Road Test - The M.G-B GT V8

Six years too late, comfortable seating, poor ride, excessive wind noise , fast and economical

There are those who say that certain sectors of the British motor industry would have been in a better state had the formation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation never occurred. Possibly, but in another respect it might have been an advantage if the merger had occurred a couple of years earlier than it did in 1968. The Motor Show of 1967 saw the introduction by the MG Car Company Ltd., then part of British Motor Holdings (the old BMC plus Jaguar-Daimler) of an ill-conceived and ill-received version of the M.G.-B fitted with a seven-main-bearing, reduced power version of the four-bearing, six-cylinder engine which had powered the excellent Austin-Healey 3000. On the Rover stand at the same Show, the Solihull company, part of the Leyland Motor Corporation along with Triumph, introduced an outstanding 3.5-litre V8 engine into the familiar 3-litre bodyshell.

Within a matter of months that enormous merger took place in which Rover and MG plus their existing connections found themselves under the one corporate hat of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Among the many inheritances to which the then Sir Donald Stokes succeeded were this unpopular M.G.-C and Rover's light alloy V8. The M.G.-C was stifled in late 1969 after 4,542 roadsters and 4,457 GTs had been manufactured, while the Rover engine went on to power the Rover 3500, the Range-Rover, the Morgan Plus 8, and other more specialised vehicles.

Had the merger taken place earlier shrewd engineers might have seen the possibilities of fitting the compact V8 into the M.G.-B bodyshell and the disastrous M.G.-C might have been stillborn. Certainly after the merger there were engineers at Abingdon who saw the possibilities, men who had experimented previously with fitting Daimler V8 engines into the M.G.-B (including the 4½-litre power unit from the Majestic Major with, I think, an extra four inches longitudinally in the roadster shell's middle, though this car never ran). Presumably because the management had been frightened by the M.G.-C debacle, they thought the time was hardly ripe to produce another large-engined M.G.-B, for a Rover-MG mechanical merger failed to transpire.

But one day two or three years ago Ken Costello, a former Mini racing driver from Chislehurst, Kent, arrived at the MG factory to show the aforesaid engineers his Rover-engined M.G.-B concoction, which he subsequently put into small-quantity production. Demand for Costello's V8 M.G.-B proved to be quite high, but he was to strike a problem when his supply of Rover engines from the factory suddenly dried up. Somehow Costello managed to maintain production, but the reason for the cessation of supplies seemed pretty obvious. In August this year MG introduced their own version of the M.G.-B GE V8, eight years after the introduction of the four-cylinder M.G.-B GE, five years since MG and Rover became part of the same firm and six years too late.

Rather than road test this car for the issue immediately after announcement, I chose to wait until an opportunity for a long continental journey presented itself and what better than a weekend visit to the ultra-modern Circuit Paul Ricard, cast of Marseille in the South of France, to report a round of the European Touring Car Championship for our associated weekly journal. In all, nearly 1,900 miles of motoring of which 1,566 miles were completed in France, and 1,726 miles were added to the Smiths odometer between leaving our London office on Thursday lunchtime and returning to it 141 hours later.

In between times this remarkable alloy V8 had succeeded in propelling the 110 m.p.h. body design at cruising speeds of 120 to 130 m.p.h. for miles on end, on one occasion a 121 m.p.h. average being maintained for almost 100 miles at night and always the average autoroute speed remaining in excess of 105 m.p.h. In spite of this hard usage the overall fuel consumption worked out at exactly 18 m.p.g., failed to drop below 17 and more representative of what the normal driving customer can expect, averaged 26.3 m.p.g. on one journey of 80 miles which was not on the direct trip, when speeds of 100 to 130 m.p.h. were maintained on an autoroute for 45 per cent of the distance and most of the remainder was in traffic-jam conditions on a main road hampered by road works.

However, even after this experience I am finding it hard to decide whether I really like this latest Abingdon product, or more to the point, whether I would choose one as a replacement for my TR6. It has some excellent attributes, but most of them are marred by some of its more dated features which I have tolerated in the M.G-B but find hard to accept in a car which is brand-new in price (some £600 more than the 4-cylinder GT) and performance concept, yet is wrapped in the same familiar package.

The package most certainly is the same as the 4-cylinder version, the body being distinguished only by V8 badges on the grille, left-hand front wing and left-hand side of the lift-up tailgate while there is only one exhaust tail-pipe. More distinctive are the new Dunlop 5J wheels with ventilated cast alloy centres riveted to chromed steel rims, most attractive and claimed to be the strongest wheels ever fitted by MG. Like the current M.G.-B wheels they are of 14 in. diameter and have 5J rims, but are fitted with 175 HR 14 tyres rather than the ordinary GT's 165 SR 14 or the roadster's 155 SR 14. The test car was fitted with Goodyear G800 tyres which when checked at Dover proved to be inflated to the 21 p.s.i. front, 25 p.s.i. rear pressures recommended for moderate speed, lightly-laden conditions, though British Leyland had been aware that the car was likely to be driven at very high speed on the continent. Indeed they had kindly fitted yellow beam, correct dipping headlamps and supplied a too bulky continental touring kit, which, incidentally was left untouched other than for reasons of curiosity, for this new British Leyland model remained 100 per cent reliable under the sort of duress to which it could have been forgiven for objecting. Raising the pressures to "gross car weight and sustained speed" settings of 26 and 32 made the car suitable for the intended high speeds, slightly reduced the low-speed steering effort, but had no noticeable effect on the already extremely hard ride.

Opening the heavy bonnet (nowadays fashioned in steel by Pressed Steel Division instead of the aluminium of earlier cars, though given the advantage of a self-propping stay), reveals an awesome sight to 4-cylinder MG.-B owners and surprised garage attendants. The Buick Special/Oldsmobile F.85 derived Rover V8 sit in there as though the body had been moulded round it. Closer scrutiny reveals that this has been far from a shoe-horning job, there being plenty of room to work on the engine other than the plugs, hidden among the exhaust manifolding down below the air-cleaners. The bulkhead has been slightly modified to make more room and indents in the inner wheel arches ensure the exhaust manifolds don't foul, modifications which will be inherited by the ordinary MG.-B shells. A modified cross-member is fitted too, while twin thermostatically controlled and slightly noisy electric fans in front of the enlarged radiator allow a reduction in the engine's overall length.

The 3,528 c.c. (bore, and stroke 88.9 x 71.1mm.) V8 engine with an MG octagon on its left-hand alloy rocker box retains the hydraulic tappets and all the other features which we have described many times in relation to Rovers. However, European emission regulations have forced a reduction in compression ratio from 10.5:1 in Rover saloon application to 8.25:1, similar to the Range-Rover. Thus the maximum power is down from 150 b.h.p. DIN at 5,000 r.p.m. to 137 b.h.p. at the same figure, while 193 lb.ft DIN torque at only 2,900 r.p.m. is claimed.

An unusual SU carburetter lay-out enables the powerplant to be accommodated beneath the standard bonnet. The Rover penthouse manifold is dispensed with in favour of a 'low-line' one which mounts the twin SU HIF 6 (horizontal integral float chamber) carburetters at the rear of the engine where they are fed through a single collector box via twin air cleaners. Each air cleaner includes a bi-metallic valve which draws in warm air from sleeves on the exhaust manifolds when the engine is cold and draws in cool air when the pot is boiling.

The use of alloy makes the basic V8 weigh 40 lb less than the 4-cylinder iron engine, though the addition of an AC-Delco alternator (BL supports GM again — hopefully this item will be more reliable than the AC-Delco distributor fitted to the Dolomite) and other ancillaries raise the weight to slightly above that of the four, to give a front/rear weight ratio of 49.4 per cent/50.6 per cent compared with 47.8 per cent/52.2 per cent.

Transmission has been toughened to withstand the torque. Higher intermediate ratios in the M.G.-C-type gearbox match the power characteristics and reduce the torque load to the box. The gearbox casing is changed to accept a 9.5 in. Borg and Beck diaphragm spring clutch now with a ballrace withdrawal race instead of the rapid-wearing carbon bush found on most other British Leyland cars. Some measure of the V8's increased capabilities (torque is almost double that of the four) comes with a change of final drive ratio from 3.91:1 to 3.07:1 to aid which already high gearing there is a Laycock LH overdrive fitted as standard, operative on top gear only.

Suspension modifications are remarkably slight. Front and rear suspension is raised one inch and the necessarily longer front coil springs in the wishbone suspension are uprated, as are the semi-elliptic leaf springs supporting the live axle. Dampers are exactly as on the ordinary M.G.-B, which means that these lever-type items are likely to be similarly prone to leakage and doubtless the links on the rear ones will be similarly prone to breakage, of which I speak from former M.G.-B-owning experience.

Current 4-cylinder M.G.-Bs have considerably more refined cockpits than their earlier brothers, though the pressed-steel, matt-black fascia remains much the same and in the V8 version reminds one that one is driving basically an old friend. However, on the V8 the Abingdon designers have at last retired that ridiculous hand-pump screenwasher which has been a source of complaint since 1962 and replaced it with an electric variety operated along with the two-speed wipers and the overdrive switch by a stalk on the left-hand side of the steering column. Two or three times I managed to flick on the Wipers when flicking the overdrive switch in or out hurriedly and though I became accustomed to the switch eventually, pulling it towards me to switch in the overdrive and out to switch it off felt an unnatural action. A gearlever switch similar to the Triumph-type would be preferable, albeit with an M.G.-B-shaped knob, more suited to the position of the gearlever. Headlight dipping, flashing and winking is carried out by a stalk on the right of the column and the horn is operated by the padded steering-wheel boss. The 15.5-in. steering wheel looks, rather than feels, excessively large on first acquaintance, but I would not recommend the fitting of a smaller one, while the "leather" rim is plastic, yet comfortable.

Instruments are much the same in layout as before though the tachometer and 140 m.p.h. speedometer are reduced in size from 4 in. to 80 mm. to accommodate a collapsible steering column. On a car which is described by name as a Grand Tourer and is so obviously suited to continental touring, the omission of subsidiary kilometre markings on the m.p.h. speedometer is nothing short of disgraceful particularly at a time when most European countries are tightening up on speed restrictions. A poorly-damped fuel gauge lies on the right of the fascia and a combined oil pressure gauge and water temperature gauge to the left below the rocker type master light switch. Instrument lighting is controlled as always by a rheostat and maximum illumination could be improved.

On the far left of the fascia is a lockable cubby-hole which regrettably needs a key to open it: if the key is left in the lock it constitutes a danger in the event of a crash, though more often than not it will be left on the key ring to give rise to muted curses when it's desired to open the locker when the engine is running. Incidentally, to remove the ignition key from the switch-cum-steering column lock, a button below the key must be pressed with the thumb as the key is turned. This is difficult enough for a sensibly-nailed man, but for a woman with long fingernails is virtually impossible.

A moulded plastic central console houses the courtesy-switch-operated interior light, an excellent Radiomobile radio on the test car, switches for the standard-equipment heated rear screen and hazard warning lights, a cigar lighter, the gaitered gear-lever, an ash-tray and an armrest with lift-up lid to reveal a small yet useful locker.

Other interior features are much as on the existing M.G.-B GT: rubber mats in the front footwells, carpet on the transmission tunnel and side panels, and rear floor area; fold-down rear seat to provide more luggage space when the GT is used as the 2-scaler which it is forced to be by lack of rear seat room (although a couple of very young children might be accommodated comfortably enough); a wide-opening tailgate which is difficult to move from the open position; two six volt batteries continue to lie below a panel underneath the rear seat. Other detailed description of this so-familiar design should be unnecessary. However, worthy of comment is the astonishing fact that after it years in production the M.G.-B, even in this latest V8 GT guise, has no keeps to hold the doors open.

The body design may be aged, but the result remains extremely attractive, the sort of shape which cuts across any class barriers. However its age and the stagnation in development since its introduction is indicated by the extraordinary high level of wind noise, the car's worst feature and the one deciding point which would cancel my custom. Even as low as 45-50 m.p.h. there are annoying hisses from the side-window areas, at 70 m.p.h. voice decibels must be increased to keep up a conversation and above 100 m.p.h. the noise is almost deafening. That this should be so is a tragedy for what could be otherwise such a quiet and refined long-distance touring car, for as in its Rover application the V8 remains smooth, silent and unfussed at all speeds. The root of the problem seems to be the roof guttering rather than the front quarterlights, which I would not like to see removed, although the standard twin door-mounted rear-view mirrors (which folded back uselessly at speed) perhaps account for some of the noise.

There will be some potential customers who will dismiss the V8 GT as insufficiently distinguished in appearance from the straight-four. As a standard-production "Q-car" it reigns supreme, however, and left hundreds of amazed faces across the length of France. Often aggrieved faces too, for the fashion in which this big engined M.G.-B disposes of Alfas, most Mercedes and BMWs and Citroens is remarkable. British Leyland claim conservatively "120 m.p.h. plus", whereas this particular road test car proved capable of a true 130 m.p.h., 4 m.p.h. more than another example tested by our weekly journal for which the performance figures are appended. The tall gearing gives 28.5 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in overdrive top, so 128.25 m.p.h. is equivalent to a mere 4,500 r.p.m. Indeed on one occasion a gentle downhill stretch of autoroute saw the speedometer needle playing somewhere around the imaginary 150 m.p.h. mark and the rev counter into the red, before realisation struck home and the throttle was lifted rapidly.

Straight line acceleration from rest is impressive, but more important is the tremendous urge which the torque gives in the gears, reminiscent of six-cylinder E-types. Gearbox ratios are excellent, offering maxima of approximately 39 m.p.h., 60 m.p.h., 98 m.p.h. and 122 m.p.h. in the gears, at maximum revs of 5,200 r.p.m., overdrive top being very much an electric fifth gear on this car, which comes in smoothly but cuts out with a jerk unless the clutch is dipped. There will always be those who say that the V8 is underpowered in its low compression guise: maybe for the few, but most owners will find 137 b.h.p. more than adequate.

The gearchange seemed quite happy and positive when rushed with the engine working hard, yet notchy and with baulking synchromesh when treated gently. Its worst aspect was an objection to the engagement of first or reverse from rest. To be fair this car had done but 3,200 miles when delivered and I would expect the change to be quite pleasant with 10,000 miles of loosening up. Credit must be given for the highly effective brakes, which were capable of pulling down this 2,427 lb car plus two people and luggage from 130 m.p.h. several times in quick succession without fade, the only sign of hard work being a slight roughness which disappeared when the brakes had cooled again. Just a hint of instability under such hard braking showed that the brakes are rather more advanced than the suspension. Certainly this is one area in which the B V8 scores over its Datum 240Z competitor. Surprisingly it has not been found necessary to fit ventilated discs, though diameter is raised to 10.7 in. and they are of greater thickness. Rear drums are of 10 in. diameter and a servo is fitted. Overseas cars will have a twin hydraulic system; the home market purchaser must make do with a single circuit, a somewhat nonsensical situation.

Heavy steering has a lot to do with the handling feeling rather ponderous, a heaviness which fails to disappear at high speed. However, application of bicep strength is rewarded by positive steering with plenty of feel and no free-play. Indeed the whole car feels remarkably taut, as indeed the GT always has. Balance is good, nominally an understeerer but not excessively so like the M.G.-C with its heavy engine and torsion bar front suspension. This degree of understeer makes the car stable and safe on fast bends. Too much application of throttle at the wrong time on low gear tight bends can provoke understeer or oversteer depending on the attitude of the car when the throttle is depressed, but in either case lifting off the power and steering correction returns things to normal. On the whole it seemed a much less "chuckable" car than the M.G.-B, feeling heavier largely, I would imagine, because of revised steering geometry; the rack has been moved forward one inch, reducing the Ackerman angle and making the steering more direct, but somewhat heavier. One thing the B V8 does retain is the general feeling of forgiving handling and consequent safety for which the M.G.-B has always been renowned.

Nylon-covered seats with standard adjustable headrests are exceptionally comfortable, far removed from the flat leather slabs of the early M.G.-Bs. But this seat comfort is necessary, for the stiffer rear left springs have created a dreadful ride at moderate speeds and bumps should be avoided for the sake of one's spine. As speed rises, the ride improves to some extent, on main roads and motorways at least, but this is one of the worst characteristics of the car.

Heating and ventilation is another bad feature - well, certainly ventilation which was more to the point during my test. Fascia vents are fitted, but these are operated only by ram effect, so it was a case of boiling under the hot sun in South of France traffic. When I owned an MG.-B I grew used to those A55 heater control knobs on the fascia: to return to them was no pleasure. I would have thought that a £2,300 motor car warranted rather more than a one-speed heater fan, which is noisy into the bargain and so out of balance on the test car that at traffic speeds it shook the bulkhead and clutch pedal. A sun-roof would be a welcome extra, which most M.G.-B GT owners seem to have fitted in any case.

The M.G.-B GT V8 is an answer to the oft repeated cry for a mass-produced, reasonably priced British 2-seater, a neglected field since the demise of the Daimler SP 250 and Sunbeam Tiger. But is it the real answer? I think not. It is not a sports car in the same sense as the aforementioned models, although a soft-top model might have been more so, but is not to be produced, presumably for reasons of torsional stiffness. On the other hand it is a fast, but not so Grand, Tourer. The grandness of the GT is tarnished by the wind noise, the harsh ride, a 12-gallon petrol tank (alright for the British Isles but requiring rather too frequent filling when the full performance potential is realised on a continental trip) and the other more minor dated features. Had the new wine been put into the old bottle a few years ago and a programme of continuous development maintained, then MG could have had themselves another world-beater. As it is, that superb engine and the excellent performance have not received the justice they deserve. It's a likeable car, but has too many criticisms to make it covetable. The price of £2,293.96p plus £16.92 for inertia seat belts is not outlandish, buys many "extras" including tinted glass, overdrive, heated rear screen, headrests and so on, but also buys many 11-year-old features which could have been designed out. - C.R.

Performance

0-30 m.p.h., 2.8 sec; 0-40, 4.0 sec; 0-50, 6.5 see; 0-60, 8.6 sec; 0-70, 12.1 sec; 0-80, 15.9 sec; 0-90, 19.8 sec; 0-100, 26.9 sec. Maximum speed: 126-130 m.p.h. Fuel consumption: I 7-26 m.p.g.