Concepts and prototypes : BMC/ERA Project 378 (1955-1959)

Had the BMC/ERA Project 378 or ‘Maximin’ come to fruition, the BMC 1100 and 1800 could have been rear-engined cars.

Keith Adams recalls this fascinating project.

Project 378: In an alternate reality…

BMC/ERA Project 378 'Maximin'
The second of three BMC/ERA Project 378 ‘Maximin’ prototypes – this one was badged up as an Austin and featured almost Rootes Group-influenced styling.

Generally, when a carmaker embarks on a new vehicle development programme, it’s to meet a set of demands. Those demands might arise from the need to replace an existing model or to test the viability of entering a new market sector – and, perhaps, even to respond to the challenge of a rival, which has introduced something new and exciting. Rarely is a new model developed to answer criticism from the press.

However, that’s exactly what happened when BMC contracted ERA (English Racing Automobiles later to become Engineering Research Applications) to build the prototype of an interesting new family car in the 1950s. Leading the charge of criticism was Motor Sport‘s Editor, Bill Boddy, who in the early 1950s, regularly accused BMC of technical timidity, citing the Volkswagen Beetle‘s interesting mechanical layout and brilliant build quality as an example of what should be coming out of Birmingham and Oxford.

Today, it might seem odd that the Editor of a motoring magazine might have such influence, but these were different times, and Boddy, who ended up editing Motor Sport between 1936-1991, was a leading voice in the industry. As well as railing against BMC’s technically boring cars, he also called out the rest of the British motoring media for pulling its punches when it came to criticising the British car industry. These really were different times…

Volkswagen Beetle
Motor Sport’s Editor Bill Boddy thought BMC should be building cars like the Volkswagen Beetle

An invite to Longbridge…

Following a particularly cutting comment about Austin, Boddy found himself invited to Longbridge for discussions on the subject. According to BMC historian, Barney Sharratt, Austin agreed that its cars did suffer from shortcomings, but the purpose of the meeting was to try and persuade the magazine to lay off the criticism.

The meeting had the opposite effect and, in the words of Motor Sport, ‘we naturally refused to be muzzled and the result was that BMC banned its cars to us for road test.’

And worse, the criticism began to spread. As former BMC executive Geoff Cooper put it, ‘most of the Press soon took up the theme and were blowing off about another load of boxes on wheels and how it was about time we came up with something different.’

Renault 4CV
Renault 4CV’s rear-engined layout was said to be the most practical for a family car in the early 1950s.

Challenge accepted

As Sharratt related, the complaints continued until Leonard Lord was driven into a corner at the 1955 Motor Show by Laurence Pomeroy, Technical Editor of The Motor magazine. He asked BMC’s erstwhile boss to build something a bit more interesting. ‘You bloody well tell us what to build and we’ll build it,’ said Lord.

The next time Pomeroy saw Lord, he asked him if he had meant what he said, ‘I bloody well did,’ replied Lord, ‘Just see George Harriman.’

What Pomeroy had suggested was simple – perhaps BMC should be looking at building a rear-engined car, like the Renault Dauphine or Volkswagen Beetle, and a lightweight engine should be developed specifically designed to take advantage of a rear-engined configuration. Little did Pomeroy know just how seriously he’d been taken, and even before the Motor Show’s echoes faded, Leonard Lord was hatching a plan.

Enter English Racing Automobiles

Lord had taken Pomeroy’s words to heart and, although Alec Issigonis had just returned to BMC following a three-year stint at Alvis, to set about designing his Experimental Car series of vehicles, the boss had wanted a little insurance against his work bearing fruit quickly enough.

With the desire to produce a car offering new standards of comfort with independent self-levelling suspension and automatic transmission – as well as seating and luggage accommodation for six in a relatively compact and lightweight car – ERA was contracted to build a series of prototypes to meet this interesting brief.

But why was ERA approached? Tom Cobley, an Engineer working for ERA, later recalled: ‘Chief Engineer, David Hodkin, had been trying to generate money by selling expertise and ideas to other companies.’ Hodkin had already designed the space-framed ERA G-type racing car for his boss Leslie Johnson, and had also designed and tested the chassis for the excellent Jowett Jupiter.

‘To that end we also prepared rally cars for Rootes, but we were also doing research for Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Vauxhall. The Longbridge project rolled in, and was to design a complete car,’ Cobley added.

BMC/ERA Project 378 'Maximin'

Maximin kicks off

Named ‘Maximin’, the project was launched in May 1956, ably assisted by substantial funds from Longbridge. Geoff Cooper, appointed Longbridge’s liaison officer for the project, later recalled: ‘work on what we called Project 378, was done at ERA in Dunstable under David Hodkin. He devised a platform, the basic structure of which could be used for anything – car, pick-up or van.’

The car would feature a new power unit, specifically designed for Project 378. Cooper added, ‘a 1500cc OHC four-cylinder aluminium engine was designed to fit transversely in the fairly useless space above the back axle. Air suspension was thought to be the best way to cater for a varying load of from one to six people in a vehicle of relatively low unladen weight.’

The project rapidly took shape in Dunstable, and was put together by a team of fewer than 20 people. Hodkin was the perfect driving force behind this project because he had the ability to get the best out of everybody. He was part-owner, Managing Director, Chief Designer, Chief Engineer and worker – a very unusual combination. ‘Of course, we didn’t know whether we were just being used as a kick up the backside for BMC’s own Engineers or whether our work was really to be used,’ said Cooper.

A clever little drivetrain

The four-cylinder air-cooled engine was designed with ease of assembly in mind, with the block and crankcase split down the centre-line. The exterior of the aluminium block was finned and an engine-driven centrifugal blower delivered cooling air through metal ducting.

Maximum power output was 58.5bhp at 4750rpm, and the prototype was said to have had lively acceleration with a top speed of 80mph. An oil cooler was located in the front boot and doubled as a matrix for heating the cars interior. Front and rear boots allowed for a total of some 20 cubic feet of luggage – about the same as the 1962 Ford Cortina Mk1.

David Hodkin’s brother, Richard, was ERA’s Instrumentation Engineer, and oversaw the 378’s automatic transmission development. He recalled: ‘It was a perfectly standard four-speed manual transmission, but we used a magnetic clutch, and experimented with arrangements such as air bellows and springs, and eventually a double-acting air ram, to give an automatic change. We called it the Swift Shift.’

BMC/ERA Project 378 'Maximin'

It certainly looked promising, and in many ways predicted the industry’s move to computer-controlled semi-automatic transmissions. ‘You didn’t even have to lift your foot off the throttle on up-changes because there would be a brief ignition cut. Nor could you over-rev the engine because it would just signal an up-change – and, if you tried to go too slow, it would down-change. The driver could signal what gearchange they wanted with the flick switch. It was very effective.’

Denis Pearce, who worked with Richard Hodkin on the transmission, added, ‘we did development work on a Volkswagen Beetle. If you removed the body, you had excellent access to the gearbox and you could even drive the car like that. We built a Porsche-engined Beetle to get a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of the proposed car.’

Impressive suspension and brakes

The suspension of 378 was well-sorted, and certainly met Lord’s initial request to deliver new standards of comfort. Firestone air spring diaphragms for each wheel coupled with an ERA-devised constant-height regulator were the order of the day, and according to its Development Engineers, ride quality was well above average on poorer roads, with roll angles limited to four degrees.

Of the brakes, Project Engineer Denis Pearce recalled: ‘The car had disc brakes all round and of course discs have no self-servo action. I went out with Ted Brewer, our Chassis Engineer, who was a bit of a madman. He stamped on the brakes so hard that he broke the seat mountings.

‘We got Dunlop to fit a servo and went out again but when Ted hit the brakes this time he shouted, “Hell, there are no brakes at all!’ Dunlop had connected the servo the wrong way round so it was pulling the brakes off rather than on!” With a servo properly connected the discs proved satisfactory.’

Project 378 takes shape

The first 378 prototype was purposely built to look like a homemade special so not to attract attention if it was spotted out testing by a member of the motoring press. But the second model was far more definitive – it was designed after extensive aerodynamic testing but Geoff Cooper described an even later development.

He said, ‘Towards the end of the project, Vanden Plas was short of work, so George Harriman asked Austin Stylist Dick Burzi to get together with the Vanden Plas stylist. Hodkin was dead against it, but they produced a body with stiffening fins down each side of the roof and a reverse-slope rear window,’ as shown in the image below.

He added: ‘I thought it was bloody ugly – a shame really. You could have styled whatever you liked on that platform because there was no propshaft. The usual problems of rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive cars would have been minimal because the power unit was very light.’

Tom Cobley described the aerodynamic work in simple terms: ‘Our wind tunnel was the world! We put our vehicles on an aerodynamic platform that we built on top of an old Bristol coach and hummed round the MIRA circuit. We carried out tests for drag and lift and yaw – from the point of view of aerodynamics, we were way ahead of everyone.’

Did it inpire Ford?

According to Barney Sharratt, Longbridge folklore credits the reverse-slope rear window of the final 378 prototype as the inspiration for the styling of the Ford Anglia 105E. A visit by Ford’s Chairman and Chief Executive, Sir Patrick Henessey, to the Longbridge wind tunnel gave rise to this claim – Project 378 happened to be standing in the tunnel under a dust sheet and when Sir Patrick asked to see the tunnel in action, it was decided that as the car was unlikely to make it into production, it was okay to remove the dust sheet and use the car for the demonstration.

It is said that Sir Patrick’s eyes hardly left the vehicle during the entire exercise.

Compare the ERA’s rear-end with the rear of the Anglia, and you will see reason enough for the endearing Longbridge legend. Sharratt said that dates and lead times throw doubt on its authenticity, and Ford stylists of the day openly attributed the inspiration for the Anglia’s rear window to a Farina-bodied Fiat Abarth.

BMC/ERA Project 378 'Maximin'
The third of three BMC/ERA Project 378 ‘Maximin’ prototypes – this one fettled by Vanden Plas and BMC’s lead Stylist Dick Burzi. It was described as ‘bloody ugly’ by ERA’s Geoff Cooper

What happened to Project 378?

The project was evaluated and quietly canned by BMC once it had been completed. By this time, Issigonis was well on his was to creating XC9000 and its front-wheel-drive replacement, the XC9003 – which would eventually become the BMC 1800 in 1964.

BMC Engineer, Ron Boswell, said that two ERA prototypes ended up in the Longbridge Research and Development Department: ‘The saloon with the ribs along the roof was light green over beige and looked long and sleek to us in those days. Doc Stuart (then in charge of East Works R&D) would sometimes want it started up to take someone out. The suspension worked better if you blew a bit of air into the system first. The engine was supposed to do it for you, but the whole thing settled down if left for very long.’

Doc (Duncan) Stuart tells how the prototypes were eventually, ‘trundled into the tunnels leading from East Works, which had already become the repository for other abandoned prototypes. The ERA prototypes are known to have been in that tunnel as late as the 1970s, when they were said to have been covered in two inches of dust. They finally disappeared after a serious fire in the early 1980s.

Assessing the project later, Tom Cobley concluded: ‘ERA 378 was successful in that it met the design parameters. The engine ran without blowing up and the air suspension and self-levelling worked, but ready to go into production? I doubt it. After that, Solex and Zenith’s carburettor development work was given to us as they’d bought a sizeable interest in the company and wanted to turn us into their research centre. Thus began the process of destroying ERA as we knew it.’

Speaking of 378’s final days, Richard Hodkin said: ‘The project was going from strength to strength, probably preventing the Solex work from expanding. The crunch came when my brother went to a meeting at Longbridge. The Solex chap suddenly began tearing David to shreds in front of George Harriman. When David got back he was told to clear out his things.’

Tom Cobley agreed: ‘They literally put Hodkin out of the door so we all walked out. We set up office in a telephone box on Watling Street. I’m serious! We constantly manned that box as our centre of operations. We had offers from Dunlop, Vauxhall, BMC, Rootes and Volkswagen to take us as a team.’

In the end, the team went to Rootes to work on the Hillman Imp development where their drivetrain experience was put to good use, and then worked on the promising Audax-replacing Swallow project – the natural evolution of Project 378.

Meanwhile, great things had been going on behind the scenes at Longbridge. Issigonis was about to launch his revolutionary Mini. Duncan Stuart concluded: ‘If the magic feel that Issigonis had for a car on the road could have been combined with David’s brilliance in engineering detail, what might we have had?’

BMC/ERA Project 378 'Maximin'
The third BMC/ERA Project 378 ‘Maximin’ prototype at Longbridge, where it was sidelined in favour of Alec Issigonis’s Experimental Car series of designs that ultimately led to the Mini, 1100 and 1800

Editor’s Note: Written with reference to Barney Sharratt’s ‘End of an ERA’, Thoroughbred and Classic Cars, October 1994.

Keith Adams
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  1. When Nate emailed this the other day, I said the same thing then as I do now, bloody hideous and would not have sold. Rear engines were a no no here in the UK (as Hilman found out!) so that would have also had a negative effect.

    As per Duncan Stuarts comment, it would have be interesting to see what Issigonis and Hodkin would have concocted had they been able to work together! The engine from the Maximin, its unique gearbox along with Alec’s front wheel drive, space efficiency and Moultons suspension, however would probably looked like a dog!

  2. Interesting idea the trend for rear engined cars in the fifties turned out to be a dead end,the styling looked rather ungainly as well perhaps if Farina had been involved the result could have looked a lot better.

  3. A fascinating dead end. That final version is seriously ugly, like a Farina Cambridge that went wrong!

  4. No, that is not Ugly, FAR from it, compared to some of the other cars around at that time, it might not look like a stunner today, but back then it would have been a game changer in looks, and was a better looking car that the 1100 that came later, BMC indeed needed something to up its game, and this would have been that – another missed opportunity, if, as all the engineers state, it was ahead of its time, and was a brilliant car.

    AS an aside, why is it that you can not clear all those over 1000 ticks for cookies in one hit, the amount of companies listed in the list is diabolical, and the majority have nothing to do with this site, in fact none of them do, cyber trading etc, then there are the ones that refuse to allow you to remove the ticks, I was not aware the law had been changed that refuses to allow spam companies to forceably put cookies into your computer – I removed over 700 ticks, and I got bored so counted, and I was already over half way done – I was under the impression that as the “customer” we have the right to remove any and all cookies, apart from the initial ones to make the site work, whereas the ones that are hidden, well over 1000 of them are not… is this all just a money making exercise. I used to come here multiple times a day, but now I know that cookies are being dumped into my computer for companies that have no relevance to this site, I doubt I will.

  5. I worked in the Longbridge south experimental dept from September 1966 until August 1968, having left the BMC Australia experimental to work on the fitment of the first six cylinder engine into an Austin 1800 and later the first 4 cylinder into a Maxi body,up until that point the 4 cylinder had been running in reworked 1100s with a massive bonnet bulge which was not necessary after seeing the Australia 1500 and Nomad bonnets!.When Leyland took over in 1968 we were told to remove all the prototypes from the tunnels and destroy them, one was an Austin A 110 fitted with a G version of the B60 used in the 4 Litre R, the “G” had twin overhead cams, also we destroyed a 378, this is where the printed story is incorrect, the engine was split done the vertical centre line but the engine and transmition was one casting so any minor warranty claims to the clutch and transmission would have made the early Mini claims look like a walk in the park, the cast iron sleeves had a spiral groove around the outside for oil under pressure to act as a cooling.

    • David Hill

      Out of interest, amongst the experimental cars destroyed can you recall seeing any Spridgets, MGBs or other sportscars fitted with unusual engines that were supposedly looked at for a stillborn Healey (ADO51) version of the MGC to replace the 3000?

      In relation to the above have seen a number of unverified stories of various experimental sports cars fitted with XK6s, Aston-Martin 4-cylinders (see Aston engine Volvo P1800) and an experimental twin-cam development of the Austin 2.5 D-Series (essentially a petrol version of the 2520cc diesel introduced in 1971 on the FX4) because the Healeys were not fans of the revised C-Series engine planned for the MGC.

      • Nate, the only sports type cars were mini and sprite based still with the A series engine both FWD an RWD, from memory nothing that you would want to own.
        In 1968 after the joining with Jaguar a roadster body was dragged out and we were given a 3 litre (not a typing error) to fit, after looking at it we told the engineer in charge it will not fit, too deep, he replied we can see that but we have to show management, the engine went back to Jaguar and the body back where it came from, it was a good look and i think would have sold well but Jaguar would not have wanted the competition,

  6. Another rear-engine project looked at by BMC was the Goggomobil or NSU Prinz-inspired Griffin Goggo, featuring high sill and sliding half-canopy on an Invacar-like powdered blue coloured body as well as seating for two and a bit people.

    Powered by a 2-cylinder engine, either half an A-Series as said by Charles Griffin or carry-over Goggomobil engine and gearbox from what engineer Peter Tothill recalled. It actually undercut its target £300 price by £5, however it was basically a one-off lash-up of a project nobody had fond memories of that really never stacked up against the more spacious, FWD and much better to drive Mini. A disparaging and unimpressed Issigonis did not think the Griffin prototype was a car at all.

    • The 2 cylinder A series engine can be seen on You Tube under Ivans shed and the 2 cylinder 2 stroke under shed racing.

  7. An interesting concept, but a car that would have dated badly and buyers would have run away from rear engines, that were more associated with supposedly backward European cars, and self levelling suspension would have raised fears the 378 would be too expensive to maintain. It was for the best Issigonis was given the green light for the Mini and the ADO16, as these proved to be huge successes in the sixties.

  8. Interesting that the press criticised BMC for producing what they considered conventional cars when as far as British buyers where concerned that’s exactly what they wanted. There was even distrust of BMC/BL front wheel drive well into the 70s allowing Ford to corner the fleet market and of course the only BL car that ever did decent business was the 1948 reverse engineered Marina

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