Cosseted and as clean as a whistle, this last V8 hurrah from the MG Rover era has classic written all over it
By John Howell / Sunday, 23 April 2023 / Loading comments
When the Rover 75 appeared at the very tail end of the ‘90s, retro was all the rage. Which is surprising when you think we were just about to embark not only on a new decade, but a whole new millennium. But there’s no denying it, people were all up for going back to the future. The Jaguar S-Type harked back to the ‘60s Mk2 and S-Type. Then there was the Rover 75, which wasn’t quite such a clear-cut remake of Rovers from the past, yet with its polished wood veneers and piped leather it was the perfect transport for those of a string-backed and pipe-smoking disposition.
Except underneath it wasn’t an anachronism. It was actually a very modern car built on BMW underpinnings and know-how. It was a very good car indeed. Although arguably, it didn’t really hit true retro until BMW had ditched the brand and the Phoenix Consortium had acquired it, and MG Rover’s ill-fated journey to oblivion began. But not before it produced the ultimate retro 75: the MG ZT 260. This was retro in the truest sense. Not merely a styling exercise but re-engineering on a grand scale to turn the frumpy, front-driven 75 into a rear-driven hot rod. And like some of the best hot Rover and MG products, instead of a measly four-cylinder or even a V6, this new iteration came with a thumping heart of V8 gold.
It wasn’t the return of the Rover V8 in every sense. Bentley had brought back its iconic L-Series at about this time, but the 260 didn’t bring back the Buick-derived pushrod V8, which had last seen action in the SD1. The 260 got its V8 from the spiritual home of V8s: America. And from a Mustang, no less, a choice that gave the ZT an earthy, blue-collar credibility. This was the 4.6-litre engine from the 2004-model-year Mustang, so it wasn’t exactly highfalutin engineering. In fact, the specs read much like the old Rover unit, with a single camshaft operating 16 pushrods and the same number of valves. It produced sufficient rather than spectacular performance, with 256hp at a relatively leisurely 5,000rpm and a solid 302lb ft slug of torque. That was hooked up to a tough-as-old-boots Tremec five-speed manual gearbox that pushed torque to the back wheels via a Dana Hydratrak limited-slip differential.
The engineering of the 260 was subcontracted to Prodrive, which was another decision that, alongside the Ford V8, gave this new model additional credibility. Prodrive enlarged and beefed up the transmission tunnel for obvious reasons, stiffened and lowered the all-independent suspension by around 40mm compared with the standard models, added AP Racing brakes with 332mm vented front discs, and shod the car with, somewhat ironically perhaps, Continental Sport Contact M3 tyres developed for the BMW M3. It could, however, be built on the regular production line, alongside the transverse-engine, front-wheel drive 75s and ZTs. They just pulled the ZT 260 bodies off the line briefly, to pop in the drivetrain, then sent them back along the conveyor belt to complete the build process.
This is a post-2004 facelifted car, with changes that softened the retro twin-headlight look of the original 75 by moving to more contemporary one-piece light units. It’s a privately-owned car and Martin, its current custodian, is a passionate 260 advocate – he’s had five examples since 2004. He describes this one as one of the best; not only of the ones he’s owned but full stop. A car that’s in ‘truly immaculate condition’ and, looking through his collection of photographs, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
That’s because he’s not the only one who’s been obsessive about keeping this 260 mint. Its previous owner built a garage especially to keep it in, and even then it was cosseted under a dust cover ‘unless attending shows.’ It remains largely original, apart from the odd modification that most people would surely approve of. A stainless steel exhaust by Zero Exhausts, for example, which makes bespoke systems for all manner of models, from traditional MGs, to M cars and Ferraris. Martin says it gives this 260 ‘a beautiful tone that lets you hear the V8 as you should, without being wearing.’
There weren’t many of these V8 ZTs built – despite the lure of a cross-plane V8, most people still bought with their heads and opted for an E46 330i instead. Even good 330is are beginning to get thin on the ground these days, but a lot more would have to die before they attain the exclusivity of the MG ZT 260. And that rarity brings with it cachet, especially for a superb example such as this with just 25,000 miles. So it’s no longer a cheap car, sure, but for what you’re getting, £14,995 doesn’t seem all that expensive, either.
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