Millbrook Proving Ground, one of the UK’s premier car testing sites, very nearly wasn’t in Millbrook. In the 1960s, Vauxhall’s owner, General Motors, wanted a vehicle testing facility in the UK, inspired by its historic Milford proving ground in America, right down to a similar mix of flat tracks and hills: 600 flat acres, 200 hilly ones. Vauxhall searched long and hard and found only three really suitable locations, two of which were in Wales and one in Scotland. Air-freighting cars to Scotland was thought too much of a faff, so one of the Welsh sites was selected. Until, that is, during detail planning, two farms came up for sale next to each other about five miles south of Bedford, between the villages of Millbrook and Marston Moretaine.
It was bigger than Vauxhall needed and two million tonnes of earth would need moving to sculpt the hills exactly to shape, but it was also just up the road from Vauxhall’s headquarters in Luton. Work started in 1968 and in 1970 – 50 years ago – the GM-owned Millbrook Proving Ground opened.
The early-1970s Victor FE that you see here was one of the first Vauxhalls developed at the site. The other car is the current Astra, one of the very latest Vauxhalls to have graduated from Millbrook. Which, via being a subsidiary of GM-owned Lotus in the 1980s and then a part of GM Holdings, is today a fully independent business with subsidiaries of its own – the frozen Test World winter-testing centre in Finland and Leyland Technical Centre in Lancashire.
While neither Millbrook nor Vauxhall is owned by GM any more, the German engineers from Opel/Vauxhall used to like fine-tuning ride and handling in the UK and until recently kept a unit at Millbrook for the purpose.
How far have the cars developed at Millbrook come in the past half-century? It has been a while since I drove a near-50-year-old car (my own doesn’t work), but Autocar road tested this mechanical specification of Victor in period, with ‘fifth wheel’ timing gear strapped to the back for obtaining performance figures.
This saloon is a 2300, meaning it has a four-cylinder 2.3-litre petrol engine driving its back wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox. Peak power is 100bhp at 5200rpm, but it’s quite a lazy unit, with 138lb ft of torque from just 3000rpm.
A big family car of the time, it’s 4.54m long, 1.69m wide and has a 2.67m wheelbase. As tested, it weighed 1344kg.
Today’s Astra – a small family hatchback – has an engine barely half that capacity and shorn of one cylinder. But the 1.2-litre triple makes 143bhp at 5500rpm and a fulsome 166lb ft at 2000-3500rpm, owing to a turbocharger that gets going early in the rev range. It too has a manual gearbox – although of six speeds – and drives the front wheels, as has largely become the norm for all but executive and sports cars.
You could argue, so I will, that the new car has a less characterful interior. It’s pretty austere and dark, and there are more than 40 buttons in there. But it’s also far more sculpted and infinitely more accurately finished.
There is a sense of continuity, though. The two cars do the same thing (both are better than walking), it’s just that one is rather better at it than another. The basics – four wheels, a seat – stay the same.
Away from the tracks, I park the Astra near Millbrook’s offices and laboratories. There are rather more of those now than there used to be, too, up to and including facilities for autonomous and connected cars and a testing centre for electric vehicle batteries. As with the cars, the basics stay the same, but it just gets better.
Milford Proving Ground opened in 1924 and in the mid-1960s GM wanted a UK facility built to a very similar standard. Vauxhall engineer John Wathew, tasked with leading the layout, eventually found two farms for sale near Millbrook. “The acreage was in excess of what we required, it had the adjacent hills and there was enough flat land,” he says. “There were a few issues that had to be scheduled into the building programme but otherwise it seemed perfect. We originally decided to call it Lidlington Proving Ground, rather than Millbrook, to avoid confusion with Milford.”
“It was basically farmland with a winding road going through it. Even now, there are parts of the tracks that are still on that old road,” he adds. “All the surfaces that I created were inspired by Milford. It was like trying to follow a recipe. There were even exact gradients they wanted on the Hill Route, which had to be built in to the plan. I was told that, at the time of building, it was the biggest earth-moving job in the country.”