MG and Rover’s other V8s

Posted on August 17, 2011 by

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As we listen to the rumbling V8 of our 260s it’s easy to forget the other cars from MG and Rover which went before them and which also enjoyed some American V8 muscle under the “hood”.  In fact, the MG ZT 260 (with its Rover 75 V8 sister) is one of no fewer than seven series of cars from MG or Rover with V8 engines.  In this blog I will take a look at each of these models and how they came to be powered by a V8.

B for Buick: how it started

Rover 3-Litre Coupé

In the mid-sixties Rover had two saloon car ranges: the 2000 (or P6) and the 3-Litre (P5), both styled in-house by David Bache.  The 2000, presented in 1963, was by far the newer in design, both bodily and mechanically.  The larger 3-Litre was introduced in 1958 and eventually replaced the older P4 models with their “suicide” doors.  It was progressively developed in Mark II and III versions during the first half of the 1960s and was offered in Saloon and distinctive Coupé models with a swept back roofline and individual bucket seats in the back.  It was a beautifully appointed and comfortable car, but it was no fireball, with contemporary road tests reporting 0-60 times of 15-17 seconds.  Rover really needed a more powerful engine if the P5 was to remain competitive and stay in production much longer.

Although 3-litre “sixes” were the norm for up-market saloons from other manufacturers such as Humber or Wolseley (as well as their aspiring competitors from Ford and Vauxhall), times were changing.  Levels of performance were increasing rapidly and the growth of the UK’s motorway network (the M1 opened in 1959) made it possible to drive longer distances at higher speeds.  Sports car manufacturers were increasingly turning to American V8 engines to boost the performance of their cars: AC, Bristol, Gordon-Keeble, Jensen and Sunbeam all went this way from 1961-65.   Makers of prestige saloons felt pressure too to up their game: Daimler’s 250 V8, 4½-litre Majestic Major and Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II all had V8 engines.  BMC fitted a 3.9 litre Rolls-Royce six cylinder engine to their Princess to create the Princess 4-Litre R and even Humber looked at fitting a V8 to their flagship Imperial.  For a time Lord Rootes used a prototype Imperial V8 as his personal car: it has survived and was displayed at the Classic Car Show at the NEC in Birmingham a couple of years ago.

Early in the decade Rover looked at fitting a Chrysler V8 to the P5, but there was concern that Rover’s conservative clientele would be opposed to a foreign engine and the idea petered out.  It was not forgotten though, as James Taylor recounts in his book, Rover P5 and P5B: The Complete Story (Crowood Press, 1997).   The discovery of the 3.5 litre Buick small-block was largely fortuitous: in 1964 William Martin-Hurst, Rover’s then managing director, was in the US to negotiate an agreement for use of Land Rover’s diesel engine by Mercury Marine when he saw one of the Buick engines and immediately realized its potential.   The unit had just gone out of production, so Rover was able to secure rights to use it in their cars.

Martin-Hurst had the engine shipped back to the UK and soon got his engineering team to adapt it for both the P5 and P6 models, and for British production technology.  The changes included replacing American ancillary equipment with British items and strengthening the engine so that it could withstand the development of larger and more powerful versions in the future, a prescient move.  Meanwhile Martin-Hurst lobbied his board of directors to support his plan.  With their support, work could continue to prepare the car for launch, with a minor facelift (including the addition of front fog lamps below the headlamps and then fashionable Rostyle wheel trims) carried out by David Bache.

In the summer of 1967 the P5B was launched as the successor to the 3-Litre; it was briefly known officially as the 3.5-Litre but in 1968 the name was changed to the 3½-Litre.  As with the P5, Saloon and Coupé variants were offered, but all models came with automatic transmission (whereas the 3-Litre was also available in manual + overdrive form) as Rover did not have a manual gearbox strong enough to cope with the torque of the new power plant.   With 30% more power (160 bhp net) than its predecessor, performance was a revelation, with the 0-60 time dropping to 12 seconds.  The new engine also weighed 200 pounds less than its predecessor, which brought additional benefits to the new car’s handling.

At the time the P5B was announced Rover envisaged that it would be replaced by a P8 model around 1971, but this never came about, as BL feared it would compete internally with Jaguar’s long wheelbase XJ6.  The 3½-Litre therefore continued largely unchanged (except for a newer Borg-Warner automatic gearbox from 1969) until the end of production in 1973.  By then a firm favourite of government ministers, some of the last cars built continued in official use until 1980.

P6B: the 3500 and 3500S

Rover 3500 display at NEC

Although the larger P5B launched first, much of the early development work was carried out in the smaller P6 (2000) bodyshell.  In spring 1968 the 3500 (initially called Three Thousand Five) was introduced, again in automatic-only form.  Changes from the 2000 were minor, with a large air scoop under the front bumper the main distinguishing feature.  In comparison with the four-cylinder 2000 and twin-carburettor 2000 TC, however, performance and refinement were in another league and the car was well received by the motoring press at the time.

It was clear, however, that there was potential for a more overtly sporting version with manual transmission and finally in 1971 Rover strengthened their existing manual gearbox and launched the 3500S.  With 0-60 down to 9 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph it was something of a hot rod and met with an enthusiastic reception.  Many police forces bought them for use as high-speed traffic patrol vehicles, despite their limited luggage capacity.   Although badged Rover and not MG, the 3500S was, I would argue, the first predecessor in spirit to the ZT 260.

V for Vitesse

The 3500 and 3500S continued in production until 1976, when Rover presented its next completely new car, the new 3500, known internally as the SD1.  Styled once again by David Bache, it was a radically different design with a spacious five-door hatchback body.  At its launch the V8 was the only power unit available, with a choice of manual or automatic transmission.  After the four-cylinder P6 cars (now stretched to 2200 cc) were discontinued in 1977, however, the engine range was gradually increased, with 2300 and 2600 “sixes” and then in 1982 the four-cylinder O Series 2-litre and a 2.4 litre VM diesel unit.  Trim levels also increased with the advent of V8S and later Vanden Plas (VdP) luxury models.   A 3500 VdP was very different from the P5B, but for the 1980s it carried the flag for Rover’s V8 luxury saloon.

The sporting spirit of the P6 3500S would be revived, however, in 1982 when the Vitesse model was launched.  With fuel injection power went up to 190 bhp and the Vitesse was also fitted with a 5-speed manual gearbox, lower sports suspension, variable-rate power steering and ventilated front disc brakes.  Outside a tailgate spoiler and rear wheelarch fairings helped the car stand out.  For its final year (1985-86) the Vitesse would be fettled still further and these so-called “twin plenum” models are now the most sought after of all SD1 Rovers.

This time the similarities with the ZT 260 were remarked on as soon as the 260 was introduced, and several magazines published articles comparing the two cars.  Keith Adams drove the two cars back to back for Total MG magazine and the test is reproduced on his excellent website AROnline.  So too did MG Rover themselves in a special feature in their 2004 UK market brochure celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rover and 80th anniversary of MG.

The end of the SD1 Vitesse in 1986 brought Rover’s V8 story to a close until the Rover 75 V8 was introduced nearly twenty years later.   The SD1 range was replaced by the front-wheel drive 800 series but now the Vitesse-branded models had only 6-cylinder or later turbocharged 4-cylinder engines.

Rover’s return on its investment in the Buick small-block, however, had by no means run out.  In this blog I have chosen to focus on the saloon and sports cars from MG and Rover.  As early as 1970 though the V8 found a new home in the pioneering Range Rover.  Subsequent vehicles from Range Rover and its Land Rover parent – including the Defender and Discovery – would continue to use this engine in sizes up to 4.6 litres and with outputs varying from 90 to 225 bhp right up until 2005. By then well over forty years old, the engine had reached the end of its development life; changes in Land Rover’s ownership had seen the company turn first to BMW (from 2002-06) and then to Jaguar for its V8 powertrains.  The engine now commonly known as the Rover V8 also enjoyed a rich and varied life in many other vehicles, from LDV van-based ambulances to 5-litre TVRs putting out 340 bhp.

The B GT: squeezing in the V8

If we have looked until now just at Rover’s V8 saloons, there is of course another part to this story.  Alongside these three Rovers there have been three successive generations of V8 sports cars proudly bearing the MG name: the B GT V8, the RV8 and – last but by no means least – the SV and SV-R.

MGC GT

This story begins not in Abingdon, but in a small workshop in Farnborough.  At the start of 1970 MG’s range was limited to two four-cylinder cars, the compact Midget and the larger B roadster and B GT coupé.  Their brief foray into six cylinders with the C and C GT had ended the previous year, with fewer than 4,500 cars produced in just two years.  The in-line six was a heavy, unsporting unit (it was also fitted to the equally unsuccessful Austin 3-Litre) and its handling was poorly set up.  Nonetheless, the demand for more power remained unsatisfied.

It was Ken Costello, a successful saloon car racing driver and skilled engineer, who first spotted the opportunity to shoehorn Rover’s V8 into the MGB GT.  The powerful (150 bhp DIN) and relatively lightweight engine transformed the car, with Autocar timing it from 0-60 in a cracking 7.8 seconds and concluding, “As a conversion, we rate this car as perfect and as a model in its own right it deserves the highest praise”.  (Autocar, May 25, 1972).  Altogether Costello built over 200 cars, mainly GT-based coupés but with some convertibles as well.  They now enjoy their own enthusiastic following.

Costello MGB GT V8

Unsurprisingly, Costello’s work soon came to the attention of British Leyland’s own development engineers and they decided to build their own car, which was finally launched (in GT form only) in the summer of 1973.   Their ingenious manifold design enabled them to fit the V8 under the standard bonnet (where Costello had to resort to a special glass fibre bonnet with an extra power bulge) but power was down slightly, to 137 horsepower.   Press reaction was mixed: the engine and performance received praise, but the car suffered from poor ride and high wind noise.  It had clearly been developed on a limited budget (oh dear, have we heard that from MG before?) and the underlying design was now ten years old.  The fuel crisis soon after the MGB GT V8 was launched was unfortunately timed too.  In the end just 2591 cars were produced, in both original chrome bumper and latter rubber bumper spec.

Whilst much of MG’s sports car business since the war had come from the US, the B GT V8 was essentially a domestic market car.  A handful of left-hand drive (LHD) prototypes were built but plans to enter the US market were abandoned.  Only a couple of LHD cars are thought to survive (one at least is known to be in Switzerland).  The conversion from RHD to LHD is much more complicated than with the 4-cylinder cars, but a couple of such conversions do exist in Germany and the Netherlands.

Something new, something old: the RV8

It would be more than fifteen years before another V8-powered MG would be announced.  These would be fifteen troubled years for the MG brand: production of the B finally ended in 1980 and the next decade saw only badge-engineered versions of Austin’s Metro, Maestro and Montego saloons.  Despite all this, MG’s sports car tradition was kept alive by enthusiastic owners of the older cars.  With the classic car movement developing rapidly there was increasing demand to restore older Bs.   This demand eventually led BMIHT (the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust) to recover the tooling and establish a facility to build completely new “Heritage” bodyshells for the B.  These were launched in 1988 and were a huge success.

As David Knowles explains in his book, MGB, MGC and MGB GT V8 (Haynes, 2004), this sparked off a series of discussions and developments which eventually led to Project Adder (after AC’s Cobra and Sunbeam’s Tiger, it seems that all V8s bite!).   Project Adder gave birth to the MG RV8: this combined a modernized B bodyshell with the 3.9-litre version of the V8 then used by Land Rover in 190 bhp tune and a 5-speed manual gearbox.   It was luxuriously appointed with leather and walnut trim and was stiffly priced at £25,440 when it was introduced in spring 1993.  MG had intended the car to capitalize on the booming classic car market, but its timing was again unfortunate.  The economic downturn in the early 1990s took the bottom out of the classic car business and UK sales were very slow.

The RV8’s salvation came just a few months later, however, and from a new direction for MG when the car was displayed at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show.  The Japanese public loved the new MG (also badged Rover at the importer’s request) and ultimately three-quarters of the 2000 or so cars produced from 1993-95 were sold there.   Many of these have since been reimported back into the UK and can be recognized by their standard-fit air conditioning (the grilles for which replace the front foglamps fitted to UK market cars).

As with the B GT V8 twenty years before there have been very few left-hand drive cars.  Indeed, sources differ as to whether there were any officially produced LHD cars at all, but I have certainly seen specialists in Germany and the Netherlands advertising LHD examples for sale.

The modern MG and Rover V8s

After RV8 assembly at Cowley ended in November 1995 another eight years would elapse before MG would produce another V8.   Ownership of Rover and MG passed to BMW in 1994 – who would revive the MG brand with the F the following year – and then to the Phoenix Consortium in 2000.  After the successful re-launch of MG in 2001 with the ZR, ZS and ZT ranges, the foundations were laid for MG Rover’s final V8 cars, the ZT 260 and Rover 75 V8 we know and love, and the halo cars for the whole group, the SV and SV-R.

There is plenty more information on this blog and on the Two-Sixties site about the ZT 260 and Rover 75 V8, including MG’s only V8 estate, the ZT-T (in 260 and 385 guise).  The SV also has a flourishing community dedicated to preserving it: click here for the MG SV Club’s website.

MG SV

For the moment that brings this story up to date.  Whether we shall see more V8-powered cars bearing the MG or Rover badges seems moot: the marques’ new owners in China have other priorities now, whilst across the globe motor manufacturers are downsizing and moving to more efficient engines with fewer cylinders.

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