Back in the day I spent a summer driving around the south of France in my MGB. The locals were more used to Italian exotica so my MG being a little different from the usual went down big. Whilst there I found a car museum near Nice which I thought was unsurpassable – until I discovered the British Motor Museum. Built on a former cold war bomber base the museum sits under the big skies of the glorious Warwickshire countryside, a stones throw from Edge Hill and the site of Aston Martin’s factory and secret test track.
The first thing you notice apart from the friendly and enthusiastic staff is the wonderful aroma of old cars. Entering the main hall past the life size Lego Mini Cooper you find the very first Land Rover off the production line (the same car Richard Hammond drove around the museum on TV) and the very first MG. Turn right at the Art Decco cinema to see the area where prototypes are imaginatively displayed on giant toy car boxes. The car that grabbed my attention was the mid 80s MG EXE. Imagine a mid engined Porsche beater for MR2 money, even after 30 years it still looks fresh.
Jaguar sports racing cars are well represented from the C and D Types of the fifties to the XJR 9 Group C car of the 80s. These are exciting but the XJ13 is quite simply breathtakingly beautiful. More of a synthesis of an aeroplane and a Henry Moore sculpture than a racing car. Unfortunately by the time it was ready it was already obsolete.
Once you’ve got your breath back wander over to see the rally and single seat racing cars. Monte Carlo winning Mini Coopers and a brutish Austin Healey driven by the Morley brothers are displayed with Jacky Stewart’s 1970 March Cosworth F1, Nigel Mansel’s Formula 3, Stirling Moss’ land speed record MGs and John Moore-Brabazon’s 1908 100HP Austin which he raced in the French Grand Prix. Incidentally, Moore-Brabazon was the first person in the UK to qualify as a pilot and the first pilot to carry livestock when he gave a pig a ride, just to prove that pigs could fly.
Next to the main museum the collection centre holds a huge collection of Jaguars, Triumphs, MGs, Range Rovers, experimental cars and the museum workshop. You can trace the lineage of Jaguar from the first motor cycle side cars via the SS100 and E Type to contemporary F Types and James Bond film cars. My favourite is the coach built special for the Italian Princess Pignatelli. William Lyons wanted a lower roof line for a more rakish look and wasn’t pleased that his vision hadn’t been realised. It is low, I’m not sure I’d be able to squeeze in. For something more sedate you can see Harold Wilson’s Priministerial Rover P5, complete with an extra large ashtray and tobacco burns in the upholstery, a car that Margaret Thatcher was also ferried around in.
Not just a museum but an educational resource and archive as well, they have a record of every British car made and are able to issue “Heritage Certificates” which give details of when your car left its factory and what its specifications were.
There really is so much to see here (we haven’t mentioned the Queen’s Landrovers or the Swallow Doretti) so it’s just as well that your entrance ticket allows you back every day for a whole year bar a couple of Sundays in the summer when there are special events on. You’re going to need several visits, this museum holds some of the most important cars ever made. I don’t mean the exotic prototypes, the exciting racing cars or the coach built specials.
The important cars are the Minis, Minors, Austin 7s, Vivas and A40s. The cars that gave ordinary people freedom and mobility. These are the cars that changed our social history. We become blasé about the common, they became invisible but in a museum setting one can appreciate the genius and beauty of their design. Rather like putting my MGB in a South of France setting.
And as I walked around with my 12 year old son the question he kept asking was “which one would you want to drive home in” and I imagine that when you visit you’ll ask yourself the same question.
Originally published in March 2017 Automotivepress.co.uk