Sexy hybrid could become a sporting thoroughbred

The Connaught, a saucy 'higher bred' coupe, should boost the industry, says John Simister
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The history of Britain's sports car industry is littered with corpses, burnt-out bodyshells wearing the remains of badges once representative of someone's hopelessly optimistic dream. The problem is that the specialist carmakers, of which Britain has always had a disproportionately large number (even if the cast-list is endlessly changing), are very unlikely to produce something so much more appealing than, say, a reliability-guaranteed Porsche that anyone but a mad optimist would buy it.

The history of Britain's sports car industry is littered with corpses, burnt-out bodyshells wearing the remains of badges once representative of someone's hopelessly optimistic dream. The problem is that the specialist carmakers, of which Britain has always had a disproportionately large number (even if the cast-list is endlessly changing), are very unlikely to produce something so much more appealing than, say, a reliability-guaranteed Porsche that anyone but a mad optimist would buy it.

There are exceptions, of course: Noble is the current favourite of these, and TVR is usually there or thereabouts. Occasionally, though, a newcomer arrives which makes you take notice. Such a car is the Connaught Type-D, a sports coupé which exists so far as a running chassis, a full-size model, a collection of aluminium castings and several gigabytes of engineering documents in some computers in Daventry.

If all goes according to plan, which includes gaining the guarantee of another £4m or so of funding, the Connaught will be revealed in a year's time and on sale from May 2006. Before then some very ambitious targets will need to be met, all of them closely defined in lists of things-to-do that more befit a major mass-producer. Herein lies the project's best hope, that it is being run by people - ex-Jaguar, mainly - who know what is really involved.

And now, the part that maybe should have been in the opening paragraph. The Connaught, which takes its name from some cleverly designed and successful 1950s racing cars (last of which was the Type-C), is a V10-powered, rear-wheel drive coupé whose shape is in the Audi TT and Nissan 350Z mould. The idea is that this full four-seater will weigh, without fluids, just 750kg, which is even less than a Lotus Elise. The V10 engine is a narrow, 2.1-litre unit with a relatively modest 140bhp output - but attached to the engine's front is a 12bhp electric motor whose ample torque adds to the engine's efforts to deliver impressive acceleration.

All of which means that, yes, the Connaught is a hybrid, along the lines of Honda's Insight and Civic IMA. It even has an Energy Savings Trust (EST) development grant, even though payments are usually reserved for projects with obvious green credentials. As sports cars go, the Type-D is green, of course, but what swayed the EST was that the Connaught might help, as it were, to "sex up" the hybrid idea.

Connaught's main brains - Tim Bishop (creative guru and past prime mover in trying to get the Czech Tatra on UK sale) and Tony Martindale (creative Ford cost-cutter and Jaguar X-type thermal dynamics expert) are a little wary of overplaying the hybrid angle, though. They worry that too many people still have notions of milk floats and plugging cars into the mains, which of course is exactly what a hybrid is not. They address this issue by referring to the Connaught as "HigherBred" - note the fashionable lack of a space before the second capital letter - and stress instead the results. Which are, according to the computer simulations, a top speed of 150mph, a 0-60mph time of 6.2 seconds and a typical average fuel consumption of 40mpg. Another key part of the Connaught idea, which may well be the one that makes it viable, is that it describes itself as a "virtual car company". It does not make anything itself, but will contract out some parts manufacture, and all assembly, to EPM Technology in Derby which makes racing-car components. EPM will share the financial risk, and can also use its new Connaught-building facilities for other purposes. The idea is to make 50 cars in the first year, to prove the process, then move quite quickly to the target of 2,000 a year. By then the aluminium body panels will be pressed on "soft" tooling instead of being hand-formed, and the Type-D will be ready for proper homologation and a EuroNCAP crash test (for which a top five-star rating is predicted within those gigabytes).

The aluminium is one ingredient of that low-mass, and massively optimistic, weight target. Another is the chassis frame, made of laser-cut steel tubes full of holes for lightness and the right crushability in a crash. A Twintex (glassfibre in a polypropylene matrix) tub is moulded to form the main interior shapes of floor, bulkheads and rear seats, and the roof pillars are in tubular or extruded aluminium. The engine is also aluminium, has a very narrow vee-angle to let it be set well back in the chassis without eating too much into cabin space, and features a crankshaft built up from a number of pieces (22 in all) a little like that of a pre-war Bugatti engine or an old Saab two-stroke.

As a hybrid, the Connaught is able to sit in traffic with its engine automatically switched off. It starts up, again automatically, as the clutch is released and the accelerator pressed, by which time the Type-D is already starting to move by electric power. It is a smooth, quiet process because the electric motor does the starting without the whirr of a conventional starter.

But the problem with leaving the engine off for a while is that the catalytic converters cool down, making for more pollution on re-starting. Except that they do not, because they are heated by the same 48-volt electrical system that covers the motor and the recharging of its batteries.

Prices? The Connaught is planned to start at around £35,000, but there will also be a convertible version. As for the Type-D's style, created by Andy Plumb who now works at Bentley, it has a hint of old-British in its Aston Martin DB5-like rear window and vestigial fins, and it must be one of the only cars in a while to be designed with old-fashioned seven-inch round headlights. Yet it does not look retro, nor should it despite a name which will mean much to a few but little to many (a Connaught won the 1955 Syracuse Grand Prix).

Coventry University has made the full-size model, with detail honing by Geoff Matthews who designed Renault's original Espace. Other input comes from Keith Helfet who styled Jaguar's XJ220; there are some highly credible names here. The Connaught Type-D is bold, brave, full of bright ideas and a refreshing piece of innovative originality. Let us hope this is one British specialist sports car that really does succeed.

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