TURN­ING ROVER A NEW LEAF

Fate led this Rover P5B Coupé to Matthew San­ders. Faced with the de­ci­sion to scrap or re­store it, heart over­ruled head

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS ROSS ALKUREISHI PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

Orig­i­nally bought for its num­ber­plate, this P5B re­vival be­came a labour of love

Serendip­ity. Fate. Des­tiny. Karma. Call it what you will, but when it strikes, you just know it’s meant to be. That was the case for self-made busi­ness­man and avid clas­sic car afi­cionado Matthew San­ders. “I was brows­ing ebay late at night, beer in hand, and there it was,” he re­calls. “I’d been look­ing for a Rover P5B Coupé, but more im­por­tant was the reg­is­tra­tion plate it bore.”

The re­cruit­ment com­pany San­ders founded, de Poel, was named after his Dutch grand­fa­ther Barteld de Poel, an en­gi­neer­ing of­fi­cer in the mer­chant navy, who came to Bri­tain in WW2: “I was very close to him, so giv­ing the busi­ness his name was my way of hon­our­ing him. When I saw the ad­vert I was ini­tially fo­cused on the car, and then I saw the plate – I thought, ‘I’m hav­ing that.’ It was one of the weird­est co­in­ci­dences.”

He bought the P5B sight-un­seen from a chap in Birm­ing­ham, pay­ing £7000. “It was over the odds at the time,” he con­sid­ers, “but then I would have paid dou­ble just for the plate.” After the ven­dor re­ceived a con­fir­ma­tion of pay­ment mes­sage from San­ders’ of­fi­cial busi­ness e-mail ad­dress, that fact wasn’t lost on him, ei­ther: “He asked me, ‘Would you still have bought it, had I charged what I wanted?’ I said, ‘yes,’ but luck­ily by then it was too late.”

Still, at least the seller could con­sole him­self with the fact that he’d achieved top dol­lar for his ‘fully re­stored’ car. And when it ar­rived, at first glance it ap­peared to be as de­scribed. How­ever, closer in­spec­tion re­vealed a va­ri­ety of is­sues: “He

said it was ‘mint’, but when I started pok­ing around it turned out to be an ab­so­lute bag of rust. Peo­ple say things have been ‘re­stored’ when there’s bits of yo­ghurt pot in them.”

With the in­ten­tion of do­ing some of the work him­self, he stripped out the in­te­rior and sent it off for restora­tion, then sent the steel Rostyle wheels for re­fur­bish­ment. At this point, the sheer ex­tent of the rot started to be­come clear, so he “took it to Trevor”.

Who? The pro­pri­etor of Knutsford-based restora­tion and race-prepa­ra­tion spe­cial­ist Trevor Far­ring­ton Ltd. “I found him by chance,” says San­ders. “About 14 years ago I bought a Mk2 Jaguar, which on my way home from work one day packed in at the side of the road. I didn’t have time to fix it, so pushed it onto the verge and put a sign in the win­dow say­ing, ‘Bro­ken down, will pick up in the morn­ing.’ Lit­tle did I know it was 100 yards from Trevor’s garage.”

It was an­other friend who told him of the busi­ness’ where­abouts and, once the Jag was rolled there, Far­ring­ton iden­ti­fied and re­placed a faulty al­ter­na­tor, as well as re­build­ing a brak­ing sys­tem that verged on the treach­er­ous. “Since then he’s looked after all my cars – in­clud­ing a Fer­rari Day­tona, a Lo­tus Es­prit Turbo, an As­ton Mar­tin Lagonda and a Re­liant Scim­i­tar racer – as well as turn­ing the Mk2 into a resto­mod, so it was the nat­u­ral place to take the P5B.”

At this point, Trevor Far­ring­ton work­shop man­ager Ash­ley Hulme takes up the story: “Once it was stripped down you could see how much cor­ro­sion there was; when you sat in it,

“The seller said it was ‘mint’ and re­stored, but when I started pok­ing around it turned out to be an ab­so­lute bag of rust”

you could see through ev­ery cor­ner. There were holes here, there and ev­ery­where. The engine, too, was a bit – well, a lot – knack­ered.”

The sen­si­ble thing would have been to trans­fer the reg­is­tra­tion plate and bid adieu to the Coupé, some­thing San­ders con­sid­ered. “Once it’s on SORN you can’t just take the plate off,” he ex­plains. “I thought, ‘Do we just get it run­ning for an MOT?’ But by then it was in a thou­sand bits, so I thought it rude not to re­store it.”

Hav­ing plumped for that fi­nan­cially ir­ra­tional choice, the body was sent for soda blast­ing, which promptly ex­posed the sheer ex­tent of the tin­worm. Once mounted on a spit it was time to start. The rear wings were cut off, and a com­pre­hen­sive list of re­quired body pan­els made. “We were lucky,” says Hulme. “Most of the pan­els that were gone we could get from JR Wad­hams, and those that we couldn’t we fab­ri­cated.”

The scale of the body re­pairs was vast, and would re­quire an­other story to list ac­cu­rately in full. The main work in­volved the re­place­ment of near­side and off­side in­ner, cen­tre and outer sills, while the front wings and bulk­head were also largely new. Re­pairs were made to the metal be­hind the front wind­screen panel, be­fore a new one was fit­ted. At the rear, the Rover’s in­ner and outer wings were re-made and a boot floor panel was fit­ted. New rear chas­sis mem­bers were fab­ri­cated, re­place­ment out­rig­gers added and fresh valance pan­els welded in. New door skins were cut and welded to fit, be­fore at­ten­tion turned to achiev­ing panel-gap per­fec­tion, plus fill­ing and shap­ing the car ready for paint.

“It wasn’t just new outer pan­els that were re­quired,” re­calls Hulme. “The un­der­ly­ing struc­ture – pil­lars, rear-axle brack­ets, bumper mounts, jack­ing points, you name it – also had to be re­paired. It was a huge num­ber of man-hours just get­ting the body back in shape.”

The un­der­side of the floor­pan was seam­sealed, as was the in­side of the bodyshell be­fore ap­pli­ca­tion of a stone-chip fin­ish. A 2K primer was ap­plied, then the car was ready to be re­painted in its orig­i­nal Sil­ver Grey over Claret.

With San­ders pop­ping in reg­u­larly to gauge progress, talk turned to other mat­ters of orig­i­nal­ity. “With my Mk2 Jaguar we went OTT,” he ex­plains. “The restora­tion turned into a resto­mod, with up­dates to body­work, run­ning gear, in­te­rior and in-car en­ter­tain­ment – long be­fore Ian Callum did his. In fact, so up­graded is it that I added a ‘Mk3’ badge! How­ever, with the P5B Coupé I wanted it to be stock – the only ad­di­tion would be haz­ard warn­ing lights.”

With that, at­ten­tion turned to the me­chan­i­cals. The engine, rear axle and car­bu­ret­tors were stripped down and re­built to stan­dard spec­i­fi­ca­tion, with the au­to­matic gear­box sent to a spe­cial­ist for re­fur­bish­ment. All sus­pen­sion com­po­nents were also dis­man­tled and sent for pow­der-coat­ing, be­fore be­ing re­bushed.

“There isn’t a part on that car that hasn’t been re­placed, re­paired or cleaned, re-plated and made as new,” says Hulme. “But, strangely, body­work aside, it was the jobs you’d think were straight­for­ward that took the long­est; the big­gest chal­lenge was get­ting the wind­screen in.

Ev­ery­one you speak to will say ‘good luck’, be­cause it could take you two weeks. It’s the rub­bers: the af­ter­mar­ket ones just don’t seem to fit, so you spend an age try­ing to adapt them and get it in prop­erly. After the chrome­work came back from be­ing re­done, get­ting it to fit cor­rectly was dif­fi­cult. I don’t know why, this car was built on a pro­duc­tion line, so they should have flown straight on, but they didn’t. Fi­nally, there’s a sep­a­rate heater in the back and get­ting pipework right – plus care­fully tak­ing the heater valves apart (you can’t get new ones) to try and fit new rub­ber seals – was a pain in the back­side.”

It sounds as if the restora­tion was one prob­lem after an­other. “Ac­tu­ally, it’s a straight­for­ward and good-qual­ity bit of en­gi­neer­ing,” says Hulme. “We’ve re­stored all sorts, from ex­ot­ica such as a Lam­borgh­ini Coun­tach to a vin­tage Ford Model T, and some can be a real pain, but I re­ally en­joyed the P5B. Al­though it seemed to be in for a life­time, it was nice to work on.”

With the body painted, sub­frame re­built and re­freshed and new parts ready to go, it was a case of get­ting ev­ery­thing back on. As at­ten­tion turned to the cabin, San­ders brought in his ‘re­stored’ biege leather in­te­rior. “It was an econ­omy mea­sure,” he says. “I’d used some­one that ad­ver­tised them­selves as af­ford­able and it was the worst case of ‘you get what you pay for’.”

Far­ring­ton is more forth­right. “There was no way it was go­ing back in the car,” he states. “It was a very cheap job. The door cards had al­ready started to bub­ble, and it just looked poor – so we

re-did it, prop­erly. Matthew then chose a nono­rig­i­nal ve­neer in wal­nut for the dash­board, which was pro­duced by Chap­man and Cliff.”

To­day, sit­ting in­side the Rover on its huge leather driver’s chair, the at­ten­tion to de­tail is lovely. Purists may baulk at the dash, but it’s to San­ders’ taste and he prefers it to the orig­i­nal.

On start-up the com­pact, Buick-sourced V8 in­tro­duces it­self with an el­e­gant, multi-lay­ered woofle, set­tling down to a quiet tick­over. En­gage drive and, once off, that fa­mil­iar, re­as­sur­ing bur­ble – like a tiny ball-bear­ing gen­tly be­ing rolled around in­side a metal pipe – comes to the fore. The ride cos­sets, the big Rover tak­ing each mile easily and grace­fully – no won­der it was con­sid­ered ‘the poor man’s Rolls-royce’.

“To drive, it’s just so comfy,” says San­ders. “And for some rea­son, ev­ery­one has a story with one. My wife’s grandad had one, and I know of an­other where the owner put a Perkins diesel engine in it – but then you had 1970s petrol prices. It gets used reg­u­larly, re­cently go­ing up to Llan­dudno on the north Wales coast. My other love is Liver­pool Foot­ball Club and it’s been to Anfield, where it got a nice re­cep­tion.”

He’s not over­play­ing the P5B’S ef­fect on peo­ple, some­thing that’s be­come im­me­di­ately clear even with just 10 min­utes be­hind the wheel. Knutsford, com­plete with its promi­nently sited Mclaren deal­er­ship and all man­ner of high-end ve­hi­cles buzzing around, may be the cen­tre of the Cheshire set, but to­day it’s this Rover that’s caus­ing necks to turn and smiles to be elicited.

The P5B’S restora­tion took two and a half years and, again, that ques­tion of ‘why do it?’ arises. “I had to,” he an­swers. “And I know Trevor’s at­ten­tion to de­tail and qual­ity from pre­vi­ous deal­ings, so the fin­ished re­sult is ev­ery bit as good as I knew it’d be. The fact that it still has that num­ber­plate is a bonus.”

San­ders used his favourite re­source, ebay, for the fin­ish­ing touches. “I re­ally en­joyed the jour­ney,” he says. “Es­pe­cially find­ing things such as new-old-stock mud­flaps, a rear-view mir­ror, the reg­is­tra­tion-plate box, badges and badge bar on the in­ter­net. It’s amaz­ing what you can find… al­though if you know any­one who has two new seats for a Volvo 240GLT Es­tate I’ll have them, I can’t find those.”

Hav­ing re­cently trimmed his car col­lec­tion and im­posed a one-in, one-out rule on him­self, his fi­nal com­ment sug­gests that this now rather fine Rover P5B Coupé will not be the last of San­ders’ epic restora­tion projects. The busi­ness bear­ing his much-loved grand­fa­ther’s name has now gone – sold in a man­age­ment buy­out back in 2016 – but, for San­ders, the ‘de Poel’ Rover is def­i­nitely a keeper.

Clock­wise from main: this was a two-and-a-half-year restora­tion project; blast­ing the shell re­vealed the rust; re­pair pan­els made for the rear arches; the tub had full un­der­body pro­tec­tion and is shown here in etch primer; a new wiring loom was re­quired

Clock­wise from top left: 3.5-litre Buick-de­rived V8; the Coupé was bought for its num­ber­plate; the non­stan­dard dash is San­ders’ choice; the plush cabin was re­trimmed twice

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