Currently reading: Seen it all before: A deja vu-laden visit to Longcross Studios
We're forever recognising the same few bits of road on TV, but many more interesting things than filming take place at Longcross Studios…

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.

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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.

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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.

Rather safer play areas are a long straight that we could use for 0-60mph measurements, a nice swooping corner that’s great for photography and three tank ramps. Safer, but nothing that wouldn’t cause a modern risk assessor to scream in panic. There wasn’t any of that in the 1990s, which for us was Chobham’s heyday, when you could turn up to find Gordon Murray giving a prototype McLaren F1 some gravy. You simply signed in at the control tower and were left to get on with it.

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The tank ramps weren’t much good for any scientific testing or data gathering but were just the job for a jumping photo. One tester was struggling to ‘get air’ in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, but fortunately Sutcliffe was on hand to offer advice. “You need to go faster up the ramps,” he suggested. So our Simon Hucknall duly drove back down the ramp and disappeared off around the corner at the bottom behind some trees.

A minute or so later, he reappeared at huge speed, which he maintained unabated up the ramp. His jump was epic: high enough to clear a man of average height, but unfortunately also long enough to make braking for the short concrete wall ahead of him impossible. All four wheels and the suspension were ripped off. Went the day badly, as we say in the trade.

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Also at Chobham is a large skidpan that, one day while having a cuppa between sliding BMW M3s for the camera, we decided would make a perfect venue for a drifting competition. I had seen such an event in Japan shown on an early episode of Jeremy Clarkson-era Top Gear and well before drifting as a sport arrived on our shores. What became the annual Autocar Sideways Challenge was held for quite a few years at Chobham and featured an amazing line-up of contestants.

A very young Lewis Hamilton first sat behind the wheel of a road car at the event and predictably did well. Rally star Richard Burns, who was at the top of his game at the time, struggled a bit. And 1979 Formula 1 champion Jody Scheckter found it impossible, although I suggested to him that, considering I had once seen him drift a McLaren M23 at 150mph at Silverstone, he shouldn’t feel too bad.

Naturally, before inviting such important and prestigious guests, we carried out a risk assessment. We were happy that the huge concrete inspection ramps just a few metres off the skidpan would be more than adequate to add a bit of danger that would focus our competitors’ minds.

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The greatest drifters, we soon discovered, were Lotus chassis engineers. Unlike with drifting today, we used standard cars and tyres and the in-car judge, who was usually me, scored the driver on smoothness: essentially how little he had to steer or pump the throttle. Eventually we moved the contest to race circuits, but the purity was lost.

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My favourite Chobham memory? There are many to choose from, but it has to be entering the Snake in a Ferrari 250 GTO with a lot of opposite lock applied, putting a pair of golfers off their putts as a few million quid’s worth of screaming V12 sports car smoked past.

for a few years now, because the opportunity never arises. No matter: I get to regularly relive memories of the place from the comfort of my armchair in front of the telly.

Chobham memory

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.


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flukey 7 June 2021
I'm just here to see if the deja-vu was a cheeky initial d reference
timbo999 6 June 2021

I remember going to a launch event for the Jaguar XE at Longcross. We got to drive an XE around cones etc, but the finale was to be driven round the circuit in an F-type by a professional.

Now, I've done a lot of track driving both in the driver's seat as well as a passenger. I've never been so nervous as that time at Longcross... there is literally nowhere to go! If you think Goodwood has no run-off try Longcross!

Ravon 6 June 2021

Last summer I was asked by a friend if I would take his beautiful Citreon DS to Longcross to compete in the Daily Telegraph "Car of the Centuary Competion". I knew well what went on at Longcross, and recognised it from a million Autocar photo shoots and numerous TV appearances , but had never actually been there. I turned up with the DS on my spanking new ( and very fabulous ) Brian James six wheeled tilt bed trailer towed by my faithful Discovery 4, I saw the pink coloured "LOC" signs and was happy to have found the place, the security guard at the track crossing waved my through into the inner sanctum and I climbed up a narrow twisting road to a very full car park, in fact mostly full of identical white caravans all with "film unit" stickers on them , I thought "Hell this really is a big event, people everywhere, cars everywhere, no space to move" . Nobody greeted me , but after about ten minutes or so a chap came up to me and said "here for filming", "yes I replied", "just leave it there and come and have some breakfast", over a delightful fry-up in a nifty catering tent, the chap said to me, "I don't understand these Directors, can't imagine why they need a Citreon DS on "Call the Midwife" , but never mind, anything to keep them happy ! Oh heavens what have I done was my panicked reaction !  I'd arrived at the wrong bit of Longcross, as I mentioned before it was pretty chaotic at the place I'd left the Discovery and trailer, and a long and tricky reverse out of the film location was for once , and very thankfully , completed pretty efficiently ! Off to another entrance to the Longcross facility, this time after passing through another set of security gates I was confronted with the almost finished construction of a full sized Mississippi River Boat sitting in front of a gigantic blue screen, the boat was on a full sized rail system with dozens of hydraulic cylinders supporting its structure, apparently a set up for a forthcoming feature film . Eventually I was greeted by the very charming Andrew English from the Daily Telegraph and rapidly unloaded the Citreon and headed home agreeing to collect the car that evening. On collection, Andrew very kindly drove me around the Test Track, and took me up a side road to show me the set for the BBC series "Pinky Blinders" where a perfect ancient street scene had been created. The Test Track seemed very familiar from numerous appearances on TV and in this magazine . Quite an unforgettable day for an Autocar reader ! From memory the Citreon DS came  4th or 5th in the Daily Telegraph's Top 100 Cars of the Centuary to top it all .