It’s the attention to detail. That’s what grabs you as you drive into the grounds of Bicester Heritage. Everything is crisp, clean and finished perfectly. There is nothing slapdash going on. Every brick, every door, every window, every fence, every shrub – they’ve all had care lavished upon them. Though you may be wondering what that has to do with classic cars. Everything. It has everything to do with classic cars. The staggering attention to detail instantly instils in visitors a sense of pride and a sense of clear direction and purpose. You know, as soon as your car’s wheels cross the threshold, that this place is the result of care, consideration and understanding for the classic car. It’s not the fast cash-in of a faceless consortium of money men designed to cash in on our hobby. It’s a business, make no mistake, but it’s one run by people immersed within the industry its serving. In short, it’s the product of people that care.
Now that might all seem a bit gushing, but honestly, it’s very much the case. We’ve been to Bicester Heritage before, but to see individual businesses on site, or to attend a car meet. We’ve never been there to be there. As such, our visit is an eye-opening exploration into what the site is all about and what its plans are for the future.
Our guide for the day is Philip White, Business Development and Marketing Manager for Bicester Heritage. Philip clearly takes a lot of pride in his work, as does everyone here. Showing us around the site, he talks about every aspect with enthusiasm and pride. Again, it’s a clear indicator that this isn’t just a facility to allow a board to cash in on the classic car market. It’s more invested than that.
The site, formerly RAF Bicester, began life in 1911 when Lt H.R.P Reynolds landed a Bristol Boxkite on the field. In 1917 the Royal Flying Corps moved in. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that serious development started in a bid to make it a fully-fledged bomber station. By the 1940s it had become a training centre and was used as such throughout the war. In 1943 the base was upgraded to Fighter Command, though no offensive missions were flown from the base.
After the war, the RAF continued to use the base for training and also as a Motor Transport depot. To make further use of the base after the war, a gliding club moved in. However, by 1976 the RAF had little use for the site and as such, ceased to use it as a military facility. While the fields remained in use for the local gliding club, the base’s buildings were largely left to ruin. There was a brief stint of use from USAF in the 1980s and 1990s, during which the Americans used it as a Cold War contingency facility. Inner buildings were converted for medical and training use, with the increasingly derelict outer perimeter buildings serving as a perfect façade to what was really going on. However, after the 1990s the Americans followed suit of the RAF and left the base, after which it fell into further ruin and disrepair.
It was only recently, in 2013, that the passionate team behind Bicester Heritage bought the land from the MOD. The base is smaller now than it once was, with the Married Quarter sites having been sold off in 1997 (and which have since been restored). However, this separation hasn’t hurt the size of the base too much – it’s still some 440 acres!
Upon being given the comically large bunch of keys – none of which actually worked – the team at Bicester Heritage had a huge task ahead of them. It was wonderful that the buildings – including the massive hangers – were still in place. What was less wonderful was their condition. All were tired and in need of love. But this is where the site stands out from others. There has been no corner-cutting, no push to get businesses in as soon as possible. Time and care have been taken, huge amounts of time have been put into things like finding the right roof slates, the right windows and even the right colour paint for the doors and other fittings. And everything has been applied so well. The place looks new. Dare we say it; it looks better than new. But crucially, it doesn’t look modern. It’s very much as it should have been, how it was once was.
Unusually for an ex-MOD site, 80% of the buildings are now listed. The base now is recognised as a site of national historical significance but given how faithful the restoration is that’s hardly surprising. And faithful restoration, it seems, breeds faithful restoration. As evidenced by the businesses that now reside in the still-named military buildings of old.
There is a carefully curated mix of dealers, artisan craftsman, apprentice-driven classrooms and also full-on vehicle restorers. Poke your head in one building and you’ll be greeted with a collection of muddied, fresh from competition pre-war Bentleys. Have a look in another and you’ll see Alfa Romeo racing cars being prepared while gorgeous 1960s Ferraris look on. Another, you’ll find a man rebuilding magnetos, then there’s another which houses a detailing and paint correction specialist, the list goes on. The place is a hive of activity, buzzing with an atmosphere that is the result of all the correct pieces falling into place.
Philip explained to us that this isn’t a business campus in the traditional sense. There is no push to fill units quickly. Instead, applicants are closely examined and interviewed. Consideration is given to how an applicant will best benefit the existing businesses on the site. It’s treated like an organism, not a money-hungry business. As Philip explained, they want the businesses to not only complement each other, but also serve each other. By doing this, Bicester Heritage becomes a hub, a one-stop-shop for the customer where everything can be done on site, albeit by different companies. It also means there is minimal competition, and as such, a greater sense of community. Clever.
Bicester Heritage also has a strong emphasis of brand. As such, the site is open to those who want to host events. Be it a car meet, or as was the case during our visit, a classic car auction, Bicester Heritage is ready to host. It even has its own hugely successful event in the form of the Sunday Scramble (the next one is on the 28th, and we’ll be there). It really is all going on here.
So that’s Bicester Heritage as it stands, but what does the future hold? After talking more to Philip, quite a lot it seems. The whole site is going through a brand shift right now, and will be known as Bicester Motion, of which Bicester Heritage will be a sizeable subsidiary. Under the Motion name, there are plans to build a hotel with upwards of 344 rooms, and expo centre, manufacturer driver experience centres, garages with accommodation, 4×4 trails and much, much more. It’s a huge project that will take Bicester into the future of the automotive landscape with enviable ease.
The powers that be would have you believe the classic car industry is three blokes and a couple of E Types. As we all know, that’s not the case. Bicester Heritage serves to prove that, to define it almost, by being a hub from which we in the classic car world can showcase what these cars are about, what it takes to keep them going, and also what it takes to bring new blood into the fold in the form of apprentices. Apprentices who now see this once humble RAF base as the Oxford or Cambridge of motor vehicle studies.
Bicester Heritage is a staggering achievement, and one that as classic car enthusiasts, we should rightly be proud of.