In 1994, and in anticipation of a more environmentally ethical manufacturing future, Rover Group’s Manufacturing Strategy Department devised a visionary new manufacturing strategy idea – Project Vinland.
The plan was to build more recyclable cars from aluminium – possibly at a new greenfield site – at the rate of 600,000 vehicles per year. How very prescient it looks, too, given the way Jaguar Land Rover now builds cars.
Rover Group’s green vision: future-proofing 1990s style
In August 1994, Rover Group’s Canley-based Manufacturing Strategy Department issued the Project Vinland document – this contained a detailed proposal to reinvent the Rover Group, and place it as an environmental player in a very different post-2000s car market.
It anticipated the need for more ethical production, lightweight cars, and a squeeze of the traditional Rover niche from premium European and Asian car manufacturers.
Competitive forces on Rover
As a result of upcoming emissions regulations, and the need to make vehicles cleaner, Rover began investigating future strategies. However, in a climate of efficiency, any potential solution needed to measure up internal BANTEEC (Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost) pressures. The aim was to make a 25 per cent improvement on 1990 vehicle emissions by 2005, rising to 40 per cent by 2010.
Recycling and product disposal was already becoming an issue, and so Project Vinland insisted that all new product designs should, ‘facilitate the ease of draining and removal of recyclable material (proposed target: 10 per cent weight removable in 30 man minutes.’ Also, ‘the increased use of recycled material (proposal: 10% of plastics)’
Today, this seems quite normal but, back in 1994, especially for a UK manufacturer, this represented little short of a paradigm shift in thinking.
How would Rover Group achieve these aims?
In a SWOT analysis, Rover summed up the situation like this. Its strengths were its marques, styling and product design. Its weaknesses were the quality of the product, sales network, the company’s weak financial position, its poor infrastructure, lack of skills and engineering design.
Opportunities were plentiful, though – potential sales growth outside of the UK, increase in added value, the likelihood of being able to rationalise its facilities and the potential to manufacture overseas. Threats were new low-cost entrants into the market, the ‘quality timebomb’, and legislation and consumer pressure.
And there were many issues for the company, which were identified as needing fixing.
- How do we get from tactical to strategic mode?
- Where does our competitive advantage come from?
- What will the world industry look like in 2000, and where will Rover fit?
- What are the technologies and core competences we need and how will we get them?
- How do we maximise people power to deliver the plan?
- How do we get and keep customer satisfaction best in class?
- What will our marketing and selling processes look like in 2000?
- Should we make Rover a global company?
- What type of collaboration should we be doing?
- Have we got a coherent product-market strategy?
- How do we get a world-class cost position?
- How will we obtain and utilise the necessary resources?
Lightweight vehicles were the future
Given Rover’s aluminium heritage, it’s no surprise that Project Vinland surmised that lightweight vehicles were ‘the most effective way of delivering the future’. In real terms, the document claimed that a 3-7 per cent drop in weight would deliver the same fuel saving. But it also identified that all the easy efficiencies had already been made as an industry, and there was now a case of diminishing returns.
That would rise to 10 per cent if the focus were to be put on improving drivetrain efficiency and aerodynamics. ‘BMW has done some work that indicates that on a large vehicle (7-Series) on urban cycle a 100 per cent gearing is achieved (ie., 10 per cent gets 10 per cent). A 3-Series under the same conditions achieves 60 per cent gearing. It should be noted that lightening also provides customer benefits in terms of improved handling and braking. Refinement is an area that would probably have to be carefully developed.’
Aerodynamics were already well understood by 1994, but that didn’t stop Rover concluding that work in this direction would have benefits, too. ‘Benefits are only experienced at motorway speeds, and it may be considered that aerodynamic development could limit the opportunity for continuing development of the marque identity via a styling route.’
What would a post-Vinland Rover look like?
Probably a lot like an Audi A2… In a nutshell, it would consist of a spaceframe body structure manufactured from extruded aluminium sections. This BIW technology would need significant investment in the manufacturing side of the business, but the gains in lightness and efficiency were all-too clear.
Aluminium panels could be attached, but just as likely they could be made from thermoplastic mouldings utilising the granular injected paint technology (GIPT) which was then under development at Rover’s Advanced Technology Centre at Warwick University.
Rover’s antecedent, British Leyland, had extensive experience in this direction. British Leyland Technology, under the direction of Spen King, had built the aluminium ECV project cars, much of the learnings from which were ploughed into the ill-fated AR6 project via an interesting aluminium-bodied Metro mock-up. As Spen King relayed to AROnline in 2002, ‘The new Jaguar is a descendent of the aluminium research we did at BLT.’
What would be the product plan?
This would have needed a Vinland business unit to be set up, which would be responsible for the creation of three spaceframe and composite model lines. It gets better – because to build these cars, Rover would need to carry out ‘the greenfield site strategy implicit in the Vinland scenario.’
Looking at the draft product planning document, the first Pilot model line would have gone into production early in 1998 at the rate of 10,000 cars per year. This would have been followed by the second Pilot vehicle at the end of 1999 at an initial rate of 40,000 per year, followed by the third Pilot model, which would go into production at the rate of 20,000 per year from the end of 2000.
The full line-up would have looked like this:
- Small car: 75,000 per year
- Medium car: 300,000 per year
- Large car: 125,000 per year
- 4×4: 100,000 per year
Body sub-assembly would follow a conventional BIW philosophy, but there were several options available when it came to joining the individual components. The aluminium structures would not need rust-proofing, but it was assumed that they’d be dipped and coloured in the conventional way – even though, at the time, that was described as the ‘most environmentally difficult aspect of vehicle build.’
Interestingly, Project Vinland assumes that ‘the production of aluminium extrusion and primary metal processing of nodes requiring sophisticated casting techniques will definitely be outsourced, even though extrusion will be carried out onsite.’
What engines would have been used?
The assumption would be that Rover would pursue a two-model engine strategy. Solihull would manufacture the company’s L-Series and Storm diesel engines as well as the company’s R380 gearbox and LT230 transfer box. This would need upgrades to the factory that would require a capital investment of £210m.
Longbridge would build all petrol K-Series engines as well as R65 and PG1 gearboxes, and there would also require a capital investment in the site of £149m. One can only assume this happened anyway as part of the K-Series’ universal roll-out across the Rover range in later years. The K-Series would be built at the rate of 320,000 per year for the K4, 60,000 per year for the KV6, and 50,000 for the KV8(!).
Vinland production sites
Project Vinland’s radical product plan raised a number of issues around the production capacity of Rover. ‘One of the key manufacturing issues raised concerned the difficulty of achieving efficient manufacture with the current site topographies. Vinland has, therefore, developed as a greenfield scenario, so optimal logistics both external and internal are sought.’
As such, in the Vinland scenario, the site would have been located on the south west side of Birmingham in an area roughly between the then current Longbridge and Solihull sites. For a rough idea, take a look at the illustration above.
How much this lot would come to makes interesting reading. For the creation of the the new site, plus tooling for new models, the costs were broken down accordingly:
- MINI at 75,000 per year, tooling cost £61m
- LB20 (assume the codename for Metro replacement) at 100,00 per year, tooling cost £108m
- HHR/R3 replacement at 300,000 per year, tooling cost £195m
- ISIS replacement (assume Rover 75) at 125,000 per year, tooling cost £125m
- Total cost: £1.329bn
Obviously, none of the above came to pass, but it’s interesting to see how Rover management knew that it needed to reinvent itself immediately post-BMW takeover. The producers of the document were clearly in touch with the company’s then current weaknesses and future challenges.
The idea of such a radical solution might look pie-in-the-sky now, but there’s some visionary thinking in there. As one Engineer who worked on the project at the time said, ‘The drivers for this strategy were a lack of capital investment – in an industry that consumes it in huge amounts.’ Also it could have alleviated another issue, ‘Rover Group needed new paint shops at Solihull, Cowley and Longbridge.’
At £1.33bn, even a cash-rich BMW would have baulked at such an investment. And yet, had it happened, could we now still have an active and vibrant Rover Group.
We do have one hang-over from this aluminium future that never saw the light of day – the Land Rover LCV 2/3 project. This was an aluminium-spaceframe replacement for the Defender, which was developed around this time, no doubt with Vinland in mind.
Alas, we’ll never know now…