The British winter can be an unsettling time for the motor racing enthusiast. As the circuit racing season comes to an end and only the bobble-hatted rally fans dare venture out. The 2010/2011 winter seemed only to further discredit itself with virtually unprecedented levels of snowfall drowning the country and leaving sportscars safely garaged but under-used. When early January presented a break in the weather, it was time to re-enthuse oneself with all matters automotive – a boys’ trip out in a proper sporting motorcar.
A 6.00AM alarm call is never really welcome, especially when the January dawn is still some hours away. But slumber was soon rejected in favour of excitement, for today we were heading first to Prodrive in Banbury and then later to the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, and doing it in dad’s rather special new car; itself dormant for several weeks.
A little about our conveyance: Despite Ford’s claims during the last Century about the Capri, I suspect for most men, an Aston Martin is “The car you always promised yourself”. Collected in October, but sadly little used since then, the V8 Vantage is as beguiling a motorcar as I have yet experienced. Blessed with a remarkable extruded and bonded aluminium chassis and motivated by a magical 4.7L V8 engine, there was never a moment on our south-bound journey when one might have wished to be sat in any other machine. The coarse yet crisp timbre as the revs rose through the gears leaving the toll booth on the M6 seemed worth the financial sacrifices in itself.
The decision to take the Aston on this particular trip carries a little more depth than simply the pleasure derived from the car itself. Prodrive is owned by David Richards, who himself heads the consortium which owns Aston Martin Lagonda, sited at Gaydon. There exists a delightfully symbiotic relationship between the two companies, with Aston Martin Racing working out of the Prodrive workshops, which prepare its many race cars.
Prodrive takes the business of its fine racing history very seriously and has recently taken the step to open up its own Heritage Centre to the public. This is a remarkable series of cars, which offers a glimpse of what this company has achieved in its 27 year history, on road and in the various disciplines in competition – GT, rally, Formula 1 and touring cars. It is here where we start our tour of the premises, led by Jackie, a lady who bubbles with an enthusiasm for her employer which verges on the obsessive. She clearly adores working there and her knowledge for her subject is remarkable. The collection changes depending on the cars which are available, but for our visit we were treated to Subaru World Rally Cars from McRae and Burns, Le Mans winning Aston Martin and Ferrari GT1 cars, the revolutionary P2 prototype road car, one of Jenson Button’s BAR F1 weapons and the 2000 British Touring Car Ford Mondeo, of the kind which took Alain Menu to championship glory, as well as iconic Rothmans sponsored Porsche 911 and Metro 6R4 and Bastros BMW E30 M3 rally contenders – a diverse group which serves only to scratch the surface of the group’s proud heritage.
What is remarkable about this start to the tour was that we were left entirely to our own devices in the Centre and told to properly explore the cars, take photos and even sit in them if we wanted. The conceit of the Lotus owner has never bitten so hard. Figuring that the contortianism required to access and egress an Elise would be sufficient to allow graceful progress into and out of the glorious GT1 Ferrari 550 was a significant mis-judgement. While I savoured the experience of sitting in a car I had seen pounding the race tracks in the FIA GT Championship for many years, there came a kind of rising panic that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to emerge from my temporary carbon fibre haven. With dignity thrown out of the window, and muscles used which I never realised I had, I was deposited on the ground unceremoniously, but with no little sense of triumph. What a machine though – unutterably beautiful and powered by a mid-front mounted V12, this car still displays its ALMS scrutineering stickers from a works campaign in the States. The very chassis on display took GTS class victory in the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hour race.
A break for coffee and biscuits was welcome after unexpected exertions before we accompanied Jackie into Prodrive’s engineering heart. First to the development area where gearbox, engine and damper assembly and testing takes place. A privileged opportunity to explore Subaru WRC boxer engines and gearboxes and a chance to chat to the technicians and engineers who make it all possible. Housed in the same area are the engine test bays and we were taken into the control booth where computers monitor and govern racing engines. Here they are able to program entire races into the computers and test the motors over the full range of stresses they will experience over a race. The engines are started with a mouse click, before the throttle openings for the race track are perfectly rendered and repeated for a race distance. There are two test cells, with one control booth, and we were able to see the very readings and parameters the engineers themselves use to observe behaviour. Before we entered, the blinds came down on the viewing panel into bay number 1. This, apparently, is housing the engine for the brand new Aston Martin LMP1 car, which Prodrive hopes will take the fight to the might Peugeot and Audi diesel prototypes next year. Its configuration has yet to be announced and despite some light-hearted probing, there was no way we were going to be allowed to find out. Despite the remarkable open access on our tour, there were to be no secrets shared, sadly.
Next stop was Aston Martin assembly. A small workshop housed V8 Vantage racers in GT4 and GT2 specification – all painted white. The GT2 machine has progressed well enough to take class victory in last year’s Silverstone 1000kms and it was fascinating to explore the car and chat to the guys who make them. With oil tank over the rear axle, huge cooling for the transaxle and an impossibly low engine mounting, this is a very serious car, and so it must be to take the battle for class wins to the likes of Chevrolet – with its mighty Corvettes – BMW’s M3, the evergreen Porsche 911 and Ferrari’s new 458. Of particular interest was the final checking and assembly of a GT4 Vantage race car for a customer. The hand-over ceremony was due the following day in the Heritage Collection and technicians were working through an exhaustive list to ensure the car was perfect. It certainly looked the part, though much work remained for the busy team.
Into the adjacent workshop and it is a feast for Subaru enthusiasts. Prodrive (with a little help from McRae, Burns, Sainz and Makinnen) created the cult of Subaru in the UK and a variety of WRC and Group N Imprezas were available for us to explore – from a bare shell ready for transformation to a remarkable early WRC car which was recently shipped over from Uganda. This grubby and tatty machine had lain dormant for 10 years, only the warm, dry climate keeping it from rotting to dust. It had come back home for a total rebuild – and it needed it. There was some banter about emerging spiders and scorpions, though one suspects this might become rather real when the technicians commence work.
And so the tour continued, allowing us remarkable access to the facility. We inspected the new LMP1 wiring harness, welding on the new Mini Countryman shells, a bare V8 Vantage chassis – a chance to savour that same aluminium network of extrusions which makes the road car such a delightful companion – the fabrication workshops, suspension turrets formed from single billets of magnesium in enormous computer-controlled lathes and even David Richards’ own Morris 1000 nestling in a corner. Apparently his AM Rapide (which was visible, and utterly filthy elsewhere on the site) doesn’t suit Cornwall so he purchased the Moggy and allowed a group of apprentices to refurbish it to his exacting standards for use around the lanes of the South West. All the while, we were fed information and allowed very privileged access to one of the UK’s great enginering success stories. In fact, motor racing doesn’t even tell the full story – you’ll have to attend yourself to learn it all!
And so we were back to the Heritage Centre for a few final photos and a nose around the small shop. In total, we were on site for three and a half hours and enjoyed Jackie’s undivided attention for that time. It really was a wonderful way to enjoy a peak into what makes one of the world’s great engineering concerns tick. We’ll be keeping all digits crossed in the hope that the Mini and the new LMP1 cars enjoy success next year.
By now it was lunchtime and we were ready to press on to our next destination. Only a junction up the M40 from Banbury is the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. During the Second World War, Gaydon was a bomber base, and continued to be so after the end of hostilities, housing the V-bombers. Following decommissioning, it was purchased by British Leyland, who formed a test facility to match that of General Motors at Millbrook. The site now houses Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, as well as the old BL collection of cars – now the Heritage Motor Centre. Unfortunately dad’s own car wasn’t able to visit the Aston premises itself, but it felt right that the car was back where it was first created, and perhaps the opportunity to visit the AML factory will prevail in the future.
The HMC is an enormous, circular, mock-Art Deco building which houses not only a remarkable collection of static exhibits, but also workshops and significant conference facilities for lucky delegates. Following much-needed refreshments, we explored the sizeable collection of cars. Being born in the 1980s, the history of British Leyland is a virtually impenetrable maze of take-overs, mergers, acquisitions and industrial action – with some car production thrown in along the way. So much potential and yet for someone of my age, it sometimes feels like there is little to get excited over in terms of actual output. It wouldn’t be over-stating things to say, however, that we are enjoying something of a purple patch in British car production at the moment. This country can claim world-beating products from Jaguar, Morgan, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, Lotus and Aston Martin.
The HMC celebrates these current success stories, as well as innumerable previous triumphs and flops from history – from the mundane to the remarkable. There is a tremendous selection of relatively ordinary family cars which illustrates a timeline of British car production, which even allows the inclusion of a Toyota Carina, due to their production facilities in the UK. Photos of the enormous Longbridge plant seem almost spooky, but clearly there is also much to celebrate today – with the monumental Rolls Royce Phantom produced at Goodwood in Sussex and a fascinating selection of modern Aston Martins, including the V12 Vantage RS prototype which shoe-horned the DBRS9’s 600bhp racing engine into the svelte Vantage bodyshell as a prelude to the road version on sale today.
Of most interest to an enthusiast for racing history is the competitions area. This is a disparate selection of racers from the UK. From that great flop of the last decade – a Jaguar R4 F1 car – to a TVR T440 GT2 racer, this isn’t exhaustive, but highlights some fascinating vehicles. The two most significant displays of BL competition history are the MG record cars and the Monte Minis. The MG record cars driven by Capt. George Eyston, Sir Stirling Moss and Phil Hill are akin (as one might expect) to scaled-down LSR cars – junior Railton Mobil Specials, if you will. They set records which still raise eyebrows today: 250mph in the 1950s with just 1500cc. All three of the Monte Carlo winning Mini Coppers line up as well. These tremendous little cars too victory in the arduous, snowy rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 in the hands of luminaries Hopkirk, Makkinen and Aaltonen. The 1966 Monte was won on the road by another Mini, before the entire podium, and the fourth placed Lotus Cortina was disqualified on a lighting technicality, allowing Citroen to win. You couldn’t write the script…And so it will be fun to see how the new BMW Mini we saw down the road at Prodrive is able to compare to the illustrious record of Issigonis’ iconic BMC original.
In an adjacent area sat some of the great prototypes and show cars, from the BL era, as well as more recent efforts. From the Triumph Lynx to the strangely alluring Rover SD1 estate – so many oddities history has almost forgotten. A brace of gas turbine powered Rover prototypes caught the eye. Having recently inspected the famous JET 1 in London’s Science Museum, this pair offered Whittle’s jet engine a more practical home. These were numbers three and four, including a vaguely rakish coupe profile. A snapshot of a time when jet travel looked to be the future of personal mobility on the roads, as well as in the sky.
By late afternoon, we were sated; bristling with automotive fact but also aware that slowly the museum lights were dimming and the staff there were ready to shut up shop. The prospect of hitting the mad Midlands’ motorway network at rush hour didn’t seem quite so arduous knowing we were to be doing it in the glorious Vantage. A day to take stock of the UK’s place in automotive history and consider the future – it looked pretty good from where we were sitting.