Innovation in the UK niche vehicles sector

Fast work: Sports cars are dominating the niche vehicle sector in the UK. Stuart Nathan reports

Niche vehicles is a term that covers a wide variety of road vehicles, from heavy trucks and camper vans down to sports cars. The latter probably dominates the sector in the UK, benefitting from links with the motorsport sector.

It seems to be a very British thing to want to develop sports cars; from the archetypal enthusiast in a shed meticulously restoring some 1960s Jaguar or Lotus to the high-tech prestige world of modern Lotus, Jaguar, Aston Martin and the new marque on the block, McLaren. But apart from these established names, new players crop up on a regular basis, often displaying strikingly innovative approaches to engineering and resulting in equally striking vehicles.

The annual Motorsport Industry Association Niche Vehicles Symposium forms a showcase for these newcomers, and the following examples were among this year’s presenters.

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BAC Mono 1

The motorsport influence is particularly strong in the BAC Mono, the first (and so far, only) car from Liverpool-based Briggs Automotive Company. Founders Neill and Ian Briggs are steeped in motorsport; Neill’s first memory is sitting on his father’s shoulders at a rally meeting and both brothers have competed on the track.

The Mono displays that pedigree clearly, down to its most basic concept. It’s the world’s only road-legal single-seat car, and its layout, architecture and look clearly come straight from the pit-lane. ‘It was always our intention to make a track car you could drive on the road,’ Neill Briggs told The Engineer. ‘It’s for people who want that sort of pure driving experience.’

The development process for the Mono saw BAC designers — ‘For me, designing and engineering are the same thing,’ Briggs said — partnering with engineers from key suppliers such as engine manufacturer Cosworth, gearbox specialist Howland, suspension developer Sachs and brakes-maker AP to produce what, in many cases, was a customised version of one of their existing products.

‘We’re not about reinventing the wheel,’ Briggs explained, ‘and we went with these suppliers because of their excellent record in developing products we wanted on our car, For example, the wheel bearings are straight out of SKF’s catalogue. The engine started life as a four-cylinder Ford Duratec engine, which has been used in many cars, but it has a special sump that allows it to be placed very low in the car, coatings and other components that are unique to us.’ The engine is mounted longitudinally in the car behind the driver, maintaining even weight distribution.

All of the car’s mechanical parts are produced by suppliers, leaving its manufacturing process, at a recently opened facility in Speke, as an assembly operation. This also used techniques borrowed from motorsport, specifically DTM racing, where bodywork that resembles a standard touring car is attached to a custom-built chassis based around a strong steel space-frame. ‘We did investigate going down the route of a carbon-fibre monocoque cockpit, but from the point of view of cost and maintainability the steel space-frame was a better option for us,’ Briggs said. The bodywork is carbon fibre, however, and its design had some inspiration that is surely unique in the automotive sector.

One of the most important design cues for the Mono came from the video for avant-garde Icelandic singer Björk’s single ‘All is full of love’, which features sleek humanoid robots designed by director Chris Cunningham. ‘They have this brilliant organic-mechanical look, with very smooth skin that reveals glimpses of the machinery underneath,’ Briggs said. ‘And we wanted that impression on the car: it’s all about the surface and not the volume.’ This is particularly evident on the rear of the car, where the brakelight runs along the sloping rear section behind the driver’s headrest forming a feature that resembles a spine, and the surrounding bodywork panels are arranged with visible slots between them that reveal enticing glimpses of the engine and suspension while also allowing heat to dissipate.

BAC skeleton

Another, more conventional, inspiration was superbike design. ‘Look at a superbike from the front and most of what you see is fairing; the only visible mechanical components are the front forks and brakes. As you go back, there’s less fairing and you can see the engine, the gearbox and the swing-arm. The Mono is the same; at the front there’s bodywork, then that narrows towards the back.’ Indeed, from the rear most of what’s visible is the spidery suspension struts.

Briggs is unapologetic about his and his brother’s unorthodox inspiration. ‘If you look at a Ferrari or a Porsche, you can see how those designs have evolved from earlier cars; in particular you can always recognise a Porsche 911. Ian and I started from a blank sheet of paper, designing the car we always wanted to drive but nobody made; naturally we took inspiration from anywhere we could.’

BAC Mono 3

Priced at around £95,000, the Mono is clearly in the supercar bracket but at the more accessible end, around the price of a Porsche 911 GT3 or an Audi R8. But Briggs says many buyers are buying the car in addition to, rather than instead of, a more conventional sports car. Production numbers are still low — 30 cars this year, with a plan to increase by 30 annually for the next five years. And for the moment there are no plans to launch new models. ‘We’re in a niche on our own and we don’t have a range of models we need to keep refreshing,’ Briggs said. ‘The Mono is our 911, if you like, and there will be new versions as the years go by with new engines, gearboxes and so on, but they’ll always be recognisable as a Mono.’

Cheap green thrill machine

zenos E10
Recycled carbon fibre contributes to the E10’s shape and keeps the price down

At first glance, the Zenos E10 looks somewhat more conventional than the BAC Mono. It has two seats, for a start, and although definitely minimalist, it’s not a million miles from other sports cars. But in terms of concept and engineering, it stands out as much as the Briggs brothers’ baby.

Zenos is a new company launched by Ansar Ali and Mark Edwards, respectively  former chief executive and chief operating officer of established lightweight sports car maker Caterham. The E10, primarily intended as a track car, is designed for affordability, with a price starting at £25,000 that puts it in the same bracket as cars such as the BMW Z4, the Lotus Elise or the Caterham Seven. But its other design parameter is that it delivers ‘thrill per pound’, as Ali puts it, a measure he defines as brake horsepower per tonne per £1,000: the E10 scores 10.6.

Zenos E10 skeleton
The E10 is based on an extruded aluminium spine straddled by a carbon fibre tub

The construction of the E10 is as unusual as this concept. The car is based around an aluminium extrusion: a beam with a cross-braced inverted U cross section running from front to back of the car as a spine (the ‘os’ element in the word Zenos means bone in Latin, loosely interpreted as spine by Ali).

”Both the BAC Mono and the Zenos E10 require crash helmets (or rather, in the case of the E10, two crash helmets).

Straddling this spine is a monocoque safety cell made from a recycled carbon-fibre material, developed by a former Bentley R&D engineer, Anthony Dodworth.

The material uses two carbon-fibre skins sandwiching a thermoset polymer honeycomb that lends rigidity to the structure while maintaining low weight; it is claimed to retain 70 per cent of the strength of virgin carbon fibre while being considerably cheaper and requiring less energy to manufacture.

This structure allowed the Zenos designers a great deal of freedom in determining the shape of the car, without the constraints of having to enclose a space-frame; it also kept the cost of tooling down, Ali said. The aluminium spine gives torsional rigidity and a firm mounting platform for the suspension: the total mass of the metal/composite structure, including safety roll-bars, is 155kg, with torsional rigidity of 10,000Nm per degree and a unit cost under £2,000.

Zenos cockpit
The E10 cockpit has little concession to luxury

Bodywork panels are also made from recycled carbon, and power is supplied by a two-litre four-cylinder Ford engine delivering 200bhp through the rear wheels, giving the car an impressive 300bhp/tonne power-to-weight ratio. Double wishbone suspension was developed with supply partner Multimatic. All it really has in common with the Mono is that, lacking windscreens, both cars require crash helmets (or rather, in the case of the E10, two crash helmets).

Round and round

A less common crossover to the automotive sector can be seen with Advanced Innovative Engineering (AIE), which produces products for niche vehicles and aerospace. Based in Lichfield, the company produces compact internal combustion engines that have applications in UAVs, as part of static power generation systems, and as the electricity generation system in range-extended electric vehicles.

AIE’s speciality is in rotary engines, themselves something of a niche. There are two types of rotary engines: those with cylinders arranged in a circle, which work exactly like conventional ICEs and were most commonly used in aircraft in the pre-jet period; and pistonless engines, which were developed in the mid-20th century by German engineer Felix Wankel. Instead of pistons, these have a rotating component, a triangle with sides that curve outwards (actually called a shape of constant width or a reuleaux) rotating inside a chamber shaped so that the spaces between its sides and those of the rotor can compress a fuel-air mixture; the combustion and expansion power its rotation.

Wankel engines are best known because they’re used in Mazda sports cars. They give a better power-to-weight ratio than conventional ICEs; they have fewer moving parts and are cheaper to make. However, they have poorer fuel consumption and tend to have high emissions.

AIE has devised a new variation on the rotary engine called the Self-Pressurised Air Rotor Cooling System or SPARCS. This uses exhaust gases from the combustion process to pressurise the fuel-air mixture, which allows higher levels of heat removal  and improves the sealing of the engine, since there is a smaller variation of temperature across the engine; this improves efficiency and fuel consumption. The company has also designed an exhaust expander system that effectively extends the engine expansion stroke to recover lost energy, giving a net power gain of 20 per cent, according to MD Nathan Bailey.

The expander is effectively a second rotary engine attached to the exhaust port of the primary Wankel. Rather than having
the Wankel reuleaux inside at two-lobed combustion chamber, it has an elliptical rotor with pointed ends inside a circular chamber that is forced around by the expanding
exhaust gases.

The entire hybrid engine, consisting of engine, expander and a connected 25kW alternator, is 400mm long and 270mm deep and weighs 45.5kg; the engine component is a 225cc system with 56 parts, producing 40hp. The expander makes the engine quieter, because the exhaust gases are near atmospheric pressure when they leave the engine, and improve emissions characteristics. This can be used in UAVs, REEVs, motorbikes and as marine propulsion, Bailey said.