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Rover wasn’t the only manufacturer to see the potential of its 3½-litre V8 engine.
Compact, light and powerful, its transformative powers were spotted by others, too.
But just as Auntie’s starchy respectability was gone for good, shoved aside by the likes of Richard Burton’s vicious, P5B-driving Villain Vic Dakin, the Rover V8 simply hiked customers’ performance expectations into a different league.
Inspired by the Sydney Allard approach to sports-car design, this quintet features a selection of sports cars and a GT from both mainstream and specialist manufacturers.
By no means an exhaustive line-up, these models represent the first time each marque used an engine that would go on to become one of the ‘it’ units of the British motor industry in the late 20th century.
Despite the Buick-derived V8 predating the 1968 formation of the vast British Leyland Motor Corporation combine, it would take until the early 1970s before one of its sporting cars was fitted with one.
However, no such leaden-footed shilly-shallying would hamper Morgan, and in 1968 the 160bhp Plus 8 was launched.
It proved to be everything the misguided Plus 4 Plus coupé wasn’t and couldn’t accomplish, for it helped preserve the marque during an era fixated by novelty and futurism.
The Plus 8 remained in the Morgan line-up until 2004, when Rover V8 production finally ceased.
This original, low-mileage 1969 Plus 8’s only stylistic identifier is its alloy wheels, which complement its 1930s dress rather than clashing with the Morgan’s coachwork – as if Bertie Wooster were wearing a tie-dye T-shirt.
Much of the experience is similar to its four-pot sibling, however: scatterbrain ergonomics, the deliberate and chunky Moss gearbox that won’t be rushed, the rag ’n’ bone sliding-pillar ride, a refusal to roll, tasty steering, and neutral handling with a whiff of understeer.
The difference is that the gearbox’s scream seems louder with an engine that only grows more vocal as it heads towards 3000rpm on the 6000rpm tacho.
Its greater muscular poke is delivered with a velveteen-smooth, Detroit-sourced soundtrack.
In blustery weather, the driver gets a thorough airing thanks to those cutaway doors.
As ever, the conclusion has to be that the Morgan isn’t merely a car, it’s an experience.
After Rover’s mid-engined P9 had been aborted, BLMC finally got around to selling something sporty with the Rover V8 in 1973.
MG was adept at experimenting with other manufacturers’ engines and had engineered its own V8 conversion, but this had been halted by Leyland – only for the success of Ken Costello’s MGB V8 conversion to influence Leyland’s change of mind.
Available solely as a tin-top – a decision taken to protect sales of the Triumph Stag – the 125mph GT V8 was powered by the low-compression 137bhp unit.
Alas, just 2591 GT V8s were built, and production stopped in late ’76 due to sales being hit by the aftershock of the Yom Kippur oil crisis.
Back then, as today, the MG was a subtle sporting GT with only its Dunlop wheels and V8 badging differentiating it from its 95bhp four-cylinder sister.
This 1974 specimen is a beautifully managed blend of gleaming exterior presentation and original untouched interior.
The lovable MGB always had a good voice, but those four extra cylinders only serve to strengthen the GT V8’s image as a ‘poor man’s Aston’.
Its positive steering is lighter than an MGB’s, loading up progressively as the body rolls through the tight esses of Curborough Sprint Course.
Even in these gusty and damp conditions, the MG puts down its 193lb ft of torque without fuss or furore.
The overdrive gearbox is sweet, the clutch light, the brakes effective, the cabin roomy and the driving position faultless.
Visibility is unhindered and it has a practical hatchback boot.
The MGB GT V8 is hard not to like, and only reminders of current values scupper notions of pressing one into daily service – and being in a position to buy one.
Keeping things in the dysfunctional family, it’s the turn of another short-lived, low-run sporting British Leyland tourer: the Triumph TR8.
This model fell victim to an unfortunate combination of the TR7’s tarnished image, BL woes, 1979’s ‘second’ oil crisis and unfavourable exchange rates against the dollar.
Often regarded, particularly in drophead form, as the car the TR7 should have been, ‘the shape of things to come’ remains a wedge of contention.
Not purely due to its overconfident styling, but because it felt like a step too far from being an heir to the TR6’s sports-car riches, and that’s before considering production and quality issues.
This highly original, 29,000-mile TR8 was built for the managing director of BL America and at Curborough, the long-legged cruiser is a fish out of water.
Designed for the US market, it doesn’t like to be hustled because, although the V8 will shovel it in a straight line, the soft suspension generates the most roll and pitch.
Playing with the fluid five-speed ’box – and this particular LT77 is especially good – it’s far happier pointing and squirting its fuel-injected 137bhp.
Yes, it shares easy-to-use traits with the MG, but it lacks the Abingdon car’s character.
There are shivers through the scuttle, the instruments are clearly presented but the dashboard feels brittle, the driving position is contorted and requires an Italianate bent throttle leg, and the power steering is over-assisted.
Its gearing is fine, but it is light, vague and has some unfortunate habits through tight corners.
It must be something to do with lateral roll transferring weight to the outside wheel and lifting the inside one, lessening further the steering effort and making the driver involuntarily apply more lock.
It is a familiar trait, recalling the tribulations of an early Triumph Stag.
Trading places from a Harris Mann-styled wedge to one by Oliver Winterbottom, the 1986 TVR 350i is an evolution of the Tasmin range.
Launched in late 1983 as the Tasmin 350i, its name was shortened a year later to 350i.
The car was designed to fulfil new company owner Peter Wheeler’s desire for more power, and was built on the Tasmin tubular chassis that had been developed from the M-series.
The 350i set TVR on its path of producing loud, proud and much-loved Blackpool rockers, and sales were soon boosted to up and over the 1000-examples mark.
The 350i is the loudest, the roomiest and vies for the title of most eye-catching.
The perpendicular dash structure is very 1970s, but in this original 1986 specimen it is trimmed with Howards’ Way ’80s detailing.
Its driving position is faultless, there’s even a clutch-rest and an excess of shoulder room.
The 7000rpm rev counter doesn’t wear any warpaint, and when the car fires up it feels as if you are strapped into a 197bhp thunderstorm rather than a car.
The 350i rolls, but in a controlled and predictable way.
There are slight shivers through the steering column, but the TVR manages to be both nimble and tractable through Curborough’s tighter sections.
Its aftermarket exhaust system ups the aural raunchiness, which gets positively indecent the further it climbs past 3000rpm.
The initial rumble turns sharp-edged before being honed into an addictive class-one holler. There are fireworks on the overrun as the brakes, with some reluctance, shed speed.
The light gearchange is long of throw and a touch vague, but the TVR takes corners confidently and enjoyably.
The weighting and the feel of the positive unassisted steering give the driver yet another reason to grin – in between long, hair-raising moments of full throttle.
Moving from TVR to Marcos takes us from a car with styling that has probably regained acceptance, to one that is too eccentric to conform to any notions of trends or prettiness.
The 1960s were full of unrealised ideas, false dawns and broken promises, but the Marcos was one of the exceptions that slipped into reality.
After tumbling into receivership in 1972, Marcos was resurrected in 1981.
The 1983 Mantula coupé was built around the square-section, tubular-steel chassis that had been developed for the 1969 3-Litre.
Featuring an improved interior, the car was wrapped in a variation of the unmistakable 1963 Adams brothers 1800 design.
At first powered by a 3½-litre, later cars – including this 1991 30th-anniversary edition – came with a 3.9-litre injected V8.
Independent rear suspension also followed.
The soft-top Mantula Spyder was launched in 1985, and the convertible soon became a popular concept for Marcos; most models from then on came in Spyder rather than coupé form.
The Mantula was superceded in 1992 by the factory-built Mantara, while the Mantula had also been available in kit form.
A couple of hundred were produced, including all the kits, but it is believed that not all of those have been built.
Despite being born in 1991, this Mantula’s accessories – that colour-co-ordinated spoiler and those alloys – feel as if they belong to the previous decade.
The driving position is so reclined that it engenders a degree of awkwardness, akin to stumbling into somewhere decadent and leathery run by Cynthia Payne.
Although there is plenty of length in the footwell, thanks to an electrically adjustable pedalbox, the cabin and the footwell are both narrow and there is no space reserved for your left hoof.
The (rather optimistic) 200mph speedometer and the 6000rpm rev counter – with 5500rpm redline – are both obscured by the dashboard’s top rail and the steering column.
The ride is firm, the steering a crafted blend of ease and beefy feel.
The front-end responses, just like the helm, come as a genuine surprise.
The Mantula’s body control is strict and, although that firmness means it does a sideways shuffle through undulations, discretion advises against goading the rear into showing off.
The gearbox is everything you could hope for: the chunky gearknob fills your palm as the lever is pumped through the well-spaced ratios, and the change is short, sharp and wonderfully weighted.
The offbeat exhaust note is positively scrumptious – it’s smooth and burbly, backed up with a slight gear whine.
The Mantula really does feel impressively at home on the track and, measured purely by dynamic ability, the Marcos takes the win from the TVR.
Its shortfall in factory-claimed power output – 173bhp at 4550rpm versus the 350i’s 197bhp at 5280rpm – is compensated for by the Marcos’ lower weight (1962lb versus 2564lb), which results in a quicker time to 60mph.
Stylistically the Mantula is a bit hit and miss, but come to terms with its oddball essence and driving one is a petrol-powered tonic.
After the fifth of five, the time has come to make a decision.
On public roads the Morgan depends rather too much upon the pliability of its occupants’ spinal columns – but if you want a Morgan, then only a Morgan will do.
In respect of the duelling Leyland GTs, it is easy to be too harsh on the TR8 because it is a US model, which was really intended to lope along miles of shimmering two-lane blacktop with the wind in your perm.
If the suspension spec – particularly the spring rates and dampers – were more to UK tastes, then most of its criticisms would be addressed.
But here and now, I’d have to opt for the MG.
To paraphrase its owner: the GT V8 doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, but it does everything well.
Comfortable yet compact, attractive yet practical, with build quality that persistently was at the top of BL’s internal league tables, and all with a dusting of MG charisma.
Why on Earth wouldn’t you?
As for which plastic is more fantastic, unless (unlike me) you can comfortably fit into the Mantula, then it has to be the TVR.
The 350i has re-ignited a longstanding Blackpool itch.
Dynamically it is on the sports-car money and its driver can merrily howl through big mileages without a fear for their comfort.
Images: Will Williams/John Bradshaw
Thanks to Keith Belcher; Christopher Kenneth Smith; Steve Morgan; Neal Callaghan; Richard Thorne Classic Cars; TVR Car Club; MG Car Club; TR Register; Morgan Sports Car Club; Club Marcos International
This was originally in our June 2019 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication
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