Thanks to the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and LaFerrari, we’re now used to the idea of a hybrid sports car, but turn the clock back to 2002 and the idea was much more on the fringe. Enter the too-good-for-this-world 2.0 liter V10 hybrid Connaught.
That was not a typo—the Connaught Type-D GT ‘Syracuse’ pictured above had a V10 engine displacing just two liters. Moreover, the thing was supercharged, too. Connaught claimed the car had 300 horsepower and 274 ft-lbs of torque, which was wildly impressive for their own, tiny engine. It was mounted way back in the already short chassis, “basically between the front seats,” as Autocar explained back in the day.
The motor was coupled to a five-speed manual from the same supplier as Caterham, and led back to a limited-slip differential at the rear. The car only weighed 2,094 pounds thanks to its aluminum body over tubular steel spaceframe, itself bonded to a Twintex thermoplastic composite tub. Suspension was double wishbone at each corner, and Connaught advertised that the car had “laminated security glass all-round.”
And though the Type-D had four seats, it was small, at just 14 feet long. Connaught advertised a 170 mph top speed, which wasn’t supercar performance, but was certainly enough to perk the ears of eager car nerds. I should know; sitting in the back of my local newsstand reading EVO Magazine, I was one of them.
The car looked amazing, sure, but it was its needlessly strange, unique engine was absolutely captivating. No carmaker since the ‘70s had produced such a small engine with so many cylinders. I couldn’t wrap my head around why Connaught didn’t choose to license the use of a similar-sized four-cylinder engine, which would have been cheaper, simpler, and easier to do. Their development mule did exactly that, using a stand-in Ford Zetec engine before the V10 was ready, as EVO reported. Connaught claimed the tiny V10 design was worth all of the trouble because, uh, actually, the more I read about this car, the less idea I have why Connaught chose to make their own bizarre little engine. Their press release only talks about its drawbacks, particularly in terms of heat, and friction in the many tiny cylinders. That is“the biggest snag given a cylinder surface-to-volume ratio much higher than that of, say, a four-cylinder engine,” Connaught themselves noted.
And it would have had hybrid drive, too! Connaught, ever one to go its own way, didn’t plan on using contemporary nickel-hydride batteries. Nor did they plan on using then-quite-cutting-edge lithium-ion batteries. Connaught planned on using supercapacitors for its hybrid system, like you would find in Le Mans prototype cars eight years after Connaught made their plans. These supercapacitors would have had such a boost on performance that Connaught planned on dropping the car’s supercharger from the Type-D H hybrid model. In 2004, Connaught said that it would have included regenerative braking and torque-assist, something that McLaren was very keen to advertise with their P1 ten years later.
Reading Connaught’s initial press release from back in ‘04 gives a good sense of how far out into the weeds the company’s plans were at the time. Here’s a quote on how they marketed their planned hybrid system:
Connaught plays down the Type-D’s hybrid drive, wishing to distance its sports coupé from existing hybrid cars with their utilitarian aura and earnest greenness. Market research has revealed that some potential buyers of pleasure machines are put off by the hybrid idea, thanks to inaccurate preconceptions of plugging the cars into the mains and thoughts of slow electric vehicles.
The second-generation Toyota Prius had only just taken the car world by storm, and the car enthusiast crowd had a very skeptical view of both hybrids and all forms of electric drive at the time. Connaught’s plans were completely beyond the pale back then. It brought them plenty of attention, especially from the very supportive British press.
Another part of the reason for all the car’s hype back in the heady pre-Recession days of the auto industry was wrapped up in the car’s name. Back in the 2000s it was quite hip to resuscitate a historic dead car brand to slap onto your startup design. There was Spyker, Bugatti (the only one that survived), Hispano-Suiza, Invicta, Marcos, some others I can’t remember, and Connaught.
Connaught was the first British company to win a Formula One Grand Prix with a British driver since before World War Two. Connaught won before names like Cooper and Brabham and Lotus established a rear-engined reign over F1 that continues to this very day. You can watch period footage of Connaught’s 1950s racing exploit in this Connaught PR film:
That said, while Connaught did win a race in 1955, it never repeated and folded a few years after.
The story was similar for the reanimated Connaught. In 2002, two ex-Jaguar engineers by the names of Tim Bishop and Tony Martindale bought the brand and in 2004 they officially brought it back to life. They made their announcement at that year’s backwards-looking Goodwood Revival, saying they would build their own new car with, startlingly, their own drivetrain. Their independent design “beats mainstream manufacturers in the race to produce a high performance energy-efficient sports car,” the press release said.
“It’s ambitious,” Bishop said in one of the company’s quizzical PR videos. “But ambitious is fine because we use the same tools as the big motor industry boys. We use the same CAD systems. We use the same development tools. If you use those tools right, you can do things at literally a fraction of the cost.”
Bishop further attested, “we knew from the beginning exactly how much money we would need to do this, and we are under budget.”
But the lofty claim of two dudes working out of what looked like a classic car garage did not manage to beat the multi-billion dollar establishment. Seriously! Look at the shop where they finally got their supercharged V10 to run.
You can see it even better in this video, with the V10 Connaught moving under its own power for a brief few feet.
Connaught built their car entirely by hand and they used almost entirely bespoke components. That sounded great in advertising and gave the car a real sense of old school coachbuilt pedigree, but it meant that work was extremely laborious and parts couldn’t be sourced from other companies. Connaught only managed to debut a working car in 2006. Worse, it did not have the company’s much-anticipated hybrid drive.
Connaught never quite got the money together to make any more cars, as the complete lack of news on the car after 2006 makes pretty clear. There were only a few worried glances by the car world in 2007, still waiting for production promises to be realized. I should also say that it’s not exactly clear how many people wanted a Connaught even if the company had the money to make them. The company had initially planned a run of 50 cars, followed by 2,000 a year, as EVO reported. Connaught then changed that to 300 cars, then revised that down to 100.
They got a couple million pounds from the government to set up shop in a de-industrialized corner of the country, typical of these startup car companies. In Connaught’s case, this meant taking 3.4 million pounds in grants from the Welsh Assembly to secured a 25,000 square foot space in South Wales. That wasn’t quite enough, as it seems. Two videos shot in 2008 show Connaught’s chairman Fred Page-Roberts asking for further investment in the company. Here he asks for 3 million pounds to finish the Connaught Type-D’s hybrid drive:
And here he asks for two million to support the firm’s hybrid drive, which he now claims was completed and ready for retrofit installation in Ford Transit vans, coupling supercapacitors and hybrid drive to the engine via a CVT:
I don’t entirely know what happened to Connaught after that. By all appearances they faded away, leaving behind little but a dead website still planning on completing that 25,000 square foot factory “as the company grows.” But where is the sole Type-D now? Who is servicing those Hybrid+ vans? Is there anything left of this company other than their bright ideas, impossibly ambitious and a decade ahead of their time?
If you have any details on where this car, its company, or its builders are now, contact me at raphael at jalopnik dot com.
Photo Credits: Connaught
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