(first posted 6/27/2014. Calvin Mehlert, who had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service, passed away on January 2, 2018)
When Calvin Mehlert, age 86, left San Jose behind the wheel of his 1970 Rover 3500S this past May (2014) and pointed it north towards a British Car Show in Vancouver, B.C. 1200 miles away, he had half a mind to sell it there and fly home. But then something along the way changed his mind. Maybe it was because the Rover didn’t overheat in almost 100 degree weather, practically miraculous for one of these cars. Or maybe it was the pure joy of driving his “mistress” of twenty years up the Pacific coast. I’d like to think that our chance encounter with him along the way and gushing over his splendid and very rare Rover might have played a very small part.
I didn’t know how this story would end, whether he did or didn’t sell the Rover in Vancouver, until he e-mailed me after their return home – in the 3500. Cal and his Rover mistress are now firmly in it for the long haul, and he’s going to share their love story with us today, after we first take a look at his car and its history.
On our recent road trip back from California this past May, on the 101 somewhere north of Brookings and south of Port Orford, Oregon, I noticed the distinctive outline of a vintage European sedan up ahead. For a moment I thought it might be a Peugeot 404, but it was too wide. It had to be a Rover, and as I got closer, the V8 emblem on the right became recognizable.
Now there’s a car I’ve long wanted to find and write up! These are super rare; very few were ever sold in the US, and how many are still roadworthy? I certainly didn’t expect to see one out here, on one of the most remote stretches of the coast. So I peeled off a few shots, for an Outtake. As we passed, I could see an older couple in the front bucket seats.
Port Orford is a quiet little hamlet with a natural harbor, and just about the most unspoiled town on the whole Oregon coast. We had no reservations, but I noticed a motel up on top of the bluff, with what had to be great views. There were vacancies, and just as I was finishing checking in, what should drive up and pull in next to us at the office? The very same Rover V8.
I introduced myself to Calvin and told him I’d love to get some shots after they checked in. “Cal”, who looks and acts more like 66 than 86, was very obliging, and drove the Rover to the curb next to the bluff, for some nice shots in the early evening light. And then we all walked down to the little fish-shanty restaurant on the dock for a fresh ling cod dinner, where Cal regaled us with the stories of his Rover affairs that go back all the way to 1969 as well as other snippets of his colorful life in the Foreign Service.
But before we hear Cal’s story in his own words, let’s take in the subject of his enduring love. David Saunders covered much of the P6’s unique and very advanced design in his Rover 2000TC article here, so I’ll stick to some highlights as well as the specific changes to the V8.
The P6 arrived in 1963, after a drawn-out development process. No doubt Citroen’s radical DS of 1955, with its “base frame” construction (self -supporting monocoque, with non-structural exterior body panels) influenced the Rover engineers, as well as their infatuation with the gas turbine engine, which they had been developing since the 1940s and hoped to use in a production passenger car. It’s fair to say that Rover set out to create their own “DS”, and although it shares certain aspects in common, including some styling elements, in most other ways it’s very different and quite unique.
The P6’s unusual long-travel front suspension incorporated struts, bell cranks, and horizontal coil springs, and was designed to accommodate a low and wide turbine, but that was not to be. Instead, a new two-liter OHC four found its way there, in the 2000 and 2000TC (twin carb).
At the rear, the Rover engineers developed a De Dion semi-independent rear suspension, which involves a rigidly mounted differential, half shafts, and wheels connected via a hollow tube. The De Dion was a compromise between a live rear axle and a fully-independent one, at a time when independent rear suspension technology was still immature, and offered benefits of both approaches without their vices. The rear disc brakes are inboard, to reduce unsprung weight.
All in all, the Rover P6 was an exceptionally advanced car for its times, including many passive safety features. Unfortunately, as is wont to be the case, its complexity also led to reliability issues. Especially so in the US, where expectations for reliability are as high as the distances typically driven, the Rover’s reputation, relatively high price for a four cylinder sedan and the lack of a strong dealer network amounted to weak sales and a weakened reputation.
To address the four-cylinder’s performance issues, a six cylinder version was considered. It would have required a new longer nose and beefed up suspension to carry the additional weight. A better solution presented itself accidentally when Rover Managing Director William Martin-Hurst came across a Buick aluminum V8 engine on a visit to Mercury Marine in 1964. He bought the engine and had it shipped back to England and installed in a P6. The compact 215 cubic inch (3528 cc) V8 fit perfectly in the engine bay, and weighed only a few pounds more than the four cylinder.
The rights to build the Buick V8 were bought from Buick, which had abandoned it after 1963 in favor of a cheaper and less problematic cast iron evolution of its design. It took some changes to adapt the aluminum block to Rover’s production methods and needs, such as sand-casting the block instead of GM’s die-cast method.
With twin S.U. carburetors, the Rover 3500 engine was rated at 184 gross/146 net hp; a substantial jump over the four, and much more amenable to being teamed with an automatic transmission (Borg-Warner 35), which all 3500s had, until 1971, when the European-spec 3500S became available with a four-speed stick. All US-bound 3500 cars, even though they had the “S” in their designation, came only with the automatic. Performance was lively for the times, with a 114 mph top speed and a 0-60 time of about 10.5 seconds.
European-spec 3500s were only subtly different externally from the 2000, with a deeper valance below the bumper for a larger radiator, and some fairly discrete “V8” and “3500” badges, as well as a few other details.
But NA-bound versions were instantly recognizable by their prominent triple hood scoops. No, Rover wasn’t trying to make it look competitive with all the hood scoops popping up like acne on so many American muscle cars of the time. They were not only fully functional, but more like necessary, actually.
The center scoop fed the engine air intake, in the usual manner. But the other two were an effort to combat high under hood temperatures. The thermal challenges of the Buick aluminum V8 were already known, but with all NA-bound 3500s coming standard with air conditioning and power steering as well as the automatic, beating the heat was a serious problem. Given the climatic challenges in the US, along with traffic jams and long freeway runs, Rover must have felt that moving more cool air through the rather cramped engine compartment was another step to prevent overheating. These two vents are to be opened and closed with the seasons. Despite them, 3500s still had a rep for not staying cool, regardless. More on that in Cal’s account.
North American 3500s also came with “Icelert”, a sensor mounted on the front grille that warned of sudden temperature drops and resulting possible road icing. And the little extension on the top of turn signal lens allowed the driver to confirm that they were actually working.
The 3500S sold very poorly in the US, and was discontinued after just three years , in 1971. It was a combination of factors, including Rover’s damaged reputation from the 2000, sketchy service and parts, and the P6 was hardly fresh-looking anymore by then. For about the same price as the 3500S ($5398), one could buy a much more modern-looking BMW 2500 with its silky and powerful six. Rover looked to be in precarious shape in the US, and tried one more comeback with the SD1 3500, but that turned out badly in the US too.
Let’s Cal tell us the story of how he became a Roverphile:
In 1969 when on home leave from the US Embassy in Taiwan and en route back to Taipei, I asked my friend Lord Michael Lindsay of Birker, to recommend a used car to take back to Taiwan. Michael was the 2nd Baron of Birker having inherited his title from his father “Sandie” Lindsay, knighted for his writing in philosophy in 1945.
By 1969 Michael had retired from professorships at Australian National University and American University, Washington, D.C., and was occupying himself writing and on maintaining a stable of veteran Citroens in his backyard. One dark night Michael took me to an impressive mansion in the Virginia countryside, surrounded by a menacing wrought iron fence with a telephone-operated gate. A word from Michael, and the gate ground slowly back while lights from the mansion roof flooded the driveway approach. We approached long low stable-like garage with six sections, each of which housed a classic automobile of some sort. An agent approached to explain that there was a 1969 Rover 2000 SC for sale, emphasizing delicately that this was just the poor cousin of the more elegant cars inside. We quickly settled on a price of $1750 and my lifelong subservience to a Rover Mistress had begun.
Bravely I had the State Department ship her off to Taipei where she held up pretty well. Here the only “foreign cars” were American and a scattering of Japanese impertinences. When she suffered a severe internal breakdown, a Chinese army engineer friend – a genius in fact – spent time looking into every best stethoscope guide she could find, purchased one with the last bit of her money, examined her body with the stethoscope and eventually performed a kind of endoscopy on her flanks. She felt just fine after that and went on to take us up into the 14,000′ Taiwan mountains, scrambling over rocky, icy and snowy dirt roads as if she had chains (which don’t fit Rovers) all thanks to the de dion tube suspension with its capacity to keep tires close to road irregularities.
In 1970 I was off to the next post, Bangkok, Thailand. Encouraged by her survival in Taiwan in an environment sans Rover parts and mechanics, my Rover came along, again bumping over the back roads with hardly a complaint. This time the only reputable foreign repair facility in Bangkok was an auto repair school run by European Roman Catholic priests. These fellows were delighted to have a British exotic to play with – and teach on – and never failed to put her in running condition.
In fact, she lasted until a year later her transmission gave up the ghost in a San Francisco parking garage and I was into the Yellow Pages for help. Here for the first time I saw the name of my to-be benefactor and close friend, Sigismund Heinlo. Sig told me to drive no faster than 15 m.p.h. down to his garage in San Mateo. She broke down completely anyway en route and I learned that a replacement transmission would cost $1200. Hey, man, you’re talking State Department foreign service officer pay so I sold her to Sig and appropriated my mother’s Toyota Corolla for my next assignment, Monrovia, Liberia.
We left our Rover 2000 abandoned in the wilds of San Mateo, California, about 1970, where her ghost is said still to haunt the premises of Sig’s deserted garage on Railroad Avenue.
My son and I enjoyed two years’ association with these fine people only to be moved on to the next assignment, the Department of State, Washington. (I must add a sad footnote: six months after we left, the six main tribal elements, their mutual hostilities having been held in check for years by President Tolbert and his predecessors, assassinated Tolbert and fell to cutting one another up – African-style. Today, Monrovia is in a relative peace under the leadership of a lady President. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, U.S. educated former minister of finance.
The New Rover 3500s Age for me began in 1984 when, cruising the quiet, tree-lined streets of Mill Valley, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I saw her parked along the street: a 1970 3500s placarded for $3500. I confess that my association with her younger sister years before had left me with a craving that could only be satisfied with another possession. We settled on $3,000 for this example of how having always been very well cared for (i.e, kept garaged) can preserve the appearance of a mistress – and enhance her gratefulness as expressed in her performance. (“Well-cared for”: – this list is far from all -inclusive: Sig Heinlo’s Engine rebuild; John’s brake and many other expert contributions.)
We will not discuss how much keeping this mistress has cost in the last 20 years. Say only that her good fortune has been (1) that she has been cared for by the best (Sig Heinlo (d.) and his assistant (John Arts) and the latter’s skilled staff;) and (2) supported with parts and guidance by the incomparable Ruth Burgess (All British Cars, Vancouver, Canada, (now retired) and those now running that show.
The Bottom Line is that this Rover has made two 2,400 round trips from San Jose, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (2008 and 2014) without the slightest mechanical problem. In fact, this last trip, May 2014, was done just after a total and thorough revamping of the cooling system by John’s Jag Service, San Francisco, which resulted, on our trip, with an engine temperature gauge needle which never once wavered between the gap between the white zone and the green zone when the ambient temperature was pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the Rover was going 75-80 mph. Rover owners will recognize how remarkable (even miraculous) this is.
When I started this trip, I had half a mind to sell her. More and more I realized that the price I held in the back of my mind of $10,000 US was not going to be offered, if for no other reason that the offering never reached the public either on the Rover View or on the website of the Rover Car Cub of Canada.
Also, how would you like it if you could not stop for gas or for a meal or at the end of the day without someone coming up and saying either “Such a beautiful car, what is it”? Or, “I had a friend who drove one of these. Great Cars.” Often there would follow a more informed comment on why the car was “great”: de Dion rear suspension; front-end crash protection; a hundred other engineering innovations which made this car great. (Or, as one of my fellow Rover Club members commented, “Ever had anyone stop you to comment on any other car?”
Sell it now? I’d rather cremate it and have it interred with me.
The next morning after packing, we bid Cal and his lovely wife Nguyet goodbye, and wished them a happy journey to Vancouver. I had a hard time imagining Cal selling the Rover there, but Nguyet was rather in favor of that, and we didn’t know the outcome until I e-mailed him to ask. The story you just read was his response.
As the Rover V8 gently burbled off into the morning fog, we felt very lucky to have met the three of them. But that’s what road trips are all about: unexpected and serendipitous encounters, as well as the opportunity to renew bonds with our life partners, human and automotive.