We take a ride in a 1949 Rover 75
Britain's first new post-war Rover saloon
If there is anything approaching a critical mass of Rover cars somewhere in America, it's arguably in Fitchburg, Mass. Haven't heard of it? Neither had we, until we met up with Dirk Burrowes one Friday morning in June at his company's facility in that northern Massachusetts town. Burrowes owns an impressive anthology of classic Rovers, with the earliest car in his collection celebrating its 103rd birthday this year.
While years ago it wasn't all that unusual to see a Rover on the road in the U.S. or Canada, as they were sold on and off in both countries for the better part of the last 50 years, right now you're not even guaranteed to see one at the biggest British car shows.
The very last Rovers that you're likely to recall seeing on the street weren't even called Rovers: they were known as Sterlings. From 1987 until 1992, Austin Rover Cars of North America, referred to in British car circles by the sinister-sounding acronym ARCONA, marketed the Rover 800 series cars in North America. The Sterlings were jointly developed with Honda, and shared many mechanical components with the Acura Legend (though the Acura's build quality failed to rub off on the Rover versions).
The one year-only import of the Rover SD1 in 1980 notwithstanding, the next oldest Rover you're likely to remember in North America was the P6-body Rover 2000TC or 3500S, which managed to snag an impressive number of accolades in American car magazines.
But today we're going to take a ride in an even earlier Rover, a 1949 Rover 75. This was the British manufacturer's first post-war model, and it is commonly referred to as the P3.
Made for only two short years, the P3 Rover 75 can best be described as a placeholder for Rover's next car. British car manufacturers were heavily affected by the war, and by the time the industry righted itself there wasn't much in their product pipeline aside from pre-war designs and technology. Two versions of the P3 debuted in 1948 -- the Rover 60 and the Rover 75 -- with the numbers denoting the horsepower output. The P3 series cars borrowed heavily from their immediate predecessor, the Rover 16. That particular model was in production from 1937 till 1948, with production largely frozen for the five years of war.
The P3 was also meant as a transitional model of sorts, and showcased some mechanicals that were really going to come into use by the time the P3 generation of cars was replaced in 1950. And while the P3 looked very similar to the Rover 16 that it was replacing, the only outside body panels the two generations of cars share are the wings on the hood.
“This model is a Rover 75 P3, standing for post-war, and it was the only made for two years. They just couldn't get the model that they hoped to have done, which is the Cyclops,” Burrowes tells us, referring to the very next Rover 75 P4 model. “This has essentially the same suspension, the same engine.”
As we settle in to take a long drive through the back roads of northern Massachusetts, we ask Burrowes how long he has owned this particular car.
“I guess it's about seven to eight years now, found it in on eBay down in Florida,” he says. “It had a number of problems. It was painted with a paintbrush, black and gray, and you could take the paint off with a piece of masking tape if you put it on and pulled it off quick. It would just peel off in strips. But it wasn't rusty. Carburetor had all kinds of issues, huge issues. I mean, I've taken the carburetor off, rebuilt it, had to re-pot metal weld some things to get it right. And then I found a new old stock one on eBay. Hah!”
Burrowes met some people in Europe whom he later became close friends with, and having seen their concours-grade P3 he came back to the states determined to restore this Rover P3 completely.
“I came back totally inspired to restore the car, and took about a year to get it just right. And it was a lot of fun, you know,” Burrowes says.
“We went through everything, a lot of little details. I didn't do much in the interior though, the interior was the way it looks now. We took the gauges out, and I redid all the gauges myself, and redid the wood, and put a different headliner in which is going to change soon. I'm going to do the interior again, but it was a lot of fun. They're so well built and it's such an easy car to work on,” Burrowes recalls.
Despite being a relatively common car at the time, not too many of these survived -- which is perhaps the rule when it comes to bread-and-butter saloons that weren't coming out of Crewe or Derby. While there are plenty of Rover fans back in England, tending to older Rovers such as the P3, just how many of these could there possibly be in America?
“There's probably six to 10,” Burrowes estimates. “Maybe with cars that aren't running and hidden away, there might be 15 or 20. You know, all of the sudden they come out of the woodwork sometimes.”
Like all of his Rovers, Burrowes tries to rotate in and out of the P3 to make sure all of the cars in his fleet get some exercise. But with about a dozen Rovers ranging from concours-grade to a tired daily driver, making sure none of them spend too much time sitting around is almost a full-time job.
Classic cars don't like to sit around -- that's when things start going wrong. So taking his Rovers to car shows around the northeast is almost a must if all of them are to stay in running condition. Burrowes trailers some of the older, frailer cars, and others he simply drives to shows around New England. With the P3 it can be either, depending on the distance that he needs to cover.
“If it's within 50ish miles I'll drive it,” Burrowes says. “If it's more than that, like with British Invasion -- you know there's only one way up there -- it's the highway. It's not fun driving for the car. These cars were geared very low; essentially there was really no such thing as highway right after the war, at least they weren't thinking about that in the UK. The top speed would have been 45ish mph, but one very interesting fact about their differentials is that from 1948 till about 2006 you could interchange the differentials even from a Range Rover to this car and vice versa.”
And one of the old Defenders?
“We're talking Land Rover Defenders, Range Rovers, Discoveries, any of them. They all used the same bolt pattern; it's basically pumpkin-style, so I took the differential out of a later model P5 which is a much higher gear ratio. So I could pretty comfortably cruise at 75 miles per hour with it.”
That's a pretty neat upgrade, we have to admit, since it allows the car's engine to push the P3 up to speeds that it could have easily done -- were there roads in England for those sorts of speeds. Which there weren't, unless we are counting airfields. And Burrowes achieved this modification without even going to any third-party parts manufacturers. Like most brilliant solutions, it was easy and elegant.
Rover production stopped quite abruptly about seven years ago after decades and decades of what can only be described as decades of tumult at the company's headquarters. The production lines for its latest cars were sold to Nanjing Automobile, a Chinese automaker. Nanjing had essentially packed up those lines from Rover plants and transported them to China. It wasn't before long that Rovers and MGs were once again being made, after Nanjing gave the cars a thorough facelift.
We confessed to Burrowes that the last Rover we experienced before we took a ride in his P3 that day was actually a Roewe 750, a large executive saloon based on the last-generation Rover 75, which was made in the UK from 1998-2005. It turns out that Dirk has also tried the Roewe cars in China.
“I was in Beijing and I went to a dealership and I sat in and rode around in a Roewe. And at the time they were doing things very correctly: they were limiting how many units were going out in the market, and they were keeping the price higher relative to other Chinese cars. This is before SAIC and Nanjing,” Burrowes says, referring to the eventual co-owners of the Rover production lines from Longbridge, England.
It turns out that the facelift given the 75 by Nanjing was pretty thorough, to the point that many remaining new old stock body panels sitting in British warehouses to this day cannot be used on the Roewes despite their near-identical looks. And most amazing of all, Roewe 750 reliability and owner satisfaction ratings have been quite impressive, and the fit and finish of the cars surprised even the British automotive media.
Who would have thought that merely two decades after Rovers were being built in England using a fair bit of Honda technology, BMW-engineered Rovers reworked by a Chinese automaker would be rolling off the assembly lines in China?
We think it's fair to say that Rover the brand experienced more change in the last 20 years than it did during its first 80 years of existence. And it's always a treat to see where Rover cars came from, so we're glad to still have important pieces of Rover history here in America.
Source: Auto Week