The cars we loved.
In the 90’s dinosaurs seemed to be all the rage. The wildly successful first Jurassic park films of 90’s had tapped into a lively debate on the feasibility of reviving life from fossils. At about the same time fossil fever was going on at the movies, another kind of fossil revival was about to happen in the automotive industry. The Mazda Miata MX-5 almost single handily renewed interest in the open top roadster category. Mazda studied what it was that made English roadsters fun and extracted the fossilized DNA for a new era. The end product reminded or introduced drivers to the pleasures of driving a small nimble open top sports car. It wasn’t too long before others tried to cash in on the phenomenon. For the few remaining British marques who were once big players in the segment, the temptation to cash in on old glory could not be resisted.
Rover who owned MG, saw the opportunity to relaunch its MGB sports car. By the early 90’s most people had come to know MG in the UK as the makers of little subcompacts like the Metro that were as plain to look at as they were to drive. The original MGA and Midgets were once players in the English roadster craze of the 60 and 70’s. Rover couldn’t just stand by and watch Mazda cash in on the legacy of fun they had helped create. After some market research, the Rover Group concluded that there was room in the market for a little authentic nostalgia. The problem with Rover’s effort was that it was a little too nostalgic (and expensive) for some tastes and as such would never be able to compete with the wildly popular Miata (or other emerging modern roadsters).
After creating some interest at the Birmingham and later Tokyo Motor shows, the RV8 got the green light for production. While on display in Tokyo, more than 1400 orders were placed. Japan would figure considerably in the sales numbers of the car as nearly 75% of all VR8’s would find their way to the Land of The Rising Sun. The rest went to Europe and a few to Australia. A few might have trickled into America, although they were never officially sold here. With the exception of Japan, where the car was sought after, the market had moved on. The idealized pipe smoking middle age men who drove MG’s back in the day had given way to the more youthful acting men (and women) that had no appetite for getting their hands dirty tuning and adjusting cars that needed constant attention. This was part of the reason for the Miata’s popularity. It was another reason that the Miata sold so well because unlike the old English sportsters, it appealed more to women.
Men as traditionalist were still out there, but their numbers had been dwindling steadily since the 80’s. The new RV8 tried to appeal to both the traditionalist with just enough of the fossilized old car and new buyers with updated modern amenities. The look combined both worlds successfully, with an almost Rolls Royce Corniche look (especially when seen from the rear). The RV8 was far more luxurious than any MG roadster in the past, prompting its label as a “poor man’s Rolls Royce” by the English press. The comparisons were partly justified due to Connely leather and Burr Elm veneer wood on the dash and door panels. But at £26,000 (about $40,000 USD) no poor man could afford it. Like other exclusive luxury cars, the RV8 was hand-built in limited numbers (less than 2,000 built). For your money you got a 190hp 3.9L V8, 15’wheels on 205/65 VR tires and what essentially was an updated MGB GT V8.
Although the new VR8 used the hood, trunk and doors of the 73-76 MGB GT V8, MG claims that only 5% of the parts were of original vintage. The rest came in the form of either updates or borrowed from other cars in the Rover Group (Jaguar door handles, etc.). Mechanically, the leaf sprung rear and double wishbone front suspension was carried over with some updating. The trusty fuel injected Rover V8 would become the only engine choice. Its overall power output was not all that impressive considering that late 90’s turbocharged fours were more powerful. Unlike the turbo fours, the aluminum V8 in the RV8 had plenty of torque, helping it achieve 0 to 60 time of 5.9 seconds with a top speed of 145 mph. Despite formidable thrust, the car was saddled with too much old technology and to be taken seriously in its class. Drum brakes were still used in the rear and a five speed manual gearbox was the only transmission option, unusual considering MG’s slant towards luxury. Many auto reviewers were harsh in their appraisal of the RV8 for these reasons. 1,983 cars were built by the time the plug was pulled in November 1995. These cars are considered potential modern classics and are being sought after by fans of British sports cars. Estimates suggest that 1,700 may still be on the road, many of them are arriving back to Europe from Japan. Compared to emerging roadsters of the early 90’s like BMW’s Z3 or even Mazda’s MX-5, the RV8 was downright ancient. It’s original target market had morphed in to a less male centric clientel who had no regard or memory of old MG’s from the past. Fortunately for MG, the limited production numbers were in step with the small market for this type of nostalgia. For most people a British Racing green Miata was as close as they wanted to come to the spirit of an MG. Fortunatly for the hard core MGphile, the VR8 was in many ways better than the (real) original. Just too bad there were so few takers.