The Story of the Kiwi Composite Fuel Pump
By: Dr. Michael J. Austin
Keeping a classic on the road is a challenge and poses many questions to ownership. Do you restore, preserve, update, or modify? When does a classic, due to modifications, become more of a replica of its original self? When is the “character” of the car compromised? There are no hard and fast rules to any of this, and the varied state of so many vehicles that can be considered “classic” is a testimony to the unique approach each of their owner’s takes and what they expect and need the car to do.
A 100 points restoration will likely not be driven regularly and MUST be fitted with all correct, original equipment, whereby a “daily driver” will likely have sensible modifications and upgrades to make it useable in a modern environment. I’d venture there are more in the latter category; people who enjoy driving and using their classics while progressively updating and/or preserving them.
Along that vein of thought, there are some pretty common sense upgrades that just about everyone will do without question. Electronic ignition, for example is almost a “no-brainer”, so are upgrading charging systems, tires, and installing better radiators. Again, the interests of usability, practicality, and reliability are a high priority and such enhancements do little to change the character, feel, or personality of the classic. Indeed, many of these improvements can make the difference between being able to use the vehicle in a modern traffic environment with confidence, or one becoming a “garage queen.” Overall, it’s the character that counts so much in the classic British car ownership experience.
Maggy, my 1974 MGB roadster is definitely a driver. She presents very well indeed, but won’t take home any concour trophies. That’s fine with me, since I enjoy the experience of driving my classic regularly and am truly fond of its character and personality. It’s the little things that comprise this, the quaint dash board layout, the mechanical feel of the shifter, the tappet noise and gruff exhaust note. It’s still a car, not a transportation appliance! Indeed, I’ve done many of the upgrades mentioned earlier, and all have contributed significantly to its usability, reliability, and my enjoyment of the car without compromising that all important character.
But something happened recently that put me in a bit of a quandary as far as how much “modern” technology I was willing to let intrude into my vintage driving experience. On a 20 mile return trip from coffee, she quit on me! Well, to be honest, she quit on me about 9 times. Each time, after allowing for a few minutes, she would restart and run well for about another mile or so then sputter out. Once I realized that a restart was likely, all I could do was to further refine a skill I developed when I had my Lotus Europa – that of looking “cool” beside a dead British car. You know, that James Dean “yup, I MEANT to stop here, take in the scenery” kind of pose highlighted by casually lighting a cigarette. Hard to execute though when Maggy died in the middle of the busiest street in town, but a useful skill nonetheless! Needless to say, my confidence was a bit shaken and upon returning to my shop the diagnosis began.
I quickly found that Maggy’s fuel pump was the culprit. Working normally for a minute then cutting out until it had time to “rest”. Now replacing a fuel pump is no big deal. You order one up and swap it out. Job done. But in researching the records provided by the previous owners, I realized this will be the ninth fuel pump replacement!
A thorough examination of the entire fuel AND electrical/ground systems revealed nothing amiss, and I suspected that many of the previous pumps may have failed due to prolonged sitting (often months) between drives. A known issue with the points type SU pump. But the last few that failed were SU electronic pumps, with the solenoid body becoming extremely hot and the circuitry eventually getting fried. The theory is a failure within the solenoid causing more current to be drawn and perhaps the electronics not being up to handling this “surge.” Would a points-type have fared any better? Perhaps for a while until the points burned. Either option seemed to have its limitations to being truly reliable, for some reason, in this car.
This was troubling. I feel SU makes a good pump. Perhaps it’s a bit archaic, but it IS “fit for purpose” though definitely outdated. I suspect that maybe the newer ones aren’t made to the same quality as the older ones, though I can’t confirm this. However, many, many people have gone for years without any trouble from their SU pumps so they still have a lot going for them.
Living in a remote part of the country, reliability is of paramount importance. West Texas has hundreds of miles of desolate roads that have no cell phone coverage and the likelihood of another car happening by can be pretty low. Yep, a failure out would leave me mighty pissed-off and would surely end with me being buzzard food.
I began to consider my options. Another SU perhaps? These pumps aren’t cheap and don’t seem to be as reliable as modern pumps (in my case). How about going with a modern “cube” type pump? I gave serious consideration to this as I had fitted one in my Lotus years ago (though the reliability of the cube pump proved to be a bit questionable). But there were also issues in going that route as well…
Mounting was one. Another was accurately regulating pressure (easier said than done when you are talking about low pressure around 3-4 PSI). Not only would the purchase of the pump be needed but also a pressure regulator. But in order for a regulator to be truly effective, a “loop” type fuel feed with a return to the tank would have to be fitted (ideally). Now I was getting into a fuel system redesign… On top of that, the “cube” type pumps are very noisy. And it’s not a nice noise. It sounds like someone bolted a buzzer to the frame rails.
Remember that “character” thing I mentioned? Part of that character or charm is the gentle clicking of the SU pump. I know it sounds silly, but you don’t get that soundtrack with a modern car and it DOES add something to the classic driving experience. Although a small thing, I didn’t want to diminish the cars character and although I am certain I could have done a good job of executing the fuel system redesign I wasn’t very enthusiastic about going that route either.
What I wanted was an SU style pump that maintained the same functioning characteristics of the original, but with modern reliability, durability, materials, and would essentially “bolt in” the existing mounts and allow the original fuel delivery system to remain intact. And be more affordable. Not asking for much, eh?
So I started doing some research. I heard mention on British car enthusiast message boards of SU style electronic replacement pumps being available, but made of plastic. I was intrigued. There seemed to be opinions on them having questionable reliability and construction. Some on the internet stated they were SU “knock-offs” made in China. Some said they weren’t made anymore because the quality was so bad the company went bust. I found “experts” who condemned them without ever trying them. I found a lot of opinions and anecdotal experiences, but not a whole lot of facts. However, I did stumble across one pump labeled “ECCO” which recently went on sale here in the U.S.
I contacted the vendor for more information since their catalog description was very brief. Unfortunately, little more was learned about this pump after my discussion with them and I decided to send the manufacturer an e-mail for more information. I half expected it to go unanswered or to be undeliverable (thus confirming any “fly by night” suspicions).
In the meantime I did find out the ECCO SU style replacement pump was made in New Zealand by a company called Fuelflow Solutions Limited. Interesting…. Not a country that pops to mind for automotive products. Heck, the only things I could think of that came out of New Zealand were Hobbits, Xena Warrior Princess, and a wool sweater in my closet. After a bit of research I found that New Zealand has a lot going for it. A government that promotes exports, a small but high quality manufacturing base, low taxes, great standard of living, a highly skilled and motivated workforce, and the lowest incidence of government corruption in the world! Oh, and the incredible scenic beauty of the place has to be mentioned. Use Google street scene and plop down just about anywhere in the country and have a look. Absolutely stunning! Sounds like they have a pretty good thing going down there, and have stayed pretty much “off the radar” of the rest of the world, to their benefit.
I was pleasantly surprised my e-mail inquiry was answered within an hour. Not by a customer service guy or a sales rep, but by the president of the company, Mr. Graham Wilkinson! My first thought was to just blurt out “are these things crap and am I going to end up being a pile of pissed-off buzzard food?” but maintained my objectivity. After all, who is going to give a straight answer to such a question? Instead, I thought I’d take the opportunity to learn more about the company, their products, how they are made, what issues will they acknowledge, and what their philosophy is. Knowing the character of a company is important since it will be reflected in whatever they make.
Fuelflow Solutions Limited, as it is known now, was founded in New Zealand in 1956 by Mr. Ken Hogg who operated under the name of Service Units Limited. Mr. Hogg was an auto electrician who acted as an SU Service Agent (or what would likely be known today as a Factory Rep) until the mid 1960s. After many years of seeing some of the design and technical shortcomings of the pumps he was working on, he felt he could do better using more modern materials, electronics, and assembly procedures. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was a bit of a pioneer. From the onset, he chose to use the then very modern material of plastic, which had comparable wear, durability, cost, as well as superior corrosion protection over metals. In the mid 1960’s the first “plastic” SU type pump was born and made commercially available under the brand name Auto Pumps Limited.
Building on this success, the company introduced a line of piston type pumps in 1979 – again entirely in plastic – again with great success. At this time the company name was changed from Auto Pumps Limited to Fuelflow Systems Limited. There was a period of international growth with their pumps being picked up by MOPROD in Europe, a major parts reseller, as well as other similar sized distributors throughout the world. Here is where the story takes a few weird twists…
The MOPROD products were distributed through a vast network of reps and shops, and the factory back in New Zealand found themselves “distanced” from their product. At this same time, they began supplying pumps and more crucially – plastic pump technology – to another pump maker and supplier in Germany, HUCO. Let’s call these pumps, for simplicity’s sake the “first generation plastic pumps.”
Coming up to the mid to late 1990’s, things were a-changing! HUCO began shifting from simply reselling the New Zealand made pumps to undertaking the manufacture of their own plastic version based on Fuelflow’s ECCO designs and technology, but changed subtly to preclude infringement. Let’s consider this item a “variation of the first generation plastic pump”. I understand that these pumps by HUCO are still available, but appear to not have been developed further beyond their original introduction spec. and likely do not benefit from some significant improvements that will ultimately be found in the “second generation COMPOSITE pumps” which we are about to get to.
In the early 2000’s MOPROD was gobbled up by Euro parts giant Quinton Hazell, who had their own existing lines of product, including metal SU style replacement fuel pumps, and the plastic MOPROD pump was deemed redundant and eventually dropped from the line in 2003, though some “new old stock” ones float up on e-bay from time to time (consider these the last of the “first generation plastic pumps”).
Enter the new century and Mr. Ken Hogg, despite international success with these pumps, contemplates retirement but with no succession plan for the business also assumed it would go into retirement as well. In early 2009, Fuelflow Systems and the ECCO and Fuelflow branded fuel pumps were weeks away from being closed down entirely. This brings us to Fuelflow Solutions Limited’s new name and current owner Mr. Graham Wilkinson who purchased the company in May 2009. Fuelflow Solutions Limited is still a privately owned company, not part of a vast manufacturing empire. All they make are fuel pumps. Period. And mostly by hand. By really skilled people whose fingerprints you will see on every pump if you look closely enough.
Throughout the company’s life the products have been continuously improved in subtle ways as Graham discusses: “Worldwide, the composites industry is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, and because Fuelflow products are tied to this industry they have benefited enormously from these industry developments. A specific example of this advancement can be found in the material used in the construction of the diaphragms, which is unique to Fuelflow. Since introducing the new material 10 years ago, not a single diaphragm failure has been reported, and when you consider that this is a traditionally weak point in this style of pump this is a very worthwhile enhancement.”
Another key point of difference is the switching electronics which incorporate state-of-the-art optic switching rather than “flutter prone” inductive or magnetic switching. (They may be the only manufacturer using optic switching in fuel pumps.) What they make now isn’t what was made 8 years ago and current product is superior in every way to the “first generation plastic pumps”. So, let’s consider these the “second generation COMPOSITE pumps” since they are so different and markedly better than any of the previous versions or variants.
Mr. Wilkinson is proud of his company and workforce. He stated they are very resistant to moving their manufacturing offshore, even though there would be significant financial benefits in doing so, and feels that quality is best maintained in his own facility: “We are very small but we compete on the world stage well above other larger organizations,” said Graham. “We’ve been doing so since 1956 and despite all the tough times right now we are stubbornly holding on to our processes and products and resisting the temptation to move to off-shore production. Its white knuckle stuff but it’s also fun.” You gotta admire that.
Graham: “The pumps are made from a range of high quality (composite) plastic materials that were chosen over metal simply because they are harder wearing, durable, light, and quiet,etc. They are NOT made in China! 100% manufactured right here in our custom built factory in sunny, clean, beautiful New Zealand. Made in NZ ensures world class quality. The only parts we don’t make ourselves are the electrical components, the twin wire, the internal magnet, the rubber o-rings and the springs. Everything else is made right here from raw materials, by hand. That’s right, we still use people!!!!!”
A closer look at Fuelflow Solutions website reveals that the SU replacement pump is only one of many fuel pumps they currently manufacture. Indeed, they still make a large range of piston style pumps that compete against the ubiquitous “cube” style fuel pump.
Graham continues: “Our piston pump range competes directly with that style (“cube”) of pump and offers great value for money. They are perfect for Mustangs, Chevy’s and other old school V8’s. We do these in 12v, 6v, 24v, marine, motorcycle, and performance models. In Australia and NZ we have converted large parts of the market from (the “cube pump”) to Fuelflow.”
Obviously, this is not some “fly by night” outfit. They are serious and dedicated about what they do. But what about the “bad rap” that seems to have stuck to these plastic SU replacement pumps? Unlike many parts of the world neither the New Zealand made pumps (regardless of the distribution channel) or the European made pumps were available widely or consistently in the U.S. This “in the market” then “out of the market” reality marginalized the entire products perception and credibility. They suffered from a lack of “brand awareness” here and all the technical merit of Fuelflow’s pumps was easily overlooked due to the spotty availability, varying names, and distribution channels. Really now, did YOU hear of them before reading this? I think this allowed a lot of misperceptions to flourish, with what may have been isolated problems expanding to almost mythic proportions thanks to the magic of the internet. Anytime a new material or technology is rolled out there is a bit of resistance in accepting it even under the best of conditions. I remember when aluminum heads started to become standard on U.S. made autos. A lot of old school dealership mechanics were highly suspicious because the spark plug threads would “always strip out” so they “weren’t as good as iron heads.” Took a while for them to LEARN there was a difference and to change their techniques a bit (like not using an air wrench to tighten plugs!), but the perception stuck around for years that aluminum heads were “bad.”
So I decided to do a bit of a myth-busting investigation…
Two issues identified on the internet boards involves the sealing of the banjo type fuel fittings to the pump and cracking of the female threaded bosses on the plastic pump body (it should be noted that these issues were at least several years old). I asked Graham about this: “The banjo fittings are sealed onto our pump using a specially designed nylon washer. We have included upstands on the flat faces to aid the sealing process and have spent years perfecting this design.”
With regards to the reports of cracking: “There were some design changes approx 8 years ago (this would be to the “first generation” products) to strengthen this part of the pump, also, the design of the washers was changed at the same time to give a better seal. Although we could not identify any of our pumps that actually had this problem we took the time to address that part of our pump anyway. We were hearing anecdotal feedback that the issue existed and we took this issue seriously even though we had no actual examples presented to us. Because of this approach we now have a very unique and high performing nylon washer that we never had before so that’s a great outcome” No dodging the issue. No duck and cover. He acknowledged that a potential problem existed and took action. Again, most admirable. Talk with Graham and I bet within 5 minutes he’ll mention the continual quality improvement program his company pursues. Any issue, no matter how small, gets investigated and followed up….
I contacted one poster in Europe via e-mail who said the threaded bosses of his pump cracked on a unit he got years ago. The person sheepishly admitted to using brass thread-to-barb type fittings obtained at an auto parts store. Keep in mind banjo type fittings are straight thread, with sealing happening using washers on either side of the banjo, and the compression force of the bolt squishing the whole thing together to seal. Those brass fittings are (about 99% of the time) PIPE THREAD fittings. These have a taper on them and use the threads to seal via progressive expansion. As you run the fitting down and the threaded part gets “thicker”, of course it will try to expand the female threaded boss fitting – and crack it. This is a case of using the wrong fitting, not a design error with the pump! I don’t think this side of the story ever made it on the message boards.
Another issue mentioned was the pump plunger not actuating its full travel, what is called a “flutter” mode. This can be an issue in solenoid driven pumps using inductive or magnetic switching. Remember the optic switching mentioned above? It pretty much solves that issue. Fuelflow Solutions Limited CONTINUALLY improves the quality of their product as advances in material, circuits, and manufacturing become available. Guess Graham is pretty serious about this quality stuff!
And the result… Myths pretty much busted!
Overall, there is some impressively sophisticated and robust technology deployed in the ECCO pumps as I have learned:
- The pumps use a proprietary, optical, switching circuit.
- The switching circuit is not affected by non-use (unlike a points type setup) and will function even after years of being idle.
- All have reverse polarity protection.
- The electronics are designed to compensate for supply voltage irregularities (something that may have killed a couple of electronic SU pumps in my car…)
- The electronics package is also designed to compensate for aging of the components and subsequent current demand fluctuations.
- They also compensate for fluctuations in temperature.
- The pumps are eclectically “quiet” – they operate without radio interference or EMF noise.
- The composite materials are ethanol proof, and not affected by any type of motor fuel.
- The units are fully sealed, weatherproof, and corrosion resistant. 2 stainless steel screws are the only non-plastic items visible on the exterior.
- Yeah, they’re “plastic.” But not the cheap kind of plastic. Think more along the lines of the COMPOSITE stuff Glock™ uses in their handguns and you’ll begin to get the picture.
- Fuelflow Solutions Limited is the pioneer in composite fuel pump technology, and has been perfecting this technology for over 50 years.
- Here is high praise: When a pro racer BUYS your product rather than seeking out a sponsorship from another pump manufacturer! Yep, down there they race sidecars, over dirt, tarmac, moguls, and (occasionally) each other.They seek out Fuelflow Solutions composite pumps because methanol fuel is used – which has rotted out ANY other pump sometimes in one race. Fuelflow’s can easily make a season. Reportedly, the podium winners in both Australia and New Zealand are running their pumps.
- Many of the ultra light aircraft used to patrol game preserves in Africa and sometimes for photography are fitted with their lightweight composite pumps.
So, how does all this bear out in the real world? I thought I’d take a chance and ordered one of the ECCO pumps. Upon arrival, I was pleased to see it included instructions, a mount, and correctly threaded plastic thread-to-barbed-end-hose-fittings. The pump itself isn’t much to look at. I suppose it closely resembles a Soviet era East German made refrigerator part, or something. But it’s not built for show, so I can’t hold that against it. One thing I noticed immediately. It was MUCH lighter at 1.25 lbs. it’s about half the weight of the SU.
It indeed IS a direct fit. The plastic bracket that came with the pump was not needed, but cool enough to keep around for future project use (Coil bracket? Catch can holder? Hmmmm… BTW, Graham is proud of his pump mounts. He spoke at length about the vibration resistance, shock absorbing qualities, and sound deadening properties of JUST THE MOUNT!).
The pump fits perfectly into the stock MGB fuel pump bracket. No cutting, bending, or drilling. It should be noted that the pump comes with an end-cap type mount that would allow for direct bolting to a bulkhead. These mounting bosses are also on the original SU pump, so if you have an application that mounts in this fashion, you’re covered.
Fuel line attachment was straightforward. The OE banjo fittings and bolts were used, but with Fuelflow’s special washers against the pump body (stock sealing washers between the bolt and banjo fitting). Everything torqued up fine. No splitting. No cracking. No mis-orientation of inlet and discharge holes. And most important, NO LEAKS!
Electrical hookups were pretty straightforward as well. The pump has about a 6-inch two-wire harness clearly identified “+” and “-”. (Therefore, it can be used in either positive or negative ground application.) I used crimp-on male spade connectors to allow the pump to plug into the stock wiring harness using the OE female spades. No modifying the OE harness was necessary. Dielectric grease and shrink tubing tidied up the connection and it was then wire tied to part of the battery box. No vent tubes are needed since the pump is completely sealed. The OE vent tubes were tied back up in the chassis in the event of future need.
So, battery connected back up and ignition switched on… The pump clicked away just like an SU! It seems silly, but that clicking is part of the character of the car and kind of important to me! The lines and carbs filled and the clicking ceased. Again, just like an SU. I backed out of the shop for a test drive and noticed the buzzards circling overhead. Oh my…
On the road, there were no issues at all. Actually, upper RPM power was a bit stronger. I suspect my old pump was not adequately keeping up with the fuel demands under those conditions as it was starting to fail. What about reliability? Only time and miles can tell, but from what I have learned I have quite a bit of respect for the folks who made it and that translates into some measure of confidence. I have every expectation that its durability will be on par with modern day fuel pumps operated under similar conditions.
I think Fuelflow and their ECCO pumps are a credible, well engineered and constructed, reliable, and affordable alternative to the traditional SU pumps. Heck, they didn’t just upgrade a SU; they created an entirely new species of the breed using hi-tech composites and electronics.
They currently sell for significantly less than a SU pump. While they benefit from modern technology and materials they also embody the traditional “clicking” of an SU pump and use self pressure regulating diaphragm operation (in the correct ranges) which was original to these cars. There is a lot stacked in their favor, but the ultimate choice is up to YOU, the consumer. Graham, in all of our e-mail exchanges and discussions, never, ever speaks poorly of the competition, choosing instead to let the quality and value of his products speak for him—refreshingly commendable stance in these modern times. Currently, the ECCO pump is becoming more available in the U.S. However, I’d look for Fuelflow Solutions Limited full range of offerings to expand in the U.S. market over the next several years. The ECCO SU style replacement pump by Fuelflow Solutions Limited is definitely worth considering if you are looking for a “plug and play” high reliability option that retains, in a small way, the character of the classic British car. Like I said earlier, it’s the character thing that counts….
Again, a few words from Graham: “The US market is a particularly difficult market for us to get traction in. Maybe it is an aversion in the US to imported products in general but other than Moss Motors, our pumps are not marketed in the US at all. We’ve been exporting to almost every other country for over 50 years but the US is a particularly difficult market to engage with for some reason. It’s a shame because our failure rate is 1 in 5000 units so we are hard to equal regarding quality and it never ceases to amaze me when I read the (British car) forums as to just how much you guys put up with regarding faulty or unreliable products.”
The Fuelflow Solutions Limited SU Replacement Pumps are available in the correct range of flows and correct pressure ranges to directly replace and replicate the performance of any SU diaphragm style fuel pump, including the racing “double headed” pump. Contact them if there are any questions, since not all SU pumps were created equal!
Fuelflow Solutions Limited can be reached via their website: http://www.fuelflow.co.nz or their factory address:
Fuelflow Solutions Ltd.
32 Waitawheta Road
Telephone: +64 7 863 8101
Fax: +64 7 863 8523