It’s a tense moment: Keeley Hawes’ character in Finding Alice is parked up in a car, having a heart to heart with her on-screen daughter. Unfortunately, the tension of the scene is broken by yours truly suddenly exclaiming: “See that tree there? That’s where Sutcliffe spun a 16-valve Volkswagen Golf GTI backwards and ended up with a plug of wood rammed up its exhaust pipe.”
My family are getting hacked off with this. The trouble is, more and more driving scenes in TV dramas and films are being shot at Longcross Studios in Chobham, Surrey, using sections of the test track that hold many memories. Scenes from James Bond films, Broadchurch and many others have all used bits of track very familiar to anyone in our business.
I can’t help this enthusiasm, because Longcross has been part of my life right from short trousers. It was purpose built during the war as an extension of the Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment at nearby Farnborough. The facility underwent many changes of acronym until it became the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment in 1970. I remember seeing what must have been Chieftain tanks running with rubber blocks on their tracks (to protect the asphalt) on local roads
The original Mini was launched at Longcross in 1959, but the first time I remember seeing it used as a venue for a magazine test was in the late 1970s, when Superbike magazine organised a twin test between Derek Bell in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and nine-time world motorcycle champion Phil Read on a Honda CBX. It was only after my first visit to Chobham (we never call it Longcross) that I realised how ballsy Read must have been.
llsy Read must have been. The track at Chobham isn’t for the nervous of disposition, and while I won’t say that I treated the place with the utmost respect in my youth, I did rein in my usual exuberance.
The facility consists of an outer circuit with varying degrees of bank in its corners and a pair of dangerously long straights. It’s lined with trees on the outside and much of the inside – apart from where you drive next to a golf course. Where Read and Bell did their scariest driving and riding is called the Snake, which cuts off a chunk of the circuit. It’s where Sutters, as many had before and have done since, went off into the woods.
Chobham certainly isn’t a place for motorcycles. Around the time of that Superbike mag piece, journalist Alan Aspel (brother of Michael) was killed on a motorcycle test day at the track. There have been several fatalities in cars over the years, too, each a tragic warning that this place needs to be treated with caution.
Matt Saunders: There once was a roosting Millennium Falcon at Chobham, because the producers of the latest Star Wars films used it as a shoot venue. But when I think of the place, I recall so many hairy cornering photos; some I’ve watched others drive for and some I’ve done myself. David Vivian once managed to get a mad, bikeengined Smart Fortwo so far over onto two wheels that Terry Grant would have been impressed. He was quite the whiter shade of pale afterwards.
Piers Ward: Being on work experience, I was only meant to be at Chobham to help clean wheels. The car (a Daewoo Matiz) and the task (taking some shots for a first drive) were normal, but the end result was anything but. As road tester Coram Williams reversed the tiny hatchback for the final shot, he swung it hard in the lock and the thing simply gave up all pretence at stability, flipped and landed on its side. I quickly stopped wringing out sponges and dragged him, coated in shards of glass, from the wreck. Life lessons of a different kind that week.
Steve Cropley: I may be ancient, but not even I was present at Chobham when Sir Alec Issigonis launched the Mini to the London motoring writers in 1959. However, I certainly wish that I had been, and I’ve stood plenty of times exactly where Issigonis is depicted in the famous photograph you see on the left. The bridge over what later became the M3 was different then, but until recently, when they filled the site with film sets, the buildings and layout were remarkably similar.
Matt Prior: My dad did a few Chobham shifts when working for the MoD, so I love mooching around its history: abandoned tank ramps, wading ditch, old railway station and more. It’s also where I learned how to slide cars, which is, honestly, an important bit of testing. It’s handy that the superb Old School Café is just around the corner, too.