I’ve been pretty tough on the old K-Series engine in the past. Brilliant in theory and concept, disastrous in execution, its well-publicised weaknesses must have played a significant part in MG Rover’s demise in 2005. However, like all the elements in our story, things are never quite as simple as they first appear – when Mike Humble and I started work on the Project Rover 75 at the weekend, we couldn’t have imagined just how much of a microcosm of all that’s right and wrong with owners’ and the trade’s misunderstanding of its engine emerged over what became a challenging 27 hours of putting right the car’s wrongs…
I bought this 75 with a view to the car being a project for the website and, with that in mind, I went for a well-equipped Connoisseur model allied with the easy-to-fix 1.8-litre K-Series engine – the intention being to prove it’s possible to run a large, comfortable car properly without too much financial pain. The 75’s, so far, proved to be a perfect choice – one, because there are lots of issues to sort, and two, in daily running while I’ve been nursing it, I’ve easily topped 40mpg.
The main thing to do was to get the head gasket changed and record every step for a full FAQ, which will appear on site soon. So, that’s why I found myself diving to Mike’s on a warm Friday evening. Given the car’s variable appetite for coolant, I took plenty of bottles with me and checked on the drive down that all was good. On the 120 mile trip, it used less than a pint and the 75 delivered me to Swiss Towers in one piece, relaxed and reasonably happy. Yes, I’d been nursing a sick car which, as we all know, is a dismal experience, but at least when you’re going slow, things are so very unstressed.
The following morning – an early 6.00am start no less – we set about stripping down the car and soon began to realise that new and untold levels of bodgery had been applied to it. Dumping the oil, the sump drain was lacking a washer. That was just the start… I’ll not bore you too much with the horrors that Mike discovered, but I’ll give you a few points – bolts were either over-tightened or finger-loose; the inlet manifold gasket was wrecked and whoever was supposed to change it used Mastik; the camshaft seal gasket wasn’t fitted properly; there was more K-Seal than OAT in the coolant; the sump was fused to the block; the oil had all the consistency of black porridge; incorrect hoses have been used; and the battery wasn’t even attached…
However, the pièce de résistance had to be the head gasket itself. It wasn’t blown as such; no, it was shredded, absolutely wrecked beyond belief. Mike’s career spans 52 head gasket changes and he was unequivocal – this was the worst he’d ever seen. It was clearly a low-quality unit that had imploded pretty much the moment it was placed under load and yet, despite that, the car continued to run. I’d driven it from Adrian Fell’s place (where I’d bought it as a trade-in sold-as-seen project) in Buckinghamshire, then used it intermittently on my commute, before heading down to Mike’s with it in this condition. Yes, it was using coolant, was leaking oil and felt a bit underpowered, but the 75 ran on reasonably sweetly.
Mind you, had you seen the gasket (photographed below), you’d wonder how the hell this car ran at all and where on earth it was getting compression from. That proves one thing to me – far from being fragile, the K-Series is a bloody resilient little engine.
Bigger questions should be raised too. Clearly, a garage has been at this car. The gearbox has been off, the clutch is new (goodness I hope all three major parts have been changed), the inlet manifold is a replacement and the head’s been off too but the standard of work is less than substandard – it’s pretty much criminally negligent. Did the owner who commissioned this find his car running badly just days after the job and get spooked into selling it after significant (and unwarranted I bet) head gasket work? It’s a good bet.
Even more harmfully, has the owner subsequently gone on to tell all and sundry about how ‘crap’ Rovers are, after (possibly) multiple failures? I’d be confident on taking that bet. And is said person now abusing some old Audi or BMW in its place now?
Anyway, from what I can see in this case at least, the car’s not to blame at all. It’s been maintained by a bodger (as so, so many of my old Rovers have been), and has lived to tell the tale. I’m not exaggerating too on this point – Mike went way beyond the call of duty doing this one – he said, had it been anyone else’s car, he’d have condemned the engine, fearful of the beating it’s received – and felt that it was literally hours away from grenading spectacularly.
No doubt, we’ve saved this one – although I need to watch things very closely during the upcoming weeks.
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.