GM Vice-President Bob Lutz
GM Vice-President Bob Lutz. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

General Motors Vice Chairman of Global Development, Bob Lutz, has likely forgotten more about cars than most people ever knew. Then again, he’s got a heck of a memory, and with fifty years experience as an executive with GM, Chrysler and Ford, in both North America and Europe, he personally had a hand in many of the industry’s key developments. As well as some of the less momentous, but intriguing events.

For instance, in Ottawa recently to meet industry executives at ethanol producer Iogen Corporation, and to discuss fuel efficiency technology with and the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Mr. Lutz gave some insight into a little known chapter in GM history.

Setting the stage, I arrived in my 1981 Triumph TR8, the last of a venerable line of British Triumph sports cars. Maybe Mr. Lutz wouldn’t see the car, but if he did, I knew he’d be familiar with its engine, as it was originally a GM product.

Paul Williams' 1981 Triumph TR8, powered by the Rover 3.5-litre V8
Paul Williams' 1981 Triumph TR8, powered by the Rover 3.5-litre V8
Paul Williams’ 1981 Triumph TR8, powered by the Rover 3.5-litre V8. Click image to enlarge

As it happened, Mr. Lutz arrived in a black Tahoe whose driver parked right next to the blue TR8. A lifelong “car guy,” Mr. Lutz hopped out and immediately gave the Triumph a look, then bent down to peer in the window, at which point I joined him and introduced myself as the owner of the car, and one of the people scheduled to interview him.

Did he remember the engine?

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s the GM 215 aluminum “Rockette” V8. I’ve got one in my ’62 Buick Skylark at home.” (It was also used in the Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special of the same era).

Did he know anything about how GM came to sell the rights to the engine to the Rover company in England?

The Rover V8 is a tight fit in the TR8 engine bay
The Rover V8 is a tight fit in the TR8 engine bay. Click image to enlarge

“That was me. I was tasked with getting rid of the engine and I actually did the deal to sell it. GM had problems casting the aluminum block in the vast quantities we needed. Aluminum was new to GM and people just didn’t know about aluminum, and some didn’t really want to. In any event, GM just wanted it gone.” (Some sources suggest that the US steel industry lobbied against the use of aluminum in engine manufacture, and that may have contributed to GM’s decision to abandon their lightweight aluminum V8).

“So how much did Rover have to pay to get the engine?” I asked.

Rockette V8
Rockette V8. Click image to enlarge

“A million bucks. It was an outright sale. That included the full rights, tooling, equipment, line machinery, everything. In my opinion, it was one of the best deals [for Rover] in the history of the automobile industry, and we ended up getting pennies on the dollar given the development costs of the engine.”

The “Rockette” became known as the Rover 3.5-litre V8, and went on to power all manner of vehicles through the 20th, and into the 21st Century, where evolutions of it could still be found in the Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover.

Rover V8
Rover V8. Click image to enlarge

Displacement went up to 3.9, 4.0, 4.6 litres (ironically, BMW, then Ford purchased Land Rover and the engine tagged along) and the same basic engine even won the Formula One world championship driven by Jack Brabham (as the Repco V8).

Turned out, the aluminum casting was not a problem for Rover (which later folded with MG and Triumph into British Leyland, and explains how it ended up in the Triumph TR8), as they needed smaller volume production.

“Compared to GM, they pretty much hand-built it,” said Mr. Lutz.

Regrets about selling their advanced aluminum V8 couldn’t have been severe, though.

GM Vice-President Bob Lutz
GM Vice-President Bob Lutz. Click image to enlarge

If GM had wanted it back, they could have come to some arrangement with Rover, who apparently were thrilled with the acquisition. Although Rover had a history of technology development (see Bill Vance’s article on the Rover JET turbine car), “Rover would never have had the resources to develop an engine like that by themselves,” said Mr. Lutz.

Today, companies like RPI Engineering in the UK have made a solid business supporting the Rover V8, where in England and other countries it has become the equivalent of North America’s 350 small-block.

Although non-essential component manufacturing lines for the engine were recently sold at auction, Land Rover retains ownership of the “Rover” V8.

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