For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
The genesis of this article is quite simple – could the Rover 3-Litre really have been worth the extra £500 over the Wolseley when they were new?
On paper, at least, they seemed to be so evenly matched.
The P5 was originally intended to be a smaller alternative to the P4, because in the early 1950s Rover considered the manufacture of a well-made compact saloon based on the Land-Rover’s 86-inch wheelbase.
It would have cost less than £700, been capable of 30mpg and have build quality befitting a design wearing the Viking badge.
Sadly, the plan was eventually abandoned, one possible reason being that Solihull lacked the capacity to make a small family saloon.
As a result, the P5 transmogrified into a rival to the likes of the Humber Super Snipe and would also replace the upper echelons of the P4 range.
Several radical ideas were considered and subsequently discarded, from front-wheel drive, disc brakes all round and independent rear suspension to a V6 engine.
Costs ultimately dictated that the new flagship saloon would be fitted with a live axle and that power would come from the existing 2.6-litre straight-six, albeit enlarged to 3 litres.
The P5 was the first Rover to dispense with a conventional chassis frame, and the styling was the responsibility of David Bache, who had joined from Austin in 1954.
One influence on his design trope is widely rumoured to have been the Chrysler 300, but it was in keeping with the look of post-war Rovers because the P4 had reflected the Studebaker Champion.
Bache was also warned by the firm’s senior management that ‘the Rover Company doesn’t make head-turners’ but he evidently failed to heed this stern admonishment.
When you see an early P5 in the metal, it is immediately noticeable how Bache managed to make a comparatively tall car – with a wheelbase shorter than the 105R and S that it was intended to replace – look sleek yet dignified.
The roof is domed; the front grille is large but does not overbalance the restrained coachwork.
Any visitor to the Rover stand at the 1958 Earls Court Motor Show would have been instantly impressed by the quiet good taste of Solihull’s latest offering, and surely I cannot be alone in preferring the understated appearance of the 3-Litre to the RoStyle excesses of the later P5B?
Our featured Rush Green over Shadow Green example is believed to be the fifth-oldest P5 in the world, having left the factory in June 1959.
The distinctive window deflectors were fitted only to the 1958-’61 Mk1, and they do add a note of additional grace to the coachwork.
There are several other details, such as the round rear courtesy lamps, that mark 658 UXL as being a very early model.
The car spent much of its life in the Mediterranean – Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and latterly Sardinia – and its proud owner Eric Rice speculates that “it might have been owned by a senior officer in the British armed forces”.
It is also a prime example of the 3-Litre au naturel; there is no overdrive – not available as an extra until spring 1960 – and there are drum brakes all round.
According to Rice, this was held by many at Rover to be a serious step backwards, and it was common for front discs to be retrofitted at the 500-mile service mark. They certainly do make a difference.
Another feature lacking on the Rover is power steering. Hydrosteer assistance was initially an optional extra.
“With 32cwt of steel body, this does make the Rover feel, shall we say, quite stately at low speeds! That said, I think the steering has more feel than on the power-assisted models,” Rice observes.
But what the novice P5 motorist will probably notice above all else is that air of refinement.
The ride of a 3-Litre equates with the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, exhibiting none of the wallowing that you might reasonably have expected in a large motor car of the time. Rover liked to claim that ‘it handles with a delightful delicacy’.
The engine would never resort to anything as vulgar as revving loudly, and although the P5 was not an especially fast car – even by the standards of 1959 – speed was not its raison d’être.
Instead, its purpose was to convey four or five occupants, all doubtless clad in discreetly well-tailored clothes, along the new M1 at a seemingly effortless 80mph.
The theme of the cabin is not a sense of ‘traditionalism’ that verges on self-parody, but rather a sense of dignified modernity.
The use of African cherry veneer is low-key although always appropriate, while the instrument panel is reminiscent of an aircraft cockpit. It’s easy to envisage a senior BOAC captain at the wheel, speeding towards Heathrow and that flight to New York.
The interior of the Rover, in fact, encapsulates its entire appeal: a subtle but thorough re-imagining of what defined a post-war British ‘luxury car’.
The 6/99, in contrast, was a model for bank managers or solicitors who specialised in will-writing.
The Wolseley’s coachwork, meanwhile, was jointly the result of corporate politics and BMC’s desire to refresh the image of its saloon-car range.
In the mid-’50s, the company commissioned Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, for a fee of £84,000, to style its latest saloon car range.
Launched in 1958, the little Austin A40 was the first such design to see the light of day, but at the end of the year it was joined by the Wolseley 15/60 – the first of five medium-sized BMC ‘Farina’ saloons.
In the summer of 1959, the A105 Westminster and Wolseley 6/90 were replaced by tail-finned Farinas.
They were powered by a 2912cc engine based on the 2.6-litre BMC unit, but the major news was that for the first time a big Wolseley would share its body with an Austin.
The separate chassis of the 6/90 was superseded by a new monocoque common to the A99 Westminster, the 6/99 and the Princess 3 Litre.
Just to reassure any respectable driver that the marque had not fallen prey to radical influence, the brochure stated that, ‘Today, Wolseley engineering and Farina styling combine to produce the finest Wolseley of all’.
Compared to its Austin-badged cousin, the 6/99 cost an additional £106 but then it did come with extra instrumentation, set in a more attractive wood-veneer dashboard.
There were also fog-, spot- and reversing lamps, a cigar lighter plus the sense of well-being that came from owning a car bearing the Ghost Light.
To anyone used to earlier post-war six-cylinder Wolseleys, the Farina body would have seemed a drastic departure indeed, but although the fins are prominent they are not over-exaggerated and are neatly balanced by the shield-shaped grille.
The overall effect of Bill Stavely’s ’61 example is dashing and imposing in equal measure. It is the sort of vehicle in which to arrive with equal aplomb at the local tennis club or the scene of yet another black-and-white crime in outer suburbia.
When the 6/99 was replaced by the mildly facelifted 6/110 in 1961, BMC offered the option of power steering and you do rather feel its absence when trying to park this Big Farina.
The ratio is very low, resulting in much dramatic turning of the vast wheel – somewhat in the manner of a B-movie car chase.
Still, this does not come without its advantages. Anyone, such as myself, who is used to the vagaries of the power-assisted Vanden Plas 4 Litre R will note how the Wolseley’s tiller has a great deal more ‘feel’.
Three on the column was the standard transmission, and the control for the overdrive is seemingly designed to be utterly inaccessible. Smooth upward changes are easier to achieve than with the four-speed column shift of the A95/A105 or the right-hand floor change of the later 6/90s.
‘Seat springing is phased in sympathy with the suspension,’ claimed BMC, but on poorly surfaced minor roads, the occupants do bounce across the front bench.
It is on A-roads or motorways that the big Wolseley really displays its strengths as a smooth and refined cruiser.
In comparison with the Rover, the cabin of the 6/99 does look as though it was built down to a price, although this is not to imply that it lacks comforts.
Perhaps it is fairer to say that the Big Farina knows its place – the Wolseley does not have the utilitarian cabin of the Austin A99 Westminster, but nor does the wood trim extend right up to the windows.
In An Education, her memoir of 1950s suburbia, Lynn Barber described how ‘the Oxshott girls despised the Ewell girls, who despised the Kingston girls; the Jaguar owners despised the Wolseley owners’.
It is nigh-on impossible to remove social class from the history of motoring in this country.
In fact, both Rover and Wolseley owners might well have regarded a Jaguar MkIX as somewhat flamboyant, and the 6/99’s upmarket cousin, the Vanden Plas Princess, as the ideal transport for ‘counter-jumpers’.
One essential difference between our two owners is that the P5 driver would have probably respected the engineering of a Slough-built Citroën DS, whereas the Wolseley owner would have been more likely to run to the nearest Rotary Club for cover.
So, leaving aside the class arguments of the late-’50s would the 3-Litre have been worth the extra money over the 6/99?
The coachwork of both is equally distinguished, but the Wolseley is the faster of the two and would have represented something of a bargain.
But then you start to appreciate those seemingly minor details in the Rover: the combined fuel/oil level gauge, the petrol reserve, the adjustable armrests on the front doors, the picnic table under the parcel shelf that doubles as a tool tray, and the fresh-air vents at either end of the dashboard rail.
The cumulative effect is to evoke an understated sense of well-being. Indeed, the Rover does not feel like a mass-produced car and, for that reason alone, the near-£1800 price would have been worth every penny.
Yet, if I had to choose, the Wolseley would always be the car that would hopefully reside at Chez Roberts, and not merely because of its considerable charms.
Heon Stevenson, in his superb book British Car Advertising of the 1960s, wrote of how the A99 Westminster hovered between affluent glamour and sober respectability; that balancing act is performed with even greater élan by the 6/99.
But my true purpose in selecting the Wolseley is entirely personal.
Each and every survivor is inextricably associated with a wealth of cinematic and TV memory: Timothy West barking out orders at the end of Twisted Nerve, the implausible chase at the end of Dateline Diamonds, yet another dockland heist in Gideon’s Way and virtually every Merton Park picture of the ’60s.
To select a car because it graced so many low-budget productions may seem eccentric, but a choice of classic is so often made on the most subjective of grounds.
Some buy a vehicle because of its Mille Miglia or Monte-Carlo fame; others because it conjures memories of clanging gongs and ‘Nat Cohen & Stuart Levy Present’.
All such reasons are equally valid.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to the Cambridge-Oxford Owners’ Club; the Rover P5 Club: Rookesbury Park Events
This was originally in our November 2016 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication
- Sold/number built 1958-’67/48,541
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, inlet-over-exhaust 2995cc straight-six, SU carb
- Max power 105bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque 164lb ft @ 1500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones and torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
- Steering worm and peg
- Brakes drums (fr discs optional from ’60), with servo
- Length 15ft 6½in (4737mm)
- Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
- Height 5ft (1524mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 2½in (2807mm)
- Weight 3724lb (1689kg)
- 0-60mph 16.2 secs
- Top speed 97mph
- Mpg 20
- Price new £1783 5s 10d
- Sold/number built 1959-’61/13,108
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine cast-iron, overhead-valve 2912cc inline-six, twin SU carburettors
- Max power 103bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque 158lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission three-speed manual with overdrive, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by coil springs, wishbones rear live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering cam and peg
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 15ft 8in (4788mm)
- Width 5ft 8½in (1727mm)
- Height 4ft 11in (1498mm)
- Width 5ft 8½in (1727mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 2in (2704mm)
- 0-60mph 14.4 secs
- Top speed 98mph
- Mpg 19
- Price new £1255
Wolseley 4/44: from £15 cast-off to lifelong friend
Wolseley Hornet vs Citroën Bijou: compacts with class