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Seven Engines That Killed The Company Part 3

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#2 Rover K-Series

By the end of the 1980s the British motor industry had been very thoroughly shaken up. With the Austin brand ditched Rover was pinning its hopes on the 'R8', a range of small family cars that would be the first product to be released by the new, privatised Rover and the smallest Rover in many decades.

The centrepiece of the new range was a new engine lineup called the K-Series. This had been in the pipeline for many, many years and began life as project to develop an OHC version of the venerable A-Series engine. By 1989 it had become an enitirely new engine range intended to replace all BL's various small-capacity engines.

It was the first engine to use Low Pressure Sand Casting, which allowed the aluminium alloy castings of the engine to much thinner and lighter than a traditional ally casting whilst having the same, or greater strength. The engines were produced in four major sections- cylinder head, block, bottom-end strengthening rail and crankcase. All were cast in a single mould and machined as individual sections which were then held together by long through-bolts which held the whole engine together in a sort of aluminium club sandwich. This allowed the engine to use wet liners without the traditional loss of engine 'stiffness' that this led to.

Rover's plan was for the K-Series to handle the smaller end of its engine requirements. As such the K-Series was initially launched in the R8 as a 1.1- and 1.4-litre. The R8 was very well received. The K-Series engines were smooth, refined, offered much more power for their size than most engines in their class, they revved freely and their light weight contributed much to the R8s good handling qualities.

Then, barely two years after the launch of the K-Series Rover's owners, British Aerospace, began hunting around looking for cost savings. A condition of BAe's purchase of the Rover Group was that it wouldn't sell the company for five years. That deadline was getting close and BAe had seen a lot of investment for no real gain. A slim-down of the entire operation would makes things much more attractive to potential buyers. One of the casualties was that BAe felt that it was unneccesary to have two different petrol engine lines. Advised that whilst it would be possible to rework the K-Series for larger capacities that wouldn't be a good idea, management decided to roll with the idea anyway.

So the K-Series was substantially overhauled. The main changes were the removal of the engine block's top deck and a switch from 'wet' cylinder liners to 'damp liners' which were slotted into sleeves in the block at their base but had no support at the top. This allowed the engine to be produced in 1.6 and 1.8-litre versions.

The newer, larger engines were rolled out across the Rover range and it wasn't long before the problems began. Head Gasket Failure is virtually synonymous with the K-Series but that wasn't the only problem. The gaskets failed for two main reasons. First was that the single-layer gasket wasn't up to performing the functions of a gasket and a block top deck at the same time. The damp liners, being only supported at their base, were prone to 'shuffle' which could eat up the head gasket and then start chewing into the lower face of the cylinder head. The cylinder head itself was also prone to shuffle due to the use of plastic locating dowels which were fine when the block had a top deck to support it but weren't up to restraining the unsupported head. Once the head gasket let go and the engine overheated it wasn't simply a case of replacing the gasket and carrying on. The engines' unique construction meant that the individual sections of the engine couldn't be skimmed if they warped. Rover weren't merely faced with warranty claims for head gasket repairs, they were having to replace entire engines en masse. The worst part of the whole scheme was that the changes had been applied across the K-Series range so the previously perfectly reliable 1.1s and 1.4s were afflicted with exactly the same problems for no reason.

Rover (by now under BMW ownership) went into denial. They implemented various detail changes (steel head dowels and some fiddles to the cooling system) but never addressed the core problems. Even when the K-Series unreliability began to seriously hamper sales of their three big hopes for the future, the MGF, the Freelander and the Rover 75, all of which used the 1.8 K which was the most disaster-prone of the lot. Instead they kept on adding 'toys' to the engine in the form of their own equivilant of Honda's VTEC system, VVC. Fitted to the 1.6 and 1.8 K-Series twincams this is a brilliant system which continually alters the cam period of the inlet valve to produce a virtually flat torque curve and an incredibly wide power band. A brilliant idea but one that is lost on an engine that blows its headgasket like clockwork every 50,000 miles.

Rover, which had so successfully turned around much of its image problem in the late 1980s, was back to being branded as a producer of unreliable and old-fashioned tat. Regardless of how good the K-Series was when it worked (and it was very good) it ruined Rover's reputation for quality engineering and doomed otherwise good products such as the MGF and the 75 to only mediocre sales. Once BMW bailed on the whole operation (in no small part due to the engine fiasco) no one had any confidence in Rover as a company, let alone a car maker and it was only a matter of time before the enterprise folded. Which it did.

#1 Leyland 500-Series

We may treat British Leyland as something of a joke these days but one of the most overlooked aspects of the operation was the one that gave the whole shebang it's name, Leyland Motors. Leyland was an established builder of commercial vehicles dating back to the late 19th century. By the 1960s its products ruled the roads in the UK and in a good number of overseas markets. Leyland products weren't very innovative but they had a strong reputation for being solid, dependable vehicles incorporating high-quality engineering.

In the 1960s, as the motorway network spread commercial vehicle buyers demanded ever more power. Leyland's current range-topping engine, the 680 (denoting 680 cubic inches) only produced 220 bhp and the higher-power versions were prone to headgasket failure so Leyland decided to develop a new engine range to safely deliver more power.

The development team became slightly obsessed with the problem of head gasket failure, which ended in the decision to get rid of the head gasket all together by making the new engine a fixed-head where the block and the head are all one casting. It was also one of the first commercial diesel engines to incorporate an overhead camshaft and a cross-flow cylinder head. This allowed the engine to run at significantly higher speeds than its contemporaries.

The prototype engines were 700 cu. capacity and everything looked promising. Then the BL marketing men waded in, having decided that they wanted have an engine/transmission combo that weighed less than 1000kg (because everyone knows that commercial vehicle buyers value good power/weight ratios above all else). The prototype 700 engine was far too heavy and the marketing people weren't prepared to push back the agreed launch date, which was tied into the launch of Leyland's new integral bus design, the National. The only way to meet the new specifications was to shrink the engine in capacity to 500 cu. and increase the boost level to maintain power. At this point the lead engineer, upset at the meddling in his project, left the company.

The 500-Series engine was launched in 1972 with power outputs of between 200 and 260 horsepower, well in excess of the competition and unheard of for an engine of that size at the time. The engine quickly gained a reputation for being difficult to service and/or repair due to the fixed-head layout. After a while these complaints intensified as the engines began to fail catastrophically with internal splits in the block, failed cooling passages, cracked cylinder heads and massive oil leaks. There were also problems with the engine's advanced injection system. The engine's relatively high boost settings meant that thermal stress was an issue as was overfuelling caused by turbo being slow to react to throttle inputs which caused melted pistons when the engine was worked hard. BL was reluctant to implement any real changes to the design beyond continually attempting to tighten up production quality which was only part of the problem.

Many stalwart Leyland buyers gave up on the engine entirely, retrofitting Gardner or AEC units in their place, before giving up on Leyland entirely. BL tacitly admitted their problems by starting to offer Gardner engines as options from the factory. Some operators got good service from the 500-Series through relentlessly perfectionist servicing but the engine was never really even tolerably reliable. In Leyland's export markets where competition from Japanese and other European builders was intensifying, people had no time for a highly-strung, unreliable engine and went elsewhere.

In less than a decade one engine managed to take a company's reputation from one of the best in the industry to one of the worst. Leyland spent the 70s and 80s desperately playing catch-up and the problems in the rest of the BL empire meant that it was never really able to do this effectively and slowly declined into several boughts of bankruptcy and buyouts. An engine that killed the company, indeed.

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Updated 13th Jul 2012 at 18:52 by jozg44



  1. RRFool's Avatar
    Fantastic reading - Thanks for the series!
  2. jozg44's Avatar
  3. lennix's Avatar
    Great reading. Thanks!!
  4. catweazle's Avatar
    very interesting thanks cw.