Bob Waddell is mulling over a problem not many people can empathize with: he’s considering selling the only existing prototype of what was supposed to be Canada’s first-ever supercar.
It’s difficult for Waddell, a Toronto-based engineer, not only because he wants to find the right buyer for the road-legal race car, but also because he kind of doesn’t want to see it go, since it means a lot to him—he led the team that developed the car from scratch, after all.
Waddell and three business partners took the Motion Concept Vehicles (MCV) CH4 from what-if? to reality in the mid- to late ’90s, putting everything they had into a niche car company funded by TV jingles and killed by the dot-com bomb. Here’s how it happened.
Toronto, mid-February 1993
In the Pirelli booth at the Canadian International Auto Show (CIAS) in Toronto’s International Centre sits a naked tube frame inside a black vacuum-formed carbon-fibre chassis, with four very wide pieces of new Pirelli rubber on its corners.
The stark white stand it sits on features a stylized “MCV” logo and, in all-caps, the words “THE CANADIAN SUPER CAR”; a nearly full-scale rendering of a low, sleek car hangs behind it.
It’s the first public appearance of the then-unnamed MCV supercar, first conceived of by a group of about eight composites engineers-slash-Porsche enthusiasts in autumn 1991, when the phrase “supercar” was still relatively new.
It’s not the first public mention of Motion Concept Vehicles, though. The company was born when half the group – specifically Graham Bruce, composites engineer; Terry Cleland, IndyCar crew chief; Martha Chan, marketing guru; and Bob Waddell, business-minded car enthusiast – split off and, in spring 1992, used the Toronto Star’s Wheels section to petition automotive stylists for help designing a radical new car. They eventually hired a young second-year Humber design student, Jay Bernard.
“We got about six or seven responses, but Jay was the only one who said, ‘I can make something look pretty, but I want to understand how a car works, I want to learn what’s underneath the shell,’” recounts Waddell, who at the time was just 34 years old. “That’s what caught our attention.”
The MCV chassis on the stand at the 1993 CIAS
MCV supplied Bernard – today a stylist with Fiat Chrysler – with the dimensions of the tube chassis and frame they’d come up with, and he designed for them a sharp, low sports car using those hardpoints.
With Bernard on board, the five-person team had a chassis, a design, several sponsors (including Pirelli and Fuji Canada, the film company) and a plan, to hand-build roughly 100 cars a year or a total 350 and sell them for upwards of $250,000 each, or $375,000 in today’s dollars. Now they needed to make it happen.
Toronto, late 1994
Fast-forward a year-and-a-half, and on the floor of the Metro Toronto Convention Center (MTCC) sits a bright teal-green MCV-badged supercar that looks not unlike the rendering from the prior year’s CIAS. It’s the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Show, and the still-unnamed Canadian supercar is here on behalf of sponsors Consumers Gas and Union Gas, who’ve talked MCV into running the car on natural gas.
“It’s 130 octane, so it’s actually a great performance fuel and, at the time, it was readily available,” Waddell explains. “And it’s clean, so this car, when I have to get an emissions test done on it, once the catalysts get hot, this thing basically reads zeroes.”
MCV had covered a lot of ground in that time. After the chassis’ CIAS debut, the team had laser-scanned Bernard’s scale clay model and used it come up with a digital 3D surface file. This was used to make a full-size steel-tube-and-plywood model, which was sprayed with urethane foam and milled to shape.
After sanding, it was covered in fibreglass and body filler, hand-finished over the span of a few hundred hours, then painted silver and transformed into a full-scale styling model and shown off at the 1994 CIAS.
“[Bernard] got the geometry so close, we had virtually nothing to change from what he designed in clay to make it fit over the chassis,” says Waddell. “It was stunning, unusual, because the tools we had in those days, it was pretty much just measuring by hand.”
After turning heads and drawing plenty of media attention at the show, MCV contracted Quebec-based Avcorp to use the styling model to make the body molds and the first prototype fibreglass body panels, painted a teal-green—the ones the chassis wore at the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Show. These were, unfortunately, too thick and heavy, and so were eventually scrapped.
A second set of body panels – fibreglass and Kevlar around an aluminum honeycomb core – were pulled, painted a deep cherry red pearl, and fitted to the chassis to make the company’s first real prototype MCV supercar.
The project was getting expensive, but MCV had by this point secured an angel investor in the form of philanthropist Dr. Don Wright. “We told people we had an investor, and they speculated it was Pierre Berton or somebody,” chuckles Waddell.
“Don Wright [of the Don Wright Orchestra] did very well in the ’50s and ’60s doing jingles for television,” he explains. “He was excited about cars, so I connected with him and he put money into us, and that’s what kicked us off.”
Construction of the running prototype
Toronto, February 1995
A group of journalists and VIP guests crowd the MCV-Pirelli stand in the MTCC the night ahead of the CIAS. They’d seen the styling model last year, but hankered to eye the prototype now formally named ‘CH4,’ for the atomic composition of methane natural gas, the car’s fuel.
Waddell and staff from MCV – now numbering 12 in total – wait patiently near the stand, the CH4’s sleek silhouette visible draped under a giant Canadian flag. “There was [a lot of patriotism in the project],” says Waddell. “No one had done this in Canada before.”
Some words are said, and, at the cue, the flag is pulled back to reveal the gleaming red supercar. So marked the start of some “10 days of answering questions.”
“The reaction at auto shows was mixed. People loved it but said ‘What is it? A kit car or something?’ And it’s like, No, the whole thing is from scratch,” says Waddell. “Most people assumed it’s got to be based on something, like a Corvette.”
Waddell also remembers some enthusiasts who got it but were, sometimes, a little skeptical. “It’s a limited market, so you got people who understood it but asked ‘Well, would I get one of these or a Ferrari? If I’m going to spend $250,000, I’m getting a Ferrari, ’cause I’ll have a market to sell it back to.’”
In retrospect, Waddell regrets debuting it in Toronto and not, say, Geneva, where low-volume high-value cars get better reception, where there’s a market. Showing it abroad would’ve also meant avoiding the frequent comparisons to the failed DeLorean or Bricklin sports cars – the latter was also to be built in Canada – that even the hosts of Canada AM made when Waddell was a guest.
“I told them, Well, Bricklin and DeLorean were trying to sell tens of thousands of cars a year,” he recounts. “This is basically handmade, you do two a week. It’s a completely different animal.”
After spending much of 1996 trying, and failing, to fundraise to get the CH4 to the famed Bonneville salt flats to make a record-breaking 320-km/h (200-mph) speed run, 1997 saw MCV work on getting the prototype revealed at CIAS actually running.
The car on the stand in 1995 was shown without engine or suspension, but two years on, a Cadillac-sourced Northstar V8 was finally fitted. The 4.6-litre block was modified by builder Jay Lloyds with a dry-sump system, sixteen fuel injectors, and a custom intake plenum with two superchargers, each running five pounds of boost for roughly 300-plus horsepower altogether, but good for up to 450 hp.
The CH4 put that power to the ground via a five-speed Porsche G50/50 transaxle, selected for its superior strength and smaller dimensions. Acceleration to 100 km/h (62 mph) was estimated to take 4.5 seconds from a standing start.
The suspension was largely custom-designed, with March IndyCar uprights on all corners – MCV’s Terry Cleland managed the Canadian Tire IndyCar team – and custom-engineered dynamic dampers by Multimatic. Waddell says the chassis has zero flex, so as a package the CH4 – with a curb weight of less than 1,100 kg (2,425 lbs) – worked basically like a race car for the street, something borne out during testing on the track at Mosport that year.
The entire drivetrain was bolted to an aluminum subframe held to the chassis via a handful of bolts and some braces, so that, when it comes to maintenance, removal of the back half essentially came down to simply disconnecting the electrics and fuel and oil lines—Waddell’s done it himself, solo.
“We built this car so it could be raced, if you wanted to,” he says. “The chassis and all the bits and pieces are there, you’d just probably do a different powertrain for racing.”
Waddell and the MCV CH4 today
The crowds swarming the just-revealed Toyota Prius at this alternative fuel vehicle show in Detroit are a little smaller than they might’ve been if the MCV CH4, the only sports car at the show, wasn’t drawing so many gawkers.
While Toyota is giving select participants, including Waddell, a chance to pilot the right-hand-drive Japanese-market hybrid-electric Prius, alt-fuel fans drooling over the MCV have to settle for a spin in the CH4’s passenger seat.
The cherry red prototype – as well as the now-yellow styling model, repainted after being used as a plug to make the body molds – had been seeing numerous auto shows and conventions across the continent.
Drawings were being sent to race car manufacturer Lola in the U.K. to see if they could build the carbon-fibre chassis – they could, in the volumes and at the prices MCV wanted – and Waddell was talking to Markham-based Multimatic, who’d done the car’s suspension dampers, about helping with production.
But problems began cropping up. GM had given MCV access to its powertrain people, but since the automaker didn’t yet have a crate motor program, MCV switched gears to make a gasoline supercharged 4.6-litre Ford V8 and six-speed transaxle the standard drivetrain, with a natural gas variant optional.
The meagre sponsor dollars from the natural gas companies had stopped coming in, too, while MCV, already $2 million in, was hunting for investors to secure the $10 million it needed to start manufacturing cars.
“I learned the gas utilities, automakers, and the oil companies were promoting natural gas for vehicles, but it was all basically surface veneer,” Waddell says. “When it actually came down to spending some money, it’s like, ‘Mmm, not really.’ They make less money selling natural gas than gasoline, so there was no incentive.”
At the 1999 CIAS, now hosted in the MTCC downtown, Waddell is gifted an Ontario manufacturer plaque from Premier Mike Harris, who then asks to sit in the CH4. Like many low, wide-sill supercars, “there’s no glamorous way” to get into or out of the car, says Waddell, so to avoid any on-camera embarrassment, Harris’ handlers had told Waddell to tell him no.
“I said to him, Well, those racing seats are kind of made for—no, you probably shouldn’t,” Waddell relates, explaining Harris thought he was insulting his weight. “He wasn’t impressed.”
Waddell didn’t know it, but it would be the last time the CH4 would appear at the Canadian International Auto Show, and one of its last public appearances for a decade.
These too-heavy teal body panels were eventually scrapped
Later that year, the Ministry of Finance, which had formerly been relatively cooperative, made a series of sudden changes that put up roadblocks that deterred investors from channelling money into MCV. “I was furious that we had been led down a path, with [the Ministry’s] support, and then had them reverse their position, without explanation,” Waddell says. MCV was forced to take on engineering side projects, look Stateside for funds, and shrink back down to four employees.
Even worse, the dot-com era was at its height, and anyone with money was interested in the then-speculative but dazzling World Wide Web. “Nobody wanted to invest in hard assets, they wanted to put it in webpages,” Waddell says. “But not long after that, in the early 2000s, was when a lot of supercars in Europe came to be. Our timing was off.”
On top of it all, Waddell’s wife was at the same time diagnosed with cancer, and Waddell, by that point the single remaining stakeholder, decided to shut the company down.
He donated the styling model to the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, and in 2000 started a new company distributing laser-scanning and digitizing technology, occasionally using the MCV CH4 for scanning demos. After a few years in his office’s front lobby, the Canadian supercar went into storage.
“It’s one of those stories, a could-have-been—I know how I’d do it differently this time,” laments Waddell, theorizing that, besides the dot-com bomb, a lack of industry and investor connections did the CH4 in.
“We took all of the money we got and built a running car to prove we could make it work, whereas other people might’ve done a huge marketing campaign to raise more money. We went down one path, and maybe if we had gone down the other, we could’ve gone further.”
Owen Sound, September 2015
More than a decade later, Waddell, now working in solar power, and his wife having recovered, decided the car needed to stretch its legs more often than it was.
Unchanged saved for an added rear deck hinge, it was shown at the 2015 Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Owen Sound, Ontario. He’s swapping out the Lexan windshield for a glass one this year, and is hoping spring 2017 to drive it to Toronto’s Yorkville exotic car show.
He’s also considering selling it. The car enthusiast in Waddell – and he is a car enthusiast, having rebuilt a BMW 2002 and owned a 1972 Ferrari Dino before starting MCV – doesn’t want to see the car go, but there’re too many practical arguments for doing so.
“I’ve got mixed emotions about it. If I had the resources and a fleet of cars and I could drive it once in a while, it’d be great, but it’s not a car you can just drive around town,” he says.
There’s also the problem of “finding that right buyer,” Waddell adds. “It’s a challenge to sell it, ’cause it’s not the type of car where someone can just say, I want to have it so I can cruise somewhere.”
But it’s likely going to go, he’s resolved, and whoever the new owner is, well, they better get used to turning heads. “You look at the car now and it still looks great, and it’s aged well,” Waddell says. “It really hasn’t lost its appeal after twenty years.”