Talent spotting

Consultancies have taken the cream of British automotive engineers to provide specialist services to car makers world-wide, says Paul Carslake

In this report we look at automotive design, and assess the likely effect of impending European car safety legislation. We cover Chrysler’s car for grown-ups, the Composite Concept Vehicle, loosely but cleverly based on the simplistic way in which toy cars are put together. We start the report by examining how UK consultants are thriving

In a bizarre way, the UK car industry owes a debt of gratitude to British Leyland, and the appalling mistakes of the 1970s.

Most of the cars from the BL hall of fame – Allegros, Marinas and Toledos – have rusted away long ago. But there is a more lasting and valuable legacy.

Take a look beyond the volume car makers in Britain today and the most remarkable thing about the car industry here is the small-scale specialists. Highest profile of all is the mass of Formula One teams based here: most of the current World Championship competitors have their headquarters in Britain. But equally visible in the engineering world are the automotive consultancies, which earn hundreds of millions of pounds of export revenue each year from specialist engineering services to car makers all over the world.

So what has this got to do with British Leyland, and the demise of Britain’s car manufacturing during the 1960s and 1970s?

The answer, say some of the people now at the top of the UK’s specialist consultancies, is in the management. Management that was so bad, so frustrating, and so destructive to the creativity of its most talented engineers, that they left.

‘The British car industry failed,’ says John Bailey, business development director at Ricardo Consulting Engineers, ‘because it was run appallingly badly. It drove talented engineers to smaller companies where they could be more creative.’

This, according to people such as Bailey, explains why the skills of British engineers have been channelled into consultancies, which thrive in the UK more than in any other European rival.

Ricardo’s own history predates this phenomenon, with Sir Harry Ricardo starting the thing off with work to cut smoke emissions that were making World War One British tanks too conspicuous to the enemy.

But the underlying dissatisfaction of British engineers with volume car makers is what has allowed British consultancies to work their way to their strong position. ‘Professional and highly-trained engineers were totally unable to tolerate what was going on above them,’ Bailey adds.

‘And as the companies failed to be worthy of working for, these people set out determined to succeed and develop their own ideas.’

Bailey is not alone in this belief. Arch rival Andrew Walmsley, managing director of Vickers-owned Cosworth Engineering, agrees. ‘As a nation the British are fairly creative. But our industry was screwed up by bad management in the 1960s and 1970s, where there seemed to be a complete inability to make designs that could be built cost effectively.’

Engineers left in droves, he says, and cash-strapped car makers could not make them stay.

While car bosses seemed not to believe in the strengths of British creativity, it found its way to the top anyway, most notably in motorsport. In today’s Formula One racing, every major team is either based in Britain or involves British engineers in key technical jobs.

Cosworth is one of the few engineering consultancies that does both road and race car design. Its Ford Zetec-R V10 powers the Stewart Grand Prix team, and about 40% of the US IndyCar teams use Cosworth Ford engines.

Oxfordshire-based TWR also mixes racing with road cars, running the Arrows Formula One team as well as carrying out a range of automotive design contracts, including the Volvo C70 coupe and cabriolet.

Richard Hayes – son of former Ford of Europe supremo Walter Hayes, and group marketing manager at TWR – says the race work is a big draw for engineers. Projects suffer fewer of the frustrating delays, which are caused by the sometimes complex decision making processes of big car makers.

‘Deadlines are always absolute,’ he says. ‘If a Grand Prix starts at 2pm, you can’t turn up on the starting grid at 3.15pm.’

This speed of response in handling what is often a niche element of the overall project is one of the main appeals of the consultants to vehicle manufacturers. John Thurston, chairman and chief executive of consultant Tickford says: ‘Vehicle manufacturers rely on us because we are fast, flexible, quick on our feet and can put together teams very quickly with a range of specialist skills.’

Tickford was subject to a management buyout in 1991, but put down its roots as a consultancy during a cyclical downturn in car sales in the early 1980s – another factor in the growth of consultancy in Britain.

It was about this time that design engineers at Tickford – an old established coachwork company bought by Aston Martin boss David Brown in 1955 – started looking for business to keep the design department busy. Accordingly, the then-Aston boss Victor Gauntlett formed Aston Martin Tickford, which began working on design contracts for other car makers. Lotus was in a similar boat at the same time, and started to do the same.

While a handful of foreign companies – notably Porsche – reacted in a similar way, Britain has still managed to remain Europe’s undisputed centre for auto engineering consultancy. Success here has not prompted the growth of copycat rivals abroad.

Walmsley thinks this is partly because Britain has had both Ford and GM in the country for a long time, and the consultancies have got the right systems to integrate seamlessly with these important clients.

It also has something to do with the character and training of the British engineer.

‘We have always had a history of engineering innovation, dating back to the industrial revolution,’ says Thurston. ‘And we breed mavericks: wide-thinking individuals, sometimes slightly eccentric.’

While the world’s car makers go shopping for British brains, Proton and Daewoo have bought more than most – snapping up Lotus and IAD between them. Proton’s parent company looks content to leave Lotus Engineering to continue its consultancy business. Daewoo though has subsumed the whole IAD operation (expanding it substantially) into its own vehicle design operations.

‘The strength of the British or American way of engineering is that it is very pragmatic, aimed at delivering tangible results,’ says Dr Joon Chul Park, director of the Daewoo Motor Company’s technical centre in Worthing. ‘The weakness tends to be seeing the creative ideas through into commercial projects.’

Acquisitions like those of Daewoo and Proton may hasten the development of mergers between existing British consultancies, making them strong enough to meet the growing complexity of contracted-out work by car makers, as well as financially secure enough to resist foreign acquisition.

Tie-ups are already being forged between consultants and tier-one suppliers, allowing them to provide a finished component system, rather than just the knowhow to design it.

Tickford, for example, has formed a joint venture with catalytic converter supplier Engelhard, offering total emissions solutions. ‘The car maker gets a service that is more than just the supply of a catalyst,’ says Bailey. ‘It’s all the additional diagnostics, sensors, and auxiliary air pumping that meet the demands of the project.’

More dramatic, though, will be full-scale mergers between rival consultancies.

‘Ricardo would love to acquire Cosworth, and Cosworth would love to acquire Ricardo,’ says one highly-placed source.

While there is already substantial overlap between the two companies, the resulting grouping would be a formidable force in the market, offering a service that ranged from power train and high-tech transmissions through to engine development and calibration.