The Rover V8 engine might have started life in the USA, but thanks to some creative thinking at Rover, it became a British institution, powering some of the country’s most iconic cars…
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 buy the rights to build it and all 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 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 met 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 Rover V8 engine: An 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 to make sure 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 make sure 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.
The Rover V8 story
Philip Turner, Motor magazine, 1974
It was pure chance that William Martin-Hurst’s eye happened to light on the compact little aluminium V8 on the floor of the Mercury Marine company’s experimental department at Wisconsin. Martin-Hurst, who had joined Rover in 1960 from the aircraft industry as Executive Director for Production and by January 1962 was Managing Director, was visiting Carl Kiekhaefer, head of the Mercury concern to discuss the production of a marine version of the Land-Rover diesel engine for use in fishing boats in the Far East.
And there on the floor of the experimental department was this little light alloy V8. Sitting in the sun on the terrace of his lovely 16th century house looking out over the valley of the River Usk, Martin-Hurst told me that the V8 immediately aroused his interest because he was uneasy about the six-cylinder P7 (below) version of the four-cylinder 2000 P6 (above) which were then under development at Rover.
The Rover Sales Department had not been too happy about putting a largish four-cylinder engine into the 2000, as they thought it would not have that smoothness which was so much a part of the Rover image. It was agreed that a six-cylinder three-litre version should be developed from the four.
Why eight cylinders are better than four
However, the six-cylinder version of the overhead camshaft four-cylinder 2000 was a long engine, and this meant that a longer base unit would be required to house it, which seemed hardly worthwhile for the small number of sixes that were to be produced. ‘Moreover,’ said Martin-Hurst, ‘although the six went very well, my personal feeling was that it didn’t handle in anything like the same way as the four. It was too heavy at the front.
‘This wasn’t an insurmountable problem, and there was a suggestion we should go to an entirely different suspension at the front using normal wishbone links to put this right.’ This, however, would mean the six and the four base units would differ to an even greater extent.
When, therefore, Martin-Hurst spotted this compact little V8 of about the same overall length as the 2000 engine he was immediately interested. Carl told him it was not a Mercury engine but had been made by General Motors to power their two 1960 compact cars, the Buick Special and the Oldsmobile F85. Some million 3.5-litre aluminium engines were produced, followed by a similar number of 5.0-litre cast iron engines of the same design but with increased bore and no liners.
Dip in US demand benefits the UK
However, after two or three years the American demand for compact cars waned, both the Buick and the Oldsmobile were increased in size and eventually the engine in either form was no longer needed and GM dropped it, so that when Martin Hurst saw it the engine had just ceased production. He asked for the engine to be weighed, and it were just 12lb heavier than the Rover 2000 engine, while a tape measure showed it to be within half an inch of the same length.
Remembering how much more the new Rover six weighed, and how it was eight inches longer than the four, Martin-Hurst immediately saw that this little V8 could solve all their production and handling problems. Moreover, he believed a V8 would have much more prestige on the English market than a six. Carl, seeing his interest in the engine, offered to put it in a box, parcel it up and send it to England by air, which he did. But before Rover could use it, they had to get a licence from GM.
Negotiating with the General
Martin-Hurst hurried off to the New York Motor Show then in progress to try to make contact with GM, but he found the only man who could talk about it was Buick Executive Vice-President Ed Rollert. Martin-Hurst finally met him over breakfast and Rollert told him the engine had been developed by GM Central Research and was GM’s first attempt at making an engine with the pistons working direct in a cast aluminium bore.
This was not a success and they, therefore, decided to put in cylinder liners and to cast them in, which after an enormous amount of research they succeeded in doing. The engine was then given to Buick and Oldsmobile for production but, at this time, it had a Heron head with the combustion chambers in the pistons and a flat cylinder head.
Neither Buick nor Oldsmobile liked this arrangement, because they felt it made a high-octane fuel necessary which the engine would not receive from the average American motorist. They therefore each designed their own head for the engine, the two heads being almost identical except that the Oldsmobile head had more studs holding it down than the Buick one.
Setbacks and problems…
Negotiations then bogged down for a time, which Martin-Hurst found was due to a certain incredulity at a higher level in GM that Rover could really want to take a cast off engine from GM. He pointed out that this engine was the X100th V8 that GM had designed and it was quite obvious that GM Research had put all they knew into it to make it a star engine from the first.
If Rover had to start from scratch to design its own V8, it would not be so simple and it probably wouldn’t even work well until a great deal of time and money had been spent on it. GM saw the truth of this argument, negotiations were happily concluded, and they agreed to grant Rover a licence. Rover was offered all the GM planning sheets, any of the still-available machinery developed to make the engine and later scrapped, and all their service records right from the word go.
Plus all the drawings and the 39 new aluminium engines they had left, which meant that Rover could at once get on with evaluating the engine in a chassis without first having to make any of their own engines.
Some resistance at the Rover
Peter Wilks (above) at first was very unenthusiastic about the project, but he eventually had an engine installed in a 2000, into which it went without any major changes other than a new exhaust manifold. It did, however, entail a very long prop shaft which vibrated badly. Even so, when Spencer Wilks drove the test car he was immensely enthusiastic and soon got everybody else really wound up about it.
To make sure the smooth passage into production of the engine in England, Rover brought over Buick’s Chief Engine Designer, Joe Turlay, who had been with the company for 40 years, and as he then was within two years of retirement, had not become involved in any new engines and was therefore at somewhat of a loose end. Buick agreed to release Turlay and Rover installed him and his wife in a furnished flat at Solihull.
He then checked all the Rover drawings and, more important, was able to tell the Rover engineers the background to the engine and the reason certain things had been incorporated to overcome previous troubles that had shown up during the engine’s production run. A major change to the British engine is that the cylinder blocks are no longer gravity cast from metal dies with the liners cast in place, but are sand cast by the Birmingham Aluminium Casting Company Limited in a special foundry built for their production, and the simple centrifugal cast cylinder liners are pressed into place.
And on to the production line in the UK
The machining of some parts of the new engine was carried out at the Alvis plant which was a Rolls-Royce subsidiary and where car production had just ceased, and the assembly of the engine took place at the Rover Acocks Green works, an ex-Shadow factory which had built the Hercules engine and the Meteor version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin for powering tanks. ‘All the engine people at Rover say this engine is the easiest engine to put together that Rover have ever had.’
The first Rover to be powered by the V8 was the 3.5, an uprated version of the P5 three-litre, and was announced in October, 1967. The V8 version of the Rover 2000, the Three Thousand Five, was introduced in April, 1968, for it had been found that the same hull could be used for both the 2000 and the Three Thousand Five, with only a change in engine mountings being required at a certain point on the production line.
Since then, the V8 has appeared in the Range Rover, originally intended to be powered by a four-cylinder engine but transformed into its present greatness by the V8. So popular is the Range Rover it has become almost an embarrassment, for the demand for V8 engines now far exceeds the supply, a situation which is being very actively dealt with.
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.
The Rover V8 engine: 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 our’s 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.