Millbrook – forty years on for the SMMT !

On sunrise, a brilliant, fiery red glowed from my vantage point – off the Dunstable Road in Luton providing impetus for my journey to Millbrook’s proving ground. I like to get there early, to savour the surroundings and also to talk. Waiting by my car for the minibus, who should carefully reverse but ‘Honest John’ resplendent in trademark checked trilby. I did chuckle when the registrar checked his name against the attendee list to announce “Honest John ” to which he calmly replied, “it’s only John.”

I’ve met many interesting people during my motoring writing ‘career’ so attending Millbrook’s annual SMMT test day is imperative. Unfortunately, the ominous cloud of Brexit has affected the automotive industry, with two factory closures announced, with redundancies at Jaguar Land Rover – a noticeable no show since my first invitation in 2006. Understandably, car companies can not commit to investment when the impending outcome of EU withdrawal has not been conducted. The challenges of car electrification is another facet with the purchasing of battery-charged cars slower than anticipated in the UK at less than 1% of all sales. Infrastructures issues aside, the UK government has committed to a carbon-free footprint in 2050 with combustion engines to be phased out in 2040. A challenge to put it lightly.

Nevertheless, in the here and now I wanted to compare the new Mercedes Benz G350d AMG line to the previous model on the ‘Black route’ which is Millbrook’s most challenging off-road circuit. Ian Brown, my instructor like last year didn’t sing but encouraged me to immerse the G350 into a basin with water lapping over the bulbous bonnet. Whereas the last model was mechanical, this one is computerised which was noticeable going downslope as there was no perceived braking, just a controlled and undramatic slide assuming that you have the front wheels pointing straight ahead which is not difficult as the large screen shows.

The Suzuki Vitara surprised with sprightly performance and satisfying steering feedback that has been a characteristic of their cars for at least ten years. Combined mpg consumption showed 39.2 mpg which is commendable considering that it was a test day. Unusually, I’ve noticed that some manufacturers don’t alter the handbrake plastic surround for right-hand drive which may be to do with economies of scale or that majority left-hand drive dictates.

MG’s 3 has developed since I last drove an early example in 2015 as it seemed like the dampers had been adjusted to suit UK roads whereas early examples seemed to feel too taut. Some work is needed to refine plastic mouldings as the electric window switch surround suggests.

Peugeot had a restored 205 GTi shoehorned with a MI 16 conversion, distinctive with a bulbous bonnet. I remembered that I had once owned a standard 205 1.4 with a head gasket problem so the engine was subsequently replaced with one from a XS model after which it could shift with wheelspin in second gear. Strangely, it sold to an elderly gentlemen.

Some respite was needed to look back at yesteryear through a range of historic vehicles to highlight the fourtieth year of the formation of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. It reminds me that I have to start-up my 1992 Audi 80. Last in the production line was a 1982 Ford Cortina Limited Edition Crusader that preceded the ‘jelly-moulded’ Sierra. We had two Cortinas : PBA279W and UNA515X. They looked strong and sturdy compared to my Dad’s Austin Maxi that hunched down towards the front because of the hydragas shock absorbers.

I couldn’t resist driving a pristine Audi A2 that is safely secured in Audi’s heritage fleet as I’ve been trying to source a low mileage example at a reasonable price for years. Aluminium-skinned and over-engineered by today’s standard, it is a testament to build quality that has now been sacrificed to speed up production and profit margins. Which other car boasted or boasts a grille that opens to allow simple and clean access to check fluid levels ?

I can picture the curves of the hill circuit in my mind, from start to finish just like those bobsleigh ‘drivers’ who turn their bodies in virtual reality prior to going on the actual course. Volvo has pledged to have zero fatalities or serious injuries in their new products from 2020 which is commendable, moreso when you also bear in mind that they invented the seatbelt yet allowed other manufacturers to copy the design, such was its perceived contribution to driver safety. A V60 took me effortlessly along the windies although it was on one hairpin that a sensor must have been activated to tension the lapbelt around my stomach to remind me to tone up my abdominals !

Third of my choice of Millbrook circuits is ‘city’ that partially replicates an urban environment. Bizarrely, the occasional newby diligently pauses at the ‘stop’ sign to give way to emptiness. I took a Renault Zoe and Citroen Mehari there. Firstly, the Zoe was serene with that relaxing whirring of the electric motor although costs are still prohibitive even with the government discount. Twenty one years away from the banning of the combustion engine and thirty one from a carbon-free UK future ! Drastic changes are needed – fast. The Mehari was resurrected from the owner’s brother’s farm in Cornwall and originally, it had been registered in The Netherlands. It took a few turns of the key to start, with encouragement from the patient owner.¬† A member of Vauxhall’s PR staff came along for the ride yet I was not willing to exercise the flexibility of the Mehari’s suspension like I had seen the owner alarmingly explore. Instead, ominous squeaking increased in pitch from its wheelhubs and only on returning¬†did I realise that the pull rod handbrake had been left on – by me.¬†¬†Enthused by¬†my passenger, we sank into thick cloth seats of the Citroen XM which the owner had surprisingly allowed to be used on the hill circuit. The initial sensation of hydropnematic suspension was apparent, not so much when driven though. When new, that car had sat unsold for a number of months before being bought by a farmer – at a heavily discounted price, I suspect.

Conversely, Alfa Stelvio and Maserati Levante are examples of new luxury SUVs yet I felt underwhelmed by styling and looks and overwhelmed by their high prices.

Optimistically, Millbrook Proving ground appears to be flourishing with new buildings sprouting up such as a new battery test facility, developed since last year that consists of 12 battery test chambers for testing automotive battery packs over a wide temperature range. 

Another building, part of the Autonomous Village adds six additional workshops for passenger cars and commercial vehicles located next to the City Circuit, handling tracks and the High Speed Circuit, with direct access to a simulation suite and 5G-enabled infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

Millbrook at least, is ready for its part in the race towards electrification and driverless cars. Charge !

Words and photos are copyright of Sotiris Vassiliou

July 2019