The Rover P6 is an iconic British saloon car introduced in the late 1960s and supported by a number of well-established car clubs. The P6 Rover Owners Club is one of them, and their collective love of this four-door sedan peaks at the P6 National Day, held at Rufford Abbey Country Park, in Nottinghamshire. Tasked with reporting on the event from the inside, a classic car insurance company gave me a rental car, a pen and a free ticket. The gig was on.
Armed with nothing but a McDonalds coffee and the very best press credentials; I opted to bypass the queue of traffic that had already amassed along the A614 and instead drive the incorrect way down the English Heritage Property’s one way system. I intended to sneak past the waiting classic cars and talk my way into the staff car park – after all, when you’re documenting an event for a prestigious publication (and I was), there are liberties to be taken.
As soon as the car park attendant saw me, I knew the plan was flawed. The poor chaps mind was blown. No one had ever tried to drive the wrong way down an English Heritage Property’s one way system. I slowed to a crawl and dropped the passenger side window, leaning forward to address him as he stepped out of his booth. He locked eyes with me, waiting for the moment of glory when this sunglass wearing, rental car driving psuedo American would stop the car and experience a verbal dose of British car parking etiquette the likes of which Rufford Abbey had seen before.
I leant further forward and opened my mouth to speak… then cruised past him with the window down at 3mph. The look on his face said it all; there wasn’t any training for this. No one had ever lowered the window to talk and then gone right by without saying a word, it simply wasn’t the British way. He started to slump to the floor but the access road kinked to the right and with trees on both sides, I soon lost sight of the scene.
Continuing the wrong way down the access road, I abandoned the rental in the staff car park. Panicked looking green uniformed park wardens were sprinting towards the main road and clutching handheld radios, so I hid the car in a bush and continued on foot.
Rufford Abbey is a 16th century monastery, which was converted into a residence at some point in its I oh didn’t really care, the sun was shining, the cars had arrived and the cafe was open. One black coffee later and I was amongst over 50 classic Rover cars, blending into the crowds with my sunglasses and straw hat.
I’d been sent to Rufford Abbey by a British motoring title to write about the history of the Rover P6, but my main interest in the article was ‘Rover people’. What makes them tick? What is it about these rusty, badly made yawn boxes that make people want to join owners clubs? I’d also been asked to nominate a car for the ‘Visitors Choice’ award, although after what happened at the Land Rover show I was under strict instructions not to nominate the rental car.
The long access road leading down to the Rover P6 cars and the Abbey itself was lined with all manner of classic and modern show cars. Although the array of vehicles on display was impressive, it was nothing compared to what was going on behind the cars – the deck chair and picnic display.
Lightweight, folding camping chairs took precedent, with a smattering of older, wooden framed canvas deck chairs in for good measure; but the concours worthy folding chair with optional roof was a sight to behold, so I promptly made a note of the make and model on my piece of paper and nominated it for the ‘Visitors Choice’ award.
“No darling, they’re not all the same” a well-dressed man replied to his equally well-dressed wife as they browsed the Rover P6 display. At this stage I thought she had a valid point.
The P6 fraternity were congregated in the main arena, where 50 or so of the seemingly identical cars were gathered, but my prey were all lined up along the main entrance road, parked in the shade of the trees. Ah ha, I thought. Here we go… The Real Rover People.
Nearest to the P6 circle were a trio of Rover 75s, four MGFs and two Rover Coupes. I got chatting to one of the owners.
“Well I’ve got a Coupe, a 75 and a 25, but I’d really love a 45” quipped one, when asked what his dream car would be. Dream car. A Rover 25. Who are these people?! The Rover 25 was a hashed together design job based on an ancient platform and leftover running gear. The Ferrari F40, on the other hand, wasn’t.
“7” replied his friend, when asked how many Rover Coupes he currently owns. “And I’m always on the lookout for a bargain Coupe”. Knowing full well that a taxed and tested Rover Coupe can be bought for only slightly more than I’d just paid for a Panini and chips, I silently wondered what he considered a bargain, and why anyone would deliberately buy one of these cars, let alone seven of them.
A man in a hat was talking to a man with a beard about why the Rover 800 was better than a BMW 5 Series, whilst stood next to a Rover 75 with a plastic BMW badge stuck to the engine cover. This new world of appreciation of the mediocre was confusing me, so I slumped into a late model, wooden framed, canvas deckchair to ponder my findings.
How can there be so much love for these seemingly mediocre cars? How can it be that cars that were so average develop such a cult following years after the presses have stopped?
Longbridge, (the spiritual home of many of the cars on show at Rufford Abbey) was originally built in 1895 and made cars on and off for over a hundred years. For over a hundred years, ordinary lives of ordinary people have been touched by the Longbridge legend. The legacy of British Leyland, Austin Rover, Phoenix Consortium or whatever it was called at the time is huge. The amount of cars that come under the collective banners of the companies really was monumental. Maybe your schoolteacher drove a Montego. Perhaps your family holidays were in a Marina, or your first company car was an Austin 1800, or you learnt to drive in a Mini. Somewhere, at some point in your life, you’ll have come across a Longbridge car.
The point is, when it comes to buying, driving, restoring and cherishing classic cars, we don’t just want to re-live and cherish moments from the past; we want to relive and cherish moments from our past. The Ferrari F40 was the poster car of my youth, but I can’t relate to it – it never reached me. On the other hand, when Uncle Martin arrived at our family home in his dark grey Rover Coupe around 1994 my eight-year-old self thought it was the coolest car in the whole world.
For all of their pitfalls, for all of the head gasket rumours and unreliability and build quality issues that are part and parcel of the British Leyland and Rover cars; the fact of the matter is that they reached a lot of people. Yes, some were rubbish cars, yes, they probably still are, but the sentimental value of a memory can’t be bought for love nor money. There are so many classics out there that the glossy magazines skip over, “but Grandad had one as his last company car and kept it until he passed away, and even though it’s a worthless Rover 216 saloon, to our family, it’s priceless”.
With all the glamour and grandeur that is so prevalent in the classic car scene, with constant updates on the latest seven figure sales and stories of vintage race cars being found in barns it’s as though we’ve forgotten why we love the things in the first place.
Over a hundred people gathered to watch the P6 Rover Club Prize Giving and raffle, and it was at this point, looking around at the crowd of assembled owners in front of a circle of 75 of the same car that I realised the well dressed gentleman had been right – they’re not all the same.
Having reattached the numberplates of the hire car, I reflected on the day. The reason we feel so attached to these rubbish old cars is because they’re memorable. Yes, it broke down, yes, the doors fell off, no it didn’t have any window winders, but at least it had character.
It’s not just the build quality and reliability that make modern cars so forgettable, we live in an age of cheap credit and for many drivers, it’s easier to finance a brand new car every two years than to keep the old family wagon on the road through successive MOTs. To so many people, the car is no more special than the cooker, or the toaster, or the freezer… just another expensive item that works until it breaks and then gets replaced.
As I let that thought linger, I stamped my foot into the carpet as hard as possible, desperately trying to coax some character out of my rented toaster. The little car didn’t moan, it just did what it was told, sped up, and took me away from Rufford Abbey. There was no drama, no tappet noise, no smell of leather, no hint of petrol in the air, and ultimately no lasting memory of the journey or the car. Was this a sign of things to come?
Only time can tell, but right now I’ve got to get on eBay to find a Rover P6 before the values hit seven figures or the park wardens bust me for breaking the cardinal rule of the Rufford Abbey One Way System in a rented toaster.