Tony Howarth, designer of the Africar

Whatever happened to the Africar?

Three decades have passed since Tony Howarth designed an extraordinary lightweight all-terrain vehicle that was supposed to change the world.

For a 'proof of concept' car it received a lot of attention. Resplendent in its high-visibility orange livery, this startlingly original wooden station wagon took centre stage in a Channel 4 documentary series in the early 1980s. With publicity this good, Africar's success seemed guaranteed. But in a story as bumpy and rutted as the African thoroughfares this lightweight all-terrain vehicle was supposed to make passable, intrigue and accusations of financial irregularity delivered its designer into the hands of the Serious Fraud Office and subsequently prison.

Three decades later and I'm on my way to Gémozac, a tiny hamlet off the Gironde estuary in south-west France, to meet the man behind Africar. As Tony Howarth throws back the door of his barn to reveal what's clearly his pride and joy, he invites me for a test drive. "You can't understand Africar until you've been for a spin," he tells me. As we sweep through Gémozac's vineyards he embarks on the short version of a story that will take up the next 17 hours of my waking life.

Howarth is not an easy person to interview. An iconoclastic man with a healthy regard for his own genius, he revels in digressions and detours; indeed, with one volume of autobiography out and another on the way, he is a natural storyteller. His conversation is peppered with robust disrespect for car designers such as Ferdinand Porsche, though he holds Henry Ford in deep admiration.

A successful photographer and film-maker, his work has graced the cover of the Sunday Telegraph magazine around 50 times, and he has an Oscar nomination under his belt. The white-haired septuagenarian makes it clear that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and yet has a streak of boyish generosity that extends to serving oysters with pâté de canard and chilled Pouilly-Fumé for dinner. As we push back our chairs he throws a log on the fire and takes me on a journey that, were it not for the corroboration of the Channel 4 series and the book on Africar, would stretch anyone's credulity.

Howarth grew up on a farm and by the age of ten he was the proud owner of both a lathe and a Royal Enfield motorbike. "I used the lathe to build from scratch a fuel injection system to run the bike on." A few years later he graduated to an Austin 7, which his father told him he had two years to turn into a sports car so that "I would have something to drive when I passed my driving test".

"Technically, I shouldn't be described as an engineer, because I started off as a classicist," says Howarth, who took a "very bad" honours degree in engineering from Cambridge. This lack of academic performance was no reflection on his prowess, but an indication of how much time he spent making films, taking photographs and hanging out with people like Peter Cook.

He left university with a hankering for engineering, but this was nothing compared with his hankering to make yet more films. Finding it hard to get the big break he went into photography as "a second choice, and was lucky. I went to Africa with a group of students and my first publication when I got back was six pages in Life magazine. There's no better way to start a photographic career than that".

By the end of the 1970s his love of film and engineering came together in a proposal for a television series he pitched to Channel 4 called 'The Car Designers'. This is arguably where the story of Africar really starts, and put Howarth "back in the world of engineering".

Roads of the world

Howarth has worked in, driven through and photographed 130 countries, so it follows that his idea of "a normal road" differs from most people's. For him, roads "basically have a loose surface that gets destroyed by trucks in the rains".

According to Howarth, the car had yet to be made that could seriously, efficiently and economically function while carrying heavy loads on such surfaces. And so the idea behind his TV series proposal was to show how successive designers had "in a sense betrayed the automobile by not building vehicles after the Model T Ford that could operate on the normal roads of the world".

At the same time Howarth was developing a strong interest in the economics of the post-colonial world. He became aware that developing countries were compounding their debts by spending huge percentages of their limited hard currency on importing and fuelling cars that weren't appropriate for local conditions. "As it was unlikely that a western-style road system would spread to the whole planet then these places needed better cars. Building them locally could alleviate the Third World debt crisis."

At this point CNC machine tools were emerging onto the manufacturing landscape, making batch production "not as cheap as with a dedicated machine, but very reasonable. Lamborghini had done this and it worked very well. It allowed them to charge very rich people a huge amount of money for what were quite silly cars. I thought we could bring this down to something manageable".

Howarth continues: "I had all these engineering and socio-economic concepts churning around and it all came together in the idea of local manufacture of motor vehicles being the key to Third World debt, as motor vehicles could cost 50 per cent of the hard currency of a country."

At this point Howarth, renowned photographer and film-maker, but unknown as an engineer, decided to set up the 'Africar System for local manufacture of motor vehicles in Africa'. Howarth says he had strong ideas about what this would entail, garnered from his experience of driving around the continent against pressing photographic deadlines "on all kinds of roads. But the car was always secondary to the system itself. My emphasis was on finding financial partners. The problem was that even my supporters seemed to think that the Africar could be done in a railway arch or could grow on a tree".

Perhaps one of the reasons prospective backers thought that it could grow on trees is that the car is famously made of wood. The media ran with this as being a low-tech solution to a big African problem, an approach that was rustic, romantic and patronisingly cute, but was mostly 'rubbish' – the whole notion of Africar being a 'wooden car for Africa' is a misconception and an embarrassing distraction for Howarth.

What the body panels were made from was secondary to other specification characteristics. They happened to be made from plywood on the proof of concept model because Howarth was into building boats.

"The idea was that the car would be built around an extruded frame, bent in a CNC tube-bender like spaghetti, with the suspension hung off it. My material of choice was to be stainless steel, sandblasted so you didn't have to paint or powder coat it, so there would never be a corrosion problem. That's important in a Third Word situation where people want to use a vehicle for 20 or 30 years. It's also cheaper because of the reduced preparation and finishing stages, but it's hard to find an engineer or, perhaps, an accountant who will agree with that."

From the Arctic to the Equator

While the engineering was progressing, talks with Channel 4 were pulling Howarth in a radically different direction. The broadcaster was indifferent to the original proposal, but jumped at the easier sell on learning that the photographer was "messing about building a funny car".

Despite universal enthusiasm at Channel 4 for a programme based on Africar, Howarth was reluctant to sign a contract and waited 12 months before allowing himself to be persuaded to do a TV series. "At this point the car was never intended to be anything other than a test bed. It's true that the key specification points had been wrapped up in a reasonably proficient and good-looking package complete with mirrors and lights. You could sit in it and drive it and the ergonomics were sound. But that was about it."

The series needed a hook, and after an off-the-cuff suggestion from Howarth, it was based around an expedition from the Arctic Circle to the Equator. But with Channel 4 unwilling to provide a Range Rover to act as a crew car, Howarth had no choice but to build one. The result was a six-wheeler version of Africar, which, along with the station wagon and an Africar pick-up, became the trio of tangerine-coloured vehicles on the journey.

"It was originally surrounded by secrecy. It wasn't just too early to do this sort of thing. It was tens of millions of pounds too early to even be mentioning this project. But a journalist friend wrote an article in African Business and the whole thing went viral in the space of two months. It was out in the public eye, so what do you do? Well, we did the journey, which was immensely successful. Despite all three vehicles being only two-wheel drive we came out through northern Chad across 400km of trackless sand without getting stuck. I defy any other vehicle, including 4x4s, to do that."

The end of the road?

With the success of the documentary, and the accompanying book even making it onto the bestseller lists, there emerged a climate of goodwill towards an innovative car for Africa. So far as Howarth was concerned the future really did look orange.

So why, I ask him, aren't there millions of Africars being driven around Africa today? "It was very simple. We didn't manage to raise any money." To build a prototype that embodied "the essence of the vehicle" would have cost, by Howarth's reckoning, around '4.5m (others thought it would be more like £7-10m). To progress to a production prototype required a further £10m. And to take it into "even the most primitive production" would need a cheque for £50m.

"In the end I raised something close to £1.4m, but that got absorbed into further fundraising. So all we ever did after the TV series was build one more proof of concept vehicle, a short chassis pick-up intended to interest a Texan merchant bank."

Then follows a convoluted and shadowy financial narrative that sees Howarth serving time at Her Majesty's pleasure, having pleaded guilty to reckless behaviour, which resulted in unintended fraud. Today, Howarth claims that he perjured himself by pleading guilty to a charge of which he was innocent in an attempt to get the Serious Fraud Office out of his and his family's life, once and for all. He says, "amazingly, once I agreed to plead guilty, the SFO actually gave me a signed letter to confirm this".

The experience of prison, he says, was ironically a liberating one; for most of the time quite pleasant (he'd been to boarding school and could hardly tell the difference), allowing him to write poetry and consider the future of Africar. While on home leave he'd sit in meetings with his engineers and potential investors, the most credible of which spectacularly reneged on a promise to finance the whole project on Howarth's release. "That was it," says Howarth. "Africar was finished." Only it wasn't. Because today Howarth insists that the project is still "very much alive. The world needs a car like this, you know".

Back to the future

As I hand back the keys of the Africar station wagon, Tony Howarth looks at me expectantly. "Well? What did you think of it?" I explain that I might not be the right person to venture a proper critique: I hadn't sat behind the wheel of an automobile for seven years and had never driven on the 'wrong' side of the road. I had supposed it would handle like a tank, but it was light and friendly to drive. Howarth ponders aloud the absurdity of allowing someone like me taking his beloved Africar for a test spin before saying: "Well, you've proved my point. If you can drive it, anyone can."

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