Millbrook’s Andrew Eastlake explains why the iconic testing ground is a favourite with everyone from film-makers to London bus designers
James Bond steers his snarling Aston Martin Vantage around the bends of Montenegro’s mountain roads. Rounding a blind corner, he sees the Bond Girl of the moment, lying in the road, bound hand and foot. He wrenches the wheel over to avoid her and the car skids and somersaults, rear and front ends slamming into the tarmac, sending the Vantage upside down onto the grass verge.
Except that wasn’t Montenegro. It was Bedfordshire — not far from Luton, in fact. The Casino Royale Aston Martin roll was filmed on one of the hill circuits of the Millbrook Proving Ground, where the car industry comes to test its vehicles and the film industry comes to play with them. Both often lead to destruction; paler squares of tarmac mark the points on the track where the Aston Martin — one of three used in the stunt — hit the road.
Serious business for the film makers, of course, and equally a serious source of income for Millbrook. However, the real work of the proving ground is in testing road vehicles; everything from electric bicycles to heavy tanks, taking in sports cars, family saloons, vans, trucks, fire engines and armoured personnel carriers along the way. Its research chief, Andrew Eastlake, has the official title of ‘head of laboratories’ but that, as he said, is a very wide term. ‘We regard everything here as a laboratory, from the cells where we test emissions to the tracks outside. Everything is controlled, repeatable and managed and we can do things in a very scientific way.’
Celebrating its 40th birthday this year, Millbrook was designed to give cars and trucks — originally Vauxhalls and Bedfords, as part of General Motors’s (GM’s) UK engineering arm — the best workout possible. Unusually for a test track, it was a greenfield site, rather than being a former air base, and its rolling hills are an integral part of the layout. ‘It was thought, at the time, that you needed hills to test cars properly, so the site takes advantage of the natural topography of the area,’ Eastlake explained. Three hill routes take vehicles through a series of measured gradients and both tight and open curves; a banked circular track allows high-speed testing; a carefully calibrated series of off-road routes includes a variety of surface coverings, water-filled pits and bone-shaking tracks strewn with painstakingly chosen rocks.
One area has several different heights of kerb, all edged in steel to ensure that they are always the same height and profile. Another has holes of different depths, yet another has a pit of soft sand, designed to test the grip and torque of the heaviest of military vehicles.
Millbrook ceased to be a GM-only facility in the late 1980s, when the company took control of Lotus. Becoming a nominal Lotus Group asset, the proving ground began offering its testing and development services commercially — a practice that has continued since GM took back its shareholding after Malaysian company Proton’s takeover of Lotus Group.
Today, Millbrook offers testing and certification to a variety of standards: national, international and customer specified. It operates a small production facility that specialises in conversions of petrol cars to LPG and of standard vehicles to police and emergency services operations. About a third of the turnover is still related to GM and some 15 per cent of turnover comes from non-automotive operations, mainly in the aerospace sector, concerned with testing components and interior fittings, and in healthcare, where it has a wheelchair-related business.
Over the years, the way Millbrook operates has changed considerably, Eastlake said. ‘When I started here in the 1970s, it was very much a case of climbing into the vehicle and just driving it around the track to see what it did. But that’s been an advantage to us; we were an engineering department that was about putting cars directly on the road and driving them, not about sitting behind a computer with simulations or putting engines onto test rigs.’
Even at that early date, there were indications of how regulation in the car industry would develop. ‘The first building to go up here was the emissions laboratory; that was just coming in,’ he said. ‘We had a rolling road to measure fuel consumption and that was equipped with emissions sensors as well.’
‘Legislation has been a key driver for facilities here,’ added Eastlake. ‘One of the problems we have is that we need to be at least half a step ahead of the technology that’s on the cars, so that we can differentiate it from what came before. That’s particularly true with sectors such as emissions on crash testing, where we have to measure and accurately understand something you haven’t seen before.’
This will often involve devising the tests themselves as well as verifying performance — something Eastlake described as ‘influencing the legislation or creating pseudo-legislative requirements for customers’.
One example of this was developing a testing regime for London buses. ‘We datalogged real buses on the road, then came up with a series of tests that footprints the bus in terms of its emissions, noise and the vibrations that the driver and the passengers experience. That’s since become the test that Transport for London has specified that every new bus model has to pass to be allowed on the road,’ he said.
More recently, Millbrook has developed a similar regime for London taxis to verify a fleet of low-carbon cabs scheduled to go onto the roads in time for the 2012 Olympics. ‘The standard European driving cycle isn’t appropriate at all for London taxis,’ Eastlake said. ‘So, again, we datalogged real taxis — about 170 days of datalogging around the clock — to develop a cycle against which these low-carbon taxis will be validated. That’s been a very significant programme of work and it will form the basis for approving new technology into the future.’
In terms of testing components, he starts with the basics. ‘Let’s say someone comes to us with something they say will reduce fuel consumption by 15 per cent and they want to sell it into the auto industry. First, we’ll verify that it does what it says on the tin — does it reduce the fuel consumption? Then, we’ll tell them the steps in the process.
‘You’d check its effect on emissions and other legislated parameters; you’d see whether there are skeletons in the cupboard, such as whether it increases benzene emissions. You’d see what it does to the durability of the engine, the driveability of the car; will it last on the vehicle or will it drop off on the first tight bend? Then we can look at other aspects that are critical for volume manufacture, such as the type of vehicle it’s most suited for. You can never design something that’ll work for all automotive sectors; you have to understand the narrowness of the application,’ added Eastlake.
This has given him some insight into how the automotive sector is likely to develop. ‘I think we’ll see more bespoking of products for specific applications so, rather than having a versatile vehicle that is good for lots of things but not optimised for any, you’ll be able to customise your specification for exactly what you want to do. Say you want a van, but you’re only going to travel 40 miles at a time and never exceed 60mph [97km/h], you’d choose the power train you need, with the appropriate energy storage, whether that’s electric, hybrid or fossil fuel. And those modules would come off the shelf,’ said Eastlake.
Ownership models are also likely to change, he believes, with the automotive sector taking the lead from aerospace and, oddly, mobile phones. ‘Airlines don’t buy plane engines; they buy flight times. You don’t buy a mobile; you buy minutes and functions,’ said Eastlake.
‘Maybe there’s a different model for car ownership along those lines: sharing cars, selling mobility rather than a vehicle that sits outside your home or workplace 95 per cent of the time, depreciating in value. It’s the task that’s important, not the vehicle,’ he added.