Clas­sic An­niver­saries

50 years of the Rover V8

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

We may not have de­signed it, but it’s fair to say that over the many decades in which we’ve been us­ing the Rover V8, we’ve cer­tainly made it our own. While it may have been the wrong en­gine at the wrong time for Amer­ica’s 1960s of­fer­ings, in Bri­tain it was the per­fect fit.

First, it was viewed as the ideal smooth and re­fined pow­er­plant for lux­ury cars, but it was soon dis­cov­ered that its all-al­loy con­struc­tion meant it was in­cred­i­bly light – weigh­ing no more than a cast iron four-cylin­der, in fact. This, and its com­pact size, meant it could also be used to power all man­ner of be­spoke sports cars, from MG to Mor­gan and Tri­umph to TVR.

How­ever, what has al­lowed the V8 to re­main a near-per­ma­nent fix­ture of the Bri­tish mo­tor in­dus­try is its tun­abil­ity, en­abling greater and greater per­for­mance po­ten­tial to be un­locked. The five cars we’ve se­lected here to cel­e­brate the en­gine’s 50th an­niver­sary in Bri­tain are in­tended to show off the Rover V8 at its best.

They con­sist of the Rover P5B, in 1967 the first Rover pro­duc­tion car to be pow­ered by the Rover V8; the Range Rover, a 4x4 which ar­guably owes its suc­cess to this V8; the MGB GT V8, rein­vig­o­rated by eight-pot power; plus two very dif­fer­ent sports cars, though each tai­lored to this V8 – the Mor­gan Plus 8 and TVR Chi­maera.

As the time ar­rived for us to be waved on to Bices­ter Her­itage’s ex­er­cise cir­cuit, it was pure hap­pen­stance the keys to Terry McGuire’s Rover P5B (oth­er­wise known as the 3.5-Litre) were handed over first. It’s a lovely ma­chine. More­over, it’s the elder states­man of our quin­tet, be­ing an ex­am­ple of the first car to be pow­ered by Rover’s new V8 en­gine.

The orig­i­nal 3-Litre P5 was re­garded as a baby Rolls-Royce and Terry’s P5B also qual­i­fies – it’s in­cred­i­bly quiet. Close the driver’s door and the sounds of the world re­ally do dis­ap­pear. The high seat­ing po­si­tion af­fords a com­mand­ing view of the road, and all around ev­ery­thing is beau­ti­fully fur­nished in wood and leather.

One of the virtues of the Rover V8 is that it was able to im­prove upon the Rover 3-Litre (which was al­ready very well-re­garded) thanks to be­ing not only more pow­er­ful, but lighter than the 3-Litre’s in­let-over-ex­haust six-pot. Power is trans­mit­ted through a col­umn-op­er­ated three-speed slush ‘box. D2 is for econ­omy and smooth­ness, re­strict­ing things to the top two ra­tios, while D1 al­lows you to ex­ploit avail­able per­for­mance to the full via all three speeds. On the Bices­ter track, it’s in this set­ting the 3.5-Litre does its best work, be­ing lively and sur­pris­ingly brisk to ac­cel­er­ate, all in near si­lence.

Hy­dros­teer power-as­sisted steer­ing was avail­able as stan­dard and is about the only thing that comes in for crit­i­cism, be­ing just that bit too light. None­the­less, af­ter a few laps you get a feel for this gen­tle gi­ant and a sense of how you could drive for hours and ar­rive at your des­ti­na­tion fa­tigue-free.

An­other car which was en­hanced with the fit­ment of the Rover V8 was the MGB GT V8, in­tro­duced by BL in 1973. The six-cylin­der MGC ar­rived the same year as the Rover P5B, but the C-se­ries en­gine made this vari­ant of the ‘B nose-heavy and han­dling fal­tered as a re­sult. It bowed out at the end of the Six­ties. Af­ter spend­ing only a few min­utes with Keith Belcher’s pride and joy, it’s clear th­ese crit­i­cisms can­not be lev­elled at the GT V8 thanks to its light­weight, all-al­loy pow­er­plant. It’s beau­ti­fully bal­anced and poised, with that feel­ing fa­mil­iar to all those who’ve driven MGBs that the car is piv­ot­ing around your hips as you tackle a sweep­ing bend.

Not so fa­mil­iar is just how smooth, fast and torquey it is with the V8 un­der its bon­net. The gears are spaced al­most per­fectly for op­ti­mal ac­cel­er­a­tion and the thun­der­ous sound­track at high revs makes it feel more brawny mus­cle car than lithe sports car. Ev­ery­thing else seems or­di­nary from be­hind the wheel, and while this Q-car sta­tus is part of its ap­peal to­day, it’s also ar­guably why sales in pe­riod were so lim­ited – just 2591 were made in three years.

The Range Rover is the first of three cars here to ac­tu­ally be­gin its life with the V8. It was launched in 1970, mak­ing Gavin Bar­nett’s Vogue SE from 1995 one of the last be­fore the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion P38 took over. Although purists will pre­fer the ear­li­est in­car­na­tions, we reckon this ex­am­ple rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of decades of evo­lu­tion.

There are few cars from which you can look down upon the bon­net, but the Range Rover is one of them. From this high-up driv­ing po­si­tion you can’t help but re­lax as you let the ZF four-speed gear­box do all the hard work, in ad­di­tion to its chunky an­tiroll bars which en­sure lean-free corner­ing, and air ride sus­pen­sion that al­most com­pletely smooths out any im­per­fec­tions in the road sur­face. While the qual­ity of its fit­tings isn’t quite as im­pres­sive as they are on to­day’s cars, the lux­ury of­fered is none­the­less a world away from its Seven­ties pre­de­ces­sors. The lev­els of re­fine­ment are im­pres­sive too; the en­gine rarely in­trudes on pro­ceed­ings, purring away in the back­ground and be­ing no­table pri­mar­ily for the way in which it smoothly de­liv­ers its power, rather than how loud it is – as is the case with our open-top duo.

Mor­gan is the mar­que which has had the long­est as­so­ci­a­tion with the Rover V8, aptly proven by the

Plus 8 – in­tro­duced in 1968. Michele Chap­man’s ex­am­ple is one of the last Rover-en­gined Mor­gans to leave the fac­tory, regis­tered in 2004. It might look like one of the old­est cars tak­ing part in this group test, but it’s ac­tu­ally the youngest.

What’s more, just as all is not as it seems in terms of its age, this is also no or­di­nary Mor­gan. The stan­dard fare bone-rat­tling ride is ab­sent, as is the trade­mark slid­ing-pil­lar front sus­pen­sion, re­placed with a Su­plex up­grade with pro­gres­sive spring rates, which be­come stiffer as sus­pen­sion travel in­creases, re­sult­ing in a far sup­pler ride. We do adore that this 13-year-old sports car has a fly-off hand­brake.

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to draw com­par­isons be­tween the Mog and John Holden’s 1999 TVR Chi­maera, both with V8s of the same dis­place­ment. The pair couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent in terms of their ap­pear­ance, and yet the Chi­maera’s lines are as dra­matic as the Plus 8’s are clas­si­cal. The Plus 8’s bur­ble is that bit fruitier, ow­ing to the fit­ment of af­ter­mar­ket sports ex­hausts, but while equally won­der­ful in its own way, it does lack the sonorous wow fac­tor of the TVR. Both Malvern’s and Black­pool’s finest ex­ports are able to gather speed in al­most any gear thanks to their deep re­serves of torque, although the Plus 8 doesn’t feel quite as lively as the Chi­maera above about 5000rpm, most likely as a re­sult of the Chi­maera’s taller gear­ing.

Given the rep­u­ta­tion TVRs have gar­nered over the years for be­ing beasts re­quir­ing se­ri­ous skill to be tamed, and the stoic nature of many Mor­gans, it came as a sur­prise just how sure-footed each of th­ese sports cars is. Nei­ther is a car that needs to be wres­tled around cor­ners or Zen-like fo­cus from the driver to main­tain both mo­men­tum and trac­tion. In the case of the Plus 8, a lot of this can be ex­plained by Michele’s up­grades, but in the case of the Chi­maera it’s down to just how much is be­ing com­mu­ni­cated to the driver, par­tic­u­larly from the front wheels through the steer­ing wheel.

Still, it’s dif­fi­cult not to be cap­ti­vated by this Mor­gan’s in­te­rior, the beige leather lining the trans­mis­sion tun­nel, seats and doors, the wooden dash­board and steer­ing rim, and green car­pets all com­bin­ing beau­ti­fully. The TVR’s cabin has its own charm (and ec­cen­tric­i­ties; need we men­tion the ro­tary knob in be­tween driver and pas­sen­ger which re­leases the doors?) but some­how isn’t as im­pres­sive a high­light.

One thing is for sure, though; be­ing so dif­fer­ent, it wouldn’t be fair to sin­gle out a car among our quin­tet as be­ing the ‘best’, as each in its own way ful­fils the role it was de­signed and de­vel­oped for ex­ceed­ingly well. There was, how­ever, a con­sen­sus among own­ers, CCW road testers and Bices­ter Her­itage staff – the stately P5B was the car we’d all loved to have gone home with.

TVR, MG and Mor­gan. The Rover V8 en­hanced the prod­ucts of each of th­ese Bri­tish mar­ques.

TVR’s 4.0-litre ver­sion of the V8 gives you 240bhp.

The MG’s V8 of­fers extra 45bhp over the B-se­ries.

Space is tight un­der the Plus 8’s bon­net.

Gauges an­gled to­wards driver is a nice touch.

GT V8’s cabin al­most iden­ti­cal to reg­u­lar MGB.

Fly-off hand­brake, on a 2004-regis­tered car!

Side-on pro­file em­pha­sises the P5B’s high doors and rak­ish roofline.

Be­ing tall you’d ex­pect some roll in the cor­ners, but chunky roll bars keep things in check.

V8 more pow­er­ful and lighter than 3-Litre six.

Com­fort­able and near silent on the move.

Prodi­gious pulling power for the Rangie.

Lux­u­ri­ous in­side, but the finish could be bet­ter.

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