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