I think the death of mobility was greatly exaggerated during the pandemic,” says Daniel Geoghegan, below, as he sits at the boardroom table at Bicester Heritage, blueprints of his masterplan for the site spread out around him. “When people said that we can do anything by Zoom now they had forgotten about the importance of getting out to meet people face to face. And that is what I want Bicester to be. A place where people meet face to face.”
Geoghegan is talking a few weeks after gaining planning permission from the local committee for the next stage in the development of the Oxfordshire site, which has become a byword among car fans as the country’s leading motoring hub. The council’s “positive determination” means that the next phase of development can start in earnest and there is no mistaking Geoghegan’s excitement about it. It brings him a further step closer to realising his masterplan for Bicester Motion.
For the uninitiated, Bicester Motion is the umbrella term for a 444-acre site located on a former RAF base, slap in the middle of ‘Motor Sport Valley’. The first phase, Bicester Heritage, was conceived back in 2013 by Geoghegan and business partner Bob Meijer, as a business park focusing on specialist car and aviation related companies and housed in neatly renovated ex-military buildings.
Bicester Heritage has since established itself as a kind of motoring business park, housing a total of 47 firms. To give a flavour of the breadth of businesses on campus, they include Singer, the air-cooled Porsche 911 specialist, the MG Automobile Company, which focuses on pre-war MGs, and The Little Car Company, makers of junior machines. It has recently taken on a decidedly motor-racing flavour with the arrival of the relaunched Brabham brand, Hero-ERA and Motorsport UK, the country’s governing body for competition, whose smart new offices were opened by Lewis Hamilton last summer.
It’s been a huge success, according to Geoghegan: “Heritage is at capacity, so we’re 100% full. So it’s been good. We’ve actually had to turn a lot of businesses away – we’ve had close to 400 enquiries which means we’ve been able to pick and choose not just the skills but people with the right mindset who understand the new customer.” Latest filings at Companies House show a 13% rise in rental profits.
More recently, its Heritage’s Scramble events – essentially open days where the various businesses open their premises to paying enthusiasts – have become sell-out successes and been the catalyst for a free membership club that describes itself as an organisation for ‘car enthusiasts from any corner of motoring’.
But according to Geoghegan that is just the start. As well as Heritage, he plans for three more quarters: Innovation, which will house cutting-edge engineering firms; Experience, where visitors will be able to ‘try before they buy’ from businesses that are there; and Wilderness, a now obligatory eco-focused green space for families.
“The Heritage is almost phase one complete,” he says, “and now we are moving on. We were very keen very early on to say we are not about the past. We’re about the future of the past. And that’s really an important differentiation there.”
Ultimately the vision is to create a 444-acre automotive ‘resort’ unifying all the different quarters that appeals not only to car enthusiasts but also to families and anyone interested in the wider theme of ‘motion’, from aviation to cycling. As well as the quarters there are also plans for a 344-room hotel, spa and conference development and a perimeter track which, once it has been resurfaced, will offer the space for driving experiences.
“The difference between now and even two years ago is that we’re in execution mode,” says Geoghegan. “We’ve got planning permission, we’ve got a million square feet to build. Our vision is now underway.”
It is here that the idea of Bicester Motion is hoping to capitalise on a post-pandemic world and a new way for businesses to interact with their customers. “What we have here is a blank canvas to provide the physical experience which will hopefully enable manufacturers to get closer to their audiences. That will also be the beginning of that loyalty journey as we move forward.
“But it also gives those customers the opportunity to see what’s going on, to try things in an environment which is unthreatening. And that counts for a lot. We’ve noticed that on the Heritage side, people who want to try a vintage Bentley, for example, can do it here without worrying about being on the road. It’s a new world for people buying things.”
So what sort of companies will he be attracting to the innovation and experience zones? He remains tight-lipped, saying only that they are in discussion with a number of potential firms, all of which have a connection with the theme of motion: “We’re interested in areas of battery tech, obviously drivetrains, research. We want to become like the mobility sector equivalent of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, which has become a word leader in life sciences.”
Despite the sepia-tinted nature of the Heritage quarter it is clear that the rest of the business is geared very much towards the future. Geoghegan talks enthusiastically about how young people shouldn’t be written off for not being interested in cars. “There is a myth that young people aren’t interested in old cars. Well at the last Scramble 20% of the 1000 tickets went to under 16s. There was some research recently that showed 54% of youngsters thought this was an interesting sector. But what we have got to do is illuminate the pathway by showing them what a rewarding career it can be, giving them the skills and not making the barriers to getting involved too high.”
To that end Bicester is already home to an apprenticeship scheme – the Heritage Skills Academy – aimed at getting young people into automotive trades, but Geoghegan knows that the most powerful way to attract them is through technology. “People talk about petrolheads but now it is all about technology and cars have become like motorised iPhones – there is so much interest in technology. And of course if you go to an Apple Store it is all about the experience – you can have a play with things and a few years later you have several thousand pounds’ worth of equipment at home. I think that this has got to be the future of car sales.”
It is hoped the project will be complete in seven to 10 years. And a quick drive around the perimeter road confirms the task ahead: this is a seriously large site. Then again, given the success of the Heritage quarter, no one should bet against it. And there is a pleasing symmetry in what is happening here too.
“There is a quite understandable preconception that an old RAF base with a Heritage quarter is about the past. But in its day this was absolutely an engineering centre par excellence in the UK and an unheard of advancement in technology. So really we are simply continuing that tradition and reinvigorating this place.”