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