Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3

We look at three small eco-concept cars from the 1980s and see what became of them.

BL Technologies ECV3. Can you imagine the shock of BL presenting this in 1982? (Source: AROnline)

The last of the cars featured in this series is the BL Technologies ECV3. This is a classic BL tale of burgeoning promise turning to wracking frustration as funds dried up for the development of a new small car. As might be expected, it is also by some margin the most convoluted and protracted of the three stories.

BL Technology was the R&D arm of the state-owned British car maker. In 1980, it was led by renowned engineer Spen King and given a home at BL’s new testing facility at Gaydon in Warwickshire. BL Technology and its Gaydon site was basically a sand-box environment, enabling King and his colleagues to propose theories about the future design of cars, then turn these into working prototypes to test the real-world practicalities of their future-world hypotheses.

BL had not launched a new model since the 1976 Rover SD1 so, when Gaydon was first opened to the press in 1980, on hand was an early example of BL Technology’s work, to help keep the flame alive pending the arrival of the much anticipated MiniMetro. The car presented was the ECV2, a concept heavily based on the ADO88(1) with a tacked-on snow-plough type nose and small rear spoiler, both meant to improve aerodynamics. These garnishes hid the concept’s real innovation, and its role as a test-bed for an experimental three-cylinder engine.

The ECV2 was never going to be the car that Spen King really wanted to showcase. Its cd of 0.345 was well above his target of 0.30, and its weight of 560kg was much higher than what he believed would be necessary to achieve the kind of efficiency required in compact cars of the future. King believed that petrol rather than diesel should be the fuel of choice for small cars, and that lean-burn, multi-valve engines running compression ratios of up to 13.5:1 could produce the fuel-efficiency required.

ECV3 looks like a GSA from this angle (Source AROnline)

BL and its successors maintained this obsession with lean-burn engines right up until the end of the 1980s. A BBC Panorama documentary investigating the EEC’s proposed mandating of catalytic converters for all cars featured an interview with the then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Never known for being that supportive of BL, Thatcher nevertheless voiced her support for lean-burn engines over catalytic converters as a way of reducing emissions whilst increasing efficiency(2).

BL’s K-Series was originally designed to be a lean-burn unit and a 973cc ‘K3’ three-cylinder version was prototyped. Sadly, the K-Series ended up neutered by the requirement to accommodate a catalytic converter, Thatcher failing to win that particular battle with the EEC.

ECV(Energy Conservation Vehicle)3 was revealed to the press in December 1982. It was clearly positioned as a mobile test-bed for new ideas and engineering concepts and was never intended to make production. Unlike the ECO 2000 and VESTA concepts, it was financed internally by BL(3). ECV3 was larger than the French eco-concepts, more compact than sub-compact, with 5 doors and a very different profile. It featured a sloping rear hatch with a raised spoiler helping to manage the air-flow over the rear of the car, quite different to the ‘aero-bread-van’ profiles created by PSA and Renault.

ECV3 in British Motor Museum at Gaydon, site of former BL test facility … wearing the wrong wheels (Source: Flickr)

ECV3’s construction might sound familiar to readers of a recent DTW series: it involved a load-bearing aluminium ‘base-frame’, to which unstressed plastic panels were attached. The body-in-white weighed a mere 138kg, roughly half that of a steel monocoque of the time. As well as previewing Saturn’s design, it harked back to the Rover P6 and, of course, the Citroën DS.

Being a BL car, ECV3 was very well packaged, offering the space of a Sierra within the footprint of an Escort. Performance was claimed to be equivalent to a production 2.0-litre saloon of the time, reaching 60mph in 11 seconds and a top speed of 115mph. Fuel consumption figures were impressive, if less so than those claimed for the ECO 2000 or VESTA / VESTA II concepts: BL claimed 61mpg at 75mph, 81mpg at 56mph and 133mpg at 30mph.

The car was driven by the press, and there’s a classic Top Gear clip on YouTube featuring William Woollard, who gives a detailed account of the driving experience. For a prototype, it all seems pretty convincing, although Woollard was not keen on the softly set up suspension: the car does a very good impression of a 2CV when it goes around a curve on the Gaydon test track.

ECV3 was never going to become a production car, but it did inspire the development of what was slated to become BL / ARG’s replacement for the Metro. This is where the frustration starts to kick in.

The October 1986 edition of Car Magazine featured a ‘scoop’ photo of a very interesting looking small car under testing on its front cover, proclaiming ‘This is the New Metro’. The car shown was one of a number of running prototypes code-named AR6. This was intended to be an all-new car, powered by the K-Series engine and including the three-cylinder variant.

An early model of AR6 had been shown at the opening of BL’s new design studios in 1982. It displays clear influences from the ECV3, but also from any number of Giugiaro designs of that era and it was not a million miles away from the look of the ECO 2000.

Early AR6 design mule, circa 1983/4. Note the interesting design of the rear glasshouse. (Source AROnline)

At the outset of the project, the design specifications were quite advanced for the time. Leading on from the work with ALCAN on ECV3, the body and platform were to be constructed of aluminium(4). The all-aluminium engine was packaged to be light, compact and powerful for its displacement. One target for the AR6 was for it to deliver 100mpg at a steady 56mph. Only the suspension was conventional, with interconnected Hydragas units being replaced by conventional springs in a front strut / rear torsion beam format, as per the Maestro / Montego. This was the set-up preferred by King, who also oversaw the engineering of those cars.

The design and engineering evolved between 1982 and 1986 towards what management was prepared to accept as suitable for production. Hence, the appearance became more conventional, but still very modern and aligned to Roy Axe’s emerging ARG style. A number of bodystyle derivatives were planned from the outset, including coupé and convertible variants, mirroring the later R8 Rover 200 Series.

AR6 design proposals by Stephen Harper – the other half of the mule is an alternative by David Saddington (Source: AROnline)

Costlier features like the aluminium platform and bodywork were jettisoned(5). The resultant increase in weight killed off the lower powered three-cylinder version of the K Series and, with it, the potential for achieving 100mpg. Still, what was in prospect remained an exciting car.

Over this period, the expected renaissance of BL / ARG did not materialise. The great hopes for the Maestro and Montego ended in limp sales, so anticipated profits and the resultant cashflow dwindled. Moreover, the Honda-designed Acclaim and its successor, the Rover 213/216, proved to be bigger but less profitable sellers than its home-grown models for the beleaguered British manufacturer.

Hence, when Graham Day was installed at the helm, with a brief to ween the company off public funding and drive it towards privatisation, the huge costs of productionising AR6 proved too much to stomach and the project was canned. Ironically, this decision was taken at around the same time Car Magazine published its ‘new Metro’ scoop featuring AR6.

Roy Axe’s version of the AR6 from around 1985/6 which is likely to be closest to how the production car would have looked. Has shades of Chris Bird’s Fiesta of the early 2000s (Source: AROnline)

What did survive was the K-Series engine. It seems that the UK Government agreed to fund the full development and productionising of that element, but not the small car for which it was originally intended. ARG was forced to look for a much lower cost way of replacing the Metro.

This turned into the R6, which carried over the existing LC8-Metro design, albeit re-engineered to take the K-Series and with a full Moulton-specification interconnected Hydragas suspension. David Saddington did design a more thorough re-skin, under the code-name R6X, of which there is (another) double-sided clay model, but even this was deemed too expensive. Hence, the Metro received he lightest of facelifts inside and out to become the R6, together with a controversial re-branding as the ‘Metro by Rover’.

Heaven knows what Spen King made of it. He allegedly disliked the Metro for being overweight(6) and for its complex and unreliable Hydragas suspension, which was never his cup of tea. Notably, when R6 was launched, heady fuel consumption claims were absent from Rover’s marketing materials.

There was to be a final, fatal blow to the hopes and aspirations created by ECV3 and the prospects for AR6. That sole surviving element of the original project, the K-Series engine, was to be undone by cost-related decisions regarding the quality of materials, parts and manufacturing tolerances used in its construction. Hence, in spite of its exciting design, specifications and power output, the ‘K’ was to earn a reputation for unreliability as head-gasket failures caused terminal damage in enough cases for the problem to be considered endemic.

What became of the Spen King’s ECV 3 vision … a miserable facelift of the Metro with a four-cylinder K Series engine (Source: South West Auctions)

The R6 Metro later received yet another facelift and re-badging as the Rover 100. It died a sudden death when NCAP did its thing with walls and crash-test dummies, and awarded the 100 a single-star rating. Sales fell off a cliff in the ensuing months and Rover put the now pathetic little thing out of its misery.

To summarise, I think only one word is required, and comes to mind so readily: tragic.

Author’s note: I am deeply indebted, once again, to AROnline as the source of many of the facts, details and photos contained in this article, so all the hard graft was done there. How Keith Adams has yet to be mentioned in a Queen’s Honours List is quite beyond me!

(1) ADO88 was an early development prototype of the small car which would eventually become the Metro.

(2) It is a philosophy that has also preoccupied Mazda, which now produces its e-Skyactiv X engine with Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) and uses an incredibly lean mix of up to 40:1 when running in SPCCI mode.

(3) BL itself was publicly-funded, so the UK government was indirectly picking up the tab for ECV3.

(4) This was more than a decade before the appearance of the Audi A2.

(5) Given the commercial failure of the A2, that was almost certainly the right call.

(6) The Metro may have been smaller than other sub-compacts of the time, but it was heavier than many.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

26 thoughts on “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 3 – BL Technologies ECV3”

  1. At the beginning of the Eighties nearly every reputable manufacturer was developing lean burn engines with lambda factors up to 1.7 that would have been very economical at the cost of high nitrous oxide emissions which would have been incompatible with catalytic converters neeeding a stoichometric mixture of lambda 1.0.
    At that time German government and their local manufacturers reached a gentlemen’s agreement to build cars that didn’t corrode that fast (to stay in one piece in case of an accident to protect the passengers) and to in turn introduce a political kind of corrosion in form of ever tightening emissions standards that would be tightened in exactly the interval that manufactures thought their customers should buy new cars. They only needed an opportunity to delude the public which came inform of the legendary ‘Waldsterben’ campaign creating the atmosphere necessary to introduce those new regulations.
    The rest was lobbyism at EEC level to not only introduce the standards but to also impose the way to meet them in form of catalytic converters which immediately rendered billions of investments from Italian, French and British manufactures worthless.

  2. Good morning S.V. I had not previously appreciated the progression (regression?) that linked ECV3 with the final Metro facelift, but what a dismal tale. Roy Axe’s AR6 proposal is a very pleasant (if slightly bland) looking car. It undoubtedly would have been dynamically sound and would have made a good addition to AR’s range.

    That said, it would have been interesting if AR had productionised the earlier design study and gone down a futurist rather than retro route with subsequent designs. Other contemporary design studies showed how the style might have been evolved for larger models:

    1. Those were proposed facelifts for the Maestro and Montego estate respectively, albeit the latter was much more radical and would have been re-branded as a new Rover model. It would have looked (at least) competitive and gives a sense of what Roy Axe and his team would have done with the Montego before its launch had they been given the proper opportunity. Unfortunately, as I say in the article, the Maestro and Montego failed to deliver the profitable sales to fund even this kind of in-house development. It must have been quite tough on the design team to see all that potential come to nothing.

  3. The ECV3 always stayed in my consciousness because of its’ 1200cc 3-cylinder engine, and the suggestion that 400cc was the optimum cylinder capacity for efficiency/economy.
    Regarding the later Audi A2, I always assumed that it was never intended to be profitable but was a ‘halo’ car to show how clever Audi were – and as such it was a success.

    1. I recall that at the time of the launch of the original Daihatsu Charade, there was reference to research by Ricardo which pointed to 320-330cc being the optimum cylinder size for efficiency. This was to justify the Charade’s three cylinder four stroke engine – such things were previously confined to K-cars and motorbikes. Justification wasn’t needed, Daihatsu were simply years ahead of their time.

      If Ricardo’s research had been accepted as a key factor in engine design we would have seen lots of 1660cc fives and 2 litre sixes. We didn’t, as friction and weight also play their part in overall efficiency.

    2. The A2 was a technical tour de force that brought many innovative ideas for the use of aluminium in cars.
      Alcan had promised 1bn US$ to the manufacturer who put an aluminium car to mass production and Audi got that money, so at least the A2’s costs were somewhat bolstered. To make the A2 a viable proposition many solutions found for the space frame of the A8 D2 had to be reconsidered, for example the cast aluminium nodes that connected the aluminium extrusions were no longer bonded but connected by stretching/shrinking without glue and the number of parts was greatly reduced to simplify production. The A2 yielded a (very) small profit but had to be made deliberately eccentric to prevent cannibalising of the much more profitable A3.

    3. That 3-cylinder K3 1.2-litre format seems so very far ahead of its time doesn’t it? So many manufacturers today are using the formula of a 3-cylinder 400cc per cylinder and benefiting from its intrinsic efficiencies. In fact, millions of this engine type are currently manufactured by the likes of Stellantis (Puretech 1.2) and many others.

    4. Isn’t it a tragedy how many things invented in Great Britain were, for whatever reason, left for others to develop and productionise profitably?

    5. Here’s a quote I just found which might be overly simplistic, but invites contemplation.

      “Back in the dark days of the 1980s, Frank Williams (of Formula One fame) said Britain was fantastic at new ideas and great at anything that needed small teams of talented people – hence Britain’s success in Formula One. However, he reckoned Britain was very poor at managing large teams of people – hence the slow death of British Leyland.” https://www.am-online.com/news/2014/5/27/why-making-engines-not-cars-is-the-real-sign-of-uk-manufacturing-health/36075/

      Here’s hoping the best for the several low volume and boutique British car makers who are struggling at present.

  4. ECV3’s engine is an oddity, a 1113cc three cylinder adaptation of the 1.5 litre E series, with fuel injection, a four valve cylinder head with a single overhead camshaft. The combustion chamber design almost certainly influenced the M series and 16 valve K series, but they both featured twin overhead camshafts. The engine was said to weigh only 84kg – the K series is around 95kg.

    The block was stated to be aluminium, but this may have been only a declaration of intent, with a silvery painted iron block possibly used in the prototype.

    Likewise, the intention was to use a Borg-Warner CVT transmission in ECV3, but the prototype had a conventional Volkswagen five speed gearbox with 4+E gearing mounted end-on to the Maxi-derived engine.

  5. Hi S.V.. Tragic is the right word, indeed. Even the R6X Metro face-lift would have done more justice to the quite extensive underbody work for the ‘Metro by Rover’ and might have resulted in a lot more sales (image: AROnline – obviously 😉).


    As was, public perception (certainly outside the UK) was that Rover ‘d just slapped new badges on the creaky old Metro.

    The Daihatsu Charade that Robertas mentions was in its third generation guise not a million miles away from these kinds of cars (an maybe worth an article?) – albeit launced in 1987:

    The concept of these lean-burning engines is interesting in principle, although the Mazda experience seems to suggest that in practice, it is less clear cut. The fuel efficiency gains from the Skyactiv X seem to be modest according to the reports I’ve read. Also, the nitrous oxide emissions that Dave mentions are a problem in their own right (just Google “Dutch farmer’s protests”).

    On the other hand, my instinctive preference would be to go the ‘lean and light’ route that these cars proposed as opposed to the ‘overweight, complicated, hugely resource-intensive but somehow nominally green’ route that we seem to be on. Even if I like the innovation in EV’s, their whole new set of problems (or rather: the continuation of problems in the current crop of overweight and overly complicated car designs, EV or no) should not be ignored. If only because I doubt that this technology will ever be as affordable as ICE cars can be.

    1. Back in NSW, a Charade like that was my everyday transport for a while. On full throttle in the underpasses around Kingsford Smith airport it made a most satisfying 911-like noise – probably echoes doubling the number of cylinders.

      The base 3-door 1.0TS cost around A$11K in the early ’90s, equivalent to around £4000 at the time.

    2. Ah, so that’s the secret… Drive where there’s an echo and double your cylinder count (if not the power output, presumably) 🙂. Kudos on having owned such a nice car.

      You rarely see the Charade anymore (and its successor was so anonymous you might miss it), but occasionally I do run into newer Daihatsus like the YRV (Young Recreational Vehicle). With the disappearance of Daihatsu from Europe, I do miss thos little glimpses into the Japanese car market.

  6. Interesting that ECV3 looks much plusher than the French prototypes. With it’s metallic paint, flush glazing and presumably alloy wheels it’s much more “Premium” than the hair-shirt proposals from across the channel. Did BL envisage that the kind of executive-esq customers who paid (Or who had their employer pay) more for speed and acceleration would pay for fuel economy and emmissions if the car ticked the aspirational box?

    Also is the lack if a K3 cylinder really any loss? In motorbikes a triple can be thrilling even charismatic; I speak as the proud owner of one of the very first revived Triumph triples, but in cars they are rotten.

    They feel like they are only one more misfire away from a stall or catastrophic seize, so much so that even as a passenger my left foot twitches over an imaginery clutch pedal, ready to slam it down before the car grinds to a theoretical halt and the inevitable Audi driver up our tailpipe crunches into us. I don’t know anyone who likes 3 cylinder cars.

    1. Hi Richard. You do now!

      I love the deep growl from the 1.5-litre turbo triple in our Mini Cooper. Likewise, the 750cc triple in my lovely BMW K75S motorbike thirty years ago:

      God, I suddenly feel old…☹

    2. I quite like a good triple – I think Ford’s ecoboost triple is very pleasant and PSA’s Puretech triple is OK, if apparently problematic when it comes to cam belts.

    3. Think of the original Laverda 1000 3C triple with a flat crank like a four cylinder that sounded like a four with one cylinder missing. It had low frequency vibrations that were more tolerable than the later Jota 1000 with 120 degree crank which sounded completely different and had nasty high pitch vibrations.
      That BMW K75 is lovely and in BMW circles it is more highly valued than the bigger K100 four because its vibration characteristics are more civilised.

    4. There are two issues I have with three cylinders. There is a 60 degree gap in between power strokes, so you need a larger flywheel, which causes the engine to rev less freely. The other is the use of large turbochargers which also doesn’t help in creating a linear throttle response.

      Having said that there certainly are good three’s around. I had a short but pleasant experience with the BMW three banger, as Daniel has and I heard good things about the Ford three cylinder as well.

    5. The original Smart had an interesting three cylinder engine which due to its small capacity had parts of extraordinarily low weight and had nearly no vibrations. Shame it was ruined by cheap production design like self tappers for cylinder head bolts.

  7. The fact that even their concepts looked so rubbish and failed to meet even their own targets might be one of the most pitiful things about an organisation with no shortage of pitiable characteristics, they really were a most astonishingly inept company that seemed capable of doing absolutely nothing right despite having some unequestionably capable people steering the thing; all the effort and good work Edwardes put in trying to right the ship was inevitably brought to nought by the products he strived so hard to bring to market.

    You can write tomes on the various shortcomings of everything BMC and it’s genetically damaged offpsring made of course, but the one that is so completely inexcusable is how wilfully ugly so many of them were, when how a car looks is often the single most important factor in chosing one over another. I understand, of course, the constraints put upon them by their previous mistakes but I do not think I could make uglier vehicles if I tried.

    That side profile of the Metro shows how, even after decades of familiarity, the hopeless gimpyness of the thing still borders on the shocking, without taking into account what an unpleasant little car it was to use.

  8. Can understand why Spen King disliked the limitations imposed when developing the Metro due to the carry-over nature of the car, along with the fact is was signficantly heavier than one would have expected for its size compared to the supermini opposition such as the Citroen AX, Honda Jazz, Nissan Micra K10 and Suzuki Swift that were closer to around 600-650+kg against the 760-870kg of the Metro.
    However it is my understanding that it was Spen King who played a role in compromising the Metro’s Hydragas suspension rather than opting for the same Hydragas layout used in the R6 to good effect.

    Felt Austin Rover were premature in canning the 973cc K3 engine after being aware AR6 was not going to feature an aluminium body, especially if the reputedly more R3-sized AR6 was likely to be roughly of similar weight as the Metro/100 or close to it (with talk of a diesel S-Series in AR6 suggesting it was to potentially feature the stillborn 16-valve development of the 1.6 S-Series petrol*). It could have been used to finally pension off the A-Plus series in both the Mini as well as the Metro/100 and in the case of the latter could have provided a cheap way for Rover to develop a Metro-based answer to the ultra-efficient Geo Metro 1.0 XFi if not quite able to achieve 100mpg.

    Very much like the Punto-esque AR6 proposal by Steven Harper, whereas it seems the David Saddington AR6 proposal would go on to influence the styling of the R6X prototype. The earlier quirkier along with the later blander conventional looking AR6 proposals by Roy Axe meanwhile leave a lot to be desired, even if the latter would have easily slotted nicely alongside both the 200/400 and 800 had the blander AR6 proposal been tidied up.

    *- Perhaps the 16-valve S-Series was influenced by the 72 hp 1113cc 3-cylinder ECV3 as an in-house alternative to the 108-130 hp 1.6 Honda D16 engine (if not the 150-160+ hp or so Honda B16) before it was abandoned in favour of the infamous K-Series enlargement to 1600-1800cc.

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