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