Over the past few years I have described several engines that have had long successful lives and we now add to the list an engine that started in the US and branched out into a Formula 1 winning motor and a source for some of the best sports cars produced in the UK.
The engine in question started life in 1961 as the Buick 215, an all aluminium motor of 3.5 litres capacity with an Overhead Valve configuration and producing 150hp at launch. It was fitted to the Buick Special, a “Y-body” car. The Y-bodies were a group of cars produced by Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. The Special was joined by the Skylark soon after its launch and this had a 4-barrelled carburettor fitted which pushed power to 200 horses.
The V8 was then fitted to the Pontiac Tempest and Tempest Le Mans in the Buick configuration, however Oldsmobile modified the heads for their F-85 and Cutlass models and then they became the first manufacturer to sell a production vehicle with a turbo – the Cutlass Jetfire in the early 1960s. The Jetfire only had 15 horses more than the 4 barrelled version in the Buick Skylark and would have suffered from turbo lag in those days that would have reduced its performance.
Despite being an innovative and pioneering engine, it only lasted in production for 2 years, albeit with 750,000 units built. The engine had several major problems – the first was a production issue with a manufacturing defect in the casting of the block that meant that many were porous and leaked oil and in their infinite wisdom, the General Motors brands used an anti-freeze solution that was incompatible with aluminium – presumably it ate the metal and caused further leakages!
The motor did attract the motor sport enthusiasts due to its high power-to-weight ratio and Dan Gurney raced a Buick engined car at the 1962 Indy 500. He retired with transmission failure – the engine survived.
After General Motors dropped the engine in 1963, two versions appeared: one by Rover in the UK and one by the Australian Repco company for Formula 1 racing.
Let’s start with the Repco version as it had a shorter life. During the early 1960s, Formula 1 announced a rule change to 3-litre engines. Coventry Climax, who were the engine supplier to many teams (works and private) had pulled out, so several companies jumped in, such as Cosworth (with Ford backing) and Honda. One other was Repco, an Australian parts supplier who had worked with Jack Brabham. He persuaded them to take the Oldsmobile version of the Buick block and rework it and call it the Repco 620.
They updated the heads, reduced the capacity to 3-litres and retuned the motor to produce 285hp. Although it had less power than it’s rivals like Ferrari, it enabled Brabham to take both the 1966 Driver’s and Constructor’s titles – the first owner/driver to do so. In 1967, the motor was uprated and renamed the “700”, with a redesigned block, a Single Overhead Cam and now producing over 320hp. Thanks to the newly released Lotus 49 powered by the Ford Cosworth DFV being fragile, Brabham again took the Constructor’s title with their driver Denis Hulme taking the Driver’s title.
The Ford Cosworth DFV changed the landscape for Formula 1 engines with its Double Overhead Cam layout and so the 1968 version of the Repco V8 copied the format producing close to 400 horses. Sadly it was also very unreliable and the following year, Brabham dropped the motor in favour of the Cosworth V8.
At the same time that Repco was retuning and redesigning the Oldsmobile version, Rover in the UK were looking for an American small block V8 for their European cars. They liked the now defunct Buick motor and persuaded General Motors to sell them the design and complete rights to the motor.
So, in early 1965, the tooling was shipped to the UK and the motor was fitted to the Rover P5 and P6 luxury saloons. One of the original Buick engineers went with the tooling and helped Rover iron out the casting problems as well as further updates to the motor. Like the original design, the first Rover units produced around 150hp. The P5B was the last of its series replacing a straight 6 with the V8 and the P6 was an evolution sold through the 1970s.
The engine found its niche in the Range Rover released in 1970 with a slightly detuned version but with lots of torque. The Range Rover was, and still is, a hugely successful vehicle and with the V8 now in two vehicles it was starting to get noticed as a reliable, lightweight and powerful motor.
Morgan were one of the first to take the Rover version in 1968 for their Plus 8 sports car. MG used it in the MGB GT V8 as did Ken Costello with his version during the early 1970s – the motor was actually lighter than the original cast iron 4 cylinder – and TVR replaced a Ford V6 with the V8 in their 280 (Tasmin), 350, 390, 420 and 450 models.
This leads nicely into the evolution of the engine under Rover. As we know the motor started as a 3.5-litre powerplant. In the mid 1990s it was increased to 3.9 and then 4-litre capacities for the Range Rover and ultimately the Morgan Plus 8, TVR and other specialist sport cars. To complement the 3.9, Rover developed a 4.2 version, again for the Range Rover.
TVR Power extended the engine to both 4.3 and 4.5 versions that were mainly used for their cars but they also sold versions to other manufacturers like Westfield. Later TVR went further, making a 5-litre for the Griffith and Chimaera models.
Leyland also produced a 4.4 litre version in Australia for the mid 1970s P76 with about 200hp on tap and the final variant from Rover was a 4.6 litre.
It could be said that the Rover V8 was the first customer engine much like the BMW V10 and AMG V12s were later – they are found in many low volume super cars and sports cars. Apart from the cars already described, the Rover version went into the Triumph TR8, the Grinnall versions of the TR7 V8, numerous Cobra replicas, various Marcos sports coupes, the Ginetta G33 and was a staple for custom builders wanting to slip a lightweight, high powered motor into a small chassis.
By the way, do a search on YouTube for the Rover V8 fitted to a Trabant in Belgium. A crazy thing to do!