Cars and culture go together like Ant and Dec, albeit perhaps in a less annoying way. And some car marques are an accurate bellwether for the changes in culture and society. Like BMW, doyen of the middle classes, aspirational and ambitious to suit, changing from sober suit to razor edge style troubadour through the ages. BMW’s unfaltering ability to track the changing fads of the middle classes is the key to its phenomenal success.
Rover’s story is, sadly, somewhat different. Back in the 60s Rover was the perfect embodiment of the aspirational middle classes. It made big, boxy, opulent saloons beloved of doctors, dentists, solicitors and, of course, vets. Mercedes did much the same and neither was overly troubled by the young upstart from the Bavarian Motor Works with its flashy saloons and coupes. The British middle classes wanted sturdy, conservative and solid. While they could just about stomach the new Rover P5B’s Transatlantic lines, and even a svelte Jaguar was fine with its acres of wood and chrome, nobody was ready for a Beemer.
Today 1960s Rovers such as the P4 are like machines from another world. Upright, bulky and very, very proud, the P4 and, to a lesser extent, the P5, convey a sense of place and confidence like few other cars. These cars perfectly reflect Britain in the 60s – proud and supremely sure of its place in history. Seeing a P4 today it is hard not to hear the distant hum of the National Anthem.
As we now know, in the 70s and 80s the middle classes gradually discovered something new, primarily a need to shed conservative and pursue image and aspiration. Those 1960s Rover buyers would have been appalled by the brazen pursuit of stuff and status that became the driving force of the capitalism-drive. 80s and 90s. More to the point, they’d wonder why everyone was buying Beemers and why Rovers were so terribly, shockingly badly built.
In the space of just 12 years Rover went from the robust P4 to the less than robust SD1. The change in style from upright and solid to svelte and shakey demonstrates the changes in society, as the middle classes struck out for something less stuffy and conservative. The SD1 was, in concept at least, great and possibly one of the nicest looking executive cars of the last 40 years. With the SD1 Rover accurately reflected the market’s move towards flash and consumption. The trouble is, it lacked the vital extra ingredient – aspiration. Because it fell apart and broke down without outside assistance and rusted rapidly, the SD1 wasn’t aspirational at all. Compared to the restrained but quality offerings from Mercedes and BMW the SD1 was a joke.
Rover’s solution to these problems was to screw the SD1 together more tightly and throw wood and leather at it. The latter, plus the use of olde worlde badges like Vanden Plas, emphasised the Rover’s heritage; but, as Jaguar discovered years later, looking backwards means your customers look away. Mercedes and BMW focused on the here and now, meeting the changing aspirations of the middle classes. Rover, meanwhile, concentrated on appealing to a dwindling band of traditional loyalists resisting the changes to the modern world. It wasn’t a good idea.
By the late 80s with enough drive and money Rover could have effected a dramatic change, such as the one we are seeing right now at Jaguar. But they didn’t. They made more anonymous cars with wood and leather. Finally in the 90s the BMW-funded 75 arrived. A great car but another one trapped in aspic with its gentleman’s smoking club interior. The 75 was popular, but it hardly accurately reflected the wants and needs of the middle classes in the 90s.
The journey from P4 to 75 was along and tortuous one that says as much about Britain’s changing society as it does about BL mismanagement. Now our roads are filled with identikit saloons where there was once Mk2s and P4s. The sense of occasion, presence and place these cars conveyed is largely gone, replaced with a set of often quite negative motoring stereotypes.
We have Mk2s and now a P4 on our hire fleet and it is easy to imagine the world they inhabited, even if it feels very unfamiliar. These are cars from an era when everything had its place and everything was in its place. Perhaps we don’t really want to go back there, with all its prejudices and barriers, but in these uncertain times it is hard not to see some attraction in it.
Neither the Rover P4 or the Mk2s have radios fitted but you won’t need them. Just step in, settle back in the deep leather seats and let the strains of Elgar sweep over you.