Our thanks to Flavio Volpe, CEO of the Automobile Parts Manufacturing Association, for speaking with FutureMotoring about Project Arrow. We edited the interview below for clarity and readability.
The name Project Arrow evokes more than just a sense of nationalism. For Canadians, the name Arrow carries a lot of weight. Project Arrow is an EV concept that recently made a small splash. It’s an attractive-looking SUV that builds on what we’ve already seen from others in the EV space. But where Project Arrow stands apart is the plane it shares a name. The car, from conception to engineering, is Canadian. And that’s where the significance of the name comes into play. Before we look forward, we need to look back at the legacy Arrow carries with it.
What’s in a name
The year was 1953, the cold war was ramping up, the jet age had dawned, and the world needed a new interceptor fighter. It was in this year that engineers at Avro Canada decided to do the impossible. See, this company had already done what a few thought could be accomplished. A year before, the Royal Canadian Air Force accepted the CF-100 Canuck for use. It was a tiny, twin-engined jet that was a significant triumph for Canadian innovation. The CF-100 was utterly Canadian, from design to construction. It was practically fuelled by pure Maple syrup (except it wasn’t).
But the RCAF and Avro knew that they couldn’t sit on the CF-100 to defend Canada in the cold war era. They needed something more significant, something more powerful. As it turned out, they needed something only the collective minds of hundreds of Canadians could build. After two long years of design, tests, and engineering, Avro introduced the Arrow to the public in 1957. The jump from the CF-100 to the Arrow was immense. Everything was home-grown, even the engines. The Avro Arrow boasted things the world had never seen, like an estimated top speed over Mach 2. The Arrow is considered one of the first real applications of the delta-wing idea.
The rise of the Avro Arrow was stunning. Its design was more than just an incremental step from the CF-100. It drew interest and discussion from major nations, like the UK and the US. How could a peaceful country like Canada produce such a future-looking, lethal interceptor? Fitted with a test Pratt & Witney engine, the first Avro Arrow design flew level at Mach 1.9. By 1959 the custom-engineered Iroquois engines, the name for one of Canada’s first nations people, we ready to take to the skies. For the people of Avro and the future of the Arrow, nothing could stand in their way.
Nothing that is, except for politics. Or maybe it wasn’t. One of the funny things about history is how sometimes a story can get a little chaotic. When national reputation and emotions are on the line, the details get real fuzzy. Many sources claim Canada was not able to sell the Avro to the US or UK. Some claim pressure from those countries forced the Canadian government’s hand. However, it is clear that on the 20th of February, 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker ordered the Avro Arrow halted. Two months later, the factory and everything in it – including the Arrow – were ordered to be destroyed. As a nation, Canada’s heart broke.
The fallout from the Avro Arrow cancellation was more than political. Thousands lost their jobs. Something that had become a national icon vanished almost entirely overnight. It would be decades before anyone found design scraps. While there were replicas made, the final prototypes lay hidden in the great lakes until very recently. But, most significantly, the end of the Arrow dealt a death blow to the spirit of innovation in Canada. The great minds that build the Avro, and all the other designs they had, scattered throughout the world.
We’ve seen the same happen in the automotive world. When it comes to cars, Canada once had a thriving domestic industry. There were several manufacturers Canadians could buy that were from our own country, developed by their neighbours. The Russel Car Company – the name eventually purchased by The Willis Company – developed a reputation for making fine motor cars in line with Bentley. CCM, a word many Canadians know for sports equipment, used to be known as the Canadian Cycle and Motor company. Yes, CCM once made cars and motorbikes, becoming popular in Canada. That history is barely a footnote in the stories Canadians tell today.
It is this “brain drain” that plagued Canadian innovation for decades. While Canada is home to world-class Universities, a diverse population, and a strong manufacturing sector, we’ve never seen a repeat of the Avro Arrow. Worse still, our home-grown innovations have been mild in the last four decades. There have been some innovations along the way, like the ISS Canadarm, but nothing like the Avro Arrow.
Enter Project Arrow
Suddenly, and almost out of nowhere, a trade organization called the Automotive Parts Manufacturer’s Association, or APMA, took the covers off their ambitions, a Canadian-led project. On the surface, Project Arrow is exciting. Canada is one of the world’s leaders in the innovation industry. Many cities in Ontario are among the top destinations for technology and manufacturing. Project Arrow is more than a trade organization showpiece, although it does highlight what can happen when some of the world’s best OEM parts manufacturers combine forces. It’s rooted in the same passion for inspiring game-changing innovation, boldly supported by CEO Flavio Volpe.bigger splash at the 2021 CES, held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While only in the design concept stage at the time of publication, the APMA has laid out a plan that hopes to put a functioning concept car on tour sometime in 2022. When they opened up applications for companies to bid on tenders, Project Arrow expects to get over 200. There’s been a jump in momentum for Project Arrow since CES 2021, so we decided to find out more about Project Arrow and what it could mean for Canadian innovation.
Taking on a name like Arrow could have superstitious undertones to some. APMA CEO Flavio Volpe is a baseball fanatic, so he knows superstitions. The ethos surrounding the name Arrow in Canadian culture serves to inspire the team at AMPA, “If we’re going to be really ambitious, then there’s only one thing we really could have called it,” Volpe tells me. He believes that superstition has its place in things like baseball, but not in business. “Baseball is all about superstition. Life is not. Business is not. There was nothing unlucky about the Arrow. It ran into a government that didn’t want it. And, unfortunately, the government was the only customer.”
For Project Arrow, inspiring Canadians is fundamental to its approach. For Volpe, it’s a tease to the entrepreneurs and innovators in Canada. To use another baseball cliché, a sport I will admit to knowing little about, “if you build it, they will come.” Project Arrow’s team is creating the design; they’re building the source parts RFPs, and laying the company’s framework with the guts and financial backing to take it to the next level. The APMA uses Project Arrow as a business card to show that it can be done in Canada, using today’s technology from home-grown sources.
The Project Arrow isn’t the first time the APMA got creative in its call to action. Volpe is very interested in convincing companies or industries that don’t typically associate with the automobile industry to jump in. A primary target: the host of startups that line the Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto corridor, making this part of Ontario a hot alternative to silicon valley. “We’ve been running this technology demo fleet for, shit, 2014 was our first Lexus. Where we said, ‘let’s take an Ontario-built car, we’ll take all those companies in the technology triangle and say; you want to break into the automotive business? Well, instead of cold calling and doing PowerPoint presentations, put it on this car.”
It’s a safe place for innovators to install their technology. In a world where intellectual property, or IP, is worth more than gold, companies go to great lengths to protect their innovations. Volpe gets that. Project Arrow, much like the other APMA demo vehicles, is the ideal place for tech companies to install their inventions. “You can leave the car (and your tech) with APMA. I’m not going to go and do a laser scan of your piece and go out and try and compete with you…we’re a trusted partner with the Province (of Ontario) and the Feds (Government of Canada), and that goes a long way with due diligence.”
What Project Arrow is not trying to be is a new car company. This is not another Tesla, Rivian, or Nikola. For starters, turning something like Project Arrow into a full-fledged car company is something that takes resources. Hundreds of millions of resources. But, as a company like Rivian has proven, if you can create a compelling product, the financial backers will show up. If you build it, they will come. But even with a successful concept, there are still design, engineering, and parts suppliers to nail down. That’s where Project Arrow comes in.
“I keep getting asked if we’re going to build a car company. I say; ‘if we’re going to inspire a car company.’” Volpe goes on to explain, “we’re going to take no shortcuts, and so we’re going to build this thing (Project Arrow) to Canadian motor vehicle safety standards. We do all of the same processes that you would do if you were planning a production vehicle and no science experiment parts here. This is all tier one and tier two existing suppliers to automotive companies, so I’m going to hand you all your homework. And all your early-stage financing is covered.” Project Arrow stands ready to take that leap from prototype to production vehicle and car company. Volpe hopes now a Canadian innovator steps up to build that company.
Inspiring people to dream
When you speak to Volpe about Project Arrow, one thing becomes clear from the start: Project Arrow means to inspire. Not just one new Canadian manufacturer, but a whole series of Canadian car companies, bringing new and exciting innovations to market. And Canada has all the right ingredients. He compares what we’re seeing coming from Silicon valley with what should be happening in Canada.
“Look, you’re sitting in a place (Kitchener-Waterloo) that is, for all intents and purposes, the only real counter, the only real bookend to Silicon Valley in North America. Silicon Valley is like number 300 in car making. We’re number, in Ontario, where we alternate between Michigan and Ontario as number one. So if we’re number one or number two in cars, and number two in IT, and we shine a light that says to people like you (in the tech industry), ‘Shit, I can make a car company!’ With with with all of the Steam that we have behind us. That would be a dream come true.”
But the vision behind Project Arrow goes beyond inspiring new car companies. Volpe hopes it inspires broader conversations about how we approach mobility. He wants to see more people getting into the automobile business who have no interest in cars beyond a mobility tool. It’s a bold stance to take, but Volpe believes the industry is hurting itself the longer it takes to listen to these voices. The problem of ignoring these voices is an existential one. “To say that my children don’t care (about cars) is a disservice to people who don’t care,” he quips. Why is this important? Because his kids represent the car buyers of the future. “How do you get somebody who doesn’t care, to care enough to spend so much money on a product?” Volpe laments further, “I think frank talk in this business is sorely lacking.”
Again, this passion for seeing fresh ideas inspired Project Arrow’s design’s unique approach. He wanted to get designs from people outside the automobile businesses. Discussions at the APMA also highlighted that to be a genuinely Canadian vehicle, and they wanted a Canadian design. Studios often have multiple locations and staff across several countries. To make sure the styling came from Canadian minds and inspired the spark in a new generation, the APMA turned to College and University students from coast to coast, and what they got back both surprised and excited the panel.
Design finalists got to hone their skills with none other than Ralph Giles, head of design at FCA – now called Stellantis. Ralph also headed the panel that selected the winning design. “For me, I love that our story is that four non-auto design students penned this car at Carelton University School of Design,” adds Volpe. It builds on what his dream is for Project Arrow. Ultimately, Volpe wants us to look to the team’s amazing feats that brought us the Avro Arrow and take that into the next great Canadian mobility innovation.
Are Volpe and the APMA out to start a new car company? No. But he’s going to work his damnedest to inspire the next generation. He wants to wake us up to the talent and passion that lie outside the boundaries of the traditional automotive world. “We have all of the ingredients in place in Canada,” Volpe summarizes. “If we inspire people to think differently, (with) this project, I call it a Lighthouse. Me, personally, I’m not going to build an OEM. But damn it, if somebody builds an OEM out of this and gives us a nod, you know, I feel like I did my part.”
So, Canada here’s to your innovators, dreamers, and entrepreneurs. Let’s show the world what we got. If we build it, they will come.