Currently reading: Rover 2000 versus European Car of the Year finalists
The first European Car of the Year was the Rover 2000. Today, 51 years on, can it still teach the current crop a thing or two?
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6 mins read
28 March 2015

Mortefontaine, just north of Paris, 17 February. It’s the annual European Car of the Year (COTY) test event, with nearly every member of the 58-strong jury, representing 22 countries, gathered at the CERAM motor industry test facility to try out this year’s seven-car ranges shortlisted for COTY 2015 and pick a winner.

This year, however, there’s an eighth model, a car that doesn’t have to beat any rivals, because it already has. It’s a Rover 2000, the first car to be crowned Car of the Year, and it has returned to demonstrate just how much has changed – and how little – since the award began in 1964.

In the 11 October 1963 issue, Autocar in its road test rated the Rover 2000 as “one of the outstanding cars of the decade”. There were many reasons for this, mostly centred around technical innovation, plentiful safety features (including four-wheel disc brakes), a feeling of quality, tenacious roadholding and a remarkable ride.

Such attributes are just as important today, although the new-century emphasis on fuel economy and emissions didn’t worry the judges so much back in 1964. Nor did panel gaps as wide as your little finger, the result of cladding a rigid base unit with entirely bolt-on skin panels.

The idea was to drive a Rover 2000 to CERAM, get several judges from several countries to make some sage observations about the state of half a century’s progress, remind myself of the attributes of this year’s crop (I, like Messrs Prior and Frankel, am among the UK’s six judges) and drive it home again. With luck, the Rover would continue to function for the full 750-mile round trip.

First, though, I needed a Rover, preferably a Series One, single-carburettor, manual-transmission version as per the 1964 winner. P6-model Rovers in this primordial form are scarce nowadays. The obvious thing would be to find a keen owners’ club member, but where’s the commitment in that? So I found myself buying one, taking the view that at least one British COTY judge should own the first winner, given that it was British.

I found it in Leyland, Lancashire, which seemed a good omen. It was bought new in April 1967 by a retired aeronautical engineer in Gerrard’s Cross, Bucks, and he sold it 15 years later to his Lancs-based nephew. Sadly, the nephew died last year, so the family, with heavy hearts, put the Rover up for sale.

It has had paint but has seemingly never been restored, nor even welded, during its 76,000 miles, and it came with an impressive stash of spares. After a few weekends’ pleasurable fettling, it was ready for its cross-Channel adventure. Via P&O ferry, of course. The tunnel would have been quite wrong for the 1960s vibe.

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You daren’t cruise beyond the legal 81mph limit in France nowadays, a speed at which the 48-year-old Rover seems quite happy. The Autocar test said the engine becomes busy if pressed hard above 4000rpm, and nothing has changed there, but “on the high top gear it hums along easily and contentedly at anything up to 90mph or so”.

Top whack was 102.5mph, with 60mph arriving 15.1sec after a standing start. By today’s standards, the acceleration is very gentle despite the overhead-camshaft engine’s healthy 90bhp.

At the test event, 52 judges (six couldn’t make it) have 51 cars to test, including the Rover. First to take the backward time travel is Tony Verhelle from AutoGids magazine in Belgium. I’ll luxuriate in one of the Rover’s two individual, leather-trimmed rear seats while Verhelle drives the track and photographer Matt snaps from the front passenger seat. We’re heading for the first chicane of several.

“This is a big steering wheel,” he observes. “It makes it feel like an old car, but the gearchange is good and so are the brakes.” More bends. “Yes, the handling is good. It inspires confidence.” And how does it cope with the cobblestoned section? “What cobblestones? I didn’t feel them.”

Back at base, Verhelle considers what 50 years of development have achieved. “There’s much less in the way of assistance and driver aids here, but this car drives more comfortably than most modern cars. I have a 1954 Citroën 2CV and today I’m angry with Citroën. They have lost their big attribute: a comfortable ride.”

Next up, Zsolt Csikos from Hungarian website Totalcar.hu. “It has a good turning circle,” he remarks as we thread our way past a sea of shortlisters. Into the first bend, with enthusiasm. “There’s a lot of body roll, but the steering is nice and fluid and it weights up the right amount. I love the gearbox with its very short movements, and there’s lots of torque.”

A few corners later, we’re at the cobbles again. “There are no rattles at all. This suspension is incredible, and the seats are comfortable in the way French ones used to be. I’m really overwhelmed.”

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There’s a theme developing here: somewhere along the way, car makers have forgotten about true comfort while chasing ‘sportier’ handling. Yet the Rover, for all its body roll, is beautifully damped and very grippy. Now it’s the turn of Hakan Matson from Sweden. He writes for Dagens Industri and is the COTY president.

“It’s amazing how they fit the airbag into that small space,” he observes, pointing at the centre of the slender, almost skeletal steering wheel. “I love this wheel, andthere’s plenty of room. I’m sitting very comfortably.

“So much has happened since this car, but the new ones are still just a box on four wheels, still recognisably the same idea. Look at the wide, open dashboard on the Citroën Cactus, and the rectangular design motifs. It’s the same as in this Rover, really. I like the comfort of this car, and the details such as the markers on the sidelights, illuminated at night, so you can see the corners of the car.”

Peter Ruch from Switzerland is next. He masterminds Automobil Revue, that indispensable catalogue of all the world’s cars published at every Geneva motor show. He knows the Rover P6 a little, having driven a 3500 V8 version, and he takes to this 2000 straight away with impressive smoothness and flow. A BMW 2-series Active Tourer passes us. “So now we’re going to chase him,” says Ruch with a worrying grin.

“This steering is more like a ship’s, and there’s a little bit of body roll and lots of understeer, but it’s comfortable and a good cruiser. It doesn’t feel 50 years old. This dashboard is much more charismatic than a modern car’s. There was much more creativity back then.

“Today you are driven. In this you are driving, so you concentrate much more.”

Finally, it’s Jaco Bijlsma from Auto Visie in the Netherlands, the magazine that came up with the original COTY idea. “It has proper steering feel, and it’s less loose than I expected. And it’s a very nice design visually. Obviously, the safety, refinement and ergonomics aren’t as good as they are now, but this was very technically advanced for its time and the visibility is much better than in a new car. I like it.”

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Comfort, driving involvement, the view out… not all progress over the past 50 years has been in a forward direction, it seems. And if history had taken a slightly different course, maybe Rover would still be in the top league of premium car makers.

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Comments
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jerry99 30 March 2015

Ride & handling

Good to hear that many journalists identified what has been lost with the converging of car design over the last 20 years.

However there was still a tendency to say modern cars positives preclude the advantages that the Rover revealed. A modern engine, tyres and safety gadgets could be matched with a more advanced suspension design and comfortable seats like the Rover's and its all disc brakes only lack ABS.

So given the deterioration of Britain's roads how long before a manufacturer is brave enough to offer something like this again. I heard Peugeot are mulling the idea now they have almost completely lost their heritage.

RobotBoogie 30 March 2015

I blame BMW

In the same way that Whitney Houston is to blame for a generation or two of singers who believe that a large selection of hiccupping vocal tics are somehow an expression of emotion, BMW is to blame for almost every car produced today having to have "sporty" handling. The fact is that most drivers do not need anything approaching sporty handling and actually would feel more comfortable in a car with a softer ride and handling compromise but that motoring journalists who believe that subsequent models of 3 Series are somehow the godhead of car-based goodness pour scorn on anything that doesn't corner flat at 90mph. The last car to dare to ride differently was the Rover 75, funnily enough, as far as I can remember which was very comfortable indeed.
androo 30 March 2015

I remember it well

When I was a kid in the 1970s my dad bought a 1969 2000TC. It was a great car but a bad buy. It rusted to nothing in a year.

All the family loved it. We did 100mph on the motorway to prove it could, luxuriated in the leather interior, felt infinitely more secure than in anything else we'd ever had.

But soon the engine started to growl ominously, the wings developed holes, those disc brakes started to squeal like pigs... it didn't last long.

Still my favourite of all our family cars though. The Peugeot 406 was next, for surprisingly similar reasons. I've never experienced a ride that good since.