Although many of our famous brands are now foreign-owned, the UK remains a world-leading producer, designer and innovator for the automotive industry. Stuart Nathan and Jon Excell report.
Ask anyone on the street about the UK automotive industry and they might well ask ‘what automotive industry?’
This would not be a surprise given the mainstream media’s preoccupation with factory closures and economic gloom.
Fortunately, this special report paints a very different picture. The UK is not just an attractive place to make cars, but it boasts a disproportionately high number of globally recognised marques — spanning vehicle types from niche sports cars to heavy trucks and every sector in between.
Add to this an enviable reputation for contract manufacturing, a healthy smattering of world-leading research projects and an academic base that continues to produce some of the world’s top engineers and designers, and it is clear that — far from being on its last legs — the UK’s automotive sector is in pretty rude health. Here are 10 reasons why. The automotive sector has always embraced electronics, and more advanced technology is now finding its ways into cars. Here are 10 reasons why.
Technology test bed
The automotive sector has always embraced electronics, and more advanced technology is now finding its way into cars.
Telematics — the integration of electronics, and particularly telecommunications systems, into automotive technology — is the latest stage and, as it enters a new generation, the UK is at the forefront of development.
A new facility, called innovITS-Advance, is soon to take shape in Warwickshire, which will be the proving-ground for systems that will allow cars to communicate with infrastructure built into the road network, and even with other cars. The centre is being built at the headquarters of MIRA, the automotive test and development house.
Its centrepiece, set to open next summer, is a ‘test circuit’ comprising all the features of a European city road network — traffic islands, roundabouts, junctions controlled by traffic lights — over an area of 120,000m2. Dotted around and over these roads will be a series of telecommunications networks, including 2G, 3G, GPRS, WiFi, roadside beacons and monitoring systems based on inductive loops.
‘The first generation of telematics was very vehicle-centric,’ said innovITS chief executive Phil Pettitt. ‘But increasingly for the next generation, people are talking about interaction between road and vehicle.’
This could include sending information on road, traffic and weather conditions that could be relayed to vehicles 20 miles away, he said. ‘But you can’t set up that sort of system to test on the public highway.’ The innovITS set-up will allow systems to be installed and tested without need of planning inquiries or road works. It will also allow companies to gain valuable information in a realistic setting with two-way traffic but in a controlled environment, where experiments can be repeated at different speeds, in different traffic conditions and so on.
This could be crucial in testing systems where the telematics help with safety, said Pettitt. ‘You want to point vehicles at each other in realistic ways at an intersection and see whether the systems will intervene and prevent a collision from occurring. You don’t want to do that in a public arena, because you’d have to cordon off roads.’
The project is attracting attention from car makers and telecommunications companies, said Pettitt. ‘The view is to attract people to do research and development in this country. One major European car manufacturer has told us that if we weren’t doing this, they’d have to set up something similar, so there’s definitely going to be a demand for it. And with the amount of R&D and development work that already happens here, we’re very optimistic.’
While environmentally-Friendly motor racing might seem a contradiction in terms there is a groundswell of opinion that motorsport can and should use energy-efficient technologies, not just to clean up its act but to stimulate engineering developments that can be transferred into road vehicles. Many UK companies are rising to the challenge.
The kinetic energy recovery systems under development for F1 by Torotrak, Xtrac and Flybrid Systems (see Insight) are one notable example. Banbury engineering firm Zytek is also working with an F1 team on the development of an energy capture device.
Away from F1, other areas of motorsport are also going green. The A1 Grand Prix competition, for which Zytek is the engine developer, recently became the first global motorsport series to switch to biofuels. All its cars now run on a bio-ethanol fuel mix estimated to cut CO2 emissions by up to 21 per cent per car.
Meanwhile Drayson-Barwell, the British GT sports car team owned by former government defence minister turned race-car driver Lord Drayson, is also gaining a reputation for its pioneering use of green technologies.
At last year’s British GT championship the team became the first to win a sportscar race outright with a bio-ethanol fuelled vehicle and it recently announced a collaboration with JCB to investigate the development of further energy-saving technologies. Unfortunately the team could not build on its reputation at the 2008 US Le Mans Series as prior to one of last month’s races, a gearbox failure caused the V12 bio-ethanol powered Aston Martin to pull out of the competition.
Lotus to transform classic cop-car
A nimble and bold approach to contract-engineering, born out of the spirit of the early days of motorsport, is at the heart of the UK automotive industry’s international appeal.
This quality is perhaps most neatly embodied by Norfolk sports car manufacturer Lotus which, despite being owned by Malaysian carmaker Proton, is still regarded as a quintessentially British operation.
From the Ford GT40 and the Aston Martin Vanquish, to the Opel Speedster and the all-electric Tesla Roadster, Lotus has lent its production and engine expertise to many of the world’s most exciting and innovative sports car projects. Most recently the company joined forces with US firm Carbon Motors Corporation. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Carbon Motors has an audacious plan: a complete redesign of the American cop-car, a vehicle which, thanks to its presence in practically every car chase ever committed to celluloid, is perhaps even more iconic than London’s late-lamented Routemaster Buses.
The inspiration for the project is the fact that while firefighters, paramedics and the military have their own fleets of specially developed vehicles, the US police are still chasing crooks in the Crown Victoria, a retail passenger car designed by Ford in 1979. After lengthy consultation with police all over the US, Carbon Motors has come up with an impressive design. It is stylish, spacious, bristling with sensors and powered by a fuel-efficient diesel engine that will enable the car to move from 0-60 in six and half seconds.
While one might expect the patriotism factor to ensure an all-American team, Carbon Motors’s chief executive William Li quickly decided that Lotus was the ideal contract engineering supplier. ‘We are a lean, small company and the culture fit was very good – they know how to be a little bit more focused and less bureaucratic. Contract engineering firms are not that prevalent in the US and those that do exist have tremendous capabilities but are very good for high-volume programmes with the typical bureaucratic processes that come with any large company. Lotus are more nimble. Their model is “change the rules” and it suits us just fine.’
The team is now working on the development of a one-off prototype, which it hopes to launch before the end of the year. Li said he hopes to take the vehicle into full-scale production within the next two years.
Designers in demand
When Volvotook the wraps off its XC60 SUV at the recent Geneva motor show the plaudits were laid squarely at the feet of Steve Mattin, the car-maker’s young British design chief.
With a respectful nod to the past, but a bold vision of the future, many commentators felt that Mattin, a graduate of Coventry University’s transport design department, had pulled off that rare feat of a dramatic but uncontroversial redesign.
While it is tempting to romanticise Mattin’s rise as the classic tale of a plucky Brit, the reality is that he is one of a strikingly high number of UK-trained automotive engineers and designers who have risen to the top of the global automotive industry.
In an even more emphatic thumbs-up for UK-trained engineers, the design strategy of Volvo’s parent company Ford is also headed by two Brits — Peter Horbury, a predecessor of Mattin’s at Volvo and now design chief for North America and Martin Smith, design chief for Ford Europe — both with masters in automotive design from the Royal College of Art.
British engineers are also well represented in F1. Pat Symonds, director of engineering at Renault, started out as an engineering apprentice with Ford, William’s director of engineering Patrick Head studied mechanical engineering at London University and Honda’s team principal Ross Braun trained as instrumentation engineer at Harwell’s atomic energy research establishment.
Meanwhile, on the other side of world, the giant of the Indian automotive industry, Tata Motors, recognises the value of UK engineers and has appointed ex-Ricardo boss Dr Clive Hickman to head its Coventry-based European Technical Centre.
‘Brits, or people who have been trained in Britain, are at the top level in so many car companies and truck companies in the world,’ said Prof Garel Rhys, of Cardiff Business School, an economist who has been a keen observer of the British car industry since the early Sixties.
While many of the industry’s high-flying Brits began their journey to the top some years ago Rhys believes that, thanks to the high standards of the training on offer, the trend is set to continue. ‘We have some of the best academic courses, such as the Royal College of Art and the Coventry University courses. They are regarded as the Blue Riband courses for automotive design and engineering in the world,’ he said.
‘For every place that’s available at those colleges and universities, there are 300 applications, and for every person that comes out of them, there are 30 jobs offered.’
Car maker to the world
Although the UK was the first of the world’s major automotive centres to lose its national champion volume manufacturer with the death of Rover, the industry is, in fact, healthier than ever.
More than 1.7 million vehicles were made in the UK last year — almost the same as the all-time peak of 1972 — and a record number, 1.3 million, were exported. Clearly, the global automotive sector still thinks the UK is a good place to make cars, despite high relative labour costs. Why do Nissan, Honda, Toyota, GM, and BMW choose to build cars here? And, with the overwhelmingly global nature of the automotive industry, does it matter that we do not have a home-grown player any more?
‘We have a motor industry in Britain, but not a British motor industry,’ said Cardiff Business School’s Prof Garel Rhys. He dates the resurgence of car manufacturing in the UK back to the 1980s, citing ‘the changes that emanated from the Thatcher years, when strikes disappeared and the industry discovered quality and how to maintain it’.
He also pointed out that the auto sector in the UK is one of the most versatile in the world. ‘Along with Germany, we are the only country to have a major specialist and a major mass-produced sector. We make volume cars; then we have Land Rover and Mini, which are volume specialists; Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Bentley, they’re specialists, along with Morgan, Lotus and LTI, and Triumph, in the related superbike sector.’
France, the US, Italy and Japan have tried and failed to develop this range, he said. ‘Despite our smaller scale, we have to remember that we can cover all the bases: even vans, heavy trucks, buses, components and especially R&D. We have a motor industry that can go straight from R&D into design and manufacture, and then to sales with a very high-quality distribution network.’
Volume makers have been taking advantage of this range. The latest addition to Nissan’s range, the compact SUV Qashqai model, is an entirely UK product, designed at the company’s Technical Centre Europe in Cranfield, styled at Nissan Design Europe in London, and built at the NMUK plant in Sunderland.
Rhys describes the UK’s design expertise and university courses, along with the world-leading UK-based motorsport centre, as the country’s ‘Silicon Valley’, and the talent that emanates from it is so in demand from car companies around the world that there is no danger of British engineering flair being lost, even without a British volume champion.
‘Even if things turn turtle on the manufacturing side — and I hope it never happens and I don’t think it will — the design houses, component manufacturing and education could form a standalone sector in their own right, a Silicon Valley for the whole global industry,’ he said.
Still wild for Triumph
The motorbike sector is often forgotten in the UK, and perhaps with good reason. The famous makes of the 1940s to the late 1960s — BSA, Norton, Vincent —were swept away by the lower-cost Japanese Hondas, Kawasakis and Suzukis. But one name remains, and it’s possibly the most iconic of the lot — Triumph.
Originally based in Coventry but now in Hinckley, Leicestershire, Triumph has had more ups and downs than the TT course. The company was founded by German immigrant Siegfried Bettmann in the late 19th century, produced motorbikes for the British army in both World Wars, changed hands numerous times, hit the height of its fame in 1953 when Marlon Brando rode a Thunderbird in The Wild One, went bankrupt in 1983, and was resurrected a year later by plasterer-turned-property developer, John Bloor, who relaunched it in 1991. Last year, the company made £12.6m profits on £220m sales; this year, it plans to produce 50,000 high-end, high-powered bikes, many for export to the US.
‘They loved them last time around and they still do,’ Top Gear presenter James May told The Engineer. May is the proud owner of a Speed Triple, Triumph’s three-cylinder sports-bike model. ‘They are definitely not eccentric underdog “Aww, look at the cute British bike” things. They’re great pieces of kit, they sell all over the world, and it’s something to be very proud of.’
Triumph makes its own engines using a modular design, with parallel-twin engines in modern cruisers and classic-style bikes, and three-cylinder engines in sports bikes. ‘They all have a unique sound and feel,’ said product manager Simon Warburton. ‘We also focus on making bikes very intuitive and easy to ride. All R&D is done at Hinckley, and we try to manufacture as many parts in-house as is feasible.’
As Triumph trades so heavily on its heritage, the company is wary about making large changes to designs. ‘Our production facilities are state-of-the-art but we adopt a more evolutionary, continuous improvement approach to development,’ said Warburton. ‘Our experience is that larger companies are better placed to experiment with a range of new technologies but for us, as a small player in a relatively conservative market, we cannot afford to introduce revolutionary technologies that customers might not be receptive to.’
Despite that, he added, a five-year-old Triumph engine is very different from a new model.
Diesel cleans up its act
A consortium of UK engineers from academia and industry is about to conclude a project that could pave the way for a radical new design for diesel engines, which combines the efficiency of diesel with the cleanliness of petrol engines. The project, led by heavy-duty plant manufacturer Caterpillarand co-funded by £1.5m from the Technology Strategy Board, is focused on large engines but in the long term could also be applied to passenger vehicle engines.
The aim is to develop engines based on homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI). In most diesel engines fuel is injected directly into the cylinder and compressed, increasing the temperature and density until the mixture combusts at the fuel-air boundary. This leads to very hot combustion, which produces nitrous oxides and particulates that must be removed from exhaust gases. In HCCI, however, the fuel is dispersed evenly throughout the cylinder in a fine mist to produce a homogeneous mixture of fuel and air. When this is compressed, it combusts in several places simultaneously, burning efficiently at a lower temperature and producing minimal nitrous oxide or particulates.
Although HCCI has been demonstrated in static engines that operate at a constant load, it does not work if the engine has to change its power output, which happens when a vehicle accelerates or goes up a gradient. ‘In a real-world situation, you never stay in a stable load state for more than a couple of seconds, so HCCI is currently completely inappropriate,’ said Derek Wallis of Cambridge Consultants, one of the project partners.
Caterpillar, Cambridge Consultants and the other partners — Loughborough, City and Sussex Universities — are attempting to design an engine that will approach HCCI operation even when it is changing between stable loads. There are two main challenges, Wallis explained: ensuring the air/fuel mixture in the cylinders is homogenous; and controlling the combustion so that it is not too fast. This would lead to ‘knocking’, which would destroy the engine. ‘Keeping the mixture homogeneous is down to careful air intake and injector mould design, and cylinder design,’ said Wallis. Fuel injector nozzles, the geometry that induces mixing in the cylinder and the crown of the piston all influence this.
Combustion control is also tricky. ‘With a diesel engine, you only have secondary control. You can control things like the air charge temperature, how much air goes in, how much fuel goes in and when, but you can’t control the start of combustion,’ he said.
The project is due to finish in December, although Wallis believes full HCCI is still some way off.
Music to the ears
It is a truism in the automotive industry that the big technical breakthroughs tend to be made by those who have the least to lose.
Thus, while the huge research and development budgets of the big car-makers are typically used to fund expensive, but essentially incremental, improvements to existing technologies — the academic world, free from many of industry’s constraints, is often where it’s all happening.
Academia’s freedom to pursue a more adventurous path is illustrated by the work of a group of Coventry University engineers who have developed a new type of petrol engine that is claimed to match, and potentially improve on, the fuel efficiency of the diesel engine.
Developed by Dr Dan Merritt, the Merritt Unthrottled Spark Ignition Combustion (Music) engine is a newly designed cylinder head with an external combustion chamber. Improved air flow around the combustion chamber is used to achieve an optimal stoichiometric mix at the exact point where ignition occurs. This is partly achieved by a novel helical ramp mechanism at the opening of the chamber, which forces the air round a helical path and helps stratify the gases rather than create a random mix of gas and air.
Merritt believes the system has huge potential and claims the engine could help lower carbon emissions from cars by at least 20 per cent. But despite repeatedly demonstrating the engine’s performance to the auto industry, the lukewarm reception from European vehicle manufacturers has left Merritt somewhat exasperated. ‘If you could buy a petrol engine which is as efficient as a diesel, would you buy a diesel?’ he asked. ‘It’s very odd that in days of carbon footprints and rising fuel costs we don’t get much co-operation. If people are trying to lower carbon emissions from cars, Music is by far the most logical way to do it.’
Automotive management consultant Brian Knibb is investigating commercial opportunities for the engine. He is still in the early stages of trying to capture a market for the system and agreed that the responses of European manufacturers are not promising. However, he believes the technology may be better received in the US and the emerging markets in Asia, where the commitment to diesel technologies is not deeply entrenched.
In the meantime the group is pressing ahead with the development of the technology. With the help of Norfolk-based engine developer Powertrain Technologies, it has developed a prototype four-cylinder version of the engine that will be fitted to a test car within the next few months,
Hydrogen makes perky performer
From biofuels to hybrids and fully-electric vehicles, there are many routes to greener motoring and all will appear in greater numbers over the coming years.
But for true zero-emissions motoring, with vehicles capable of the performance we expect from petrol and diesel engines, most experts agree one candidate is more promising than all the others — the hydrogen fuel-cell.
The sticking point is the infrastructure. While biofuels can already be found on some garage forecourts, and electric cars can be plugged into the wall, the question of how to roll out a hydrogen infrastructure is more complex.
In a UK-led effort to solve this, fuel-cell specialist ITM Power last month joined Brentwood-based powertrain developer Roush Technologies on a project designed to stimulate the uptake of hydrogen-powered commercial vehicles. ‘There’s a general acceptance that in the early stages of the technology it will be attractive for logistical and support reasons on fleets of vehicles which return to the same depot every night,’ said Roush’s Adrian Graves.
ITM is developing an electrolyser system that can be used by organisations to generate hydrogen, while Roush is investigating how this system could be applied to fleets of vehicles, and what modifications would need to made to a vehicle’s engine and powertrain. Graves confirmed they are also working with an unnamed global manufacturer of commercial vehicles that has a facility in Essex (Ford’s Dagenham plant would seem to fit the bill).
Meanwhile, Hugo Spowers, the automotive engineer behind Morgan’s hydrogen-fuelled LifeCar (The Engineer, 10 March) believes fuel-cell vehicles will take off as urban vehicles. Through the HYRBAN project, Spowers is working with a loose alliance of motorsport engineers to develop a two-seater urban fuel-cell car that he hopes could kick-start this revolution. The powertrain for the vehicle is being tested at Cranfield University and, with a lightweight composite chassis, will be assembled into the vehicle this summer. Spowers believes the vehicle’s perky performance will make it more attractive than existing low-emissions urban vehicles. ‘It will have a cruise speed and a top speed of 50mph. It will get there very quickly and stay there and will accelerate to 30mph in 5.5 seconds.’
The enduring power of ‘brand Britain’
With Rolls-Royce and Mini under the wing of BMW, Bentley owned by Volkswagen and the recent sales of Aston Martin to a Kuwaiti-backed consortium and Landrover Jaguar to India’s Tata Motors, it might seem that all our best-known marques are either defunct or under foreign ownership. The largest UK-owned, home-based car maker is London Taxi International.
Despite this, the heritage represented by UK brands is still seen as a distinct selling-point by their parent companies and making the cars in this country is even more of an advantage. ‘These are vehicles that are only made in the UK,’ said Cardiff Business School’s Prof Garel Rhys. ‘And that, in a sense, gives them their undeniable Britishness. This is the only place where a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, a Jaguar, a Land Rover, is made.’
These characteristically British marques still make a considerable contribution to the industry and to the economy, insisted Rhys. Last year, just over 1.5 million cars were made in the UK; of these, 550,000 were brands and models with a British heritage. ‘Lever it — multiply it by its value — and it’s even more significant. If you put together the production of Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin last year, it’s nearly 20,000. It doesn’t look much but if you multiply that by the ex-works value, it’s equivalent to making 230,000 superminis,’ he said.
Since the 1980s, the UK’s reputation as a place in which to manufacture cars has soared, with the Nissan plant in Sunderland the most efficient in Europe. This, allied with the specific image of many cars developed here, has made the British marques’ custodians keenly aware that manufacturing in the UK adds value without compromising quality.
BMW, for example, made ‘an act of faith’ in basing manufacture of the new Mini here after its ignominious exit from the Rover Group in 2000, in part, said Rhys, because then-BMW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder was a nephew of the Mini’s original designer, Sir Alec Issigonis. ‘They were covering their tracks, in a way. But with hindsight it’s obvious that pulling everything together in the UK would be a big success,’ said Rhys.
Similar factors are at work in Tata’s decision to keep Land Rover and Jaguar manufacture in this country, he added. ‘There’s still a huge residue of goodwill to many things British in India,’ he said, ‘and although Tata is a pretty sharp company, it actually has to rub its eyes to believe it has bought something so iconic.
‘Where else would you make it? It would cost an absolute fortune to move production to India. It’s possible that one or two models could go there — the Defender could have a new lease of life from being made in India, either as a duplicate line or to free up space for other products. But moving the whole thing? It has never crossed their minds.’