The Rover V8 engine had a very interesting life. During the late 1950s, the US car industry turned to aluminium as a material to build their engines from. The reasons for this have been well documented, but primarily it was the quest for lighter weight and greater efficiency that led the producers to choose this route.
One of the manufacturers to embrace aluminium with both arms was General Motors (GM) which developed a compact V8 for their Buick range of cars. The engine displaced 3528cc and, because of its compact size and low weight, proved very easy to package. Of course, the late-1950s were not a time for the Americans to be countering profligacy, and this resulted in these benefits being largely overlooked by GM – that fact made them susceptible to persuasion.
An engine born in a crisis
Within two years the American steel industry fought back: in the American ‘system’, the steel industry wielded enormous influence within governmental circles and, thanks in part to this ‘unfair advantage’, along with improved casting technology and the emergence of thin wall casting techniques, many of the advantages of aluminium as a base material for engines were negated.
As a result, General Motors reversed its policy of using aluminium in their new engines – returning to cast iron. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing for GM in the USA was not paramount in the minds of Rover Executives and their Engineers in the mid-1960s.
For several years, Spen King and Gordon Bashford had been investigating alternative power units to power their top-of-the range cars; the 3-litre straight-six engine found in the Rover P5 was, by this time, well past its sell-by date, being heavy and uneconomical.
Trying new engine options
Various engines were tried with little success, not least the gas turbine, which managed to absorb much in the way of resources before finally being discarded. Because of this development blind alley and the now pressing need to upgrade its existing 3-litre engine, the company decided to look outwards to find something suitable.
It was Rover’s Managing Director, William Martin-Hurst, who secured the use of the 3.5-litre V8 engine, having cast far and wide for something suitable – and decided upon the Buick 215. Knowing that the engine had recently been phased out by General Motors, he approached the company, offering to purchase the rights to build it and all of the tooling.
The deal was certainly an audacious one because of the fact that it involved an outright payment to the American multi-national, thereby avoiding further royalty payments in the future. The deal was hammered out during the winter months of 1964 and, by the following January, the engine was the property of Rover.
Moving GM’s V8 to Solihull
Within months, the production of the engine was transferred to Solihull and the creation of the P5B soon followed. The next recipient for the compact and powerful engine was the Rover P6 – and, in the process, a minor British legend was created. It did not end there though; Spen King worked on a couple of projects, which were based around the new engine – one being the sadly stillborn Rover P6BS, the other being the Range Rover.
Like the P5B, the V8 engine was the making of the Range Rover; somehow it seems hard to imagine that car enjoying quite the success that it did without the smooth and powerful V8 engine under the bonnet. In an off-road vehicle, the stump-pulling torque produced by the ex-Buick engine had found perhaps its perfect role in life.
Or so it would seem…
In 1981, TVR in Blackpool had encountered problems with the export of its Tasmin model to the Middle East. The reason for this was that the V6 models, which the company was producing at the time, were powered by the 2.8-litre Ford Granada/Capri engine – and the produce of Ford were very much unwelcome in Saudi Arabia during the early Eighties.
Sports car potential: unlocked
As a result, TVR searched around for an alternative that they could use. The search did not last long – and the company went knocking at BL’s door. With Rover SD1 production running at worryingly low levels and the Triumph TR8 having just gone out of production, the company were more than willing to supply TVR with the engines they needed.
The Rover V8-engined TVR Tasmin (the Ford V6-powered version of which was already a good car) was now an excellent, seriously quick performance car, and it seemed illogical to continue using the V8 in export markets, whilst continuing to use the Ford unit in the UK – TVR therefore got its Tasmin V8 model type-approved for the UK and, in so doing, created a legend.
When the rest of the specialist car industry in the UK saw how good the TVR Tasmin was, they were keen to jump onto the bandwagon – and, in short shrift, Ginetta and Marcos were also producing muscle cars of the same ilk. Britain’s low-volume sports car manufacturers now had an engine that they could call their own.
BL tried, but…
BL had attempted to make proper use of the engine themselves, slotting it into the MGB GT V8 and Triumph TR8. However, in both cases and for different reasons, the two models failed to live up to the promise that they had initially shown.
The Range Rover continued to use the V8 engine throughout its life, yet this never really proved to be a barrier to sales, even during the second fuel crisis of 1979 and the ensuing world recession. Even when the 1994 remake of the Range Rover (codenamed Pegasus or P38) appeared, it continued to use the venerable engine in the Land Rover Discovery.
Why did the Rover V8 live such a long life? Unlike the A-series engine, which was successful despite its shortcomings, the ex-Buick unit did not really have any. It was light, it was compact, it was powerful – and, most importantly, it was exceptionally under stressed, which meant it had an almost infinite potential for tuning.
The unlikely hero
That endeared it with the performance car fraternity, but it also meant that BL and, following that, Rover were able to keep the engine in production by merely tinkering with the details in order to ensure that it remained competitive.
That, by any stretch of the imagination makes the V8 a hero.
Were there any downsides to the Rover V8? Yes: only that no one within Leyland was forceful enough to ensure that it was used in the Triumph Stag. With it, the Stag would have undoubtedly caused its maker a whole lot less grief and, therefore, remained in production for a lot longer. That, though, is no fault of the engine – only the company’s shortsighted and partisan management.
End of the road is near for well-travelled V8
Richard Truett, Automotive News, November 2003
Welcome to the automotive version of What’s My Line and guess today’s mystery guest.
I was born small and light, just 215 cubic inches and 318 pounds, in 1961 in Flint, Mich. I was raised in Europe. My corporate parents were General Motors, British Leyland/Rover Group, BMW AG and Ford Motor Co. I have worked for Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Rover, Land Rover, MG, Triumph, Morgan, Marcos, TVR and others.
Who – rather, what – am I?
If you said the venerable all-aluminium Fireball V8 engine that first saw duty in the 1961 Buick Special, you win. The lightweight V8, which GM ended up selling to Rover, turned out to be one of the industry’s longest-running and most versatile workhorses. But the end is near.
When the redesigned Land Rover Discovery comes to the US market next year, it will be powered by an overhead-cam Jaguar engine, not the aluminium V8 that Land Rover has used since 1970. Production of the V8 ends next summer, just shy of one million units, says Land Rover employee Roger Crathorne.
Conceived in the 1950s
Development work on the engine started in 1958. It was the first mass-produced, all-aluminum, American-made engine, according to Buick: A Complete History by Larry Gustin and Terry Dunham. Cliff Studaker, 81, a retired Buick Senior Project Engineer who oversaw development of the Fireball V8, says GM had no idea that the engine would be so versatile, flexible and tunable. The job was to design a lightweight engine for Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac compacts.
With a two-barrel carburettor, the engine made 155hp. With a four-barrel it was rated at 185. Engineers at Oldsmobile tweaked their version, adding special heads and an optional turbocharger. The turbo Olds 215 Rockette engine cranked out 215hp.
‘We knew it was setting the stage for things to come,’ Studaker recalls. ‘It took some special development work on bolt engagements and torques so as not to strip out aluminum threads, matching the cast iron main bearing caps to regular production blocks.’
After building about 750,000 of the engines, GM decided to drop it at the end of the 1963 model year. Studaker says that, although the engine got great reviews for power and smoothness, cost was an issue. So GM abandoned it for Buick’s first V6. The V6 was based on the aluminum V8 but was made of cast iron.
‘The reason we stopped using [the V8] is that the economy took a turn,” Studaker says. ‘It was an expensive engine to build, a lot more than cast iron – close to 50 per cent more.’
According to The Rover V8 Engine by David Hardcastle, a Rover official spotted an unused Buick V8 engine at a boat engine factory while visiting the United States in 1966 and learned that the engine was out of production. That year, Rover struck a deal with GM. Rover bought the blueprints and all the production tooling for an undisclosed sum and began producing the engines in England.
Gone to England
Buick’s Chief Engineer, Joe Turlay, retired and moved to England to work for Rover. Turlay helped Rover set up the engine’s production lines and make improvements in casting the aluminum block, pistons and heads.
Throughout the years, the Rover company, which became part of British Leyland in 1968, and its successor companies constantly improved the engine. Rover tried three times without success to sell the engine in the United States before it finally became a hit in the 1986 Range Rover.
The ill-fated Rover 3500S of 1970, the NAS Rover 3500 SD1 five-door of 1980 and the 1979-81 Triumph TR8 sports car all used versions of the Buick-designed engine. Also, the engine was used with success in the low-volume Morgan Plus 8 roadster for more than 20 years.
It helped the Range Rover bear fruit
Bill Baker, Land Rover’s longtime public relations chief, credited the aluminium V8 with helping the Range Rover get off to a good start in the United States in 1986.
‘It was ideally suited to the Range Rover because of its compactness and torque,’ said Baker. ‘Other SUVs had V8s, but ours had a certain élan to it because it was the only all-aluminum one.’ When the engine re-entered the American market in 1986, it had undergone a major transformation. Modern electronic fuel injection and an electronic ignition system combined with a stiffer block and other internal upgrades turned the little engine into a powerful charmer.
Place a 2004 Rover engine next to the original Buick-built version, and you would never know the two are related. The valve covers, ignition system, water pump and fuel system were improved over the years. The displacement grew from 3.5-litres (215 cubic inches) to 4.6-litres (288 cubic inches).
Specifications & applications
|Capacity||Bore||Stroke||Max. Power||Max. Torque||Applications|
|3528cc||88.9mm||71.12mm||91bhp @ 3500rpm||166lb ft @ 2000rpm||1979-82: Land Rover 109|
|125bhp @ 4000rpm||185lb ft @ 2500rpm||1981-86: Range Rover|
|127bhp @ 4000rpm||194lb ft @ 2500rpm||1970-71: Range Rover|
|130bhp @ 5000rpm||185lb ft @ 2500rpm||1971-77: Range Rover|
|132bhp @ 5000rpm||186lb ft @ 2500rpm||1977-86: Range Rover|
|132bhp @ 5000rpm||1980-82: Triumph TR8
1980-81: Rover SD1 (US-spec)
|134bhp @ 5000rpm||187lb ft @ 2500rpm||1986-xx: Range Rover|
|135bhp @ 4750rpm||185lb ft @ 2500rpm||1970-71: Range Rover|
|135bhp @ 4750rpm||205lb ft @ 3000rpm||1970-xx: Range Rover
1975-78: Land Rover 101 (military)
|137bhp @ xx00rpm||193lb ft @ 2900rpm||1974-77: MGB GT V8|
|143bhp @ 5000rpm||202lb ft @ 2700rpm||19xx-76: Rover P6 V8|
|144bhp @ 5000rpm||197lb ft @ 2700rpm||1968-xx: Rover P6 V8|
|150bhp @ 5000rpm||204lb ft @ 2700rpm||19xx-76: Rover P6 V8S|
|151bhp @ 5200rpm||201lb ft @ 2750rpm||1967-73: Rover P5 3.5-litre / 3½-litre|
|155bhp @ 5250rpm||198lb ft @ 2500rpm||1976-86: Rover SD1|
|165bhp @ 4750rpm||206lb ft @ 3200rpm||19xx-xx: Range Rover|
|190bhp @ 5280rpm||220lb ft @ 4000rpm||1982-86: Rover SD1 Vitesse|
|3948cc||164bhp @ 4750rpm||212lb ft @ 2600rpm||1989-date: Land Rover Discovery|
|178bhp @ 4750rpm||220lb ft @ 3250rpm||19xx-xx: Range Rover|
|185bhp @ 4750rpm||235lb ft @ 2600rpm||19xx-xx: Range Rover|
|3948cc||190bhp @ 4750rpm||236lb ft @ 3000rpm||1994-2001: Range Rover|
|4278cc||200bhp @ 4850rpm||250lb ft @ 3250rpm||1994-96: Range Rover|
|4554cc||225bhp @ 4750rpm||277lb ft @ 3000rpm||1994-2001: Range Rover|
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.