DETROIT – With names such as Cosworth, Lotus, Ricardo and Prodrive, it’s no surprise the accent is on performance engineering at the U.K. Trade and Investment pavilion here at the Society of Automotive Engineers exhibition.

The U.K. organization has been a long-time exhibitor here – but this year it is moving away from showing off its parts-making capability and highlighting its research and development expertise.

“What intrigues engineers is engineering,” says Jeremy Burne, automotive-sector specialist based here for the British government. “So we’re not here showing commodity products. We’ve re-branded our display to focus on a more value-added part of the business. We want to showcase more of the gee-whiz, sexy stuff – more of the stuff we’re good at.”

Eight high-performance suppliers are part of the U.K.-sponsored pitch, including Prodrive, Lotus Engineering, Cosworth Technology, Xtrac, Airtex Products, Alcon, ARUP and AXEON Ltd.

Bentley Continental

Their goal is to transfer more of their motor sports engineering expertise to the development of street cars. With nearly every auto maker increasing the number of available performance-oriented derivatives of their production vehicles, the opportunity is there, Burne says.

“The U.K. does lead in motor sports engineering,” he says. “We have a cluster of engineering companies that offer a high level of R&D capability that OEs don’t necessarily have.”

Burne says motor sports engineering represents a £5 billion ($9 billion) business in the U.K., employing some 35,000 engineers full time. He estimates that the performance-engineering sector also runs into the billions of dollars.

With companies, such as diesel-engine specialist Ricardo, also exhibiting here and powertrain experts Lotus and Cosworth, U.K. officials are eying a leadership role in future powertrain development.

SAE newcomer Xtrac, for example, is looking to apply its expertise in motor sport transmissions – it provides design, manufacturing and analysis services for a Formula 1 and World Rally Championship teams – for the first time.

“In five years’ time, maybe sooner, Xtrac will have significant (OE) business here,” Burne predicts.

Leadership in clean-vehicle technology also is high on the radar screen.

“Clean-vehicle development is not clustered anywhere right now,” he says. “It is in Canada, Detroit, Germany. We hope that in 10 years’ time, the U.K. will be the place to do clean-vehicle research.”

Burne also is hoping to convince U.S.-based companies the U.K. remains an attractive place for engineering investments of their own.

“If you want to invest in the U.K. and set up an assembly plant, we’re not going to say no,” he says. “But the U.K. industry has evolved from British-based branded vehicles to now being a foreign-owned industry. So to maintain relevance, we have to build to the strength we have, and one of those is performance engineering.”

Burne says the U.K. has the jump on becoming the top automotive high-tech corridor in Europe.

“Portugal doesn’t have a performance-engineering sector. The Czech Republic doesn’t have one,” he says. “The low-cost countries have the low-cost manufacturing capability – the labor pool – but not the research and development capability. They’re hoping to build that element, but it’s not there yet.”

Burne says the U.K.’s next move is to prove it can apply what it does to volume models.

“The Aston DB9 and Bentley Continental are examples of what we can do at the high end,” he says. “The next question is how to translate that into affordable cars. Can we do what we do for vehicles sold for $30,000? That’s the next transition.”

dzoia@primediabusiness.com