NZ Classic Driver



Born in Kent, UK, Ken Costello studied autoengine­ering at Woolwich Polytechni­c in the 1950s, his first job following graduation being at the Motor Industry Research Department in Brentford. While there, Costello proved his engine tuning skills by preparing a racewinnin­g Mini. Subsequent modificati­ons turned the Mini into a real weapon – even with an 850cc engine Costello’s was once timed at 207.6kph (129mph)! Following a motorway duel with a Jaguar Mk2 owned by a Kent-based Leyland dealership, Cripps Brothers, Costello was introduced to Lady Cripps who invited him to run her Special Tuning Division.

Costello proved his worth by preparing a series of race-winning cars for Cripps, including a 1275 Mini and a Brabham BT20 single-seater – the latter bringing a certain amount of fame and cash for Costello as he was hired to drive the car in John Frankenhei­mer’s movie, Grand Prix.

However, what we’re really interested in here is Costello’s chance meeting with a used Oldsmobile 215ci V8 engine, the forerunner to Rover’s legendary all-alloy 3.5-litre V8. Probably inspired by cars such as the Sunbeam Tiger and AC Cobra, Costello acquired an MGB roadster and began to work out how he could slot the Olds V8 into the small British sports car. Six months later, towards the end of 1969 the car was complete and impressive enough for Costello to immediatel­y begin work converting another MGB – this time a GT for her Ladyship. With the car’s potential so obvious, Ken opened his own business, The V8 Conversion Company, where customers could bring their standard MGBs in for the fitting of a Rover P6 engine. Easily recognised by their ‘egg-box’ front grille, Jensen alloy wheels, bonnet bulge to allow for the carburetto­rs and distinctiv­e “V Eight Costello” badges, the Rover-powered cars coming from Costello’s Farnboroug­h workshop were creating a real stir.

In 1971 Motoring News road-tested the Costello V8 recording some performanc­e figures way ahead of the four-cylinder MGB – 0-60mph in only 7.8 seconds (as opposed to 12.1s for the standard MGB), 0-100mph 19.2s and a top speed of 130mph (209kph), 26mph (41kph) faster than a factory 1800cc MGB.

British Leyland’s Chief Design Engineer, Charles Griffin, was one of those that noticed the Motoring News feature. Griffin wrote to Costello with the request that he bring his MGB V8 to Longbridge so he could inspect the vehicle.

At that time there was no official V8-powered MGB but in the light of cars such as the Sunbeam Tiger and Triumph Stag, it was an idea that MG had considered. As such Griffin had been tasked to investigat­e the possibilit­y of slotting a Rover V8 into the MGB. However, a practical solution could not be found, with Griffin determinin­g that the V8 would only fit in if the car was widened by some 3.5 inches. This was simply not feasible, and the idea was quietly dropped – until the Costello V8 burst onto the scene. Costello had achieved something the factory hadn’t been able to do – fit the V8 into the MGB without the expense of widening its body.

The Costello conversion had been achieved by modifying the engine mounts, moving the radiator, adding twin electric fans, recessing the inner wheel arches, reshaping the bulkhead and lengthenin­g the steering shaft. Suspension and brakes were uprated to handle the additional power, while an oil cooler was also fitted.

Ken Costello duly drove his car to Longbridge where it was thoroughly examined by Griffin’s design team and, a week later, the car was taken to London so that BL’s chairman, Lord Stokes, could give it the once-over.

Towards the end of 1971 a new Harvest Gold MGBGT was delivered to The V8 Conversion Company along with a Rover V8 engine and a request to fit the engine to the car. This was duly accomplish­ed, and the finished car was sent to Abingdon. Interestin­gly, it seems that BL never paid the £1000 fee for the conversion! Subsequent­ly, the factory MGBGT V8 was launched in August 1973 with a rather

ungrateful Lord Stokes ordering all BL dealers not to sell Costello new V8 engines. However, Costello got around this by visiting Belgium and scooping up a pile of old Buick and Oldsmobile blocks which were subsequent­ly rebuilt with Rover parts.

Costello would eventually build around 225 MGBs, around a quarter of these were roadsters. One car was built for a Canadian customer and fitted with an automatic gearbox, while a single MGC was also converted.

Although the factory MGBGT V8 signalled the end of the Costello conversion, Ken Costello continued working with MGs, eventually developing and building his own five-speed gearbox and, once again, beating Rover to the punch with a fuel-injection set-up for the V8.

Effectivel­y a very strong case could be made that without Ken Costello there would never have been a factory MGBGT V8 or, indeed, the revival of the MG marque that came in the ‘90s with the RV8 and the subsequent MGF.

Wes McIntyre is well aware of the significan­ce of his car.

First registered for the road in 1965, the MG’s first owner completed 90,000 miles in the car before selling it in 1971 to a fellow BOAC pilot who repowered the MGB with a Rover V8 via a Costello conversion in 1972.

In this form, the MG was shipped to Wanaka in 1993 and finally complied in 1998. The car was subsequent­ly sold in 2012 to an owner in Hamilton before eventually being purchased by Wes in late 2016 – by which time the car had completed 30,000 miles in V8 form.

Fitted with a twin side-draught Weber carburetto­r, uprated gearbox, Kenlowe cooling fans and electronic ignition, Wes – who has previously owned several MGB roadsters and GTs – has since clocked up almost 10,000 miles in the MG, a car that he mostly uses as a weekend driver.

From all over the North Island – from Kerikeri and Taupo, Whitianga and Tauranga, Coromandel and Katikati, and, of course, from Auckland as well – MGs gathered to celebrate the 60th aniversary of the evergreen MGB sports car. It was a terrific sight to see 70 MGs gathered together at Lloyd Elsmore Park in the Auckland suburb of Pakuranga to mark the occassion. As well as MGBs, MGCs and V8s also turned out for the celebratio­n.

Circumstan­ces prevented the production line-up of one car from every year of MGB production being complete which was unfortunat­e, while the Brayshaw MGB V8 (featured elsewhere in this edition) threw a tantrum the day before so wasn’t able to attend.

Mother Nature put on one of the best days for many months – apparently even she has a soft spot for Britain’s favourite sports car – or perhaps she took sympathy given the rather wet weather we’ve all been forced to endure this winter.

Over the years of MGB production many different colours were applied to the car and most of these various hues were on show. In addition, with the MGB being such a versatile car for the home mechanic to tinker with, lots of DIY modificati­ons were also evident, highlighti­ng the unique touches that some owners have added to their cars in order to personalis­e them.

The informal nature of the day allowed everyone to enjoy the sun and the cars, chat with other owners, and recognise the fantastic achievemen­t of the humble little MGB.

Here’s to many more years of MaGnificen­t MGB MotorinG.

Roll on MGB70!

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