|The advantages of lightweight aluminium engines
over heavier iron or steel are fairly obvious. With a lighter unit in a
car, not only does it keep the overall weight down but helps towards
better weight distribution and requires lighter components such as engine
mounts, suspension components etc.
It should come as no surprise then that the earliest aluminium engines can be traced back as far as 1916. The first was the Marmon 34, the early experimentations of a company who went on to produce an aluminium V16! The American Aluminium company was also experimenting around that time and they went to to produce a number of six cylinder engines.
Buick 215 cu in
It wasn't until after the war however that the General Motors started on a serious development programme looking at using aluminium for both heads and block. Prototypes were being built in the early 1950's with design work commencing on a production unit in 1956. Originally planned as a 180 cu in engine (2.9 litres) with room for expansion, it wasn't long before the decision was made to go for a larger capacity for production models, bringing it up to 215 cu in (3.5 litres).
The three subsidiaries of General Motors, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were to use the 215 engine, although each insisted on making changes to make their offering unique. The engines first appeared in 1961 models of the Oldsmobile F-85, Pontiac Tempest, Buick Special. Larger variants of the design were considered but the costs of retooling for the relatively new processes of dealing with aluminium were deemed too high and GM returned to cast iron blocks.
As legend has it, a senior Rover executive was on holiday in the US when he spotted a Buick 215 V8 sitting on the floor in a boat builder's workshop. After enquiring about its origins he followed up with Buick and acquired rights to manufacture the engine in the UK in the late sixties, to power Rover's new saloons.
Rover did well out of the deal, itself then selling units on to power all manner of cars both as factory fit options and as power plants for all manner of kit cars and race cars. Ironically some years later, General Motors were looking for a smaller capacity V8 to power a new model and approached Rover about producing them. Various options were looked at, including GM producing the engines for Rover but the exchange rate and the power of the UK unions scuppered the deal.
There's barely a model of car in existence that hasn't had a V8 dropped into it at some stage. Amongst the madder conversions have been Fiat 500 (with ladder frame chassis), Reliant Robin and even 2CVs. The whole range of tuning options have been explored with big bore engines, turbos and superchargers all seen at one time or another.
It's in sports cars that the V8 has made its mark, with MG, Morgan and TVR all creating massively successful cars based on the characterful V8. It's days are numbered sadly.
Any future for the V8?
Morgan signalled their intentions to move away from the unit when they selected the modern BMW V8 for the Aero 8. They've now announced that EU emissions regulations will kill off their 3.9 and 4.6 Rover V8's before the end of the year to be replaced with a cleaner 4 litre version of the Rover V8.
So where are we heading with V8 engines? Lotus now produce their own for the ageing Esprit but it's expensive and so far they've only licenced it for use in AC's cars. TVR produced their own but are now pursuing the straight six route with more vigour. BMW and Mercedes continue to develop V8's, but they don't have the character of the Rover. What future is there for burbling, popping and banging motors? Ask the EU.