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.