Millbrook Turns 50 – The Ultimate Proving Ground

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By Chris Pollitt

Millbrook Proving Ground is a place that you perhaps won’t know by name. However, you do know it, because you have almost certainly seen it. You might have seen it while watching James Bond. You might have seen it while watching a music video. It might have been there while you were looking at car reviews. Or, you might have seen it while chuckling at Jeremy Clarkson driving an articulated lorry that happened to be a little bit on fire. Yep, Millbrook Proving Ground is pretty famous, and this year it turns fifty. But Millbrook is more than the celebrity it has become. It’s also the UK’s foremost testing facility, which has helped shape and mold thousands of cars, trucks, buses and, well, anything with wheels. 

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Millbrook’s Proving Ground in Bedfordshire was opened in 1970 by General Motors as a dedicated testing and development facility for Bedford and Vauxhall. Ford, their biggest rival, had Dunton, so it made sense. Millbrook, however, offered a lot more. It was favoured for having both naturally flat and hilly sections. This means speed and real world handling could be tested and refined here. 

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The Proving Ground took two years to construct. It involved moving nearly 2 million cubic meters of earth, laying more than 100,000 cubic meters of aggregate, hardcore, sand and cement, and planting some 200,000 trees. There is an outer banked ‘ring’ which can be used for high-speed runs, there is an off-road course, there is a road section complete with street furniture etc, there’s a skid pan and of course, the Alpine circuit – you know, the bit where James Bond crashed his DBS in a bid to avoid flattening Vesper Lynd. 

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In 1988, Millbrook Proving Ground began to trade independently as a wholly owned subsidiary of Group Lotus – itself part of General Motors at the time. This was the start of Millbrook’s role as a highly customer-focused automotive test service provider. It enjoyed steady growth of both customers and capabilities throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But while it was doing the serious stuff, it still managed to play host to the motoring press. Automotive TV shows were filmed here like Top Gear and Fifth Gear, Autocar, What Car? and many others have all used and continue to use Millbrook. These media outlets can use Millbrook as a closed, safe environment to test cars. Production companies can have stars in fast cars without the paparazzi (security here is TIGHT). If you need to do anything with a car, Millbrook is the place. Road testing, development work, crash testing, real-world simulations, endurance tests, the list goes on.

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Millbrook expanded in 2015, when the business acquired the world-leading winter vehicle and tyre testing facility, Test World, in northern Finland. A year later, Millbrook was acquired by Spectris Group, under whose ownership it continues to thrive.

Millbrook has invested £120 million in its test facilities since 2015. This includes acquiring Detroit-based, EV driveline test system and test service provider, Revolutionary Engineering in 2018, and opening a new Millbrook Revolutionary Engineering site in California in 2019. It also acquired Lancashire-based Leyland Technical Centre in 2017, adding to its physical test capabilities in the UK.

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Alex Burns, President of Millbrook, said: “I am delighted to be leading Millbrook into its second half-century of supporting the development of new vehicles. This anniversary is a great opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary pace of development of automotive technologies and to recognise the investment that the industry is making to promote cleaner and safer transport in the future. At Millbrook, we will continue to invest in our people and capabilities globally so that we can support our customers wherever they need us.”

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If you’ve driven it, the chances are some, if not all, of its development was carried out at Millbrook. Once a small scale facility, it’s now recognised globally as one of the leading destinations for vehicle testing of any description. It’s a glowing example of how the UK is still a massive, highly important player in the automotive industry on a global scale. Long live Millbrook. Here’s to another fifty years.

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