By Les Vercoe
|BMW? The name would have elicited quizzical looks from many people in 1963. It was an obscure marque in Britain with a sprinkling of dealerships, and had a certain pre-war reputation among those who could remember, created by a handful of highly priced sports cars. It didnt even have a proper concessionaire but was sold through a dealership - Affl - and was probably best-known for its Isetta bubble cars, which had largely been wiped from the collective memory by the emergence of BMC's Mini. Very few people were aware of its highly priced V8 saloons and sports cars.|
The BMW 2000
the early sixties, many pundits wouldn't have given good odds on BMW seeing
out the decade. If you predicted BMW owning Rover thirty years later, those
same pundits would have split their drip-dried shirts failing around laughing.
In 1963, BMW was a company that could only look over the water at Rover and dream, although there were certain parallels to be drawn. Both had worked on jet engine technology during the war, and traded on a reputation for high quality engineering. Both had built big cars in the fifties, largely for a home clientele. Both recognised the need to diversify in order to survive. In Rover's case its saviour was the Land Raver, and it was the money earned from this in foreign markets that developed the P6 Rover 2000. BMW, with sales of its highly regarded motorcycles failing, clung for grim life to the Italian designed Isetta bubble car. It was briefly fashionable, particularly in the fuel shortages of Suez. but its popularity began to wane despite BMWs attempts at building 'mature' variants like the 600.
|Enter, in the late fifties, the shadowy figures of the Quandt brothers. They brought cash and the vision of what a BMW should be - a powerful, practical and nimble saloon for the discerning German middle classes who could no longer buy a Borgward Isabella, but didn't necessarily see themselves in a fintail Mercedes. Giovani Michellotti was hired to style this new 1.5 litre saviour while Alex Van Faulkenhausen created a new slant-four overhead cam engine that would serve the company well into the eighties in various forms, and even power Formula One cars.|
|The blueprint for BMW chassis engineering was also laid down with this car, a combination of MacPherson struts and semitrailing arms that endures to this day. Its launch was the Hamburg Show of 1961, where the new 1500 saloon looked modern and austere among the old guard fifties hangover models.|
|Meanwhile, Rover continued to develop its 'new light saloon', code-named P6, which was to sell in larger numbers than any previous Rover, and at a price that made it more accessible to that younger generation of drivers. Yet it was still trimmed and finished to the same solid middle class standards as any other Raver. De Dion rear suspension would ensure that it gripped the road like a sports car and rode like a limousine. Its base unit construction - not unlike the DS Citroen - was a steel skeleton to which all of the suspension and mechanics were attached. The body panels were unstressed and the P6's base unit was uncommonly strong in a crash.|
Curious horizontal coil springs were used at the front, feeding stresses into the bulkhead to leave a wide engine bay for a proposed gas turbine engine, but in the event, the Rover 2000 was powered by an all new 2.0 litre overhead camshaft engine developing 90 bhp.
The car was released to rave reviews in the British Autumn of 1963, not just because of its refinement and, at the time, astonishing road-holding, but because it was one of the first British cars - perhaps the first British car - to address safety issues. It had proper four-wheel disc brakes - inboard at the back, a generously padded interior and that muscular base unit. Seatbelts became standard in the Rover 2000 two years before they were mandatory.
If there was a criticism it was that the handling was so good that the car really didn't have enough power to exploit it. Rover countered that argument with the 2000 TC, a high compression twin carb variant launched in 1966. That car made the waiting lists for the Rover 2000 even longer. Here was a car that could top 110 mph and easily outpace its only natural competitor on the British market, the Triumph 2000. Between them, these cars were killing off the UK market for big, ponderous, prestige saloons like Crestas and Westminsters. Suddenly luxury and driver appeal were not seen as incompatible in a saloon.
|Car and Driver magazine was besotted with the new TC complete with fancy Rostyle wheels - when it arrived in North America. It described the car as 'absolutely the best sedan that has ever been presented in these pages', and that 'if every car on the road was as good as this one, they could raise the speed limit in the country by 15 mph and still have a reduced accident rate'. The great American public however, largely ignored them and the P6 didn't sell in large numbers in North America.|
|BMW was enjoying the resurgence it had hoped the Neu Klasse would give it. Racing success in the European Touring Car Championship raised the models profile as the capacity increased first to 1800 and then, in 1966, to 2.0 litres and 100 bhp. In some markets, the car got slinky oblong headlights and a revised tail, but in the UK, at least initially, it had compromise four-shot lights on the single carburettor model and, bizarrely, single headlights on the 2000 Ti with its twin Solex carburettors and 120 bhp. By this time a proper concessionaire had been set up in the UK to deal exclusively with the make, but the former importer, AFN, was marketing a Frazer Nash version of the 71 with special badges and a wooden gear knob and steering wheel.|
|Appreciation of continental cars generally, and BMWs in particular, was growing as the barrier of high duty began to fall. Middle class professionals liked the air of reserved sophistication and purposeful engineering that suffused these cars, selling points the marque trades on to this day.|
|Yet Rover was still the brightest star in the executive car galaxy, a focal point of middle class aspirations. Raver's fatal merger with British Motor Holdings in 1967 appeared seamless at the time as the North Block of the Solihull factory, created especially for production of the P6, produced its 10,000th example. Somehow Rover's P6 would never be tainted by the British Leyland debacle, although as it moved into its final chip-cutter grille phase in 1971, it began to hint visually at the dumbingdown of the marque's values, from the n-dd-seventies onwards. Cloth began to take the place of leather and too many trim strips and cheap looking badges began to de-flower the purity of David Bache's original body design.|
The P6B, developed from the 2000
|There was now less and less money for development as Rover's profits were tipped into the black hole that was British Leyland, and the creation of the mass-market lame ducks we came to know so well.|
As the P6 and the Rover
spirit ebbed away under the tyranny of British Leyland, BMW boomed. The
2002 was going down a storm in North America and the marque was beginning
to ride the crest of aspirational popularity from which it has never really
descended. The 2000 saloon, though it carried on until 1972, had long
since been usurped by the 2002 and the new, large and handsome six cylinder
cars. Still it had done its job and was the beginning of a subtle marketing
exercise that is the real genius of BMW.
As a businessman in a hurry,
you would have been able to point this car down a relatively deserted
M1 confident that only the occasional jaguar would have had the authority
to flash you out of ita path. The 2000Ti would sit at 90 plus mph all
day long on its supple, resilient suspension, a little under-geared perhaps,
bit with stamina few ordinary saloons could match. That, after all, was
what you were paying for.
A Rover to take on BMW?
It seems laughable now, but it shouldn't have been difficult. As the last
35 years have shown, the Bavarians were not given to daring engineering
solutions of the kind that made the original P6 so radical in its time