From America with Love

Posted on August 16, 2011 by


When MG Rover started to plan a new  performance flagship for the Z car range – the car that would become the ZT 260  – developing its own V8 engine was never really an option.  It is likely that the original Rover V8 had reached the end of its development life and could no longer meet future emissions legislation; the last Land Rover vehicles equipped with it were replaced in 2005.  R&D resources in the group were tight and  the cost of building, testing and homologating an entirely new engine for a limited production, specialist vehicle could never be justified.  Like many small volume manufacturers therefore MG Rover looked outside to find a new engine, just as it had sold its own K Series engine to manufacturers of smaller sports cars such as Caterham  and Lotus.

Where to go?

Wiesmann GT

Forty years earlier Rover sourced  its first V8 engine from the Buick division of General Motors; this time, with GM’s LS1 engine from the Corvette also used by HSV in Australia and ultimately the Vauxhall Monaro,  it would find its solution with Ford.  Before we come back to Ford though, let’s take a look – as MG Rover’s engineers may well have done – at the different options for a specialist manufacturer seeking  a V8 power unit for their car.

In the UK, a few companies have in fact taken the plunge and built their own engines: Lotus for the Esprit V8 and more recently McLaren for the MP4-12C.  After using the Rover-derived V8 for many years, TVR developed their own  AJP8 engine, in 4.2 and 4.5 litre forms, for the Cerbera.   Caterham and Ariel both use the same Russell Savory-designed flatplane V8 in the Caterham 500 and Atom V8.

Leaving this costly route aside, let’s begin our search in Europe, where there are some good performance options.  The Volkswagen group provides its 3.6 litre six-cylinder engine to Artega for its GT Coupé.  Both BMW and Mercedes (with its in-house performance division, AMG) produce a range of V8 and V12 engines.  Mercedes supplies its V12s to Pagani for the Zonda and Huayra models; BMW’s Valvetronic V8 has been taken up by Morgan for the Aero and by Wiesmann for its MF4.  It was also originally used by De Tomaso for the Guara (from 1993-98), but interestingly this was subsequently dropped – presumably because of its high cost – and replaced by … the Mustang engine!   Cost aside, BMW may have been reluctant to sell their engine to MG because of possible competition with their M range.

Another intriguing route is that taken by Noble, whose M600 uses a V8 originally developed by Yamaha.  Yamaha may be associated more with speedboat engines, but it has also developed automotive V8s for Ford (including the Taurus SHO) and Volvo (the S80 and XC90).

Morgan Aeromax Coupé

There are a couple of noteworthy omissions here: Jaguar and the Italian prestige sports car makers.  When Jaguar was part of Ford’s Premium Automotive Group in the 1990s some of its components were used by Aston Martin; the first DB7 used a version of the supercharged six-cylinder also fitted to the X300 Jaguar XJR.  Its later V8 engine was also adapted for use by Ford USA (for the Thunderbird), Lincoln (the LS) and Land Rover, but has not, I believe, been sold to any other manufacturers.   In Italy too Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini have kept their engines to themselves of late – with the exception of Alfa Romeo’s limited production 8C – and understandably so, since they are such a defining characteristic of their cars.  It is only back in the 1970s and 1980s that we can find some sharing of power units across the Fiat empire, including the fitment of Ferrari’s V8 to the Lancia Thema 8.32, a Q-car performance saloon.

Lancia Thema 8.32 engine

 The United States: home of the V8

Inevitably any talk of V8-engined sports cars brings us sooner or later to the US.  Through generations of cars like the Corvette, Mustang and Thunderbird, American sports cars have been synonymous with V8 power for more than half a century.  And V8s have been the staple of saloons and pick-up trucks for even longer.  All the “Big Three” auto manufacturers (Chrysler, Ford and GM) have long experience in building dependable, unstressed and relatively inexpensive V8 engines.   What better place to go to for European sports car manufacturers looking for more power at low cost?

AC Cobra

Sunbeam, then part of the British Rootes group, took a similar approach to turn their demure Alpine into the brutish Tiger, again first with the 260 c.i. unit and then the 289 c.i. block.  Its production came to an end in 1967, however, after Chrysler bought the Rootes group and did not wish to be seen using an engine from one of its main competitors in North America.

Many smaller British manufacturers in the 1960s also looked to Detroit for an injection of fresh performance, as cars like the Jaguar E-Type set a new and higher bar.  Ford also supplied engines to TVR (for the first Griffith and Tuscan models) and to Trident (for its Clipper).  Meanwhile Chrysler provided power trains to Bristol (starting with the 407 in 1961) and to Jensen (for the CV8 and then the Interceptor and FF).  Gordon-Keeble looked to Chevrolet, as did Iso and Bizzarrini in Italy.

The intervening thirty years would see many more V8-engined sports cars whose mechanical origins lay in the US.  None more famously than the V8 Rover originally acquired from Buick for its 3.5 litre (P5B) saloon and coupé and soon added to the smaller P6 body to create the 3500.   Bored out over the years and in ever-increasing stages of tune, this engine would be slotted into succeeding models from Morgan, TVR and others.

Rover 3500 VIP

Ford’s modular motor

And so we reach the 1990s and the arrival of Ford’s so-called “modular” V8 engine, which was to power the Mustang from 1996 to 2010.  The company’s celebrated 5.0 litre engine had served them well and the wide range of add-on tuning parts had endeared it to generations of Mustang owners.   But Ford needed a new series of engines, which would offer better performance and emissions and could be produced cheaply and easily in different forms.  It was this ability to “modulate” the production that gave the engine its name.

The 4.6 litre engine was introduced in 2-valve per cylinder SOHC (single overhead cam) form in 1991, in the Lincoln Town Car, often used by airport limo services in the States.  It would soon be followed by the lesser-equipped versions of Ford’s big rear-wheel drive saloon, the Ford Crown Victoria – the lynchpin of many taxi fleets and – in Police Interceptor form – law enforcement agencies, and the Mercury Grand Marquis.  In 1994 and 1995 Ford’s so-called “personal cars”, the Ford Thunderbird
and Mercury Cougar, would receive the new engine.

Ford Mustang GT previously owned by the author

When Ford launched the fourth generation (or SN95) Mustang in 1994, however, it continued for a while with the older 5.0 litre engine and only received the new power plant for the 1996 model year, initially with 215 bhp.  This was actually less than in the last 5.0 litre engine and so an extra 10 horses were quickly added back for 1998!  In 1999 power for the Mustang GT went up again to 260 bhp, and traction control was offered for the first time.  This engine specification would form the basis for the unit acquired by MG for the ZT 260.  The Mustang was the only Ford passenger car for which the new V8 was offered with manual as well as automatic transmission.

The 2-valve engine was just one of three different configurations fitted to the Mustang from 1996-2010.  In 1993 it was again a Lincoln model, the Mark VIII, which saw the launch of the 4-valve per cylinder DOHC (dual overhead cam) engine, initially with 280 bhp.  It was a more sophisticated unit, with increased power and high-rpm performance, but less emphasis on low-speed torque.  This engine would be transferred to the Mustang three years later, for the Cobra SVT, with a power output of 305 horsepower, which went up to 320 in 1999.   After the Cobra received a supercharger and a big boost in power (to 390 horsepower) the 305 bhp iteration of the 4-valve engine was reintroduced in the Mach 1 limited edition for 2003 and 2004.  Other Ford group vehicles powered by the 4-valve unit included the Mercury Marauder (a sportier version of the Grand Marquis saloon) and, somewhat bizarrely, the Lincoln Aviator SUV.

In 2005 the SN95 Mustang gave way to the fifth generation of Mustang, famed for its retro styling recalling the original cars of the 1960s.  These received the next evolution of the modular motor, this time with a single overhead cam but three valves per cylinder and variable camshaft timing.  These changes combined to give a power output of 300 bhp.  As before, it was also installed in other Ford vehicles, including the Explorer SUV and F-series pick-ups.

Finally, for the 2011 model year, the 4.6 litre power plants were succeeded by the new 5.0 litre “Coyote” engine; for the Mustang GT there was a massive hike in power (to 412 bhp), as well as improved economy and emissions performance.   This engine is also used by Ford Performance Vehicles in Australia, either naturally aspirated or supercharged.

A pony at heart: the 260’s cousins

ZT 260 engine with Pony emblem

Given this history, it comes as no surprise that Ford’s modular motor should have found its way into many other specialist cars.  The MG ZT 260 and Rover 75 V8 appear to be unique, however, for two reasons: first, they are the only non-Ford Motor Company saloons rather than sports coupés or roadsters to have been fitted with Ford’s V8, and, secondly, they are the only cars to have been equipped with the 2-valve SOHC engine.   All the other cars were given the 4-valve per cylinder DOHC unit in naturally aspirated 305 or 320 bhp forms, doubtless because of its more overtly sporting nature.  Typically the manufacturers also took over the American gearbox used in the Mustang, usually from Tremec (in T45 or TR3650 form, for example).

MG SV display at NEC

Here then is a roll call of the 260’s near relations:

De Tomaso Guara: the Ford engine replaced BMW’s V8 in 1998.  A supercharged version was planned, but never produced (sound familiar?)

Invicta S1: this brand from the 1920s was resurrected recently and the cars are apparently still available, produced at a factory in Wiltshire

Jensen SV8: the last incarnation of the Jensen name (excluding recent rebuilds of the classic Interceptor).  20 cars were completed, but a further 12 were assembled from parts by Oselli in Oxfordshire and are sometimes re-sold by them

Marcos Mantis GT: this small British manufacturer has had a roller-coaster ride with several bankruptcies along the way.  Over the years it has used multiple V8 engines, originally from Rover and last the 5.7 litre LS1 Corvette engine.  In between (from 1997-99) the 4-valve Ford engine was fitted, some apparently with a Vortech supercharger pushing the power output to just over 500 bhp!

MG SV: I think everyone reading this blog will know this one!  Fewer than 100 were completed, in both SV and SV-R versions, the latter using a 5.0 litre Ford engine

Panoz AIV Roadster and Esperante: road-going cars from this American company well known for its involvement in US sports car racing

Qvale Mangusta: a short-lived car whose development was funded by the US car importer, Qjell Kvale.  With original development work by de Tomaso, fewer than 300 were made.  In 2001 the production assets were taken over by MG Rover and the platform formed the basis of the MG SV

I hope you have enjoyed exploring the wider background to the heart of our cars, their glorious V8 engine!  In my next blog I will look more closely at the other MG and Rover cars which had a V8 engine.

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