Just off Junction I 2 on the M40 lies a low circular building almost surrounded by grassy banks. The building is the Heritage Motor Centre, and the banks are there to prevent you seeing too much of Rover’s future plans, for it is built on a corner of the Gaydon test track.
The Centre rehouses the old Syon Park car collection and BMC/BL/Rover archives in a purpose-built and rather grand edifice, bringing the cars and all the records of the Group together for the first time. From the main entrance (at the back, oddly) visitors pass the shop and cafeteria (more interesting fare than normal — what is hoki fish?) and enter the engineering gallery where a variety of sectioned vehicles display their all. The special exhibitions gallery was showing ‘Art and the Automobile’ which I should like to have seen, but it was in use for a conference when we were there; corporate functions should bring profitable extra business. Dramatic glass lifts and escalators then carry you down to the central focus of the lofty main hall. Here the theory is that the cars get younger as they radiate outwards, but in fact it is difficult to see much of a pattern. I don’t recall seeing a family tree showing how Wolseley, Lanchester and the other extinct makes were absorbed into today’s Rover Group, which surely ought to be displayed, and it could be made clearer that the Heritage Trust is inevitably BL-centred, and is not, despite its name, concerned with Rootes/Chrysler, Vauxhall, Ford and the many British specialists who comprise the rest of our motoring past. But there is a lone Brewster-bodied all-weather Rolls-Royce, and moves are afoot to import an SS, Jaguar having extracted its cars from the collection on its divorce from Rover. (Most of these, ironically, are currently undisplayed at Coventry.) Best, then, simply to wander around the well-spaced exhibits in no special order, picking out minor pleasures such as an elegant Corsica-bodied Rover Nizam in amongst the headline cars such as the Rover-BRM (in the capacious workshops on our visit), the Leyland 8, the 100hp Austin
racer built for the 1908 French GP (you may have seen it in the film Greystoke), and the EXE MGs. Several veterans had just returned from the Brighton Run, showing that this is a working collection; indeed, some vehicles are available for hire.
A Thirties garage display is attractive, with a window full of obscure and extinct accessories, and a lovely De Dion lawnmower outside, but the model collection turns out to be mainly a Matchbox Toys promotion. Apart from the cars, the Collection incorporates millions of drawings and photographs, and we had a quick look through the vast storage stacks and into the films section, where a researcher was noting each car shown on a 1935 RAC rally film. Every reel is listed by title already, but when, eventually, everything is copied to video, it should be possible to trace, say, all shots of Standard lOs in the archive. As the Trust is an educational charity, all this information is available to researchers; indeed, anyone can walk in to the Reading Room and pick up bound volumes of the main motoring magazines, or ask for anything in the library. Which is fairly trusting, considering that magazines are now so collectable that our own bound volumes of MOTOR SPORT have begun to walk from these offices of late. (Incidentally, Trevor Lord, the Academic Services manager, is researching pre-WWII garages and would welcome any details or photographs of such buildings or pumps, especially those still in situ.) The Om Centre is an impressive undertaking which shows a major commitment to preserving history; it remains to be seen whether BMW’s past will be integrated into the collection before the missing British elements. G C