One of the great things about writing motoring articles is that I find many cars that just didn’t make it. This is one of them from the 1990s and some articles blamed the Internet for its demise, however that really wasn’t the cause for the failure.
The story begins in Canada during the early 1990s when a team was formed with many complementary skills and all focused on building a new niche sports car. Along with business building skills, the team had an engineer who specialised in composite materials, a marketing expert and an ex Indycar racing team boss. A company was founded to take the ideas to market: MCV or Motion Concept Vehicles.
With backing from Pirelli and Fuji Canada, the company planned to build 100 cars a year with a target of 350 in total and sell them for around C$250,000 each. They weren’t into volume production and were following a path that many manufacturers had travelled before them. Between the team they had already figured out a tubular space frame chassis which they showed publicly for the first time at the 1993 Canadian International Auto Show with design sketches of what it could look like when clothed. They needed that body to be designed and they chose a young student who did the deed, apparently in the most efficient way – by designing a shell that when the first one was made it fitted like a glove. That was after taking the design – a clay model, machining it to form a mould and then creating fibreglass body panels.
In late 1994, MCV showed a base styling prototype at the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Show in Toronto because they had connected with a company who could provide a methane powered motor. Bearing in mind this was over 20 years ago and biofuels were in their infancy, this partnership had produced a zero emissions sports car that was good looking and appeared to have a great future.
The fibreglass panels were apparently too thick and therefore heavier than expected, so with their composite materials and Indycar racing experience, they switched to mix of fibreglass and Kevlar mounted on to an aluminium honeycomb core. This would have been an expensive detour and MCV needed more cash, finding it in a wealthy car-loving musician, Don Wright, who was famous in Canada for writing film scores and other tunes. That fresh injection of funding spurred on MCV to the next stage.
The first true (although non working) prototype was shown the following year (1995) at that year’s auto show in Toronto and it was now called the CH4 – the chemical composition of its fuel source, methane. It generated a fair bit of interest as it was a local supercar, although the pricing put it into a stratosphere above the established European companies like Ferrari and Lamborghini.
In an article I read, one of the founders said that they wished afterwards that they had launched it at the Geneva show instead, because low volume manufacturers have a better time there due to Europe’s acceptance of unique cars. I wonder about that – it was a Canadian designed and built car, so it made sense to promote their work locally first. They could have then sent the car to Switzerland for display and potential negotiations with a few local importers. Bear in mind though, that this car was running on a fuel source that had no infrastructure, so that was always going to make selling, let alone exporting the car harder.
The other failure of the team was to prevent the comparison with other lower volume manufacturers who had recently collapsed – although some such as DeLorean, ended up with a colourful back story as part of their closure. This comparison was always going to be hard to counter and the only way was to really deliver on the promise and deflect away from the financial problems other manufacturers had, although this was also becoming a problem for MCV.
More fundraising was necessary to get the prototype to actually move under its own power, however the methane powered motor was gone, replaced by a 4.6 litre Cadillac V8 with twin turbos – some reports incorrectly described these as “superchargers with 5lbs of boost”! Power output was described as being between 300 and 450 hp depending on tune and the motor was mated to a Porsche transaxle, chosen for strength, size and lightness. Underneath the skin, more racing technology was applied – the suspension and subframes were modelled on successful race car designs to give a final weight of 1,100 kg.
On the business side, the prototype and the buck for the moulds were doing the rounds at various car shows across Canada and interest was high with many show visitors being taken for laps in the only working car. The team was also busy working on some production partnerships – one with Lola, the UK race car builders, who wanted to build the body and chassis. Just like the 1950s and early 60s, the plan was to ship body shells and panels over the Atlantic to a finishing plant.
General Motors then (literally) threw a spanner in the works by not being able to provide crate motors for MCV, so a switch was made to a Ford V8 of similar configuration – and one that could run on natural gas if required, a nod back to their roots.
Another problem occurred with the ever constant need for funding – it was drying up with early investors pulling out and the main manufacturers distancing themselves as they focused on their own issues. Then the Government stepped in and changed funding regulations that drove many more investors away by making the industry less attractive.
The owners blame the Internet and the desire to funnel money into what was seen as get-rich-quick schemes where some technology companies were seeing skyrocketing valuations and making people a load of cash – although none of that new money flowed into the auto industry until much later. Then the dotcom bubble burst and billions were lost.
Interestingly I read a comment from one of the founders that said that their timing was off because after the bubble burst in 2000, many companies started low volume manufacturing, yet they too would have been developing their products at the same time, so I don’t believe the timing was off, it just took too long to get their car to market. At the same time as the tech bubble was popping, MCV was closed down with the only running car used for other business advertising.
Hindsight is a wonderful view, yet there are a couple of items that could have helped them early on. Unlike the other low volume manufacturers that survived, MCV was attempting to develop a vehicle with a power source that wasn’t fully tested and had no infrastructure for fuel sales. They then chose a motor that was not available to purchase as a crate engine. Had they have chosen an available crate engine such as a Ford V8 or the Chevrolet LS V8 (as many others did), it would have reduced their costs significantly and provided a reliable power source. They could have used the methane power source later – I do understand that was where the initial funding came from, however having the option for both engines could have possibly been part of the negotiation.
The switch from fibreglass to Kevlar was also a detour that could have been an evolution, rather like the Ferrari 308 that started out as fibreglass and then switched to steel. Buyers would have purchased the car if it was at a lower initial cost through better use of components. Clearly people do buy cars with a rebadged Ford, Chevy, Chrysler or AMG motor installed. I think the blame on the dotcom bubble is not truly accurate and the CH4 could have made it into production with some better decisions, however as I said, hindsight is easy to see – when you are in the thick of things, the view is not as clear.