Rover P6: reviving Britain's baby Buick

| 14 Oct 2014

It's unique, and cost a fortune to restore. Jon  Pressnell tells the story of the uncompromising rebuild of a precious Rover P6 prototype.

Ian Trapp is being mischievous. He’s just been asked by a passer-by what is the make of the quietly elegant grey saloon we are photographing. “It’s a Talago,” he says. The chap looks puzzled. “It’s a prototype – you won’t see another one,” adds Trapp with a smile. “Oh,” says our man. “It looks like one of those old Rovers...”

The bloke was on the money. The car was indeed registered (and badged) as a Talago – as were most of the 16 prototype 2000s built by Rover from 1959 to ’62. It was a ruse to disguise the identity of the radical new P6 being designed by the dynamic younger engineers who’d come to the fore at the conservative Solihull firm.

Why ‘Talago’? Apart from the fact that it has a nice ring to it, it is an extrapolation of the initials – TLG – of project engineer Ted Gawronski. Ex-Ford man Gawronski is remembered as a somewhat excitable Eastern European, nicknamed ‘The Hungarian Fruit Bat’ because, it was joked, he was likely to be found hanging upside-down, chattering incessantly.

Rover P6 interior

This Talago is the 16th and final car, and the sole P6 prototype known to have survived – other than the 10th car, which was built up as the front-drive T4 gas-turbine. It survives because it passed into the part-ownership of Rover NVH engineer Richard Fishwick in ’64, for the sum of £50, and continued to be used as a development hack until 1970, latterly with a V8 as a test-bed for Brico fuel injection. 

It is a car rich in history. Originally left-hand drive for continental testing, it was converted to a right-hooker at some stage. The prototype was used for road-noise and suspension assessment, not least for the wire-wheel option, and ended up – still in this role – as a V8 mule fitted with one of the 215cu in Buick engines from which Rover developed its celebrated all-alloy 3½-litre. Ahead of Fishwick buying the car outright in 1970 – for a nominal £1 – it was fitted with a new base unit, at 140,000 miles. This was a pre-production 3500 hull, hand-built, and doubtless kicking around the works surplus to requirements. 

Rover P6 prototype

When Trapp was offered the Talago in 2000, on the promise that he’d restore it, the car was a wreck – breaking in two when moved. But Trapp, a veteran of four P6 rebuilds, knew that it deserved to be saved. What he didn’t know was that in his quest for perfection the bill, 10 years on, would be north of £65,000, a trifling £45k more than his estimate. This, then, is the story of a restoration, carried out largely by professionals, for which the word ‘obsessional’ is truly apt.

“First I had to make a decision about the guise – the point in its life – to which I should restore it,” says financial consultant Trapp, well aware that little of the original 1962 Talago remains, beyond items of interior trim and fittings. “The logical thing was to do it to the specification when it was still on the factory strength in 1969 or thereabouts, when it had done all of the suspension work and had the V8 engine in it.” 

Rover P6 prototype

The P6, like the Citroën DS, is built around a central punt – a ‘skeleton’ to which the skin panels are bolted – and the operation that blew the budget out of the water was the reconstruction of this base unit, undertaken by a Jaguar restorer near Bristol. “The company worked solidly for four months with three people on the job – a lot of hours went into it,” recalls Trapp. 

“It was unrestorable, really,” he adds. “The scuttle was rotten and there was virtually no rear floor or boot. Every panel was hand-made. They cut cardboard templates, fabricated new sections, and cut out the rusty panels. Everywhere the base unit is a bit different – nuances such as a transmission tunnel that is about an inch narrower. I even counted the spot-welds and had them reproduced in their entirety – there are 30 more than on a factory tub. It cost £22,168 – the figure is still etched in my mind.”

Rover P6 prototype

The base unit was then built into a rolling chassis, over nine months, by Ian Wilson of Rover Classics in Doncaster. “Everything was shot-blasted and powder-coated,” says Trapp. “Underneath it’s like a new car. One of the biggest issues was the suspension, which was a special set-up used when the car was testing the Brico engine. There are different springs and dampers plus a much thicker front anti-roll bar and the ride height is 3/4in lower at the rear and ¼in lower at front. One of the springs had cracked and two had gone weak. For the rear we took standard springs and cut them down, but the fronts were massively different and so had to be made from scratch. We took an old spring and made assumptions about its different rating. 

Rover P6 engine

“Part of the problem was that you’d find bits of 2000 and bits of 3500. The front brakes, for example, are 2000 – they have to be, because you can’t get V8 front calipers inside the wire wheels. When I bought the car the wires weren’t on it, but research showed that it had them when Fishwick was NVH testing in Germany, because there were concerns about whether the wire wheels would transmit extra road noise.” 

Turning to the engine, the die-cast Buick V8 – as opposed to the sand-cast Rover unit – came with a tired Carter four-barrel carb but now has a similar Edelbrock on an Offenhauser manifold and wears the correct pressed-steel Buick rocker covers that were languishing in the boot when Trapp bought the car. Getting the engine to this stage was a struggle: “In the end I found a guy who’d built a number of drag-racers with Buick V8s. He had it for more than 18 months. 

Rover P6

“Then there was the starter débâcle. While the engine was out, the scrapman took a pile of bits... including the starter. Guess what, no other starter motor is like it! The engine block is Buick but the flywheel is a standard Rover item, so ne’er the twain shall meet. I had about six different starters on the car – they would work for a while and then break. I eventually imported a starter motor for a Buick ‘215’ at great expense, bought a new P6 starter, and had one unit made up from the two.” 

When it came to clothing the base unit, only new-old-stock Rover outer panels were deemed appropriate by Trapp: “If a part wasn’t new it wouldn’t be a new car. The whole purpose was that it had to be new or nothing.” The wings, front and rear valances, boot and rear plinth were easier to source than the doors, which ended up being shipped from the US. “They’re the last brand-new P6 doors in the world and cost £2000 for the set,” says Trapp, who was not prepared to compromise by re-skinning the existing doors. “They wouldn’t have looked right. You can’t re-skin doors without distorting the frame when you take the old skins off.”

Rover P6 prototype

The front wings bear testament to that obsession. Originally the car had pre-production 2000 wings, with the styling line not running right to the wheelarches, and this was reproduced on the new wings that were fitted. A limit was reached, however, when it came to the bonnet, which seems to be a pre-production 3500 unit, judging by the way the aluminium trim on its lip does not fit tightly. “At one stage I delivered a new bonnet to the bodyshop and asked for it to be modified,” admits Trapp. “I was told to get lost.”The bolt-on skin panels were dry-fitted before the car was painted: “It took hours to get the fit acceptable – and it’s still not right. You ought to see the number of shims we put in the wings, but the shutlines were all over the place when the cars were new. I’ve definitely got it better than when it came out of the factory.”

Rover traditionally painted its prototypes in a colour known as ‘Dirty Dorridge Grey’ and, to get the right shade, Trapp took an unfaded sample from a prototype Land-Rover at Gaydon. “Despite this,” he says, “four people who worked on early P6s have seen the car and none thought that it looked right. Two said it’s not brown enough – but in some lights I think it looks too brown. Who’s to say, though, that this is right? I was told that the same grey was used on all Rover prototypes, but since then people have said ‘Oh, we just mixed whatever paint was at hand’. It was a development tool rather than a car.”All of the panels were painted off the car, as had been Rover practice. Despite that making it easier – in theory – to get a good finish, the car was painted five times before Trapp was satisfied: “There were problems with orange-peel, dirt and dust, and with differing depths of paint, and in the end it cost £6500. Finally, I spent 7½ hours flatting the paint with 1200-grade wet-and-dry and re-polishing, when the panels were on the car – but I can still see things I’m not happy with, when the light falls in a particular way.”

Rover P6 prototype

Despite such cavils, Trapp is immensely proud of saving the car: “It’s so important in Rover history. With hindsight you could say that I should simply have rebodied the car – take the cost of the base unit out, plus all of the repainting, and it would have cost me a fifth of what I spent. But then it wouldn’t be the same thing. The fact that it had that particular base unit fitted by the factory is what makes that car. But unfortunately things got out of control.”

This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Jon Pressnell; pictures: Tony Baker