BRITISH MUSEUM AT GAYDON
by Rick Feibusch
The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust division of Rover Cars opened it's new museum at Gaydon on May 1, with the most interesting drive-in ceremonies on record. The museum is located just south of the West Midlands area, the UK's "Detroit", and features all of the cars that became part of BMC, then British Leyland and ARG (Austin-Rover Group), and finally Rover Cars. All of the featured marque clubs set up tours that started at their original factory sites and ended in a big display at the museum car park. Austins came down from Longbridge, Morrises motored from Cowley, Triumphs drove from Coventry and MGs buzzed in from Abingdon. Quite a sight!
While many of Britain's historic motorcar displays seem to get lost in the era of gaslights, brass trimmings and elaborate Edwardian coachwork, The Gaydon Centre is heavy on post-war iron and the pre-war models that led to the onslaught of British automotive imports that made their way to American shores in the late forties and fifties. The Nuffield Group; Morris, Wolesley, Riley, and MG merged with Austin in 1952. Rover and Standard-Triumph were added later as the fortunes of the British motor industry contracted.
These are the cars that brought Britain the millions of US dollars needed to rebuild it's war shattered economy. "Export or Die" was the slogan and with steel allotments tied to export volume, export they did. Automotive exports brought the largest amount of dollars to the UK than any other manufactured product and British cars were the first imported cars that Americans came to know well.
Where other collections contain custom crafted one-off automotive statements of the landed gentry, The Heritage Motor Centre presents the cars that were mass-produced for export and the emerging British middle class. All of the vehicles on display were built by the various manufacturers that eventually merged together to form British Leyland in the sixties. Many of these wonderful, clever and quirky little cars were imported into the US, making them part of American automotive history as well.
The Gaydon site is the company's original test facility and the surrounding territory still contains the test track, now obscured from view by a raised grade, landscaped and secured by a wire-topped fence. While the test track is off limits, the Land-Rover Jungle Track is in full view next to the visitors car park. Once you've entered the facility and parked, you are transported down to the main complex in a custom built, surrey-topped, Land-Rover motor-tram.
This ride gives you a good wide perspective view of the new building, that resembles a circular, earth tone starship, complete with a glass-domed cockpit on top. In reality, the glass covers a massive, three story deep lightwell-lobby and a top floor area that will, someday, be the restaurant. Presently, the restaurant resides off of the reception area on ground level. When the landscaping grows in I'm sure the structure will look less like something that burns mysterious rings in the fields around Bath.
The ground floor features an art gallery, a Computer Aided Design exhibit, and a research library along with an engineering area featuring cut-away engines, gearboxes and complete chassis's. A ride in the glass-sided elevator lowers you to the main museum floor, where most of the cars are on display. This approach is overwhelming!
Rather than list all of the collection, let's just say that there's something for everyone. Sports cars, racers, military vehicles, motorcycles, toys, taxis, police cars and off-road machines. Is that a Morris Minor fire engine!? Sure is! Built by the factory to use around the plant - it's narrow enough to fit between the production lines! It's that sort of thing . . . . . . . .
Gaydon is heavy in Morris Material. Starting with a 1913 "Bullnose" roadster and going up through the twenties and thirties with the first baby Minors, Eights and big, almost American sized, six-cylinder Twelves (12 h.p. at the rear wheels), then following WWII with an "E" Series, Eight, the first production 1948 Minor (I got to sit in it!), and one of each 1000 body type. Besides the fire wagon, there were front-drive Minis and 1100s as well as some Morris Itals (the UK version of what we got as the Austin Marina), and a special Ital-based safety car from the mid-'80s.
Are you an MG aficionado? You'll find everything from Cecil Kimber's "Old Number One" to the latest MGB RV8 as well as TB, Magnette and 1100 saloons (sedans to us Yanks), and a number of land speed record and racing cars. On the ground floor you'll find the MGA Twin-Cam "cutaway" chassis that toured the show circuit during the introduction. Tucked away in the Mini section there's a lovely Pinin Farina styled MG Midget replacement prototype built on a front-drive Mini floor pan. Pity it never went into production. Next to the never-never Midget sits a Mini-based, Targa-topped fastback from the early '70s, that looks suspiciously like the Honda Del Sol of two decades later.
Healeys your thing? You can see everything from the Riley based cars of the late '40s to the Austin based "Big Healeys" of the fifties and sixties. You'll also find Sprites and historic racers with quite a past. Austin's passenger cars are well represented and include a rare three-headlighted A-90 Atlantic Hardtop. This ill-fated attempt into the American medium-price market featured a Healey 100-4 dual-carb engine, and enough chrome trim to make a Pontiac shudder. Other Austins from a tiny 1923 Seven, "Chummy" tourer to a 1971, 1800 stretch hearse can be found on the floor. A few Seven based, thirties, track racers and a J40 pedal car from the fifties are to be see in the entry hall.
Are you getting the idea? If you are planning a trip anywhere over there don't miss this one. You may contact the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust at Banbury Road, Gaydon, Warwick CV35 OBJ or call at: 011-44-926-641188. If Triumph is your marque of preference, this collection has examples of all of the popular models as well as historic Standards and Vanguards, race versions, the last TR7 produced, and a handsome Triumph Lynx prototype. The Lynx is a stretched, four place, fastback TR8 that was deemed too expensive to build and practically compete with similar spec Japanese and American sport coupes.
I've just visited, what has to be, the most interesting automotive museum in the world. No, I haven't seen them all, but I can't imagine a collection of British built cars that could mean so much to an enthusiast. Why is the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust's facility at Gaydon so enjoyable? Not because it's new - which it is - just opened on May 1. And not because everything is so well presented - which it also is. It's because to me, a lifelong automotive Anglophile, born and raised in California, this museum is filled to overflowing with all of the cars I know and love, as well as prototypes of cars that could have been.