The Ant and the Ox

Its makers openly cited the Africar as an inspiration for the Ox, but why not the Hormiga?

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The Ox, the Africar and the Hormiga were specifically conceived to help countries in the developing world with a poor quality road infrastructure achieve and hopefully reap the benefits of improved mobility at the lowest possible cost. It may come as a surprise to some (as it was to your author when he discovered the fact) to realise that the nearest Third World country to the UK is the Republic of Ireland(1) but none of these three vehicles has likely ever been driven on or off the Irish road network.

Philanthropist, former toy manufacturer and banker Sir Torquil Norman came up with the basic idea of the Ox and, together with Gordon Murray(2), developed the concept into fully functional prototypes under the GVT (Global Vehicle Trust) banner. Both in overall concept and goal, the 1980s Africar and the Ox are quite similar, so the fact that Tony Howarth’s brainchild was credited as an inspiration for that of the GVT was both deserved and to be expected. However, another vehicle that preceded the Africar by a decade, had a similar mission and was, arguably, quite a significant influence on the outward appearance of the Ox was never mentioned by either Norman or Murray. That vehicle was the Volkswagen EA489 Hormiga, or ‘Ant’ in Spanish.

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To be sure, there are differences between the Ox and its forebears, the most significant being that the Ox does not require even a rudimentary assembly plant. Rather, it is shipped in IKEA-style flat-packs to be assembled in situ without the need for any special tools or skills. Although the current Ox prototypes are powered by diesel engines, a fully electric drivetrain is under development.

Both the VW and the Africar had air-cooled powerplants, the familiar Type 1 (Beetle) flat-four and Citroën GS or 2CV engines respectively. Both were designed to be built in the more conventional sense of the word, although for both vehicles, ease of assembly, even by unskilled hands, was a prime objective. Front-wheel-drive is shared by all three. Incidentally, this makes the EA489 the first Volkswagen to combine FWD with an air-cooled engine, predating the 1980 Gol by five years.

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The brief as far as functionality is concerned was also mostly the same for all three: transport essentials such as drinking water, rice, grain, building materials, livestock and fertilizer reliably, cheaply and safely across often barely existent roads. In addition, they can also be utilized as rural taxis or minibuses, the Ox being able to seat up to thirteen.

The Africar featured a stainless-steel frame upon which resin-impregnated marine plywood panels were mounted; wooden panels for the prototypes were chosen because Howarth had experience in building boats. The definitive article, however, might have been just as well bodied in polyester or reinforced fiberglass, had the Africar made it to the production stage.

For the Ox, Gordon Murray’s ‘iStream’ philosophy is applied, comprising steel tubes bonded together by plates made from ‘engineered plywood’ claimed to be highly weather-resistant. By comparison, the body construction of the Hormiga was more traditional: simple, flat steel panels welded or screwed together without the need for dies or presses.

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The Ox’s flat-pack assembly system is quite clever: all components and body parts are tightly arranged within its own frame (the engine and gearbox are shipped in a separate transportation crate) and six of these flat-packs will fit into a standard shipping container(3). According to the GVT, three people can assemble an Ox in about twelve hours.

Norman is confident the Ox will fare better than the Africar: “They had to build a factory everywhere they wanted [the Africar]. This thing you can build in your kitchen.” As of spring 2021, GVT had secured three grants worth a combined £1.2 million and started a pilot project in Rwanda. The money will be used to re-engineer the Ox’s cabin to meet UK legislation so that it can be operated in all global markets, as well as creating a possible market for the Ox in the UK.

What killed the prospects of the once so promising Africar? After having a good idea and generally making the right choices as far as the mechanical and functional concept of the Africar were concerned, Tony Howarth took a wrong turn that would doom the Africar and ultimately land him in prison.

Howarth was aware that the choice of Citroën engines he used in the six prototypes could become an issue as the French firm was starting to gradually phase out its air-cooled cars in the eighties. Hence, he decided to develop an engine himself. Apart from the complexity of such an undertaking, it is, of course, also hideously expensive and, unsurprisingly, Africar International Limited (AIL) soon ran out of funds, those funds including deposits made by several clients that had pre-ordered vehicles.

Howarth wanted to raise money by turning AIL into a public limited company but his accountants nixed that idea. Prospective clients wanted either their Africars or their deposits back (neither of which happened) and in 1988 the Commerce Branch of the Lancashire Constabulary intervened and AIL ceased trading. Howarth was no longer in the UK at that time but in the USA, by his account to raise money there, but to no avail. In 1994 he finally returned to the UK and was promptly arrested. From there on, the story gets a bit murky: Howarth claims he was pressured to sign a confession by the Serious Fraud Office and did so as he felt he had no way out. Be that as it may, Howarth spent fifteen months in jail, an experience which he later recalled as “like being at a British boarding school.”

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Contrary to the failed Africar and the as yet unproven Ox, the front-wheel-drive VW EA489 can be considered a success. Built under the name ‘Basistransporter’ in Hannover, Germany and as the ‘Hormiga’ in Puebla, Mexico between 1975 and 1979, a total of 6,200 were produced, 3,600 of which were made in the Mexican plant. The flat-four engine sits under the cab and can be accessed from inside as well as from below. The air intake for the powerplant is on the roof and is connected to the carburettor by a metal duct. The underlying frame is as simple as the body it supports: a ladder-type chassis with torsion bars at the front and a beam axle at the rear. When comparing the Hormiga to the Ox, the similarities in appearance are hard to miss(4).

Variants of the car also exist: Indonesia’s Mitra, meaning ‘Partner’, which had a cab looking much like the Volkswagen T2b, and the Teijo from Finland, made by a company named Wihuri in 1975 and 1976. The Teijo, which was named after the town where it was built, had a fiberglass body. Around 200 were made and many of those were shipped to African countries in the form of foreign aid.

Vehicles such as the ones discussed herein are known as BUVs (Basic Utility Vehicle) or BTVs (Basic Transport Vehicle). Several similar offerings catering to certain East Asian and African markets exist, some from established manufacturers such as Ford and Toyota, while others are domestic initiatives. A few examples are the Datsun Sena, Ford Fiera and Toyota Kijang. Should the prospect of reading about some more of these BUV/BTVs, despite their homely appearance and often humble technical provenance, spark the interest of DTW’s readership, I will be happy to produce a follow-up article on them, but will await comments first.


(1) French historian Alfred Sauvy coined the term ‘Third World’ in 1952. He did not intend it to refer to what we would now call ‘developing nations’ however, only to those countries that remained neutral during the Cold War. The ‘First World’ comprised the group of countries that sided with the USA, while the ‘Second World’ comprised the satellites and allies of the Soviet Union. The ‘Third World’ was everyone else. Ireland’s decision to stay neutral in the Cold War was partly due to the issue of Northern Ireland. Because of its differences with Britain, Ireland did not feel able to become a member of NATO. It did try to arrange a separate pact with the USA, but this was never ratified, so the country remained officially non-aligned. By the same definition, other ‘Third World’ countries include Sweden, Finland and Switzerland. (Source: QI’s The Third book of General Ignorance)

(2) The driver is seated centrally, something Murray has of course done before. In the Ox, this layout was chosen for practical reasons: in some developing countries they drive on the right, while in others they drive on the left side of the road.

(3) This is effectively three times more efficient than transporting fully-assembled vehicles, of which only two would normally fit in a 40ft high-cube container.

(4) Another vehicle that looks quite similar to the Ox and Hormiga is the Brazilian Gurgel XR-15, introduced in 1979.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “The Ant and the Ox”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. I missed the most successful of tomorrow’s trio. I had no idea the Hormiga existed. The ox looks very similar indeed. The flatpack system is indeed ingenious.

    As far as I know the Africars were supposed to have a two stroke opposed piston diesel engine, similar in principal to the Jumo 204 (and 205, 206, 207 and 208). Agates has been working on the same idea. The Africar engine was a flat engine though, unlike the others I mentioned here.

    1. The section drawing by Africar “mechanic” Thomas Marks shows what he and Anthony Howarth had in mind.

      It’s described as an air-cooled twin-crankshaft opposed-piston two-stroke with through-flow scavenging characteristics and a Roots type mechanically driven supercharger.

      It would have been made in petrol and diesel versions, with two cylinder (1.3litre) and three cylinder (2.0 litre) variants. The design had square proportions 75mm x 75mm, and compression ratios of 9.5:1 for the petrol and 16.0:1 for diesel. The engine was dry-sumped with two scavenging pumps and a remote oil reservoir.

      It has to be said that it’s an advanced and unusual specification for an engine to be built and maintained in regions with low levels of industrialisation. Nowadays the preferred option would probably be a Chinese clone of a superannuated Toyota or Mitsubishi engine, of the sort readily found on Alibaba.

    2. ah, yes, that’s it Robertas. Thank you for sharing. In my post I mentioned Agates. That’s a typo: It’s Achates.

  2. Another school day at DTW, thank you Bruno, not only in respect of the vehicles, but the origin of the ‘Third World’ descriptor as well. I wonder how well these vehicles well? I imagine they are competing with second-hand Toyota Hi-Lux pickups, which are ubiquitous and trusted to be as tough as old boots.

    1. VW made about 6,000 EA 489s, 2,600 in Germany and the rest at the different production sites all over the world, from Mexico to Malaysia. Most of the cars had the angular passenger cabin but Turkish cars used a T2 front panel

  3. I must admit I’m not crazy about the twin-crankshaft idea. I prefer the rocking beams connecting to a single crankshaft in the Commer two-stroke diesel.

    1. One advantage of the Knocker engine would be that it’s not as wide as the Africars proposed unit. Also the crank is in the middle which makes it easier to connect it to a gearbox and driveshaft.

      Do you think the rocking beams in the Knocker engine would be more efficient in terms of friction losses than connection the two crank shafts with gears?

    2. Possibly gearing together the crankshafts would have been easier to achieve with low-cost, low technology tooling. The whole opposed-piston idea for the Africar looks like a late onset of collective madness.

      If a two-stroke engine was considered acceptable, why not an in-line triple on DKW/Wartburg lines, which must be the simplest possible internal combustion engine suitable for a car or light truck? That said, outside of East Germany, the automotive world had largely abandoned two-strokes for four wheelers by the mid 1960s, and with good reason.

      The Commer – ex-Tilling Stevens TS3 is an amazing thing, and was very powerful and efficient for its capacity. Here are a section and photo to explain these rocking beams:

  4. Seems like a simple air cooled flat four engine would be just fine, a la VW bug.
    Please keep going with the explanations – great to learn more about a good idea, where the intentions were well directed, if poorly executed. Seems to be the story of the day.

  5. These kind of projects are kind of a moot point, because the alternative isn’t a brand new car but a used car or truck or minivan. As long as basic needs are met for less money for a used but most times better alternative, these projects will never take off. Looking at Africa for example or Nigeria in particular, the most used taxi seems to be the Toyota HiAce, the VW T3, and a plethora of imported Kei-car classed miniminivans, most of them twenty thirty years old and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

  6. A trifecta of vehicles I had no idea existed. Thank you, Bruno!

    I would happily read another article on the BTVs you mentioned, and perhaps there is a third in the offing based on Ingvar’s point describing why auto companies believe new BTVs can be a successful sales alternative to certain used vehicles (somewhat surprisingly, the same vehicles across most of the less-developed world).

  7. If the engine issue seems to be a breaking point because of supply issues, why not make a case for delivering the packages sans engines?

    As the engine will probably the most expensive part of the project, lowering the cost of buying the engines seems crucial. As the alternative to the vehicle itself is not a brand new car but a used car, perhaps the cheapest solution for the buyer would be to let the buyer find a suitable engine on his own? Most likely from the used/scrap market.

    If one could make adjustable mounting points and make enough room for the car to accept any in-line four up to two-litre capacity? The in-line four in either gas or diesel configuration would still be the most common engine type available for decades to come.

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