11 APRIL 1998, Page 53


Go easy on the Verdi

Alan Judd

Not so long ago men imagined there were laws of physics, immutable cosmic statutes awaiting discovery. Then men imagined there were no laws but only prob- abilities, awaiting man's faculty of generali- sation to touch them into life. Now, I hear, men imagine they can devise models, which they call ways of seeing, to ape the universe in all its variety.

That may be good enough for scientists but it is in the matter of old car-ownership that the direction of human misconceptions is reversed. I used to believe that my per- ceptions of a breed would anticipate, model or even shape its destiny, then I was buffeted by the rough waters of probability into conceding that certain unwelcome generalisations prevailed and now I find myself dashed so often against a particular rock that I am tempted to acknowledge it as universal law. It may be phrased thus: that any car of a certain age may increase in value while Judd is thinking about buy- ing it, or after Judd has sold it, but no car of any age shall increase in value while Judd owns it.

The latest manifestation of this cosmic malice is the upwardly mobile price of those venerable and comfortable gentle- men's carriages, the old P5 and P5B Rovers. They were the large, wide, round- ed, square-ish vehicles that prime minis- ters, including Lady Thatcher in her early period, continued to be wafted about in for years after production ceased in 1973. Lady Thatcher clung to hers until well past its sell-by date.

The P5s were launched in 1958 as the Rover 3 litre, very much in the old Rolls- Royce drawing-room-on-wheels tradition (they were known as the poor man's Rolls) with convincing wood, leather armchairs, thick carpets and lots of space. Until 1967 they had the six cylinder 3-litre engine, a development of the engines in the Rover P4s and Land-Rovers, and thereafter they had Rover's 3'/2-litre V8 Buick-derived engine (hence P5B).

I've had five, two P5s and three 5Bs, in days when the cheapest cost £130 and the dearest £900. Few people wanted them because they were thought to be too heavy on petrol — though 18-21 mpg no matter how you drove was pretty respectable for such a car — and because they were then simply ageing and not yet recognised as interesting. I knew they would be, one day, and couldn't see why everyone else didn't. The power steering, like that in the Range- Rover of the period, was almost disconcert- ingly light, permitting little feel of the road but adding to the sense of luxurious, effort- less wafting. I had no problems with the engines, both kinds being durable and reli- able provided the oil was changed regularly.

Before buying the first I was warned that the automatic gearboxes could need atten- tion at about 50-60,000 miles, so I tested it in the way someone had told me — with engine at idle, engage forward for a few feet, then reverse a few feet, then forward again and so on, watching for any tendency to creep in the direction you've just disen- gaged. This one did creep and I got the price reduced accordingly, though I didn't really know whether the test was predictive or not. It was.

My second P5B came with a recondi- tioned 'box still under warranty. All went well until one night I rushed up the Ml from London to Birmingham with a friend. We played Verdi on the cassette-player, all the way. My friend had a good voice, so he sang along. He sang so well that I didn't hear, see or feel that I'd locked the gearbox in second, all the way. It began behaving a little strangely thereafter and I'm afraid to say I sneaked it back to the reconditioners and got it repaired under guarantee. The engine was fine.

Though strongly built, well finished and thoughtfully designed — switches that could be operated by finger-tip from the wheel, fresh air available for individual faces while there was warm air to the feet — these Rovers were, like almost all British cars of the period, prone to rust. It used to puzzle me that cold countries regu- larly made things that withstood cold and hot countries things that withstood heat but this damp country seemed exasperatingly unwilling to make things that didn't rust. The reasons why comprise, I suspect, the main reasons for precipitous manufactur- ing decline.

Now I hear from all sides — including from BBC Top Gear's authoritative Quentin Willson, who's got the measure of everything that moves — that these grand old dignitaries are at last becoming serious- ly collectable. Even Rover has woken up to what a gem it had and is buying up immac- ulate examples for PR purposes. The mag- azines rate them at £6,500 for a first-class P5B coupe (£500 less for the saloon, whose shape I prefer anyway), £3,000 for a usable one, £850 for a rebuild job. The 3-litre can be adapted to unleaded fuel and Rover apparently says that the V8 will run on it anyway (yet they were tuned for five star in Do you mind if I just drop in? I fancy some fresh air.' those halcyon days I recall). There are two owners clubs, mechanical parts are general- ly no problem and most body parts are available, albeit rear bumpers a rarity. Complete refurbishment of the interior is possible but costly, so watch that when you're buying.

Watch, too, where you're putting the gear selector, and go easy on the Verdi.