As stately as Auntie
Solid, strong and dependable. BBC Radio Norfolk’s David Clayton considers the no-nonsense style of the Rover P4.
You know that Joyce Grenfell song which goes, “Stately as a Galleon? It’s about a portly lady dancing across the floor – not necessarily daintily but smoothly. Well I’ve ridden in the motor car version of that lady.
I may have mentioned this before but my father was a sales rep in the north-east of England keeping the wheels of industry turning by selling solenoids (best you look that up). As such, the company he worked for kept him in various Fords apart from one year when he had a light blue Standard Ten as the “company car”. Up and down the street the best I could hope to ride in, apart from father’s latest sales rep perk, was a neighbour’s Morris Minor or a friend’s dad’s Triumph Herald so I only really sampled the economy end of the car market in the late Fifties and early Sixties.
My Auntie Connie went away for a couple of weeks and as she lived not far from us, my father was charged with looking after her car to see it got a service at the garage while she was away. Auntie Connie had a bit of dosh – certainly more than we did so purred around in a Rover P4 105. Needless to say father managed to find a few extra journeys to do in this fine example of refined British engineering and needless to say I went everywhere I could with him just to sample the sheer luxury of the leather and walnut.
I remember the solidity of the car and the fact you really had to stop and check the motor was turning over under the bonnet. Such was the sound proofing and fine engineering it wasn’t as noisy as a Ford. Then – the passenger comfort. I could only describe it as a comfy sofa on wheels with the sumptuous leather and deep pile carpets, highly polished walnut and solid black plastic fittings. There was a mysterious and wonderful gismo which my father took great pride in operating. On the steering column was a small stalk which when pushed, engaged overdrive. Even at nine years old I’d acquired a little mechanical knowledge where cars were concerned and tried to understand that this was, my father said, an economy gear but strangely not engaged with any clutch action. This appeared to do nothing to the car as it trundled along with not the slightest Rover type jolt or shudder as this important device clicked-in. I think I also understood that this made the petrol-hungry Rover a tad more economical.
Auntie Connie is long gone, but I’m hoping you’ll take my confessional about this stately Rover. I was partial to the odd packet of Acid Drop Spangles – well let’s be honest – who wasn’t. They rather drew your knees up to your elbows when you first sucked on one, but I lost a half sucked Spangle in Auntie Connie’s Rover’s upholstery. It was in that awkward down-by-the side of the rear passenger seat crevice and I couldn’t retrieve it. I said nothing. I’m ashamed to have de-flowered the immaculate Rover with an iconic Sixties boiled sweet.
We gave the car back reluctantly when she returned from her foreign trip complete with half-sucked Spangle and I never rode in it again. Father’s standard-issue Ford Prefect sounded like a tank when we got back in it but I’d tasted sumptuous luxury and lost a sweet.
This was one of Rover’s most enduring models – the P4 as it’s officially known – popped up in late 1949 and with variations in trim, engine and interior fit, the distinctive shape survived right up until the mid-Sixties. It was a quintessentially British car but based on an American Studebaker’s styling. Because of its sedate nature and quite frankly looks, too, it took on the nickname of “Auntie” and little did she know, my Auntie Connie slipped perfectly into the stereotype. The car also became known more during its lifetime as the poor man’s Rolls Royce, especially the high spec models.
In fairness it was a good way below a Roller, but placed itself well above the usual family motoring category. If you remember that iconic TV sketch which had Corbett, Barker and Cleese looking up and down on each other as a satirical poke at the British class system then the Rover P4 is Ronnie Barker in the middle. My Dad’s Prefect is Ronnie Corbett and the Rolls Royce is obviously Cleese.
I remember the odd local bank manager cruising around in a Rover P4 and if not heading off to a day’s work at the local branch of the National Provincial, he (it was always a “he” then) would be wearing a cravat and sports jacket while off to a country pub or the like. It was the only car in which you probably looked okay wearing a trilby. For all I know it was issued with one in the glove compartment!
Nigel Randall, from Taverham, knows P4s very well. He’s on his fourth now and probably inherited the Rover bug from his father – a Kesgrave butcher who purchased his first Rover in 1939.
How often do we see a dynasty of buying the same make of car through a generation or two? Nigel says they’re great to drive especially in a straight line when you can enjoy fingertip control on the wheel. Mind you, rounding a corner is an altogether different thing. The Rover is a heavy car and there’s no power steering so you really have to heave it around on cross ply tyres. Nigel confirmed my overdrive fascination. It was there and did or didn’t do exactly what I remembered it did – or didn’t! Some of Nigel’s Rovers also had a freewheel system – a knob under the dashboard you turned anti-clockwise and it disengaged the clutch so you could freewheel – again this seemed to be in the name of extra economy. “A car that’s out of gear is out of control” – so said my driving instructor, so I’m glad I didn’t learn to drive in an old Rover.
Similar to my memory, Nigel reckons the car was liked by aspiring bank managers but also doctors and was luxurious in the sense the seats were interior-sprung like a mattress although as a passenger you tended to “bounce like a budgie!” The Rover P4 was a solid and ultimately strong car. I remember my father saying you’d be safe in a crash, something Nigel confirmed. He remembers some old P4s being converted into stock cars and while they were not great when hit side-on, anything on the front end or back end would hardly be noticed.
So why the nickname “Auntie?” It seems a tad unfair for what is, or was, a solidly British car that took a bit of muscular driving. Well, back to my “stately as a galleon” analogy. Take a look at the car – modest, fulsome and do you notice the slightly flared skirt along each side of the car – there you are. It’s your favourite no-nonsense Auntie.
The Norfolk and Norwich Rover Owners Club’s website is at www.norfolkandnorwichroveroc.org.uk