In-house designs : ECV Programme

Tripping the light fantastic

In many ways, 1 November 1977 – the date that Michael Edwardes took the helm at British Leyland – can be seen as the first day of the rest of the company’s life. Of course the company was very much a rapidly sinking ship – the hull breached in many places – and Edwardes could only plug one hole at a time… One of the main criticisms of BL during the ‘dark years’ was that the public had lost all confidence in the company, and Edwardes knew that this was something that needed addressing rather quickly.

As recounted elsewhere on this site, the most pressing issues were those of forcing through the Product Recovery Plan – in other words, the new cars. After that, the management and unions within the company needed reform, which was pressed through very quickly – culminating in the sacking of Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson.

Beyond that, the R&D (Research and Development) departments – a rag-bag mixture of areas dotted around the various production plants – were brought together under the guise of BL Technology and then based at the new proving ground site at Gaydon in Warwickshire. BL Technology was founded in 1979, and headed up by Spen King, the department soon worked on concepts for the future.

It was in May 1980 that the plans of BL Technology were announced to the press – and not only was the new facility in Warwickshire tangible evidence that something exciting was happening within BL, but the first concept car masterminded by Spen King made its appearance, too.

Surprisingly the new car was called the ECV2 (ECV standing for Energy Conservation Vehicle) – and less surprisingly, it was greeted very positively by the press, starved of anything new from BL since the Rover SD1 in 1976/1977 (it even made the front page of the Daily Mail!). Great play was also made of the fact that although the largest shareholder in BL was the Government, the ECV2 was financed entirely from within, whereas equivalent automotive research by French, German and US manufacturers is financially assisted by their respective governments.

So what exactly was the ECV2? The ECV2 was based on the ADO88 (and not the Metro as most of the press assumed) and it acted purely as a running prototype for aerodynamic and running gear research – in other words in was a development step in the pursuit of the ultimate expression of what BL were aiming for in the 1990s cars. As the ECV2 was based on an existing car, it was always going to be compromised as an overall concept, but it did prove invaluable as a test bed for the new (and at the time, very secret) three cylinder power unit.

Headline figures for the ECV2 were those for its fuel consumption: 100mpg at 30mph, and more realistically, over 60mpg at 60mph and 55mpg on the combined ECE dynamometer cycle. These figures may not seem so remarkable at the turn of the new millennium, but back in 1980, they were sensational – and Spen King insisted that BL cars should be performing to these standards by the end of the 1980s.

An ADO88 with a droop snoot perhaps, but what lay beneath was far more significant.

An ADO88 with a droop snoot perhaps, but what lay beneath was far more significant.

King also used the launch of the ECV2 to point out where he saw the future of the motor car going:

· Petrol, rather than diesel would be the fuel of choice for small cars – highly efficient multi-valve engines running compression ratios of up to 13.5:1. Lean burn technology would be essential and upto 5 per cent of the cars in use would be powered by LPG (taxation permitting).

· CVT transmissions were the most efficient way of getting the power down, and therefore should be widely used. Tests by BL Technology showed that a CVT equipped Dolomite returned 56mpg at 30mph compared with the 49mpg of it’s manual counterpart.

· King fervently believed that cars would need to become significantly lighter: he believed that a medium sized family car would be up to 500kg lighter than it was in 1980. Steel and aluminium would be the choice of materials for cars’ structures, but with extensive use of plastic for non stress-bearing areas.

· Aerodynamics would also improve signifiacntly by 1990 – drag coefficients would need to drop to below 0.30 to effect genuine improvements. He noted that the performance of the ECV2 at 0.345 was less than satisfactory. It was also heavier than he liked at 560kg.

With these goals in mind, King continued to work on the next version of the car, the ECV3 – even in 1980, he was telling the press that the ECV3 would be ultra-aerodynamic and exceptionally light – and its 3-cylinder engine would be matched up to a Borg-Warner CVT transmission system.

It might have looked bland from the front, but the ECV3 certainly provided a preview of how the aerodynamically-honed cars of the 1990s would look. In retrospect, only the proud and non-integrated windscreen wipers look rather naïve.

It might have looked bland from the front, but the ECV3 certainly provided a preview of how the aerodynamically-honed cars of the 1990s would look. In retrospect, only the proud and non-integrated windscreen wipers look rather naïve.

In December 1982, BL Technology revealed ECV3 to the press – and like its predecessor, it was made very clear that it would not be going into production, but would merely act as a mobile test-bed for new ideas and engineering concepts. Whatever the case, the ECV3 was a fantastic car – and it harked back to so many BL and BMC models from the past, that it deserves a place in any account of the company’s history.

Firstly, it was designed around the Issigonis maxim that it should have the maximum amount of interior space for minimum external size – and that it achieved magnificently, having more legroom than a Ford Sierra, whilst being some 2ft shorter. Having sat in the car myself, there is certainly a competitive level of interior space in the front and rear – easily better than the Ford Focus, if not as good as the cars in the class above. A remarkable achievement for 1982, though.

Performance figures:

Maximum speed: 115mph
Acceleration: 0-60mph: 11.0 secs
Fuel consumption: 49mpg (ECE Urban Cycle)
61mpg at 75mph
81mpg at 56mph
133mpg at 30mph

So clearly, the performance and eceonomy targets had also been met – maximum speed was comaprable to 1983′s crop of 2-litre saloons, whilst its economy was unmatched by any production cars of the day. Aerodynamics played a big part in this – its co-efficient was 0.24 and its weight was also phenomenally low at 664kg.

The 1113cc 3-cylinder engine used in the ECV3 was unusual for being a single-cam, 4-valve per cylinder design – efficient it was though: producing 70bhp at 5,000rpm, with the promise of more. Somewhat similar to Spen King's other design – the Triumph Dolomite Sprint. Many of the principles employed in the construction and design of this engine saw the light of day in the K-series engine in 1989. Like the rest of the ECV3, it was a featherweight, at a mere 84kg.

The 1113cc 3-cylinder engine used in the ECV3 was unusual for being a single-cam, 4-valve per cylinder design – efficient it was though: producing 70bhp at 5,000rpm, with the promise of more. Somewhat similar to Spen King’s other design – the Triumph Dolomite Sprint. Many of the principles employed in the construction and design of this engine saw the light of day in the K-series engine in 1989. Like the rest of the ECV3, it was a featherweight, at a mere 84kg.

What was the ECV3 like to drive? According to journalist Richard Bremner, who worked for Austin Rover at the time, it was a very interesting experience, ‘I remember a warbling three cylinder engine, an amazingly elastic ride (though it did roll a bit) and limited transmission shunt, the bane of many an AR car at the time. If I recall, the triple had some trick engine mounting system that enabled the powertrain to rotate in sympathy with torque reversals, quite a feat given the need to hook a gearlinkage to it.’

The car’s construction was also somewhat different to that of its contemporary rivals, but it did turn to the ideals of another of the company’s earlier designs – the Rover P6. Like that car, the ECV3′s body involved a load-bearing ‘baseframe’, to which unstressed panels were attached. In this instance, the baseframe was made of aluminium and the panels were all plastic, contributing to the car’s low overall weight. In fact, the body-in-white weighed a mere 138kg, roughly half that of a contemporary steel monocoque.

The idea was very revolutionary for its time, and the use of aluminium, more so. According to Spen King, the technique has been picked up subsequently by Jaguar, ‘we worked with ALCAN on ECV3, and when I got out of the company, I worked for ALCAN, and the people I brought in there out of BL, who are now running the ALCAN aluminium programme, which includes the Jaguar. The techniques are directly borne out of what was going on in ECV3. There’s a real connection. Mike Kelly and Tony Warren are the people in ALCAN who have been connected to ECV3 right from the start.’

Overall, an exceptionally efficient package – and it did point to a brighter future…

The AR6 was the car most influenced by the ECV3 – and most unfortunately, it did not make it into production. The engine did in a manner of speaking, because lessons learned in its design were used in the K-series engine, which remained a highly competitive engine even into the new millennium…

Two questions raised by this article still need answering:

· What was the ECV1? The ECV1 was merely a non-running prototype of the ECV2, used to evaluate body stresses.

· What about about King’s predictions for the future? Remarkably prescient, although sadly, his prediction about cars getting lighter was wide of the mark, not because of progress or laziness by the manufacturers, but because of increasing passive safety regulations that demanded more and more secondary safety equipment. Also, increasing equipment levels and the decreasing likelihood of impending energy crisis meant that the focus turned from weight saving to increasing the efficiency of engines and aerodynamics to attain higher levels of refinement and performance.

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Editor at AROnline and @hjclassics. Likes cars, taking pictures, travelling and knee-high boots...


19 Responses

  1. g scoth - July 28, 2012

    well ford has just court up

  2. Phil Simpson - July 12, 2013

    The three cylinder engine should have been scrapped, it is obviously was in time & the body scaled up to fit (maybe) with more conventional rear wheel arches) the forthcoming Maestro’s running gear & the 1.7 “O” series engine installed instead of the infamous “R” series one & BL would have had a very good car on their hands.

    All of this should have been feasable by the Maestro’s launch date.

  3. francis brett francis brett - July 12, 2013

    What was so wrong with the 3 pot? 1.1 and 70 hp? lucky to get that from 1.2 8V Puntos.

  4. Ken Strachan - December 15, 2013

    Phil, are you an engineer? You might think it simple to put aluminium/plastic body construction into production at, say, 1500 cars/week in 1984. Jaguar tried to build about 600 alloy X350′s in 2004 – they had to put the launch back a year and it nearly drove them bust.
    BTW I saw the ECV3 in the flesh – or plastic – in Derby College when Spen King gave an I Mech E lecture. The car was nice, but Spen seeemed rather introverted – or perhaps just tired.

  5. francis brett francis brett - December 16, 2013

    The type of car that could have saved BL and help put it on a secure footing.

    Hindsight eh?

  6. kennyg - December 17, 2013

    Another excellent read Keith. Thanks

  7. The Wolseley Man - December 19, 2013

    Clearly the 3 pot unit should not have been abandoned. Had Spen and the team continued their work, the Alfa Mito, small Vauxhall and others of today including the new MINI would have been following the leader – BL.
    I seem to remember Diatsu having a three pot Charade in the 80′s or early 90′s?
    Another great idea (and possibility) bites the dust from AR! Just look at those performance figures – come on! Whoever actually pulled the plug on this development helped the AR decline big-time!
    As with all hindsight and history though, the guy must have thought he was making the right decision at the time.

  8. Nate - December 19, 2013

    @7

    BL / Rover Group produced quite a few 3-cylinder prototype engines:

    E3 – 1114cc / 1311cc E3 with smaller capacity versions being possible via a short-stroke crank and possibly related to the 70 hp 1113cc ECV 12v 3-cylinder (would have been interesting to see the figures a 12v 1311cc ECV would have put out).

    T3 – A 3-cylinder 6v/12v version of the 1850cc Triumph Slant-4.

    K3 – A 973cc 3-pot K-Series plus another seemingly separate 3-pot K-Series derived from the KV6.

    Out of the 3 prototype engines above, only the E3 and K3 units seem to be the most viable for production though there does not seem to have been enough money or desire to replace the A-Series with either 3-cylinder engines.

    Daihatsu’s 993cc 3-cylinder was called the C-Series, available from a petrol version with 43-105 hp (featuring 6v SOHC, 6v SOHC Turbo, 12v DOHC Turbo) to a diesel with 37-50 hp (in both Turbo and NA forms).

    Also seem to recall someone in the UK successfully installing the 50 hp 993cc Daihatsu Turbodiesel engine, apparently the car was capable of 0-60 in roughly 13-14 seconds and around 50-60 mpg.

  9. Nate - December 19, 2013

    8) Nate

    My Bad

    Meant to say in the last part that someone in the UK successfully installed the 50 hp 993cc Daihatsu Turbodiesel engine into a Mini.

  10. Sid Stannard - April 13, 2014

    Audi A2. I’ve now met its mother!

  11. francis brett francis brett - April 14, 2014

    And its mother was way ahead of anyone!

  12. ryan - April 14, 2014

    love this car shame we never sore any of its improvements in the rover metro

  13. Will M - April 14, 2014

    The Audi A2 was a very interesting design, at a time when Mercedes were also thinking along the same lines with the A class.

    I’ve been in an A2 and 6 foot 3 of me was comfortable in the rear seat, even more so than the comparatively cramped A3 and A4 interiors I’ve sampled.

    The rear footrest being under the front seat, for example, is a passenger aircraft inspired feature that prevents the knees from sitting too high and feeling squashed.

    In iRobot, the A2 is used as a futuristic taxi.

    The 5 door spiritual MINI proposal was a similar concept, the small rear engine design now being undertaken by Renault with the Twingo.

  14. ryan - April 14, 2014

    vw were also thinking about making the up! rear engine rear wheel drive early in its development

  15. Will M - April 14, 2014

    Strange how things go full circle.

    Rear engine RWD was once seen as a bit old fashioned when the world was going Front engine FWD, now the idea is seen as advanced thinking (and too unconventional for VW to return to!)

    Interestingly, the original Renault 5 was actually classed as a mid engined front wheel drive car, as the engine was behind the front axle.

  16. ryan - April 14, 2014

    I whish they would make a Renault sport twingo whith a v6

  17. Paul - April 15, 2014

    In 2014 investment in lightweight technology and fuel efficient 3 cylinder engines would be an extremely wise thing to do. In 1982 it was an irrelevant waste of money that would have been far better spent on making the Maestro and Montego less bad than they where.

  18. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion - April 15, 2014

    @17 I was thinking the same thing but didn’t want to say it… If the products benefitted from all this investment then it wasn’t all a waste, But BL were littered with “Dead Ends” . A crying shame really, but was probably more down to “The Power’s that be” who controlled the purse strings that called a stop, Whilst it appears the next owners BA would just sell everything off…. possibly for a song.

  19. Will M - April 15, 2014

    @ryan

    Never say never, Renault are known for putting wacky big engines into little cars, especially if the next Twingo is set up for a rear engine and RWD….

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