The Rover V8 engine is a magnificent creation – and one that’s found its way under all manner of sports cars.
Here, we’re pitting two similarly powered sporting roadsters, the new-boy from Blackpool with sexy curves to die for, and the Abingdon bruiser that puts tradition above progression…
Words: Keith Adams Pictures: Alisdair Cusick
Same heart, different soul
THEY say the heart of any car is its engine – and few pulse as thrillingly as the Rover V8s beneath the swooping bonnets of the MG RV8 and TVR Griffith.
Take a few moments to consider that iconic powerplant. Conceived in aluminium by General Motors during the late Fifties but quickly abandoned. The pushrod V8 would have been an interesting footnote in history, had its death not coincided with Rover’s need for a new power unit. Company chief William Martin-Hurst spotted one abandoned in an American boat yard, and in 1965 he arm-twisted GM into selling the tooling.
The effortless V8 has proved irresistible for the sports car fraternity. MG was first to get its hands on it engine, when the Abingdon engineers shoehorned it into the MGB GT in 1973. The car should have been a smash hit, but arrived in a world plunged into energy crisis. It sunk without a trace.
Although everyone associates TVR with burbling V8s, it wasn’t until 1983 this winning combination rolled out of Blackpool. The first Rover-powered V8 TVR was the wedge shaped 350i, but the company really got into its stride with the V8S, Griffith and Chimaera.
By 1992, the sports car market was in fine fettle and MG returned with the RV8. TVR’s similarly powered Griffith had burst onto the scene and impressed all who drove it. For the first time in years, British sportscar fans had a genuine choice – both were beguilingly beautiful, had a soundtrack to die for, and offered old-fashioned V8 fun.
They share the same heart, but does that mean there’s little to choose between the MG and TVR today?
THE MG RV8 actually came about after Rover was caught wrong-footed by the launch of the Mazda MX5 in 1989. The moment the Japanese roadster appeared, the green light was given in Rover – a new MG was needed fast.
Enthusiasts had been waiting for a new MG sportscar since the Abingdon’s closure in 1980, and rumours of the new car was music to their ears. Thanks to surprisingly audacious thinking by Rover, the relaunch came in 1992, and in the best possible way.
Although it is a widely held belief that the MG RV8 is little more than a Heritage shell clothing re-used MGB parts, it was actually 75 per cent new. Put together by Rover Special Products (the team that helped create the Mini Cooper and MGF) under the codename Adder, the idea was to use the new MGB bodyshell as a means of putting the B back into production.
Project Adder fused a large slice of MGB technology – live axle and leaf springs – to the Rover V8 engine and gearbox. If the basic package sounds scary, the rear axle had been reined in, and those infamous lever arm dampers were ditched in favour of telescopic KONI dampers. As we’ll see, that makes all the difference on the road.
If the MG RV8 appeared like a bolt from the blue, the TVR Griffith’s unveiling was less of a surprise. This, the second TVR to wear the Griffith nameplate, had originally appeared at the 1990 Birmingham Motor Show, but that was a toe-in-the-water concept devised to gauge interest. It worked. TVR was inundated with orders and then spent the best part of two years delivering a car to deliver on those initial deposits.
Given TVR’s ambitions to move upmarket, it was decided to push the boat out with the Griffith. A new backbone chassis, based on that of the Tuscan racer, was developed, and its more sophisticated double wishbone suspension was also carried over.
A Rover V8 breathed on by the company’s Coventry based subsidiary, TVR Power, powers the Griffith. It came in plenty of guises – 4-litre in two states of tune, a 4.3-litre, and the mighty 5-litre version. Our test car came the 4-litre in 240bhp form, the closest match to the RV8’s altogether more relaxed 190bhp.
THE two cars might share the same basic engine, but the difference in performance – or more correctly, the way it is delivered is absolutely astounding. It’s cultured versus ballistic. As soon as you fire up RV8, you know it is going to be a more relaxing experience than the TVR. Compared with any MGB before it, the RV8 goes well. The V8 provides that reassuringly familiar low-rev beat, and it is complemented by a muted woofle from the exhaust that promises easy pull from low speeds.
It’s a promise fulfilled. In the RV8, you get linear power delivered consistently, and it catapults up the road with an effortless shove in the back in the process. Because you get a helpful 236lb/ft of torque at 3000rpm, there’s no need to hang on to gears – half throttle and 4000rpm upchanges will have you moving along very nicely indeed. It seems to be the most fitting way to drive this grand tourer.
Quick acceleration is there for the taking. From a standing start, 60mph comes up in 5.9 seconds, and it doesn’t stop pulling until 135mph. In previous MGBs, such brutal treatment would have the rear axle hopping around in protest, but the RV8 ditches this disagreeable trait thanks to those crude but effective anti-tramp rods.
If you have a need for speed, though, the TVR is the only way to go.
Power-up the TVR and no punches are pulled. It explodes into life, and idles with a barely suppressed fury that positively begs you to blip the throttle. In comparison, the RV8 it sounds remarkably cultured, and a damned sight more musical – it seems like an executive car next to the Griffith.
Even before you set off, the TVR leaves you in no doubt that your right foot is in control of an awesome wedge of power – it pulls like a steam train from 1000rpm in any gear. It’s a relentless but elastic shove that almost renders the gearbox redundant. Cog swapping results in a change in exhaust note – an exercise saved for tunnels and built-up areas. It’s yobbish, but we love it.
Top down acceleration sees the RV8’s refined V8 drowned out by wind noise, but there’s no chance of this in the TVR. As revs rise, it sounds increasingly intoxicating – and its bass-heavy American backbeat is replaced by a competition car style shriek.
It’s is as fast as it sounds – 60mph comes up in 4.9 seconds and it tops out at 150mph, but remember, this is the ‘entry-level’ Griffith. If you need more speed, go for the 350bhp Griffith 500.
Handling and ride
ACCLIMATISE yourself to the heavy steering and within a few meters of setting off, you’ll be marvelling at the RV8’s ride quality. At no point does it jar, or become uncomfortable – in normal driving it take an observant driver to pick up on the rather archaic suspension. Directional stability is impressive, even if it is far less planted than the TVR.
The RV8 may be a cruiser built for country lanes, but it is here where things turn ugly if the driver demands too much. Camber changes and sharp ridges result in too much vertical movement, and if corners are added to the equation, they can all too easily upset the skittish rear end. Sophisticated damping obviously lessens the problem, but RV8 owners need to keep their KONIs in tip-top shape if they are to avoid their cars turning into bucking broncos on demanding B-roads.
That is not to say there isn’t a great deal of pleasure from piloting an RV8. Turn down the wick and waft along at a rapid rather than rabid pace, and there’s fun to be had. Even at fairly modest speeds the rear end can get playful, but treat it with respect – slow in, fast out – control the slides, and you’ll enjoy the ride.
There’s also an impressive feeling of solidity in the shell, and scuttle shake is only apparent in the most arduous situations. Brakes are strong and faithful – despite rear drums. Do remember there’s no ABS.
You’ll pull away in the TVR cursing its heavy steering – unlike the RV8 you’ll need to dial in a fair bit more speed before it shows signs of livening up. At first its unwieldiness fears you into thinking you’ll never be able to control the tail if things get frisky, but get past that and dial into its brisk response and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
The Griffith is a physical car to drive and it demands a lot from its driver. There’s plenty of performance to play with, but you’ll need your wits about you to keep it on the straight and narrow. Both cars have Quaiffe limited slip differentials, but it’s the TVR that has enough power to really demand questions of it – powering out of any slow corner has you playing with the throttle in order to keep the back end in check. And in the end, that has you wishing for a racetrack in order to experiment.
The ride is appreciably firmer than the MG’s but ultimately more controlled in damping. Rough B-roads still have the tail hopping in protest, but you’ll be going a lot faster in the TVR when it happens.
Truth is, the Griffith is almost impossible drive slowly – it eggs you on to push it to the limit. That’s fun if you’re Kimi Raikkonen, but it reminds the rest of us how little we know about driving.
The inside story
IT’S amazing to see how different these two cars are to sit in. Taking the MG first, your first impressions are dominated by the commanding driving position its leather buckets put you in. Although there’s an air of modernity inside, it’s masked by the upright wheel and cramped cabin.
Despite a lack of elbow room, the driving position is nigh on perfect, with all the major controls falling nicely to hand. You can have a whale of a time playing ‘spot the part’, from the corporate bin. Despite that diversion, it all looks terrific and hangs together well. The polished wood compliments the beige leather interior, and there’s a real air of quality inside the RV8.
A major complaint we have is the low screen, which hampers the view forward if you’re over 5’8”.
The TVR is more modern, and just as well made. Its dashboard is curvaceous and some of the minor controls such as the interior door releases and gear knob are suitably gorgeous. There are a few unmarked switches to contend with, and one or two Ford items in the mix, but overall, it’s the Griffith that’s the more homogenous effort.
The driving position is the antithesis of the MG’s. You sit extremely low in the snug but spacious cabin, and that allows you to feel at one with the car. It makes town driving a bit of a nightmare, but we suspect that’s not going to be a major priority for most potential owners.
TAKE a drive in either of these cars and you’re going to create quite a stir. There may have been 2000 RV8s built at Cowley, but they remain rare. A fair number may have been exported into Japan, but many are now returning, and numbers are rising.Despite that, the RV8 has cast-iron classic credentials but also proves to be a perfectly useable everyday car, should the owner choose to treat it this way. It does arouse interest in others, but mainly of a curious nature – on the roads, be prepared to turn a lot of heads.
The beautiful TVR is not an uncommon sight, but it still has the looks to stop traffic. It’s not all good – owners tell us that every traffic light sees someone having a go. Despite that Griffiths seem to command respect not envy.
Given its relative scarcity and the success of the styling, the Griffith has the strongest values in the TVR lineup. However, prices are still on a downward curve, although they are now bottoming out, with the best set fair to appreciate in coming years. Unlike many Nineties cars, the Griffith is already a firmly established classic.
AT the start of this head-to-head we questioned whether two cars with the same engine would feel suitably different. Even the shortest answers that with an emphatic ‘yes’.
They fall into two camps – the MG, a smooth and traditional cruiser; and the TVR, an out-and-out sports car. If you like an exciting life, we’d have no hesitation in recommending the Griffith – in just about every objective category, it is the superior car.
In fairness to the MG, the company always maintained the RV8 was no Griffith rival – and tuned it specifically to the needs of traditional buyers. We can confirm that Rover Special Products succeeded in meeting those aims. It is definitely an MGB for the Nineties, and as a result is a likeable, charismatic steer, and one we wish more enthusiasts could enjoy.
Picking a victor is easy – they’re both winners because they are so different. In an ideal world, you’d take the RV8 for balmy summer evening drives to the pub, and save the TVR for trackdays. It’s great there’s clear blue water between the two because it shows there remains a genuine choice in the sportscar market .
A real case of same hearts, different souls.
How they compare
|Fuel tank||8.0 gallons||11.8 gallons|
|Engine||3948cc, ohv||3948cc, ohv|
|Power||190bhp, 4750rpm||240bhp, 6000rpm|
|Torque||236lb/ft, 3000rpm||270lb/ft, 4000rpm|
|Gearbox||5-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|Steering||Rack and pinion||Rack and pinion|
|Dimensions||4010mm x 1694mm||3970mm x 1740mm|