Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

| 14 Oct 2022
Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, prime minister

No large, formal car has ever truly filled the shoes of the Ebony Rover 3.5 Litres that served the Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher governments so faithfully between 1968 and 1981.

By then it was perceived to be a vehicle from another age.

Based on the 3-litre P5 of the late ’50s, the big Rover had been out of production for eight years by the time it was pensioned off by the Government Car Service fleet in favour of the sleek, armoured Series III Daimler XJs of the Thatcher regime.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The moody black Rover P5B has a commanding presence

If that car was a sign of government confidence in John Egan’s ability to turn around Jaguar in the 1980s, how emblematic of the strife of the ’70s that ministry buyers had to mothball late batches of these P5Bs for want of a credible modern alternative from the nationalised car producer it was propping up with public money.

The Rover P5B seemed to be born to play the role of car of state. Dignified without being magisterial, comfortable but not decadent, they fulfilled a surprisingly sensitive job at a time in public life when national events played out in real time on our fuzzy black-and-white television screens.

For 13 years they were an almost nightly fixture in our living rooms, sweeping into Downing Street or Parliament Square as the dramas of the day unfolded in a world of strikes and terrorism.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The 160bhp V8 gave the Rover P5B a fair turn of speed for its day

Throughout the 1950s and much of the ’60s, the ‘Mark’ and ‘Series’ Humbers had the government car business almost to themselves.

It was only the demise of the Imperial and Super Snipe in 1967 that allowed the new V8-engined Rovers – less than £2000 with power steering and automatic transmission as standard – to take up the baton as a ministerial barge with hardly a ripple of comment.

Alternative all-British candidates for the role were few and far between: Rolls-Royces were deemed too expensive, Jaguars too flash. Vanden Plas had some form as a supplier of official cars, but was about to stop producing both the old 4-litre Princess models and the disastrous 4-litre R.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Ebony Black paint was a non-standard colour reserved for senior cabinet members’ Rovers

There was always Daimler, of course, but since the demise of the Majestic Major all it could offer was the new DS420 limousine (which was considered unwieldy) or the XJ6-based Sovereign, which was thought to be excessively sporty, low-slung and short on rear legroom.

The first government P5B, complete with a special ashtray for Harold Wilson’s pipe, was supplied to the Ministry of Public Works in January 1968; Mr Wilson was issued with a replacement 3.5 Litre saloon – registered PRK 315K – towards the end of 1972.

Interestingly, it was Wilson who, in 1975, made it policy that all outgoing PMs should have an official car for life: when he stood down the following year, Wilson took his Vanden Plas 4-litre R into retirement with him.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The Rover 3.5 Litre (P5B) relieved Harold Wilson’s Vanden Plas 4-litre R of its ministerial duties

The Rovers were only issued to more senior cabinet members (those in junior positions made do with BMC Landcrabs and Austin 3 Litres).

They were always painted Ebony Black – a non-standard colour not available to ‘civilians’ – with a white coachline.

They were identified as right-hand-drive, export-specification cars by the factory, for reasons unknown.

From Solihull, the ministry Rovers were dispatched to Hooper Motor Services in London (the former coachbuilder), where they were fitted with rear seatbelts and, in some cases, beige cloth seat facings.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Once appointed Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher used a heavily armoured Rover, which was presumably less nippy than GYE 329N

Other modifications included rear headrests and a Coupé instrument pack, with additional gauges and a hazard-warning-light switch. In the boot was an additional 12V battery, a bigger alternator – to run the radio telephone – and twin coils.

Some cars had sirens, ‘police’ lights and an extra fuel pump; a few were armoured, such as those that served in Northern Ireland.

Around 500 appear to have been built, but not all were for the Government Car Service, which is thought to have used about 50 examples over 13 years.

Some were overseas embassy cars, others for high-ranking British military officials (lieutenant colonels and above) running military numberplates.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

‘Mrs Thatcher didn’t like to hang about when on official business, and her driver was at liberty to get her to appointments as quickly as possible’

The cars were fettled by the War Department at its Ashchurch depot in Gloucestershire, a near-mythical place in the history of P5 Rovers where the final May 1973 batch of 21 3.5 Litre ministry cars was mothballed until needed.

Ex-Royal Engineer and former C&SC staffer Pete Wood confirms the story, having seen for himself: “Nearly all the military P5s in the UK were in a huge yard parked next to some black Hillman Hunters, which were for majors and captains.

“The army used the Rovers as chauffeur-driven staff cars. All the examples I saw had white or cream leather.

“A few really low-mileage ones were auctioned off in Cyprus – they must still be there.”

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Ministerial P5Bs were modified with an array of extras, including rear seatbelts

Rover historian James Taylor says that the official 3.5 Litre Rovers were gradually withdrawn from service and auctioned off to the public between 1974 and 1982.

This car, GYE 392N, was the 35th from last P5B, which emerged from the Solihull production line on 24 March 1973.

It was despatched to Hooper in Kilburn four days later, but not registered until December 1974, hence the N-suffix numberplate.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The rear headrests – fabricated by Hooper – are simply held in place by the back of the seat and the rear window

Five years later it was one of a trio of ministry P5Bs that took part in the transfer of power on 4 May 1979 when James Callaghan’s Labour administration was ousted by the Conservatives with a 44-seat majority.

While TV pundits – such as the memorably rude Robin Day – raked over the still-incoming results, Margaret Thatcher was being summoned by the Queen (who also owned a P5B saloon as her private car) to ‘kiss hands’.

It was this very Rover that whisked Mrs T from Conservative Central Office to Buckingham Palace, with her much-loved long-term driver George Newell – who also drove Ted Heath – at the wheel.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

‘GYE 329N took part in the transfer of power in 1979, when Labour was ousted by the Conservatives’

Footage from the day shows GYE 392N gleaming and stately in a scruffy post-Winter of Discontent London of Chrysler Alpines and Austin Princesses.

Burly 1970s coppers stop the traffic on The Mall to allow the Rover to sweep unhindered through the famous gates.

Inside the black saloon, the middle-aged woman who would become the most divisive British public figure of the ’80s can be seen smiling and waving from the rear seat, husband Denis at her side.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

David Woods’ Rover 3.5 Litre is highly original and unwelded – under the bonnet is virtually show-standard

With royal blessing she emerged later as the official incumbent of No 10, hence the switch to the armoured Rover PRK 421K (reserved for sitting PMs), which sat visibly lower on its springs due to the weight of its bombproofing.

A third Ebony Black 3.5 Litre saloon – WLX 846M – had already taken the outgoing PM to the Palace to tender his resignation.

GYE’s current owner, David Woods, was looking for an Austin Seven when he spotted an advert for an ex-ministerial P5B.

“I’ve got other Rovers,” he says, “but always wanted a ministry car, particularly with a Saddle Tan interior.”

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The Rover P5B’s interior is of superb detail and avoided Leyland’s build-quality issues

GYE was bought from a dealer with no detailed history of its early life, yet all it took was a quick Google search to dig out the BBC election coverage from 1979 that confirmed the Rover’s place in those momentous events.

Given that a notepad used by Mrs Thatcher on her last day in office made £80,000 at auction, this fortunate turn of events has obvious implications in terms of the car’s value.

But, for the moment, Woods is just using and enjoying the Rover, which, paint and chrome aside, is original and unwelded.

Its black bodywork is like glass and the presentation under the bonnet virtually show-standard.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Extra features for the ministerial Rover P5Bs also included a padlock for the gearlever

The 3.5 Litre saloon is still a superbly proportioned car and very moody in black, with a commanding presence on the road – and, by late-’70s standards, it would still have been a fairly rapid method of travel.

Apparently Mrs Thatcher didn’t like to hang about when on official business, and her diminutive driver Newell – who died suddenly in 1981 – was at liberty to get her to appointments as quickly as possible.

Presumably the heavily armoured Rover she used following her appointment as PM, with extra reading lights in the back, would not have been quite so nippy.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Current owner David Woods was unaware of the Rover’s history when he bought it

Between 1974 and the car’s eventual decommissioning (and first MoT) in October 1979, GYE covered 76,000 hard London miles.

The current mileage reads 92,000, but the all-original interior is bearing up amazingly well and showing signs of only modest wear and tear.

The quality and detailing of materials are superb, and a reminder that the P5Bs avoided the taint of Leyland’s build-quality issues.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

GYE 329N whisked Margaret Thatcher to Buckingham Palace to become Prime Minister on 4 May 1979

The rear seats are not overburdened with legroom and, surprisingly, the rear headrests – fabricated by Hooper – are not attached to the parcel shelf but merely held in place by the back of the seat and the bottom of the rear ’screen.

That a serving British premier of 1979 was being ferried around in a car that was almost a decade out of production had a significance that was probably not lost on Margaret Thatcher.

But, as lovely as it was, the big Rover – once a product of the floundering BL colossus she was about to tackle head-on – did not say the right things about the modern, go-ahead country she wanted to create for the 1980s.

Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

The Rover’s ministerial past has obvious implications for the car’s value, but David Woods is just happy using and enjoying his P5B

Yet in the mind of the public the P5B said competence, solid values and money well spent, the latter being a particularly important perception to manage when it was taxpayers’ – and voters’ – money that paid for the cars.

In every possible way the Rover P5B set just the right tone, both nationally and internationally, so much so that it proved almost impossible to replace.

Perhaps it never really has been.

Images: Will Williams


Classic & Sports Car – Rover P5B: yes, Prime Minister

Rover 3.5 Litre (P5B)

  • Sold/number built 1967-’73/11,501 (saloons)
  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 3528cc V8, twin SUs
  • Max power 160bhp @ 5200rpm
  • Max torque 226Ib ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission three-speed auto, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering Burman recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 15ft 6½in (4724mm)
  • Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
  • Height 5ft 1in (1549mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 2½in (2807mm)
  • Weight 3498Ib (1587kg)
  • 0-60mph 10.7 secs
  • Top speed 110mph
  • Mpg 17-22
  • Price new £2000
  • Price now £50,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


Austin 3 Litre vs Wolseley Six: affordable luxury

The battle for middle England: Rover 3-Litre vs Wolseley 6/99

Battle for the boardroom: Austin 3 Litre vs Ford Executive vs Vauxhall Viscount