Theme: Secondhand – The Rover V8

The story of how the Buick aluminium 215 engine became the Rover V8 is often-enough told so I will use this little posting mostly as a short guide to some of the most entertaining versions.

1986 Rover P6 V8 3500:
Rover P6 V8 3500:

Sold to Rover, the engine powered Range Rovers, Rovers, MGs and TVRs along with Morgan. Jalopnik has a good short version of the story here In a nutshell, Buick wanted a lightweight, small capacity V8. They decided to use aluminium which led to a chain of problems that were still being dealt with 40 years later. Among those problems are slipping liners and porosity. If you scroll down the comments at the Jalopnik article you’ll find a neat list of V8 engines used by GM in the late 60s.  

The Jalopnik article links to this which is an Autocar piece from the mid-70s, itself also reprinted in the British V8 newsletter in December 2007. You can see this article is itself an exercise in second-hand. The bit I note is that the article quotes a technical review from 1960: “We will wager that the most widely copied engine of the next 10 years will be the superb new aluminium V8 by Buick.” To understand the complexity of the engine design here is a generous extract of the 1976 Autocar article.

The first application in a Rover of the V8 was in the P5. This car is notable as perhaps the first of those fishy four door coupes. Credit: see watermark.

This is a rather lucid account which I think is an object lesson in writing about engineering: “Buick managed to design an aluminium alloy with a high silicon content that gave wear characteristics on the engine test bed which were generally superior to cast iron, confounding the critics who said that they could not have an aluminium cylinder wall with an aluminium piston running in it in a mass production engine.

However, one problem they simply could not overcome was the scuffing of the bores by the piston rings in a cold start. It was mainly for this reason that Buick elected to go for iron cylinder liners cast in place in a block with a more modest silicon content in the aluminium alloy. Buick had ruled out any idea of using wet liners because the American engineering techniques do not allow for the handwork precision of wet liners in European designs, and they were most concerned about the problems of water leakage from a poorly sealed liner.

2012 Morgan V8. Plenty of saturation and contrast make this photo very hard to take seriously. Image: Daily Mail
Morgan V8. Plenty of saturation and contrast make this photo very hard to take seriously. Image: Daily Mail

In fact, the feeling against wet liners was so strong that Buick later admitted they would rather of abandoned the aluminium alloy concept altogether then to go to wet liners. The liners in production were pre-heated to prevent chilling in the mould and held in place by mandrels as the block was cast. Buick used gravity casting in metal dies with sand cores for the water jackets. The problems of varying expansion rates in the metal between block, head, and rockers were solved by using hydraulic lifters, already common practice in American engineering. The heads of the Buick unit were also cast in dies with intricate sand cores.”

The Rover 75 V8 was the not last application of the car in a Rover product. That car used a Ford V8, which seems rather sacrilegious to me. The Land Rover Discovery was fitted with this engine until 2004, which is where the story ends as far as mass production is concerned.

Looking at the later developments of the engine from 3.5 to 5.0 litres, one realises the attraction of the engine despite its foibles. I also note that there are a variety of companies servicing the engine’s users in the form of new blocks, maintenance and spares.

In some way the Buick 215 has become a kind of vernacular or folk engine or what some might call an “open source” design. It’s not moored to any copyright as far as I can tell which means that anyone with the interest to do so can rework the engine to their own requirements. So, is the Buick-Rover unit an engine or is it a system of engines?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “Theme: Secondhand – The Rover V8”

  1. Jalopnik is a fine site generally, but that piece is quite shockingly light. I read the Autocar article and completely missed the ‘virulent anti-American’ part of it. However, the (American?) author of the Jalopnik piece seems to think that the Buick 215 is the same engine as the Oldsmobile Jetfire that, in turn, became the Repco F1 engine. My understanding has always been that they are certainly not interchangeable. They might share a common conception but, in the mysterious world of GM brand autonomy, ended up being markedly different.

  2. I’ve read that article a few times and several others like it. I’ve also got the book devoted to this engine which went through it’s history and how to get the most out of it. I love the part about William Hurst stumbling across the motor at the Mercury workshop. That sort of thing could never happen today. Even in IT or social media.
    A few things stand out to me. Firstly, that despite it’s wide spread use, Buick/GM made more units in three years than Rover did over 40. Secondly I find it interesting that Rover spent so much time and energy re-engineering the engine. It makes much more sense to a lay person like me to design and build a motor from scratch? Obviously it wasn’t when you’re a small manufacturer like Rover but I still scratch my head at why they went this way especially when you consider the talent they had. Thirdly, following on from this, had Rover waited a couple of more years they might have been able to collaborate with Triumph to build a V8 together. Triumph’s could have been the sportier offering and Rover’s the more refined version. The Daimler 2.5 Hemi motor would been a nice fit as well. Lastly, even after 50 years of widespread use, the limited performance upgrade potential of this motor highlights the importance of scale. Getting more than 200 hp out of the 3.5 motor seems take a fair bit of effort and money. Compare this to the Chevy Small Block tuner who seems to have no trouble producing more than 1 hp per cubic inch despite it’s pushrod overhead valve configuration.

    1. At the time I never understood quite why Rover went that route, although they probably saw it as a cost effective short-term solution – I doubt anyone foresaw its extraordinary longevity. Although it would probably never have happened, an alternative world where the more forward-looking and fine sounding Triumph V8 had been properly developed would have been nice.

      It’s an interesting statistic regarding the quantity of 215 units produced in its short life. It underlines what a huge home market the US industry had more or less to itself back then and why it felt comfortable remaining relatively ignorant of other markets – to its ultimate cost.

  3. All of David Rodgers’ points glare at me as well. In no particular order, the internecine disputes inside BMLC meant Rover and Triumph would rather have eaten ground glass than help one another. These firms had been competing for decades so it would have been hard for them to lay down arms and actually co-operate. If reason had prevailed they would have swallowed their pride and developed a better engine. As it happens Rover got their bid in first and placed their bet on Buick´s unwanted unit. The mystery is why they struggled and struggled with it. Were the advantages really worth the effort involved? When I was a studio engineer I learned that starting again was often the fastest way to fix a mess. Stubborn-ness sometimes made me try to fix something I´d invested time in, believing one more hour could salvage ten when really scrapping the ten and putting in three more was the better way forward. I suppose Rover were duped by the sunk-cost fallacy: we have this thing so we´ll make it work.
    One reason such a story would not happen today is that a lot of development work is done on a screen. In the 50s people could see lumps of metal being worked on. I suppose the Rover bloke saw something interesting during a workshop tour and could size it up easily.
    I still like this story anyhow, taking something a bit duff and making something half-baked out of it and persisting….

  4. It is said that, in the oil-shortage of the 70s, GM reassessed the merits of the small V8 and tried to buy the rights back from Rover. Rover declined but offered to supply engines to GM. GM wisely declined. This sounds like only half a story. Citation Needed as they say in WikiWorld.

    Bearing in mind the genesis of the Triumph V8 and the labyrinthine political stupidity endemic at British Leyland, it’s surprising that Rover didn’t go the other direction and plan a 1750cc four by cutting the Buick engine in two.

  5. A more typical BMC story might be this (which I made up entirely). In 1963 the chief engineer of firm A decided to move the firm upmarket. The four cylinder engines were abandoned and a V6 and V8 developed. In 1964 the chief engineer of firm B decided to focus more on the smaller car market and cancelled development of their V6 and V8 engines (nearly complete) and then bought in four cylinder engines from firm C. Firm A had huge problems with the V6 and V8 and firm B had huge problems with the loss of prestige and the unreliability of the four cylinder units from firm C. Lord Whichever decreed in 1973 that firm A and B would be merged but found that none of their engines worked in each other´s cars becuase the chassis engineers had designed them to be incompatible. Firm C was shut down but its engine was used in the joint range of firm A and firm B.

    1. Sounds like you’ve got the whole sorry mess of BMC and BL summed up there; yet thanks to the ubiquity of the corporate media, everyone blames “the unions”.

  6. The internal wars can be explained by the commonly held opinion within the companies involved that BMC was a politically motivated marriage of convenience that was not expected to last. Jaguar was particularly guilty of this, being shoehorned into the merger at the last minute. The labour disputes were a side issue that ballooned when the unions surmised that BMC / Leyland could draw upon the infinite money pump of government funding. Their strikes brought an already weakly planned organisation (and I use that term lightly) to its knees.

  7. Mark: the unions were blamed when the real reason is that there was chronic social conflict taking place between the managerial class and the line-workers. Turn to a political scientist for a further analysis of that. The same thing might have happened in Italy. Second, the product planning was appalling. Here you can criticise the command-economy style of governance that was in operation at the time. I think central government instructed BL to buy whoever they bought. But even in more laissez-faire economies large firms often bought smaller ones: GM, Chrysler and Ford were all made up of captured firms. And they all suffered the same results of competing products. No, at bottom I see this as bad management and a political/social crisis played out on production lines. I am sure there were troublesome people in the union movement but no more so than an any other section of society. I find it interesting that conservative politicians who are so business-orientated often show so little regard for the products of business. I have invited a long argument here so I will be quiet now….

    1. Richard, that seemed like a fine assessment of the problem to me. My old industrial relations lecturer at university – a trained lawyer and a communist, who had been at the sharp end of many disputes – always stressed to us that strike action represented failure. It was a declaration of war and caused widespread casualties. Certainly, the unions were partly at fault, but the inept management of the UK motor industry during the 60s, 70s and 80s also deserves much of the blame.

      There was a chronic lack of strategic direction, which meant that the different companies ended up fighting each other rather than working together to ensure their survival.

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