If I had to come up with a candidate for Best Day Out, then being invited by Aston Martin to drive their cars, including the Vanquish, around Millbrook, the British automotive industry’s proving ground in Bedfordshire would have to be in the top ten.
It’s very, very different driving a modern production car to a classic. There’s always a slight element of fear with, say, a 1952 XK120 – maybe the brakes might fail, maybe you’ll lose concentration for a snap second and the car will veer off course into a barrier or, because the car is so heavy and there is no power steering, you’ll muck up taking the line around a corner and whizz off into the grass – if you are lucky – or over a cliff if you are not.
Modern cars lack that element of risk – on-board computers can over-ride stupidity and basic errors in driving, and of course the brakes are instantaneous (no need to pump those babies) but the smooth speeds you can achieve with seemingly no effort, and the veneer of mental safety this can induce means that is it conversely easier to make mistakes. Which is why no one is let out on their own in these glorious pieces of engineering.
Here’s my father with an instructor on the winding hill route. It’s arranged in loops with extended gradients of 7, 11, 14, 17, 21 & 26%. Parts of it are terrifying: no visibility as you crest hills, and uphill corners to really test your skill – and the car.
Millbrook is one of Europe’s leading independent technology centres for test and engineering for the automotive, public transport, energy and defence markets -it’s a quite unique place: 700 acres in which everything from tanks to buses can be tested in the most rigorous of settings over 70km of test tracks.
The tests include a banked high speed circle, a sprint lane, and a hill route full of adverse cambers and corners, all of which we got to drive.
On the day that we were there I saw an enormous military vehicle lumbering its way around, a coach and all manner of production cars. Because it’s a test facility, all camera are banned and even our cellphones had stickers applied over the camera lenses in the coach on the way in – you can’t drive yourself onto the site either. So all these images are courtesy of Aston Martin-Lagonda and their photographer Max Earey.
One of my favourite parts of Millbrook is the 3.2km (2 mile) circumference banked high speed circle. There is a point (above) where, at 100mph/160kph, the combined power of the G force and the car’s engineering is such that you can take your hands off the wheel and place them in your lap and the car will keep on driving around the bowl at that speed.
That moment where you take your hands off the wheel is truly terrifying: it takes a phenomenal act of will to remove your hands from a deadly machine against everything your mind and body is screaming at you to do. It’s not quite as terrifying bowling along at that speed with your hands in your lap, but it’s still pretty scary.
Apparently if I set the car on cruise control I could perfectly feasibly climb onto the back seat.
And then, and just as oddly, when I gently decreased speed with my hands still in my lap, the car moved further and further down the circle until in a couple of circuits we were in the lowest lane and ready to come off on the slip road. An utterly bizarre experience – and testament to the handling of this amazing car.
This part of the day was incredible: a 1.6km (1.0 mile) straight and level road with downhill approach at one end, which is basically a strip of road designed to test acceleration and braking. You set off and immediately hit the gas pedal. And keep on doing so. I reached 146mph before I braked, but still think I slightly bottled it – my father made it to 165mph before he slammed on the brakes.
Huge thanks to Aston Martin-Lagonda for a truly sensational day out from both my father and myself.