I was late, and they weren’t going to let me forget it.
The fact that I’d been caught in catastrophic roadworks a couple of miles from Bedfordshire’s Millbrook test track – where I was scheduled to start learning how to be a professional test driver – didn’t cut any ice with my new bosses. Ed Rutherford, manager of Millbrook’s durability section, was nice about it but the message was clear: when you’re developing new cars, time is precious. Don’t waste any.
All my life, I’ve been interested in being a test driver. When other kids wanted to pilot spacecraft, this was my dream job. There’s something hugely appealing about being the person who sits in a new car before the customer, contributing to its development by putting lots of miles under its wheels, and being quizzed about how it could be better. And driving, of course. Always driving.
The chance came at Millbrook a few weeks ago. The test track, opened by Vauxhall in 1970 and best known for its two-mile banked concrete oval upon which you can drive ‘hands-off’ at 100mph, left General Motors ownership a little over three years ago and has since been reinventing itself as a multidiscipline test centre for global customers. Car industry people say proving a car’s compliance with complex international rules is nowadays as expensive as designing the thing in the first place. Millbrook – along with other big UK players such as Horiba MIRA and Ricardo Engineering – wants a piece of that action. It has been successful, too: UK test organisations are widely trusted for their high standards and even-handedness. As business has expanded, Millbrook has improved its capabilities, even making it possible for individual customers to have their own top-security workshops and offices on the site.
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After a quick run through the day’s programme – safety briefing; meet and ride with professional drivers; have a go myself – we’re ready more or less on time at 8.45am. My first driver is to be Jenny Holliday, so experienced over the past decade here that she spends a lot of time training others. She’s already waiting at the fuel pumps, having brimmed our car after the work it has done overnight. Test cars at Millbrook often work around the clock.
We’re in a mid-spec left-hand-drive Swindon-built Honda Civic 1.5 Sport, with 5000km (roughly 3100 miles) on the odometer. It’s still wearing ubiquitous black and white disguising decals. With us is Tony Tiffin, a cheery Honda technoboffin who will demonstrate a very elaborate on-board navigator-cumdata logger called DVSS that both lays out our test procedure and sequence and records how well we’ve done. Its secret weapon is a detailed sequence of spoken instructions that the driver gets used to obeying.
Here’s where you get the first glimpse of the subtle Millbrookto-customer relationship. Drivers like Holliday work for Millbrook, not Honda, but they’re expert at following Honda’s (or anyone else’s) special test routines. And they drive anything. I’d imagined drivers might stick to vehicles they know, but Holliday soon explains every day is different. Today’s test subject might be a white van, a pick-up, a bus, an armoured defence vehicle or even a road sweeper. A controller back at base decides who gets what. At one point in the morning, we pass a gigantic tractor andHolliday grins and waves: her husband also works here…
We check the car’s exterior warning lights and fill in the driver’s book. Everything’s in there: time, temperature, car condition, fuel load and stray comments. We set up the car as instructed, with the audio and ventilation controls in known positions. Then we attack the test modules, which all have simple but mysterious names. This session consists of a C2, an A3, a BG and a CJ. Like the car, they’re engineered, because Honda knows better than anyone where its cars might be vulnerable to wear and tear. This isn’t torture testing, although it can occasionally get energetic.
We start slowly on the speed bowl, progressing up through lanes three, four and five as the speeds rise. We stop and start. We brake. We corner. We drive on rough roads and smooth. All the time, the DVSS is talking: “Wide-open throttle…cruise for a while… third gear… throttle off, 90… wide-open throttle, 110.”
At one point when we’re doing 100mph in the top lane, I glance across at Holliday, impressed by how stable the car feels in her hands. It’s the same when we drive Millbrook’s famous Hill Route. Literally, she does this every day. As well as accumulating miles, her job is to play the role of the customer, noting gremlins. Stubbornly, this Honda refuses to show any but I’m warned not to be disappointed. It just means that problems have been spotted earlier in development. We chat in between Holliday’s bouts of concentration and the two hours to an early lunchtime (11.30am) fly by.
“People think this is a glamorous job,” she says as we drive back, “but at times, it can be quite boring and repetitive. And you’ve got to be accurate because runs are checked to be sure we’re driving accurately. But then you drive on Millbrook’s Hill Route on a crisp morning like today and it’s so beautiful you just want to do it all again.”
After lunch, I step in with Fred White, a former trucker who can’t believe his luck since making the change (“Who else can say they’ve got an office like this?”). We head to Rough Road A for two laps, negotiating evil diagonal bumps and a long stretch of Belgian pavé, still with the Honda instructions coming thick and fast. Then it’s my turn and, as with so many jobs you think you could do, I find it’s really hard.
How the hell does White maintain that 30km/h so accurately? My range is 26km/h to 34km/h. On the next lap, I do a little better, but not well enough to please the people who designed this test. White says you need an intensive three weeks before you can control the car well while reacting reliably to instructions – which often cram themselves into your earhole at two-second intervals. Car control occasionally comes into play: at one point, the instructions require us to sweep through a wet, uphill dirt bend at 60km/h, which sets the car sliding. White hardly notices. Again, the time zips by.
Late in the day, I meet Jayme St Leger (another nine-year Millbrook veteran) for a bit of accessory testing. This isn’t the most glam bit, we both agree, but it’s vital. He starts undoing doors and slamming them, rotating the power mirrors, turning the ignition on and off while noting the start-up sequence, extending the sunvisors, clicking the seatbelts on and off. He also opens the boot a lot and repeatedly rolls the electric windows up and down. It all looks random – and a little bit comical, given that we’re standing in a Millbrook lay-by with cars zooming by – but this is a deadly serious test, set up so everything gets used and the car is left in a special configuration for next time.
And a next time there will most assuredly be. The Civic may recently have been revealed to the world, but that doesn’t stop its maker wanting to continue accumulating usage data more quickly than any owner could manage. I’m impressed with the thoroughness of it all.
And Jayme? Just like his colleagues, he’s looking forward to tomorrow, which is likely to involve more driving. “I love it here,” he says, “both the place and the variety in what you do. Some days, you do the things we’ve just done, but on others, you drive the distance to Cornwall and back without leaving the test venue. That’s very cool.