No Rest for the Deceased

Rover disinterred the MGB in 1992 to produce the RV8. It was something of an anachronism, but did what was expected of it.

Image: autoexpress.co.uk

The later chapters in the history of MG sports cars are well known to followers of DTW and do not make for happy reading. Starved of the resources needed to develop proper successors, MG was forced to limp along with only minimal modifications to both the Midget and MGB throughout the 1970s, the most notable being the rubber bumpers and raised ride height(1) introduced in 1974 that ruined both the appearance and handling(2) of the cars.

Both models struggled on in much diminished form until production finally ended in late 1980 with the closure of the MG Abingdon factory. Perversely, it was the commercial failure of the Triumph TR7 sports car that was cited as one reason the MGB had to go, because it was accused of cannibalising sales of the TR7(3). In any event, MG was reduced to no more than a badge applied to sporting versions of the Austin Metro, Maestro and Montego for the remainder of the decade.

Rover had assumed that safety regulations and changes in consumer preferences had made small and affordable sports cars commercially unviable. However, the launch of the hugely successful Mazda MX-5 in 1989 turned that notion on its head, and Rover decided in 1991 to make a return to the market. That would ultimately lead to the introduction of the mid-engined MGF in 1995, but Rover wanted something to revive the MG marque in the interim. Shovels in hand, it decided to disinter the corpse of the MGB.

Rover was assisted in this endeavour by the fact that the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust was producing MGB bodyshells in small numbers to serve the thriving restoration market. However, putting the long dead and even longer discredited ‘classic’ MGB back into production would hardly have served as an appropriate introduction to the forthcoming all-new model. A major overhaul was ordered, including heavily revised bodywork, a luxurious ‘wood and leather’ interior and, of course, the evergreen Rover V8 engine.

Image: Marc Vorgers

The new model, christened RV8 for obvious reasons, was developed under the codename ‘Adder’ and was ready for introduction in little over a year. Sales began in the spring of 1993. It was designed and built by Rover’s Special Products Division. This division was established in 1990 with a mission to produce low-volume but profitable niche models for Rover. Its first products were a reborn Mini Cooper and the Range-Rover CSK(4) Special Edition, both of which sold profitably at a hefty premium.

The RV8 was, however, a far more ambitious project. At its launch, Steve Schlemmer, head of Special Products, claimed that only 5% of the MGB was carried over unchanged. Re-tooled, re-sourced or modified components comprised another 20% and the remaining 75% was either wholly new or sourced from other contemporary Rover cars.

The result was something of a curate’s egg in mechanical terms. New Koni telescopic shock absorbers were fitted at the front, replacing the MGB’s ancient lever-arm dampers. Front brakes were discs with four-pot calipers. At the rear, however, the car retained the MGB’s drum brakes as well as its live axle and leaf-spring suspension, albeit also fitted with Koni shock absorbers. An attempt was made to stabilise this rather primitive arrangement with the addition of anti-tramp rods fixed to the axle and forward spring hangers.

Image: classiccargarage.com

There was better news on the drivetrain. The engine was bored out to 3.9 litres and produced maximum power of 190bhp (142kW) and torque of 242 lb ft (328Nm). It was mated to the five-speed ‘77mm’ manual gearbox from the Rover SD1. Drive was sent onward through the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential. The RV8’s steering rack was modified using components from the Land-Rover Discovery. Rover claimed a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 135mph (218km/h) for the RV8.

The styling of the RV8 was familiar and yet largely new. Only the doors and boot lid were carried over from the MGB unchanged. All four wings were noticeably flared out beneath the MGB’s bodyside crease. Sill extensions completed the steroidal overhaul. The inclined headlamps were, famously, borrowed from the Porsche 911 and housed within new nacelles. There were colour-keyed fibreglass bumpers at both ends, the one at the front being much more smoothly integrated into the styling of the nose than the rubber bumper on the MGB had been. It contained circular recesses for outboard indicators and inboard driving lamps.

One expensive indulgence at the rear of the car was custom-made tail lights, although the rear fog lamps were contained in circular recesses in the bumper. The MGB roadster’s aluminium windscreen frame was replaced by a pressed steel item, although this was, rather incongruously, painted satin black rather than body-colour. The door mirrors were sourced from the Metro. Exterior brightwork was limited to the scuttle air intake and door handles carried over from the MGB and the bezels of the new tail lights. The standard alloy wheels were slightly chintzy looking silver multi-spoke items designed to remind viewers of the MGB’s wire wheels.

Image: autocar.co.uk

The interior looked rather opulent with a polished elm wood dashboard and door cappings and biscuit-coloured ruched leather on the seats. Those who knew contemporary Rover models well could spot column stalks from the Rover 800 and air vents from the Metro, but it all came together rather well, and the driving position and seat comfort was significantly improved over the MGB. A lavish touch was the heavy chromed interior door handles sourced from the Jaguar XJS.

The driving experience proved to be pretty much as might have been expected from the mechanical specification. Car Magazine’s Phil Llewellin took an RV8 for an extended road test and reported his findings in the September 1993 issue of the magazine. Although the RV8 felt “star ship fast with the hood down,” Llewellin recorded a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 6.7 seconds, almost a second shy of that claimed by Rover.

Reasonably smooth road surfaces “flattered the horse-and-cart suspension” but challenging moorland roads “revealed the more primitive side of its character” and “called for less pressure on the right foot.” Smooth Autobahns with sweeping curves “could have been designed for the RV8’s benefit” but the car, while notably stable, lacked agility. When faced with a sudden correction, “the car twitched and jittered in a situation that a more modern design would have handled comfortably.”

Commenting on its styling, most observers seemed to think that “Rover has struck an acceptable compromise between updating the MGB’s appearance and retaining the looks that made it so popular.” The hood restricted vision for tall drivers and leaked in an admittedly “apocalyptic” rain storm. Overall fuel consumption on the 1,500-mile (2,419km) trip was 26.9mpg.

Image: mgcc.co.uk

The RV8 remained in small-scale production for three years, during which time a total of 1,983 were produced. It was a surprising hit in Japan, which accounted for 1,579 of those sales, a significant number of which have subsequently been re-imported into the UK to satisfy demand from enthusiasts in its birthplace. It never was, nor did it pretend to be, a competitive modern sports car: its underpinnings were far too primitive for that, but it re-lit the MG flame in preparation for the launch of the MGF in 1995 and there are many cherished examples still in the hands of enthusiasts today.

(1) Both modifications were driven by US NTSA regulations regarding so-called ‘5mph bumpers’ and minimum headlamp height requirements.

(2) Caused not only by the raised ride height, but also the ‘pendulum’ effect of the heavy bumpers at each extremity.

(3) This proved not to be the case as TR7 sales improved only modestly after the launch of both the V8-engined and convertible versions of the Triumph sports car, which died barely a year after the MG models.

(4) Named in honour of the Range-Rover’s creator, Charles Spencer (Spen) King CBE.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

31 thoughts on “No Rest for the Deceased”

  1. Thank you Daniel. The factory never made a GT version, but other people did. More than a few have appeared over the years, some even reprising the base car and using new heritage body shells.

    1. Good morning David. I wonder if Rover missed a trick by not offering the RV8 in coupé form? Given the ready supply of heritage bodyshells, the additional cost would have been modest and not everyone likes convertibles, especially ones with the RV8’s rather primitive and rudimentary soft-top.

      I remember seeing a few RV8s around London back in the day. They appeared to be very well built and nicely finished. Almost all appeared to be in either dark metallic green or blue. I wonder how many colours were offered?

    2. That’s interesting reading – had no idea they did them in white for example. I’ve seen ex-Japan imports advertised here in Australia.

      I saw a different RV8 GT – this time with black window trim, which I liked enough to still remember 10 years later

  2. I´ve seen just one of these, in Dublin around the time it was launched. It´s a peculiar thing, not unlike a Bristol in its combination of styles and parts and its elongated production history. It is a monument to English conservatism, I would suggest.

  3. Hi Daniel. I remember the mixed feelings I had about the RV8 when it first came out. Yes, the cows-and-trees interior worked (sort-of). So did the exterior, with the front part being a riff on the rubber-bumper models that was a little less unfortunate than the original. Yes, the V8 engine was a good option, provided your car’s engine displacement didn’t determine your income tax. There was no way, however, to hide the fact that the car’s underpinnings – especially at the rear – were archaic. At the end of the day, I couldn’t get myself to grow fond of it. Nowadays, I’m more inclined to wonder how I should call this car, if we’re to consider the Mercedes-Benz SLK cynical.

    1. Did the engine displacement determine the absolute level of income tax or some element of it? It seems odd that a billionaire could cut her or his tax just by driving a 1.0 litre Fiat while another person on very little can only drive a 1.0 Fiat.

    2. In Greece, it determined part of your income tax. Until 1997 or thereabouts, anything above 1.5 liters was for the well-heeled only. And after the austerity packages came, everything above 2 liters was hit hard.

    3. So, if two people earned the same amount, other things being equal, just buying a small-engined car meant your income tax was lower? In theory one could buy a very well-specced car with a small engine then while someoene with a poverty-spec car, and a larger engine but costing less paid more tax?

    4. Precisely. You could get a fully loaded Lancia Y10 1.1 and pay far less income tax than what you’d pay if you bought the most basic version of the Nissan Bluebird 1.6. It sounds insane, and it is, but that’s Greece for you. And no, this was not something the social-democrats of PASOK introduced; it’s always been this way in the ’70s and the ’60s…

    5. To be precise ownership of a car was (and is) presupposes for the state a minimum income. So based on the cubic capacity of the engine (and the age of the car) you should have a “minimum” income, that you would be taxed for. If you had an income ( that was taxed) that was equal or higher to that minimum then you noticed no difference. In theory it has some reason in the sense that you are obviously cheating if you as a private person own a new 5lt engined car and have a taxable income that sill not even cover service costs. The problem is of course that these “minimum incomes” were quite high even for modest engines like 2 lt. Plus that if you bought an expensive lotus with a tiny engine you would have a much smaller minimum income than someone buying say a 10 year old 3lt car ( which might cost close to nothing to buy)

    6. I have no business complaining about it and am not, but the annual road tax on my 2.7-litre Boxster was £290 in the UK and is now €790 in Ireland.

  4. Afternoon and thanks for the article!

    I suppose if this car built up enthusiasm for the later MGF then it was a sound idea. With just shy of 2000 sold, did it make a profit in of itself though? Because with how Rover’s story played out I really do question every penny they spent. I guess the profit margins on it were pretty high, so it probably did?

  5. Bigger displacement engine usually came with a more luxury package.
    So it is not without reason the increase in import taxes that burdened the 2.0L+ engined vehicles.
    There was also an increased annual taxation.
    So yes, 20L+ meant wealth!
    And all that without taking acount of the increased service and maintenance cost inflicted by the local mechanic just because he assumed you were well off.

  6. Like the exterior, also agree they should have developed an official RV8 coupe. Just wished they did more on improving the rear suspension.

    Recall reading something about an MG Midget variation modelled after the MGA also being contemplated at one point in MG: The Untold Story.

    1. Could you be thinking of EX195 (c.1955-58) a cost-cut MGA with a single carburettor B-series, soon replaced by the 948cc A-series? Various chassis and driveline parts from BMC saloons were also tried to cut costs, but the savings achieved were said to be less than £50 / car, for an end result severely compromised by its lack of power.

    2. No. Having quickly re-read the book. It was a proposal on page 211 by Don Wyatt known as the MGX, it was an attempt at a modern interpretation of the MGA style paired with the basic body structure of the MG Midget. Considered feasible as BMH reintroduced the Midget bodyshell in the wake of the MGB shell, with the engine presumed (though not 100% certain) to be an in-line K-Series driving the rear-wheels.

    3. It was ultimately a paper proposal, honestly though was half expecting an RV8-in-minature styling treatment for the Midget.

  7. Thanks, Daniel. I always thought the MGB wore its umpteenth update well. It also speaks for the “can do with spit ‘n glue” attitude that seemed to pervade Rover at the time, for obvious budgetary reasons. The Rover 200 (R3) was a well executed mishmash of existing components and the various Rover/MG model variants from after the BMW split boggled the mind. Not all of that was used wisely (rear drive on the Rover 75/MG ZT), but it certainly was creative.

    As you say, the RV8 was never intended to be a mass market, competitive model. That said, it certainly was quick. Perhaps that blacked out windscreen frame was to hide the large curves at the corners, which made it look a little old fashioned?

    That GT version looks fab, by the way.

  8. It’s distressing to think that BLMC could have made something like the RV8 as early as 1969. The main ingredients were there; Sebring wide-arch body, Rover V8, and there must have been a suitable gearbox in the armoury, best matched with an overdrive.

    Ken Costello had his first conversion on the road by 1970, with a modified MGB gearbox with overdrive. His own version of the evolution of his conversions makes interesting reading – but also dispiriting where he describes BLMC’s ambivalent response to his work:

    https://www.mgcostello.com/evolution-of-the-costello-v8

    The August 1973 factory V8 used the stronger MGC gearbox, but was a half-hearted effort with the engine downrated to avoid the need to seriously upgrade the suspension and brakes. America was off limits too – too much bother to ‘Federalise’ the engine, and J Bruce McWilliams wanted a proper job with serious power and chassis upgrades, which seemed to be beyond BLMC’s capabilities.

  9. Could the stylistic similarity between the updated RV8 bits and the Bentley Continental R be just a coincidence?

    1. Hi gooddog. By ‘Continental R’, do you mean this?

      I see the similarity in the flared wheelarches, but otherwise it escapes me. 🤔

    2. Hi Daniel, Yes that one. Also the tail lights. And the reintroduction to the lexicon of the “coke bottle” shape (not a pontoon rear wing or sweep like the MGA) which hadn’t featured on prior MGs nor Bentleys.

      Aside from early 1970s Fords and the Hillman Avenger (and the 2010 Bentley Mulsanne), I don’t even associate the coke bottle shape with British cars.

      In any case I’ve found an attribution for the RV8 design which suggests Heffernan and Greenley were not involved:

      “The styling of the rough prototype would be modified in a new sketch by [Rover Special Products] stylist Richard Bartlam, which introduced blistered wheel arches, a subtle beltline kick-up and a bulged hood”

      https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:gY28Hiu7968J:https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/postmodern-classic-mg-rv8

    3. You’ve overlooked my favourite British riff on the ‘Coke-bottle’ theme, the Vauxhall Victor FD, shown here in sporting VX4/90 guise:

  10. I always thought this a half decent makeover.

    The MGF ranks in my book as an unfairly rated car. Its reputation sullied by what happened to its maker, that and poorly manufactured head gaskets. It was innovatively engineered, and possessed of a (when properly set up) genius suspension system. Gerry’s styling was a bit squiffy (grafting a caricature of the MGB onto an interpretation of the EX-E was unfortunate), but it was a decent effort overall.

  11. My friend was the chassis engineer on this car. He was driving a Morgan +8 at the time as Rover quietly assisted Morgan on projects. It was this car that was the benchmark for the RV8, not a TVR as the press stated at the time. He was Longbridge’s RWD specialist but had just completed the 216GTi chassis settings prior to this.
    The whole project was done on the tightest of budgets and the fact the RV8 was as good as it turned out was testament to the team behind it.
    I’m not sure what the Land Rover Discovery donated to the RV8’s steering rack as the Disco had a steering box. However, the spot-the-donor-car-part game is at its peak with this car.
    Incidentally, I think the tooling for the lovely rear light clusters was around £180,000.

    1. Good morning Steven and thank you for the additional information on the development of the RV8. I imagine that, given the largely hand-built construction of the car, a two-litre version at a lower price point, while offering greater sales potential, probably wouldn’t have been a viable proposition from a financial perspective.

  12. It would have been a nice touch to make the MGR V8 available as a FHC but probably wasn’t worth the tooling costs. However I feel a missed opportunity was to not make a 2.0 MGR available. Rover’s 2.0 T-series engine (direct descendant of the B-series) was an off-the-shelf powertrain coupled to either the 77mm gearbox or R380 gearbox, both of which featured in the RV8, as it was being fitted to both the Land Rover Discovery and the Morgan +4 at that time.

  13. (No doubt about it Daniel, Vauxhall had the nicest cokebottles, particularly the HB Viva.)

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