History of the Rover V8

In 1984, 21 years after Rover Managing Director William Martin-Hurst first met the all-aluminium Buick 215, Graham Robson shared the history of the first twenty years of Rover V8 development.

Rover and the light-alloy V8 engine met each other, quite by accident, in 1963, and it was all a great coincidence. In the beginning, Managing Director William Martin-Hurst was trying to sell Rover gas turbine engines to Mercury Marine in Wisconsin; then the discussion turned to the idea of supplying 2¼-litre diesel engines for fishing boats.

Martin-Hurst once told me:

I was in Carl’s experimental workshops in Fond du Lac, talking about this and that, when I saw that lovely little alloy vee-8 engine sitting on the floor. I said, “Carl, what on earth is that?” He told me it was for a racing boat and that he’d originally winched it out of a Buick Skylark car. I asked him whether it would be available and I was astounded when he told me that General Motors had just taken it out of production!

The rest, as they say, is history – but it took four years of sometimes frustrating negotiation, and re-development, before Rover eventually began building V8 engines at Acocks Green. The very first machine to use the Rover- built V8 was the 3½-litre (P5B) saloon, launched in the autumn of 1967, the first 4×4 was the sensational Range Rover of 1970 – and the V8 is now more important to Land Rover Ltd. than it has ever been before. In a production life of 17 years, it has already found use in machines as different as the forward-control 101in. military Land Rover, and the race-winning Rover Vitesse hatchback, the Morgan sports car and the Land Rover One Ten.

All this, incidentally, has come about after General Motors of Detriot abandoned the engine, only three years after putting it on to the market, as uneconomic to build. Indeed, they were so convinced that it was not a cost-effective design anymore, that they found it hard to take William Martin-Hurst seriously when he asked if Rover could buy manufacturing rights!

The project had all started with Buick, a General Motors company, in 1950. Up until then, Buick had concentrated on straight-eight engines, but modern V8s were needed. The first 3.85-litre experimental units were in cast iron, but 4.15-litre aluminium engines soon followed. The development period was leisurely, and it was not until 1958 that the light-alloy unit was committed to production.

This splendid engine first met its public in the autumn of 1960, in the new Buick Special ‘compact’, and before long it also found a home in the Pontiac Tempest, and the Oldsmobile F85 Cutlass, all derivatives of the same compact car. For GM, however, there were problems. On the one hand, it was very light and powerful (155 b.h.p. (gross), from only 318 lb. all-up weight), but on the other hand there were difficulties in locating the dry liners in the block during the casting process, and manufacturing costs were also high.

In the next few years, too, GM learned more and more about the casting of thin-wall iron blocks and heads. Eventually, not only were these virtually no heavier than the original light-alloy castings, but they were much cheaper. After about 750,000 aluminium engines had been built, the design was ditched in favour of an old- fashioned cast-iron type and that, as far as GM were concerned, was that. A further 750,000 cast-iron engines, using the same machine tools, were eventually built.

GM’s loss, however, was Rover’s gain. Martin-Hurst eventually gained agreement to build engines in the UK and to re-design in detail to make it more suitable for the type of tooling and usage, which Rover had in mind. The deed was done by 1965, but it took more than two years and much detailed advice from the ex-Buick engine designer, Joe Turley, before Rover were ready to put it into any of their cars or 4×4 vehicles.

Many changes were made to the manufacturing methods, but Rover also uprated the unit considerably. As last used by GM, the engine had featured two-barrel or four-barrel GM-built carburettors, and peaked at 4,700 r.p.m. Rover, however, wanted it to rev much higher, to at least 5,200 r.p.m. and chose to use British carburation two semi-down-draught SU units, facing each other across the vee of the unit. Turley, apparently, would not believe the need for more revs until a Rover test driver had taken him for an exciting cross-country drive in a prototype car, at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. (happy days – no speed limit) – something which was quite outside his USA-based experience.

As launched for the 3½-litre (P5B – big saloon body shell) and the 3500 (P6B – compact Rover 2000 type body), the new engine had 3,528 c.c. a 10.5:1 compression ratio and 160 b.h.p. (net) at 5,200 r.p.m., plus peak torque of 210 lb. ft. at 2,600 r.p.m. In both cars the engine was mated with automatic transmission, for which it was ideally suited.

Even before then, however, Rover’s technical chief, Peter Wilks, in cahoots with Spen King and a modest design genius, Gordon Bashford, had committed Rover to producing a 4×4 originally called the ‘100 in, station wagon’, but now universally known as the Range Rover. Bashford recalls that the original drawing-board schemes had revolved around the old in-line 3-litre six- cylinder engine (basically the same as that to be used in the six-cylinder 109in. Land-Rover), but there was no development potential left in it. He and Spen ‘fell on the V8 with great glee’ when they were told they could use it in the new station wagon.

Thus it was that the light-alloy V8 unit found a home in the Solihull-designed 4×4’s. Although its use was confined to the Range Rover at first, more and more new 4×4’s, or derivatives of the old, took it on board in the years to come.

It was, and still is, an impressive looking unit. There are some engines which never look the part (I vividly remember a cynical journalist once looking at a 1950s racing engine and suggesting that it had been designed during the First World War!), and some which always make engineers coo over the details. In the case of the Jaguar XK, there was that irresistible urge to stroke the cam covers – with the light-alloy Rover I always liked to pace around it, blocking out the proportions with my hands – rather in the way that one felt the urge to describe the charms of a beauty queen!

Whether in a Solihull-designed 4×4, in a Triumph TR8 sports car, or hidden away in a big saloon car, the unit has always used the same basic cylinder block and head castings, the same hydraulic tappets, and the same 3,528 c.c. swept volume. Naturally there have been hundreds of detail difference over the years – manifolds, carburation, cooling arrangements, hang-on provision for power-assisted steering, air-conditioning pumps, and other power take-offs – but you would never mistake it for anything else. There have always, in any case, been the same ribbed rocker covers, carrying the ‘Rover’ title for all to see.

For a 4×4 application, the V8 engine had everything. Even with its original 160 b.h.p. power rating, it was still very modestly tuned and the torque delivery was impressive, to say the least. For churning through deep mud or soft sand an engine needs low speed slogging power, rather than high-reviving capability and the V8 had plenty of that. It was docile, broad-shouldered – and above all it was reliable.

160 b.h.p., however, coupled with the high compression ratio, was too much for what Tom Barton and Peter Wilks needed in the 4x4s, so Land Rover designers treated themselves to the luxury of detuning the unit, which made it more docile and even more long-lived, than ever before. For the original Range Rover of 1970, not only was the compression ratio dropped to 8.5:1 (which allowed two-star fuel to be used), but twin Zenith-Stromberg CD2S carburettors replaced the SUs found on saloon-car units, specially modified to let them work at extreme attitudes, there was sump baffling to contain the engine oil in similar circumstances and minor changes to aid installation of items like a winch drive. Even so, the engine still turned out 130 b.h.p. (DIN) at 5,000 r.p.m. and it made the Range Rover almost, but not quite, a 100 m.p.h. machine!

In the next few years exhaust emission regulations in certain European countries had to be met and this meant that the nominal compression had to be reduced even further to 8.13:1 but the peak power and torque ratings were not noticeably affected.

The engine, because it was basically so under-tuned and so light in weight, proved itself to be amazingly versatile. Not only did it find its way into the archaic Morgan sports car and into the MGB GT V8 coupe (that car having reduced power, by using an amalgam of Rover 3½-litre and Range Rover components, but with an entirely unique twin SU carburation installation), but in enlarged form it was built in Australia and fitted to the unsuccessful Leyland P76 passenger car of 1973.

In addition, of course, the world-championship winning Brabham F1 cars of 1966 and 1967 used much-modified (by Repco) versions of the original Buick engine, producing up to 340 b.h.p. from 3-litres!

The next Rover 4×4, however, to use the V8 engine was the massive, brutal-looking, 101in. forward-control Land Rover, jointly developed by Rover and the MVEE, first seen in public in 1972, but not put into service until 1975. This beast was specially intended to tow hardware like the new 105 mm gun and was later adapted for missile carrier haulage and at one time was being developed to use a powered trailer where the Land Rover’s rear power take off was neatly fed through the tow hitch into the trailer itself.

The engine/gearbox/transfer box of the forward-control machine was fitted straight out of the Range Rover, though suspension was by incredibly stiff half-elliptic leaf springs. This machine was never sold on the commercial market and, although production ended, at the end of 1977, on a recent visit to Solihull I saw 101in. models being comprehensively refurbished and cleaned up; some, I was told, had been in store for years, never having been issued for use.

For some years, however, Rover was starved of investment capital by their masters at British Leyland and it was not until Sir Michael Edwardes became chairman and allowed Land Rover Ltd to be set up as a separate business, that the rush of new-model announcements came along.

First, early in 1979, Phase I of the Solihull expansion scheme was brought ‘on stream’, with it a new final assembly line and production of the Series III Land Rover V8. Effectively (but not for more than a year of overlapping production), this 4×4 replaced the six- cylinder Land Rover and retained the same 109in. leaf-sprung chassis. There was restyling around the nose, not only to make it look different, but to give more space for the V8 engine which, together with its gearbox and transfer box, was lifted from that of the Range Rover.

It was, however, considerably detuned by the simple expedient of inserting air-flow restrictor plates between the Zenith-Stromberg carburettors and the inlet manifolds. The torque was reduced from 185 lb.ft. to 166 lb.ft., but the peak power plummeted from 130 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m., to a mere 92 b.h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m.

This, however, was only an interim move, for much was in store for the Range Rover and for an entirely new range of coil sprung Land Rovers as well.

First there came the re-launch of the Range Rover, at a point which coincided with the arrival of the four-door derivative in mid-1981. Although the engine’s peak figures changed very little, it became a much more fuel- efficient unit. Whereas it had originally been set-up to use two-star fuel, it had now been given a higher compression ratio (9.35:1), but a low-lift camshaft, so that it had to use four-star fuel. However, it was up to 20 per cent more fuel efficient. Peak power was slightly reduced, but maximum torque was actually slightly higher than before. There was higher overall transmission gearing, all of which helped to improve the economy which, on a big 4×4 which had previously been a 15 m.p.g. machine at best, was a real bonus.

Early in 1983 the all-new Land Rover One Ten was announced and, at the time of writing, this is the most recent derivative of the V8 engine to go on sale. In the new chassis and as an alternative to four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, there was the familiar light-alloy V8 unit. Yet again though, it was in a different state of tune, this time with the low (8.13:1) compression ratio, but no inlet manifold air-flow restrictors. This put the peak power output neatly between that of the Land Rover V8, and the latest Range Rover – at 114 b.h.p. and 185 lb.ft. of torque.

So, in 1984, we are 20 years on from the time at which William Martin Hurst concluded his historic deal with General Motors, the world’s largest motor- manufacturing concern. It ought to be made clear that, at first, few people at Rover believed in the engine’s worth. As Martin-Hurst has said:

I reckon I was the only true believer at that time, and anyway I was Managing Director and it was my idea!

Rover engineers, like those in many other concerns, had a healthily-developed NIH complex about the unit – NIH, of course, meaning Not Invented Here – and wanted little to do with the V8 at first, especially as they were busily developing six-cylinder and even five- cylinder versions of the Rover 2000 unit and were still, from time to time, dabbling with a V6 that had been on and off the test beds for a number of years. It was not until the competitions department had been encouraged to slot a prototype unit into a Rover 2000, that Martin Hurst was able to demonstrate it to incredulous managers, at least one of whom (Spencer Wilks) declared that this was the very first Rover he had tried which was not underpowered…

Twenty years on, the engine is by no means fully developed and certainly not about to be replaced by anything new. It always was, and still is, an expensive engine to build, but it is one which Land Rover Ltd. mean to have around them for many years to come. Consider, for instance, that as far as 4x4s are concerned, the original Range Rover of 1970 was the most powerful and consider, too, that in all that time the cubic capacity has not had to be increased by a single cubic centimetre.

On the assumption that the unit will not fall foul of exhaust emission regulations for some time (and, at the beginning of the 1980s, it was efficiently ‘cleaned up’ for use in the United States in the Rover 3500 hatchback, and the Triumph TR8 sports car), there is much still to be gained from it. One day, I am sure, Land Rover Ltd. would like to have a go at making the Range Rover a genuine 100 mph machine and there is still an unresolved project with Perkins to turn the basic unit into a new, light-weight, V8 diesel. When you remember that British Leyland proved more than ten years ago that the engine could be enlarged to no less than 4,416 cc, and that there is a fuel-injection derivative in Rover passenger cars, the possibilities for future development are considerable.

Graham Robson

Reproduced with the permission of Graham Robson. This article first appeared in “Off Road and 4 Wheel Driver” magazine in 1984, and Freewheel (the magazine of the Rover Sports Register) in the same year.

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