In a cavernous plant on the outskirts of Coventry, a massive bet is being placed about the sort of vehicles that will be trundling around cities and along motorways over the next 30 years. The factory is the result of a £325m investment by a big Chinese automotive group and adds up to one of the boldest efforts in the UK to create a new generation of electric cars.
The site is run by London Electric Vehicle Company, a UK-based company owned by Geely, a fast expanding group controlled by the leading Chinese entrepreneur Li Shufu – who is known for his spare-time hobby writing poetry, as well as for a relentlessly global approach.
A key part of Li’s plans for LEVC is to make the Coventry plant a centre for development of new types of electric car, aided by recruitment of technical specialists, many of whom are likely to start at LEVC either as apprentices or engineering graduates.
The investment stands out against the decision by Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s best known entrepreneurs ,to spurn the idea of starting an electric car plant in the UK, choosing Singapore.
Among the 750 employees at the site – which opened in 2017 – is Pauline Dumont, one of the factory’s 200 development engineers. The 26-year-old Belgian, pictured at the start of this story, joined LEVC in 2015 after finishing a postgraduate degree in automotive engineering at Cranfield University.
“I was excited at coming to work here – the job gives me the chance to help create a completely new product starting from zero,” says Dumont. “It’s been great being part of a team doing something special. I feel I have learned a massive amount in a short time.”
Electric cars could change the shape of 21st century motoring
The first products from the factory are a new series of electric black cabs for London, which in time will replace the diesel-powered taxis that form a big part of the London street scene, but which will be gradually replaced by less environmentally intrusive new models. The LEVC-produced vehicle has been expressly designed to fit in with the capital’s increasingly onerous clean-air regulations.
Diesel vehicles are regarded particularly negatively because of their strong association with pollution and widespread health problems. Over the next decade, it appears that, worldwide, increasing numbers of vehicles will be based around electric propulsion instead of petrol and diesel engines — Britain and France have already said that new cars sold in their countries must be fully electric by 2040.
Volvo, the Swedish company that Geely bought in 2010 as part of a big international push, says that from 2019, it will no longer launch models powered only by internal combustion engines and all its vehicles will be hybrid or electric.
As for Geely’s efforts in the UK, it formed a joint venture with Manganese Bronze in 2007, and took a 20 per cent stake in the business. After the full acquisition and the development of its electric propulsion plans, Geely renamed the business LEVC.
Pointedly it dropped any references to taxis in the title, signalling its ambitions. Geely plans to ramp up production from Coventry to 20,000 vehicles a year by 2020. The output will comprise not just taxis but other sorts of electric cars aimed at markets outside Britain.
Steve Fitter, pictured below, assembly manager at the Coventry factory, who started at Manganese Bronze in 2000, says the Chinese investment has been “hugely welcome”. The Chinese owners have, he says, “a broader view of the world” than the previous top management at Manganese Bronze.
Alluding to the graduate engineers and apprentices at the factory, Fitter says: “We want to embed them into the company’s development programme. We want to grow a new workforce that will create a product cycle of new vehicles.”
The initial product from the factory – the London taxi – is strictly speaking a hybrid as it combines a lithium-ion battery with a petrol engine. That gives the vehicle the ability to travel for about 70 miles purely under electric power, or a total of about 370 miles when in hybrid mode and fuelled also by petrol.
Among the novel techniques being pioneered at the plant is extensive use of plastic- based composite panels that feature in much of the vehicle’s body, in place of the more orthodox steel. The panels are fixed to the car’s frame – made from aluminium, again rather than steel – through glueing rather than the normal welding process. Basing the structure of the car on plastics and aluminium leads to a less weighty body, offsetting the effect of the heavy battery, helping to reduce energy use when on the road.
A key partner in this part of the development is Novelis, the US-based aluminium producer owned by the Indian industrial group Hindalco. Novelis has a partnership with LEVC under which it supplies the aluminium in the body from a plant in Germany. Steve Fisher, chief executive of Novelis, told Made Here Now the relationship had led to some “unique insights” for both companies that could help with the development of more vehicle models in the future with similar characteristics.
Watching from the sidelines as the Geely plans for Coventry have taken shape is Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, doyen of the UK manufacturing scene who is the chairman and founder of Warwick Manufacturing Group, a high-profile part of the University of Warwick that is based in Coventry. It was Bhattacharyya who invited the Geely chairman Li to the city in the mid- to late-2000s, after previously meeting him in Beijing.
Lord Bhattacharyya – chairman of Warwick Manufacturing Group – introduced Geely’s chairman Li Shufu to Coventry and paved the way for the new investment. The two men are shown below.
Bhattacharyya says: “I’m interested in cars and so is Li Shufu – so it seemed natural he’d like to visit Coventry [a historic centre for UK vehicle production]. He wasn’t all that interested in taxis – taxis were taxis, and no one bothered with them – but then Manganese Bronze came to his attention and he got involved with the company.”
Bhattacharyya says Geely’s plans for Coventry are “very encouraging”. He describes Li – who has humble roots and started out in business by buying an old camera to photograph tourists at beauty spots – as a “man with ideas and a vision of the future”.
“I’ve always said that the UK car industry can do well under the right sort of leadership and what Geely is doing in Coventry bears this out,” Bhattacharyya adds.
by Peter Marsh
A version of this article appears in MadeHereNow.com. Note: Lord Bhattacharyya has died since the article was published.