Concept Car of the Week: Volvo ECC (1992)

11 December 2015 | by Owen Ready

In the early 1990s economic depression, combined with the growing public consciousness of holes in the ozone layer and global warming, created a lingering hangover from the excesses and prosperity of the 1980s. A more caring, sharing society was appearing and, with it, voters ushered in more liberal, left-wing governments in many of the world’s most-powerful nations.

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In 1993, new US President Bill Clinton created the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) – a research project between the US government and the American Big Three carmakers. The aim was to develop extremely fuel-efficient cars, capable of up to 80mpg, to be available to the public by 2003.

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Although not involved in the initiative, Volvo beat them all to it in 1992 with its ECC – Environmental Concept Car. Developed at Volvo’s Monitoring and Concept Centre in California, it was a typically pragmatic solution to the West Coast’s pollution issues, as well as a statement of how the company’s design was on the verge of a rapid evolution under new design director Peter Horbury.

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And it was indeed unlike any Volvo before; soft transitions where brutal junctions once ruled and an emphasis on aerodynamics rather than stolid safety. Familiar elements remained though – the V-shaped hood feature, strong shoulders and six-light DLO – but each was amplified and composed in a way that made its forebears appear rather uncouth.

The stark white body was inspired by the purity of Swedish winters. While made of aluminium, it had the appearance of injection-moulded product design that would become so popular during the decade and encapsulated by the 1998 iMac G3. But the most radical aspect was its tail.

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Its very high central volume that grew from its glasshouse, contrasting with the low-set shoulders and rear lamps, created a shocking first impression that would be later adopted by Renault with its 1995 Initiale and, of course, Adrian van Hooydonk’s BMW 7 Series of 2001. The advantages of this solution were both aesthetic – the ability to combine a low beltline offering good visibility with a shallow rear screen for a more coupe profile – and aerodynamic. The result was a drag co-efficient of just 0.23 Cd.

This, alongside that lightweight body, allowed Volvo to use a very efficient powertrain and its solution was a unexpected as the car’s design. A gas turbine that can run on virtually any fuel forms the central part of its series hybrid system. Performance was modest with 0-60mph taking a leisurely 22 seconds in EV mode but a more reasonable 12.5 with the turbine spinning at 90,000rpm. However even with the turbine running it still easily met California’s tough Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle requirements.

Three modes – Electric (battery power only); Hybrid (combination of battery and turbine on-demand); and Turbine Power (everything working) – were selected via the almost toy-like controls on the centre stack. It was a priority to make every element communicate its function as clearly as possible, hence the first appearance of Volvo’s famous HCAV direction controller. A screen on top of the IP displayed live traffic updates, allowing drivers to dodge those infamous LA freeway tailbacks.

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The materials used throughout the interior were chosen for their environmental attributes, most interestingly the natural cork used in the door cards and seat centres. The result is a warm, earthy cabin that contrasts with the stark white exterior.

While the ECC would be evolved into the mechanically more mundane S80 of 1998, the decline in oil prices and a new President meant that by 2001 the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was canned by George W Bush.

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