As they combined various motoring marques, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and its successors – the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) and then British Leyland (BL) – could always be relied upon to play marque against marque, rival against rival. Indeed, the birth of the six-cylinder version of the MGB was a direct result of what amounted to an intermarque competition to replace the aging Austin-Healey 3000. MG, keen to build upon the popularity of the best-selling MGB, looked to develop a more powerful variant. Several engines were tried and tested, the most promising being the Australian-built 2.4-litre Blue Streak Six, but importation costs scuppered that idea and, in the end, a redesigned version of BMC’s venerable C-series six was chosen.
Alas, due to a number of circumstances – including poorly prepared press cars, less than sparkling performance and uncomfortable seats – the resulting MGC got off to a bad start, something that wasn’t helped by the fact that BMC’s conservative management had insisted the new car share its overall style with the MGB, the only visible difference between the two cars being the MGC’s bulging bonnet and associated chrome strip. Although BMC were quick to make changes to the MGC in order to answer criticisms, it was simply too little, too late and only 8999 examples (fairly evenly split between roadsters and GTs) were built between 1967 and 1969.
With the MGC having disappeared from view, MG still felt the need for a higher performance version of the MGB, and one obvious contender involved raiding the corporate parts bin and shoehorning a 3.5-litre Rover V8 into the sports car. Interestingly, at one stage in the MGB’s development a V6 engine had been contemplated and, indeed, this had been so seriously considered that the MGB’s engine bay had been designed to be wide enough to take a V-formation motor. And, while a V6 never materialised, fitting a V8 into the MGB had been made a little easier. However, actually cramming the light alloy V8 into the MGB proved to be trickier than first thought and it looked as if it might be a blind alley. While MG didn’t believe that a V8 conversion was feasible, a gifted engineer, Ken Costello, thought otherwise – and you can read about his part in the eventual development of the factory-built MGBGT V8 elsewhere in this feature in our section on Wes McIntyre’s 1965 MGB V8 Costello.
Following Ken Costello’s lead, MG developed a V8-engined MGB in a remarkably short period of time, no doubt spurred by BLMC’s championing the upcoming Triumph TR7. As a result, the first V8 prototype was up and running in early September 1971, not long after MG’s engineers had inspected Costello’s V8 conversion. Very cleverly, MG came up with a novel fix when it came to placing carburettors on the V8 engine. By mounting twin SU units transversely just in front of the bulkhead-mounted heater, they were able to do away with the bonnet bulge that had been necessary on the MGC and the Costello V8 – thus saving money by being able to use a standard MGB bonnet pressing.
Introduced to the public in August 1973, press reaction to the MGBGT V8 – the factory never built a V8 roadster – was rather more positive than it had been for the MGC. However, some critics, while praising the extra performance, expressed some disappointment that the new car looked exactly like the fourcylinder MGB – a criticism that had also been levelled at the MGC. Presumably serious styling changes had been vetoed by BLMC’s penny-pinching management.
Lost opportunities aside, let’s take a look at a very well-travelled MGC, and a trio of V8-powered MGBs; a factory MGBGT V8, a Costello V8 – the car that inspired Abingdon – and one of the nine MGs build by Rod Brayshaw in Palmerston North, NZ-built cars that were officially sanctioned as genuine MGBs.
In 1970 Harvey and his wife, Sue, left New Zealand bound for the UK on their honeymoon. As well as holidaying the plan was also to purchase a car that they could use for touring around Europe and then bringing back with them to New Zealand. With no intention of buying an MG, Harvey and Sue settled upon a brand-new Triumph TR6. However, after selecting a colour and extras for their TR6 and paying a deposit, trade union strikes within the automotive industry slowed manufacturing and with the delivery date for the TR6 being continually pushed back, keen to begin their European tour, the couple decided to look elsewhere. Strike action had also affected other automakers, so it looked like they’d have to settle on a used car, a rather less than appealing idea although they did check out a few secondhand E-Types – Sue was unimpressed!
What they didn’t know at the time was that the UK University Motors group had purchased the final run of 141 MGCGTs following the model’s removal from production in June the previous year. Largely unloved, University Motors sought to improve the saleability of the remaining cars with lots of extras, performance mods and cosmetic tweaks. Although Harvey and Sue were limited with their choice – there wasn’t an overdrive GT available – they were able to option in wire wheels for the car of their choice; the Mineral Blue MGCGT featured here, and which they took possession of in November 1970. During the British winter, Harvey uprated the MGC with triple SU carburettors, Downton extractors, a Kenlowe cooling fan and, as Spring beckoned, a Golde sunroof.
That summer the couple enjoyed a grand tour around Europe but, alas, it came to a premature end when the MGC was involved in an accident with an erratically-driven Simca 1500 in Austria, damaging the MG’s body and front suspension. While Sue nursed a sore head after bashing it into the MG’s windscreen, Harvey effected a roadside repair with assistance from a local VW dealership. Roadworthy, just, Harvey and Sue warily drove the MG back to the UK where University Motors kindly allowed them to use their workshop to facilitate a proper repair – and this included the fitment of MkII taillights (MkI units being no longer available) and a Moto-Lita steering wheel to replace the original that had been bent from Harvey hanging onto it during the accident.
Eventually, the MG’s time in the UK was up – having purchased it as an export-only vehicle (thus not having to pay purchase or road tax), the car’s mandated 363-day stay was almost up. So, after a year of touring Europe and the UK, the MGCGT – dubbed ‘The Blue One’ – was shipped home to New Zealand. Over the following years, the MG would be joined by another MGC while Harvey would also embark on the full restoration of a 1951 MG TD.
In 2017 Harvey and Sue joined several other MG Car Club members on a trip to the UK to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MGC. Not wanting to attend the event without a car, their MGCGT was shipped to the UK.
Now back in New Zealand, the MG has since been fitted with electronic power steering along with new rubber suspension bushes, which have made driving it a little easier and more comfortable.
Over the years Col has owned a variety of MGs, ranging from a 1929 M Type all the way to the 2021 MG3 that currently shares garage space with this Citron MGBGT V8. Other MGs he’s owned include a ’67 MGBGT and a ’96 MGF.
Col’s 1975 Jubilee factory V8 was upgraded with a John Sprinzel tuning kit in England. This improved handling, power and braking, making the MG a great sounding and quick road car that Col reckons is very well suited to open road cruising at low engine revolutions.
Col and his partner have now owned the car, which they’ve nicknamed ‘Grumpy’, since 2014, having completed many virtually trouble-free car club trips around both the North and South Islands, with the MG’s comfortable driving position and cruisy V8 providing effortless and enjoyable touring. Despite its 3.5-litre V8, the MG is quite economical, recording around 7.84l/100km (30mpg), although around town the benteight is less frugal.
The MG has received a few modifications over the years – eagle-eyed readers will already have noticed that Col’s car has been subjected to a chrome bumper conversion. Under the skin, the Rover V8 has received a fast road cam, electronic ignition, ported and polished heads and re-jetted carburettors. Combined with stainless steel headers and exhaust, engine power was raised from the original 102kW (137bhp) to around 134kW (180bhp).
In order to fully take advantage of this increase in power, the MG has also been fitted with front coil-overs and Koni shocks at the rear along with a Panhard rod, radius arms while the bumper conversion also lowered the car’s ride height. The V8’s power goes to the rear axle via a Rover LT77 fivespeed gearbox – a big improvement on the car’s original four-speed ‘box. Braking is handled by four-pot Austin Princes callipers.
Despite a problem with flooded carburettors during an MG Car Club wine tour to the Hawkes Bay – necessitating a roadside fix – ‘Grumpy’ has proved to be a reliable classic that easily keeps up with modern traffic, plus it attracts quite a lot of attention at car displays with a lot of people unaware that MG ever made a V8-powered MGB. Of course, Col is always happy to educate them on that particular point!
By the early 1980s the MGB was no more, having gone the way of most affordable sports cars, as performance-minded drivers opted for hot hatches rather than open-top roadsters. It was a situation that wouldn’t change until Mazda single-handedly revived the breed in 1989 with their MX-5.
Although the MGB had gone, there was still a small demand for new cars from some New Zealand sports cars enthusiasts. At that time the NZ Motor Corporation (NZMC) were making the change to Honda, but they were still fielding the odd inquiry about new MGs. With this in mind, NZMC, contacted well-known specialist Rod Brayshaw, owner of the independent MG Car Company of New Zealand based in Palmerston North.
The upshot of the discussions that followed led to Brayshaw agreeing to build a run of brand new MGBs using brand new British Motor Heritage (BMH)-built bodies, BMH-rebuilt drivelines along with other new parts. As part of the agreement with Brayshaw, the resulting cars would be recognised as authentic factory MGBs – in effect a continuation of the classic MGB – and the MG Car Company were duly authorised to build 25 new cars.
Production commenced in November 1988 and would continue through to July 1990. However, only nine of the originally planned 25 cars were ever built. During the production run, NZMC also advised Brayshaw that they were planning to discontinue sales of the Rover SD1 Vitesse and that they had three Rover V8 engines and matching five-speed gearboxes, units kept in stock for warranty use but no longer required.
While the MG factory had never produced a V8-powered roadster due to the additional cost of strengthening the car’s convertible body, Brayshaw’s company were able to take on such a project due to their more limited scale of production allied to their extensive experience in restoring classic MGBs. As a result, of the nine Brayshaw MGs, three of them would be V8-powered, five-speed roadsters – truly very significant cars in all respects.
Charles Clark has been the caretaker of his Brayshaw MGB V8 – #RBN 007 – since 2002. First registered in 1991, his car is one of only three authentic V8 roadsters in the world to be factory-approved and registered for road use. Rod Brayshaw retained ownership of #RBN 006, a blue roadster, while the third car, #RBN 008, resides in the South Island.
With a compression ratio of 8.3:1, the 3.5-litre Rover engine fitted to Charles’ car was tuned to develop 150kW. With a profile change, the cam comes into play at 3000rpm, giving superb performance in third gear between 80-120kph, exactly when required on New Zealand’s demanding and winding backroads whilst still allowing leisurely highway motoring – 2500rpm in fifth gear give a cruising speed of 100-110kph.
Charles has always worked very closely with MG specialists Ray Hartley and Paul Walbran with regard to the tuning and servicing of the car. Both have assisted Charles in ensuring that any changes are correct and appropriate for the chassis and the heritage of the vehicle, on the understanding that this is a very special MGB.
Originally shod with tallish tyres on 14-inch 72-spoked chrome wire wheels, the MG currently runs genuine 15-inch Minilite fitted with much lower profile tyres to provide superior performance on tarmac. However, for best performance on gravel the taller tyres on the wire wheels are preferred as they tend to dig into the gravel rather than slide over the top of the loose metal.
Over the years Charles has gradually upgraded the car, sitting Fast Road springs and modern shock absorbers, while a half roll-cage allows him to run the MG in limited competitions, hillclimbs and track days.
After 20 years of ownership and 60,000 miles of “Safety Fast” driving, Charles is still delighted with the car – “It is kept in top condition,” he said, “and continues to put a wide smile on my face each time I roll off its dust cover in the garage.”
Born in Kent, UK, Ken Costello studied autoengineering at Woolwich Polytechnic in the 1950s, his first job following graduation being at the Motor Industry Research Department in Brentford. While there, Costello proved his engine tuning skills by preparing a racewinning Mini. Subsequent modifications turned the Mini into a real weapon – even with an 850cc engine Costello’s was once timed at 207.6kph (129mph)! Following a motorway duel with a Jaguar Mk2 owned by a Kent-based Leyland dealership, Cripps Brothers, Costello was introduced to Lady Cripps who invited him to run her Special Tuning Division.
Costello proved his worth by preparing a series of race-winning cars for Cripps, including a 1275 Mini and a Brabham BT20 single-seater – the latter bringing a certain amount of fame and cash for Costello as he was hired to drive the car in John Frankenheimer’s movie, Grand Prix.
However, what we’re really interested in here is Costello’s chance meeting with a used Oldsmobile 215ci V8 engine, the forerunner to Rover’s legendary all-alloy 3.5-litre V8. Probably inspired by cars such as the Sunbeam Tiger and AC Cobra, Costello acquired an MGB roadster and began to work out how he could slot the Olds V8 into the small British sports car. Six months later, towards the end of 1969 the car was complete and impressive enough for Costello to immediately begin work converting another MGB – this time a GT for her Ladyship. With the car’s potential so obvious, Ken opened his own business, The V8 Conversion Company, where customers could bring their standard MGBs in for the fitting of a Rover P6 engine. Easily recognised by their ‘egg-box’ front grille, Jensen alloy wheels, bonnet bulge to allow for the carburettors and distinctive “V Eight Costello” badges, the Rover-powered cars coming from Costello’s Farnborough workshop were creating a real stir.
In 1971 Motoring News road-tested the Costello V8 recording some performance figures way ahead of the four-cylinder MGB – 0-60mph in only 7.8 seconds (as opposed to 12.1s for the standard MGB), 0-100mph 19.2s and a top speed of 130mph (209kph), 26mph (41kph) faster than a factory 1800cc MGB.
British Leyland’s Chief Design Engineer, Charles Griffin, was one of those that noticed the Motoring News feature. Griffin wrote to Costello with the request that he bring his MGB V8 to Longbridge so he could inspect the vehicle.
At that time there was no official V8-powered MGB but in the light of cars such as the Sunbeam Tiger and Triumph Stag, it was an idea that MG had considered. As such Griffin had been tasked to investigate the possibility of slotting a Rover V8 into the MGB. However, a practical solution could not be found, with Griffin determining that the V8 would only fit in if the car was widened by some 3.5 inches. This was simply not feasible, and the idea was quietly dropped – until the Costello V8 burst onto the scene. Costello had achieved something the factory hadn’t been able to do – fit the V8 into the MGB without the expense of widening its body.
The Costello conversion had been achieved by modifying the engine mounts, moving the radiator, adding twin electric fans, recessing the inner wheel arches, reshaping the bulkhead and lengthening the steering shaft. Suspension and brakes were uprated to handle the additional power, while an oil cooler was also fitted.
Ken Costello duly drove his car to Longbridge where it was thoroughly examined by Griffin’s design team and, a week later, the car was taken to London so that BL’s chairman, Lord Stokes, could give it the once-over.
Towards the end of 1971 a new Harvest Gold MGBGT was delivered to The V8 Conversion Company along with a Rover V8 engine and a request to fit the engine to the car. This was duly accomplished, and the finished car was sent to Abingdon. Interestingly, it seems that BL never paid the £1000 fee for the conversion! Subsequently, the factory MGBGT V8 was launched in August 1973 with a rather ungrateful Lord Stokes ordering all BL dealers not to sell Costello new V8 engines. However, Costello got around this by visiting Belgium and scooping up a pile of old Buick and Oldsmobile blocks which were subsequently rebuilt with Rover parts.
Costello would eventually build around 225 MGBs, around a quarter of these were roadsters. One car was built for a Canadian customer and fitted with an automatic gearbox, while a single MGC was also converted.
Although the factory MGBGT V8 signalled the end of the Costello conversion, Ken Costello continued working with MGs, eventually developing and building his own five-speed gearbox and, once again, beating Rover to the punch with a fuel-injection set-up for the V8.
Effectively a very strong case could be made that without Ken Costello there would never have been a factory MGBGT V8 or, indeed, the revival of the MG marque that came in the ‘90s with the RV8 and the subsequent MGF.
Wes McIntyre is well aware of the significance of his car. First registered for the road in 1965, the MG’s first owner completed 90,000 miles in the car before selling it in 1971 to a fellow BOAC pilot who repowered the MGB with a Rover V8 via a Costello conversion in 1972.
In this form, the MG was shipped to Wanaka in 1993 and finally complied in 1998. The car was subsequently sold in 2012 to an owner in Hamilton before eventually being purchased by Wes in late 2016 – by which time the car had completed 30,000 miles in V8 form.
Fitted with a twin side-draught Weber carburettor, uprated gearbox, Kenlowe cooling fans and electronic ignition, Wes – who has previously owned several MGB roadsters and GTs – has since clocked up almost 10,000 miles in the MG, a car that he mostly uses as a weekend driver.
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