Cowland on Cars

Life is short and new cars aren’t as green as we’re told – so buy an old V8

by Paul Cowland
4 January 2023 5 min read
Life is short and new cars aren’t as green as we’re told – so buy an old V8
Photo: Matt Howell

Our time on this planet – and that of the ICE motor car – are both indeterminate entities, notes Paul Cowland. His advice? Buy something with a V8 engine while you still can…

Have you ever wondered what a car show of the future might look like? It’s something I think about all the time. In some ways, they’ll look a lot like car shows do now. Perhaps clever apps will eliminate queues, whilst air-fried wholefoods might have usurped the burger magnates, but with any luck, there will still be lines of vehicles for us to peruse and enthuse about.

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Many of them will be electric cars, of course. And while I’m sure we will all be passing muster on the timeless styling of a Polestar or reminiscing wistfully on when Tesla panel gaps could once be measured using inches rather than microns, the one thing I’m convinced we won’t be talking about is the character, tone and personality of the drivetrains. I note, with little surprise, that ‘Go on, give it a rev, mate!’ has not yet entered the show-going vocab’ of the electric vehicle enthusiast. After all, a Nidec electric motor at full tilt sounds much like a Yasa does. Whichever collection of wires and metal components your car will have, it will doubtless move the thing along quite successfully. What it will never do, I believe, is move your soul.

Conversely, despite also being a simple collection of castings, forgings and stampings – and a little wiring of its own, the internal combustion engine manages to convert energy into movement whilst doing so with some degree of emotional charm. How much charm often depends on the kind of engine you’ve gone for. An early French diesel on cold start may not perhaps lift the spirits in the same way that a V12 Aston at full throttle can, perhaps, but if its clattering discord takes you back to that amazing French gîte holiday in ’85, in the back of your parent’s Peugeot, then I’d argue that it really does. Fuel-fired engines have that ability to viscerally connect us to the machine, in ways that no other form of propulsion can.

While I’m an ardent admirer of them all – the flat 4 and 6, the V12, the inline 4 and 6 – even the right 3 banger, there will always be, for me at least, one engine configuration to rule them all: the V8.

You can blame it on a diet of near-constant American films and TV as a kid, but whether it was Starsky and Hutch’s Torino, the Duke’s Charger, B.A Baracus’ Vandura or Bullitt’s Mustang ringing through the tinny speaker of our wood-effect, push-button Bush telly, I knew then that there would only ever be one engine for my daily commute. No matter what displacement or power it created.

Anyone that knows American cars will understand that, particularly during the so-called ‘malaise’ era of the 1970s, some of these engines really were pretty terrible. And let’s not forget that with the various smog controls and near-futile attempts at improving fuel economy you got 7-litre engines that produce less power than a modern hatchback.

And yet, they’re still endearing to drive. They’re also pretty tough, too. Being engineered to work, poorly serviced, in even the most inaccessible parts of the great states, they are, in all the best ways possible, as dumb as a box of frogs. It might explain how, on a recent trip to try and bring my friend James’ 1977 Buick Le Sabre back to life after a TEN year slumber outside, it started with just a little dash of fresh fuel – and on the first turn of the key…

V8s work on every single level. They look good, they sound good, they’re torquey, even if they’re not powerful, and in some cases, and when well maintained, they’re often surprisingly economical. My 5.0 Ford Mustang GT easily gets 33mpg on a run, for example – exactly the same as our Subaru Outback with half the displacement (and admittedly twice the driven wheels).

Realising that both my time on this earth – and perhaps that of the car as we know it – cannot be guaranteed forever, I have decided to fulfil a promise to my nine-year old Fall Guy watching self. And that is to drive a V8 to work or for pleasure, whenever humanly possible. I’ve started already. As the lease on my base model, diesel Volvo S90 finishes this month, it’s already been replaced with a 1997 4.0 V8 Jaguar XJ8, acquired outright for the cost of a few month’s Volvo rentals at a recent Manor Park Classics sale.

Paul Cowland has bought a Jaguar XJ8
Cowland’s ‘new’ cat, a 1997 Jaguar XJ8, has been purrfectly reliabe… so far. Photo: Paul Cowland

The Jag is already proving to be a stylish and useable upgrade to the Volvo in many ways – plus it doesn’t engender the look of slight disappointment that I used to get when arriving at ‘car guy’ places looking – to all intents and purposes – like an airport transfer.

Now, the astute amongst you may have already worked out that a 4-litre petrol Jag can’t deliver the fuel economy of a 2-litre diesel Volvo. And you’d be right. It’s usually about half, or less. That said, I’m now £300 a month better off, lease wise, and petrol is much cheaper than diesel. As it stands, I’m currently a little up on the deal, and I get to arrive everywhere looking like either an extra from a Guy Ritchie movie – or a successful pub landlord from the turn of the millennium. (I’m quite happy with both looks, if I’m honest.)

As for the environmental impact, according to a recent study by Mike Berners-Lee, author, researcher and professor in practice at Lancaster University, a largish car creates around 17 tonnes of CO2 just by being made, so for me to keep this quarter-century old one going for a while, is still better for the planet, even if it does emit a little burnt fuel through its catalysed exhaust as it wafts along.

The benefits of going ‘old school’ were brought into sharp focus during the recent Christmas break. I’m sure many of you saw, as I did while travelling, the endless queues of Teslas, politely waiting their turn to charge their batteries for the onward journey. Some had to wait for up to six hours, I understand, leading to a few reheated Christmas dinners, and plenty of stressful moments along the way.

To balance this, ‘charging’ the Jag did take almost ten whole minutes. But that included a full loo break, coffees, a pasty stop and a gentle amble through WHSmiths – as well as a brimmed tank of Super.

Despite the fact we’re clearly not quite ready for the mass switch to EV yet, I’m sure many more will be sold this year. However, for as long as it’s deemed acceptable to do so, I’m going to stick with my V8 Jag. Well, at least until I’ve created those 17 tonnes of CO2 and squared the environmental equation against the new car I could have bought instead.

It’s not just that I prefer the sound and drive of a V8 over an EV. In 2023 I turn 50 – and at that age, I really don’t want to be sitting in a cold car for six hours. My bladder just won’t take it.

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  • CPR Clarke says:

    I drive an MGBGTV8 I do not have to tax it although I did last October 2022 and it failed. This was because its brake lights were not working. I fitted a new brake light switch and it passed MOT. It is no heavier than the standard 4 cylinder model, more economical and a lot quicker. 35 mpg is achievable at 70 mpg on a motorway in overdrive at 2,200 rpm. I can’t hear the radio at any speed but BBC Radio 4 is now permanent Womans Hour anyway and no radio station plays my kind of music so I just listen to the 8 cylinders playing their own tune.

  • Andrew Greenhalgh says:

    Nice article! A couple of years ago I bought a similar Jag to yours (a ’98 XJ8 Sport 3.2 in BRG) and use it to do a weekly drive down to Guildford and back from Shropshire for work. Lovely smooth drive.. and gets me 28mpg if I stick around 2,000 rpm. I arrive refreshed and feeling regal. And totally carbon guilt-free when I think of the saving to the planet by not paying Tesla to build me a new car… when I can lovingly run a motor that was made 24 years ago instead. All the best.

  • Nicholas Davis says:

    Good article. I have done something similar. I use my 2007 Jaguar XK 4.2 V8 as my main car. It uses a big of fuel but it looks and sounds great and is such a comfortable way to cruise around. Reliability is much better than many people think, too. We have to make the most of these cars whilst we can.

    The car was 10 years old when I bought it, so by keeping it going, rather than buying something new, I am helping the environment too.

  • Madcap says:

    Great article. I drive a Jensen Interceptor 7.2L V8, and also a Triumph TR8 3.5L V8. I will continue to do so for as long as it remains legal to do so. No Mots, no road tax required.

  • Paul Parfitt says:

    I drive an 64 morris traveller. 40 mpg. Made of recycled metal and captured carbon in the ash frame!
    I argue it’s the greenest car made.

  • Matthew Belfield says:

    I think this is a great school of thought. Our daily is a 2006 BMW 330i touring. We got it cheap as it’s a cat c, not that you’d know. I recently drove from Wales down to London and by using hyper-miling techniques I got 44 MPG out of it, not bad for a 260 bhp 3.0 litre. It makes a delightful 6 cylinder growl when it’s opened up as well, love it! Cheap and fun motoring. I’m also in the process of building a Honda 2.2 VTEC powered Mk2 Austin 1800 Landcrab, which will be a tribute car to the Royal Navy’s entrant to the London to Sydney Marathon in 1968, nicknamed “Dizzyak”. I’m looking forward to using that as a regular form of transport.

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Hello Matthew, that Honda-engined Landcrab project sounds absolutely fascinating – we’d love to hear more!

  • Alan says:

    Love it Paul, totally agree. Have also enjoyed your Mustang videos. Very tempted later in 2023 to get a Bullitt if the ones with Magnaride start hitting £40k. If not, another year with a 13 year old flat six will be fine. 33mpg has been the most that 2.9 has got so may as well go 5.0

  • David says:

    I use my 2010 C63 as my daily, not rich enough for two cars so no choice haha, wouldn’t swap it and my kids love the noise. Don’t like the fuel bills but similar to you I’ve just turned 50 and feel the exact same way. Good article 👍🏻

  • David Bicknell says:

    Hi. I’m also a big fan of V8s. I’ve ridden motorbikes all my driving life and very quickly realised I liked V Twins rather than the bland in-line 4s that have dominated the market for decades. I spent my 30’s with a Renault 5GT turbo (which I know you also like) but for the last ten years, after numerous sensible (family) cars which didn’t excite me in the slightest, I have a 2004 Jaguar XJR. 4.2 litres with a supercharger. Best car I’ve ever owned, wolf in sheeps clothing, bit of nostalgia, utter comfort on long journeys, great build quality, lots of wallnut and cream leather. But that engine! Power, torque, supercharger whine – it’s just fab! Yes, it’s not great on fuel but I can get 30mpg on motorways and it depends on how you drive. I usually drive on the manual side of the gearbox in sport mode (and I often wish it was fully manual) but you can’t have everything!

  • Lawrence Gameson says:

    Fully agree with the V8 & straight 6 thinking, and keeping cars for many years. I have a 2000 Harley Davidson 5.4 V8 F150 pickup that has been my company van since 2003, so 20 years, and it’s 2nd lpg system, even though I’ve run a Nissan Leaf Mk 1 for 3 years (useless) and a Tesla Model S for 5 years (a lot more use & 50k miles), I can’t bear to part with the F150, it’s done 130k miles with me, and at least 6 trips to the French Alps. It just sounds gorgeous, and is a total antidote to driving the Tesla!
    I also have a very rare UZZ32 4.0 V8 Toyota Soarer, that I can’t bare to part with, and a 4.0 straight 6 Jaguar Xjs convertible that’s been my companion up the west coast of the US, then across to NY, and recently the Amalfi & back for my 60th. I’m building a Defender, & a classic Wood & Pickett Range Rover, both with Chevy Vortec 6.0 V8 engines, as I know they will be reliable, and use no more fuel than the Rover V8.
    I think electric is part of the answer, but give me a V8/straight 6 for therapy reasons!

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