doing and, in any case, we did not exactly want the world and his wife to know about our plans.’

The task of transforming 808 into a Group 2 touring car took 20 weeks and was undertaken by Bill Shaw Racing. Because Shaw was moving premises, however, he had to subcontract the project build (but still manage it). Two highly respected former Alan Mann Racing employees, Jimmy Morgan and Jimmy Rose, were chosen – the pair having formed JoAloRo Racing at West-hill Service Station in Brookwood, Surrey.

 ‘It was hoped that the publicity would be a good way of igniting corporate support’

Embracing the ‘no replacement for displacement’ doctrine partly demonstrated by the Comps Big Healeys and MGC GTSs, the eventual build of the Traco-Olds-Rover V8 powerplant was undertaken by Mathwall Engineering. The specification included a capacity hike from 3.5 to4.3 litres, special pistons, Chevrolet con rods, reworked cylinder heads, a hydraulically operated camshaft and fuelling provided by four Weber 48IDA carburettors mounted on an alloy Traco manifold. The eventual unit realised 365bhp, which represented a healthy increase over a pair of Traco-tuned 3.5-litre V8s that managed 295bhp.

Output was then fed to a standard P6 2000 four-speed gearbox and rear axle, fitted with a pair of 10in vented discs and magnesium-alloy 15Jx15in Minilites; at the front, 12in vented discs nestled behind 15Jxl0in wheels. Phosphor bronze suspension bushes replaced the OF rubber items, while additional diff and torque- tube location arms were fitted.

Aluminium-skinned body panels (including the roof), flared GRP wings, optional vented/bulged bonnet and a lightweight interior – including rear seat and wood trim – ensured that this 3500 would weigh considerably less than its 2862lb (1298kg) roadgoing brethren at just 2095lb (950kg). The build’s finishing touches, which included the BMC Comps livery, were carried out at Abingdon and Roy Pierpoint conducted a 20-lap shakedown before the test was prematurely ended by propshaft vibration.

Comps announced the project on 15 April 1970 by stating that: ‘Initial track tests have proved that the Rover is capable of matching the lap times of the fastest Group 2 saloons. Roy Pierpoint will be at the wheel at selected club races at home and overseas, beginning with a saloon car race at the BARC Championship meeting at Mallory Park.’

In the Rovers first two outings, at Mallory Park and Brands Hatch, 808 retired with gear-box failure and a puncture respectively. At Casde Combe on 9 May, however, it took its first win and fastest lap. The car was on pole position for its next meeting at Snetterton, but retired due to a broken crownwheel while in the lead.

It was back on form at Silverstone on 30 May – winning from the pitlane – and set fastest lap at Crystal Palace the following month before being forced to retire with a broken half-shaft. Brands Hatch and Mallory produced two wins and fastest laps in July, while another meeting at Brands in August resulted in a second place. Unfortunately, 808 s promising season ended with a disappointing retirement after Pierpoint, who was leading at the time, was back-ended by Dennis Leech at Thruxton.

As Browning recalls: “At the time – when success for the team was rare and there was a general air of gloom and doom about the future of Comps-obviously die initial performance of the Rover, albeit in club events, was very welcome. This was especially so when the Rover directors were spectators!”

Fulfilling its role as a development car, the spec of 808 changed during the season. One weak point was the bottom wishbone mount being torn free, but a redesign – incorporating tubular steel triangulated lower wishbones, and adjustable ball-joints mounted higher than standard – remedied this and improved the roll centre. Another problem was the P6 four-speed gearbox, which, despite being shot-peened and Comps prepared, experienced something of a culture shock dealing with a 4.3-litre racing V8 after usually being mated to a modest 90bhp 2-litre ‘four’. It was soon replaced by the stronger Muncie T10 four-speeder. Other evolutionary tweaks included front quarter aerofoils to improve high-speed stability, and a bespoke tubular double-wishbone set-up with a Jaguar E-type 4.2 diff replaced the modified de Dion rear suspension.

Stage two had been accomplished and, after a 1971 US publicity tour, 808 was sold to Alec Poole in time for the Christmas meeting at Mondello Park on 26 December. He raced the car with mixed success in the 1972 season-scoring two firsts and fastest laps at Mondello and Bishopscourt, plus a third place at Kirkistown.

Poole took 808 to Barbados before Gerry Marshall brokered its sale to the late Arthur Carter in 1973 – from whom current owner Giles acquired the car in the mid-2000s.

After it sold 808, Comps pursued the third stage of Browning s plan: to build a works Group 5 prototype to compete in international events. Based on another development car, JXC 806D was completed in time for the 1970 Marathon de la Route at the Nurburgring. Whereas 808 had used a P6 body unit, 806 employed one from a P6B, and it was again the work of JoMoRo Racing, with finishing touches – including the blue and white livery – completed at Comps.

The endurance classic was held over the full circuit – incorporating bodi Nordschleife and Sudschleife – and the Rover took it by storm. Driven by Roy Pierpoint, Roger Enever and Clive Baker, 806 had experienced a familiar niggle prior to the race – propshaft vibration. Following scrutineering, a new prop – specially made by Hardy Spicer and delivered by light aircraft – was quickly and quietly fitted at an unofficial service point in the forest.

The order of the grid was set by the cars’ race numbers, so 806 was in 20th position followed by Comps’ Mini Clubman. Three works Porsche 914/6 GTs, meanwhile, were at the front. The race started at l am and, after a lap of the 17.68-mile circuit, the Rover was in the lead with the Clubman second. The 914/6s settled into circulating in around 17 minutes, while 806 was managing 13 minutes – much to the incredulity of the Porsche team.

Was this finally going to be Comps’ much-needed dose of success? A return to the glory days of the early ’60s and fulfilling Stokes’ proviso? Fate would not be so generous.

At 9am things started to unravel – firstly, the Clubman retired with a blown head gasket. Later, it became clear that the propshaft change hadn’t cured the Rovers vibration. After 15 hours of running, it had become serious – causing an oil leak from the rear of the gearbox housing. After 16 hours, the decision was taken to retire the car before it experienced a failure and/or accident. At the time, it had an immense lead of three laps – or just over 53 miles.

It was the talking point of the event. The potential was clear – but BLMC management had already notified Browning, prior to embarking on the Marathon, that Comps would be shut.

Come 24 August, the closure was officially announced and, apart from an entry into the Southern Cross and Rally of the Hills, that was the end for the works P6s.

“This was obviously a great disappointment when the car was going so well and solidly beating the serious international competition,” reflects Browning. “I wish that I had kept the European press cuttings.”

Much as this represented one of many poor decisions taken by BLMC demigods, it was the unforeseen consequences of the axe falling on the third stage of the Comps P6B programme that galls. What should have happened next – the fourth stage – would never see the light of day: a tantalising homologation run of 808/806 offspring that could easily have achieved for Rover’s image in 1970s saloon racing, what subsequent ETCC SD1 Vitesses managed for the marque in the following decade.

Instead, the Comps P6B adventure just joins the P8 and P6BS as another frustrating ‘what might have been4 from the BLMC era.


 

Thanks to Ion Giles; the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association hgpca.net; Rob Harrison; Chris Wright; Bill Price; Stuart Turner; Peter Browning and Rob Lyall.


The other racer

Unlike its older sister, 806 would not enjoy 30-plus years of hibernation following the cessation of its Comps career. Acquired – along with two Traco-Olds engines – by Leyland Australia for Jim Smith, 806 retained its BLMC Comps spec until 1971.

In this configuration, it was always a top-10 car amid a field full of lightweight Camaros and Mustangs – scoring two podiums (a win at Hume Weir and a third at New Zealand’s Bay Park) before undergoing extensive modification.

Although the A-, B- and C-pillars of the P6B’s base unit remained intact, it was converted into a two-door by fitting glassfibre quarter panels that replaced the rear doors and wings. The bulkhead was removed (to be replaced by spaceframe tubing), aluminium floors were fitted in place of the original steel and the Muncie gearbox was cradled by a subframe. Finally, the front suspension was swapped for a Formula 5000 wishbone set-up, an MGB steering rack replaced the box and the car was equipped with a Repco-Holden F5000 engine.

                                  JXC 806D prepares to tackle the Nurburgring, 1970

JXC 806D prepares to tackle the Nurburgring, 1970

Smith had sold 806 to David Jarrett, who raced the car until the late 1970s before moving it on to CC Autos. Unable to set up the car satisfactorily, CC sold 806 – minus Repco-Holden engine – to its current owner Rob Harrison in 1985. Harrison is currently restoring the P6B to Marathon spec: “Fortunately Jim Smith kept all the original outer works panels and I bought them from him still in Leyland Blue. They are all ‘bolt on,’ so once the base unit is returned to original spec – which involves welding in a firewall and fitting the original suspension (which is all in a box) – returning it to 1970-71 spec should be easy.

“I made the mistake of painting 806 red because the glassfibre panels had that as a first coat. I had not seen a colour photo of the car at the Nurburgring, so assumed it was red.”

Current work includes fitting one of the original Traco-Oldsmobile engines in its correct ‘forward’ position, because when the Repco-Holden unit was fitted, it was mounted 10in further back in the frame.

“The trouble is,” he says, “I’ve been menaced by ‘enthusiasts’ out here to return the car to its later Australian spec, but I’ve always admired anything that came out of Abingdon – especially Comps cars – and. even though the car was more successful in its later spec, I bought it because it was a works machine.”

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