P3 to the fore
The Rover P3 might look like something from the 1930s that has to be mollycoddled, but you need to be prepared for a few (pleasant) surprises when you drive one, Nick Larkin reckons
We’re always warned never to be fooled by appearances, but anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the 1948 Rover P3 75 Sportsman we are about to submit to Five Classic Trials is the car equivalent of a grandfather clock.
And certainly, being upright, with lots of shiny wood and interesting mechanicals, classic timepiece comparisons are certainly apt where this car is concerned, though only one would really fit comfortably at the bottom of your stairs. Furthermore, the Rover has rather more surprises hidden under its gloriously traditional skin.
But this is not the sort of car you just jump in to and drive away – you need to change your mindset first. What a beautiful vehicle this is, with its magnificent (and apparently original) green paintwork. It’s a representation of the best of an era when Rovers had the highest engineering integrity, and almost expected similar standards from their owners. Never, ever, would swearing be tolerated inside this vehicle, even if the driver mistimed a gearchange or forgot, when approaching a policeman on point duty, that the brakes were not fully hydraulic. Use an iPhone in this car and you would probably be ejected through the sunroof.
The styling may be upright but it’s slightly rakish too and the magnificent radiator grille, proud Rover mascot and huge headlights make the front end particularly distinctive.
Clamber inside, and the rear-hinged driver’s door closes with an evocative muffled ‘clump’. It’s 1948 again, full stop.
The flat leather seats mean no slouching and the vast steering wheel, with its imposing Bakelite centre boss incorporating the horn switch, positively discourages lazy one-handed operation. Instrumentation is comprehensive, with plenty of gauges – including for temperature and oil pressure – to keep you on your toes.
Turn the key, activate the starter and the 2103cc inlet-over-exhaust-valve engine – the same one fitted to early Rover P4s – springs immediately into dignified life. Press the surprisingly light clutch, slot the stubby, easy-to-use gear lever into first, release the handbrake and the car glides forward, accompanied by delightful vintage gear whine.
Hang on, though, for it all seems to get less vintage when you move into the synchromesh third and fourth gears, the ratios of which seem perfectly chosen to make the best possible use of the available performance. There’s plenty of torque on offer too. The steering wanders slightly but is overall very good, the slightest flick of the wheel providing instant correction. The independent front suspension, allied to the sturdy chassis, gives an excellent ride. Sharp bends can be tackled with ease providing you anticipate the car’s carefully controlled understeer. The power is there to get you out of corners quickly.
These cars also have full steel bodywork, and our test car was still rattle-free, even after almost 70 years. The engine isn’t silent but it’s certainly not obtrusive either. The brakes are well-set up and inspire confidence, although you need to apply a little more pressure to the pedal on than you might have been expecting. The fronts are hydraulic – which is reassuring – but traditionally mechanical at the rear.
This is the sort of car that puts you instantly at ease. It’s spacious, and superbly engineered for refined cruising. But above all, it’s a Rover.
P3 relies on traditional leaf springs at the rear but still feels taut and controllable in all conditions. Best quality wood and leather, opening front windscreen and sunroof. straight back to the 1940s with you!