Would you like to come to the factory? A simple question deserves a simple answer. Yes please! A few weeks later we roll up at Prodrive’s Banbury HQ for a chat about the Advanced Technology division, an intriguing part of the Prodrive story which we, and I suspect most people, knew little about.
Having stood in a Welsh forest in the 90’s and been pelted by gravel thrown from a balletic but very angry Subaru, I learnt from an early age that Prodrive knew a thing or two about rally cars. The respect has grown over the years thanks to an annual pilgrimage to Silverstone to watch the Aston Martin WEC outfit strut their stuff. The resulting assault on the ear drums and the podium again was orchestrated by the Banbury-based outfit that has run Aston Martin Racing since 2004, in which time they have delivered five World Championships and four Le Mans titles.
As soon as I arrive at the prominent HQ facility it is clear that my dictionary of Prodrive is missing more than just aardvark. Sat resplendent in reception are three competition cars including a Safari-spec Impreza (not a surprise) a tarmac-spec 1990 BMW M3 (a bit more of a surprise) and a 1984 rally-spec Porsche 911 SC RS (hmmm, wasn’t expecting that). Not only was this the very first Prodrive car it also happens to be the first time that Rothmans sponsorship appeared on a 911 rally car. Oh and one of them was campaigned by Henri Toivonen. Iconic, not half.
Our amiable guide releases us from reception into a room with multiple GT3, GT4 and WEC Vantages in various states of preparedness. It is a stunning line up, but in the foreground there are more pages from the history books. Among the further revelations are an Australian V8 Supercar (a Touring Car on steroids), more Subarus, a WRC Mini and a BAR F1 car. Yes Prodrive ran the BAR F1 team, finishing second to Ferrari in 2004.
Despite that dizzying display of motorsport’s greatest hits, there’s one more car that exerts its own gravitational pull, sufficient to hurry past an F1 car to get a better look. Yes it’s a Metro 6R4 that was campaigned very successfully by Jimmy McRae, initiating the McRae – Prodrive link. I am assured that the Group B monster has that effect on everyone who sees it.
However what we’ve actually come to see is a Transit van. Yes I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but stick with me. The Advanced Technology division has a frankly incredible back catalogue, but the thing is they don’t like to brag about it, so much of it is top secret. However what they will say is that it includes everything from defence, to aerospace, via bicycles and supercars. The obvious next question is, so what bit do you do? The answer is pretty much anything that requires lateral thinking or an impossible combination of engineering requirements. The capability is staggering.
Which explains why we are standing next to a pretty ordinary-looking Transit van. When Ford decided that it wanted a plug-in hybrid van, a first in the van world, the list of engineering jobs to do was long and they were all fiendishly difficult. So Ford phoned Prodrive. The job involved fitting a battery, charging system, electric machine, a 1-litre EcoBoost petrol engine, the exhaust system, and all of the associated electronic control systems into a stock van. The problem is that nothing could eat into the load area, nothing could eat into the cabin, nothing could go on the roof, stuff could go underneath but the ride height had to be the same, and whilst the engine bay was up for grabs, it turns out to be smaller than a Ford Focus. Oh and anything that is fixed to the floor has to use existing fixing points so that it can be easily mass produced. At that point most companies would walk away.
The resulting van is, from an engineering point of view, staggering. The attention to detail is clear, everything looks like it has come straight off the production line, despite the fact that this is a development vehicle. The ultimate test was that these vans were given straight to fleets who trialled them extensively in the real world. And guess what they work- really well.
The production version has 335 Nm of torque, a 1,000 kg payload, and can travel 35 miles on electric power. After that the efficient petrol engine provides an additional 310 miles of range which opens up electric vans to a whole new audience who need EV capability to get into city centres, but also need total flexibility to take on any job. The system is a series hybrid which means that there is no mechanical connection between the petrol engine and the wheels. Instead it works as a generator to create electricity to feed to the electric machine, so even with the petrol engine running, the front wheels are always powered by the electric motor. The Transit gets regenerative braking to help to maximise that electric range and the petrol engine can be used to top the battery up too. It isn’t the most efficient way to do it, but if you know you are heading to an EV zone and can’t stop to recharge by plugging in, it could be a life saver.
The skill involved is deeply impressive, and neatly illustrates what the Advanced Technology division is about. Even the building is designed to be modular, allowing areas to be transformed into prototype bays, or even small-scale production areas. One job involved building a full hydraulic system for a car which meant constructing a climate-controlled clean assembly area which meets the standards required for building space equipment. So they did. They then build the entire system, test it and deliver it to the manufacturer ready to go.
As our visit is wrapping up we pass some other intriguing bits and bobs including some very clever active aero, cutting-edge electric systems, and the rear centre console for a premium SUV which integrates powered tables which stow out of sight when not in use and emerge almost silently when required. What is remarkable is you get the sense that the same attention to detail and desire to engineer your way out of a problem is present in everything from a WEC-spec Vantage to a deploying table, which neatly describes what Prodrive Advanced Technology is all about.