50 years of the Rover V8
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.