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The Would-be World Woodie

The car was the idea of Tony Howarth, an English journalist/photographer who spent most of the 1970's in Africa taking pictures. He did not like the roads, the cars and their inability to manage the roads, or the first-world's arrogance---sending lousy vehicles and billing the third-world countries for the cars and interest, while the vehicles disintegrated long before the bills were paid.

The prototypes used in the expedition Africar was designed to handle rough roads, to be constructed of native materials, and to be made with low-skill labor---all with a minimal imported content. Using Citroën 2CV suspension and drivetrains, Howarth constructed three cars: a station wagon, a pickup and a 6-wheeler. They were built in England and driven to the Arctic Circle. From there they headed south and reached the equator in about four months. A five-hour UK Channel 4 TV special was produced, which raised interest, funds and hopes. A lovely book was printed along with many brochures.

There were promises made about global sales, third-world manufacturing rights, and so on. But the company squandered their funds on a new engine and gearbox, then floundered. Bankruptcy court sold off all the assets, put Tony Howarth in jail for a short time, and the Africars themselves have disappeared.

Tony Howarth, the former owner of Lancaster-based Africar International Limited, was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment, having pleaded guilty to fraudulent trading and obtaining property by deception.

Tony Howarth at the wheel of an early prototype

The Judge told Howarth:
"You were seduced
  by your inability
  to face facts"

Howarth set up Africar International Limited (AIL) in April 1986. His ambition was to develop a wooden car called the Africar that could be built in Africa, suitable for use on the continent's rough terrain.

In the early '80's Howarth built three Africars which were used on an expedition from the Arctic to the Equator. The chassis and bodywork of the Africars were made of epoxy resin-impregnated plywood. On these prototypes, Howarth used Citroën 2CV engines, gearboxes and suspension as well as components from other manufacturers.

A series of documentary television programs about the venture was produced by Howarth and shown on Channel 4 in May 1987. Interest in the project grew and investors were encouraged to part with their money.

From September 1986, AIL operated from a factory in Lancaster. To provide some of the necessary funding Howarth launched the 'Originators' Scheme'. Investors, know as 'Originators', each made a three-year interest free loan to AIL by buying £400 shares in the Originators' Company Limited. They were told that at the end of the loan period they could either be repaid or convert their shares into shares in the manufacturing company.

Deposits were also taken for the order of vehicles. The customers, many of whom had seen the Channel 4 programs, were led to believe that the cards would be delivered to them. At a Christmas party at the factory premises in 1987, to which some investors were invited, an Africar was unveiled. In fact this was a dummy vehicle. It had no engine or gearbox. Its doors were glued shut and the paint on it was still wet. The car was roped off so that customers could see but not touch. The delivery dates for customers' Africars were put back and back. By the time AIL ceased operations in the summer of 1988, the only customer who had an Africar was one who had visited the premises and without asking had driven a car away.

In February 1988 Howarth intended to raise about £5 million by converting Africar UK Limited into a public company and offering shares to members of the public. The plc was to manufacture Africars under license. The flotation did not proceed, however. because the company's accountants refused to certify in the prospectus that the license to manufacture Africars, which was the only asset the plc owned, was worth £8 million.

Despite the failure of the flotation and the company's consequent financial difficulties, the company continued to trade by making use of goods and funds received from trade creditors, customers and investors. AIL intensified its marketing by introducing a Priory Delivery Scheme. Customers who had already prepaid a deposit were approached and promised that if they paid the balance of the purchase price in advance, their Africar would be delivered to them within 60 days. However, the company was never in a position to guarantee delivery by the specified dates.

By July 1988 new investments had all but dried up. AIL could not pay its staff their wages. On July 18, officers from the Lancashire Constabulary Commerce Branch seized the company's documents and the landlord recovered possession of the factory. Howarth at the time was in the USA seeking to attract further investment. He remained outside the jurisdiction and was arrested and charged on his return in October 1994.

The case was successfully prosecuted notwithstanding the lengthy period of time (six years) that elapsed between Howarth leaving the UK in 1988 and his subsequent return in 1994.

This article is taken entirely from CitroMike's article for Paul Negyesi's KTUD Automobile Archive and The Serious Fraud Report 1996/1997 as presented to UK Parliament

Howarth Africar

Postscript: the Bedouin

After the collapse of Africar International Ltd., the Africar briefly resurfaced. Another UK company, Special Vehicle Conversion, produced a small run of vehicles based on the Africar called 'Bedouin'. It is said that one could leave a Citroën 2CV and £ 300 with the firm and return the following week to pick up your new Bedouin.

Sadly, some time later, production of these vehicles also ceased. While a few of these cars are still known to exist, Tony Howarth's dream of an affordable and easily repaired vehicle for emerging nations was never fulfilled.

It is surprising that plans based in this innovative design are not available. Perhaps one day, third-world entrepreneurs with Africar/Bedouin plans will write a more satisfying final chapter in the Africar saga.


Photo source: Ian Marshall's 2CV Based Kit Cars and Specials

Africar woodie

Special thanks to these sources, who provided text and pictures:

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