During the 1990s, the sum total of new Powertrain engine launches wasn’t that great – new Land Rover diesels and the KV6-series seem to be about the sum of it…
…to the casual observer, anyway. However there was a lot more than that going on behind the scenes – did you know that the KV6-series engine was actually a Joint Venture with the Korean car manufacturer, Kia? No? Then read on…
Words: Keith Adams
KV6 ventures into the East…
BACK in the early 1990s, the world was a very different place – Rover was seen as one of the most forward-facing carmakers on the block, and the award-winning K-Series engine was winning a mighty number of plaudits because of its advanced engineering and excellent efficiency. No wonder, then, that rival manufacturers were beating a path to Longbridge to work with the company that created it.
Rover’s need for a new V6 and V8 was hardly a secret in the industry – what with Volkswagen’s approach offering its flawed VR6 engine to Rover for a knock down price in order to boost production levels at its plant in Germany. However, Rover wanted its own engines – and continuing the fight for the K-Series in the 1980s, it was clear that the next phase of its development was to produce the multi-cylinder versions that would be good enough to replace Honda’s C27 V6 and the ex-Buick V8, as used in the Range Rover.
Kia and Rover find each other
Design development of the KV6 was ongoing when the Korean manufacturer, Kia, began to express an interest in finding a strategic engine partner. However, it wasn’t until 1994 and the arrival of BMW’s revised production forecasts for the KV6 that Rover also began to feel the need to also find a partner to help share the development costs of the new engine. Duncan Gough, a castings engineer intimately involved with the project described how Rover and Kia ended up joining forces, and creating a deal that would end up stacking very favourably in Rover’s direction.
“Sivert Hiljemark, one-time engine designs supremo had moved to Rover from Volvo. He recognised that the customer vehicle numbers for KV6 had been slashed so badly by new BMW management, that he needed to find a partner to bear the project cost, and thus avoid axing it and half of the people in Designs,” he recalled.
Kia was already on the scene, and an opening which led to the partnership soon evolved via a common source. “The introduction to Kia came through Lotus Engineering, who were doing installation work for Kia alongside some development for us. Kia had previously just recycled Mazda products and saw working with a new partner as a step towards independent Engineering control,” Duncan continued.
Negotiations followed, and by the time mutual development commenced, the KV6’s specification was pretty much set. “My involvement in the project came about due to Kia insisting they wanted to make both head and block castings by the same method that we used for heads,” Duncan said. At the time, Rover KV6 engine blocks were made by Cosworth Technology (castings) in Worcester using a process the uninitiated believed to be the same as Rover used for the K4 back in Longbridge, but it was actually radically different.
“I believe the overall cost to Kia for the KV6 was originally £10m. They believed this to be 50 per cent of the KV6/KV8 development costs; but there seemed to be general agreement within Rover that £10m was the entire cost of the engine,” effectively reducing the cost to Rover for this new engine to zero. Duncan continued, “In negotiating a price for ‘Technical assistance’, the actual building of a new foundry in Korea was added as an extra for a further £1m! That part-time fountry work by my colleagues and I lasted around three years earned £1m for the company, without really affecting our full time Manufacturing roles – and we never really got a thank you from Rover!”
However, the Joint Venture – although productive – wasn’t without its problems. “Much of the work was frustrating and wasted. There were lots of cultural issues which caused both frustration and entertainment. For my part I really felt that sending in the Girl Guides would have been just as valid as my ‘technical assistance’, but it was a success for Rover in many ways.
Looks familar doesn’t it? The KV6 powered Kia Sedona is a rare beast in Europe…
Not without hiccoughs
Once agreed in terms, the Joint Venture developed rapidly. “I first hosted the Kia Foundry Engineers at Longbridge in July 1994, and I suspect therefore that the joint venture – or at least discussions may have begun tentatively sometime in 1993. My last visit to the Assan Bay assembly plant was March and April 1997, for start-up of Kia’s volume production.”
“The Koreans were hard work in most ways. As individuals they were, almost without exception, lovely people who would do anything to help you. As a group, though, some of those Korean cultural issues came into play and caused us difficulty. There is a Korean word ‘kibun‘, whose disruption is avoided at all costs. Consequently, they didn’t like to give you bad news until the last possible moment, leaving no time to plan around the problems.
“An example was a furnace which we had used for UK trials of their casting machine and they had subsequently (against my advice, since it destroyed its lining on cooling, so needed relining – virtually the cost of a new furnace) shipped out to Korea. When we arrived for prototyping trials in Korea in July 1996 they had not, as they had promised they would, heated or filled the (relined) furnace, so I had to do it myself. Three days later the project manager told me that they would have to empty it (and thus destroy the lining again) as there was to be a power shut-off to the plant over a weekend. Luckily, I had previously worked for Cummins Diesel and noticed one of their Daventry-built Generator sets lurking in the foundry for just such an emergency. Once I told them I was going home if they did shut off the furnace, and that they could use their back-up power supply to keep it alive, they did it all splendidly.”
Another cultural issue for the Koreans was the issue of separating age and status within a company’s hierarchy. Duncan recalled, “My manufacturing Colleague, Ted, was in his mid-fifties. He seemed to gain ultimate respect from all the Kia guys (who were all young) to the extent that they would seek his opinion on all technical matters. Ted was an excellent control engineer but would have admitted to having no particular knowledge of casting methods, metallurgy or mechanical paraphernalia. I was 30 and far taller than all the Koreans. This made me a bit of a problem as I was young, so should have sat naturally at the bottom of the hierarchy and kept my head below that of my elders out of respect. They were paying a great deal for my technical advice, but were loathe to pay attention or act on it as I should have been way down the pecking order and I didn’t really do all the bowing as it played hell with my back trying to appear to be 50mm shorter.”
In the end, Duncan’s recollections of the Koreans he worked with were that they were pleasant to work with, albeit a little inscrutable. “I was never entirely sure what they thought of us,” he said. “My feeling was always that they were far more capable than us and could have done better without our help, but I am an eternal pessimist. I think they were happy with the KV6 engine and their production of it, although clearly it wasn’t awfully long-lived for them. And not without its problems.”
Product and manufacturing plans
Although Kia had planned to use the KV6 and its associated family of engines to power a number of cars in its range, just like Rover in the early days of the engine, it only ended up powering a single model – the 825. At the outset of the project, Kia planned to use KV6 fuelled with CNG to power its big selling Bongo Van – an MPV that occupied a critical market sector in Korea at the time.
However, according to Duncan, that never actually happened. “The only vehicles I saw the (prototype) engine installed in were a large luxury vehicle, and a ‘Credos’. I have a progress report from 2000 telling me it was installed in the then recently launched Carnival (or Sedona in UK) fuelled by LNG, but it appeared that this car was the end of the road.” Kia forecasted a production run of 55,000 units for 2000, and that – tragically – is a long way shy of the original estimates of 200,000 units per year – and it is highly unlikely these were ever achieved, despite the reasonable global sales of the model.
According to Duncan, there’s plenty of shared heritage. “As far as I know the Kia and Rover engines were the same. I am not sure whether Kia was privileged to the R40 modifications; I seem to remember some debate about whether the deal extended to engineering updates. Kia did make some changes for its version which were mostly concerned with making special tools unnecessary for servicing. Korea’s motoring infrastructure was young and feeble, so specialist dealers were few and far between at the time.”
A shorter life than expected
Although the inital Kia/Rover engine venture was planned as a long term project, events conspired against this actually happening. The engine plant itself was a huge investment for Kia – and it clearly showed commitment to the project. The Assan Bay factory, where the KV6 was produced, remains a huge plant out on the Yellow Sea coast, about three hours from Seoul; Kia’s first big plant was Sohari, near Suwon, a southern extension of the massive conurbation around Seoul.
Assan Bay is built on former paddy fields and land reclaimed from the sea. In terms of size, it’s roughly one-and-a-half to two times that of Longbridge, and includes a banked test track which the USAF and Korean Air Force jets would use to line-up on for target practice on a small island off the coast. All the KV6 manufacturing facilities were contained within Assan bay, and the Carnival/Sedonas that were powered by it were also eventually assembled on site. Engineering functions were mostly based at Sohari.
Although there were grand plans for the KV6 in Korea, it does appear that they slowed down, then disintegrated quite rapidly. Although there were plans to expand the range to an in-line four (a half-relation of the K4-Series), and a V8 version of the engine (KV8, perhaps?), outside influences conspired to stop this actually happening. The financial meltdown of the group of large Korean industries, known locally as the ‘Chaibol’, along with the collapse of the Korean economy in 1996 (and eventual purchase by Hyundai the following year) forced the company to downscale its ambitions rapidly.
The initial euphoria surrounding the venture also appeared to have vanished. Duncan remembers it well, “When Ted and I left from our last visit in 1997, production was not going well, and they made a point of calling us back to the plant at 10.00pm and the keeping us there until 1.00am before – despite being due in Seoul the following morning at at 8.00am. They didn’t seem very happy then!”
After a huge number of problems with KV6 Carnival/Sedonas, and massive warranty costs, the engine was finally dropped in 2006. Duncan mentions an interesting twist in the tale, “I do know that Rover purchased some of the redundant casting equipment in 2004, so Kia must have ceased production by then, or changed casting production method.”
It was a sorry end to a story which started out so promisingly in 1993…
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.