“ Address: Banbury Road / Gaydon / Warwickshire / CV35 0BJ „
It's very important to me that I make something very clear from the outset - I have never been a car enthusiast.
Ok, so I watch Top Gear. But, hand on heart, who can honestly say they watch Top Gear for the cars anymore? No, we watch it to see for the comedy value, the stunts, and the challenges. My other reason for watching it is to thank God that I'm not Jeremy Clarkson.
Ok, so my best friend knows more about cars than Henry Ford and Murray Walker put together. We sometimes talk motors but, sadly, there are only so many letters and numbers I can process in one sentence, and once that threshold has been reached I start hearing songs in my head. Sorry Dave.
Cars for me are purely functional. The only time I am passionate about seeing a car is when it becomes the trusty chariot whisking me away from the shops and back to the comfort of a proper chair. Obviously I appreciate the ingenuity that lies behind their design, and ongoing advancements. Indeed, with my green tinted spectacles in place, I believe that car manufacturers and their collective IQ's could bring a crucial contribution in the continuing fight against global warming. The scientists may have the theorems but it is the engineers who will help us get out of this mess.
But the whole testosterone driven, "phwoar, look how much brake horse power it's got", petrol head, boy racer approach to cars just eludes me. In short, cars just didn't excite me. You may be wondering therefore why it is then that I have chosen to review the Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire. Furthermore, you would be justified in asking what the heck I was doing there in the first place. Well, as my Mum says, there's a story behind this...
My fiancé and I have just come back from a few days holiday in Stratford upon Avon. Naturally, we wanted to explore the sights and, as anyone who has been to Stratford will know, once you've visited the Shakespeare houses, you have to look out of town to Leamington Spa, or Warwick Castle. We arrived at Warwick Castle at about 11am and duly parked in a near empty car park. I say "near empty", when what I actually mean is: fifty or so cars being directed to a multitude of spaces by six well intentioned, but completely pointless, parking attendants. As "Hi de Hi" has taught us, some people will do anything to get a yellow coat.
We walked half a mile up a hill, paid £3 for the privilege of parking and were then confronted by the tariff. £17.95 per adult. Now, I'm no Scrooge, but £40 for two adults to park and look around a castle? Is it any wonder that people turn their backs on holidays in this country and go abroad? How are lower income families supposed to enjoy our country's heritage, and learn its history, when they are priced out of the experience? Suitably outraged, I cut my losses and left.
Bereft of entertainment for the afternoon, we stumbled on a signpost for the Heritage Motor Centre. "A car museum?" I thought. "That's just crazy enough to work".
So, with this context in mind, here is my review of the Heritage Motor Centre.
Heritage Motor Centre
It couldn't be easier to reach. Travelling on the M40, you leave at junction 12 and follow the signposts (which are numerous). It took us roughly five minutes to get to after leaving the motorway and that was driving very leisurely.
Gaydon is also the location of the Land Rover and Jaguar Headquarters, and an Aston Martin factory, so this is real motoring country. After passing through an admittedly slightly unwelcoming entrance gate, you follow a long approach road to a large car park, where an impressive circular building rises up in front of you. The car park has 2,000 spaces and as we were visiting in March, before Easter and well out of season, parking was very easy.
I don't know what I expected a car museum to look like, but frankly this wasn't it. The building is also a conference venue (more on that later) and to my mind certainly gives off the impression of being rather corporate. In reality of course, this is quickly overlooked, as it is what is inside the building that really counts.
Entry Charges and Opening Times
The entrance fee was extremely good value, and I have laid out the tariff below:
Child (5-16 years): £7
Child (under 5): Free
Family (2 adults, up to 3 children): £28
The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm and is open all year round with the exception of the period 24 December to 1 January.
When we were paying the entry fee, the lady at reception explained to us that after buying the tickets, as long as we signed them, we could return as many times as we liked in the following 12 months at no further cost. Furthermore, it allowed us free entry to all but four of the special events that they run throughout the year. Whilst recognising the excellent value and incentive of this deal, I was a little sceptical at first. After all, I thought, who would want to visit over and over again? There can't be that much here surely? How wrong I was. Trust me, you will want to come back here, especially if you have children.
There is one other thing to bear in mind with the entry charge. Because you can visit as many times as you like in the next 12 months, your fee is essentially a donation and as such Gift Aid is applicable, allowing them to claim back 28 pence for every pound. All they ask for in return is your name and address.
As I've mentioned, I was not a natural enthusiast about cars. Consequently, my knowledge of them was pretty much next to zero too. Rather than bog my reader down in too much detail, I thought I would relate my experience to you through the eyes of a wide-eyed and eager novice, from entrance to exit, so that you can see what I saw.
The first thing that impresses you about the place is its size. It is enormous. Any expectations I had were proved to be wrong and enormously prejudicial. This was exactly the kind of new experience I wanted and needed to banish an afternoon's potential boredom.
Having said that, I will start with one negative point. The layout and directions aren't immediately clear. Unless you read and follow the little guide leaflet you are given at reception, you are not going to follow the 'correct' trail. Having said that, we didn't follow the trail, and it didn't diminish our enjoyment of the museum at all.
Around the perimeter of the museum on the ground floor is the "Time Road". Displays of cars dating from 1896 to the present day are lined up two deep behind a barrier. The idea is of course that you can see how cars have developed from what we see in black and white films to the sleek saloons of today. For added context, on the high walls behind these cars are photos and information regarding events from the period. So in addition to observing a 1960's MG Roadster, you can also look up and see that it was built in, say, the same year as the moon landing. I found this very helpful - as a wee slip of a lad only born in 1981, historical dates can sometimes seem a bit abstract. Put in the context of the Second World War, the Coronation, or indeed the years fish fingers and baked beans became available in the UK, you get a real flavour for the history.
Each car has an information card on it attached to the barrier in a Perspex display. This information contains everything to appease the enthusiast, but not so much that it deters the novice from reading it. The year the car was built, price from new, speed, number sold etc. The list goes on. The more in depth information regarding why Aston Martin chose this design, and how it advanced on previous designs etc, wasn't relevant to my enjoyment, but didn't detract from it.
In addition to the information cards about the cars, there are also other cards sporadically placed on the barriers with historical motoring facts. For instance, when the first motorway was opened, when car insurance became compulsory, when national speed limits came into effect and so on. My favourite of all of these was discovering that the first person to pass a driving test in this country was called Mr Bean!
The barrier between the concourse and the cars isn't continuous and in the breaks you are able to walk among the cars on the time road, even though you mustn't actually touch them. I found this trust quite refreshing because simply looking at the front of a car isn't going to be sufficient. The windows of the cars were opened so you could poke your head through and see the dashboards, the quality of the seats etc. This really added to the atmosphere of the place. The smell of old leather seats and polished wooden interiors seemed to bring the cars to life for me, and I am sure that for the older visitor this level of interaction will be particularly evocative.
The closeness between visitor and attraction is very important and I think the Heritage Motor Centre struck exactly the right balance. Of course they have a duty to protect the cars after the work they invest in them, but no one wants to look at them in glass cases. I say this with the older visitor in mind as well as children - there was more than one child here who was looking at the early twentieth century cars with a look of wonder on his face, most probably wondering why the car had the wheels of a bicycle and where the satellite navigation system was! But I digress.
Another feature of the time road that I thought was a very neat touch was that the cars are not just parked on a cold, slick floor. The time road is just that - a road. And again, the historical context has not been overlooked: the road is deliberately designed so that you can see how road surfacing has changed over the century. A small thing some might say, but to me it was yet another example of the intelligent dovetailing of history, interaction and motoring enthusiasm.
As I said before, there are only so many numbers I can store in my memory, and as such the car specifications largely went in one ear and out of the other. That is not to say they aren't clearly and concisely presented because they are. It's just that as a novice to this level of motoring appreciation, you can only pick up so much and have to be quite choosy about what you are there to see. I guess what I am trying to say is that when you visit here, you have to make a clear distinction about what you are here to enjoy. Are you here to be what I had previously called an anorak and study the car specifications? Or are you here to marvel at the aesthetic beauty of these machines and soak up the history and atmosphere? I chose the latter, but the important point to make is that the museum and the information that they provide allows you to choose, allows you to dip in and out of both approaches, and doesn't make you feel guilty if all you really want to do is smile at how lucky we are to have the cars we have now.
It would be quite foolhardy of me to attempt to list in any great detail my favourite cars from this section. I can tell you that I loved everything about the section from 1900 to the early 1930's, and particularly the car that had a brass plate on the floor underneath the pedals stating which one was the brake and which one was the clutch. The period that was my favourite though, perhaps with my father's influence in mind, was the fifties and sixties. The MGB Roadster, the Austin Metropolitan, the Vanden Plas Princess, all of the Wolseleys (a car I had never heard of before), all of these cars were amazing. I am a Nissan Micra driver and it was as much as I could do to marvel sometimes at the sheer size of some of the cars. They look so cumbersome, so unresponsive. But what do I know? I haven't spoken to him since I've been back, but I am sure my Dad and indeed my Grandad would have one or two things to say about the cars I saw. I regretted not asking them for their first cars so that I could see if they were in the museum!
There were one or two novelties on the time road too. A Sinclair C5, which I had read about and seen pictures of, but never seen in the flesh - what on earth were they thinking of? An RAC patrol motorbike from the early 1980's, which I just about remember seeing in TV adverts. The real novelties were to come a little bit later though.
The cars around the perimeter on the time road were of course not the only cars in the museum. There were several (possibly a hundred, I really couldn't estimate) cars dotted around the centre of the concourse too. These didn't seem to follow a set pattern or chronology, but the variety made up for this. The cars on show ranged from a concept MG from the 1980's, a top of the line modern day Rolls Royce, a rally car, prototypes used for testing aerodynamics and... a Formula One car!
Now, I will say that this sent me into slightly childish raptures, and I have no explanation for this. It was only a Jaguar from the 2003 Formula One season, driven by either Mark Webber or Justin Wilson, so not a top driver or a top team. But it was a Formula One car nonetheless! After marvelling at how big some of the older cars were, I was now staggered by just how small and sleek F1 cars are. They give the impression of having no resistance at all, whereas in truth they are probably among the most rigorously safety tested machines in the world.
More surprises were in store. Lady Penelope's pink car from the Thunderbirds movie (a gigantic car) and a Land Rover from the Lara Croft Tomb Raider films were on display - a glamorous, if somewhat frivolous addition, but as close as I'm ever going to get to meeting Angelina Jolie!
The museum has a small but elegantly decorated cinema, which shows various films at regular times throughout the day. We sat in there for twenty minutes, initially to take the weight off our feet. A film about MG's was playing and it wasn't long before I found myself quite interested by some of the footage. One thing of note was an old TV advert for a car (I think from the 1970's). It was tremendous fun drawing a parallel between car adverts then (which tell you the size of the engine and how many miles per gallon the car does) and car adverts now (which feature singing dogs). At what point did car adverts become so absurd? At what point was the conception of those strange puppets in the Vauxhall Corsa advert considered a marketable idea?
A choice of escalator or lift takes you up to the second floor, which is where the entrances to the conference rooms and, more importantly, the café can be found.
The café is extremely clean and presentable, but otherwise unremarkable. A choice of sandwiches, rolls, biscuits, chocolate, crisps and fresh cream cakes are on offer, in addition to a good selection of cold and hot drinks. In terms of the price, it was pretty average for an attraction like this. Two bottles of fruit juice and two cakes set me back about £5.50, which is perhaps a touch expensive, but I wouldn't expect to find cheaper refreshments at any other UK attractions in reality. We stayed here for about 20 minutes.
Outside of the café are a handful of cars which we bypassed as we wanted to recommence our tour of the ground floor attractions. There were only a few cars up here and beyond that it was just the conference rooms - we didn't feel like we would be missing much if we skipped this.
At the bottom of the escalator are another couple of displays. In a glass cases and on several shelves is a vast selection of old Dinky, Matchbox and Corgi toy cars. This was particularly evocative for me. I had a bucket of toy cars that I systematically destroyed when I was a child, usually through racing them too hard on gravel tracks that I created in the school playground, or by racing them down a wall so that they would fly off the edge (the Evil Knievel in all of us). So I don't really have any memories of what toy cars I had. Here was a collection though that was in pristine condition, and alluded to what is becoming a forgotten world - why play with toy cars when you can race the 'real' thing around on a Playstation?
From here, we ventured into the gift shop, which was quite disappointing in terms of what products they had on offer. Having seen the display of toy cars, I thought that the gift shop might have stocked a large range of models, but aside from a handful, there wasn't anything like that to choose from. There was however a healthy stock of staple gift shop products: books, key rings, sweets and pens. In addition, the shop also stocked some DVD's on, for instance, the history of Land Rover, and CD-ROM's about various cars. The DVD's were spectacularly overpriced at £19.99 each, but again I left with the impression that if you were an enthusiast and collector, then that price might actually reflect good value. For the layman, I'm sure that a fridge magnet is enough of a souvenir.
There were only a few more exhibits to tick off the list on our visit, and they were equally as fascinating as those that we had already seen.
Sheltered and partitioned from the rest of the concourse was an exhibition on "Making British Cars". One thing that occurred to me as I walked around was the preponderance on MG, Aston Martin, Austin and Land Rover. These are all British cars of course, but it should also be emphasised that this part of the country was the backbone of the British car manufacturing industry and therefore a dominance of these cars is to be expected. The exhibition traced the history of the manufacture of British cars and although it digressed on more than one occasion, it made for a nice way to finish off our visit. The exhibition charted the early history of manufacture, through the role played by engineers and factories during World War Two, when these skills were turned to making tanks, lorries and other equipment for the forces. The history was traced all the way up to the present day. The impact of this was made greater as on the time road we had already seen two cars that tied in nicely with this chronology. One was the last 'classic' Mini Cooper ever made, and another was the last Rover 100 ever made, signed by all the people who had a hand in making it. The car was covered from top to bottom in signatures, which for me signified just how many jobs were dependent on its manufacture. Adding this new knowledge to that gained in the exhibition only added to my sense of what a loss we as a country have suffered as our manufacturing industry has declined over the last few decades. In some ways, those skills and that experience are irredeemable.
The exhibition also included an interactive section where you could learn about the lives of people involved in car manufacturing, from the chairmen to the labourer. This was done quite neatly, as a dining room table with four plates that you could touch, each one activating a different audio story about a different class of worker.
I had commented to my fiancé earlier about a particular car built in the early 20th century, which had sold over 200,000. I remarked that it seemed unbelievable to me that so many cars were sold at that time. The interactive section in this exhibition served to highlight my naivety, as we learnt about the company director who used his car to holiday in the south of France several times a year, while in another scenario a foreman shared a car with a neighbour and had a seaside holiday once a year. Again, another example of the museum providing historical and social context in a user-friendly manner, without deviating from the central thrust of the exhibit - in this case, car design and working conditions.
The links between the manufacturing industry and World War Two were gently infused into the exhibition and it was particularly interesting to discover that after the war, the government insisted on exports as being the priority, with the British customer having to wait in line to get their hands on a new car. It is difficult to imagine a circumstance now where the political emphasis is on manufacturing and exports. Another impression that I walked away with that that while the museum didn't have a political agenda or prejudice, it certainly wasn't afraid of being proud of our manufacturing history, nor did it shy away from emphasising the might of it during the first half of the 20th century.
After this, there was another small interactive section where you could test out certain mechanisms. For example, there was a platform, which you could sit on and press buttons to experience different types of suspension and vibration. My fiancé tried this and jumped off quite scared! Another section had a steering wheel so that you could compare modern day power steering against racket and pinion steering. These two examples were indicative of the sort of things to be found in this section, but if I'm completely honest it did seem a little unnecessary and token. One or two of the mechanisms didn't work and looked like they hadn't worked for some time.
Finally, there was a chance to get inside two cars - an Aston Martin and a Rover - from the very early 20th century. This was a lovely way to finish our visit. You could climb into the drivers seat, or try out sitting in the back. For me, it was a chance to be a big kid and pretend to drive one of the cars. I'm sure it would be the same for a lot of other people, particularly children, too.
We stayed until closing time and as we left the staff were closing the tills, meaning that I couldn't purchase the handbook that I'd intended to at the start of the visit. However, I did flick through it briefly, and it appeared to reflect the tone of the museum - informative, without being inaccessible. It costs £5 and is also available to purchase online.
Obviously as we were visiting the museum, we didn't find out a great deal about the Heritage Motor Centre as a conference venue. However, research of the website quickly reveals that they have 16 conference suites and offer themselves as a Christmas Party venue. More information is available on the website, the address of which is supplied at the end of this review.
As I said at the start, we never intended to visit the Heritage Motor Centre. In fact, I'd never even heard of it. Visiting Stratford upon Avon for most people means visiting the Shakespeare houses and Warwick Castle. But this is an absolute gem of an attraction that I cannot recommend highly enough.
For both the young and the old, the novice and the enthusiast, there really is something for everyone here. Interactive enough to keep the easy viewer occupied, informative enough to keep the keener motorist happy, the Heritage Motor Centre sets out it's stall as an educator and entertainer and balances the two with comparative ease. A lot of attractions really struggle to weave together the history with the fun and novelty, but this place has both in spades. No one should enter here feeling intimidated, and no one will leave feeling bored. If I have to raise any negative points I could highlight what I thought was a poor gift shop and some slightly tired looking interactive sections. However, the excellent value for money and diversity are without doubt it's strongest hand, and I would be more than happy to visit again.
If you are visiting Stratford upon Avon, you must definitely consider this venue for a fantastic afternoon out. I loved it here, and I'm sure you will too.
For more information about the Heritage Motor Centre, you can visit their website www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk. Alternatively, you can telephone them on 01926 641188.
This museum presents the world's largest collection of historic British cars.