I still vividly remember the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. The extent of MG Rover’s troubles following the November 2003 expose about ‘irregularities’ in its directors’ pay packets had yet to become too widespread, and there was still a degree of optimism for the company’s future. At the show, the wraps came off the much-anticipated Rover 75 V8, the sister car of last autumn’s impressive MG ZT 260 V8. And finally – we had our 21st century Rover Vitesse.
Critics at the show were quietly impressed by the visual transformation the more aggressive front bumper and full-depth grille afforded the car far more motorway presence, while the new 19in wheels (on the show car only, sadly – 18s for production) and slightly nose-down suspension settings toughened up the previously vanilla 75 considerably. But it’s what was under the bonnet that really set this car apart from its six-cylinder and four-pot cousins…
The reason for MG Rover’s decision to fit a Yank V8 into its biggest saloon? In 2000, MG Rover wasn’t entirely confident about its future engine supply, as Powertrain was not included in the original terms of the BMW sell-off of parts of the Rover Group to the Phoenix Four. And left them scouting for options for the HPD version of the 75 that was then-currently in development. And that led to the decision to develop the car for a crate version of Ford’s two-valve Mustang V8. As it happened, six months after the original deal, BMW handed Powertrain over to Phoenix, and KV6 supplies were secure. But the V8 plan continued…
The 4.6-litre V8’s fitment into the 75/ZT wasn’t a straightforward affair. Converting the 75 to RWD, and mating the Ford’s electronics into the Rover’s BMW-era control systems wasn’t the work of a moment, and initially the development programme was entrusted to Prodrive in Oxfordshire. But for reasons that have yet to come to light, Prodrive’s time spent managing the project wasn’t successful, running over time and budget.
The project was then brought back in-house, with the ever-resourceful engineering team based in the Flight Shed in Longbridge turning the unfinished V8 into the excellent-handling production car we were left with. We know the stories, too – an engineer climbing under a strapped-down prototype while the back tyres are lit-up – in order to work out how to tame axle tramp. But that’s what you do when working within a miniscule budget – this was true Dunkirk spirit.
I’ve driven several Rover 75 and MG ZT V8s, and loved every one of them. There’s an interesting combination of 75 usability and friendliness, a wonderful bass-heavy soundtrack, and lazy, torque-laden power delivery. My most vivid memory would be driving ex-Phoenix director Nick Stephenson’s supercharged V8 ZT-T – 385bhp, silly supercharger whine, and the ability to drink a tank of fuel in 180 miles. Wonderful.
I also played with an ex-Longbridge development Rover 75 V8 for a week-long jaunt and loved this, too. Being a Rover, married to an autobox (as apposed to a Tremec five-speeder), and running on gentler suspension settings, it really suited me – and would probably make a superior day-to-day proposition five years on. Assuming you’re not driving it every day, and you can talk a classic insurer to underwrite your fun.
In reality, this engine/transmission package turns the 75 into a bit of a dinosaur (256bhp from 4.6-litres, for goodness sake), with an average fuel return of less than 20mpg. But as a high-days classic car you can use occasionally and for special occasions, this excessive thirst isn’t as much problem as it might be, if you’re clocking up 2000 instead of 20,000 miles a year. But like all classic cars – you buy with your heart and not your head, and this interesting car certainly manages to tug the heart-strings.
A quick scout at examples for sale brings up a number of cars for around £6000-8000. One that caught my eye was this example (pictured) on Pistonheads, on sale in Scotland, for £6995. The seller’s made the interesting offer to include free delivery, a new MoT, 12 months’ tax, and a full tank of fuel, which goes beyond the usual vendor’s service. It has just under 30,000 miles on the clock, and has clearly been loved by its last owner. Would its Cat D status put me off? Perhaps…
But there are so many positives that I am considering making an investment! The thing is – is now the time to buy?