When Bicester Heritage elbowed its way onto the UK car lover’s list of Most Desirable Destinations four or five years ago, its mission seemed clear: to become an important new Oxfordshire haven for vintage and classic cars, and for those who loved, owned, mended or transacted them.
The miraculously well-preserved (and sympathetically restored) red-brick buildings of this former RAF base, dating from 1926 and used as a location for Churchillian movie Darkest Hour, set an instant ‘between-the-wars’ scene for anyone who drove through the old-style black-and-white boom gate, especially after a chat with gatekeeper Neil, whose genial manner also seemed to come from another time.
But as it turns out, Bicester Heritage is only the first stage of a much bigger project called Bicester Motion, designed to establish the UK’s first automotive resort and technology centre across the entire 444-acre airbase site. Heritage is but a small corner of a much larger whole. According to chief executive Dan Geoghegan, Bicester Motion aims to connect car-based businesses and their customers – around a million of them annually, when things are running as planned – together in an entirely new way. Drawing on Bicester Motion’s proximity to the existing race engineering and technology belt, a key part of Geoghegan’s big plan is to equip the site with an all-new R&D hub they’re calling the FAST (for Future Automotive Speed and Technology) Zone, dedicating 20,000 square metres of new build space to automotive innovators of every kind, and supporting them with special test tracks suitable for autonomous and connected cars.
A car-loving property developer with deep connections in Wales, where his father was a garage owner, Geoghegan has a special interest in helping innovators progress technology with which Britain aims to lead the world. He drove into then-disused RAF Bicester six years ago when the site had already been on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register for five years, discovering it almost by accident while hunting for a location for his plan.
Follow the perimeter drive in an anticlockwise direction from the hangar apron and you soon reach a clutch of buildings planned as a Centre of Excellence for Historic Motoring, the all-new FAST technology hub, then several rows of blast-proof bomb stores due to be converted into mews garages with accommodation, some of them beside a lake in the site’s bottom corner.
Keep turning left – the perimeter is a four-mile drive – and you’ll come to 100 acres of country park shown on the map as Bicester Reserve, beyond which there is space for 4×4 driving tracks and a new-build brand experience centre, intended for product launches and fronted by its own network of demonstration tracks. Much of this has yet to be built, though planning work is well advanced. Work will necessarily proceed in stages, but a new collection of outline approvals is expected later this year. The site’s relative protection from new residential areas, and its already-proven ability to handle big events, is helping with planning decisions, Geoghegan believes.
Of all Bicester’s facets, he seems fondest of FAST, which, as he points out, is completely in character with RAF Bicester’s original purpose. “When this place opened in 1926, the idea was for it to serve as an important technical centre for the nation,” he explains. “We’d done steam, we were developing petrol and we were also moving on to flying.
“Given that Bicester started as a major R&D hub, why shouldn’t we return it to its roots?”