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?
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.

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.”

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.”

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
29

289

28 March 2015
This was a truly great car and in my view undervalued today.
It is easy to forget that this car set new standards when launched...not least in terms of passenger safety. Buyers formed an orderly queue to purchase at the time, and the car kept getting better through the TC then 2200, and its ultimate version the 3500S.
I was looking at a 3500S the other day in my local independent workshop which the owner had prepped for classic rallies which he enters all over Europe.
What a great looking cat Arden Green, spare wheel on boot mount, roll cage Halda's, Minilite wheels and spot lights......a perfect classic rally car for not ridiculous money. Plenty of upgrades for the engine available at reasonable outlay. This one has about 180BHP. Plenty!

28 March 2015
When are the Rover cars coming back to life I never know.

28 March 2015
Was this Rover at their very best? Admittedly they have had quite a few peaks over the years, but the P6 was a real highlight for me. They replaced it with the SD1 which looked amazing but had shoddy build quality, but I'd still have one given half a chance! The following 800 was capable but kept on sale too long. I bought a Rover 75 Mark II a few years ago and will probably keep it. It's high quality and has a real feel-good factor about it; I drive it just as often as our RR Evoque. It would be great if Tata could bring Rover back and slot it beneath Jaguar. I'd be very interested in that.

28 March 2015
Well we have new Minis, Fiat 500s and VW Beetles, why not a retro Rover? I was going to suggest that maybe the Chinese could produce it, but I've a feeling that BMW still owns the Rover name - so maybe the Germans could do us all a favor and build an up-to-date 2000?
Reintroducing classic luxury cars like the Rover 2000 and Triumph 2000 might create an alternative market niche that hasn't yet been explored. And it would certainly brighten up our motorway landscape.
I seem to remember, incidentally, that the Rover 2000's engine bay and front suspension layout was designed to accept a gas-turbine power unit which the company was working on at the time. Oh what might have been...

28 March 2015
LP in Brighton wrote:

I've a feeling that BMW still owns the Rover name - so maybe the Germans could do us all a favour and build an up-to-date 2000?

I thought Tata had the rights to the name now (and many more besides). Anyone got a definitive answer?

28 March 2015
supermanuel wrote:
LP in Brighton wrote:

I've a feeling that BMW still owns the Rover name - so maybe the Germans could do us all a favour and build an up-to-date 2000?

I thought Tata had the rights to the name now (and many more besides). Anyone got a definitive answer?

The Rover name is owned by JLR now.

289

28 March 2015
"I thought Tata had the rights to the name now (and many more besides). Anyone got a definitive answer?
The Rover name is owned by JLR now".

.....which is owned by........Tata?!

28 March 2015
289 wrote:

"I thought Tata had the rights to the name now (and many more besides). Anyone got a definitive answer?
The Rover name is owned by JLR now".

.....which is owned by........Tata?!

Indeed. Sorry if I gave the impression I was contradicting you, 289. That wasn't my intention - apologies if it came across that way.

You asked if anyone had a definitive answer as to who owns Rover - and yes, as the owner of JLR, then ultimately it's Tata.

289

28 March 2015
LOL...no problem Paul :0)

28 March 2015
My father had a 2200tc when I was a kid. The ride was exceptional. I would welcome a return to this sort of quality in a 21st century car, but cant think of anything close.

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