Concepts and Prototypes : BL Technology ECV3 (1982)

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

ECV3 prototype

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.

ECV3 prototype
An ADO88 with a droop snoot perhaps, but what lay beneath was far more significant

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

ECV3 prototype
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, 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?

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 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.

ECV3 prototype
The 1113cc three-cylinder engine used in the ECV3 was unusual for being a single-cam, four-valve per cylinder design – efficient it was though: producing 70bhp at 5000rpm, with the promise of more to come

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.

ECV3 prototype

Keith Adams


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. @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.

    • E series 1300, around 82hp give or take just from a capacity/hp comparison – roughly equal to the 1990s hyundai Alpha 1300 12v.
      It would have had the same problems too, torque max at high rpm therefore bad economy at low speeds but good highway mpg.
      Renault douvrin 12v was the same – 22mpg town but 38mpg was getable on motorway because peak torque was 4200 where the 8v was 2200-2500..

  5. 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.

      • Was not referring to the Innocenti that only featured the non-turbo diesel version of the Daihatsu C-Series engine, rather was referring to a project by Tony Spillane who (prior to becoming involved with the Minki-I/II projects) built himself a Mini equipped with a 50 hp turbodiesel version of the 993cc 3-cylinder Daihatsu C-Series unit.

  6. 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.

    • “The rear footrest being under the front seat, for example, is a passenger aircraft inspired feature”
      Or 1980s Renault ‘Monotrace’ inspired?

  7. 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.

    • Oh yes, what could possibly go wrong? A 200hp rear engine rear drive smart (aygo) 4 door with a boot the size of a bucket and steering that’d best be characterised as twist and pray.
      My mum just got a smart as a courtesy car after the idiot in the BMW hit hers at 70mph, it’s actually not that horrible (heated seats, cruise and air) but a Clio Williams or Renaultsport it’ll never be, it’d be briefly terrifying and permanently fatal. A low rent version of a tatra T77a without the charisma.. But probably a higher driver kill rate..

  8. 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.

    • So a 95hp 1.4 litre Maestro would have been a bad thing? Based on the Dolly sprint motor with a cylinder lopped off. It would have knocked the competition for six, not to mention basing a Maestro MG Turbo model off it.. Given the same power improvement from this as from the Renault 5 1.4 to the GT Turbo you’d be looking at a 133hp turbo Maestro..
      Or even better a top of the range MG Maestro/Montego/Montego estate with 130hp and sports suspension but microscopic company car tax – the Cavalier SRi 130 was 2 litres.. But with conventional engines available..

      It might have even fitted in the Metro… 30hp+ on the A series metro turbo and therefore better economy.. Not to mention more fun!

  9. @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.

  10. @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….

  11. Three cylinders is enough, take the 2000 Honda Insight, the 3-cylinder engine rotates as smoothly as a four.

    It has a motor generator mounted on the cranshaft acting as an intelligent flywheel, the motor generator loads and unloads many times per second, each load/unload cycle synchronised to the power srokes of the pistons, the engine is well controlled for vibration and fluctation by this system

  12. #15, please do not tell me RWD is smart.

    FWD minimises the hefty transmission tunnel, eliminates the North South RWD engine layout and over-sized centre console as the gearbox intrudes into the passenger cabin,( except for Audi and their twisted thinking of an NS engine with a 90 degree transfer box to drive the front wheels) and do we really want cars paralysed by a mere hint of snow under the wheels…..BMW….Mercedes

    • Transverse rear engined RWD is pretty smart. NSU made brilliant cars with exactly this and now Renault have resurrected it on the Twingo.

  13. The ECV3 was way ahead of its time, 115 mph and 60 mpg were unheard of 1980. Now this is commonplace on smaller cars. Back then a 115 mph car, which would probably have been a six cylinder in 1980, or a sports car, would struggle to better 28 mpg, and the best you could hope for mpg wise was 48 in a long journey in a Mini.

    • It was the trend back then.

      Even large family cars might only have had 13″ steel wheels.

      Compared to 17″ these days.

    • Partly because much more of the total suspension movement was in the tyre sidewall, partly because the designers had more of a clue and knew that ride is terrible when you have 17″ of wheel and an inch of sidewall but didn’t bother to tell modern designers.. And possibly because designers in the 80s and possibly 90s didn’t grow up as mindless chav teenagers putting 18″ rims on Novas..
      Up to a point more sidewall is better but it does detract a little from mpg (movement induced heat and friction) but so does width (low profile tyres are wider but shorter sidewall) so it probably evens out, but low profile gives worse ride.

      • Spot on. I attribute the modern moan of ‘pothole’ damage to ridiculously low-profile tyres on too-large wheels. Racetrack features put onto road cars purely because of visual fashion!

  14. ECV3 stills looks futuristic. I imagine that modern safety specifications would play havoc with the design and efficiency if such a vehicle were to be recreated today

    BL Technology may be long gone, but it’s pleasing that the Gaydon site is still developing advanced technology British cars, nearly 40 years on, one of the better decisions of the time!

  15. Hmm, 55mpg off 1100cc without wingmirrors and hidden door handles. So basically identical mileage to my 1991 single carburetor Renault 5/II Campus 4 speed that did a regular 52mpg in normal driving but with 20 more hp (the 1108cc made 52hp).. And a bit more speed.. (a verifiable 92mph, and possibly 100mph with the 5 speed)
    The 3 looks nice actually, a lot like modern eco mod cars, I think it would have sold based on looks.
    Pulse and coast ironically gives around 52mpg in my current car, but whoever came up with the ratios for the transmission… Car design seems to have gone backwards badly. And anyone who buys an SUV without living in the Swiss mountains should be shot, they’re inherently less safe, are chronically dangerous and frustrating for other drivers, block vision, and are usually conducted by people who redline at 20mph until you finally manage to get past then try and run you off the road.
    Actually looking again at ecv3, it’s not that good – the wipers are completely unshielded, there is a faired step to the indicators, the cooling intake isn’t shuttered although it is well shaped and the wheels aren’t fantastic..

  16. Beyond the ADO88-based ECV2 prototype, wonder how the ECV3 3-cylinder engine would have fared in the Metro compared to the equivalent 1275 A-Plus unit (assuming it would fit into the Metro’s engine bay)?

    Apart from claims of Daihatsu C-Series 3-cylinder petrols / diesels (possibly sourced via Innocenti) being tested in experimental Metros (the Daihatsu engines notably sharing some features with the Toyota A engine like the 76mm bore of the 2A and Toyota’s Lean Burn system), cannot see there being any room in the range for the Metro to feature a 3-cylinder engine beneath the 1-litre A-Plus short of the car being made significantly lighter (like the sub 1-litre engines in the original Renault 5).

    Know both Ford (via some concept IIRC) and Vauxhall reportedly looked at 3-cylinder versions of the Kent and Kadett/Viva OHV engines – the latter in the Vauxhall Scamp (with a diesel also considered). Along with Renault and Fiat developing 3-cylinder versions of the C-Type (in the 1983 Renault Vesta and 1987 Renault Vesta 2) as well as the FIRE (in the Citroen Eco 2000 SL-10). So it would not have been beyond the company to largely follow suit in better circumstances prior to the K-Series engine that was designed to feature a 3-cylinder.

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