Fond du Lac is located in Wisconsin, USA – it’s also the city where Mercury Marine is located. I have noticed that many classic car enthusiasts equally share an interest in other mechanical means of transport such as aircraft, trains and not least boats, so Mercury’s boat engines are probably not entirely unknown to you. Some of you might now be thinking: Sure, boats are great, but ViaRETRO is a classic CAR magazine, so I visit here for my daily dose of something that’ll blast down a twisty back road with a scent of burnt rubber and petrol in my nostrils. But, easy now; that is actually precisely what this article is about…
When it came to the older outboard engines, Mercury Marine was probably best known for their two-stroke engines. But they also manufactured the z-drive engines, under the name: MerCruiser, where the engines were typically a car engine reengineered for marine life.
It was for exactly such an occasion that a group of sales representatives from Rover, one day in 1963, were visiting at Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac. The purpose was partly to sell the diesel engine from the Land Rover, but also the gas turbine engine, which Rover had developed for automotive use during the 1950s.
There are some limitations with gas turbines though; they are not very well suited for vehicles with a mechanical transmission, as they are not particularly good at spinning up and down rapidly, while this is much less important in aircraft and boats/ships. The gas turbine delivers high power at low weight, and Rover were trying to sell it for other purposes, in order to get the returnofinvestment which they had put into the development of it. However, Mercury Marine were not interested in the gas turbine, though at least Rover managed to seal a deal on the diesel engine.
While the salesmen from Rover were visiting Mercury Marine, they caught sight of a small V8 engine tucked away in a corner where both block and cylinder heads were made of aluminium. They immediately found it interesting and enquired about more information. They were told that the engine was from the General Motors’ Buick division, which had abandoned the production of it.
This coincided with Rover realising that their 6-cylinder IOE (Inlet-over-Exhaust) engine range for their larger car models had reached the end of its development potential. There was a need for a new engine, and the attractiveness of the aluminium V8 was that it did not weigh much more, nor was it much longer, than Rover’s 4-cylinder engine.
Rover therefore approached GM directly about the aluminium V8, but initially they got no response. GM simply did not take the inquiry seriously, as they had chosen to shut down the production, among other things because they found it too expensive to produce. One of the American virtues was always to have a strong focus on cost and usually refrain from complex technical solutions if they were not strictly necessary. GM therefore did not initially understand that anyone would be interested in the engine. There had to be a further inquiry before GM finally realised that Rover were indeed serious about it… and now GM was ready… since another American virtue is not to sit on your hands, when there’s an opportunity for a good business deal.
But how did GM actually get the idea of developing and manufacturing a small aluminium V8 in the first place?
We will have to go back to the beginning of the 1950s, where Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) – back then as now, one of the world’s largest aluminium producers – had set up a new strategy for increasing the sales of aluminium. The plan was to introduce aluminium into new industries, among them, the automotive industry as that was where the high volume was. Alcoa also came knocking on the door at GM… and this time, the connection was made at first contact, since at that point the Buick Division had just started looking into which kind of engines were needed for the future.
GM looked deep into their crystal ball, and found that in the future smaller cars would be the way forward – and therefore actions should be taken to respond to the rising import of smaller cars from Europe. They of course had Chevrolet as the entry level brand to the GM universe, while Buick was a higher level brand pitched at the upper middle-class market.
Over at Chevrolet they were already in the process of developing the Corvair model. In a Chevrolet it was deemed sufficient with 6-cylinders, but in relation to the more upmarket Buick it was necessary to offer the consumer 8-cylinders. The combination of wanting a smaller Buick but still with a V8 engine, led to them developing a small (in American context) V8. But the development process was long, and along the way the new aluminium engine was shown in various concept cars. It was not until 1958 that the actual development of the mass production engine was started, at which point it was planned to be launched in 1961… together with a new car: the Buick Special and its sister model, the Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass.
The engine was named “215” – naturally due to its displacement of 215 cubic inches, corresponding to 3.5-litres for us Europeans. It was entirely in aluminum with fixed cylinder liners in steel and weighed just 144 kg.
Recently, there has been some debate over on the Danish version of ViaRETRO about just how clever American cars were – or were not. But the story of the 215 is actually a perfect example of how GM during that period had the courage to try to deviate from the beaten path. In this context, it is not least worth mentioning that from 1962, the 215 engine was even offered with turbocharging in the Oldsmobile Jetfire, which – along with the Chevrolet Corvair Spyder – were the first mass-production passenger cars with turbocharged engines. How’s that for daring and evolutionary engineering?
Unfortunately, it turned out, that there were problems with the quality of the casting process, which led to a higher failure rate and a number of customer complaints. Another problem was the clogging of the cooling system due to corrosion, since at that time the composition of the coolant in connection with aluminium was not entirely understood and controlled. In short, the costs spiraled out of control…
Therefore the dreaded “bean counters” stepped in and demanded changes to be made. It just so happened that this coincided with the development department having looked into manufacturing new molds for a thin-walled cast iron engine block. The writing was on the wall, and the 215 engine was abandoned by GM.
All of which brings us back to Rover again. GM was now ready for the transaction: selling the rights to the 215 engine to Rover – and to make the process as smooth as possible, they also made sure, that enough extra engineering resources were made available, along with Rover’s own engineers. For various reasons, several modifications had to be made. Rover wanted to increase the power and at the same time, they wanted to get rid of the Rochester downflow carburettor, in favour of – initially – two SU carburettors. Furthermore, work was needed to improve the casting process.
They managed all of this, and by 1967 the engine was ready to enter full production and provide Rover with a strong upmarket engine.
They started with the Rover P5B and the following year, in 1968, followed up with the more modern P6B.
The same year, Rover’s new V8 ended up powering the Morgan Plus 8.
Then in 1970, the aluminium V8 became an essential part of the whole of the first-generation Range Rover.
And you can go on like this; like beads on a string, one new car model after the next rolled onto the streets with the aluminium V8 engine out front: Rover SD1, Land Rover Defender and Discovery, new P38 Range Rover… and that’s just sticking to those bearing the Rover nametag.
In 1967 – the same year as the introduction of the engine – Rover had become part of British Leyland, which meant that the engine was destined to also power other BL products such the MGB GT V8 and the Triumph TR8.
But even outside of British Leyland, also TVR found use of the light and compact V8 in their Griffith and Chimaera models.
Over time, the engine displacement grew from the original 3.5-litres to 3.9-litres, then 4.6-litres and finally 5.0-litres in the mentioned TVR models, by gradually increasing both bore and stroke. Changes to the carburation were made too, eventually to end up with fuel injection instead.
If you count in “the Buick years”, the aluminum V8 had a lifespan of 46 years by the time production ended in 2006. A lucky gamble… and well spotted by the Rover people that day in Fond du Lac. The Buick 215 or Rover V8 engine was (and is) an excellent engine. Designed in the United States and cured of childhood illnesses in Britain… The question remains, would Rover even have outlasted the late 1960s without their famous V8?
I doubt it… What do you think?