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Rover V8

Rover V8 Published: 26th May 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Rover V8
Rover V8
Rover V8
Rover V8
Rover V8
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Rover took a big gamble buying a defunct American V8 engine design but it paid off handsomely says Andrew Roberts

Approaching the 50th anniversary of the evergreen Rover V8, it is quite strange to consider that for a while, there was a possibility that the marque associated with politicians and successful barristers would be gas turbine-powered. ‘JET 1’ débuted in 1950 and was justly lauded in the press and newsreels as a technological breakthrough and the Rover-BRM, came tenth in the 1965 Le Mans race.

However, by the early 1960s, it was evident that the company would have to rely on a sourced power plant if its saloon car ranges were to remain competitive. The P5’s 3-Litre engine was smooth but venerable, and although the 2000’s unit could gain an extra carburettor, the P6 merited enhanced performance. The company’s experiments with placing 2995cc straight six in the P6 were not bearing fruit as the resulting car was too nose heavy and Rover’s management rejected the idea of enlarging the 2-Litre OHC unit on the grounds of cost (although did it for the 2200 in 1973). Then there was the issue that the P5 itself would soon need a new power plant if it were to both remain a strong rival to Jaguar and help Rover in the US.

1950 was also the year that GM commenced work on a new all-aluminium engine which was formally introduced in October 1960; one observer proclaimed that “We will wager that the most widely copied engine of the next 10 years will be the superb new aluminium V8”. In three years, some 376, 799 units had been produced, powering the Special, the Pontiac Tempest and Oldsmobile’s F85 Cutlass. However, it was expensive to produce and unreliable so in 1963 General Motors stopped its production.

What floats your boat

Meanwhile, in January of the following year, Rover’s md William Martin-Hurst formally gave permission to the head of US operations, J Bruce McWilliams, to explore the possibilities of acquiring an American V8 engine. As the story goes, a Chrysler plant was under consideration before McWilliams, in the company of Martin-Hurst, was on a trip to Mercury Marine to visit an old colleague Carl Keikhaefer. It was there that one or the other noticed the lightweight aluminium plant in the company’s workshop although it is likely that both would already have been aware of its existence. The ‘215’ engine was due to be installed in a powerboat, but Martin-Hurst noted that the plant would easily fit in the bay of the P6 and in an interview with Graham Robson he recalled: “When I saw that lovely little alloy Vee-8 engine sitting on the floor. I said, “Carl, what on earth is that?” He told me it was for a racing boat and that he’d originally winched it out of a Buick Skylark car. I asked him whether it would be available and I was astounded when he told me that General Motors had just taken it out of production!”.

A period of intense negotiations between Solihull and Detroit then ensued. In May 1964, a P6 test car was fitted with the 215 block and the rights to the V8 engine were finally acquired outright by January 1965 – but don’t think that the Rover engineers welcomed this engine with open arms and bonnet; far from it, some thought it was insulting to use an alien engine.

Major alterations had to be in place before full manufacture could ensue; the difference between Rover and GM’s production rates was inevitably vast, and at that time there were no UK-based suppliers who were capable of replicating GM’s casting methods and it’s said that Rover had to re-engineer some 80 per cent of the unit to make satisfactory for Rover’s use.

The first Viking-badged car to use the Buick engine was the P5 which in the autumn of 1967 was renamed the P5B Rover, with an appreciable degree of smugness, announced the ‘incredibly smooth new 184bhp 3.5-Litre V8’. October saw Motor test a P5B Coupé (£2097 10s as opposed to £1999 3s 4d for the Saloon) under the very apt heading ‘Power with Pomp’. The scribe observed that those who regarded the Rover as ‘the finest London club on four wheels will now have to accept it as being the fastest as well’.

In January 1968 those acerbic chaps at Car magazine compared a Coupé with a Daimler Sovereign, which was at that time the nearest Browns Lane competitor to the P5B and the conclusion, typically, was quite unrestrained. “We think that buyers of either car will feel that they are getting value for money providing they continue to judge their purchases by British standards under British conditions”. Pardon?

A potential P5B owner would probably not have considered a BMW 2800 E3 or a W108-series Mercedes-Benz 250SE, and he/she would have seen the XJ6 as transport for flash harrys. The Rover was equally suited to 10 Downing Street and Sandringham as it was to fundamentally conservative businessmen who still wished to cut a dash at the company conference.

The 3.5 Litre driven by Roger Moore (in a career-best performance) in The Man Who Haunted Himself perfectly epitomises the appeal of this rather exclusive Rover and the V8 prolonged its life span significantly.

Naturally, Rover planned the V8 to be the cornerstone of its car line-up, and so it was fitted to the P6 in April 1968, as the Three Thousand Five. The price of £1800 19s 5d was very reasonable for a vehicle that delighted those press-on motorists who bemoaned the recent demise of the Jaguar Mk2 3.8 but who now craved more refinement in their respectable middle age. ‘A satisfying and compact gentleman’s carriage for the upper set’ observed Autocar. The 3.5-litre plant would go on to power the Range Rover, causing much relief – in the words of head Spen King it was “planned design wise and we hadn’t got a very suitable engine” along with the SD1, not to mention the Land Rover 110, the MGB V8, Morgan’s Plus Eight, a clutch of TVRs and several other excellent specialist builds with capacities as high as 4.6-litres.

It also became the default alternative for many owners of untrustworthy Stags and common sense should have led to the unit powering the Jaguar XJ40 if it wasn’t for Browns Lane engineers deliberately making the bay so that it was impossible to fit a Vee engine – which, as a result, meant that S3 XJ12 remained in production five years after the S3 XJ6 was discontinued!

Were it not for further corporate politics within the British Leyland Motor Corporation (of which the respective brand heads were so fond of playing), there would also have been the fantastic (and possibly Alvisbadged) mid-engine P9 Coupé and the P8, a P5B replacement that was to be powered by a 4.4-litre version of the GM unit.

A turbodiesel was also in development during the early ’70s, good for 125bhp, so the Range Rover could sell in the US but ‘Project Iceberg’ didn’t market into production partly due to lack of finance it is said (America didn’t see Range Rovers until 1987!-ed). But as it is, fifty years ago, Rover introduced the world to a model that showcased Solihull’s quest for innovation and quality. Or, as Sir Roger Moore put it in that great film, ‘damn fine motor car’.

A damn fine motor too, which stayed in production until spring 2004, surviving BMW’s takeover ten years earlier. In its 37 years of production just under a million are thought to have been produced – and to celebrate this milestone a book is due out this summer. Rover V8 – The Story of the Engine is published by Veloce and for any Rover V8 lover, it’s £30 well spent.

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