The motoring world is undergoing seismic changes driven by legislation and attitudinal shifts. TCWDF’s Motoring Editor reports on an interesting British experiment which could revolutionise transport.
FOR individuals of a certain age, the words ‘British Leyland’ conjure up an image of all that was wrong with industry in the seventies. Poor management, unprincipled unions and a weak government combined to produce a succession of unreliable cars which were the laughing stock of the motoring industry. The apogee of this dreadful mix was, for many, the Austin Allegro, complete with square steering wheel.
Decades later, one would imagine that no sane government would again want to have anything to do with car production. However, the relentless drive for Net Zero combined with the looming EU ban on petrol and diesel cars has piqued interest at the highest level of Westminster.
Grant Shapps, recently appointed Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, has inherited a project which has been under way for five years, funded by the UK taxpayer, to examine the viability of producing a ‘people’s car’ for the future. I have been granted unique access to see first-hand what could catapult Britain once more into the vanguard of car production.
Near Cowley in Oxfordshire, itself an area steeped in motoring folklore, is an out-of-town site where a team of designers, engineers and marketers have been engaged in a feasibility study of a truly emissions-free vehicle. I am met by Dutch-born engineer Dr Maarten van den Plas, who for many years headed design at BMW’s Munich HQ. A tall man with impeccable English, he is keen to show me around and talk openly about the team’s plans and the obstacles they have encountered. Used to dealing with much larger financial budgets at his previous employer, he nevertheless is clearly passionate and committed to his new challenge.
He takes me through a series of stand-alone structures, pointing out that they are hubs devoted to single aspects of this exciting project. Designers and engineers work separately at computers researching the most efficient dynamics allied to weight and propulsion. We see clay modellers fashioning full-size prototypes and testing under way in a wind tunnel to determine the most streamlined contours.
I ask him if there really is a possibility of an emissions-free car in the near future or whether it is simply pie in the sky. He smiles like an indulgent parent. ‘Absolutely, I am convinced that this will happen and it will be sooner than many people think. You go back 20 years, and any talk of electric cars would have been laughed at, but look at where we are now. Electric, hybrid and hopefully hydrogen-powered cars are happening all around us at a tremendous speed. The world is changing and like all industries the automotive world must adapt or die. Personally, I think each home, certainly in Europe and the Americas, will soon have an easy-to-charge, long-range motor car at their disposal. Technology is evolving minute by minute and that is a good thing.
‘Range anxiety will be a thing of the past. Progress is being held back by individuals who cannot, or more honestly will not, see the huge advantages that the abolition of the combustion engine will bring to society. A greener, safer, and more importantly cleaner world is something each and every one of us should be working towards. It is a journey, plain and simple, one that we should all be happy to embark on.’
It is difficult not to be carried along on a wave of unquestioning optimism and I find myself, formerly something of a sceptical spectator, eager to jump on board the revolution.
In a conspiratorial whisper, Dr van den Plas asks me if I would like to see the full-sized completed prototype they have finished constructing. Of course it is an offer I cannot refuse. The long-held dream of transport without damaging the environment is almost mind-boggling. We walk towards an impressive hangar-like structure with two large steel sliding doors. Inside it is cavernous and well lit. In the middle of the floor is a structure shrouded in a silk Union Jack.
‘Well, here it is, tell me what you think.’
With a flourish he pulls the covering off and I am confronted by what to all intents and purposes resembles a child’s pedal car – albeit full-size. Dr Maarten sees my confusion.
‘She’s quite a beauty, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, certainly, but it’s simply a pedal car,’ I reply.
‘Carbon-neutral, net-zero, emissions-free. This, my friend, is the car of the future. Everyone will soon be wanting one of these.’
I am genuinely speechless and vaguely aware of being assailed with information about passenger and driver pedals, two-wheel and four-wheel drive, rack-and-pinion steering, all-round disc brakes and the advantages of monocoque construction. It is lost on me as visions of Red Robbo and Michael Edwardes swim into view. I hear Dr van den Plas ask me if I have any burning questions.
‘Are there any plans for model derivatives?’
‘Yes, of course,’ he laughs. ‘With summer around the corner, we are working on a new design codenamed Trans – it is a stylish convertible.’
With that he leads me out and wishes me well.