Britain's Old Motor Magazine (monthly)

The cumbersome MGC was a flop but the MGB V8 couldn't fail with its lightweight
Rover engine. So why were so few made? Why is it not made now? Chris Harvey
looks at the fate of MG's cut-price supercar that is now valued as an appreciating
asset as well as an appealing road burner.

as published in British V8 Newsletter, Volume XV Issue 3, December 2007

Re-printed unedited by exclusive written permission of "Classic and Sportscar".
(This article originally appeared in the June 1979 issue of "Old Motor" magazine.
Sometime between 1979 and 1983, Old Motor magazine was re-launched as Classic and Sportscar.)

You know what they say about MGs: they are the most popular, loveable sports cars in the world, but they don't go fast enough. You can just about top the ton in the current antique, the MGB, if you live on the right side of the pond; if you are unfortunate enough to be an American enthusiast, you'll be lucky to squeeze 90 out of your emission-strangled B. Why are they so popular, then? Because they are the last rip-roaring hair-in-the-air, well-nigh indestructible sports car in full-scale production. The B might ride like the rocky road to Dublin but it will cling on when most of the rest have slid into oblivion. All it needs is a bit of oomph, so it is amazing that Abingdon's attempts at producing a really quick car have met with commercial disaster. Both the MGC (MGB plus two cylinders) and the MGB GT V8 (MGB plus four) were good for more than 120mph, but the C handled like a barge because the engine was too heavy and the V8 was killed by politics and the totally false impression that it gobbled fuel in the height of an energy crisis. In fact they made only 2591 V8s; with the exception of the Boy's Own Paper hot rod, the MGA Twin Cam (of which 2111 were built) it was the smallest production run from Abingdon since the war. As the V8 was also the fastest production MG, and one of the best handling, it immediately became a collector's piece as soon as they stopped making them in July 1976. Seems like we never know how good a car is until it's gone.

You'll have to pay up to £4000 for a really good new one now, the price of a new MGB and double that of the equivalent four-cylinder made at the same time. Nearly half (1072) of the V8s made had a chrome front - a body that looked exactly like that of the equivalent MGB GT; the rest were the rubber bumper model made from October 1974 to meet short-sighted U.S. Federal safety regulations. These later V8's also suffered from a spot of penny-pinching in that British Leyland omitted to fit anti-roll bars front and rear to make up for the deterioration in handling brought about by raising the ride height to help meet the new bumper regulations. Actually, all the production MGB V8s had a slightly higher ride height because they had fatter 175-section tyre and alloy road wheels against the four-cylinder's 165 x 14 wires or steel wheels. Apart from a modest sprinkling of V8 badges, their wheels, and slightly higher ride height - giving a more muscular appearance - were the chief way of telling them apart from the four-cylinder cars, apart from driving them, of course.

The difference in performance imparted by the V8's all-alloy 3528cc Rover engine was fantastic. It was good for 124mph, with a 0-60mph time of 8.6sec and standing quarter mile in 16.4sec against the four-cylinder car's 102mph, 13sec and 18.5 (reduced to 96mph, 14.6 and 20.2 in 1973 Federal specification). Fuel consumption was very good: 25mpg against 27mpg from the four-cylinder. People just assumed that an MGB with a V8 engine was thirstier than the lower-powered car and British Leyland did little to quell their fears apart from coughing up a generous quota of road test cars for the popular magazines of the day and leaving people to find out for themselves. An advertising campaign emphasizing this point would have done the world of good for V8 sales, but, then, it was never a popular model in corporate circles.

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British Leyland only authorized production in what seems a fit of pique. Down at Abingdon they had been fiddling about with MGB V8s for years. Designer Syd Enever tried all sorts of combinations, including Coventry Climax and Daimler engines when Jaguar joined the fold in 1968. It was obvious that his stiff MGB shell would take a more powerful engine provided it didn't weigh appreciably more than the existing B-series unit's 358lb. The MGC of 1967 had used a modified MGB shell and proved to be a disaster when BMC's redesigned C series 2912cc engine tipped the scales at no less than 567lb. "It should have been half a hundredweight lighter," said John Thornley, the man in charge of MGs at the time. Rover's magnificent alloy V8 weighed about 320lb. (and slightly more than the B series engine when equipped with beefed-up ancillaries), but did not come into the reckoning for a variety reasons in 1967: Rover needed all the engines they could produce and fitting it to an MGB would have increased the demand considerably. Beside MG and Rover were not yet in the same commercial group, British Leyland.

Rover's ex-Buick light-alloy V8
Rover's ex-Buick light-alloy V8 shoehorned neatly into the MGB's engine bay:
It weighed 250lb less than the straight-six C and gave more power.

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The history of Rover's wonderfully versatile engine is fascinating. This pushrod unit had been developed from a General Motors engine used between 1960 and 1963. The Americans stopped production when their thin-wall iron casting techniques improved sufficiently to make the lightweight V8 an oddball in their range. It was spotted accidentally by a Rover executive and built under license for the company's saloons and later the Range Rover. Fitting it to the MGB in 1967 would have involved considerable expenditure in meeting anti-emission regulations and could have caused problems with General Motors who did not want to see a cheap, and fast, MGB competing with their Stingray, and using one of their engines.

(British V8 editor's note: Fitting a discontinued GM engine into MGC wasn't a realistic option when the MGC was being developed. Remarkably, many people fail to note the obvious American alternative: the small-block Ford V8 engine that was already being used in British-made Sunbeam Tigers. The timing could have worked out so well: with purchase of Sunbeam by Chrysler, Ford had reason to look for another customer. The Ford 289 V8 in Mark-2 Tigers was 150lbs. lighter than an MGC six, yet it produced far more power and torque. Ford had to comply with the same anti-emission regulations mentioned above, so MG's engineering costs would have been largely mitigated. The MGC chassis provided a stronger, stiffer platform than the Sunbeam Tiger, superior handling, and a GT bodyshell option. MG's much larger dealer network, compared to Sunbeam, would have made an MGC with factory-installed Ford V8 a great success.)

However, during 1970, when MGC production had been abandoned, a garage proprietor from Kent, Ken Costello, who had raced MGBs, started experimenting with fitting the Rover V8 engine to the cars of customers who wanted more performance without the handling problems of the MGC. It was an extraordinarily attractive unit, producing 185bhp at 5000rpm in the 10.5:1 compression ratio form used in Rover saloons and 137bhp in the 8.25:1 Range Rover form. The torque, 226 lb. ft. was massive and proved to be something of an Achilles heel to the Costello V8s when mated with the standard MGB all-synchromesh gearbox it was rather too much. However, other advantages of the installation tended to blind people to this problem; a variety of stiffer rear springs were available to provide tramp-free take-off and the performance was phenomenal - 130mph, 0-60mph in 7.8sec. and the standing quarter mile in 15.8sec with the heavier GT version. This weighed 20.5cwt with a fiberglass bonnet reshaped to clear the Rover engine's twin SU carburetters. Roadsters weighed around 1cwt less and were slightly faster.

There was one additional problem with the roadster in that its shell was not really stiff enough to take all that torque. These bespoke Costello cars retailed at around £2600 in 1972 with the larger (9.5 in.) MGC clutch and higher rear axle ratio (3.07 against 3.9:1); more than double the price of a standard MGB GT at the time. Nevertheless, they received considerable publicity and demand was quite high. After the debacles of the MGC, British Leyland were stung into action. They stopped supplying new engines to Ken Costello and started work on their own MGB V8. Costello soldiered on with exchange units and the odd errant Buick, but there was no hope of him setting up a production line.

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Meanwhile Abingdon ran up their first MGB with Rover power in December 1972; it was an extraordinarily neat conversion of the GT shell using the Range Rover version of the V8 and SU carburetters as they considered that its 137bhp and 193lb. ft. of torque were quite sufficient for the gearbox and rear springs, which were stiffened in any case. A special inlet manifold was used so that the carburetters could be squeezed under a standard bonnet (British Leyland had come in for considerable criticism from America for the bulges on the MGC bonnet) and a higher ratio overdrive gearbox with 3.07:1 rear axle. Fuel consumption was thus improved to around 25 mpg against Costello's lower-geared cars, which returned about 18mpg.

Some slight modifications were needed to the cars' shells (mostly rounding off corners in the engine compartment) and it was decided to standardize this with the four-cylinder machine. Thus, all the MGBs from mid-1973 when V8 production got under way were built with this new shell. Only the GT version was built by the factory, however, who were worried about the roadster's rigidity. It was intended to export the MG V8 to America (where the vast majority of MGBs were sent) and seven left-hand-drive cars were built in the development department at Abingdon alongside ten right-hand-drive ones in January and February 1973. However, the same situation that had gone against the MG V8 in 1967 still applied and there was the problem that there was hardly sufficient room under the bonnet for America's increasingly bulky emission equipment. Eventually, the MGB GT V8 was announced in right-hand-drive form only in August 1973. Two of the left-hand-drive cars were sent to the New York Motor Show and were returned to Abingdon later to join the other five, which were retained until 1974 and 1975. Six were then sold to European customers and the other went to British rallyman Michael Pearson, who campaigned it with considerable success. Swiss MG enthusiast Thomas Studer bought one of the other left-hand-drive cars and races that on the track.

Interior of the first '73 MGB V8
Interior of the first '73 MGB V8 - simple to the point of being austere,
but comfortable and cosy with it. Seat had plaid cloth upholstery.

Unfortunately, just as the MGB GT V8 was launched, Britain was about to lurch into a deepening energy crisis and this, with the difficulties in building enough V8 engines, kept production down. The price didn't help either: £2294 in the United Kingdom against £1547 for a four-cylinder MGB and only £1824 for the nearest competitor, the Ford Capri 3000 GXL. The V8 could have been offered for £1800-1900, but British Leyland figured that Costello's had sold for much more and there was a market for a limited amount at the higher price. This was not to prove the case, however, and production petered out (1069 cars built in 1973, 854 in 1974, 489 in 1975 and only 176 in 1976) before the V8 was no more. One more factor that went against it was that British Leyland decided to drop the MGB GT in America in 1975 to give their new hope, the Triumph TR7, a clear run.

As with any MGB, you have to check for rust in the sills and wings of an elderly example (this can be quite easily prevented by modern rust-proofing agents); with the V8s be especially wary of a noisy gearbox (even in its 137bhp standard form, the box was on the limit of its capacity), and anything other than a very smooth engine. The switches on the V8's twin electric fans are notoriously unreliable and can lead to unexpected overheating with subsequent engine trouble.

Such is the interest in the renaissance of the MGB V8 that rumour has it that British Leyland are about to make more. This has been hotly denied by official sources, who make the point that the four-cylinder cars are still selling so well (and pass the half-million production figure this year) that they have their work cut out producing enough of them!

Chatham's open V8

After the demise of the production cars, there was still a certain demand for the MG V8, and Costello continued to convert the odd car. Another garage proprietor and racing driver, John Chatham wondered what he could do to alleviate the situation. What the enthusiasts really wanted, he reasoned, was an open MG with V8 performance.

With the considerable experience of running and building Big Healeys and ex-works MGCs behind him, Chatham decided to use the MGC shell for his prototype. This was much stiffer than that of the MGB roadster and he had lots of ex-works parts in any case. He then obtained a modified V8 engine giving around 200bhp fitted with a Costello Weber conversion, and mated it to an MGC gearbox. To get over the MGB V8's gearbox problem, he fitted works straight-cut gear clusters and competition overdrive on third and fourth with a 3.7:1 limited slip rear axle, 14in. x 7in. Minilite wheels and low-profile tyres. Suspension and braking were uprated to competition standards and the performance was shattering.

Chris Harvey's Chatham-converted V8-engined MGC roadster

Chris Harvey's V8 engine
Chris Harvey's Chatham-converted V8-engined MGC roadster on Minilite wheels and 7in.
tyres. With modified 200bhp engine, the car will sprint to 60mph in under 6 seconds.

When I first tried the car soon after it was completed in Bristol in February 1978 it recorded a tyre-smoking 5.8sec 0-60mph time with an unmentionable top speed! Like all MG V8s, its 50/50 weight distribution gave it dream-like handling and it took no sales talk from Chatham for me to buy the car. In 35,000 miles since then it still retains the V8's turbine-like power and has shown me why these machines are sought so avidly be collectors.

You can still buy a new MGB GT V8. After converting a number of second hand cars for customers, Chatham built his first all-new V8 in January. Using a Rover SD1 engine and five-speed gearbox with Triumph TR7 C8 Offenhauser manifold and Holley four-choke carburetter, plus Minilite wheels, this machine cost £8200, less the value of the new four-cylinder engine, gearbox, wheels and tyres removed.

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