2nd June 2020

The Rover V8: the best of British?

It was a mainstay of British car manufacturing over five decades, and powered everything from kit cars to bona-fide classics. However, the venerable Rover V8 actually started life on a Buick drawing board in the United States back in the 1950’s.

In the mid-1960s Rover cars was on the lookout for some extra muscle to help in its rivalry with Jaguar, and the big cat’s infamous sports saloons. Rover’s own 3.0-litre straight-six was woefully out of date, as its design originated before World War II, so the company negotiated to buy the rights to a compact, aluminium V8 engine from General Motors in the US.

Originally developed by GM division Buick on the back of its experimental work with aluminium engines in the 1950s, it was an attractive solution at the right price. This Buick 215 had fallen out of favour with the American car market, so production had finished in 1963, but Rover spotted its potential. Its compact size, light weight (roughly the same as a conventional in-line four-cylinder engine) and high performance (for the time) meant it was perfect for the UK’s generally smaller vehicles.

The first model to feature the ‘new’ engine was the 1967 3.5-litre Rover P5B (the B standing for Buick). This transformed the somewhat sedate range of saloons and coupés as the V8 provided notably improved performance and fuel economy - thanks to more horsepower and lower kerb weight. It was so good, the Queen even had a P5B.

Rather than just stick with the engine’s design as supplied, Rover’s boffins did stamp their mark on the V8 by developing reliability, character and performance. Here was an engine that could endow cars with refined power but without the penalty of weight, and it was used in a number of Land Rover, MG, Range Rover and Triumph cars. As time passed the design incorporated a series of performance enhancements and capacity grew steadily up to and over 5.0-litres and in excess of 340bhp – a long way from the initial versions 158bhp. It even proved competitive in motorsport.

As well as appearing in many Rover (and later British Leyland) cars the engine was sold to numerous low volume vehicle builders, with Morgan an early adopter. It proved the perfect powerplant for the then new Plus 8 in 1968, endowing the two-seater with an impressive 0-60mph time of 6.7 seconds.

The list of companies that employed the Rover V8 reads like a who’s who of marques: Marcos, TVR Ginetta, Westfield, but also includes a host of niche names like Bowler, Dax, Gardner Douglas, Gold, Hawk, Magnum, NG and Nirach. This stalwart couldn’t soldier on forever though, and the last mass-produced vehicle to use the V8 was the 2004 Land Rover Discovery.

However, the V8’s story doesn’t end there and, as well as the keeping period engines in full working order, there’s a host of specialists delivering as new and rebuilt engines that develop far more power than Buick ever thought possible.

Have you ever owned a car with a Rover V8 engine? Tell us your tales in the comments section below.