Ken Costello was one of those breed of men who could make a car perform better than the manufacturer could – possibly helped by the fact that many vehicles come out of their respective factories with a medium tune for general consumption. Not many people would know him, however many would know about his creation: the first commercial MGB V8. It wasn’t the first – during the 1960s an Oldsmobile V8 was put into a B in Sydney for private use. It was a similar route that Costello would take in England a few years later.
Costello was born in January 1927 and he started in engineering during by joining a Government department in the UK: the Motor Industry Research Department after studying automobile engineering at a polytechnic college. It wasn’t until his 30s that he started to make a name for himself. A friend had bought a Mini just after they were launched and suggested that if Costello made it go faster, he could race it. So he did!
The first outings were so successful that he then went one step further and built a full race Mini and continued on his winning ways. He was then offered a job as the manager of a “Special Tuning Division” at a local Leyland dealer run by the Cripps Brothers. The brothers were into “specials” having built and raced several themselves. Costello built another Mini for them and campaigned that one very successfully as well.
From racing Minis in club championships, he took a step up and into single seaters buying a Brabham BT20 Formula 3 car fitted with a 1 litre Cosworth motor. This is where Costello’s life takes a couple of twists that ended up with the MGB V8. He was asked to drive the Brabham as part of the filming of James Garner’s Grand Prix movie. This meant doing some filming at Monza, whilst there he went off to visit Maserati and he saw their small block V8s.
During the 1960s Carroll Shelby started the concept of squeezing a manic V8 into a sports car that handled well but didn’t have the power to use it properly. The AC Ace became the Cobra, the Sunbeam Alpine became the Tiger. TVR, Bristol and Jensen squeezed high performance motors into their sports cars.
Costello merged the idea of a small V8 into another British car: the MGB. This car, very popular at the time came out of the factory with a 1.8 litre, 95hp 4 cylinder motor that was fairly under powered however the car was fun to drive. I had one for several years and enjoyed it immensely, including racing it a few times in the MG Owners Club championship.
He took an Oldsmobile 215 motor and reworked it, getting 180hp (nearly double the original) and slotted it into a B. The Oldsmobile 215 was a redesign of a Buick V8 that also spawned the Rover V8 and the Repco V8 that Brabham used in F1. The MG was transformed but needed some stronger parts, so the second car had some MGC components added to handle the extra power with a Rover sourced V8 instead of the Oldsmobile. Incidentally, the V8 was actually lighter than the original motor due to its aluminium block.
The demand for his conversion meant he set up a company to deliver converted cars – the customer provided the donor car and received a slightly redesigned car with wheels sourced from Jensen and a powerful V8 to give it the performance the chassis could cope with.
British Leyland, as it had become, really needed something to replace the MGC that had been a disaster. The C had used a 3 litre straight 6 from the Austin/Morris stable and was too heavy to be a sports model. An MGB V8 sounded like a better solution and Costello had made one. They had a look at one of the Costello conversions and went off and built their own albeit less powerful version.
To sell their cars, BL not only could put a cheaper sticker price on them, they also restricted the sale of Rover V8s to Costello’s V8 Conversion Company forcing him to buy Buick and Oldsmobile V8 engines in Europe and rebuild them with Rover parts.
Sales soon died off as the main factory were selling their own version and only 225 were built – BL managed to sell around 2,500 of theirs before the oil crisis took hold. Costello sold the business but continued to develop better parts for MG owners such as a new and stronger 5 speed gearbox as well as an ABS unit and fuel injection.
I also found out that he liked aircraft and would buy light planes in the US and sell them in Britain once they had been flown over the Atlantic.
He died last year aged 88 after a lifetime of engineering projects. There are still many enthusiasts who enjoy the cars that Costello converted. Have a read of mgcostello.com for more information.