In the late-1970s, BL invested in its future by looking at the next step in engineering design. Under the leadership of Spen King, British Leyland Technology was created, and out of it came some fascinating projects, including the lightweight ECV3 prototype.
From this came a flirtation with aluminium, as well as what would become the K-Series engine, as Keith Adams explains.
ECV3 prototype: tripping the light fantastic
In many ways, 1 November 1977 – the date that Michael Edwardes took the helm at BL – can be seen as the first day of the rest of the company’s life. 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.
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.
BL Technology goes public: ECV2
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 was 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, it was a development step in the pursuit of the ultimate expression of what BL was aiming for in its 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.
The future of cars, according to Spen King
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 up to 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 its 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 significantly 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 three-cylinder engine would be matched up to a Borg-Warner CVT transmission system.
In with the ECV3 prototype
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, while 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.
How fast, how economical was the ECV3 prototype?
|0-60mph: 11.0 secs
|49mpg (ECE Urban Cycle)
|61mpg at 75mph
|81mpg at 56mph
|133mpg at 30mph
So clearly, the performance and economy targets had also been met – maximum speed was comparable to 1983’s crop of 2.0-litre saloons, while 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 ECV3’s engine was 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 prototype 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 gear linkage to it.’
The car’s construction was also somewhat different to that of its contemporary rivals, but it did return 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.
BL Technology ECV3 driven on Top Gear
Futuristic production techniques
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 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…
Some unanswered questions
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 an 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.